Hard-hat utopians

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story, pointing that, even though the occupations most affected by the Covid pandemic are dominated by women and young people, government responses have been focused on ‘hard hat’ sectors, mainly employing prime-age men.

I appeared before a Committee of the Queensland Parliament making this point. I don’t think I had a lot of impact, but I will keep on pushing.

30 thoughts on “Hard-hat utopians

  1. I was wondering the other day: how much of that is because the parliamentary culture (and to some extent Australian culture at large) still thinks of real jobs as big burly men getting dirty? Real men{tm} doing real work, real-ly hard because we’re manly men from Manly … down at the Y-M-C-A (sing it with me!). Little ladies with their sewing and child-minding isn’t really work, it’s just “pin money”. Something something while they’re doing the ironing, as I believe the saying goes.

    The UK is following our lead, BTW, with supposedly “essential workers” not eligible for immigration because of the salary threshold they’re bringing in. Predictions are for further collapse of their healthcare system once minimally qualified, lucky to get the minimum wage, carers are sent back where they came from. Obviously in a free market or capitalist system that would result in wages going up due to unmet demand for workers, but like Australia the UK is well equipped with legislation to prevent that happening.

    FWIW a fair number of professionals also wear hard hats, and not just construction industry ones – any hard hat industry that needs supervision will have professionals doing that. Also, unrelated, it amuses me to see those photos of a politician wearing a hard hat when they’re surrounded by people without hard hats… strictly decorative 🙂

  2. The bias is even worse than JQ documents. In Germany, huge numbers of hard-hat male workers in renewable energy lost their jobs when subsidies were cut: they stayed invisible. Not so the far fewer lignite miners. For the record, one current job in wind farm maintenance involves fixing tape on the damaged leading edges of rotor blades. You have to climb up the 100m tower inside to the hub (on land), or rappel down from a helicopter (offshore). Then you have to rappel down the blade edge, up to 60m. Then you can start work. Girly stuff – if you are Wonder Woman. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNDy76I0f-8

    Tee is one dirty pool argument that JQ might consider. The Real Job illusion was held by Stalin’s central planners, and formalised in the batty national accounts system of Material Product. Services like teaching were not Real Production and were treated as transfers. The bias against services – design, instruction, maintenance, repair – contributed to the slow failure of the system. Say what you like about the GDP metric, it does treat services as real work. Hard-hat bias is commie.

  3. Very good article J.Q. I totally agree but I would also point out that in the bigger picture, any kind of utopian thinking and even to mention the word is to grossly gild the lily and delude ourselves. Our main task now is to prevent or ameliorate at least some of the hellish anthropocalypse and extinction level events (for all species) which stare us in the face. Even the next twenty years will be horrific. Many of us, young and old, will never see them through.

  4. The coal complex really are special kind of people. Could only think of one or two other categories that manage to get at least an upper middle class lifestyle basically guaranteed by the government for everyone involved, both capital and employees. And those others at least don´t activily do damage to society while they work. In the renewable sector, employees always got the short end, even in the best of times. And times were really good indeed for a long time based on subsidy expenditure. All the sader to give the short end to low emission energy* by creating articfical subsidy cycles now that they would be cheap. Really wind energy would require no subsidy at all now if only there was an apropiate externality price for alternatives and ridiculous bans for on shore construction would be lifted.

    *Sort of hate the classical renewable term, its ugly marketing to pretend nuclear=bad, but burning plants=good. The only reason burning plants is considered environmental friendly is because the emissions are defined away. No one in his right mind should still think the problem with coal is that we end up depleting reserves or that we would ever run out of uranium.

  5. The coal complex really are special kind of people. Could only think of one or two other categories that manage to get at least an upper middle class lifestyle basically guaranteed by the government for everyone involved, both capital and employees.Tose others at least do not activily do more much more harm than goody while they work. In the renewable sector, employees always got the short end, even in the best of times. And times were really good indeed for a long time based on subsidy expenditure. All the sader to give the short end to environmental friendly energy* by creating articfical subsidy cycles now that they would be cheap. Really wind energy would require no subsidy at all now if only there was an apropiate externality price for alternatives and ridiculous bans for on shore construction would be lifted.

