A Christmas Metaphor

Today is Christmas day, so I thought I would provide a metaphorical and
an anthropological perspective on the birth of Christ.

Christ was, as legend has it, born in Bethlehem in the first century.
Bethlehem is in modern day Palestine. Interestingly, Bethlehem is close to the region within the middle east known as the fertile crescent, where the agricultural revolution is thought to have begun.

What do the birth of Christ and the agricultural revolution have to do with one another?

Christ is known within the Christian tradition as the saviour of humanity. His birth represents renewal, abundance and unbounded sacrifice for all people.

On the other hand, the agricultural revolution took place at a time when
population pressure and the need for surplus were creating the necessities for mass farming.

Both Christ and agriculture can be seen through the same symbolic lens. Both events took place in a geographic region known as ‘the cradle of civilisation’ and both events are thought to have brought salvation and prosperity to us Earth-dwellers.

Christ is the symbolic representation of the agricultural revolution. 2000 years after his birth, we pay homage to him by celebrating at this time of year by eating good food with family and friends.

I am not religious in any way, but I do appreciate a good metaphor. I hope, by writing this, that I can shed light on a peaceful tradition that has been celebrated around the world for millennia. A tradition that does not necessarily imply the birth of a literal deity, but rather the birth of a metaphorical saviour who we can today thank for laying the foundation for today’s civilisation; namely, agriculture.

State Formation

Recently I have been reading Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The Origins of Political

Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution’ (Origins – henceforth). This is a fantastic though heavy read for anyone interested in state formation, reproduction and indeed state destruction.

This book is divided into five sections, each containing several chapters. I am slowly working my way through section one (Before The State: Chapters 1-5) of Origins, in fact, I currently reading the final chapter of this section.

While reading this final chapter titled ‘The Coming of Leviathan’, I came across a subsection titled ‘The State as a Hydraulic Engineering Project’ (p.83). In this subsection, Fukuyama outlines a theory of state formation posited by 20th-century historian Karl Wittfogel. Wittfogel claimed that the state, or Leviathan to Fukuyama, may have arisen in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mexico out of the necessity to centrally plan irrigation projects.

Although this seems to be a far-fetched theory, it should not be simply discarded, as Fukuyama has done in Origins. Fukuyama uses the logical tool, the reductio ad absurdum, in pointing out the floors of the hydraulic hypothesis:

“For Wittfogel’s hypothesis to be true, we would have to imagine a group of tribesmen getting together one day and saying to each other, “We could become a lot richer if we turned over our cherished freedom to a dictator, who would be responsible for managing a huge hydraulic-engineering project, the likes of which the world has never seen before”” (p.83).

Fukuyama goes on to indicate that such a passing over of authority would have to be agreed upon by a centralised group of tribesmen, speaking on behalf of all the future citizens of the ‘soon to be state’. This does seem absurd. However, Fukuyama does not actually address the plausibility of Wittfogel’s hypothesis.

Following the so-called agricultural revolution, it is not difficult to imagine that a constant year-round supply of water, may have been hard to come across. I do not find it implausible to think that a centralised body of tribal people or even local farmers, developed a way to manipulate their environment so as to access a scarce resource such as water, and in so doing, monopolise access to that resource and consequently harness a degree of social and political power.

Fukuyama does not consider the possibility of environmental necessity or environmental manipulation as a harbinger of pristine, or original, state formation. Although Wittfogel’s hypothesis is somewhat farfetched, it leads to a broader consideration that ought to be considered, namely, that environmental factors played a role in the development of a centralised bureaucratic state.


			

The US government shut down

The US government has shut down twice already in 2018. The first shutdown occurred on January 20th, 2018 and ended on the evening of January 22nd. The shutdown began after a failure to pass legislation to fund government operations and agencies. The second occurred on February 9th, 2018. This second instance may be called a funding gap rather than a shut down as it only lasted nine hours overnight and did not interrupt government functioning or services.

The third shut down, which appears inevitable, will occur at midnight on December 22nd, 2018. It is unknown how long this shut down will last but there does appear to be stubborn resistance on the part of the Democrats, Republicans and from Trump himself.

On the eve of this shutdown, it is worth considering three points in relation to governmental shutdowns.

First, the people who really lose from a government shutdown are the people who keep the American state running. CNBC has reported that 421,000 Americans will work without pay if the US government shuts down. Despite the shutdown, all workers who go without pay will be paid when the government reopens. But this may not be immediate. In 1995-1996 the US government shutdown for 21 days, the longest shut down in history.

Included in these 421,000 state workers are military personnel, border security staff, politicians and welfare officers. There is some irony in knowing that this shutdown is occurring due to funding for a border wall, which is being sold to the American people as a minimum requirement for national security. Yet this shutdown is going to directly affect the people on the front lines, such as military and border security staff who are keeping the United States safe.

