Australia, F*** Yeah?

Ken has already linked to Possum’s post on Australian Exceptionalism, but I have a distinct point I want to make about it. In a great part I agree with the sentiment, although I’d espouse most of the past 220 years rather than just the past three decades.  It’s far less the “Three Cheers school” of history than the “holy shit school” of history. That we became Australia rather than Argentina or the US South is astonishing, yet constantly overlooked in favour of petty events distinguished only by white on white violence.

A few years ago I had this missive printed on The Interpreter.

 

As much as I am wary of discussions of national character, there’s another aspect of cricket that I think relates to Australian character. This is the fretting that comes from unfavourable comparison with the unattainable.

There is a permanent dialogue about the fall of sportsmanship in cricket, the end of walking, players celebrating excessively etc. and an endless stream of scorn on players who are not saints. It never seems to be mentioned that no other sport would have an expectation that a player should disagree with the officials when he is favoured by them. What other sport would even conceive that the officials are a contingency plan against the teams’ disagreement rather than the first authority?

Likewise, following the generation after white settlement, Australia has consistently had among the highest standards of living and consistently been preoccupied with the weakness thereof, along with any other metric of national quality.

Who cares that the revealed preference of the world, expressed through net migration (people vote with their feet, after all) is overwhelmingly positive, nor that we have replaced Fair Verona as a literary fantasyland. Our kids aren’t learning! Our buildings are ugly! No one likes our films! We didn’t invent the computer! Our workers work less hours than the Koreans, are shorter than the Dutch, have fewer football skills than the Brazillians, do maths worse than the Chinese, make crappier cars than the Germans!

The deep insecurity about being less than perfect may be the greatest strength of both sport and country.

I really like the insecurity that obscures Australian achievement. I think it is a boon. It’s The Lucky Country Syndrome. Krugman once started a review of a Tom Friedman book with “Every few years a book comes along that perfectly expresses the moment’s conventional wisdom–that says pretty much what everybody else in the chattering classes is saying, but does it in a way that manages to sound fresh and profound.”.

XKCD

That’s how I feel about Donald Horne. It’s so strange that even today references to the book are always accompanied with boilerplate about how people misunderstood the title. I find it hard to think of a thesis so universally accepted in Australia, nor one so which is so universally believed to be not widely accepted.

Which is great. If you have wraps on yourself, you’ll never wish to improve yourself. If you have pride in your way of doing things, you become resistant to change. Imposter syndrome has a far better payoff than the Dunning Kruger effect.

There are downsides of course.

One is the middle class whingeing that is the main subject of  Possum’s wrath, which is an almighty blight. Another is the way our search for explanations of luck rather than virtue can grant power to the wrong people, most recently mining barons who how stewardship of resources wrongly credited with prosperity. These are small prices. Another is that one can sometimes be too insecure. If Australia feared becoming the “poor whitetrash of Asia”, then New Zealand feared becoming the ghost town left after a gold rush had moved on. Hence Rogernomics, a few steps too far and a widening divergence from her peers.

Already on Ken’s post commenters are lining up to say “Sure in the 80s reforms were good, but this current lot don’t have the ticker for it”. I have two responses

A) There is so much exciting things going on. The rejigging of the income tex thresholds and EMTR smuggled in via the carbon tax compensation package, the move towards taxation of profits rather than revenue, superannuation reforms and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Lots of little things that should pay of well over the long term (but are ignored when contested things like the MRRT, Carbon Price and NBN are disfigured).

B) Keep saying what you’re saying. The country needs it.

After all, I’m fairly sure that at the time the 1980s reform period was not nearly as hallowed as it is now. Probably it was seen as a government leisurely bailing out a sinking tanker with a teacup whilst the swift ships of New Zealand and Japan moved over the horizon.

So in answer to the title. No, not “Australia, F*** Yeah!”. Maybe “Australia, We’re Not The S***”.

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. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
15 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
kymbos
kymbos
9 years ago

Nicely put. And even on middle class welfare – I have seen some pretty convincing data that shows our middle class welfare is very small by world standards, and welfare more broadly is very precisely targeted to those in need. Unless I’ve been sold a pup, the whole middle class welfare thing is completely overblown.

I’d have commented directly on the Possum piece, but the login requirements on Crikey are prohibitive to the casual viewer.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

Kymbos – that’s Peter Whiteford’s work on the tax and transfer system, right?

ie. our redistribution is ‘well-targeted’ rather than just being churn around the middle?

kymbos
kymbos
9 years ago

That’s right, Dan – Google tells me he posted the very piece I’m thinking about here, even if I saw it cross posted at Inside Story:

http://inside.org.au/how-fair-is-australia%E2%80%99s-welfare-state/

I didn’t follow any subsequent discussion, so I don’t know if his findings were challenged in any defendable way.