    *Sort of hate the classical renewable term, its ugly marketing to pretend nuclear=bad, but burning plants=good. The only reason burning plants is considered environmental friendly is because the emissions are defined away. No one in his right mind should still think the problem with coal is that we end up depleting reserves or that we would ever run out of uranium.

  6. that we would ever run out of uranium.

    Realistically no, because we would run out of places to live before then. There’s also the problem that without massive subsidies none of the nuclear industry appears to be viable, not even the uranium mining done in Australia. Oh and obviously this is also a story about the Australian taxpayers not just being on the hook for the subsidies, we get left with the mess where once we had a world heritage area:
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/dec/17/rio-tintos-plan-to-clean-up-ranger-uranium-mine-in-doubt-after-hedge-fund-objects

    I also read something yesterday about fracking companies struggling with low gas prices, so they are now just venting (or less worse, flaring) gas and the leakage rate has gone up because they’re not repairing leaks. Can’t find it now, here’s an older article on the topic:
    https://www.ecowatch.com/fracking-cleanup-cost-responsibility-2641049058.html

  7. In no way am i disputing that nuclear energy is uneconomical or claiming that nuclear energy is externality free. What i am disputing is that the label renewable makes any sense. Australia would be crazy to start builiding its first nuclear reactor these days. Still at the same time, it is crazy to subsdice biogas powerplants or to mandate bioethanol in car fuel just because one can slap the label renewable arround those things.Don´t know if Australia does that. Many nations however do unfortunately.

  8. Nice thoughts, John. Having worked many years in Canberra, I sympathise with the government. Over the past three decades, the professional bias within the APS has been taken away in favour of yeh sayers and other friendly advisors. Professions themselves partly contributed to that trend in many ways. When the ROR for capital is falling and government led shutdown is causing the job losses, nothing much other that theories of production under uncertainty that you and Rob Chambers have wisely worked on provide any useful insights. All the growth we have seen over the past decades have come good because externalities were heavily discounted or grossly ignored. I am not brave enough to assume that those in power will change those biases in a hurry.

  9. Moz: standard natuonal income accountind does not exclude women. It recognises female-dominated professions: school teachers, nurses, secretaries, cashiers .. The problem, as JQ has pointed out, is *unpaid* work including child and elderly care, housework and volunteering. This calls for extensions, not replacement. It’s less difficult than including the environment.

  10. PPS: There is one form of unpaid work, on a large scale, with high positive externalities, and stereotypically male (in a soft hat): gardening. I know about Gertrude Jekyll, and I know about my wife, but the stereotype is not entirely false. Item here about the benefits of urban allotments for wildlife – more than for tidy flower beds planted (and included in GDP) by the town parks department. https://theconversation.com/why-allotments-offer-urban-oases-for-bees-and-butterflies-142529

  11. It amuses me that we are still discussing anything other than the elephant in the room, our impending civilizational collapse and extinction, and what we intend to do to prevent it. So far we have done nothing but accelerate it.

  12. James: it’s very nice that a stereotypically male occupation is counted even when unpaid, but I see no evidence that the systematic bias against female-dominated work is abating. We still have both the drop in pay once women start to dominate an occupation and the near-total exclusion of women’s typical volunteer work. I see absolutely no interest in counting, say, community volunteer organisations in the national accounts. I’m not saying that is purely because most of the organising is done by women but I don’t think it’s irrelevant either. We don’t need to bring childcare into it to see those effects but obviously that’s a criminally blatant case (literally, with ABC Learning).

    One really simple case is Fiona Campbell, formerly a leading light in the bicycle activist scene and now the City of Sydney Bicycle Coordinator. One of those jobs is “worth” $100k/year or more. One counts for nothing. Can you guess which?

  13. James Wimberley,

    Maybe not. We shall see. But in relation to your previous comment about gardening I would say this.

    Water is a precious resource and especially so in Australia, which is the most arid populated continent on earth. [1] The growing of gardens and lawns in that context has to be looked at very carefully. All water used to grow plants which are solely of aesthetic or hobby value is and will be a luxury we cannot afford.

