Passing Bull 224 – Dismissive labels

 

Some labels are so dangerously large that they risk begging the whole question.

Robert E Lee had sworn allegiance to the United States.  But he was also loyal to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Was standing aside the proper thing to do?  No – Lee felt – felt, not thought – that he had to take sides.  He allowed his son to make up his own mind.  Lee was appalled at the thought of the North ‘invading’ – yes, invading – his home state.  Well, Abraham Lincoln had sworn to defend and preserve the Union.  That meant applying federal force to stop secession.  If police come with a warrant to arrest me at home, I do not speak of being ‘invaded’.  That would sound silly.  Did southern states have the right to secede?  That was what the whole bloody war was about.  About 600,000 good young men died in that war.  God only knows how much smaller that number may have been if Lee had followed his oath – or just stayed out of it.

The Polish government wants to legislate against its Supreme Court engaging in ‘political conduct.’  This may remind you of those who criticised the U K Supreme Court for doing just that.  What else is to be expected of the highest court in a nation that at least professes to follow the rule of law?  And who, pray, will decide the issue of whether the court has involved itself in such conduct, and whether the prohibition is lawful?  Hitler did not blush – but he was seeking to destroy Europe, not be part of it.

Much of this kind of scattergun appears to be the response of Republicans to the impeachment process.  Look stern, spit out a dirty word, and Bob’s your uncle.  They remind me of soldiers firing a mortar – but rather than looking away and holding their ears, they block their eyes, ears and nose.  They had lost their conscience when they sold out.

Bloopers

‘The overwhelming reaction from our team, for our customers and shareholders has been positive affirmation for the way the company has behaved.’  Woolworths CEO on short paying workers $300 million.

Australian Financial Review, 17 December, 2019

Bullshit for our time – for all time.  What are the colours of the jersey of this ‘team’?  When will see a major corporate confess to the ASX that it has overpaid its workers?  When next John the Baptist plays full back for Mecca and the Sultan plays full forward for Jerusalem.

Here and there -The Decline and Fall of Faith and Confidence

 

The Nurse does not know Romeo, but she says to him ‘If you be he, sir, I desire come confidence with you’.  She will confide in him – that is, she will place faith (fides), reliance, and trust in him.  She will trust him to keep what she says to himself, except to the extent that she may permit.  This is the kind of communication that passes between you and your lawyer, priest or doctor, and in varying degrees the law will back you up without your having to expressly stipulate that what you are saying is confidential.

If Romeo accepts the condition of the Nurse, she may have more or less confidence that he will respect her wishes.  She may be confident, to a greater or lesser degree since she does not know this youth at all, that her faith will be respected.  But, by definition, nothing about faith is ever certain.

When, in Othello, worried nobles are speculating on the designs of their Turkish enemy, the Duke says ‘Nay, in all confidence, he’s not for Rhodes’, he could be using the phrase in either of the meanings that we have just seen.  And you do not have to be a philosopher to know that you can hardly warrant any prediction about the future – let alone predict the conduct of any one of us.

The English have led the way in developing our basic model of democratic government.  At times – say, in about 1215, 1535, 1641, and 1689 – they have displayed what might fairly be called genius in shaping their constitution.  As with a lot of geniuses, you think that the answer is obvious once you have seen it – but it took them to unveil it.

At the height of their conflict with King Charles I, the Commons in 1641 passed what they called the Grand Remonstrance.  As slaps in the face go, this one was pretty loud.  Nor was it short.  In clause 197, they expressed the wish that the king should employ only such counsellors (ministers) as ‘the Parliament may have cause to confide in’ without which ‘we cannot give His Majesty such supplies for support of his own estate….’  Shortly after this, and after a stern tongue lashing from his Latin wife, Charles Stuart, as he would come to be called, lost his head, metaphorically, and sought in person to arrest his leading opponents, including the main author of the Remonstrance, in the Parliament itself – leading to a course of events where his stubborn blindness would lead to his physically losing his head at the edge of an axe.

Macaulay was always honest about what side he was on in this long battle that became a war.

In support of this opinion [the felt need of the Commons to tread softly with the King], many plausible arguments have been used.  But to all these arguments, there is one short answer.  The King could not be trusted.

The sentiment expressed in clause 197 is the keystone of responsible government that was settled by the Declaration of Rights in 1689.  It is typical of the English that what started its juristic life as a throwaway line in an instrument of dubious provenance soon became a pillar of ageless, hard law that only an inane anarchist could seek to fiddle with.  If you mention this to an English lawyer or historian, you will get a wry smile and something like: ‘Winners are grinners – the rest make their own arrangements’.

Well, they are no longer grinning – not even the winners.  Across too much of the western world, too many people have lost faith and confidence in their system of government in general, and those holding office from time to time.

Now in my eighth decade, I can sense that this has been going on slowly in Australia through most of that time, but the acceleration across the West since the Great Financial has been too hard to miss.  And the collapse of public decency in the U S and U K in the last few years has been shocking.  Have we then built our house on sand?

