Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent
header_02 home about login header_06
sidebar-top content-top

Getting Beyond "Politics as Usual"

by John Henry Calvinist

Before I start here, I think it advisable to warn all readers that I am militantly contemptuous of what usually passes for "policy debate" on both left and right, since I have (genuinely) tried to learn from those who (usually) pass for democrats, conservatives, radicals, realists, libertarians, socialists, classical liberals and neo-liberals, and, perhaps most of all, from free-thinking hybrids who (rightfully) treat such labelling with the contempt it deserves.

Because we actually can do far, far better than the bankrupt clichés of "left" and "right" (or even more precise labels) and, without playing the "ideology" game as commonly understood: let alone shorn of common-sense safeguards - as both anarchists and libertarians are all-too-willing to do. The key to this endeavour is simple: always keep in mind that politics must remain "the art of the possible" - but, also remember that human history is long, diverse, and full of fascinating experiments in this area - and that good scholars have spent lifetimes tracking down the evidence re these.

So, we're not actually captive to the received "wisdom" of our time and place, in our understandings - unless we, thoughtlessly, succumb to the incessant mouthings of our media pundits.

A word on same might be in order at this point. Accompanying the rise of democracy itself was a countervailing argument - formalized by Plato - as to the incapacity of the commons to wisely govern. Revived (in a modified form) once universal suffrage reared its ugly head in recent times, it is now usually encountered via the "mass culture critique" peddled in different versions by the left and right.

This is the "ordinary people are brainwashed by the media, and only vote on self-interested grounds anyway" mantra, that the political class (including the mass media) use to justify their dumbing-down of debates and systematic cosying-up to anyone with power, rather than the poor slobs that are "supposedly" the deciding factor in a democratic system.

Even if true - and Diana C. Mutz's groundbreaking research proves otherwise - the argument betrays a profoundly misleading "understanding" of democracy as a process which, unfortunately, extends to the electors at large. As Mutz shows, they fully realize that their individual experience cannot simply be generalized, and thus rely on the media for this service - even when they radically distrust same - which is where shock-jocks and the like find their opening.

Inter alia, the simplest thing any leading opposition figure with both real guts and sense could do is praise the "masses" for their civic spirit - but then, go on to explain exactly how the democratic process itself was designed to aggregate/sift personal experience, remind the audience that the mass media is controlled by the powerful, and is thus not necessarily a trustworthy guide to broader issues, then:

Ask them to vote on personal experience, alone!

To forget any/all bribes, spin, and the pontifications of the media - and just go with what they actually know. Are they (truly) better off now? Are they really happy with the changes they see in their immediate society/environment? Are all their worries - genuinely - being properly addressed, or, merely fobbed-off with excuses, or mis-managed in an incompetent fashion?

Because democracy (which Marx, incidentally, despised in any/all forms) will do the rest, at least for most policy areas.

There's also no "defense" against this tactic - should the voters adopt it - and, it's simple, clean and workable. Trouble is, it does demand that you trust the electorate (as a whole), and such trust is vanishingly rare in "our" political elites.

The lack of any widespread awareness of this fundamental aspect of democracy - or of the empirical work disproving the "mass culture critique" - is symptomatic of the narrowness of our political culture and of its almost total disconnect with the leading scholarship in a whole variety of areas that suggest many feasible (and straightforward) ways out of our current malaise.

For example, ruled as we are by a narrow (and outdated) economic ideology - in which markets have to be "free" - there is little awareness outside scholarly circles that the cutting-edge economic work that has garnered all the prizes of late operates in much more rugged terrain, such as experimental economics, market design, the outcomes of imperfect information, and other approaches that actually test theory against experience. Even economic history is making a comeback, after decades in which it was rarely taught to undergrads. So, my hint to all reformist governments - try sacking your Treasury and Reserve Bank staff in toto, and hiring younger economists that have bothered to learn from the real world and those theories that take it into account.

After all, that'd simply be "market discipline" at work, now, wouldn't it?

Similarly, there is now a wealth of comparative work on different electoral systems available - which strongly suggests that multi-member electorates produce much better political/social outcomes - particularly reducing ethnic/religious tensions, and forestalling the domination of major parties by self-reinforcing cliques. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be like such domination - so most voters never get to hear about such simple reform measures that could easily improve their lot.

