Wednesday, October 03, 2012

People, groups & that pervading sense of pessimism

One of the interesting side issues this time of the decision by Australia's Reserve Bank to cut the official cash rate was the variation between the market and economists. The markets appeared to forecast a cut, while the majority of economists did not. The RBA's assessment of the economic outlook is much along the lines that I have been arguing for a little while, so I won't comment on that beyond noting that it is time that I really had a look at the stats in detail again.

The latest Ipsos Mackay Report on Australian sentiment suggests that the underlying somewhat grim mood in Australia continues. People recognise that the pessimistic way they feel is not necessarily born out by the present reality, but they still feel it. I have tried to explore some of the reasons for this in various posts in part to understand and test my own reactions.

In an apparent segue, Ross Gittin's thought piece How intuitive morality has challenged the rationalists explores some of his reactions on reading The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, by Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia. The book suggests that decades of research by political scientists have concluded that self-interest is a weak predictor of voters' policy preferences. In Ross's words:

Why? Because people care about the groups they belong to - whether they be racial, regional, religious or political. They seem to be asking themselves not ''what's in it for me?'' but ''what's in it for my group?''. Political opinions function as ''badges of social membership''.

The fact that people care about others in a variety of ways and at varying levels of intensity should come as no surprise and also helps explain part of the reasons for the prevailing feeling of apparently irrational gloom. Each person belongs to a multiplicity of groups depending upon their particular circumstances. They respond not just to things that directly affect them, but also to things that affect the groups they belong too. Our political, business and organisational leaders with their constant desire to "improve" sometimes forget this.

Starting with a general comment, another piece today (Catherine Armitage and Rachel Browne's Toxic teacher' warning as debate rages on lifting uni entry marks) begins: "THE nation's elite universities warn that Australia is at risk of training a generation of ''toxic teachers'' who will pass their own deficiencies at school on to their students."

I will come back to this piece later, for the broader arguments involved add to my own feeling of disquiet. For the moment, I just want to quote one statistic from the piece. As a consequence of the casualisation of the workforce, there are now 30,000 casual teachers in NSW. A casual teacher is no longer one who fills gaps, who chooses to work as a spare. but a core element of the workforce.

If you at some of the things that I have tried to explore in my writing, you can actually see the whole process working at a purely personal level.

I write about the decline of Northern NSW, of the broader New England, and try to suggest how that might be turned around. I worry about the future of the University of New England in the face of policy instability, of competition and of the blind adoption of corporatist models. It's not just an issue of standards, but of a direct threat to the legacy that my family has helped build and that I have tried to maintain. In that sense, it's deeply personal.

As someone whose recent contract work, the work that supports my writing, has been in the public sector, I worry about the impact of restructuring not just on me, but on the people I work with. A Facebook friend and a former staff member of mine in another life gets laid off in Queensland because she is a casual. That's personal. I would like to help, but I can't beyond offering sympathy. Other work friends working in jobs on a placement basis are suddenly insecure and may be forced back into old nominal positions far below their current levels or in places they don't want to work. Yesterday, a notice came round advising of redundancy arrangements.

All this is personal. I worry for myself, realise that I have to change approaches, but I also worry for all the people I know.

My present contract work is in the social services area. Every change to benefit arrangements causes flow on effects. People know that nobody can live on unemployment benefits, we call it "Newstart" in this country in one of those euphemisms so beloved by modern Government, yet we make benefit changes that force  thousands of disability pensioners onto the lower benefit. The change may be good in principle, but its hardly good when you know that you are forcing more people into greater poverty.

I am a gregarious person. At the weekend I went across the road to introduce myself to some neighbours who live in the social housing estate across the road. They are often in the front yard. I didn't talk about some of the work I had done in recent years. Just to complicated. I didn't want to get into a discussion about policy.

I worry about the complexities and instabilities in personal relationships. I worry about my daughters. They are both strong women, well educated, competent. Yet I have seen modern processes work with or against them in ways I don't like. Frankly, modern recruitment processes are absurd, while the competition created for long term (previously permanent, but what is permanent today?) positions is now so intense, chaotic and lengthy that success is a almost a matter of chance.

I note that my daughters don't seem to worry themselves, but their father does. I also note that the idea of generation wars, of campaigns against actual or perceived intergenerational inequity, has suddenly become popular. I am not sure when I first wrote about the implications of an ageing population on economic and social structures, but it was some years ago. Now the issues are becoming important, popular, but are also phrased in terms of a zero sum game, of winners and losers. I think that's wrong.  