Those in government should not feel unfairly singled out.  Very few people have confidence in what Ibsen called the pillars of society.  Churches, trading corporations, charities, trade unions, employer groups, the professions, schools and universities (especially those lumbered with that weasel sobriquet ‘elite’), the press, sporting teams, the professions, the rich – yes, especially the filthy rich – and even the poor bloody poor and refugees are all on the nose with at least some people for one reason or another – with more reason in some cases than in others.

And as we draw further back from God and his Church, we search in vain for any kind of bedrock.  Instead we are left with a revoltingly insipid moral relativity and an even more revoltingly spineless absence of anything like leadership.  The picture is not pretty.

Even the law recognises and seeks to enforce obligations of confidence in some relations – such as partners, husband and wife, directors and shareholders, trustees, and holders of office of public trust – like Ministers of the Crown.

The President of the United States presently stands accused of breaching his office of public trust by seeking to abuse that office to obtain a personal benefit.  The essential evidence is not in dispute.  It is for the most part uncontradicted.  Nor is the allegation of breach of trust fairly answerable on that evidence.  The only question is whether that breach of trust warrants a finding that the President be removed from office.

But it looks like that process will miscarry because those charged with making that decision will commit one of the sins or failures that have brought us to this pass – they will put the interests of party over those of the nation.  And in doing so, they will not see that they are committing a wrong just like that of the man they are protecting.  And too many of them will do that because they are just plain scared of him.  Our brave ancestors who stood up to King Charles I, and who prevailed over him to our lasting benefit, would be worse than disgusted.  As would those in the American colonies who stood up to King George III and his Ministers, and who then fought and defeated his army.

As a result of the doctrine espoused in the Grand Remonstrance, our government must resign if it loses the confidence of parliament.  Can our system survive if so many people have lost confidence in it?  Before looking at what Lord Sumption says about this in his book on the Reith Lectures, we might notice some of the reasons for the fall of faith and confidence in government.

We have sat by for decades watching them let the Westminster system fail through neglect.  Government has been unable to check a shocking inequality in income and wealth that undermines faith in the only ideology in town – capitalism.  There is something inherently unreasonable and unfair going on.  There is a continuing and self-perpetuating decline in the character of people going into government – and people make money by talking with or about the worst of them.

‘Populists’ – a dreadful word – like Trump and Johnson were born to put themselves first, to discard custom and convention, to put party above the nation, and to betray all trust.  They also wallow in that tribalism that demeans all process, and all logic.  Each of them is obviously a charlatan; one is also a thug; both are bullies.  And we have apparently botched the education of a sufficient number of people to allow such people to get away with it.  And the longer they are there, the more that any trust just evaporates.

Trump and Johnson also are champions of the 100% vae victis rule.  (In Kenya, it is called: ‘It’s our turn at the table.’)  This is part of the collapse of moderation and the prevalence of tribalism.  All this is causing parties to forget their function, and is opening up the system to be gamed by minor parties, cranks and crooks.  The result is even more unattractive.

This is happening at a time when the internet is destroying minds, civility, security and privacy.  Its filthy rich drivers are seen as public enemies that our governments are too gutless or inept to control.  Just as they have failed to nail those crooks who fleece us and pay no tax.  Technology is also seen to destroy jobs.  The absurd bonuses of directors may be conditioned on sacking people.  Too few share in the wealth created by sending jobs overseas.  Too few went to jail for crimes committed in the GFC that nearly put the West on its knees.  The cries of envy and for revenge are matched by heightened credibility, and the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories are aided by people in the press who have no sense of decency, much less professional obligation.

The intellectual problem may be simply stated.  Too many people cannot tolerate uncertainty or doubt.  They crave the answer – which is both delusional and dangerous – and a sponsored response that they can hide behind.  This is how Edward Gibbon described the effect of a new faith on old beliefs.

The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of human kind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation.  A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude, that if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision.  Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favored the establishment of Polytheism.  So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition. 

You could get into serious trouble for saying any of that now – in part because this is a sin for which truth provides no defence.  But if you doubt it, just look at the crowd at a Trump rally or any advertisement put out by Farage.

Sectarian division has been replaced by generational schism.  Technology has made that worse too.  The young are jealous and frustrated, but we that are left worked hard and paid our taxes and we expect a return.  It’s not our fault that life was simpler and better in our flowering time – nor is it our fault that science means that we will live longer and so probably delay or wipe out any devolution.  Nor do we think that it’s our fault that people commit mayhem on the laws of language and logic.  But the sense of betrayal on climate and housing is palpable and warranted in whole generation that finds itself lost.

And our sense of family is almost travelling as badly as our feeling for religion.

Fifty years ago in this country, all the political nuts and crooks were on the side of labour.  They are all now on the side of capital.  This is in no small part due to our failure to develop a decent conservative press.  Instead, that ground is falsely claimed by unreformed Liberal Party hacks, deranged cadres from right wing think tanks, and regressive relics of a repressive sectarian faith.  And for good measure they forfeit any claim to professionalism by going after the ABC with malice fuelled by the lucre and envy of a vengeful feudal owner.  We have to face it – Murdoch is now doing to Australia what he has been doing to America.

