George RR Martin just reminded us of the horrors of war and our role in them.

Episode 5 of the final season of Game of Thrones showed us a vengeful fallen angle, Daenerys Targaryen, after whom thousands of children in the real world have been named. Even though her enemies had been defeated and surrendered, she nevertheless used her massive weapon, a fire-spewing dragon, to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. We get to experience this from the point of view of the victims who are incinerated: men, women, and children.

I see this episode as the crowning moment of George Martin’s career. He wrote the books and scenarios on which the tv-series is based. He has shown us and told us about the cruel side of humanity time and time again, but many of us did not take this personally. To worm his way into our minds, he gave us a heroine who overcame sexual abuse and umpteenth set-backs to become a powerful ruler who did many good things.

Daenerys liberated the slaves of an entire region. She helped defeat an army of ice zombies who otherwise would have killed everyone on the continent of Westeros and turned it into a zombie wasteland, thus saving all the generations to come. She hence saved hundreds of millions of lives, losing many of her best friends and allies in the process, risks she knowingly took. Those are good deeds of the highest order. She was and to some extent will remain, on balance, a heroine.

But throughout her on-screen struggles these last 10 years she was ruthless, not blinking an eye when her brother was killed by having molten gold poured over him, crucifying hundreds of ‘slave masters’ as punishment for their actions. The noble side of her character was fanned by adulation of freed slaves and warm relationships with her closest friends, Melisandre and Jorah. Their influence tempered her continuous preparedness to use her children, three fully grown fire-spewing dragons, to lay waste to the bastions of her enemies.

When her closest friends died, two of her dragons were killed, and her role in saving the whole of humanity on Westeros did not bring her the adulation and love she so desired, Daenerys did exactly what she had promised to do and was foretold to do in all previous seasons. She broke the game of power in Westeros and turned its biggest city to ashes. She did it partly out of revenge, partly in order to instill fear and thus loyalty, and partly out of a ruthless bloodlust that ran in her family and in herself.

Letting us, the audience, get so close to Daenerys and all her emotional ups and downs throughout the years, has made many of us feel we have partly done all the good things she did. George RR Martin trapped us in her story by letting us see her develop and gain what we also crave: connection, appreciation, redemption, love, lust, and, above all, power. Many of us excused her excesses and coldness, ignoring all the warnings and prophesies, not because we did not recognise this potential in her or even ourselves, but because she was the symbol of how we want to see ourselves. We were made to trust that she would never give in to seeing everyone as expendable in her drive to rule.

Now George RR Martin has sprung his trap and confronted us with what I think he believes is the truth about humanity: in our desire for power we are prepared to do anything to anyone. All the rationalisations and moralising about who we are and why we do things ultimately will make way for our drive to power when the opportunity for power comes. Power blinds us and, particularly when the drive to it costs us emotionally, it estranges us from others and makes us do things we initially never imagine we would be capable of.

It is this shattering of the image of ourselves that is so unsettling. We are made to realise who was always behind the mirror.

There has been mass disappointment among fans. In their bewilderment at being told that this is not merely how their hero is, but how they themselves all are, they go through the phases of grief: denial, anger, bargaining. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Ethics, Films and TV, Geeky Musings, History, Law, Life, Literature, Media, Print media, Religion, Social Policy, Society, Theatre | 25 Comments

Guest Post by Peter Dempster: A novel voting strategy for centrists

Peter Dempster asked me to post this follow-up post to an earlier one of his. Nicholas

A novel voting strategy for centrists

Vote 1 for your preferred party but then do something very unusual – Vote 2 for the opposing party, symbolically joining the major parties on your ballot. Make this the trademark vote of the Australian CENTRE, a demand for much less division and much more compromise in Australian politics. 70% of voters agree … political parties should ‘meet in the middle’. (Essential Poll, 18 July 2017)

If we can’t do this, how can they?

Either: Vote 1 for LABOR
& Vote 2 for LABOR

If you Vote 1 for a minor party or independent, consider joining the major parties further down your ballot, say, at 2+3 or 3+4.

