Is change we can’t theorise, change we can believe in? Part One

There’s a world of difference between (let’s call it) youthful social change seeking in the sixties and immediate post-sixties social and political movements and much social change seeking today. Then the focus was largely on political activism. And ‘theory’ played a central role in this. So Feminism grew from the mid 1960s in the wake of earlier pioneering polemics by women like Simone de Bouviour and Betty Friedan who theorised the stultification if not oppression involved in their culture’s investment in traditional sex role stereotypes. Feminism proceeded to rapidly branch out into radical feminism (of various hues) and liberal feminism and political consciousness raising proceeded apace. There was vigorous debate within the civil rights movement as to the degrees of civil disobedience that should be pursued including the question of whether to confine the movement to non-violent approaches. Something similar occurred in gay rights campaigning.

Meanwhile back in the mainstream left, parties wrestled with the old chestnuts of how ‘socialist’ they were, their response to various ‘new left’ positions. And in the 1960s the neoliberal project was quietly incubating mostly amongst small ‘L’ liberals. Cooked up by the likes of Milton Friedman and George Stigler in Chicago but broadening to those of more left leaning sympathies in economics. In most if not all of the Anglosphere countries in which it had its earliest impact, its first green shoots of policy influence occurred via left of centre parties in power – the retreat from (vulgar) Keynesian pump priming by the Callaghan Government in the UK, the Carter Administration’s promotion of some deregulation (for instance of civil aviation) and the Whitlam Government’s slashing of government assistance to farmers and manufacturers.

‘Theory’ and political consciousness raising was at the heart of most of this – as one might expect with political projects which are, to a substantial extent about what is tolerated or mandated within public policy and the wider culture. In the midst of the world these movements built, what I’m calling today’s ‘youthful change seeking’ is different. The ultimate concerns are quite similar. The world is not fair. There’s a lot of inequality and ingrained disadvantage. Surely things can be made better than this? But there’s much less focus on the public sphere as some singular entity to be tackled wholesale – commanded (in the case of policy) or influenced (in the case of culture). Most change seekers share a left-of-centre world view – though it may not translate particularly well into voting intentions. If I were Bill Shorten I wouldn’t be too confident of beating Malcolm Turnbull amongst this crowd. But consciousness raising, getting out the vote, handing out how to vote cards, even working out who you should vote for isn’t at the heart of things for this new group of activists.

In its place are a suite of new enthusiasms. Social entrepreneurialism, ethical investment and practice, transparency (of governments and corporations), hacktivism and open data. In a sense the eclipse of these self-consciously public things, their replacement with entrepreneurialism amongst activists represents the triumph of liberal as opposed to more radical interpretations of these movements. Old timers whether they were gay activists like Dennis Altman or in the closet like Michael Kirby came (diffidently) to support gay marriage quite late in the piece. After all, their lives, if not their politics had been built around alternatives to naturalising gay relationships amongst such straitjacketed heteronormativity.

One might say that the youthful enthusiasms I’ve itemised above are those left after you take away the possibility of public action, with its need for spokespeople, talking heads and the military grade PR spin that goes with them in today’s public culture of politics as infotainment. (No wonder people don’t have much stomach for it.)

Still, I’m on board with my fair share of the new enthusiasms. After all I come from a generation in which any inclination to social change set you amongst blowhard uni-student poseurs who would save the world with their particular ideology – provided it was the correct sort – ie from the Judean People’s Front rather than the People’s Front of Judea, providing it enabled them to grandstand, get the best lays. Most of them retired from activism into stockbroking and struck what remaining blows they were to strike against entrenched power structures by not buying toy guns for their sons, or pink things for their daughters and getting them all to call their parents by their first name. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, History, Philosophy, Political theory | 2 Comments

Some inspiration porn for your Christmas break

Surely the most spectacular and inspiring building of our lifetimes – and some others’

Posted in Art and Architecture, WOW! - Amazing | 5 Comments

Old farts (clever old farts) holding up scientific progress: Shock!!

Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?
by Pierre Azoulay, Christian Fons-Rosen, Joshua S. Graff Zivin


We study the extent to which eminent scientists shape the vitality of their fields by examining entry rates into the fields of 452 academic life scientists who pass away while at the peak of their scientific abilities. Key to our analyses is a novel way to delineate boundaries around scientific fields by appealing solely to intellectual linkages between scientists and their publications, rather than collaboration or co-citation patterns. Consistent with previous research, the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases precipitously after the death of a star scientist (relative to control fields). In contrast, we find that the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases by 8% on average. These additional contributions are disproportionately likely to be highly cited. They are also more likely to be authored by scientists who were not previously active in the deceased superstar’s field. Overall, these results suggest that outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive and that a number of barriers may constrain entry even after she is gone. Intellectual, social, and resource barriers all impede entry, with outsiders only entering subfields that offer a less hostile landscape for the support and acceptance of “foreign” ideas.