The wilful inanity of soi disant conservatives in Australia about climate change makes it hard to resist the impression that they have been bought – which is certainly the case for at least one think tank.

Nationalism is a poll-booster that appeals to those who are jealous of their citizenship, because they think they have so little else – but it always comes with resentment and scapegoats; it is the seed of bad wars; and both get very ugly when it mixes with religion.

And people who abuse ‘elites’ because they – the members of the elite – think they know better, just fail to see that they – the critics – indulge in the same sin.  And their touchiness about inferiority and insecurity gets hilarious results with ‘experts’ – unless they themselves are on the line, in which case they will prostrate themselves before their superior.

We have rediscovered the simple truth of a democracy based on two parties – the standard of governance is only as good as the opposition.  In the U S, the U K, and Australia, dreadful people have succeeded only because the reluctant electorate could not stomach the alternative.  Each now has a leader that too many neither trust nor respect – and each has succumbed to the view that they are there on merit.

My arrival on this earth came just after the end of a war that we did not look for, but which we had to win.  We had fought bravely, and we as a nation walked tall.  We were entitled to do so.  The nation blossomed in my youth, even though its political process had been sterilised.  The whole world lay before us.

Now, as I slip back toward my ancestors and my dog, I will leave a nation whose government has at least twice led us into wars based on false premises.  As a result, we and the nations that we fought over were worse off.  There can be no more fundamental breach of trust by a government than to lead its people into war on the basis of a falsehood – and the breach is so much worse if the government knew or ought to have known that it was not telling the truth.

We at last worked up the courage and common courtesy to apologise to our first nations for the way we took over their land and for what we did to them.  I have not heard any apology from anyone in government for our bad wars.  Instead, the politician who most owes us an apology refused to join in the apology to the blackfellas.  How do you place any confidence in people who behave like that to you?

They are some of our present discontents.

In Trials of the State, Lord Sumption says:

Fundamentally, we obey the state because we respect the legitimacy of the political order on which it is founded.  Legitimacy is a vital but elusive concept in human affairs.  Legitimacy is less than law but more than opinion.  It is a collective instinct that we owe it to each other to accept the authority of our institutions, even when we do not like what they are doing.  This depends on an unspoken sense that we are [all] in it together…..legitimacy is still the basis of all consent.  For all its power the modern state depends on a large measure of tacit consent…..

The legitimacy of state action in a democracy depends on a general acceptance of its decision-making processes…..Democracies operate on the implicit basis that although the majority has authorised policies which the minority rejects, these differences are transcended by their common acceptance of the legitimacy of its decision-making processes….Majority rule is the basic principle of democracy.  But that only means that a majority is enough to authorise the state’s acts.  It is not enough to make them legitimate….Democracies cannot operate on the basis that a bare majority takes 100% of the political spoils.

The notions of legitimacy and tacit consent are hard to nail down, but our law was founded on custom and our politics depend on conventions.  My own view is that ultimately the rule of law depends on little more than a state of mind.  I wonder now whether the same does not hold for our whole system of government.

We are looking for an implied premise of reasonableness or moderation.  Our law says that the parties to an agreement are obliged to try to help each other get what they have promised.  At the very least, they must not take steps to abort the deal.  So, if I promise to do something if I get a permit, and I change my mind, and try to stop the issue of the permit, the law will deal with me.

Let us look at a political analogy.  The Republicans defied convention by blocking President Obama’s appointment of a Supreme Court justice, which is seen to be a huge political prize in the U S (especially by those puritans who avert their gaze and hold their nose to vote for Trump).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of putting a spoke in the wheel.  But that was to stop Hitler.  The Republicans now put spokes in the wheel of the United States.  And now Trump is repeating the dose by shutting down the WTO by stopping new appointments.  This is another bad faith breach of convention for short term political gain.

Lord Sumption says that it is not enough for a law to be ‘good’ – the public must in some sense ‘own’ the law.  ‘Law must have the legitimacy which only some process of consent can confer.’  This gets hard when we look at the failure of the public to engage in the process.  This in his view is the problem.  It is the same here.  Few people now wish to join a political party, and not many members of parties are that keen to talk about it – except with insiders.  There is a sense of estrangement – and ‘wholesale rejection.’  Confidence is gone.

I entirely agree that formulating a new constitution or trying to get judges to fix the problem is not the answer.  I also agree that one reason the Americans are so tied up on abortion is that the law is judge made – so that they vote for people as president who will appoint judges to change that law.  It would be hard to conceive of a more twisted perversion of the separation of powers.