    Typical sub-tropical Brisbane suburban gardens used to grow lawns and many exotic (non-Australian) plants when I was growing up and then going though school 66 to 54 years ago. A great deal of water was sprinkled on, hosed on and wasted on our lawns and gardens in suburban allotments of 1/6 to 1/4 acre approximately. Plants like roses, geraniums, gerberas, rhododendrons, nasturtiums, zinnias, marigolds were grown plus frangipanis and poinsettias, and several other species I cannot remember even the common names of now. Trees were varied but included some natives but also many exoctics like jacaranda, poinsianna, and some exotic fruit trees like mango, mulberry, lemon, bush lemon, grapefruit, orange. Citrus don’t do well in Brisbane unless perhaps special grafted varieties. Apples, pears etc. don’t really grow at all. In addition, many other exotic plants, like succulents were grown in some gardens and write a few of these exotic plants have become significant pests in our environment.

    Over the years, gardens evolved and people now do grow more hardy natives suitable to our environment and able to tolerate longer dry spells. However, the use of exotics, with excess water, fertilizers and poisons for pest control are all now indulgences which we should not cater for or permit. What I am saying is that a lot of “traditional” (petite bourgeois and middle class) home gardening has been wasteful and environmentally unsound. Exotics and extensive lawns should be progressively proscribed and banned. Exceptions would include food-producing plants which we can use and which do not become pests in Australia. Other than that, native plants with good environmental, climate and micro-climate credentials should be planted appropriately in climate zones. These will support native mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and other wildlife and will be self-supporting with no additional water for the most part and no artificial fertilizers and no poisons.

    A LOT of things are going to have to change or we ALL die this century. It’s as simple as that. Cakes are fine to a point, ale not so much. Ale is an unnecessary indulgence and a waste of resources. We are going to have to become a much wiser, more serious, hardy and austere people or we go extinct. The age of indulgence and frivolity is over.

    You are probably joking now. That’s fine. Joking costs almost no resources 😉

    However, none of us will be joking when we see what it is coming next.. and next and next.

  14. The growing of gardens and lawns in that context has to be looked at very carefully. All water used to grow plants which are solely of aesthetic or hobby value…

    The nasturtiums I use as companion planting (and eat as salad) have done their usual winter thing and launched a takeover bid for much of the lawn and garden. They are also growing up the trellis and chickenwire (to confuse those who think they’re just ground cover). I have ample garden space so I rarely buy leafy greens or other easy-to-grow stuff, and once the new chickens are laying reliably will stop buying eggs. Well, I’ll be “buying eggs” in the form of bags of chicken feed 🤗

    I typically only water the seedlings in my garden, and normally with rainwater from the roof. Which means the two 200 litre drums (second hand) and $100 worth of plumbing get used for about 3-4 weeks a year. But during the drought they turned occasional showers into handy tree-saving water.

  15. I guess the logic is that if governments are going to borrow to spend now, they should spend it on investments rather than consumption, so that future repayments are matched by future investment returns. Hence, the emphasis on ‘infrastructure’.
    However, investment in human capital is probably more important in the modern economy. And this just happens to be an area where there is both lots of demand (young people who can’t get jobs – or go on overseas gap years) and lots of available resources (universities* without foreign students – and also childcare centres).
    [* disclaimer: That’s where I work]

  16. Ikonoklast and Moz. Don’t beat yourselves up about the watering of suburban gardens. Circa 70 per cent of water extracted from Australian rivers is used for irrigation; often environmentally damaging, producing low value products, and low incomes for irrigators given the reckless way irrigation development has occurred in Australia. Gardening is one of life’s great pleasures. Styles of gardening have changed over the years, Aesthetically, water saving gardens using Australia plants are just as attractive as earlier styles. Australia’s water policies issues are about too much irrigation, not suburban gardens. Empirics matter. Irrigation use is measured in megalitres, urban use in kilolitres, different by a factor of a thousand.

  17. Thanks Alistair – it is high time we take the full cost of irrigation and even the full cost of our agricultural exports. Small scale farming turns out to be more economically and environmentally beneficial than some large scale enterprises. There is a lot of cost shifting making things look good when they are not really so. Time for a good rethinnk.

  18. Alistair, oh, very much so. I was more reacting to the idea that the only way anyone can have an urban garden is with extensive irrigation. And presumably therefore we should all have concrete lawns (oh, and not water them, because that’s another thing that happens a lot). In reality even a lush vege garden can be done in most of Australia with little to no potable water on it.