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

I don’t think any of Peter Whiteford’s findings have been seriously challenged in a defendable way, kymbos, there are probably only about half-a-dozen people in Australia, tops, who could even start to!

I agree with most of your comments.

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
9 years ago

I reckon we are doing ok, and things can only get better if the Business Council of Australia recognises that it is in their interests to properly look after the stupid and lazy.

“in a speech to the Brotherhood of St Laurence this week, the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia Jennifer Westacott, addressed social justice and disadvantage in Australian society. It’s not just abstract talk for Ms Westacott, who grew up on a public housing estate and whose parents relied on the social security system for a large part of their life. But the question remains: do Australia’s top CEOs—who the Council represents—care about community enrichment or just getting rich? Ms Westacott says that while business leaders have a duty to maximise shareholder returns, they also acknowledge the central role of ‘shared wealth.’ That is, a society in which all people have access to a good education, health services and adequate raise rises to keep up with the cost of living. Business can’t thrive without a wealthy, healthy and education society in which to operate.”

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/nationalinterest/business-thinks-laterally-on-social-welfare/3695098

The ABC commentators however, do not trust her motives.

Andrew Norton
9 years ago

The 1980s reform period was very controversial until about 10 years ago, when the argument that free markets aren’t working were replaced with the argument that prosperity is bad for you.

However back then I think there was far more consensus on the problem (economic malaise) than there is now. This was a consensus the elites and the masses shared, even though the masses never signed up to the particular solutions suggested by the elites, and much of the non-economist intelligentsia was also bitterly opposed to market reform. Now the problems, eg climate change, are highly contested as well as the solutions.

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
9 years ago

“10 years ago the argument that free markets aren’t working were replaced with the argument that prosperity is bad for you.”

LOL that’s a deep and insightful analysis and so (not) based on an outdated and flawed ideological perspective.

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

AN, that’s what happens when people make up problems to address (arguably applies to workchoices as well as carbon tax; certainly perceived by many to apply to both) and when they try and leap-frog the implementation phase (labour’s cardinal sin) ;)

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
9 years ago

Great post Richard. Thx.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
9 years ago

Richard

I think it’s pretty clear that Possum was acknowledging to a significant extent that in many ways Australians’ more diffident/skeptical/insecure attitude towards our own achievements and excellence (except in sport) is healthier and better adapted than US “exceptionalism”/Cassius Clay-style “I Am the Greatest” posturing.

However, Possum is suggesting (and I certainly agree) that there comes a point where this diffidence (or whatever) becomes almost pathological. Arguably that is where we are now, given that many if not most Australians seem to be convinced that today is close to the worst of times with an inept government fast leading us to catastrophe, when almost exactly the opposite is the case. This radical popular disconnect from reality potentially makes us susceptible to thinking that we’ve got little to lose by embracing the extreme and silly policy prescriptions of the loony Right or Left. Why would we even flirt with such prescriptions when on just about any measure Australia is among the world’s best economies and societies? That isn’t to say that we should sink into a complacent torpor, or even adopt a latter day version of super-cautious Burkean conservatism, but it’s certainly a good reason to set ourselves equally against the extreme right wing silliness of the radio talkback shockjocks, IPA, Catallaxy etc and the extreme left wing silliness of the “Occupy..” movement etc.

conrad
conrad
9 years ago

Sticking Andrew and Ken’s comments together, perhaps one of the underlying things going on is that some (perhaps most) people have some of sort of need to have a certain amount of worries in their life, and so when there are no really obvious in your face right now worries (like economic malaise and the possibility of losing your job), they simply turn to other things. I’d be prepared to bet that this would have some biological component (like happiness, people’s need for stimulation in their lives, and perhaps personolality factors like neuroticism), so perhaps people looking at things in the negative in good times is really quite intractable.

derrida derider
derrida derider
9 years ago

“What other sport would even conceive that the officials are a contingency plan against the teams’ disagreement rather than the first authority”

OT, but what do you think is the origin of the term “referee”? Soccer and rugby both once used to have this schtick where an official was only referred to in the case of disagreement.

Julie Thomas
Julie Thomas
9 years ago

For sure, there have to be genes for being a pessimist. It’s one of Gary Larson’s 4 personality types, after all. But the “we’ll all be rooned, said Hanrahan” meme seems to be particularly evident in Australian culture. Perhaps our unpredictable physical environment, in the way that Jared Diamond speculates, does shape some of us to expect the worst; that way we don’t get dissapointed?

But last night I went out to the town Christmas party and would you believe it, the only complaint I heard from the townsfolk about Juliar was that she’d taken money away from science and maths and we’ll all be rooned without scientists and mathematicans!