As to legislating in a binding constitutional manner for human rights and conventions, look at what a mess we have made of company law by overlaying the broad teaching of equity with vast volumes of black letter law.  And then recall that recently a government that calls itself conservative thought that the answer was to scrap equity for that purpose – and for the relief of their friends in business who had lobbied them so frenziedly (quite possibly with the well-endowed aid of a few former ministers of that party).  And that is the same party that goes into reverse cartwheels at the mere mention of investigating federal corruption.

The author says:

On critical issues, our political culture has lost the capacity to identify common premises, common bonds and common priorities that stand above our differences.

He quotes an American judge who said ‘a society so riven that the spirit of moderation has gone, no court can save.’  All that is as true for us as it is for England and America.  Disraeli – ‘perhaps the only true genius ever to rise to the top of British politics’ – said the problem with England was ‘the decline of its character as a community.’

That sense of community is vital.  Like ‘confidence’, the word ‘commune’ has a very long history – on both sides of the Channel.  In the enforcement clause in Magna Carta, the barons reserved a right to go against a defaulting king ‘with the whole commune’.  The great French historian Marc Bloch said:

….by substituting for the promise of obedience, paid for by protection, they contributed to the social life of Europe, profoundly alien to the feudal spirit properly so called.

The commune exploded in France in 1792 and 1869.  For better or worse, you can see its descendants today in gillets jaunes. 

When an Englishman was arraigned in court to be tried a jury, the jury would be told that the accused ‘has put himself upon his country, which country you are.’  That is a very stirring phrase.  The jury was originally brought over by the Normans as an inquiry made of neighbours – that is, the local community having an interest in the relevant inquiry.  The first medieval reports of cases might refer to the pleadings and then just say: ‘Issue to the country.’

Lord Sumption goes on:

…..experience counts for a great deal in human affairs: more than rationality, more even than beauty.  Ultimately, the habits, traditions and attitudes of human communities are more powerful than law.  Indeed they are the foundation of law.

Oliver Wendell Holmes might have said that.

These notions are large, but we must deal with them.  Lord Sumption fears that we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes.    I wonder whether we will go down like the way Gibbon saw the Roman Empire go down.

….as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.  The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.

You know things are sick when a fat, ugly seventy-three year old man, who happens to be the President of the United States, bullies a sixteen year old Swedish girl on the absurdly named ‘social media’ for giving voice to the sense of betrayal of her generation.

I’m not sorry that I will not be here to see the end of it all.

Postscript

In Chapter 3 of his History of England, Macaulay experienced something like an epiphany on how we see our ups and downs.

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana. We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man. And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Passing Bull 223 – A weekend riot

 

The weekend press was alive with the sound of bullshit.

Simon Benson gave one of his paper’s encomiums on the Mayor of Box Hill (aka ScoMo) in the lead article on page 1.

On the same page, Dennis Shanahan reported, exclusively, that the drought boss wants to keep politics out of the discussion of drought.  Since that paper eschews discussion of science and drought, what is there left?  And what logic led a senior civil servant to conclude that giving a first page exclusive to the Murdoch press on the subject of drought was a good way to keep politics out of the discussion?

On the front page of the Inquirer, Simon Benson returned to his paean upon the Mayor.  He thinks it’s a good idea that the Ministers choose civil servants that they get on with.  Some unfortunate person actually used the term ‘drain the swamp.’

Paul Kelly ponders.  There is a word for that.

Chris Kenny goes into bat for the accident prone Angus Taylor – with all the set trimmings about the ‘green left’ and the ‘love media.’  ‘Childish’ would be unduly complimentary.  The opening is out of this world.

The impeachment circus plays out in Washington as the resistance tries yet again to tear down Donald Trump as he dismisses the charade as ‘bullshit.’

It is as if popularity is a complete defence for a populist.  For at least six years, Adolf Hitler must have been the darling of this kind of observer.

Janet Albrechtsen matches Kenny.  Her piece is headed ‘Woke hypocrites humiliated as Folaus bask in apology.’  While contemplating a life in exile, as more churches shut their doors.

Gerard Henderson is sniping at a colleague again.  No one on that paper understands what the word ‘professional’ entails.  They are driven from above to attack the ABC.  Mr Henderson starts by saying that what worries him about a Nine report ‘was the absence of doubt.’  Good grief!  Was someone being dogmatic?  Like the jury of a man named Pell?  Or his defenders?

And so it goes, as the man said.

Bloopers

…..it is core religious dogma of all progressives that radical action must be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Activists never level with people that this must mean drastically reduced living standards.  So when inevitably climate action explicitly reduces living standards, the public rebels.

Greg Sheridan, The Weekend Australian, 7-8 December, 2019

Well, not many people like paying tax, but we have to if we want schools, hospitals and armed forces.  There is a process to resolve all that.  It is called government.  And as Sharan Burrow reminds Spanish coal miners in a BBC clip, there are no jobs on a dead planet.

Passing Bull 222 – What is a hoax?

 

The President of the United States trashes everything he touches.  His latest target is the U S Navy.  The Republican fall from grace is complete when its leaders tolerate an attack on their navy – and an attack that may well imperil its members.  The President, of course, does not understand the military.  His cowardice and corruption led him to evade service to his country.

