Monday, October 12, 2009

Glenn Milne, David Burchell, and a voyage with Columbus through the curious Manichean world of economics lured on by the siren song ...

(Above: a comprehensive guide to the humours involved in the Australian economy, with the complete text available here).

Thanks to Glenn Milne's piece in The Australian, Mandarin's partiality, I've learnt a new phrase explaining the opposition's economic policies in full:

Go early, go hard, and go Henry.

Here's wolf Milne baring his teeth at sheep Henry:

I saw Henry at the Australian Industry Group dinner recently and suggested if he really did coin that phrase, then he belonged in advertising, not economics. He smiled sheepishly. But the real point here is that the phrase, a spin line by Hawker-Britton out of Frontline if ever there was one, now belongs exclusively to Henry.

Correction. The phrase was actually go early, go hard and go households.

It's just the opposition, backed by the wretched ramblings of Milne, that's taken up the alternate phrase as a policy.

Glenn Milne spends the rest of his column soft soaping the Liberals, and blaming Treasury Head Ken Henry for being partisan. If he thinks this will be a profitable area of attack for the Liberals, by encouraging their already rampant besieged paranoid sense that the world is against them, then he's sadly deluded.

His conclusion?

... the Coalition says privately that Henry has fallen into the trap of intellectual vanity; that he is now so identified with the success or failure of the stimulus package that he will argue for it, right or wrong.

This analysis may also go some way to explaining the emerging divergence between the Treasury's view of the economy and that of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Henry is now presenting a much more sombre view of Australia's prospects than suggested by Glenn Stevens when justifying last week's interest rate rise.

They both can't be right. But what is certain is that Henry's view of the world supports the economic stimulus, and therefore the government's line, much more than that of Stevens.

The opposition thinks it knows why and is saying so bluntly; Henry thinks Rudd will be re-elected and believes he will never again have to serve under the Coalition. It's a high-stakes assumption in a high-stakes game.

Well if attacking Ken Henry with bland assertions, and trying to wedge the Reserve Bank is being offered up as an economic policy, it's hard to see how it's a high stakes assumption, since bizarrely and amazingly, the Labor party is now seen as better manager of the national economy than the Liberal party. Keep on with the riff that it's all Henry's fault - a recovering economy - and it'll be the chairman in a ruddslide.

If Milne had headed his column "Milne's partiality", ten minutes of my life could have been saved, and I could have moved on immediately to a total waste of my time with David Burchell's Contest between big ideas is no epic.

Burchell is one of those bizarre correspondents - like Christopher Pearson - who lurk in The Australian, and conjure up images of vast bureaucracies where fragments of eccentricities survive in some corner office unnoticed by management.

There's surely no other explanation for the regularity with which his musings are published. He manages to be both more dry and dull than Gerard Henderson, and more florid and eccentric than the best loon pond has to offer.

Take this wonderfully odd and quirky comparison in his review of the Ross Garnaut co-authored book The Great Crash of 2008, as he tries to work out what's caused a curious and unexpected fluttering in his chest, somewhere around his sternum and right between the lungs:

Economic analysis doesn't usually have this effect on me, and my health is good. So I guessed that what I was experiencing - rather in the manner of medieval medicine, where thought and emotion are linked through the humours - was a response to an intellectual recognition presenting itself physiognomically.

By golly, it sounds serious, whatever it might be, that sees contemporary economic analysis land an innocent critic back in the world of Robert Burton's medieval tome Anatomy of Melancholy. But it gets even better, as Burchell embarks on a new world metaphor worthy of any intrepid seafarer:

Perhaps Christopher Columbus experienced a similar sensation, in grander and more heroic form, on his return to Spain in 1492, when he rounded that pine-clad promontory at the port of Palos and saw once again the welcoming convent of Santa Maria la Rabida nestled on the rocky hill. The sensation, not only of making it home after a long and arduous voyage but of discovering oneself back on terra firma after sojourning in some marvellous parallel universe. Just as Garnaut brought me back to earth.

Holy pontificating pontifications Batman, is Garnaut destroyed or what, by the weight of this mighty metaphor. Steady Robin, there's more, a set of verbal steak knives involving thought experiments:

Back in Columbus's day the great thought-experiment of imaginative folks was to daydream about the people and creatures who lived in distant, undiscovered lands. People with the heads of dogs, or who spoke out of mouths implanted in their chests. Forests full of wonders; cities paved with gold. In our day political philosophy has become a similar kind of thought-experiment, designed to make the world conform to the strictures of our mind.

