Detoxing democracy – detoxing Brexit

As readers of my Twitter feed will know, I’m heading to London to give some seminars. One on the use and abuse of wellbeing to target policy at LSE, one on evidence-based policy at King’s College London Policy Institute and a public lecture titled “Detoxing democracy: Brexit and the considered will of the British people.” I thought I’d record the abstract and a brief outline of the argument here. If you know anyone who might be interested and able to attend, please let them know. They can register here.


Though material conditions played their part, the degradation of politics now so evident in the shock and awe of Brexit and Trump also reflect the way in which elections orient politics around political combat, rather than deliberation and problem solving. Yet Britain could use the ancient Athenian idea of selection by lot – choosing a cross-section of the public to deliberate together to complement elections – to turn its slow-motion crisis into the rebirth of democracy, moving it from government according to the will of the people, and towards the richer, safer notion of government according to the considered will of the people.

An outline of the argument: Detoxing Brexit by detoxing democracy.

Britain’s governing class is now engineering a tragedy that arose from a piece of political improvisation gone horribly wrong. Yet there’s a principled way of handling the situation.

A citizens’ jury – chosen to be representative of the electorate – is exposed to each side of the debate and then deliberates. By this process, the will of the people is transformed into their considered will. The evidence suggests that this will produce a substantial swing towards the remain position perhaps as much as 15%.

In my public lecture, I’ll propose that we raise the funds to host at least ten citizens’ juries of approximately fifty people each chosen by lot from their local communities around Britain to be held simultaneously over – say – two weekends.

The process would be overseen by a board of respected citizens with differing views about Brexit who commit themselves to the integrity of the process.

For me the crucial thing is not Brexit itself – as important as that is. If my fears are right, I doubt Brexit could harm the economy by more than – say 2%. And there are plenty of things in life worth sacrificing 2% of one’s income for. Indeed, after the dismal way the Greek crisis was handled by Europe, there’s some justice to the Brexit vote – though my own view is that, remaining outside the Euro, Britain has the best of both worlds.

The tragedy of Brexit is that, the way things have been handled so far, whatever Britain does, around half of its population will resent what happens as illegitimate.

Given this, I would hope that the ‘deliberative referendum’ I’ll propose would be conducted with grave humility and generosity by those seeking a change of mind. They might commit in advance to accepting Brexit if the process does not indicate that the considered opinion of the British people is against Brexit by at least the margin by which Brexit won the referendum.


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Iranian Film Festival

Top Picks

Trailer Icon 03 Subdued (Opening Night)
Mina, recently divorced from her husband, struggles to maintain an independent life with no supportive family. She eventually finds a job in a restaurant. A friendship between her and the manager gradually becomes something more. It’s the beginning of a tumultuous emotional journey for Mina.
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Shahab, Nahal, Hamed, Faramarz, and Nicki have patented an invention and are trying to immigrate to Europe. Three days before their departure, Hamed falls into a coma and requires an organ transplant. The crisis elicits very different ethical responses from each of the others, revealing their true selves.
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Reza and Leila are newly married and deeply in love. When they discover that Leila is unable to conceive, Reza’s mother convinces her daughter-in-law that Reza must take a second wife to produce a child. Heartbreak follows.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
☆☆☆☆☆ The Film Sufi

The 15 minutes film features a “football” in the main lead. The philosophical and thematic meanings can be derived by the viewer with their own instinct.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

The widowed Mahi loses her only son. Behrooz, her teenage sweetheart, who had left Iran following the scandal of his relationship with her, appears at the funeral. The relationship shows signs of resuming but Behrooz now has a much younger fiancé. On the horns of these emotional entanglements the three characters have to make decisions not only about their emotions, but also their future lives.
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Young Bahareh lives in Yazd with her father and her grandmother. It’s turbulent times in the real world – first the Iranian Revolution and then the long and bitter Iran-Iraq war. But Bahareh always has her head in a book and retreats into her own dreams and fantasies to try to make sense of the world around her.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Bahar and Parisa are out shopping for their friend’s wedding when they receive a call from a stranger – the bride is dead and the wedding has been cancelled. They contact her fiancé, but he is vague and seems to know nothing. Suspicious, they are determined to uncover the truth.
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB

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Public organisations and political advocacy

Various people like Margaret Court are stroppy that private companies like Qantas are supporting same sex marriage. I’m not too sure I can see a problem. This is largely self-interested behaviour from our corporates and the pursuit of that self-interest – sociopathic or otherwise – is mandated by securities law. Opponents to their conduct can boycott them if they wish.