And he does of course trash the English language every time he opens his illiterate mouth.  He says that the impeachment inquiry is a hoax.  What is that?  ‘A humorous or mischievous deception with which the credulity of the victim is imposed upon.’  You get it in commedia dell’arte and the Marx Brothers.  It’s what the merry wives of Windsor did to Falstaff (as had Prince Hal done two plays earlier – Sir John was born to be hoaxed).  It’s what NATO leaders and royals may like to do to President Trump, but they presently content themselves with laughing at him behind his back.

But whatever else the impeachment process is, it is not a hoax or any other form of joke.  The fact that this oaf can make that claim shows what in my view is the main ground for his impeachment – the man simply has no idea of the duties that come with his office: he is quite unable to see, much less accept, that he has committed a great wrong.

His other response is his general fall back – witch hunt.  According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, this is in political usage ‘the searching out and exposure of opponents alleged to be disloyal to the State, often amounting to persecution.’  Now, whenever someone in authority criticises Trump, the spoiled child in him – and there is not much else – says he is being persecuted.  But that delusion is not enough to create a witch hunt.  It is also true that about six people close to Trump are in jail for conduct in or arising from his election, but that does not mean that there is a witch hunt, any more than that the Nuremberg trials were a witch hunt.

The people of Salem knew what a witch hunt was.  So did McCarthy, and his pet lieutenant, a B grade actor named Ronald Reagan.  So did the Australian government that spent a fortune of our money over about a decade pursuing John Elliott and associates for party political purposes and no result.  But that was nothing like what is going on in Washington at the moment.

Speaking of the NATO shambles, have you noticed that whenever Trump meets a world leader who is smarter than him – that is, any other world leader – he looks ‘alone and palely loitering’ – with his head down and his hands between his knees, in his ludicrously predictable attire, which he is incapable of doing up, like an estranged ourangatang who has been force fed in the jungle on industrial strength Prozac?

As for witch hunts, I like the remark that an English judge passed a long time before the English started settling here – there is no law against flying.

Bloopers

‘He’s still very young in his Test career,’ said Chris Silverwood, the head coach, after stumps.  ‘Jofra’s learning about himself and the game of Test cricket. And, equally, Joe is learning to captain him as well. From a holistic point of view we’re growing together, really.’

The Guardian, 23 November, 2019

Contributions to the pre-conference blog claimed ecosystems could be a silver bullet, they ought to have a value chain — or possibly even be part of one — they should be ‘leveraged’ to ‘maximise value and achieve competitive advantage’ or ‘populated with new addressable customers’. ‘If you orchestrate it and tie the ecosystem on to a platform, you’re really resolving the customer problem holistically,’ enthused one panellist.

Financial Times, 3 December, 2019

Even for addressable customers in Byron Bay, ‘holistic’ is a rock solid guarantee of bullshit of Himalayan proportions.

Passing Bull 221 – Warped minds at Westpac

 

Some of the folks at Westpac remind me of Messrs Trump and Giuliani on their shakedown of the erstwhile comedian who is now the President of the Ukraine.  (Have you noticed this tendency of comedians to go into politics to lead their country?  It says a lot about the other clowns.)  They cannot see that they have done anything wrong.

The Chairman, Mr Maxsted, says that ‘we have not seen anything that is case for his [Mr Hartzer, the CEO] dismissal.’  That is presumably some kind of opinion on the options of the company at law.  If he is right, he may wish to have a chat with the lawyers who wrote the relevant employment agreement.  If presiding over years of a course of conduct that brings the bank into disrepute, if not contempt, does not allow the bank to fire the massively overpaid CEO for failing to discharge his office, then the bank is in more trouble than we thought.

Then Mr Maxsted is reported to have gone from expressing what looks to be a legal opinion to expressing what looks to be a commercial judgment.  ‘He qualified that by saying he was yet to meet with some large shareholders and that could change ‘if there isn’t investor support’ for Mr Hartzer.’

Just who is running this bank – the board or a coterie of large shareholders and investors?  As a small shareholder, I have some interest in that question.  Is corporate governance like our political governance – just a crude numbers’ game bereft of merit?

Mr Hartzer says he accepts responsibility?  ‘As CEO I’m ultimately responsible in the chain of command for everything that happens in this company.’  How can he say that while retaining the office that he has failed to fulfil?

Mr Maxsted says: ‘We accept that we have fallen short of both our own regulators’ standards and are determined to get all the facts and assess accountability.’  ‘Accountable’ is even more weasel than ‘responsible’ – they just get overpaid spinners in to do that.

But in any event, it looks like Mr Maxsted is saying that as presently advised he does not have enough facts to ‘assess accountability.’  This is what is called the Volkswagen dilemma – the directors either knew or ought to have known what was happening for years in the company whose business they manage.  And we might hope that Mr Maxsted has not forgotten that the courts may have their answers to the questions that now pain him so much.  And thank heaven for that.

