Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Human rights in Australia - Oz scores poorly on OECD wage & social equity indicators - why?

I have'nt been posting lately due to a bout of ill health. However, there is no diminution of interest in human rights matters on my part.

I heard a news report this morning on findings that reveal Australia scores very poorly amongst developed economies on most measures of socio-economic equality, just ahead of Portugal, UK and USA. This does not surprise me at all. The academic being interviewed suggested the main cause is income inequality, with high income earners streaking away from the rest. In response to a question whether low indigenous incomes skewed the findings, the interviewee rebuffed this as the numbers are too low to affect the baseline outcome.

This got me thinking and I recalled an essay I read recently by Benjamin Friedman on a book by the son of John Kenneth Galbraith, entitled The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. James Galbraith argues that true conservatism is bankrupt as a source of usable policy ideas, leaving conservative rhetoric, disconnected from any actual policy implications. Rather than lament this reality, Galbraith suggests 'liberal' policy makers (in Australia this term aligns with social democrats like Labor politicians) need to reject market fundamentalism.

Galbraith observes 'conservatives' no longer follow their own orthodoxy, including free trade, balanced federal budgets and keeping inflation in check by limiting the increase in the supply of money. He argues 'neo-conservatives' have turned government policy into an instrument of private financial gain, on a grand scale, for themselves and their allies in the business and political lobbying world; hence the "predator state" of the book's title.

The "cult of the free market" has seen western political culture

"divided into two groups. There are those who praise the free market because to do so gives cover to themselves and their friends in raiding the public trough. These people call themselves "conservatives", and one of the truly galling things for real conservatives is that they have both usurped the label and spoiled the reputation of the real thing."

By contrast, so called 'liberals' "praise the "free market" simply because they fear that, otherwise, they will be exposed as heretics accused of being socialists, perhaps even driven from public life."

Sound familiar? Galbraith argues 'liberals' (or perhaps social progressives is a better term) need to acknowledge and critique the failure of markets to deliver what's promised on their behalf as a basis for the formulation of a coherent construct to challenge free market orthodoxy.

A moneyed class has emerged under the guise of conservatism that

"set out to take over the state and run it - not for any ideological project but simply in the way that would bring to them, individually and as a group, the most money, the least disturbed power, and the greatest chance of rescue should something go wrong".

Thus we get a body politic based on "predation" - "the systematic abuse of public institutions for private profit or, equivalently, the systematic undermining of public protections for the benefit of private clients".

It is no accident that income inequality is widening in polities where pay for CEOs and other top executives has exploded, where a large proportion of tax cuts goes to families at the top of the income scale, where governments rush to bail out big firms, and to protect their creditors (and their executives' pensions), but declines to help ordinary citizens shafted by dodgy lending practices. Galbraith identifies many such inequities, most of which have echoes in the Australian landscape.

Financiers have replaced inventors and entrepreneurs as the captains of industry. Rich people who have largely made their money from exploiting other people's money were cast as 'heroes' until very recently. I always new we were in trouble as they pontificated this new reality as being in the 'national interest'. Beware of snake oil operators who claim patriotism as a key motivation for their predatory behaviour. Galbraith observes "the explosion of CEO pay, and other failures of corporate governance, are natural consequences of the lack of oversight by the financial powers. From there the step to looting is not large and the constitution of top corporate officers into a predatory class follows too. At each step of the way toward the emergence of the predator state, the influence and hegemony of the financial markets lay at the very root of the problem.

"None of these enterprises has an interest in diminishing the size of the state...For without the state and its economic interventions, they would not themselves exist...Their reason for being rather is to make money off the state- so long as they control it."

It all very worrying really, particularly as the 'conservative' forces in this country want to foist a leader on to us who has been honed in the world of investment banking, arguably the greatest looter class of all. There are a number of policy areas that produce rich pickings for the public sector looters. Tax is a core area of predation. When Turnbull launched his tax missive back in 2005 I broke into commentary, thus:

"A test that seems to be applied now is whether 'the policy is enabling public money to be transferred into private hands'. That certainly seems to be one of the driving motivations of this government, and the pace will quicken as the front bench and their mates start to sniff a defeat in the wind. It is time to nail down every public service or asset that isn't already finessed into the control of those who already have too much. Thus you get the Medicare safety net for the well-off; endless tax concessions that only smart lawyers and accountants know how to exploit; tertiary education for those that can afford it; grants to resource-rich schools; and so much more that it is tedious to recount. What we need desperately is a government that genuinely governs for all and not just the mortgage belt wannabees and the legions of tax avoiders in Wentworth."

As I always say, keep your eye on the money trail, if you want to know what is really happening in the world of corrupt power politics. Galbraith concludes his book with a story of a visit to his dad in hospital:

"...I visited my father in his room...for what would prove to be the last time. I told him a little bit of what I'd been working on, and he said, "You should write a short book on corporate predation..."Then he paused and added, with his usual modesty, If I could do it, I would put you in the shade."

Maybe, but I think the old bloke would have been proud of his boy's efforts.

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