However I can see a problem with public organisations supporting it. I’ve noticed a couple of public organisations in Melbourne doing so – both in the GLAM sector. ACMI and the Immigration Museum. I think this is quite clearly wrong – essentially a self-indulgent abuse of power by the employees and possibly the custodians on the boards of these institutions.

These museums are funded by us to perform a particular function. We are currently going through a public process of deliberation as to what the law should be – compromised and cockamamie though it may be. Even where I’d strongly defend people’s right to civil disobedience against odious laws, the whole point of what we’re doing is to deliberate publicly on what the law should be. That very fact requires the protection of some public space from politicisation.

In that circumstance, institutions that are funded by the public to deliver services to the public have no business having a public view on this – emblazoned on the outside of their own buildings. This undermines the ‘publicness’ – the ‘for-all-of-us-ness’ – of the public sector and in that sense is strongly antithetical to the progressive values I presume many of the protagonists of these campaigns imagine themselves to be championing.

Posted in Cultural Critique, Political theory, Politics - national | 20 Comments

Against Lakoff’s hate speech argument

There seem to be more and more claims that “hate speech” should not be entitled to the normal privileges of free speech. To my surprise, one of them is George Lakoff – famed cognitive scientist, philosopher and metaphor expert.

Here’s the admirably clear Lakoff writing a blog post titled “Why Hate Speech is Not Free Speech”.

After that, some thoughts on why he might be wrong.

Lakoff’s argument

An extract from the post:

Freedom in a free society is supposed to be for all. Therefore, freedom rules out imposing on the freedom of others. You are free to walk down the street, but not to keep others from doing so.

The imposition on the freedom of others can come in overt, immediate physical form — thugs coming to attack with weapons. Violence may be a kind of expression, but it certainly is not “free speech.”

Like violence, hate speech can also be a physical imposition on the freedom of others. That is because language has a psychological effect imposed physically — on the neural system, with long-term crippling effects.

Here is the reason:

All thought is carried out by neural circuitry — it does not float in air. Language neurally activates thought. Language can thus change brains, both for the better and the worse.

Hate speech changes the brains of those hated for the worse, creating toxic stress, fear and distrust — all physical, all in one’s neural circuitry active every day. This internal harm can be even more severe than an attack with a fist. It imposes on the freedom to think and therefore act free of fear, threats, and distrust. It imposes on one’s ability to think and act like a fully free citizen for a long time.

That’s why hate speech imposes on the freedom of those targeted by the hate. Since being free in a free society requires not imposing on the freedom of others, hate speech does not fall under the category of free speech.

Hate speech can also change the brains of those with mild prejudice, moving it towards hate and threatening action. When hate is physically in your brain, then you think hate and feel hate, you are moved to act to carry out what you physically, in your neural system, think and feel.

That is why hate speech in not “mere” speech. And since it imposes on the freedom of others, it is not an instance of freedom.

The long–term, often crippling physical effects of hate speech on the neural systems of those hated does not have status in law, since our neural systems do not have status in our legal system — at least not yet. This is a gap between the law and the truth.

The replacement problem

You can probably see where Lakoff’s coming from.

This argument has at least two weaknesses, though – and they are easier to express precisely because he’s done the hard work to make everything clear.

The first problem is this: Lakoff’s argument works almost as well if you replace “hate speech” with “disagreement speech” – that is, the things we tell people when we find them and their statements significantly wrong. Try this:

“Some people I know – sensitive and not particularly open-minded people – can be quite affected by ‘disagreement speech’. It affects their neural system, undermining their sense of certainty about the world and leaving them stressed, distrustful and no longer able to act as easily as before. This can be as tough on them than a physical attack. It imposes on their ability to think and act.

“That’s why disagreement speech imposes on the freedom of those targeted by the mild dislike. Since being free in a free society requires not imposing on the freedom of others, disagreement speech does not fall under the category of free speech.”

You could do the same for “atheist speech”, or many other examples. To take a famous example, Nicholas Christakis seemed to be creating stress, fear and distrust in what he said during the the “Halloween email” incident at Yale. Indeed, a large group of Yale students said that this was exactly what he was doing.

Continue reading

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Vale: the car industry

I wrote the following comment on Gene Tunny’s blogpost on a piece documenting the last car rolling off an Australian mass production line. (We still make specialty cars in runs of a hundred or so a month).

The history of automotive industry policy in Australia is a tribute the intellectual laziness of the protectionism/free trade debate in Australia. The issues were always much more subtle – and interesting.

Anyway, a long-running policy nightmare which began with the local content plans of the late 1950s and 60s is finally passeds, something for which we can be grateful. And economists will go on believing that making cars in Australia is like making underpants. A mug’s game. What with us being a high wage country and all – like Canada, the US, Germany and Japan. Oh wait …

It’s not true that Australia was poorly suited to making cars but who cares about that when you’re having a good bit of argy bargy in the pub?