CENTRE votes will be detected in poll results – polling station by polling station, suburb by suburb. Such that Australia’s CENTRE can stand up and actually be counted, not divisively assigned to one party or another as ‘their’ voters. Only 18% of Australians say they identify with either the left or right wings of politics.

Most importantly, CENTRE votes suggest a readiness to flip, a quiet threat to unseat the most divisive politicians. Continue reading

Posted in Political theory, Politics - national | 3 Comments

History and economics: it was all there in the beginning …

<SelfIndulgenceAlert>Stuart MacIntyre was kind enough to suggest me as a discussant on a paper on financial deregulation in the 1980s in a workshop focusing on Australia and the Bretton Woods conference put on by Melbourne Uni History and Economic History. (Yes I know it’s a little unclear how the 1980s get involved but there you go – this was the unpicking of the institutions Australia built around the Bretton Woods arrangements). In any event, after reading a fair bit of history for the workshop and talking to historians,  economic historians and economists over two evenings I checked out some work I did for my PhD and was quite taken with it. I never know whether I’ll think something I’ve written in the past is good or not when I return to it years later. Anyway, dear reader, I was pleased with my trip down memory lane. I was also surprised at how little the basic tone of what I’d written had changed.

Anyway, I then thought I’d go back to my grad dip thesis, which I recall writing when I’d worked out a lot less. But one thing amazed me. For a long time I’ve been aware of the fact that, though I got some training in economics, the only education I ever got was in history. It was through doing history that I was first brought face to face with that thing that Steve Jobs mentions which is that at some stage in your life you realise that this vast info structure was built by other people just like you – just as fallible as you.

Of course it sounds obvious, but if it’s properly felt or experienced then it can have an impact. In any event I fell in love with the way in which, when it is good, history involves theoretical reflection on the practice of history in the process of practicing it. Any discipline could be like this, but few are. In virtually every discipline you do – whether in the social or the natural sciences – you can do the “philosophy of” course, but they’re usually pretty lame in my experience precisely because they’re an add on. In any event economics is about as bad as it comes in that regard.

Indeed it’s the only one I know of in which ‘theory’ doesn’t mean what it means as I’ve adverted to it above. It means formal models and the equivalent of ‘practice’ is empirical work. Reflection on questions like ‘what criteria determine what a good model is?’, ‘how much of economics is falsifiable in principle and how much is in practice, and what if very little of it is in practice?’. Is the analytical process of working out what the right economic policy is more like the engineering steps needed to get a person to the moon and back or working out how to win a football game (Hint: I think the answer is the latter, but that’s another post?). Well you can go and do a unit of ‘The Philosophy of Economics” but best of luck getting help with those questions.

I reflected a little on this in a speech I gave a couple of years ago. In any event, going back to the preface of my grad dip – written in the late(ish) eighties, it turns out that it was all there – way back then. To do economics using the skills that history had taught me, and that were vanishingly rare in economics. The zen of trying to open one’s mind. Anyway, the preface to my Grad Dip thesis – on my experiences in car industry policy is over the fold.

Oh, one more thing. The preface is my best answer to the pride that economists have in the aggressiveness of their intellectual culture. This is the idea that the stronger the competition – celebrated here – the better because it imposes stronger selection pressure in the market for ideas all the better to select the fittest ideas. I can only say I’ve never experienced that. It’s true that within some formally defined world one person can often by right, the other wrong. But most argument actually requires the skills of listening and searching for common understandings at least as much as it requires contest around disagreement. And that’s even true of a lot of argument about technical matters, which degenerate surprisingly often into some subtle misunderstanding.   Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Six tough institutional challenges this century

In 1900, the modern nation states of Europe faced many challenges in terms of how they were run, with poverty and disease still prevalent. The largest problems were more or less successfully addressed by 2000. The road involved world wars and civil wars, but the essential recipe to the problems prevalent in 1900 has been found and implemented in most countries in Europe. In turn that recipe has been copied in many other places.

