There has to be a better way

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Note: This was published as my last column on Business Spectator on April 6th, but it’s now gone missing after News Ltd merged BS with its own in-house stable and changed all the URLs. Given the election and Elizabeth Farrelly’s excellent thought piece in the Sydney Morning Herald “The great tragedy of Malcolm Turnbull”, I thought it was a good time to revive it.

One of the dis­ad­van­tages of grow­ing up is find­ing in your old age that peo­ple you nev­er took seri­ous­ly in your youth are now run­ning your coun­try.

In my per­son­al case, I’m speak­ing about Tony Abbott and Mal­colm Turnbull—but if I’d gone to Uni­ver­si­ty at the same time and place as Kevin Rudd, I’m sure I’d be speak­ing about him too.

I knew Abbott and Turn­bull in their Syd­ney Uni­ver­si­ty days: they were both active stu­dent politi­cians, while I was one of the lead­ers of the stu­dent revolt against the eco­nom­ics cur­ricu­lum there. Abbott and Turn­bull both tried to play a role in this “Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my” dispute—and their approach then mir­rors their styles today. One believed he knew the word of God, while the oth­er believed he was God.

Abbott tried to defeat what he described, in his pecu­liar nasal drawl, as “the Maarx­ists” behind the protests. He went beyond speak­ing against us at meet­ings and vot­ing against us on the Stu­dents Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Coun­cil to, shall we say, robust attempts to stop us putting up posters in the dead of night.

He failed. He lost the votes in pub­lic forums and on the SRC. The posters went up, and most of them stayed up—my favourite stayed for years, because we cleaned it into the tar­nished cop­per cladding of the library stack.

Turn­bull tried to reach a nego­ti­at­ed set­tle­ment between the war­ring sides: a major­i­ty of the stu­dents and (a sub­stan­tial seg­ment of the staff) on one side, and the Pro­fes­sors Hogan and Simkin and Vice-Chan­cel­lor Williams on the oth­er.

He failed too. At a meet­ing where I was one of two invit­ed stu­dent speak­ers, the Eco­nom­ics Fac­ul­ty vot­ed, against the Pro­fes­sors’ wish­es, for an inquiry into the Depart­ment of Eco­nom­ics. The inquiry rec­om­mend­ed, against the Vice Chancellor’s wish­es, that the Depart­ment should be split in two.  This occurred in 1975 with the for­ma­tion of the Depart­ment of Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my, which still exists today.

So Turn­bull and Abbott were bit play­ers in that dra­ma, but of course their eyes were set on a big­ger role: that of becom­ing Prime Min­is­ter of Aus­tralia, as they both have now done. We knew those ambi­tions back in the 1970s too, and we laughed.

It turned out to be no laugh­ing mat­ter so far as their ambi­tions went, but for the coun­try itself, their success—and that of Rudd before them, and frankly many others—was a cry­ing shame. Their one qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the top job was the unshake­able belief that they deserved it. That self-belief, and the dri­ve that went with it, car­ried them all—Rudd included—to the top.

But is that any way to select a country’s top deci­sion-mak­ers? I recent­ly had an inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion with anoth­er Rudd—Greg, not Kevin—who has been argu­ing that the entire struc­ture of pol­i­tics is a hang­over from long-gone ages, when Big Men led us against the oth­er preda­tors in the African veld—the lions and the oth­er Big Cats—or more recent­ly, when class con­flict shaped the for­ma­tion of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism, and a cer­tain Karl Marx forged his the­o­ries. Greg Rudd likens our cur­rent system—of vot­ing between adver­sar­i­al polit­i­cal par­ties vying for pow­er, who then war it out in Par­lia­ment until the next round—to nom­i­nat­ing some­one as Man­ag­ing Direc­tor to the gov­ern­ing board of a com­pa­ny, but also appoint­ing anoth­er Board, led by a rival, whose sole aim was to block the Man­ag­ing Director’s every move.

Sure­ly, if the last decade of Prime Min­is­te­r­i­al mer­ry-go-rounds has taught us any­thing, it’s that we should throw out the mer­ry-go-round itself, and adopt a form of polit­i­cal gov­er­nance more suit­ed to the mod­ern com­plex world in which we live.

We should fol­low the oth­er Marx—Groucho—and apply the rule that no-one who actu­al­ly wants the top job should get it. The last per­son who should be mak­ing deci­sions that affect our lives so pro­found­ly should be some­one who believes he can’t make a mis­take.

And it shouldn’t be a sin­gle job either: the mod­ern envi­ron­ment that human­i­ty has large­ly craft­ed is too com­plex in all its features—its eco­nom­ic and social sys­tems, its eco­log­i­cal uncer­tain­ties, and the chal­lenges of mov­ing beyond our plan­e­tary bound­aries which are now the province of entre­pre­neurs as much as governments—for any sin­gle ego to be able to even under­stand the issues, let alone make the right deci­sions about them. We need a team, not of God-com­plex suf­fer­ers and polit­i­cal hacks, but of experts in the many com­plex sys­tems that make up our mod­ern world. And they should be assist­ed by the expert com­put­er sys­tems we have now begun to devel­op to help us under­stand this com­plex world.

That’s dream­ing about the future, but let’s hope it doesn’t remain a dream. How­ev­er this year, we’ll face yet anoth­er round of the same old night­mare: a con­test between con­gen­i­tal nar­cis­sists for the top job (I can’t claim any per­son­al knowl­edge of Short­en, but he’d need to be a devi­a­tion from the norm not to fit that mould). Let’s hope it’s one of our last. This is no way to run a coun­try.


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About Steve Keen

I am Professor of Economics and Head of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University London, and a long time critic of conventional economic thought. As well as attacking mainstream thought in Debunking Economics, I am also developing an alternative dynamic approach to economic modelling. The key issue I am tackling here is the prospect for a debt-deflation on the back of the enormous private debts accumulated globally, and our very low rate of inflation.