Posted in Economics and public policy, Science | Leave a comment

Political debate as culture wars: A TripAdvisor for the arts

As I’ve argued elsewhere, most public debates on policy – and I suspect on pretty much everything else – tend to take place as culture wars. In a culture war the ‘sides’ are well defined – usually mapping pretty well onto ‘left’ and ‘right’ terrain. The identities of the various things at issue are taken to be stable and clear – and the debate then takes place in terms of less and more (funding), pro or anti – various well understand positions/sympathies/people. Thus, as I’ve argued, debates on STEM tend to take place as culture war and as cargo cult.

What’s the problem with this? Well culture war type questions need to be answered. I’d say they’re questions like ‘how much funding’ should this or that activity receive? But there are a whole lot of other questions, and given that mainstream political parties tend to agree to within a few percentage points of outlays on the size of outlays, the harder, more interesting and far more neglected questions are questions about internal transformation.  Perhaps the best example is education, where funding is obviously important, but where we’ve got lots to learn about how to build a high quality education system that is essentially independent of the funding question.

I think there are two drivers behind this tendency in political discourse.

One is the fact that the ‘engine’ behind political discussion is affect - it is, as Joseph Schumpeter argued to such effect, driven by emotion and expressive desires rather than reason. And, though no-one would discount self-interest as a motive, even self-interest tends to be filtered through a range of affective filters. (For one thing it’s not really in anyone’s interest to vote, because it takes an hour or more of most people’s time and what do they get for that investment?  An infinitesimal change to the odds of eventual political outcome. In this context arguments like “Do you want Australia to be a clever country or a dumb one?; We should support our teachers more than screen jockeys and advertising agents; Our kids need more discipline” roll off the tongue far more easily and travel through the memeosphere far more effectively than the equivalent slogans for bringing about some transformation in teaching practice (one that’s speculative as our state of knowledge is pretty poor on this point).

Secondly the institutions that fund the factoids and talking heads that will do battle will be practicing media management 101 in which there are goodies and baddies and you represent the goodies. So if you’re an advocate for teachers, or the education system, if you’re really at the top of your game you might begin a sentence with some general concession like “well nobody’s perfect but . . .” however you’re there to say that your people need more support, more sympathy and more money. So system transformation doesn’t get a look in.

In any event this is a kind of background to the column below. Martin Foley, the Victorian Min for the Arts asked me to be on an expert reference group to make recommendations on the arts. Most of the ‘experts’ came from the arts and you can guess whether they wanted more funding for the arts or not. I’m OK with the idea of more funding for the arts, but as a member of the traditional owners of the land on which we met, the late late people, I would wouldn’t I? But as it is, I think in terms of improving outcomes, most of the money spent on marketing the arts is wasted. So if we’re to spend more money on the arts, we could spend more of that money on the arts.

Anyway, as someone perennially amazed at how little imagination economists and other policy makers have shown in identifying practical ways to improve information flows, I’ve for a few years been trying to improve information flows in markets for arts. I’m someone who likes the arts, but am pretty frustrated with how difficult it is to stay abreast of what events are on in Melbourne that might appeal to me. And this despite tens of millions spent marketing the arts.

Troppo’s guides to film festivals is one small attempt to address this frustration. But when I was chair of the Deakin University Arts Participation Incubator (API) I took this a bit further and tried to interest the people there in this problem. I put together a great meeting at Deakin Uni attended by API people and other Deakin Uni arts academics, Linda Fleet from Arts Victoria, Rupert Myer, Chair of the Australia Council and Adrian Stone, the founder of start-up incubator AngelCube with Stuart Kearney, co-founder of Slant beamed in from Silicon Valley.

Adrian tackled my idea of seeking to build a ratings app – a TripAdvisor for the arts – on the grounds that the pathway from from MVP - minimal viable product – to success  would be a too uncertain and difficult. How could we make our platform the place for people to go to swap their reviews. Verily o reader, it was a knotty problem!