    And I’m habituated to silly discussions of the form “everyone needs to reduce their consumption of some resource by 80%”, because those are almost never based on even momentary consideration of individuals. Instead they mean “Australia/humanity need to…”, but idiots like to point the finger at specific people instead. It’s a bit like saying “the average Australian pays $35,000 a year in income tax. That means any individual Australian paying less is a bludger”. Which (to me anyway) sounds transparently stupid in a way that apparently “each person needs to reduce their meat consumption by 80%” doesn’t. In the worst case people say stuff like “each Australian needs to drive 10,000km less” … but I can’t imagine how I would drive a single negative kilometre, let alone ten thousand of them.

    That approach feels like a strong incentive to maximise waste now, so that after the cut I’m still comfortable. Because if we really do say “those who have already done all the easy things and most of the hard ones also have to cut again” that’s going to be really, really hard on me personally. As an individual I *start* with a composting toilet, rainwater tanks and under 50 litres/day city water use. Halving that means space ship style water budgets. Meanwhile my neighbour can halve their use just by buying a yard broom instead of hosing their concrete lawn every day and maybe fitting dual flush toilets.

    OTOH, a lot of my real water use is buying rice, since that’s a staple food for me. And worse, I buy artisanal inner city hipster rice grown in Australia so it really is growing a water-heavy crop on the driest continent. But even the most lunatic are not yet saying “you have to eat 80% less”, or even the more obvious “we’re going to measure consumption in resources instead of money”.

  19. Malvolio/iko:
    “Cakes are fine to a point, ale not so much. Ale is an unnecessary indulgence and a waste of resources. We are going to have to become a much wiser, more serious, hardy and austere people or we go extinct. The age of indulgence and frivolity is over.”

    My turn for a rant. This kind of puritanism, shorn of its theological underpinnings (original sin and atonement), is baseless and electorally disastrous. Socialists should stand for sex, drugs, rock and roll, butterflies, gardening, scuba diving in restored coral reefs, triathlons, Thai cuisine, Christo, and sipping margaritas by infinity pools in the company of minimally clad and athletic young women or, as the case may be, young men. That’s not all they should stand for – solidarity, racial justice, and the Raworth doughnut limits come to mind – but they should also offer a vision of brimful plenty and pleasure. Curiously, real communists were originally better at articulating this utopian promise than more “realistic’ socialists, and without it socialism has trimmed itself to anorexia.

    Some lines from Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira capture the spirit:
    Vou-me embora pra Pasárgada
    Lá sou amigo do rei
    Lá tenho a mulher que eu quero
    Na cama que escolherei.

    [I’m off now to Pasargadae / There I’m a friend of the king / There I have the woman I want / In the bed I choose.]

    I am still enough of an economist, a Darwinian and a Christian to have serious reservations about this hedonistic utopia. The economic reservations are about inevitable scarcities of exclusive space and environmental impact, absent the magical technologies of Iain Banks’ Culture. But these constraints are not necessarily huge. Notice my list is mainly of highly expandable services, not materially intensive goods. We maybe can’t all have a private infinity pool – but if we want the young women and margaritas brought by a waiter, it’s not a private pool. The scuba diving can be rationed, to give everybody who wants it a chance.

    The original/genetic sin issue is more serious. Hierarchy is necessary for complex production and civil government, but it provides a splendid environment for the many sociopaths who get their kicks out of domination and humiliation, and we all have the demon within us. SFIK no human society has resolved this problem. The Culture would, by ceding managerial work to sinless, perfectly rational and altruistic AIs. Any future attainable for our great-grand children would still have suffering and cruelty in it; but feasibly much less than we impose on each other now.

  20. James Wimberley.

    You are perfectly entitled to your rant. 🙂 I certainly have mine.

    Some would call me a “wowser” which is Australian slang meaning “a person regarded as obnoxiously puritanical”. Colloquially its means someone who doesn’t have any fun and doesn’t want you to have any fun either. The backronym slogan is amusing: “We Only Want Social Evils Remedied.” I think the slogan is reasonable. I would add that I want our destruction of the livable biosphere to be remedied too. I’m agnostic (lapsed C. of E.) but I probably absorbed some Scottish Presbyterian attitudes from my father. Learning from my own rebellious and wastrel youth also played a role in making my attitudes more serious over time. You can see the pattern: excessively strict father, youthful rebellion, mature reassessment etc.