Another one: more egalitarian wealth distributions - nice in themselves - also have positive side-effects in a myriad of areas that are generally ignored. Instead, we're "informed" that "we" can't afford the tight labour markets which would, naturally, produce such outcomes - and the metastasis of bureaucracy makes most (rightly) distrustful of tax and redistribute schemes, leaving a double-bind in which the rich simply get richer, and dissipate their gains in financial speculations, which mainly serve to undermine the "real" economy.

So, next time some "economic" bigot tries to tell you about labour markets, gently - or otherwise - inform them that Adam Smith, no less, considered they were inherently biased against employees - and remind those on the left that "welfare" and "collective bargaining" are the major policy issues dividing the poor and middle-class (particularly small business), thus delivering the political process to those who would keep them divided. Regulating labour markets to ensure full employment - sans collective bargaining and such things as termination payments, but with a genuinely decent minimum wage - would provide everyone with real job security, the option of voting with their feet - and leverage for better pay and conditions across the board which would then flow-on to increased "consumer confidence" and, hence, flatten business cycles, particularly benefiting small businesses that suffer the most from these.

Reduced crime rates, a much smaller "welfare" budget/bureaucracy - the positives multiply, and, are clearly attested-to in the historical record. We'll either learn do it sooner, or later - with much unnecessary fear, suffering and instability along the way - and, remember, a safety-net should be something to land on, not be trapped in.

We could also take a hint from the ancient Greeks - and try anti-bureaucratic approaches to regulating public affairs - instead of pontificating about them like neo-liberals do, whilst handing over effective control of things to private bureaucracies, in the shape of huge corporations. We could use the stock market to break those up - without stealing from anyone - into much less fearsome creatures that couldn't dominate their respective markets. Because, the correct word for what we've got now, in a whole variety of areas, is "oligopoly" - and making excuses for same has intellectually crippled neo-classical economics almost as much as its disconnect from really-existing markets.

There are also the full possibilities of randomly-chosen deliberative assemblies to consider, as these could prove essential in correcting the biases generated by formally-representative systems. As well, we might also want to re-think federalism - based upon the fact that there is no real reason why the administration of different spheres of activity needs to be based upon the same territorial divisions, except to centralize political power, which was what federalism was designed to undercut in the first place. Keeping bureaucracies small is the only way of controlling them, after all - so, maybe we ought to reconsider regional centralization as well?

There are a multitude of simple revenue-neutral (or revenue-positive) measures that governments can take to improve matters for all of us - the historical record is full of examples that can be fruitfully adapted to current conditions - but most would take a genuine willingness to bite the corporate hand that feeds, as well as imagination, and some wide reading/careful thought about feasible mechanisms, and possible political alignments between those currently divided by bogus ideologies.

That's why we'll have to do it ourselves - as citizens - and hope to haul some of the media and politicians on-board, eventually, when they finally wake up. Because policy is far too important to leave to the professionals.

But, after all, isn't that merely what true democracy entails?


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Ross my apologies as ever

I will take your reflective challenge on the chin and try to make a point so we both know which page of the book I am reading. I will also state the following: If the cost of my house represents over 35% of my total income, it is a mortgage I can ill afford. This is due to Murphy's Law, which is, as you well know is "The Worst possible thing will occur at the worst possible moment". Addended to that I have often seen "and Murphy was an optimist".

Is it good economically speaking, to have a mortgage, which sits at a point in your income where one cannot afford to have breathing space? What happens to the house if someone whether it be the breadwinner or anyone else, needs hospitalisation. One doesn't plan for these things to occur, one should just realise they might happen and plan for the unexpected.

A mortgage which does not allow this, is a MacMortgage. It is a house on a small city block costing 6 years or more salary (instead of 3 or 4), into which one pours money and love and which, if all the stars align correctly, may, by the time your youngest finishes Uni, be yours. That is if you haven't borrowed against it umpteen times and so on.

Ross I am appreciative of your feelings on this, and as I have said repeatedly, I do not understand economics on a national or global scale. A MacMortgage (called that for the media's so called MacMansions), however is ordinary income in home-based economics and thanks to my wife I do understand it quite clearly.

