Different crisis, different times

My latest piece in Inside Story. Standfirst is Has the Coalition learnt the wrong lessons from Margaret Thatcher?

Thatcher saw that the existing system has failed and proposed a radical alternative. In that sense, we need to emulate her.

We don’t need to trawl through the leftovers of her program: an uninspiring ragbag of policies that turned out to be either unworkable (money supply targeting, for instance) or so politically toxic that they are unsaleable even forty years later (notably the poll tax, which destroyed Thatcher’s prime ministership).

Erasure (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

As statues of slavers are pulled down around the world*, we are getting the usual stuff from the political right about rewriting history and so on. This is obviously silly. Less than twenty years ago, the same people were thrilled by (misleadingly edited) images of US forces pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein. A bit before that, Lenin and Stalin had their turn.

Wondering about other cases, I looked at Wikipedia to find out about memorials to the personification of treachery against the United States, Benedict Arnold, who won a number of military victories for the American side in the Revolutionary War, before changing sides. It turns out that there are a couple, but he is never mentioned by name and, in one case, is represented by an empty niche. As Wikipedia observes, this is a striking instance of the practice of damnatio memoriae.

On one view, the idea here is to erase all memory of those whose memorials are destroyed. But this doesn’t happen, at least not reliably. With the exception of Washington, Arnold is probably the only Revolutionary War general most Americans could name. And the effect of the latest protests has to bring attention to the evil acts of men who had long been forgotten.

Thinking more about the example of Arnold, one way to deal with monuments of this kind is to remove the status, but leave the plinth and the original inscription, along with an updated version explaining the history.

May Day

It’s the May Day public holiday here in Queensland, transformed, like every other public event by the coronavirus pandemic.

Most obviously, there is no May Day march for the first time in many years (possibly since the first march in the 1890s, I haven’t been able to find out for share).

More significantly, ideas associated with May Day that seemed to belong to a distant past have suddenly become crucially relevant. The most important of these is the injustice, inefficiency and absurdity of a society where those who do the most vital work are underpaid and disregarded, while the biggest rewards go to a class that turns out to be of no use when it really matters.

There is already pressure to ‘snap back’ to what was seen as normal in the recent past as soon as, or even before, the pandemic is controlled. But the message of May Day is that a better society is possible, and that the achievements of the workers movement over the past century can and should be defended and extended.

Among the many changes we need is a push to reduce inequality through both predistribution (changing the way the market rewards work) and redistribution (taxation and transfer payments). In practice that means higher minimum wages, higher wages for those who provide us with the basic wages we all need, and better funding for public services of all kinds. For those at the top of the income distribution (including professors and the many senior administrators who outrank us) that implies lower market incomes, and forgoing the tax cuts promised (and legislated) for the future.

Ban gambling advertising

Lately whenever I watch advertising-funded TV (including SBS), something like a third of the ads are for gambling, and all of these promote gambling in an irresponsible fashion.

In particular, the ads are now primarily for racing and sports betting rather than, as in the past, for lotteries. Decades ago, I did a lot of research into gambling and reached the conclusion that lottery gambling is mostly harmless fun, but that all the other forms (pokies, casinos and sports betting) are pernicious.

The majority of the revenue for these forms of betting comes from a small proportio of heavy gamblers (about 5 per cent of all gamblers, IIRC). These gamblers have lots of problems caused by gambling, ranging from marriage breakdowns to bankruptcy. Not all heavy gamblers appear as “problem gamblers”, but the observation I recall on this topic is “a problem gambler is a heavy gambler who’s run out of luck”.

It seems impossible to reverse the expansion of access to gambling that has taken . But we could, at least prohibit or strictly limit advertising, as has been done with tobacco and alcohol.

Jimmy Carter gets advice about global warming

A commenter at Crooked Timber just made the often-repeated claim ““Forty years ago (1970’s) global cooling was all the rage!””. As it happens, just before reading this comment, I received a link to some files from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. It’s a daily log or similar, and starts with a response to someone named Frank Press who had written to Carter raising concerns about CO2 emissions and global warming. The advice given to Carter was as follows:

The issue raised by Press is not new. The experts all agree that more infor­mation is needed. The energy plan indicates that nearly $3 million was being requested for ERDA to study the long-term effects of co2. (James) Schlesinger feels that the policy implications of the issue are still too uncertain to warrant presidential involvement or poli­cy initiatives. Schlesinger is examining the issue in the preparation of the FY 79 budget, and will, at that time, have the full report of the NAS study and further results from ERDA.

That accords with my memory, but not, apparently that of numerous others. Both warming and cooling were discussed in the 1970s, but there wasn’t clear evidence either way. By the 1980s, it became clear that the trend was towards warming, though it took another decade or so to produce broad scientific agreement that greenhouse gas emissions were the most likely cause and another decade for this agreement to reach near-certainty.

