‘Middle-Out’ Economics

Russell Brand Wealth InequalityHere it is. Here is the wealth inequality narrative progressives have been searching for. Yesterday I wrote about rich wankers and a couple of helpful commenters contributed the following two articles on the subject of wealth inequality:

‘Middle-Out’ Economics: Why the Right’s Supply-Side Dogma Is Wrong

The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats

Both articles are written and co-written by Nick Hanauer – a member of the 0.01% wealthiest people in the world thanks to his foresight in investing early in Amazon. Hanauer is arguing for a progressive narrative to replace the right’s reliance on ‘trickle down economics’. I would suggest reading both articles, as I really believe Hanauer is spot on. Hanuaer’s 2012 TED talk is also worth watching.

I am currently studying political narrative and framing and through this research, I have become interested in George Lakoff’s work in trying to convince the US Democrats to be smarter about the language they use to argue against Republican and Tea Party policies which widen the gap between rich and poor. Policies like tax breaks for the rich, using the incorrect excuse that the rich are job creators. And policies that aim to make the government smaller and more ineffective in stemming capitalist greed. Hanauer argues that there is no empirical evidence that tax breaks for the rich create jobs. He also argues that the best way to reduce the size of government is to reduce welfare payments by expanding the size of the middle class. Someone needs to show Joe Hockey this suggestion. People don’t want to be on welfare and would support a government who supports them to be trained and prepared for meaningful, well paid work. This is simple, yet powerful stuff.

The crux of Hanauer’s narrative is that middle class spending creates demand in the economy and in turn, creates jobs. As Hanauer explains, from his own experience as a member of the ultra-rich American community, he might earn 3,000 times more than the average worker, but there is no way he consumes, or buys, 3,000 times more than the average worker. His excess money goes into his own savings and investments, which help him to get even richer, widening the gap between his wealth and everyone else’s. Hardly any of Hanauer’s wealth influences the wealth of the middle-class in his community and contributes to job creation. As he simply says, if Walmart employees can’t afford to be Walmart consumers, who is going to ensure the long term sustainability of Walmart’s business model? His arguments are not social ones, although of course they do affect social policies. His arguments are economic. The loss of America’s middle class means the loss of their consumer base.

Here are Hanauer’s suggestions as to how ‘Middle-Out’ economics can become a thing as published in The Atlantic:

  • First, relentlessly frame the choice as a choice. It’s trickle-down and middle-out economics. Not “top-down.” Not “the old ways that got us into this mess.” Trickle-down vs. middle-out. If we don’t have the courage to name our alternative, and repeat it relentlessly, we haven’t given people a clear choice. We will never displace trickle-down ideas if we don’t provide a clear, concise, and compelling alternative. Neither term has inherent force; it’s only in the contrast that we win.

  • Second, propagate the one pivotal meme at the heart of this entire effort: that rich businesspeople don’t create jobs; middle-class customers do. To put it another way, the right’s claim that rich businesspeople are job creators is the critical vulnerability deep in the heart of the Death Star; if we can target our ammunition to obliterate that single claim, the entire Death Star of right-wing ideology will implode and disintegrate. Why? Because without that claim, there is no way for the trickle-down camp to justify the absurd preferential treatment in the tax code and the regulatory regime for the rich and for large corporations. Without that claim, trickle-down economics reduces nakedly to a rent-seeking, self-serving agenda by the very rich to extract wealth from the poor and middle class. In short, we need to pick a fight with the right about the origins of prosperity in a capitalist society. Middle-out economics will prevail.

  • Third, make every economic issue an example of middle-out economics. The Ryan budget fails not because it is unfair or heartless or draconian. It fails because it perpetuates trickle-down thinking and cripples the ability of the middle class to generate national prosperity. Entitlement reform is not about the virtue or vice of running deficits. It is about whether we create enough security for middle-class consumers and workers to participate in the economy. The Affordable Care Act is not about the byzantine bureaucracy of health-care delivery. It’s about whether the middle class can dedicate its purchasing power to productive economic activity instead. And so on with sequestration, fiscal stimulus, and tax reform.

