Passing Bull 119 – Two pieces in the AFR compared


In last Friday’s AFR Laura Tingle, in my view the preeminent political journalist in the country, and John Roskam had pieces on facing pages that had as much in common as clotted cream and Chateau Yquem.  They give insight into the failure of our politicians.

Laura Tingle reports on items in the news and then offers this inference to be drawn from those facts.

Yet increasingly, what is occupying federal politics is the need for the government to step in and correct market failures, or even just the impact of sheer market greed. In other words, the business community has brought any such ‘reregulation’ on its own head.

Apparently unsatisfied with enjoying one of the longest runs of the highest profit shares of GDP in the post-war period, the government’s sense of obligation to act in the financial and energy markets reflects efforts to stop profit gouging in oligopolistic markets that are a testament to the limits of, or policy failures, of deregulation.

If you compare the performance of ASX sectors against similar international indices, it is instructive that the utilities, finance and energy sectors in Australia – all oligopolistic in nature – wildly outperform global figures.

Equally, if you look at indices covering information technology, consumer staples and discretionary spending, and the industrial sector, the performances reflect an underwhelmingly poor comparison, which raises questions about the calibre of our business leaders…..

My colleague Phil Coorey reported earlier this week that the banking industry had noted that the weight of regulation and taxes imposed on banks over the past 18 months was costing shareholders of the big four almost one-quarter of their returns…..

But most of the other imposts complained of by our banking insiders are responses to actual or looming market failures by the banks themselves. And that’s what governments ultimately should be there to correct or address…..

Lose the moral high ground and you soon start to lose all the arguments – something the business community is increasingly finding to its cost.

This is an engaging analysis of what is going wrong for our political and business leaders.  We need this because people have lost faith in all of them and the old labels and dogma are useless.

By contrast, John Roskam begins with a sententious trombone blast of his tribal allegiance.

The refusal to celebrate Australia Day by a handful out of the more than 500 local councils nationwide represents more than just another example of political correctness run amok.

Once you see that weasel term ‘political correctness’, you know that it’s just a matter of time before you will see ‘political’ or ‘media elites’ (or ‘class’) and ‘populism’.  And sure enough, out they pop.  Those labels are worse than useless.  They are bolt-holes for the intellectually lazy.  Mr Roskam may be aware of this because he refers to some brand new labels invented by a former director of an English ‘centre-left think tank’ – ‘Anywheres and Everywheres’.

Most Anywheres are comfortable with immigration, European integration and the spread of human rights legislation, all of which tend to dilute the claims of national citizenship.

Anywheres are likely to be highly educated with professional jobs who have a commitment to notions of mobility and novelty and who place less emphasis on ‘identity, tradition and national social contracts [faith, flag and family]’.

Somewheres are more rooted and usually have ‘ascribed’ identities – Scottish farmer, working-class Geordie, Cornish housewife – based on group belonging and particular places, which is why they often find rapid change more unsettling.

A ‘populist’ backlash against ‘elites’ was inevitable. In a democracy it is unsustainable for the interests of the Somewheres to be ignored as they’ve been. Goodhart has a nice summation of populism: ‘If there is a single idea that unites almost all variants it is that the interests of the virtuous, decent people and corrupt, liberal elites are fundamentally opposed.’

What is the point of any of all this abstraction and labelling?  As if to acknowledge the problem, Mr Roskam quotes his source as saying that three bodies have a common emotionless analytical style – ‘corporations, think tanks, consulting firms’.  What nonsense.

Well, Messrs. Roskam and Goodhart remind us with their nice summation of what a weasel word ‘populism’ is.  We might wonder at the differences between ‘decent people’ and ‘liberal elites’, whoever might wash up under those brollies, but it is hardly surprising if there is some opposition between the ‘virtuous’ and the ‘corrupt’- presumably, the good guys and the bad guys, the white hats and the black hats.  And the whole house of cards wobbles over a myth.  This is soul-stirring bullshit.

(It is interesting to learn that some people still use the word ‘virtuous’, although we may be forgiven for doubting if many followers of Hanson, Farage or Trump are addicted to it.  Robespierre, the ultimate terrorist, was very fond of the word ‘virtue’, and that was part of the reason that he lost his head.)

As best as I can follow Mr Roskam’s drift, it is that because the natives are restless, we should lower our sights and our standards.  That seems to me to be the very problem that afflicts both our political and business worlds, so I’m unsure if that is what Mr Roskam had in mind.

Poet of the month: Emily Dickinson

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—

That perches in the soul—

And sings the tune without the words—

And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—

And sore must be the storm—

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—

And on the strangest Sea—

Yet, never, in Extremity,

It asked a crumb—of Me.

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