The problem of how to organise the economy has been addressed via the mixed-market system and the general organisation of a national bureaucracy in large semi-autonomous institutions with specific roles, such as national police systems and national water supply systems.

The problem of how to get legitimacy in the whole system and turnover amongst the elites has been largely solved by the universal democratic franchise, a non-religious non-ethnic story telling national identity, and a basic safety net for all.

The problems of low health and low productivity in the general population have largely been solved via national health services and free state-organised education.

The problem of over-militarisation and a highly disruptive nobility class oriented around land rents has been solved in Western Europe by having most of them killed or displaced by two World Wars. We have also outsourced the gravity point of the military to the Americans, greatly increased human capital investments, and been lucky to have had few natural resources. Combined, they have prevented the production of lots of new barons.

What are the main challenges facing European countries today in terms of how our societies are organised? How might these challenges be addressed? Let us not bother with small stuff like Brexit or fake news, which are basically historical blips and part of the ongoing theater of politics, but only talk about general challenges to our survival and quality of life.

One challenge is that of the internet to national identity, national taxation, and national truths. Our countries face the problem that the population in many ways lives and trades online in an international no-man’s land that is conducive to internationalism, tax avoidance, and the creation of truths on the basis of economic interests and religious ideologies rather than national interest. Continue reading

Posted in Climate Change, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Education, Environment, Ethics, History, Libertarian Musings, Politics - international, Politics - national, Religion, Science, Social, Social Policy, Society | 38 Comments

Adam Smith was a feminist economist: Care – the essay

Who Was Adam Smith and What Were His Works?This recent essay in the Mandarin is a reworking of an essay I wrote in 2016 in a string of essays in which I developed the idea of the Evaluator General. I was following Gary Sturgess’ suggestion that governments should not think of themselves as producing complex services in a market, but rather as stewards of a supply chain as Toyota does. In that context it rather jumps out at one that the challenge isn’t to identify things that can be contracted out (though that should always be considered part of one’s repertoire) but to understand and so, try to improve what you’re doing. Of course the system pretends to do that via various bodgied up KPIs and so on, but the great guilty secret is that we keep restructuring things without attending to the most important thing of all. Knowing what we’re doing.

Then a chance encounter with a book on The Ethics of Care led me in a new direction which arises from the observation that many systems of government service delivery or funding should be built as systems of care first and markets only to the extent that that makes sense within that broader context. It seems to me that this provides an excellent framework for building and delivering these services.

Image result for circles of careNicholas Gruen explores ways in which economics marginalises care for others and what an ‘economics of care’ might look like. This fills out part of the intellectual context for his proposal for an Evaluator General. 

Late ‘second wave’ feminist Carol Gilligan’s 1982 book In a Different Voice argued that men’s and women’s ethical frames are different. Men tend to foreground justice and abstract duties or obligations; women empathy and compassion defined in concrete relationships.1 This provided a springboard for ‘care ethics’ which is well summarised in this passage from a review of Virginia Held’s ‘The Ethics of Care‘:

First, “the focus of the ethics of care is on the compelling moral salience of attending to and meeting the needs of the particular others for whom we take responsibility”. Second, from an epistemological perspective the ethics of care values emotions, and appreciates emotions and relational capabilities that enable morally concerned persons in actual interpersonal contexts to understand what would be best. Third, “the ethics of care rejects the view of the dominant moral theories that the more abstract the reasoning about a moral problem, the better because the more likely [to?] avoid bias and arbitrariness, the more nearly to achieve impartiality. The ethics of care respects rather than removes itself from the claims of particular others with whom we share actual relationships”. Fourth, the ethics of care proposes a novel conceptualization of the distinction between private and public and of their respective importance. Finally, the ethics of care adopts a relational conception of persons, which is in stark contrast to Liberal individualism.