Now you might wonder how this curious and unexpected fluttering might produce enlightenment, rather than a sublime example of verbal diarrhea, but then you wouldn't be haunted by Chairman Rudd's long ago essay, which it seems still haunts the dreaming of Burchell:

At present we're sojourning in our own parallel economic universe, made out of equally fabulous materials to Columbus's. Thanks to the debate-shaping essay published in The Monthly magazine under the Prime Minister's name, a great many of us want desperately to believe that we're locked in a primal political struggle between the forces of darkness and light, of individualism and community, of the soulless peal of market forces and the warm embrace of the social democratic state.

This simplistic division - why am I reminded of Robert Mitchum with "love" and "hate" tattoed on his fingers in The Night of the Hunter - allows the intrepid Burchell to slag off both Chairman Rudd and aspirational Chairman Malcolm Turnbull.

Kevin Rudd and Turnbull - so they're keen to have us believe - disagree about almost everything. And yet in one respect they're brothers under the skin. By happenstance, each of them simply missed the great public policy transformation of the 80s and early 90s, when Labor re-invented itself and the economy in one and the same moment. Rudd spent the first part of that period domiciled abroad and the remainder locked in the monastic confines of the Queensland ALP machine. Turnbull spent the first part of it treading the boards as a celebrity-barrister, and the latter part reclining on the chairs of private boards.

Charming really, that the monastic confines are so comprehensive that neither Rudd nor Turnbull had any experience of any economic reality during the eighties or nineties. Or is this just the delusional blathering of a twit determined to twitter on in the most arcane ways about nothing in particular?

Who knows what Burchell himself was doing during the eighties and the nineties, but presumably a lengthy immersion in Burton and Columbus has prepared him for extensive insights into contemporary economics. Or was that theology of a Manichean kind?

The story Garnaut tells is dominated by the themes of responsibility, balance and necessary limits. In truth the nation's past quarter-century involves no Manichean struggle between soulless markets and the state's loving embrace, nor between freedom and serfdom. Rather, it has involved the shared discovery, on all sides of the political spectrum, that government has no self-limiting mechanism other than the economic one, while at the same time the demands of social security are, in principle, open-ended.

Sorry, I can't even begin to construe what this might mean. Let's travel a little further on this intellectual voyage:

Western states have not shrunk or grown markedly over this period: on the whole they have simply stabilised. And the practical problem of governance has shifted away from the question "how big or how small can government be made?" towards the question "which social priorities are more or less important to us?" This is, in its heart, a question of political philosophy in which the principles of liberalism, conservatism and social democracy wrestle for supremacy.

Having felt that tingle of recognition from Garnaut's book, though, I'm keen to taste the sensation again. Would anybody care to write a speech about their political ambitions that has that same earthy savour of terra firma? Rather than these tall tales of marvellous lands where gravity is suspended and where history never ends?

Okay, anyone got a white flag? What on earth does it all mean? Where history never ends?
"Mom, have we reached the end of history yet?"
" Shush dear, history ended some time ago."
"But ma if history has ended, what's our recent past?"
"Oh hush your mouth child, and make sure you read another chapter of Francis Fukuyama's book tonight."
"You mean The End of History mom?"
"Yes dear."
"But that's a stupid title to a patently out of date book."
"Wash out your mouth young man. A world where history never ends is just the same as a world where gravity is suspended."
"You mean like Star Trek?"
"No, silly goose, like the new world of Christopher Columbus."

After this effort, I have to think that David Burchell is surely now the champion of meaningless verbiage, with Gerard Henderson just an idle poseur. Burchell's Dickensian efforts - long rambling thoughts embedded in confused metaphors - shows a man so drunk on language, historical and literary references, he has no idea what he's intending to communicate, but remains determined to spray words into the ear of any nearby innocent bystander.

It took me awhile to grasp the intoxicating power of a Burchell addiction - after all it requires giving up any objective sense of meaning or understanding - but once fixated by his fierce Ancient Mariner stare as he stoppeth one of three, I now understand that his siren song has a kind of Homeric power.

This has its dangers:

... you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope`s ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster.

Well I've strapped myself to the mast - it's refreshing that Burchell is a male siren of the deadliest kind - and here's hoping that I'm bound fast as we sail past the outer shores of Burchell's thinking.

Oh and thanks to The Australian, what have I learned about economics this morning, or Ross Garnaut, or even Rudd or Turnbull?

Well nothing really, but I do know it's all Ken Henry's fault. Oh such a curious tingle ran through me just then as I realized economics was so simple, and only the writing of blather for a column so complicated ...

(Below: a few siren images for the mature gentleman. It was of course the sirens who almost ruined Christopher Columbus's understanding of the Australian economy, by dint of telling him about a marvellous new world where Dvorak played, gravity was suspended, history never ends, and gold ran in rivers to the sea).

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