I will put another point which may also raise some hackles; if both parents need to work to pay the mortgage, you cannot afford it.

Now my point, which you took as being condescending, and I can see that in it, was laid out with a sense of the silliness of the Australian Mortgagee who looks at how they are viewed by their neighbours, the view people will take of the schools their kids attend, and they do not, as I see it, look at the affordability factor of the house they are looking at.

Now who is to blame for the prices Ross? The government? The real estate agents? Or the home buyers? That's the question, that is in general avoided. That having been said, mea culpa, I do see the mortgage reliance as a visible measure of how much intelligence people have and/or use.

As you launch into me for being condescending, can I suggest you address the ISSUE I raised as opposed to the "living" issue you raised. If you can't afford the mortgage, how will you live when the payments start to dig home? Who is the MacMortgagee? The person who lives in a house they can't afford, paying for a school they can't afford, and wondering why things have changed. They have changed Ross, because the Australian electorate does not think beyond the Mortgage, and that, was the whole point I was making.

Your note that I was "putting down", covered one single paragraph of my response. Does that mean the rest was pointless? Really Ross, you do yourself an injustice, having seen other issues from you, when all you could do is reflect on a single paragraph. It wasn't specifically a put down, it was a reflection on what we are. We (as a country)are money-centred group of half informed political illiterates without the wit to look forward to the results of our votes. My apologies if that is also a put down to you, rather than, as it is to me, a statement of basic irrefutable fact.

On the Commentary

Apologies for not getting to this earlier, but I've been away... Anyway, on with the show! Susie Russell and John Pratt, while I'm not entirely convinced by Peak Oil arguments, I am about global warming...nonetheless, whatever position people take on contentious issues doesn't actually have that much bearing on the thinking behind this piece - which is that, pretty much wherever we look on policy, the conventional positions appear extremely short-sighted, unimaginative, and basically more of the same...despite the richness of the historical record, and the best work in the social sciences (albeit, you do have to dig for it!)

Daemon Singer...thanks for the praise, but I do think that being an "economic illiterate" isn't really a useful stance.  You don't actually need to be able to follow the maths to critique economic arguments, but you do need to read economists critiquing each others' basic assumptions, so you can get a real feel for what the arguments are, and where they are coming from. My biggest complaint re the "left" - apart from their romanticism - is that very few seem willing to do this work, preferring to rely on gut instinct. Trouble is, that can frequently mislead, especially in complex areas...so, I hope you'll give economics some real thought. Meanwhile, I can (strongly) recommend a recent interview with one sensible leftist, Fred Halliday - http://www.skidmore.edu/salmagundi/halliday.htm - for a measured approach to the real task on that side of politics.

Me, I'm willing to learn from all sorts...but I refuse to be pigeon-holed, for reasons that this piece should've made clear.

Allan Curran - thanks for nothing. I see you have no contribution re the piece under discussion, but are anxious to get right back to politics as usual...personalities and veiled insults. But, why comment here, at all? Surely, Webdiary gives you ample space where such commentary might be relevant, but no...you insist on bringing irrelevancies in here. I have learned much in my time from various people on the right, but I very much doubt (to judge by this performance) that you will ever add to this. As I said, thanks for nothing...

And, now for Peter Woodforde... Peter, I'm not entirely sure what you're getting at here, albeit you do seem irritated by my use of the term "militantly"...as if, somehow, that was owned by the left. Let me assure you, then, that I chose the word carefully, and consider that the lack of a militant streak in radical centrists like myself to be our greatest failing. Contra the ideologues, there's certainly NO contradiction involved in being a radical centrist - since major reform ideas do not necessarily fall naturally on the right or left of current politics. Sadly, though, almost everyone is anxious to pigeonhole them as such, which is exactly why I floated such a disparate bunch here...to, apparently, very little interest. Ah well, come the next Great Depression, I suspect things might well be different...

