Professionalism as tyranny: a liberationist fantasy

‘People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public’ - Adam Smith

Adam Smith put it memorably above. I’ll be forever grateful for my time at the Australian Centre for Social Innovation because it has shown me the generality of that statement. Whether Smith intended it or not, it applies not just to businesspeople of the same trade, but to professions. And it applies not just to the professions whose anti-competitive practices are familiar to us all – lawyers and medical specialists for instance. The behaviour of these high status professions is consistent with the entire sentence from Smith which ends “or some contrivance to drive up prices”.

Some of the lower status professions also try to use their political power to drive up their own wages and, leaving aside the vexed question of the political and economic means by which their campaigns might be waged, I have a lot of sympathy for their desire to be paid and treated better than they are.  I’m talking of teachers and nurses most particularly, but I could be tempted to add academics and various others. However, often in an almost thoroughly well-intentioned way these professions exercise a kind of tyranny in the way they work. They see things in a particular way and, because they are either in charge of or an integral part of the functioning of some important social institution, it gets built around their world view. This is the meaning of the marvellous French expression déformation professionnelle

As I recounted in my speech launching the Centre’s family mentoring programme in Mt Druitt:

These are the words of Mystic (pronounced Mystique). She’s 21 now but was in out of home care since she was 3.

It happened so quickly. Once I turned 18, they sort of kicked me on my arse. They said ‘here’s $750, see you later, thank you’. And I’m just like ‘what the hell?’. A book and $750. That’s for being in care all your life.

Actually it makes you feel like an outsider. It makes you feel non existent on this earth. Like you are an alien. It does. It affects when you go to school too. You’re so used to being called ‘client’ and stuff that you start looking at yourself different to everyone else.

That ladies and gentlemen of the Tropposphere is, to purloin and marvellous expression of William Easterly’s the “cartel of good intentions”, or do-good professionalism as tyranny. Why is this tendency so strong and what could be done about it. Both good questions, but this post is dedicated to a fantasy of how it could be – to a bit of rhetoric. The sentiment might be said to be utopian I guess, but it’s not devoid of seriousness, or even practical import of some kind. Recall that, not only are the professions full of people who have taken them up for real love of the texture of the work, the intrinsic reward for doing it well and for the good they do, but professions are all built implicitly and often explicitly on noble ethical commitments – like the doctor’s to do no harm, the lawyers to uphold the rule of law ahead of the rule of men and the generalised duties of care of the many caring professions.

In any event, when I read Albert Camus’ magnificent lecture accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature for the first time, inside my brain the speech morphed into one in which Camus used the word ‘professional’ wherever he had used the word ‘artist’ and mutatis mutandis for all the associated derivatives of both words. This is what I read: Continue reading

Reading list for the Opposition leader

OK. The Grattan Institute with all its funding is producing, as it always does, a reading list for the PM. To show the power of blogging I thought we’d do the same here.  I wrote “Opposition leader” above just to offer cheap differentiation from Grattan. But whether it’s for Bill Shorten or anyone else, please let us know below what books should be read with any spare time you get over Christmas. I’ve just finished Tim Colebatch’s Dick Hamer and am ploughing into something which comes some way to total heaviosity, Ray Monk’s bio of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But it’s a couple of decades old. Then again, while I was thinking of new books to recommend, feel free to recommend old ones too.

Anyway, what would you recommend people read this summer?

What’s wrong with TED talks – hint: quite a lot

I have almost certainly fulminated in various asides against TED talks on this blog, and even one full on cri de coeur against retail profundification. (I promised one on business class profundification but I haven’t managed to do it yet.

Anyway, a friend sent me this TEDx talk which is about what’s wrong with TED Talks. It’s terrific. Indeed, if you want to watch it you can, but you can also see the text of the speech reproduced on the speaker’s website and in the Guardian. It’s always annoyed me that transcripts aren’t provided as a matter of course. They save a lot of time.

My favourite quote on economics:

Our options for change range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why?


Happy little optimisers we

Maslow's hierarchy Not

I know I took the notion of optimising to heart as I learned it – implicitly – from my economist Dad. And there are those who might argue that the idea in economics came from the society around economists as the discipline came into being.

But now it seems optimising as the heart of life seems to have become ubiquitous. I just ran into a tweet which proudly displays the graphic to the left.

I also know that the advice, such as it is, embodied in the accompanying graphic is fair enough. A bit of prudence about life. One could do a lot worse. (Then again, is it not pretty obvious? Graphics induce a kind of ‘fake’ aha I’ve found – something I confess to exploiting in my own rhetorical tricks during presentations) But at the level of advice there’s also something strangely anodyne and sad about it as an embodiment of aspiration.

Traditional notions of how one might decide on one’s path in life or one’s career – at least since the rise of modern times and the idea of the self as a self-creation, it’s been pretty de rigueur to at least pay some lip service to following one’s heart or more recently, and more crassly, one’s dream. More dourly, Protestant ethics teach a kind of surrender to one’s ‘calling’. Each of these has the texture of life as an adventure and a story in which basic values are the foundation – one build’s on the rock to invoke Christian imagery – including bearing the burden of suffering in pursuit of one’s goal.

Even Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that, though one pays most attention to ‘the basics’, truth to oneself involves working up to ‘higher’ things. (I’ve always thought it wide of the mark by the way as things at the top of the hierarchy seem to turn up very early in human history and in many ways were more powerful influences in civilisations in which the vast bulk of people were pretty much at subsistence – but I digress).