It’s interesting that this spurious history came up in response to my suggestion that over-60 voters, as a group, don’t display the wisdom and experience that’s used, with reference to the presumed lack of these qualities, to justify excluding children from voting. Anyone now over 60 was old enough to vote in the late 1970s when this discussion was taking place. It might be expected that, even if they weren’t following closely, they could recall the absence of any major scare over global cooling and debunk the claim that there was one.

Instead, over 60s seem to be the most prominent in pushing this theme. In part, they appear to have false memories (like visiting Disneyland and seeing Bugs Bunny) assisted by the circulation of a fake Time cover, notably by Ted Nugent (age 71).

The problem of convenient forgetfulness isn’t confined to the current 60+ cohort, or to events that happened decades ago. Ben Shapiro, who appears to be the nearest approach to an enfant terrible to be found on the political right, recently claimed that no prominent Republican had denied Obama’s legitimacy as president, apparently forgetting that the current president was a leading advocate of birtherism (Trump wasn’t alone in this).

But the prevalence of false political memory is a powerful counter to any claim that young people should be disqualified from voting because they are poorly informed. As Mark Twain didn’t say “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Give children the vote

Looking at the array of ignorant and vindictive old men attacking Greta Thunberg and other young climate activists, the case for lowering the voting age is just about unanswerable. Anything that could be urged in justification of stopping 16 year olds, as a group, from voting, is equally applicable to those over 60 (a group to which I belong). Over 60 voters are, on average, poorly educated (the school leaving age in Australia was 15 when they went through and I assume similar in most places), and more likely to hold a wide range of false beliefs (notably in relation to climate change).

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Bait and switch

There was quite a bit of buzz last week about a survey undertaken for the (propertarian) Centre for Independent Studies, the results of which were summarized (reasonably accurately) as Millennials and socialism: Australian youth are lurching to the left. The key finding

Nearly two-thirds of the group view socialism in a favorable light, with similar number believing that capitalism has failed and more government intervention is warranted. Furthermore, Millennials contend that the government has cut its spending on social services such as education and health – something our polling shows they strongly believe should be reversed.

The authors of the report, Tom Switzer and Charles Jacobs don’t present any arguments against government intervention in the economy or increased spending on health and education. Rather their case is “Stalin was a socialist, Stalin was bad, therefore socialism is bad”.

That’s not surprising coming from the CIS, but I was disappointed to see the normally sensible Bernard Keane pull the same trick in a Crikey piece The 10 truths the left can never admit. Like Switzer and Jacobs, Keane states that “Socialism has been tried and, no, it didn’t work”, defending this claim with reference to the Soviet Union and (another favorite punching bag in exercises of this kind) Venezuela*.

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We are all socialists now

Socialism is much more than public ownership of productive enterprises. Still, if there is one policy that clearly distinguishes socialists from their (or rather our) opponents, it is support for public enterprise as a way of organizing large-scale production, and, in particular, as the preferred model for industries characterized by natural monopoly or other major market failures. The opposite view, dominant since the 1970s, is the market liberal framework that favors comprehensive private ownership, with “light-handed” regulation as the response to market “imperfections”.

Now that I’ve explicitly adopted the term “socialist”, I’ve been struck by the fact that I seem to be pushing against an open door. Consistent anti-socialists are pretty hard to find these days. Most of the Australian right favors the compulsory acquisition of the Liddell power station, on the grounds that they don’t like the business decisions of its owner. On that basis, it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t nationalise the entire financial sector.

As regards public infrastructure, the Institute of Public Affairs, once our leading free-market thinktank, has become an advocate for publicly-funded dam projects in Northern Australia, the most notorious of all pork-barrel projects. Malcolm Turnbull is pushing Snowy Hydro 2.0.

These examples illustrate a problem. Having started by rejecting public ownership on principle, market conservatives have no theory to work on when they lose those principles. So, they naturally support the worst kinds of boondoggles, based on political expediency.

As a socialist, I support a mixed economy in which both public and private ownership play important roles. The evidence of the past century shows, in my view, that most large-scale infrastructure should be publicly owned, and operate on a statutory authority model, accountable to the public through governments, but with politicians kept at arms length from day-to-day decisions. On the other hand, small business should be left to private ownership. That leaves a large share of the economy to balance between large for-profit corporations and public enterprise. The design of a mixed economy involves getting that balance right.

The Generation Game is over (at least for me)

For more than a generation, I have been criticising the Generation Game, that is, the insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group. Today, I’m following the classic advice for those involved in an endless war: declare victory and get out. The basis for my claim is that I’ve managed to publish my latest critique in the New York Times, under the headline ‘Millennial’ Means Nothing (paywalled*). I expect this will reach more people than anything I could do with the blog, so I will leave this topic and move on.

* It’s fairly easy to get around, I believe.