Anyway, you also seemed intrigued by the civic spirit of the "masses" (scare quotes fully justified, to my mind). If so, have a look at Diana C. Mutz's "Impersonal Influence" (Cambridge: 1998), which ought to be required reading for all political journalists. She proves, with some very well-designed quantitative work, that the mass culture critique is bunk, and that the vast majority of people make up their minds on political issues via the information they get via the media, weighed-up as to how well their nation appears to be going. Trouble, therefore, isn't with the electorate...it's squarely in the media camp. So, "civic spirit" (unlike "masses") isn't at all ironic, nor was my proposed tactic for circumventing the bloody gatekeepers. It's just a pity that no-one has enough faith in democracy to try it! all the best

Congrats JH


Good piece, good topic. I note you start  from an anti dogma/labelling point of view and I have to agree totally that pushing such agendas is both a waste of space and time.

Ironic of course that most of the posts here descended immediately into that labelling and name calling that displays total ignorance of the problem(s) and of course, solutions.

I read your item and was encouraged. I hoped for some reasonable discussion, debate even but was only to be disappointed firstly by Daemon's condescending labelling of mortgage owners as MacMortgages, clearly pointing at those with just enough money to scrape by.

He states that such people think only of their house and if they can afford the mortgage.

Well, welcome to the real world Daemon. Survival is actually a rather high priority for most people. What are you suggesting they do? Waste all their money and hope Howard will give them a tax cut to pay the mortgage?

The moment I read that comment the usual was obvious. No real attempt at anything other than irrelevant put downs.

By the way Daemon, who are the MacMortgages? Is it you? Define them please. Names and addresses would help.

For those who do label people bacause of how they vote I assume you do know there are only 2 choices and neither choice covers every issue any individual cares about. You accuse many of voting simply because of interest rates and mortgages Daemon. Where did you get those facts from? The Liberal Party handbook? Or did you survey all voters to determine this? As one other wrote on this thread, bullshit.

At least you tried John. More than could be said for the usual comments.

where is Margo’s “conversation?"

POLITICS , AS USUAL, GOES OFF THE RAILS Media Pundit John Henry Presbyter roars (with militant contemptuousness) to his flock that “the simplest thing any leading opposition figure … could do is praise the ‘masses’ for their civic spirit…” Ja, vertretbar, JHP. And then Twelfth Angry Man Alan Curran tries to admit (also with militant contemptuousness) that he’s an “economic illiterate,” ie, ““as an economic illiterate, I'll bet you get down on your knees,” etc. nicht klar, TAMAC, aber lustig. So the Mummeration is exquisite, but where is Margo’s “conversation” principle? Only John “Give everyone a new Prius” Pratt is having a go. Mind you, we can’t all be democratic, liberal, social animals and part of a suitable neo-Conga line of Vac-Assist™ mechanisms. Carry on. Jack Woodforde was fired recently from the heavily privatised KGB of the former Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, now trading as Sanctuary Cove Crystal Meth & Real Estate (St Petersberg, Sochi & Gold Coast) Pty Ltd ™. Sadly leading away his hardy little steeds, a vast Astrakhan fur bonnet bobbing on his head and his saddle and sword slung over his back, he has reported compulsorily to the nearest Hillsong™ Welfare-to-Work™ Andrews Sisters.com scam, AK carbine at the ready. Hillsong™ and the Andrews Sisters.com are associated with certain elements, of which we may not speak. Under pain of death, loss of income, and our children will be stolen, especially if we are a dirty lazy k’n Abo substance and child abusers, as indicated in the Broughaloid Affidavits™. If so, we will put the Australian Crime Commission™ onto you, but NOT onto the people who tried to nominate a serial political benefactor and tax dodger to further stack the Board of the Reserve Bank™.

PS: With all that experience of galloping across the steppes and slaughtering hundreds, Mr Woodforde, Order of Lenin™, will soon find work as a low-pay, long-distance truck driver, along with many of his wilder countrymen, all former Kazakh cavalry warriors desperate for an ask-no-questions job with known racketeers who might tolerate their habits of casual theft, casual narcotics abuse and even more casual murder.

It's a matter of priorities

To listen to Howard and Bush it is easy to believe "no problem since no proof" however, what if they really are a wrong as the scientists say they are? What then?

One can imagine as we go forward over the next 2 decades, that things will get tougher, however the oil barrons will have sufficient to live on by selling the remaining thirty years supply or whatever as high as they can, and after that retire, so no more issues for them. But what about the rest of us? Soothing words from Howard, surprisingly enough, don't comfort me.