I am in danger of drifting from my main point and am also well out of time this morning. Let me finish by restating a few key points. Economic man is not a creature guided solely by his or her immediate self interest. Economic man is a social animal who belongs to, identifies with and is affected by a complex mosaic of social groups. People need a degree of stability. In a world of constant basic change that threatens more than it improves, that is hard to achieve. Is it any wonder people become4 depressed?  

Part of my argument on this blog has been that change has become has become institutionalised. We as individuals cannot affect that. We can only control  our responses.

In my new ways of working series I tried to address one aspect of that, My last post in that series, If you want loyalty, hire a dog, attracted a very personal comment that led me to stop for the short term. It came from someone who obviously knew me well, who knew my personal circumstances, it was hurtful, although the person who made the comment was obviously talking to me direct. Interestingly, that post has attracted huge traffic. It is not yet on my top posts of all time, but is starting to get quite close! Given the comment that I felt obliged to leave there under my comment rules, it's a bit embarrassing, actually.    

I will return to the series, for part of the message I wanted to get across lies in out ability to actually manage our responses. Here my own imperfections and failures are actually part of the positive message. We can do more than we believe. With that, I must finish. But I hope that I have illustrated why so many Australians are pessimistic but also confused.  


This post is still bugging me.  So just to summarise elements in an argument that evolved while I was writing:

  1. People (and organisations) need a degree of stability if they are to plan. We don't have that at present.
  2. I accept that change is inevitable. As a change agent, I have made a fair bit of money out of preaching the need for change in particular contexts. Yet if everybody constantly wants to change, if the changes have a short term focus in particular, a negative feedback loop is set up that actually impedes effective change. It also leads to great negativity.  
  3. As individuals, we can seek to improve the operations of the systems in which we are involved. That's good. But as individuals, we have to deal with the world as it is, not that we might like.
  4. Loyalty cannot be demanded, but has to be earned. If we cannot trust our institutions to look after us, if we become just statistics in a system, then we have to protect ourselves.
  5. As ethical people, and most of us are, we have to try to find ways of coping that will not damage others. We can't just withdraw into a world where we look after family first, the groups that we are involved in second, and devil take the rest. We have to find a better way.

In my own writing, I have tried to focus on both systemic improvement and the nature of personal responses that are ethical yet protect us and the things and people that we love. In a very real way, I have been preaching revolution, for the arguments that I have been trying to articulate involved a fundamental reshaping of approaches and institutions.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, and perceptive summary Jim

Trying to find something with which I disagree, but cannot. I just hope it is read by people more directly involved in deciding all our 'best futures' for us.



Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, kvd, although it is slightly depressing that you cannot find something to disagree with!

Outside the personal responses taken the problem as a given, one difficulty is simply breaking the cycle.

Rummuser said...

Superb writing Jim.

I rarely blog on these matters but an economist friend, a retired police man and I exchange views and I did write one post on which you commented -

I get the distinct impression that throughout the world, some inevitable force seems to be pulling mankind into something totally different than what we have seen in our life time. We have seen one century pass and are well into a new one and the most common feeling that I come across everywhere is a sense of foreboding.

Free Market philosophy as interpreted now as The Winner Take It All, is generating a new scenario where the caring individual for all his commitment to do something good, is becoming unimportant and unsuccessful.

What can one do but let go and simply be a bystander?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ramana. I had forgotten that comment. In terms of our past discussion I remain more positive than you along several dimensions.

This post had an Australian focus, written in the context of structures and attitudes in this country. Here we have the dichotomy between apparent performance and attitudes. I agree that there is a broader malaise.

I don't have time this morning to respond further, but as is often the case, your comment provides an opportunity to further clarify my views. My thanks.

Winton Bates said...

I have been pondering the implications of the personal comment that you refer to. In reflecting publicly on your own life I suppose it is inevitable that you open yourself to comments from people who have different interpretations of events. Nevertheless, I think it reflects great credit on you that you have allowed this nasty anonymous comment to stand.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Winton. I think that it's right that in reflecting on my own experiences I do open myself to attack, although I do try to generalise the experiences and especially the lessons. In that sense, the commenter totally missed my point. If the comment had been about someone else I would actually have deleted it as breaching my comment policy. However, I didn't think I could in this case, so I felt obliged to let it stand. Whether that reflects credit on me, I don't know.It was really a case of trying to be consistent.

Legal Eagle said...

Fantastic post - agree with KVD.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, LE. Greatly appreciated!