This offers a useful counterpoint to dominant paradigm, awash, as it is with abstraction, universalism, instrumentalism and so, manipulation.2 So, here are some introductory reflections. We start with Adam Smith whose work is a constant reminder of how few of the intellectual riches he offered grew in modern soil. I then discuss the implications of ‘care ethics’ for what we’re all assured is the ‘market’ in human services. I conclude by asking whether, against the eclipse of this feminine perspective in our culture feminism should have a role in reasserting it alongside its legitimate role as an ideological vehicle for women’s interests in a world that’s unfair to them.

Adam Smith and the ethics of care

Adam Smith’s work was built on the ethics of care. He was very urbane and not easily roused to passion. But the two most passionate passages in all his writing are one referring to the tribes of Africa being captured as slaves as “those nations of heroes” and this one:

What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant that during the agony of disease cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder and out of all these, forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete 3 image of misery and distress. The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great. With regard to the future, it is perfectly secure, and in its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an antidote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will, in vain, attempt to defend it, when it grows up to a man.4

This is philosophy as homage to care. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Health, History, Parenting | 3 Comments

War on empathy, war on confidence, war on context

Cross posted with the Mandarin

Nicholas Gruen has argued that it’s much harder to realise evidence-based policy – both institutionally and intellectually – than many calling for it realise. Here he explains how putatively ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’ approaches can, paradoxically, compromise their efficacy by squeezing out empathy and relatedness.How learning a new language can change your life ...

Russ Roberts has (yet another) great interview on EconTalk. He’s always been gregarious in his interests, but is becoming more so—and also more sceptical of social progress and of economics as a master discipline. Be that as it may, on listening to this interview with psychiatrist Gary Greenberg on the placebo effect it struck me that a phenomenon of some interest to me might be far more general than I’d imagined.

War on empathy

Empathy tends to get squeezed out of interactions between bureaucracy and the life world. And even professions that one might imagine would be built on empathy — like social work — often operate according to other professional imperatives. Hence, the power of finding ways for the community to administer social repair through the empathic bond of peers rather than professionals, as The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), which I chaired until the end of 2016, tried to do with Family by Family.

In any event, the basic idea promoted by Greenwood (slightly extrapolated by me) is this: as medicine was made more scientific, the placebo effect was discovered, and then marginalised. Yet it was of unarguable therapeutic power. Of course it’s entirely appropriate that, if one is looking for drug therapies, one wants to find drugs that, other things being equal, do better than sugar pills.

But in the process, the trail goes cold on keeping the placebo effect in the frame, not only for what it might help us understand, but, more remarkably, even for its therapeutic potential. There’s been vanishingly little investigation of the joint effect of the drug and the placebo acting together. And it turns out that, investigating the placebo effect more broadly, it seems likely that it has something to do with empathic bonds — between some source of authority like the doctor and the patient. Or perhaps from anyone.

War on confidence

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

An unpublished column on Brexit: until now!

From around January this year I’ve tried to get the column below published – in the Guardian UK where my previous column was published. Unfortunately, and even after endless cajoling via the Guardian at this end, I couldn’t get a reply which is piss poor but there you go. Martin Wolf tried for me at the FT. At least they responded – but with a ‘no’, which is fair enough given the oversupply of articles on Brexit. Anyway as the Brexit Brouhaha Burbles on I thought I’d pop it up here.

The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum looms over the career politicians assembled in the Palace of Westminster as the black monolith loomed over the apes in the movie 2001.

It’s taken over thirty months of thrashing through actual options – as opposed to the wild partisan imaginings in the campaign – for a ghastly, if entirely foreseeable realisation to dawn. Despite the people’s clear instruction to Leave, any specific way of doing so would command far less than the 48 percent vote for Remain.

In the teeth of the greatest crisis of British statecraft since World War II, the institutional imperatives of political combat ensure the politicians perform rather than deliberate. Not only Corbyn, but extraordinarily enough, May has clung to fantasies about getting a better deal, though the end game will presumably see her change her tune.

How did it come to this? Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 4 Comments