The Republicans are blaming the Democrats, the Democrats are blaming Trump and Trump is blaming everyone. It is not the hard-headed politicians responsible for this shutdown who will have to tighten their belts this Christmas, but the American workers.

Second, government shutdowns are not necessarily bad things. They act as roadblocks to halt centralisation and consolidation of state power. They are designed to ensure that the state grinds to halt before its politicians become too heated and irrational. Although the shutdown is not a good thing for American workers, it reduces the possibility of rapid change within the American political system, and in a nation of nearly 350 million people, this is a reasonably sensible safeguard.

Third and finally, political conservativism traditionally seeks the minimisation of the state’s social influence, whenever possible and practical. The shutdown of the US federal government is likely to fracture the integrity of the institution that is the American state which ultimately serves to benefit Trump and the conservative Republican party. At worst, Trump and the Republicans look hard-headed, while what is really happening is a dismantling of state strength and effectiveness which leads to a triumph for conservative ideals.

Whether you agree in the necessity of a large US state, the fact of the matter is the US government is the size it is because of the size of the nation. A minimal state or not, 421,000 people will not be paid over the coming days because American federal politicians are to busy arguing, rather than negotiating. The blame game will continue; however, all-American politicians have a responsibility to protect the people they stand to serve. Politicians will not be serving the American people if the US government shuts down.

An Aussie Scam

Yesterday, I heard an ad on the radio station Smooth (95.3FM). There are a lot of ads targeting an older demographic, there are also a lot of ads targeting the ‘working class’ listener. What I mean by these propositions is that there are ads on this station relating to workers compensation, funeral insurance and ‘cheap’ financial planning.

Anyone worth their salt knows that financial planning is a lucrative industry where money can be made. The Australian government suggests that a dedicated financial planner is likely to cost the consumer upward of $10,000 per annum. That is a lot of money to be told to be responsible. Nonetheless, my gripe is not with fiscal responsibility, it is with the financial planning firm ‘Aussie’.

Aussie rose to prominence in the mid 1990’s as a mortgage broker offering itself as an alternative to the major banks. Aussie is, however, 100% owned by Commonwealth Bank of Australia shareholders. Since then, the firm has grown with a market share spanning more than 50 billion dollars of the financial planning market.

The ad that I would like to critique was played on Smooth FM during the afternoon of Monday October 22nd. The ad stated that Aussie is a competitive mortgage broker and if a consumer found a better priced mortgage broker, Aussie would give the consumer $100 for their time. This is an interesting tact to take with financial service advertising within the competitive ‘free-market’ because the consumer is being encouraged to hedge their bets and take a chance on a service offered by Aussie.

“Either way, you win” is the final phrase uttered in this ad. It is unlikely that the consumer will actively seek a better deal if they are promised the best initial deal with Aussie. Aussie stands to gain more than the consumer has to gain, and Aussie stands to lose less than the consumer stands to lose. This is a win-win deal for Aussie alone and it is a stretch to say that the consumer will win “either way”.

This critique of a single radio advertisement points toward a larger problem found within contemporary capitalism and consumption orientated business models. What Aussie is doing is hardly new. Firms selling a service or product that promises the notion of ‘win-win’ for the consumer is common today. One need only look at advertising for gambling, car advertisements or more broadly, political rhetoric.

There is always a consequence to the decisions we make. If you choose the ‘win-win’ option offered by Aussie, then you either lose the service you were seeking and gain $100, if you meet the terms and conditions (see below) or pay upward of $10,000 for a year of explained financial responsibility. I know what I would prefer, but after all you are the rational, self –interested consumer who must make your own mind up.

Enjoy Aussie’s fine print:

“Entry is open to persons who meet the following criteria, are: a) 18 years or over; b) an Australian citizen or permanent resident; c) living and working in Australia and receiving income or wages for duties performed as an employee (including self-employed) or contractor; and d) have savings and/or equity of at least 5% of the value of the proposed security property held for at least 3 months. Must undergo a full Needs Analysis (approximately 1 hour) between 17/9/18 – 30/11/18 with an Aussie mortgage broker. Additional requirements apply, see full T&Cs for details. If unsatisfied with appointment, complete survey online at aussie.com.au/aussieguarantee within 2 weeks of appointment to claim a $100 EFTPOS gift card. Final claims close 11.59pm AEDT 14/12/18. Max 1 claim & gift card per person. T&Cs apply, see aussie.com.au/promotions. Aussie is a trade mark of AHL Investments Pty Ltd. Aussie is a subsidiary of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia ABN 48 123 123 124. © 2018 AHL Investments Pty Ltd ABN 27 105 265 861 Australian Credit Licence 246786.”

