Could the culture wars really be over?

It seems almost inconceivable that the culture wars that have dominated Australian public life for decades could end, and with victory for the progressive side on nearly every front.  And I have made premature predictions to this effect before. 

 But consider the following list of events over the last couple of years, many in the last few months.

*  After decades of quasi-legality in many states, abortion rights have been enshrined in law throughout Australia – attempts to mobilise public opposition went nowhere
*  Voluntary assisted dying has now been legalised nearly everywhere (a bill in NSW looks very likely to be passed) – again the debate was low-key and generally civil

*  The Morrison government, backed by the Murdoch press, appears certain to adopt a 2050 net zero target, and a somewhat more ambitious 2030 target. While there will still be plenty of fights about the details, these will be in the realm of normal political dispute. Culture war denialism (even of the nod-and-wink variety) is now outside the Overton window. 

* Transgender rights are estabished in law, and attempts to whip up culture war on the issue (as with Safe Schools) haven’t been successful.

*  Despite the long and bitter battle over equal marriage, the issue disappeared almost as soon as the law was changed. No one on the right even mentions the idea that it might be reversed. Nor do we see any of the snarky talking points and bogus studies purporting to prove that the idea was disastrous.  Religious freedom laws, if they are ever passed, are likely to restrict rather than expand the existing exemption of religious employers from anti-discrimination laws (an exemption which is becoming harder to exercise in the absence of social license)

The big exception to all of this is the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. As elsewhere it’s been a potent issue for the culture war right and one on which they have generally been successful.  

What remains of the culture wars is a kind of free-floating identity politics in which well-off university-educated people denounce others with indistinguishable lifestyles as ‘inner city elites’ and appeal to ‘real Australians’, which roughly translates to ‘people with moderately bigoted views about others, who want a free pass for this’.


A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

To be clear, the sandpit is for regular commenters to pursue points that distract from regular discussion, including conspiracy-theoretic takes on the issues at hand. It’s not meant as a forum for visiting conspiracy theorists, or trolls posing as such.

Who’s afraid of Perrottet ?

The selection of Dominic Perrottett as leader of the NSW Liberal Party, and therefore Premier has raised lots of concern about his conservative religious views. But the only concrete instance raised so far is a dispute over whether the Catholic Church should get management rights over cemeteries.
To see how little impact Perrottett is likely to have, consider that in the last eight years, we have had two Prime Ministers clearly aligned with the religious right, and one too weak to resist them. Despite this, the religious right has comprehensively lost the culture wars in Australia. Most of the issues that drive religious culture wars in the US have been resolved here, with hardly any fuss. Conservatives stalled on equal marriage as long as they could, but once the plebiscite went through, the issue was settled. Meanwhile state parliaments passed legislation formalising the long-standing situation on abortion rights, and setting out rules for voluntary assisted dying.

The big demand from the religious right after the equal marriage debate was a “religious freedom bill”. The motive was the spurious fear that it would be illegal to express opposition to equal marriage – in practice, this is a dead issue.

The Israel Folau case raised the separate question of whether employees could be sacked fro expressing their religious views. But far from advancing the cause of the religious right, the resulting debate has highlighted the indefensible exemption from anti-discrimination law that already exists for religious employers such as schools and hospitals, allowing them to sack gay (or non-believing) employees, exclude students and so on. Even if this exemption survives in law, it has become unsustainable in the light of adverse public opinion.

It’s much more reasonable to be worried about Perrottet’s rush to remove Covid restrictions. But that’s a subject for another post.

How big a bubble ?

We[1] are often urged to “get out of our bubbles” and engage with a wider range of viewpoints. This mostly turns out to be a waste of time. As I experienced from my side, engagement with the political right consists mainly of responding to a string of talking points and whataboutery, with little if any content. On the rare occasions these discussions have been useful, it’s typically because the other party in the discussion is on the verge of breaking with the right[2]

To restate the case in favour of getting out of the bubble, it’s easy to see examples of people on the left putting forward arguments that don’t stand up under criticism, but haven’t faced such criticism within the limited circles in which they’ve been discussed. But the most effective criticisms of such arguments is likely to come from people with broadly similar political aims and understandings.

As Daniel Davies once observed, opinion at Crooked Timber, the group blog of which I am a member, runs the gamut from social democrat to democratic socialist, and I have traversed that range in both directions. I get plenty of benefit from arguing with other people in that range and with some a little outside it, such as liberaltarians and (not too dogmatic) Marxists.

Opening up the discussion bubble now.

fn1. At least we on the left, I rarely run across this suggestion in the rightwing media I read.
fn2. TBC, I don’t think the powerful force of my arguments has converted them; rather it’s that people making this kind of shift often have interesting things to say,

The Scrooge McDuck theory of the rich

Readers of a certain age will remember Scrooge McDuck, the mega-rich uncle of Donald, who enjoys diving into his gigantic money bin filled with gold coins. Replace gold with paper currency[1] and you have the archetypal version of a theory of the rich[2] popular in some versions of Modern Monetary Theory.

Scrooge McMMT has a fancy house and a large bin to hold his money, but otherwise doesn’t spend that much on personal consumption or on physical investment. If the government increases his taxes, the level of money in the bin is lowered, but Scrooge’s expenditure on goods and services doesn’t change at all. Instead, he dips into the money bin a little further to buy politicians who will do his bidding, including (but not limited to) reversing the tax tax cuts increases.

Conversely, if the government prints money to buy goods and services from the (unspecified) businesses that provide Scrooge’s wealth, the money raises the level of the bin, and nothing else changes.

If this story is right, then there’s no need to tax Scrooge in order to divert resources from private to public use. The government can just create the money and let it pile up in Scrooge’s bin.

Entirely separately from economic effects, there’s Scrooge’s unfortunate habit of buying political influence for malign ends. If his wealth were all taxed away, that would stop.

This leads to a kind of motte and bailey argument. The full political program implied (the bailey) here is a combination of increased public spending and high taxes on the rich to reduce their influence. But since the two are logically separate, if the political resistance to taxation is too strong, we can retreat to the motte, and just spend the money, without running into any resource constraints.

When I get a round tuit, I’ll give some arguments as to why this model isn’t a good one. But (apart from the snarky cartoon reference), I think it’s a pretty fair characterization of the version of MMT presented in (for example), Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth

fn1. Paper would be more consistent with physical reality, since swimming in gold is a very bad idea.

fn2. An ambiguous term. The image conveyed, and the common use of examples like Bezos and Gates, suggests we are only talking about billionaires, but much of the actual debate concerns higher taxes on annual incomes starting at $250k or $400k.