The well-known line of Horatio comes to mind.  ‘Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’

Bloopers

Mr Henry Herzog of East St Kilda may or may not have a different view of the world to me, but I enjoy his letters to The Age.  That of today is a pearler.

I’m taking the Morrison approach: Since my contribution to the Good Friday appeal is less than 1 per cent of the total raised, there’s no point in giving.

Truly, it looks as if Mr Maxsted shares the mystical capacity of Mr Morrison to switch trams in the middle of nowhere – say, just outside the Birdsville pub.  The capacity of our P M for inanity is transcendental.  Like the time he bore coal in the parliament; or, even better, the times he said we did not need a royal commission into banks because there was an honest cop on the beat.  From Keystone.

Passing Bull 220 – It takes two to Tango

 

Opinions might vary about whether governance in Australia is as bad as it now is in England or America, but one thing is clear – especially to Australian baby boomers.  For much of the fifties and sixties, Australia was consigned to a form of one party rule because the unelectability of one party made the election of the other party almost inevitable.  The simple truth is that in a two party democracy, governance is only as good as the opposition to the government.

We suffered no great harm in the fifties or sixties because the ruling party practised a soft version of ‘liberalism’ – a benign Tory paternalism – that it combined with agrarian socialism, and the nation was on the up in a quiet phase after two world wars.  The downside was that the cosiness to the Mother Country and royalty left us tugging our forelocks like far away colonials and killed off any movement toward independence.

That relative immunity is not the case now in England or America.  Trump got elected because of the weakness of his opponent.  Johnson may be re-elected for the same reason.  And so might Trump.  Each has done all he can to show that he is entirely unfit for office, but each stays in place because the alternative is so unattractive and inept.  In England, minor parties are scrambling to get ‘Never Johnson – or Corbyn’, and in America, something like panic may induce a billionaire to try to buy a nomination.  It reminds you of the time in the Roman Empire when they put the purple up for auction.

Our current government is hardly any better.  It did all it could to deserve losing office, but it now looks clear that it is still there because the alternative was unelectable.  Sections of the press still chortle over this – even though their preferred man did not get the job – but for those of us who are not tied to either major party, and who are at best cool about the whole lot of them, the result is a very sad failure of governance.

We are left with a prime minister who could be a useful Mayor of Box Hill, but who is way out of his depth in his present office.  He made his name sending armed forces against unarmed refugees; he hugged coal in Parliament; he defended the indefensible in the banks; and he subscribes to one of those evangelical sects of holy rollers that are disembowelling American politics.  The best that could ever be said of this man is that he is Australian mediocrity made visible.  And in the name of God, we know all about mediocrity down here.  It’s what we have aspired to since the English first opened their jail here at Botany Bay.

Can anyone think of a way to ‘impeach’ an opposition party?  If you look around the world, democracy is in trouble everywhere, and disenchanting those coming after us.  New Zealand looks OK, but even Germany and the Scandinavian nations are showing signs of stress.

Democracy, too, may hang on, again for the want of a better alternative, but it is hard to resist the impression that we are on the cusp of lasting change, and the question then becomes whether we will get it by evolution or revolution.

Bloopers

Perhaps because so many on the left were in some measure compromised in their attitude to communism, and the left dominates cultural production in the West, the crimes of communism go substantially unmourned and the heroes of anti-communism are never afforded heroic status.

The Weekend Australian, 9-10 November, 2019, Greg Sheridan.

It is sad in 2019 to see a man viewing the world through a sectarian prism of 1959, but Mr Sheridan gives the Pope some of the credit for the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  As he does with Ronald Reagan.  It is curious to see commentators of that ilk give any credit to human agents for the death of communism in Europe when they are committed by their ideology to the conclusion that communism was doomed to death by the iron laws of economics.

Can anyone think of a way to impeach the press?

Passing Bull 217 – Hearsay

 

Passing on what others say is called gossip.  Donald Trump is addicted to it.

‘They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based,’ the president said.

‘CrowdStrike?’ the surprised reporter asked, referring to the California cybersecurity company that investigated how Russian government hackers had stolen and leaked Democratic emails, disrupting Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

‘That’s what I heard,’ Mr. Trump resumed. ‘I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian; that’s what I heard.’

More than two years later, Mr. Trump was still holding on to this false conspiracy theory. (The Guardian, 5 October, 2019)

That’s right, Trump said four times that he had heard something.  Hearsay.

It’s therefore odd to see his loyal lieutenants in the Senate condemning a whistleblower statement as hearsay.  (As it happens, it is far more literate than anything Trump has said – ever.)

It is hard for some – including me – to understand what the whistleblower added to the White House record of the now famous telephone call.  But it is wholly absurd to suggest that the business of government could only be conducted according to the laws that govern what a witness in court might lawfully say in giving evidence.  You cannot, if objection is taken, tender a statement by a witness that another person told him he saw Bob shoot the deceased as evidence of the truth of that assertion made out of court.