  • Fourth, recommit to capitalism — in a truer and more effective form. Middle-out economic policies aren’t just good because they benefit the middle class or the poor in the near term. They are great for the United States as a whole in the long term because they drive prosperity for all, including the rich. Our agenda is to make capitalism be all it can be for all of us.

  • Fifth, take this case to the people in the form of story. The argument we make here is a conceptual one. But the delivery device for that argument has to be narrative. Perhaps unfortunately, the last 30 years provide a very simple narrative arc — the tale we told at the very start of this article. That kind of storytelling must become second nature to progressives. Indeed, on all these fronts, progressives need dozens of complementary and simultaneous efforts to turn middle-out economics and the job-creator meme into products — media stories, policies, bumper stickers, viral videos, school curricula.

The fifth point is the one that most interests me and my study into political communication and narrative. The left need a new narrative. And ‘Middle-Out’ provides this narrative. As I have previously written, wealth inequality needs to be at the heart of the left’s new narrative. Hanauer’s suggestions provide the left with a way to make this happen.

John Oliver’s recent segment about wealth inequality was both hilarious and depressing. It revealed to me that President Obama knows that he needs a wealth inequality narrative, but so far hasn’t been able to find one. Oliver quotes from this article which explains that when Obama’s historian, Robert Dallek, asked the President during a round table discussion what his administration needed help with, Obama’s response was:

“What you could do for me is to help me find a way to discuss the issue of inequality in our society without being accused of class warfare.”

I believe Hanauer is offering a possible solution to Obama’s problem. Coupled with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s ‘You did not build this on your own’, the Hanauer ‘middle-out not trickle-down’ narrative adds another layer of concrete to this concept. The genius of Hanauer’s argument is that you can’t be accused of class warfare when the advice you are giving helps every class. Every class benefits from a strong, productive, wealthy-enough-to-consume middle class. ‘Middle Out’ economics is the narrative Obama, and all progressives, have been searching for. Is the Australian Labor Party listening?

Rich wankers

Wealth does not trickle downLet me start out by saying that I know many rich people who have a social conscience and for whom this post is not relevant. But I also know many who are wankers. And I’m sick of these wankers ruining it for all of us.

When I say ruining it, I mean doing dumb things like voting for Tony Abbott. ‘It’ in this scenario is our community. But the problem with many rich people is that they don’t even think they belong to a community. Many try to closet themselves away from the ‘general public’, because they think they’re above all that. A great example of this sort of attitude is the very existence of ‘poor doors’ which I came across in this article about London housing. Of course Australia doesn’t have ‘poor doors’ because we have hardly any apartment buildings, or even suburbs, where ultra-expensive-designed-for-the-very-rich housing is mixed in closely with more affordable housing, or even public housing. But apparently in London, developers often need to include affordable housing within apartment blocks in order to get planning approval. So what do these developers do to make sure their rich clientele don’t have to even see the poor tenants in the building, let alone have to breathe the same air as them? Yes, you guessed it. They have separate entrances. The apartheid between rich and poor – a glamorous lobby for the rich and a meagre side-entrance in a scummy lane for the poor. It’s almost as if the rich are scared they’ll catch ‘poor’ off their neighbours and would prefer to live in a closeted bubble where they don’t have to know these nasty poor people exist. Unless of course they need a taxi, or a teacher, or a meal at a restaurant, or a trades person or, god forbid, a nurse in a hospital.