I was reading Downers speech and realised what he was saying may be right about the miniscule difference caused by signing Kyoto, however, even a little bit, is still a difference. Why not take the first steps now rather than wait until things get sticky? Why not lead the way with this, since he is so keen to posture about his value to the world (as Australian FM). Surely people will listen and take heed of everything we as the huge important nation we are?

The truth is, for the Howard thought process, wealth and power are the way of life rather than taking enviro-economically sensible steps to ensure we can bathe in the sea, drink the water from the tap and not have to invent Factor 999 sunscreen to protect us from the sun.

To me, I suppose life can be simple, it just doesn't seem that this is a view shared by many in politics. Better by far to worry about what the old mates in oil and newspapers are saying at dinner over a smart Chardonnay and to hell with the consequences down the path a little way.

Is Our system up to the challenge?

It is becoming too risky to leave the future to our politicians who by nature have a very short sighted view of the future, usually only to the next election. Two issues that demand a lot of attention and policy change.

“It will be very risky indeed to rely on unproven technologies becoming available on such enormous scales within a decade or so, which is the timeframe likely to be required if the Big Rollover forecasts are accurate. There are around 14 million motor vehicles in Australia, and at only $25,000 each, a fleet replacement exercise to change them to other technologies or other fuels would need the outlay of $350,000 million, which would be diverted from other community and Government needs. Currently half the registered motor vehicles are more than ten years old, and 20% more than 20 years old. Normal fleet changeover rates are actually very slow. Half of today's new cars will still be on the roads in 20 years (BTRE (2002))” Here: http://www.aspo-australia.org.au/content/view/26/38/

2. Climate Change

“Humanity's greenhouse gas emissions are expected to lead to climatic changes in the 21st century and beyond. These changes will potentially have wide-ranging effects on the natural environment as well as on human societies and economies. Scientists have made estimates of the potential direct impacts on various socio-economic sectors, but in reality the full consequences would be more complicated because impacts on one sector can also affect other sectors indirectly. To assess potential impacts, it is necessary to estimate the extent and magnitude of climate change, especially at the national and local levels. Although much progress has been made in understanding the climate system and climate change, projections of climate change and its impacts still contain many uncertainties, particularly at the regional and local levels.” Here: http://www.grida.no/climate/vital/20.htm

The issues of Climate Change and Peak Oil are the biggest challenges democracy has had to face. Decisions made in the next few years will have a dramatic effect on the future of our grandchildren. We currently seem focused on personalities and leadership issues. Terrorism seems to be taking far more resources than the two real threats to our way of life.

We need to have a good look at our current political system to see if it is up to the challenges we are now facing. A good first step would be to limit the number of terms a Prime Minister can stay in office. Party politics seems to be failing our needs, perhaps proportional representation would ease some of the power the two major political powers now have.

We need to plan for a future twenty, fifty years and a hundred years ahead. Not merely to the next election.

A state of disbelief...

Mr Curran, I do not believe that even someone such as your good self believes such drivel.

In like mind, does this say that you get down on your knees and thank your God that this country is run by Murdoch et al telling Howard what to do?

My reference to being an economic illiterate was in response to something one of your mates said. I don't claim to understand the economy Mr Curran. I do claim to know how it feels to be ashamed of being seen as a toadie to Dick Cheney by virtue of my citizenship.

You, of course, don't feel that, since it cannot be apportioned a dollar value, so to you it is an immeasurable, ergo is meaningless. To my mind, the capacity to hold one's head up all over the world, as I have in the past, is more important than who tells Beasley what to do or say.

Does that mean that a democratic illiterate (in your own terms), sees it as OK for a media "mogul" (or perhaps mongrel), to pay to tell the government what to do, and have it happen and that is better for the nature of rightist/business politics than having Combet et al indicate to Beasley how they feel things should be done. To my mind, an opinion honestly held and openly expressed to a politician is a lot more palatable than a businessman saying here is $10,000 I need you to do this.