Found at: https://www.aussie.com.au/promotions.html

 

Tony Abbott’s Politics

I have been thinking about this for a few weeks now. I believe Tony Abbott has pulled off one of the best political manoeuvres we have seen in Australian politics for some time. Here’s how and why.

The Division:

Abbott is an ideological power broker on the right of the Liberal Party. Today Abbott has the support of many of his colleagues within the Liberal Party, but also within the National Party. This has not always been the case. In 2015 Malcolm Turnbull seized the reigns of the Party leadership by launching a political coup against Abbott. The general feeling was that Turnbull did what was needed, and this proved to be true when the Liberal National coalition was re-elected at the 2016 federal election.

Turnbull represented the political left within the Liberal Party and for some time seemed to dictate terms. His ideological standpoints were, however, sacrificed to maintain the support of the conservative faction – controlled by Abbott – within the Liberal Party.
Turnbull gained social popularity by being a staunch climate change advocate – at least as far as one can be within the Liberal Party.

Turnbull was reasonably popular within the broader electorate. However, due to internal pressure, he relaxed his views surrounding climate change. This was unpopular and gave Abbott the opportunity to question what Turnbull stands for as the prime minister. The ideological turning point came in August this year when the government sought to release its National Energy Guarantee. The Turnbull government claimed it would reduce power prices in line with Paris Climate Agreement targets. Although Turnbull tried to maintain some sense of environmental concern, he failed to convince his party of his standpoint, prompting Peter Dutton to make two failed grabs at the prime ministership. Climate change policy has been the ideological issue that has divided the Liberal Party

Abbott had been sitting on the backbench for some time, taking shots at Turnbull since he was ousted in 2015. Abbott released a book at the beginning of 2017 making the case to relax policy surrounding climate change. Abbott became the prime minister following his success at the 2013 federal election. He campaigned on the slogan ‘repeal the carbon tax’ which he did as soon as he possibly could. Abbott made some bad decisions as prime minister which led to his diminished popularity. Turnbull then launched his coup.

The Opportunity:

When Dutton attempted his coups, Abbott took an active role in undermining Turnbull. Abbott knew that the Liberal Party may well win government at the 2019 election under Turnbull, thus he felt the need to make his move. Abbott will fancy his chances of becoming the Liberal Party leader in 2019. Abbott understood just how unpopular Dutton was so helping him become the prime minster, that would ultimately lose the 2019 election, was essential. If Dutton lost the election, a power vacuum would open, and Abbott would fill it. However, Dutton obviously failed twice, and Scott Morrison is now the prime minister. Morrison will campaign better than Dutton could have and is somewhat more likely to lead the coalition to success, but this is a mammoth task. Morrison is unlikely to win the next election due to the political carnage that has taken place within the Liberal Party this year.

Abbott will have to work hard to maintain the seat of Warringah. But, if he does win the seat, I imagine he will make an attempt at the party leadership if Morrison loses the election. Abbott is a good opposition leader in that he seeks to undermine the government, he did this well in 2013. Abbott now seems to have his party under control and all that stands in his way is the potential success of Morrison at the next federal election. In my mind, the damage has been done and Tony Abbott will become the next leader of the Liberal Party, though as an opposition leader.

 

Political Thrill n’ Spills

It is going to be a messy week in Australian politics. Yet again, the nation is being held hostage by the ebbing and flowing dynamics prevalent within political parties.

Malcolm Turnbull is Australia’s 29th Prime Minister. He seized the reigns of the nation after staging a political coup against his political rival Tony Abbott, in 2015.  Abbott won the 2013 on the back of infighting within the Labour Party – which saw Julia Gillard make a surprise attack on Kevin Rudd’s leadership in 2010, before Rudd regained his Prime Ministership for a total of 53 days before losing the 2013 election to Mr Abbott.

Since Turnbull staged his political coup, Abbott (often associated with Australia’s conservative movement) has been on the political sidelines. Over the past three years he has often been a bee in Turnbull’s bonnet, creating controversy by doing as he likes – specifically by not acting in the best interest of his government or Prime Minister’s agenda. However, Turnbull has been able to weather the Abbott storms repeatedly for two reasons: first, Turnbull has proven himself to be a more flexible and adaptive politician than Tony Abbott, who ultimately lost his Prime Ministership due to his rigid and somewhat cold leadership style. Second, Turnbull has been a stable and reasonably popular Prime Minister. I will now speak a little more broadly regarding this second point.

Malcolm Turnbull is not the best Prime Minister Australia has had. But he is probably the best person to run the country given the underwhelming selection of leaders within Parliament House. Turnbull is the longest serving Prime Minister in the last decade and his leadership has brought about a general feeling of political stability within Australia. Australia was a laughing stock following the Labour Party’s infighting and then Abbott’s downfall. With four Prime Minister’s in five years, anyone would have been forgiven for pointing at Australia and saying “that’s how not to run a country.” Nonetheless, Turnbull has provided mild stability through tumultuous times.