I also note that there is now solid evidence, in the form of peer reviewed research, that proves many rich people have a sense of entitlement which presents as the ‘asshole effect’. Have you ever noticed that it’s the large, shiny, expensive cars which appear to be driven by the most aggressive, least-likely-to-let-you-into-traffic, most-difficult-to-share-the-road-with-drivers? If you have noticed this, it turns out it’s not just in your head, because this research shows that it really is the rich drivers who are the biggest wankers on the roads. And I think this road user behaviour is a perfect analogy for the problems rich wankers cause in our community. The key point of this research is that the rich weren’t wankers to begin with, unless of course they started out rich. But it actually shows that when people reach a certain level of wealth they believe they are entitled to exploit others, to behave rudely and to be mean to their community because they have earned this right. Is this a good time to mention that all three men involved in the last Liberal Federal leadership ballot are Members from three of the richest electorates in the country – Turnbull in Wentworth, Hockey in North Sydney and Abbott in Warringah? Funny that. Is it any surprise that these men were the architects of the meanest Federal Budget this country has ever seen?

So we know many rich people are wankers and it’s clear they’re ruining our community for everyone, and I agree there is probably little we can do to change these people’s behaviour. Their narcissism is likely entrenched. However I would like to try a new strategy for encouraging these rich wankers to think twice before ruining it for all of us again. I have been harping on about this topic a lot in recent months, and let me be upfront in saying I’m not about to give up on this quest, because it’s important. Wealth inequality. The rich think wealth inequality is great for them and they’re more than happy to continue promoting it. In fact, they think they’re entitled to snatch and grab as much of the country’s pie as they can get their grubby hands on. Many no doubt think their greed is as natural as the animal instinct for survival. Most of them think tax-evasion is clever. However, it’s time to question the very basis of this attitude and to question it loudly. Because wealth inequality is not just bad for all of us who aren’t rich. It’s also bad for the rich. And no, I’m not about to say it’s bad for them because they should care about other people and they’ll find much more happiness in human relationships with a diverse range of people rather than falling in love with money. I don’t really care about the happiness of the greedy. I’m saying that what is bad for the wealth of the community is also bad for the rich. The rich need all of us to be wealthier in order to maintain their own wealth. The rich need to pay their fair share of tax so that the government can fairly distribute wealth for the betterment of all of us. The rich need to learn that the pie must grow in order to keep growing their piece of it. A rising tide only lifts all boats if the boats are in the tide, not broken and stranded on the shore. If you don’t believe me, ask Joseph Stiglitz. He’s got a Nobel Prize for researching this very idea. Or just have a think about how the rich got rich in the first place. Sure, some of them make money from the money they already have. But think of it this way. If people work full time and can’t afford to buy the things that the rich are selling – such as mortgages, consumer goods, food, education, insurance, cars, then how are the rich going to hold onto their wealth? And back to education, if the masses aren’t educated successfully, who will work for the rich? Because no one ever got rich on their own. Wealth does not trickle down and this should be just as concerning for the rich as it is the poor. Australia needs a large and strong working and middle class in order for the country to maintain a successful community AND a successful economy. People can be wankers on their own, but they can’t be rich on their own. That’s what we need to tell them.

A question of balance

JamesCarleton‘Where’s the balance?’ I raged as I listened to ABC Radio National this morning. In yet another example of a run-of-the-mill interview that you might hear on any news media platform or channel across this country, James Carleton was interviewing a business owner about the Carbon Tax. This interview may as well have been produced and gift-wrapped by the fishing industry’s PR firm, it so reeked of one-sided bias. But that’s the thing about balance that the mainstream media just don’t get. Or just don’t care about. Or both. Balance isn’t the ability to find someone who wants to speak in favour of the Carbon Tax (if these people have been interviewed in the mainstream media over the last few years, I must have missed it) and then to balance the argument, interview someone staunchly against the Carbon Tax, like Carleton’s guest this morning. That’s kindergarten simple thinking on what balance might be, and they can’t even get this right. No, an intelligent producer and interviewer would aim to find balance in the very questions they ask, so to provide an insight into the two sides of an argument within the one segment of news that they’ve given over to a particular topic for a limited amount of time.