But we, including government, all the time act on the basis of the truth of what we are told by others.  For example, it is only hearsay that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

Imagine this.  The head of the FBI rings the President to tell him that he has a credible source saying that terrorists are intent on blowing up the White House and killing the President and five world leaders – and the President responds by saying that he is not accustomed to acting on mere hearsay.

And yet – some parts of the infamous base continue to lap up this nonsense.

Bloopers
If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,’ Mr Trump tweeted — sending the Turkish lira down 2 per cent.

Financial Times, 8 October, 2019.

He added he had done it before.

Passing Bull 216 – Malicious allegations

 

There is plenty of malice about in London and Washington.  Canberra has always showed some infection.  Politics involves contests, and they can get dirty.

If I see someone disposing of litter illegally, I would not normally be disposed to do much about – in despite of those road signs inviting me to snitch.  But if I saw someone I really had it in for doing it, I might be disposed to dob him in.  My motive would not be to help the law keep the place tidy, but to hurt my enemy.  I would be acting maliciously.  But that says nothing about the worth of the allegation itself.

If the evidence shows a breach of the law, then my motive for setting the law in action is irrelevant.  Socrates ran this argument – and paid the price.  (The law does know of a wrong called ‘malicious prosecution,’ but we can put that to one side.  It is, like ‘conspiracy’, a kind of fool’s gold invoked by silly people who have crawled out of the lions’ den, and want to go back for more.)

Consider then the following.

‘Allegations have been brought to the attention of the monitoring officer that Boris Johnson maintained a friendship with Jennifer Arcuri and as a result of that friendship allowed Ms Arcuri to participate in trade missions and receive sponsorship monies in circumstances when she and her companies could not have expected otherwise to receive those benefits,’ a GLA statement said.

Theresa Villiers, environment secretary, said the allegations were politically motivated. Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Saturday morning, she said: ‘I think this whole thing has been blown out of all proportion’.  (Financial Times, 29 September, 2019)

This is serious bullshit.  There is not even an allegation of malice.  The motivation is ‘political’.  What other motivation would there be for a political act?  Impeachment is a political act.  Does that mean its invocation is necessarily flawed?

Yet, on the weekend journalists who know nothing of the law lined up to criticize the U K Supreme Court for making a decision in a ‘political matter.’  If a government could avoid scrutiny by the courts just by saying ‘political’, you could kiss good bye to administrative law and indeed the rule of law.

Still, the erstwhile associate of the Prime Minister was up to it.

In a statement last week, Ms Arcuri said: ‘Any grants received by my companies and any trade mission I joined were purely in respect of my role as a legitimate businesswoman.’ (Financial Times, 3o September, 2019)

I wonder why the lady felt the need to qualify the final noun in that way – or at all.  Of course the transaction was merely commercial.

Bloopers

The idea that Trump’s conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart justifies this [impeachment], uniquely in the annals of all US presidential history, is utterly ridiculous.

The Saturday Australian, 28-29 September, 2019, Greg Sheridan.

Mr Sheridan evidently shares the inability of Mr Trump to perceive that the abuse of a public office for personal gain is a serious breach of the duty of good faith.  You wonder whether some had the same view of the priesthood.  You also wonder what Mr Trump has on Mr Murdoch.  But, then, Mr Sheridan was one of those getting into British judges.  That suited his current songbook.

Passing Bull 215 –Business and politics

 

If you have lived in a small country town, you know how important it is for people who run a business in that town – such as a pub or general store – to get on with and relate to the other people in the town.  They need to be seen actively to support the town.  People in bigger companies – such as BHP, ANZ, CSL or Westfarmers – have come to the view that the same goes for them and the people of Australia.  These companies – and their employees – want to get on with and relate to other Australians.  The Round Table Conference in the U S and the Financial Times in the U K have both confirmed a shift in big business away from confining itself to the bottom line.  So do those who run MBAs. 

The FT had a note about BHP and its legal counsel.

BHP was among the companies named in an investigation begun by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines in 2015, into whether fossil fuel groups have violated human rights by causing climate change. The company formally severed ties with the World Coal Association last year, after Australian green groups urged it to quit industry lobby groups whose policies did not match the miner’s support for the Paris climate agreement. Ms Cox says climate change is high on her team’s agenda because the company knows its long-term sustainability depends on support from investors, regulators and the broader society. ‘We need the support of our communities in order to be successful’, she says.

The operative phrase there is that ‘the company knows its long-term sustainability depends on support from investors, regulators and the broader society.’ Shareholders allow a lot of money to go to directors and management to secure the long-term sustainability of the company  – they are put there to do just that, and not just try to get a good next half-year profit statement and dividend.

It is surprising, then, to find people saying that companies like BHP have gone too far in their social outreach.  It is doubly surprising for at least three reasons.  Most of the people making these claims come from politics, the press or think tanks and they have no idea on how to run a business – because they never have.  But they are usually those who shout most loudly about freedom of speech and religion – but not freedom of companies to run their business as they and their shareholders see fit.  And these critics are looking for the short-term view and narrow focus that so disfigures our public life.