With such a divided political spectrum, Turnbull has provided Australia with a centrist and indeed truly liberal Prime Minster while managing those from within his party who would seek to see him fail – namely Mr Abbott. However, it would seem that his political fortunes are turning, rapidly.

This week Turnbull has shown political weakness in appeasing the conservative faction within his party by doing a 180 degree turn. His ‘NEG’ (National Energy Guarantee) appears dead in the water. There was some beauty to the NEG in that it promised to lower energy prices while keeping to Australia’s Paris Climate Agreement commitments. All appeared to be going swimmingly when Turnbull’s party internally voted in favour of legislating the NEG.

Today, Turnbull has revealed he does not have the support to pass the bill, thus, he is pulling the plug, for the time being. To make matters worse, growing support for yet another leadership spill is building momentum.

If Australia has yet another leadership spill, then it shows there are serious problems in Australia’s democracy. If Australia’s democracy were functioning to ensure stability and good leadership had at least a chance to flourish, then there would be legislation forbidding Prime Ministerial coups via means of internal party politics. Australia is at the mercy of corporatist styled parties, and democracy is not a requisite within a corporation. This is a blight on Australian politics and on the people whom our parties are supposed to be working for.

It is for the reader to imagine how much credibility political parties in Australia deserve. The two-party system in Australia is faltering. If we want to maintain a truly democratic political system we need more transparency from the major parties, though somehow I feel this will not be forthcoming.

Turnbull – The Next Election

Malcolm Turnbull cops a lot of heat. Probably more than most Australian Prime Ministers, perhaps more than he deserves. Turnbull finds himself in a very delicate position. Turnbull is one of the most left leaning politicians in the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party is considered Australia’s conservative party, and rightfully so. The Liberals hold personal liberties in the highest of regard, low taxation as a foundational priority and private rather than public enterprise as a national imperative.

Turnbull’s party are leaning further and further right. This is certainly not a new trend. ‘The right’ has gained political momentum throughout much of Europe and North America, it really is only a matter of time before we feel the same wave here in Australia. It makes political sense if politicians within the conservative party listen to their electorates and begin drifting with the tide. However, this spells eventual trouble for Malcolm Turnbull.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Clive Palmer’s ‘Palmer United Party’ as well as The Liberal Democrats and Katter’s Australian Party are becoming refuges for conservative and ‘right wing’ voters in the Australian electorate. Australia’s conservative party is moving notoriously slowly in response to this trend. Time can only tell how the Liberal Party will respond.

The next 12 months will be telling. The Australian constitution requires there to be an election on or before the 18th of May 2019. I cannot see Australia changing prime ministers before May 18th next year. If the Liberal Party seeks to maintain credibility, then there will be no challenge on Malcolm Turnbull, from within his own party. Though, only time will tell who the prime minister is at the next election.

If Turnbull makes it to the election and leads his party to a third term, then it will show that the Australian electorate is more moderate than it appears to be.

Party Politics: The Great Australian Blight

Federal treasurer Scott Morrison has appointed Michael Brennan as the head of the Productivity Commission. The Productivity Commission’s primary role is to advise government on micro-economic issues, relating to the productivity of the Australian economy. Such micro-economic issues are brought to the commissions attention by the Australian government.

The Productivity Commission prides itself on political and ideological independence. Morrison’s appointment fundamentally calls this claim of independence into question.

Brennan was a former Liberal Party advisor to Liberal Finance Minister Nick Minchin as well as Victorian Liberal Treasurer Kim Wells. Brennan studied at ANU before briefly working for one of the four major accounting firms – PwC.

Brennan’s appointment raises alarm bells, around the independence of governing bodies. A person who has dedicated multiple years of his life to pushing the Liberal Party is expected to forgo all loyalties to the party that helped him reach his current position. It is naïve to think that Brennan would forget where he has come from and who has helped him get here.

Morrison is pushing the Liberal Party’s influence into bodies that ought to be independent. Over 250 years ago the French philosopher, Montesquieu, considered the importance of separating powers that are present within society. Specifically, he advocated for the separation of the executive, judicial and legislative. In the 21st century, we can add a fourth power, lobbying and advisory groups.

The executive generally refers to the head of state, the judicial to the courts and the legislative to the elected parliament. Lobbying and advisory groups refer to precisely what they are: groups that seek to influence political decision making based upon private rationale.

It is important to recognise that the Australian legislative body is dominated by two realities. First, by party politics. Second, by politicians with allegiances to political parties. It is worrying that the legislative body has the capacity to instate advisory bodies that foundationally share ideological goals. Yet more worrisome is that the Productivity Commission will be tasked with monitoring the government’s economic behaviour. If a government and its commissioner share ideology, then regulation becomes unlikely and somewhat pointless.

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