So let’s look at how Carleton might learn from this sloppy, unbalanced interview. First of all, it’s important that the audience know who is being interviewed in order to properly frame their ‘well you would say that wouldn’t you’ opinion. Carleton introduced his interviewee Gary Heilmann as apparently a ‘small business’ owner, the managing director of De Brett Seafood at Mooloolaba on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Carleton explained that Heilmann’s business includes a tuna fishing boat, a fish processing plant and a fish and chip shop. Fine. But it’s often what is left out of such an introduction which is so lazy on the part of the interviewer and also most telling. Because a quick Google of Heilmann makes it very clear that he isn’t just some random small business owner who the ABC happened to come across to provide his views on the repeal of the Carbon Tax. Here he is quoted in the Sunshine Coast Daily, posted on Liberal Mal Brough’s website, bemoaning the Carbon Tax back in March 2013. Here he is on the ABC’s website in 2011, apparently representing his own business and other fishing operators in lobbying the government to provide $76 million in compensation because of the proposed introduction of a marine park. In this article on the same topic from 2011, the author writes that ‘Fishing operators such as Heilmann say drastic measures are needed because Australia’s waters are over-fished’ and makes the point that since many operators have gone out of business, licenses have been cut back to 115 and Heilmann has slashed his fleet from 10 boats to only 2. This time he’s talking about the Coles fish price-war (aren’t free markets fun?). Here he’s complaining about the Sunshine Coast Regional Council building a roundabout that makes it hard for his fishing trucks to get away from the port of Mooloolaba (how dare the council try to improve traffic conditions for people visiting the beach when Heilmann’s trying to move stock!). And finally, here is Heilmann defending against claims that fishers were raiding Gold Coast recreational fishing areas, in, you guessed it, his role as Managing Director of his company, and a member of a tuna fishing industry advisory committee. Wouldn’t this background as a fishing industry media spokesman have been helpful to the balance of Heilmann’s Carbon Tax interview?

So what questions might Carleton has asked so to at least challenge Heilmann’s pre-prepared-press-release-like rant about why the Carbon Tax is bad for his business and must-be repealed? What could Carleton have done to provide some balance, rather than offering nothing more than the perfect Dorothy-Dixer-like combination of questions which came off sounding like they had been written by Heilmann himself to keep his flow of ‘I’m anti-Carbon-Tax-and-my-opinion-is-important-because-I’m-a-business-owner’ script perfectly intact? How could Carleton have avoided the same-old-lame-overused-statement that was so perfectly rehearsed it sounded like Abbott himself had planted it in Heilmann’s head, when he said ‘governments… have simply managed to drive the cost up to the point where it’s just not worth being in business anymore because you can’t generate a return on the assets’. I know what you’re thinking. I know you’re thinking it’s not Carleton’s fault that Heilmann so perfectly slotted into the Abbott anti-Carbon-Tax narrative which brought us to this point tonight where the Carbon Tax is, devastatingly for the environment, about to be repealed. But it is Carleton’s fault and it’s every journalist’s fault who has given exactly this sort of interview all the airtime it ever wanted, without once asking a question that challenged the very basis of the argument about pricing carbon. What if he’d tried even one of these questions, just to throw an alternative argument into the mix and to provide some balance for the audience:

‘Being a fisherman, and clearly concerned about over-fishing, you must be concerned with the sustainability of not just your business, but also your family’s safety in the environment you live and work in. Do you worry that climate change will have a detrimental effect on the sustainability of your livelihood and the sustainability of the planet we live on?’

‘Do you think it’s appropriate for a government to put the concerns about business profit for a handful of business owners ahead of their concerns for the safety of our planet in an unstable climate?’

‘What policy would you prefer the government introduce to encourage large polluters to cut down on their carbon emissions instead of the Carbon Price, to change their business practices to ensure we limit the catastrophic effects of climate change? Or do you not believe climate change is real?’

‘Have you considered renewable solutions such as solar energy to cut down on your high electricity costs, in order to improve your margins and to make your business more sustainable as fossil fuels continue to deplete and grow in cost?’

‘If you can’t make a profit running your business in a sustainable way, is it time to think about doing something else and to stop blaming the government for every challenge your business faces? If you can’t run your business without producing unsustainable amounts of carbon emissions, isn’t it better for the community if you do try something different?’