Those who are interested might like to read an article I wrote on the history of some of this for the Australian Economic review recently.

Quick quiz apropos of nothing much:

1. Q: Which government body recommended local content plans in 1965 and who was its chairman?
A: The Tariff Board – the forerunner of the IAC, IC and now PC. The Tariff Board was chaired by Alf Rattigan at the time.

2. Q: What Australian car was exported in larger numbers than were supplied the local market?
A: The Mini Moke in 1975.

3. Q: What proportion of Holdens were exported in 1974 (with virtually no assistance and the heavy cost penalties of the local content plan). Over 20%, to the region, and to Europe. I remember driving around Greece twenty five years ago following a Holden Belmont Ute across the Peloponnese.

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What have wellbeing frameworks ever done for us: Part One

Cross posted at The Mandarin.

“Principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds” — Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve previously critiqued the process by which a lot of organisations do strategic thinking and planning and proposed an alternative. In this series of essays I make similar claims and suggestions for policy thinking. As with strategic thinking, I have no commands to give, at least none of a very simple type. Indeed, as I’ve argued in the case of strategic thinking, the uncritical assertion of simple, plausible and apparently authoritative rules like “agree on where you’re going before you choose how to get there” often presage the transition from thinking to a kind of ‘anti-thinking’. As paradoxical as it may sound, the consideration of ends and means should be a dialectical one. The one rule I’d propose is always to navigate these questions with the critical intelligence you and/or your colleagues can muster. Thinking is a tricky business.

In this and the next essay I explore ‘wellbeing frameworks’ established within policy departments, academia and its partners in business, government and civil society. The third essay looks at a sub-discipline of economics – the renewed interest in scale economies in trade theory in the 1980s and 90s – and how little use it was for important policy debates to which it should have been directly relevant. Part four is more forward looking. I use the critique of the way we do things presented in the first three essays to motivate an elaboration of how the current interest in trade and technology as drivers of inequality offers a similar example of a sub-discipline within economics taking off for its ‘relevance’ to existing anxieties, but again in such a way that it offers strangely infertile ground for improving policy. I set out what I think it would look like if it were in pursuit of policy insight.

At the most general level my arguments are similar to those of Francis Bacon, and other founders of modern science, against scholasticism. Let me quote a favourite philosopher, RG Collingwood, on the point. From his marvellous, brief autobiography1:

“I was only rediscovering for myself, in the practice of historical research, principles which Bacon 2 and Descartes had stated, three hundred years earlier in connexion with the natural sciences. Each of them had said very plainly that knowledge comes only by answering questions, and that these questions must be the right questions and asked in the right order. And [in an illustration of these very ideas themselves] I had often read the works in which they said it; but [since I didn’t have these questions on my mind] I did not understand them until I had found the same thing out for myself.”

In the material explored in these essays, we find fine sentiments expressed from on high, but for them to bear fruit they require careful connecting up with ‘lower’ realms. To use Collingwood’s formulation, if some of the high level questions are the right ones — such as “how do we promote wellbeing?” — the policy fruit of such questions is meagre because those questions are not pursued sufficiently seriously or critically to generate the required cascade of “the right questions asked in the right order”. As a consequence there’s plenty of talking points for those giving speeches and setting out new visions. But it’s rare that means are adequately related to ends, causes to effects, or details to the bigger picture or ‘visions’ so frequently promulgated. The sound and fury signifies nothing. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy | 1 Comment

Things worth doing: tackling child poverty edition

Image result for child poverty site:auI’ve previously commented that Brian Howe was the great, quiet achiever of the Hawke/Keating years, who then turned around out of office and, rather than burnish his own reputation, got right on with the business playing a major role in getting up the NDIS. In any event I was reminded of this when receiving a standard mailout from ACOSS this morning edited highlights of which appear below.

Image result for brian howeACOSS is marking the beginning of Anti-Poverty Week with a renewed call for government to stop attacking Australia’s social safety net, and the people who need it, and instead focus on reducing child poverty in Australia, as it has been done before.

At our Press Conference today, we honour the Hawke government’s legacy of reducing child poverty by a massive 30 per cent, while shining a light on the increasing child poverty today.

ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie is joined by former Minister for Social Security, the Honourable Brian Howe AO who led the Hawke Government’s Family Package which successfully reduced child poverty in Australia by 30 per cent, leading social policy researcher Professor Peter Whiteford, community workers and parents with lived experience of poverty, from the Hawke era and now. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy | 9 Comments