Public ideas

Conversations with a thoughtful treasurer

Jim Chalmers has brought to the Treasury portfolio the refreshing view that the economy should serve human ends. That shouldn’t be a radical view, but it needs to be asserted because the idea that “the economy” is some entity to which human sacrifice must be made had become readily accepted in the years since neoliberalism took over economic thinking. This subjugation of society to the market has been The Great Transformation Karl Polanyi prophetically warned us about in 1944. Polanyi noted that traditionally markets had existed within society, subject to society’s rules and norms, but he feared that they would come to dominate society, and that we would be living in a market, subject to the rules and norms of the market.

We see that transformation in many ways, from the intrusion of advertising into our home screens, privatization, and most recently manifest in the idea that many people must endure suffering in order to bring an economic indicator – the rate of price increases – to some level carved into stone by some unknown deity.

Chalmers has given meaning to the idea of bringing markets back to serve social ends in two ways. One is to incorporate indices of wellbeing in the Commonwealth budget: Measuring what matters. The other has been to outline his political philosophy in an essay in The Monthly: Capitalism after the Crisis.

In a four-part podcast titled Conversations with Australia’s Treasurer about building an Australian people’s economy, Bronwyn Kelly of Australian Community Futures Planning provides a constructive critique of Chalmers’ essay. She says of her contribution that it is “about how a thoughtful Treasurer can have truly respectful and meaningful conversations on an ongoing basis with the Australian people to establish and maintain an inclusive economy”.

She acknowledges that Chalmers has his heart and intellect in the right place, but she believes that he places too much faith in the business sector to embrace the idea of an economy that serves people’s wellbeing. She also believes that Chalmers’ notion of wellbeing is too heavily based on rectifying known shortcomings, rather than the more expansive idea of asking people what they really want.

She presents three dimensions of a people’s economy.

The first is a values-based economy, informed by “a conversation with Australians about what they actually value and what wellbeing means for them”. We need something better than the neoliberal model of capitalism. She observes that “forty years of the privatisation and deregulation promoted by neoliberal governments has given us nothing other than a decline in productivity, low wages and growth in all types of inequality including income, wealth, gender and intergenerational inequality”.

The second is a competitive economy. She goes well beyond the usual abstract textbook arguments that underlie our National Competition Policy, and calls for a return to what some economists refer to “benchmark competition”, where public enterprises sit alongside private enterprises in setting service standards and driving efficiency and innovation. This was once a feature of sectors like banking (the Commonwealth Bank), airlines (TAA and Qantas), private health insurance (Medibank Private), and we may be seeing its resurrection in state-owned electricity utilities. She is understandably highly critical of privatization.

The third is about a fair economy. She dismisses the view that there is some trade-off between achieving fairness and productivity: in fact evidence suggests they are complementary. She also calls for Labor to return to a commitment to achieving fairness through a social wage and progressive taxation, rather than through targeted distributive welfare.

The link above is to 110 minutes of podcast. There is also a transcript on the ACFP website.

What, precisely, is the meaning of “woke”? Well, um, none really

The word “woke” fits perfectly into what philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss called a “floating signifier”. To quote from Oxford Reference, a floating signifier “is susceptible to multiple and even contradictory interpretations, suggesting that it does not have a specific meaning itself, but functions primarily as a vehicle for absorbing meanings that viewers want to impose upon it”.

Writing in The AtlanticYou can’t define woke – Thomas Chatterton Williams grapples with possible meanings of the term, at one stage suggesting that it refers to anything the right dislikes. But he concludes, essentially, that the word is a useless substitute for “clear, honest, precise, and original thought and communication”.