[Posted at Pearls and Irritations, 20 July 17.]
There is widely perceived to be a gap between our stumbling political system and the wishes of the Australian people. However those who look a little deeper into our Australian hearts see not just a gap but a yawning chasm.
In a 2016 study by social researcher Richard Eckersley, published in Oxford Development Studies, people were asked which of two possible futures came closer to what they expected, and which of the two they preferred.
- Scenario one was ‘a fast paced, internationally competitive society, with emphasis on the individual, wealth generation and enjoying the good life’. Three quarters expected a future along these lines.
- Scenario two was ‘a greener, more stable society, where the emphasis is on cooperation, community and family, more equal distribution of wealth, and greater economic self-sufficiency’. 93% preferred this scenario.”
So the vast majority of us want something very different from what we’re getting.
We used to aspire to something like the second scenario, and we used to be getting closer to it. It was called the fair go. If we were doing it back then, why can’t we do it now?
The answer is that we can do it now. Not by turning the clock back to the 1950s and 60s, the world is a different place now, but by realising we can still be masters of our fate. To do so we have to penetrate the fog of misguided ideas that have led us astray for the past several decades.
The Australia of, let’s say, 1970 was far from perfect but since World War II it had become more diverse, more socially open, much more prosperous, and the prosperity was widely shared. We expected to remain on that path.
But then things went a bit awry. It is said the workers got too greedy and provoked inflation, and there is a bit of truth to that. It is said an irresponsible government made things worse, but in fact Australia was the only developed nation not to experience a recession in the 1970s.
The biggest problem in the 1970s was a series of oil embargoes that quadrupled the price of oil. This raised the cost of making our collective living. Economists who should have known better mis-labelled the resulting price rises as inflation, but it was not simply too much money chasing too few goods.
Most developed nations experienced this ‘inflation’ and a recession simultaneously, and the mainstream economists of the time were flummoxed because that was not supposed to be possible. There was also some real inflation caused when the United States, went off the gold standard and printed money to pay for its war in Vietnam.
What we needed were some correct diagnoses, some wage and price restraint, and some careful management of energy, trade and exchange to get us back on course. What we got was something very different.
Waiting in the wings was a well-funded movement with a very different agenda. Government is bad, they said. We should all be selfish. We should compete through the markets, which will work magic and give us the best of all possible worlds.
Financial markets were deregulated and a business debt binge through the 1980s ended in 1990 in the worst Australian recession since the Great Depression. Further debt-fuelled booms and busts occurred around the world, culminating in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and followed by prolonged recession in most countries and depression in some.
Trade rules were loosened resulting in jobs disappearing overseas and the overriding of local regulations that safeguard our wellbeing. Local industries were undermined. We have less control over our lives. On top of all this pain, growth has been lower and unemployment much higher than in the postwar decades. The great neoliberal experiment has been a resounding failure.
The blame for the many disruptions is commonly placed on globalisation and automation. Well the globalisation was engineered and can be restrained. Automation is nothing new, what is important is how it is managed – do many people lose their jobs or do we all have less work to do?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Despite the best efforts of the coal lobby, for example, coal is losing out to clean energy. We also know how to grow clean, local food. Innovative people are figuring out how to profitably recycle many materials, so we can reduce the quantities we extract from and dump back into the world. If we reverse the many ways wealth is unfairly captured by the few we will be able to afford to give everyone a good living.
The means to re-create the fair go are readily available. There is no magic in this, we just have to cut through a lot of misguided ideology. Not only can we have stronger families and healthier communities, we can nurture a healthy land and mitigate the big global challenges we face.
I suspect that in a couple of hundred years time historians will blame fundamentalist economists for the collapse of the western civilization in much the same way as religious fundamentalist caused the collapse of the Islamic empire.