In any event today alongside the hashtags “#Brand” and “#You” the tweet which brandished this insight into life, we lean in and regard our ultimate task as having it all. Even in the anodyne graphic, I’d have liked to see doing what one loves as being more important than being paid well, but there you go, though I’m all for it being important.


Meanwhile Gov 2 keeps surging in the GLAM Sector

GLAM highlights

Here are some headlines marking various milestones of progress and regress in the Government 2.0 agenda.

As we recommended in the Cutler Report donations to the global commons are growing apace.

Meanwhile it’s not surprising that the Scandinavians, who are some of the most impressive governors in the world – along with us and the Canadians – are moving towards their government becoming a purchasing aggregator of digital content for their citizens. Here’s the news on Norway.

The National Library of Norway is digitizing all the books in its collection, processing the text to make it searchable, and making them available to read online.

It’s similar to the mass digitization efforts in the UK and Finland, but Norway has taken the extra step of making agreements with many publishers to allow anyone with a Norway IP address to access copyrighted material.

The library owns equipment for scanning and text structure analysis of the books. It’s also adding metadata and storing the files in a database for easy retrieval.

Librarians estimate the digitization of the entire collection, which includes materials dating back to the Middle Ages, will take 20 to 30 years. The effort started in 2006.


Meanwhile our government does something like the converse, helping the firms of the world charge our citizens higher prices than those of other countries.



Rich countries and happiness: the story of a bet.

Do countries that are already rich become even happier when they become yet richer? This was the essential question on which I entered a gentleman’s bet in 2004 with Andrew Leigh and which just recently got settled.

The reason for the bet was a famous hypothesis in happiness research called the Easterlin hypothesis which held that happiness did not increase when rich countries became even richer. In my ‘Fred Gruen’ presentation on this matter in 2004 I used the following graph to illustrate the happiness income relation across countries:

gruen 2004 image

This graph shows you the relation between average income (GDP in purchasing power terms) and average happiness on a 0-10 scales for many countries. As one can see, the relation between income and happiness is upward sloping for low levels of income, but becomes somewhat flat after 15,000 dollars per person. I championed the idea that this was not just true if you looked across countries, but that this would also hold true over time.

Andrew Leigh’s thinking was influenced by other data, particularly a paper by Stevenson and Wolfers which – he thinks debunks the Easterlin hypothesis. Here’s one of their graphs: Continue reading

Mr Pip: and some things and people who give me the pip

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are the rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.

I went to see Mr Pip last night. I checked out several reviews before I went and they were not encouraging. But I liked the sound of the story and wanted to go to a movie and so there I was. I recommend it – though readers are warned that I am prone to strong views when seeing movies – particularly when I see them on my own which I did with this one.

It’s a film made in New Zealand and I have to say that based on a number of New Zealand films I’ve seen – most particularly Once were Warriors and In my Father’s Den these New Zealanders seem to be much better than us at making serious movies lately. Ours are so timid by comparison – so often focused on fairly cute comedies of manners – like Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding and usually bathed in the treacle of our national preoccupation with asking “what does it mean to be Australian?” – sorry I nearly lost consciousness just contemplating that last question. Such an interesting one. Note: Henry Lawson and cousin Banjo were no doubt good guys, but can we please move on?

Continue reading


I love accents. I love pretty much everything about them. I love the way in which they actually convey things – sincerity, guile, sneering, superiority and their opposites and complements – all surreptitiously; all in a way that is at the same time so compelling to our intuition as to be obvious to all, and yet so subtle as to go entirely under the radar of the rational. Why should the Cockney accent sound cheeky to the point of criminality, the word “gov’nor” a study in irony making it anything from a mark of respect to a comprehensive put down? Why should an ocker accent imply the matey slapdash sensibility that it does. It doesn’t seem to me to be any more possible to answer those questions than it is to figure out why Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is so sad while the first movement of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony is so peaceful and lovely.

But there you have it. Continue reading

D H Lawrence: A Letter from Germany

Remarkable letter written from, and about, Germany by DH Lawrence in 1928. For all the beauty of his descriptions, it feels like divination rather than reportage.

Immediately you are over the Rhine, the spirit of place has changed. There is no more attempt at the bluff of geniality. The marshy places are frozen. The fields are vacant. There seems nobody in the world.

It is as if the life had retreated eastwards. As if the Germanic life were slowly ebbing away from contact with western Europe, ebbing to the deserts of the east. And there stand the heavy, ponderous round hills of the Black Forest, black with an inky blackness of Germanic trees, and patched with a whiteness of snow. They are like a series of huge, involved black mounds, obstructing the vision eastwards. You look at them from the Rhine plain, and you know that you stand on an actual border, up against something.

The moment you are in Germany, you know. It feels empty, and, somehow, menacing. So must the Roman soldiers have watched those black, massive round hills: with a certain fear, and with the knowledge that they were at their own limit. A fear of the invisible natives. A fear of the invisible life lurking among the woods. A fear of their own opposite.

He had been in Germany only a few years before but it now felt alien, utterly transformed. As if it were no longer interested in western Europe, no longer open to reconciliation or even trade. Even though the door isn’t quite yet closed, it might as well be. Continue reading