    The source of an attitude can be less important than assessing if it is right for the times or not. Today, a more austere attitude is right for the times. The lack of serious aforethought in Western hedonistic culture today is extreme and maladaptive. One only has to look at how people have carried on in Florida at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. There are many kinds of fun that are not harmless or times when they are not harmless. Many people forget, or don’t care, that their fun has negative consequences for others and produces negative externalities for the environment. Nature (to personify it) has not forgotten and will punish us… is punishing us. Too much fun has consequences. Over-consumption has consequences.

    The current pandemic (as one kind of problem) is an outcome of over-crowding, over-mobility, over-consumption, over-encroaching on the wilds (crossovers of novel zoonotic diseases) and mass food production practices. By wrecking the planet we are essentially unleashing unimaginable suffering on our decedents. If you and/or I live even another ten years we will see the real start of this. The very young of today who survive (if they do at all) will be very different, with very different attitudes. They will very likely execrate the baby boomer generation in their history books, with very considerable justification.

  21. Malvolio/iko:
    “Cakes are fine to a point, ale not so much. Ale is an unnecessary indulgence and a waste of resources. We are going to have to become a much wiser, more serious, hardy and austere people or we go extinct. The age of indulgence and frivolity is over.”

    Ale does not require an industrial or high-technology base or high-energy inputs: it was produced as early as the Mesolithic.

  22. J-D,

    “it (ale) was produced as early as the Mesolithic.” – J-D.

    But not in industrial quantities. In 2018, global beer production amounted to about 1.9 billion hectoliters.

    I = P × A × T

    Impact on the environment (I) is the product of three factors: population (P), affluence (A) and technology (T). It’s a crude formula but it gives the idea. As in all things the dose makes the poison, in this case for planet earth. A few mesolithic beer guzzlers whose most powerful machine is a donkey compared to billions of alcohol guzzlers with all manner of powerful machines and the “energy slaves” implicit in fossil fuels.

  23. In the Middle Ages, water was unsafe to drink. “A gallon per person per day was the standard consumption of ale” – https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/alcohol-in-the-middle-ages/ IIRC this assertion is confirmed from the cellar accounts of English monasteries. Ancien régime beer production was on a very large scale. My margarita-sippers are comparatively abstemious.

    I once holidayed in a medium posh beach hotel in Antigua, which had a free bar. There were few drunks. Remove the potlatch component of competitive spending, and natural moderation reasserts itself.

  24. PS. Another quote from the same page:
    “Ninth Century. The monastery of St. Gall built the first significant brewery in Switzerland. At that time each monk received five quarts of beer daily.”

  25. We are now talking about “Small Beer”.

    “Small beer (also known as small ale or table beer) is a lager or ale that contains a lower amount of alcohol by volume than most others, usually between 0.5% to 2.8%. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America…

    Before the 19th century, potable water had the potential to cause sickness because of poorer sanitation. Practical experience demonstrated that fermented beverages were less likely to bring on human illness. At mealtimes in the Middle Ages, all drank small beer, regardless of age, particularly while eating a meal at the table. Table beer was around this time typically less than 1% ABV.” – Wikipedia.

    In the “Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 2.6.2 – Non-alcoholic beverages and brewed soft drinks” –
    “brewed soft drink means a food that:
    (a) is the product prepared by a fermentation process from water with sugar and one or more of:
    (i) fruit extractives or infusions; or
    (ii) vegetable extractives or infusions; and
    (b) contains no more than 1.15% alcohol by volume.”

    I seem to recall, but I can’t find a reference, that beer under 2% alcohol by volume in Australia may be termed “non-alcoholic”. Thus, small-beer would fit under this definition and even under the brewed soft-drink definition above. So, please people do not bring up spurious debating points about medieval beer, at least not without mentioning it is small beer with probably about 1% alcohol by volume. Essentially, they were drinking brewed soft-drink or “non-alcoholic” beer.

    The “Hogarthian” era came later with the introduction of cheap gin and Hogarth executing the prints “Beer Street” and “Gin Lane” in 1751. These show the (at least claimed) difference between “small beer” and gin.

    However, we have been de-railed by the spurious point raised by J-D. The real point is that if nearly 8 billion people live at too high an affluence standard, they exhaust and/or disrupt the globe’s resources including the bioservices and earth systems of the biosphere. The reduction of non-essential activities and consumptions (of which alcohol is one and automobiles are another) will assist a return to sustainability.

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