Remember Mr Curran (are you down for a knighthood by the way, old chap?), it was Howard who obeyed the Cheney/Bush coalition in removing the transparency of political donations and removed the need for some sort of scrutiny of "who screws who and who pays the rent". Under Labour it was $1000. Under your little mate it is now $10,000. This of course to improve management of political donations. Humorously, sir, it also pays the piper in terms of who gets what.

In those terms, Combet is a much better adviser than say Murdoch, who pays to get his way. Or wouldn't you agree with that? Most of us call that bribery, Mr Curran. What would you call it?

Combet's Bribery

Daemon Singer does this mean that the Union movement are not going to contibute the millions to the Labor Party in future?.

I assume that Combet does this out of the goodness of his heart and demands no favours from Labor. Bullshit.

Peak oil discussion

Susie Russell, you can find some recent discussions relating to Peak Oil right here on Webdiary. Go to the "Who owns Bolivia's oil and gas?" topic and add your 20 cents worth.

Egg-laying roosters

Your post encourages me to share an informative moment on last night's 4 Corners about Peak Oil. A group of senior economists from ABARE (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics) were being questioned by a senate committee. One economist, a Mr Brian Fisher, suggested that the response of government to a diminishing supply of oil should be to leave it to the markets. "After all", he said, "when the price of eggs get high enough even the roosters start laying."

We rolled around at this very insightful view of how economists think and why we shouldn't rely on them or the markets for solutions to the long-term problems which now face us as a civilisation.

It seems that such economics is actually some sort of faith based dogma based on miracles. The rooster's egg is akin to the virgin birth.

The information about oil discovery having been left way behind by oil use should be enough to tell us that we only have a few decades to design and construct a civic infrastructure and way of life that is largely independent of large amounts of oil. Throw in climatic change and the urgency is even more apparent.

But most of our mass media is actually about which celebrity has been seen with celebrity2 and our hobbies- gardening, cooking, motor sports, fishing etc. The daily newsprint and other mass media give us whether Howard and Costello made a deal in 1994.

Government, business and media moguls will not be at the forefront of any discussion about civilisation shift. They are too focussed on short-term profits and gains. So we, the people need to not only come up with answers but shift the powers that be to make it happen.

Now that's what I call a hobby!

Thanks John Henry

What an interesting take on something most of us say, or seem to have said at one time or another. Putting that frame on dumbing down the electorate sure makes a lot of sense. I just thought that was about stopping people from "enquiring", in fact your post takes account of a few things, laid out like that and thanks for it.

The unfortunate part of the modern electoral process is that the MacMortgages really do only think about the house theyr'e in and whether they can keep it with a .25% rise in rates. The fact that they can't is also an indicator of the fact that they can't do the maths involved in working out whether a mortgage is in fact the way to go or whether better to rent etc.

In terms of other policy areas that would be affected, think about the number of perople said "No" to Iraq, then voted for him anyway. I trust the IR laws, which will affect the MacMortgages in the pocket, will make them think before they vote. They certainly didn't last time.

I guess by sitting back for the next few days and getting the feedback from here will show where people come from, even economic illiterates, such as myself.

Give Thanks

Daemon Singer, as an economic illiterate I'll bet you get down on your knees and give thanks that Labor and the unions are not running the country. Can you imagine what it would be like with Wayne Swan running the Treasury, and Combet telling him what to do the way he is telling Beazley what to do?

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
© 2005-2011, Webdiary Pty Ltd
Disclaimer: This site is home to many debates, and the views expressed on this site are not necessarily those of the site editors.
Contributors submit comments on their own responsibility: if you believe that a comment is incorrect or offensive in any way,
please submit a comment to that effect and we will make corrections or deletions as necessary.
Margo Kingston Photo © Elaine Campaner

Recent Comments

David Roffey: {whimper} in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 4 days ago
Jenny Hume: So long mate in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 5 days ago
Fiona Reynolds: Reds (under beds?) in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 6 hours ago
Justin Obodie: Why not, with a bang? in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 6 hours ago
Fiona Reynolds: Dear Albatross in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 6 hours ago
Justin Obodie: Bye bye - and thanks for all them fishies in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 7 hours ago
Michael Talbot-Wilson: Good luck in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 12 hours ago
Fiona Reynolds: Goodnight and good luck in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 1 day ago
Margo Kingston: bye, babe in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 5 days ago