After some consternation and further discussion we all agreed that what would make more sense would be to aim to build a more general data platform for the arts. There are lots of data the more professional arts organisations have that would be of much higher value as a shared industry wide public good than it is to the organisations themselves hoarded as a private good. As a consequence if arts organisations couldn’t agree to build such a public good themselves, Governments, who fund them could exercise considerable suasion to make it so, and if suasion failed, then they could, as they do when funding research (and administering other things like mining rights) require beneficiary organisations to reciprocate by making their data available as an industry wide public good – subject of course to satisfactory arrangements to protect privacy. This then creates a platform on which all manner of apps might be built, not least a TripAdvisor for the Arts which might tell me what arts events might suit me.

And so, with that former – but no further – ado, herewith my recent column for the Age on the subject. Continue reading

Posted in Art and Architecture, Bargains, Economics and public policy, Innovation, IT and Internet, Journalism, Politics - national | 7 Comments

How bad were the good old days of Hawke/Keating?

Among Australian economists, the reform years of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-1996) have achieved near mythical status. Their governments have been credited with opening up the country to foreign competition via reductions of the tariffs, freeing industry from the shackles of the union, reducing industry subsidies, and floating the Australian dollar. Legacies of those days include HECS, superannuation, and the Productivity Commission.

If you arrived in this country in 1995 or 2000, the evidence that a golden period of reform had just happened would have seemed overwhelming.

But with the benefit of another 20 years following the end of the last Keating government, what would the verdict now be? What were the mistakes made by those governments that in hindsight have come to haunt us? I don’t pretend to have any definitive answers as I am sure many of the readers will know more about that era than me, but do want to share my suspicion that the Hawke-Keating governments caused a lot of economic harm that would not have been obvious to observers at the time. To briefly mention a few of my misgivings about the reforms in those years:

1. The compulsory superannuation industry set up in those days has given us much higher costs of retirement than we should have. Compared to Denmark and the Netherlands, where government-run superannuation funds have overheads of around 0.1% per year, Australian super-funds run at around 1% per year. That may not sound like much, but it means that over your whole balance, you lose 1% every year. On a working life of 40 years, that means you lose close to 40% of the first dollars you put in at the start on overhead when you take it out at 65. It means all those skyscrapers in the middle of our major cities belonging to superannuation funds are there because of policy, not competitive forces, as later attempts to force cheap default super-funds have by and large failed. And one should not underestimate the knock-on effects of the huge rents involved in these overhead fees: because unions and employers together get to decide which superannuation funds the employees get to chose from, the superannuation rules have an in-built incentive for both of those decision makers to be co-opted by super funds (and I encourage you to look at how many of them are now in the boards of these funds!). They have created lobbies to ensure that employees have no choice but to use certain superannuation funds (legalised monopolies!). Also, because superannuation is intertwined with income and income tax, a lobby group has arisen to allow circumvention of income tax laws, dressed up as investment and salary sacrificing. In effect, a whole industry of superannuation consulting and lobbying has arisen due to the anti-competitive legislation of the Hawke/Keating years. I don’t think this was done on purpose: just the result of poorly thought-through legislation. But it now is a reality, an economic drag on the system.

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Posted in Uncategorized | 37 Comments

Don’t holler for a Marshall (Island) just yet


From National Geographic

Julie Bishop is in strife with the left-leaning Twittersphere for making light of the plight of Pacific Islanders, who are seemingly in peril of sinking beneath the waves due to global warming unless they receive large shipments of cash from the developed West that pumped all that planet-cooking carbon dioxide into the air.

You’d think Julie would have been a little more careful, after her colleague Mr Potato Head committed a similar jocular gaffe not so long ago courtesy of a media boom mike disguised as a media boom mike.

But are the plucky Tuvaluans, Kiribatians and Marshall Islanders really about to sink into the Pacific?

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Posted in Environment | 22 Comments

The impossible dream of competent NT government

Here for my sins is the text of another letter I have just submitted to the local Northern Territory News:

Dear Editor

The statement in your editorial of 2 December 2015 that “neither of the major political parties is in a position we would consider as ready to govern beyond 2016″ is certainly correct, although the 2016 limitation is unnecessary.

In a tiny place like the Territory, a single party in an effectively two party “winner take all” system will almost never have enough talented MLAs to form a competent Ministry.  Hopefully we will manage to elect a handful of additional talented individuals at the 2016 election, but still neither party will have enough to form a competent Ministry solely from their own parliamentary ranks.

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Posted in Law, Politics - Northern Territory | 4 Comments