In How Markets Fail, John Cassidy said that ‘Economics, when you strip away the guff and mathematical sophistry, is largely about incentives.’  He then discussed the venom injected into our commercial life by executives being paid, say, 100 times the pay of their employees.  He said: ‘In banking, the CEO incentive problem is even more severe than in other industries.’  That was nearly ten years before our royal commission into that industry painfully showed how fine is the distinction between ‘incentive’ and ‘bribe’.

I only invest in companies whose management I trust to maintain their long term sustainability.   For me, BHP is the exemplar – in large part because of the conduct that attracts adverse comment of the kind I have referred to.  I have no interest in investing in a company that is only interested in financial returns to shareholders and that takes no interest in the public costs of its business. 

It is downright silly for people who have never run a business to be offering advice on that subject to people who do.  But, then, we have a government that occasionally calls itself conservative that makes laws that will enable it to dismantle businesses it does not like.  And a government that will empower its agent, the tax man, to snitch on those citizens who are managing their super fund in a way that the government does not like.  The want of reason is at least consistent.

Bloopers

No other US president has faced the prospect of being re-elected or going to jail. Whether a defeated Mr Trump would actually be prosecuted — by the Southern District of New York, for example, and for any number of alleged crimes — is immaterial. All that matters is whether Mr Trump believes he could face jail. To judge by Mr Trump’s words and actions, he considers victory in next year’s election to be an existential necessity.

Financial Times, 13 September, 2019

We may have hoped that the FT was above transcendental bullshit like ‘existential’ – either with ‘necessity,’ or at all.

Passing Bull 214 – Economics and Voodoo

 

How Markets Fail by John Cassidy (2009) is as instructive as it is readable.  On reading it again, I was struck by how evangelical many leading economists are.  They assemble in platoons preaching ideology masquerading as science.  One economist said of Hayek: ‘This kind of writing is not scholarship.  It is seeing hobgoblins under every bed.’  Friedman was the ultimate evangelist.  He could rewrite history to suit his program – he taught that the depression was not caused by market failure but by government failure. 

In 2003, one of Friedman’s successors said that macroeconomics had succeeded in solving the central problem of depression-prevention.  He reminded me of the heart surgeon who said of my chest pain that whatever its cause, it would not kill me.  Six months later, it bloody nearly did just that – because I had delayed in reporting to casualty for hours relying on his advice.  It was, as his Grace the Duke of Wellington observed, a damned close run thing.  So was the Great Financial Crisis – another painful case of a pretty syllogism broken by a sad fact.

It is not as if no one saw the GFC coming.  Mr Cassidy reminds us that in 2003, Warren Buffett told his shareholders that ‘In our view…derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction that, while now latent, are potentially lethal.’  But there you go – the Harvard Business School had knocked back Warren Buffett.  Not the right kind of academic aura – like that of Mr Greenspan.

You can therefore imagine my relief when I read:

The economics department of Morgan Stanley…was refusing to hire any economics Ph D’s unless they had experience outside academe.  ‘We insist on at least a three-to-four year cleansing experience to neutralise the brain washing that takes place’…..’Academic  economics has taken a very bad turn in the road’….’It’s very academic, very mathematical, and it really doesn’t – I want to choose my words carefully here: it is nothing like as useful to the business community as it could be.’

Political parties and think tanks should take note.

When Mr Cassidy goes from ‘utopian’ economics to ‘reality based’ economics, we get:

….the essence of utopian economics is that the free market, by generating a set of prices at which firms and consumers equate private costs and private benefits, produces an efficient outcome.  But from the point of view of society, what is needed is a balancing of social costs and social benefits.  Free markets don’t lead to such a balancing….The market fails, and fails in a very specific and predictable sense.

This is not hard to get.  Dealing in cigarettes or alcohol has social costs – that might be met from taxation.  The same goes for dealing in carbon.  The simple thing to do to meet the social cost would be to impose a tax.

But you can’t do that if tax is an ideological blind spot. And if you subscribe to the ultimate dream of utopia – that money grows on trees.  It’s a bit like asking a keen footy fan to explain a Grand Final that his team just narrowly lost.  After the first few words, you can sit back and hear the needle in the groove as the record revolves fixatedly on its own axis until its predetermined end.

Bloopers

In a blunt message to corporate leaders, the Prime Minister told The Australian the government wanted them to step up and focus on discussions that led to better outcomes for workers and their families.  ‘If you want to advance the cause of your employees so they can earn more, there isn’t time for distractions…The most successful businesses are those that focus on that.’

The Australian, 13 September, 2019

This is hilarious beyond belief.  The Minister for Thongs knows nothing at all about business – absolutely nothing – but he feels free to tell business how to run itself – while saying that business has no place in talking about politics – which business has been driven to do because the politicians are so inept.  And this is from a political party that once had aspirations to being ‘conservative,’ but which is now introducing legislation to enable government to intervene at will in what used to be a free market.  Do those galahs really believe that we came down in the last shower?