If people like Heilmann don’t want to answer such questions, they can choose not to be interviewed on a national radio station. Someone else can be interviewed instead. How about me? I would be happy to answer balanced questions about a particular topic. But I would never be invited because I’m not a business owner or an industry spokesperson. I guess that’s the thing that’s most disappointing about Carleton’s interview in the first place. Journalists like Carleton never interview a nobody like me who has to actually live in the community where climate change is happening. The Carbon Price was not just some economic burden on large polluters. It was designed to try to save our planet. How about interviewing a member of the community on this topic, rather than a whinging-he-would-say-that-wouldn’t-he-self-intereseted-axe-the-tax-busines-owner. Just for a change.

Back where you came from

HomelessSomeone gave me some good advice when I was a single woman: when you’re out on a date with a man, take note of how he treats the waitress. Because one day that’s how he’ll treat you. I couldn’t help but think of this advice, strangely enough, when I tried to digest the disturbing news that Abbott’s government has almost certainly handed Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers back to the government they were fleeing from. Because it occurred to me that Australian voters really should heed this same advice when it comes to the way Abbott treats the most desperate and vulnerable amongst us.

No doubt many Australians would read this and think smugly to themselves, ‘no, I’m Australian. My government would never treat me like they treat an asylum seeker. They’re not from here and I am, so that gives me certain privileges that the asylum seekers don’t have rights to’. But this is clearly naïve.

You think Australians have rights. Sure we do. But asylum seekers have rights too. They’re called human rights and Abbott completely disregards them. Australia has signed up to the UNHCR Refugee Convention, but from the behaviour of the Abbott government over the last 9 months, I wonder why the UNHCR still accepts Australia as a signatory to this international agreement. Yes, we think of ourselves as a first world country. But what first world country would violate human rights and demean the weak and defensive amongst us in order to win political points? How callous does the government have to be before Australian citizens start to show a rational level of concern about the people in charge of this country?

Still not convinced that Australian voters should be worried? Still think vulnerable Australians automatically rank higher in the government’s concern than desperate people fleeing from persecution and violence? What if, just like a first date, a political party is on their best behaviour for a short time? It may last the election campaign. But just like in a new relationship, once the honeymoon period is over and you get to know the real government, their true character can’t be ignored.

The cracks started appearing in Abbott’s best behaviour on the first day of his new government. And there was nothing but red flags in the delivery of his budget. Look, for example, at the way Abbott is treating young Australians. If his welfare policy is accepted by the new Senate, people under 30 who don’t have a job will be denied even the most basic level of Newstart assistance. And it’s not like Abbott’s government haven’t considered the ramifications of this policy change. They know that young people who aren’t getting any Newstart allowance for six out of every 12 months will find themselves broke and homeless. They know that thousands of Australians are going to need emergency relief of the most basic kind – they’ve already increased the emergency relief budget for this very reason. And what about the disabled? Abbott wants people with periodic mental illness to be denied a disability pension because their disability isn’t ‘permanent’. Yet they must know it will be impossible for these people to get a job. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that these Australians will soon be as desperate to survive as Tamil asylum seekers who’ve chosen to risk their life on a leaky boat rather than risk staying where they are.

The handing of Tamil asylum seekers back to the government they were fleeing from should be a lesson for all Australians about a government that wants to put people back in their place. A government that wants to tell us all to go back where we came from. A government who knows that the unemployed young adults from poor families will have the least chance of surviving for six months without Newstart, whilst the rich will be cushioned by their inborn safety net of privilege. But that’s the point of the Abbott government isn’t it? To put us all back in our place. To kick the ladder of social mobility out from under us. To punish the poor and to rub their nose in their misfortune.

I hope Australians are starting to learn this lesson about the Abbott government. I hope they look at the way this government treats asylum seekers and they understand that these poor desperate souls are the canary-in-the-mine-test-of-character that provides all the insight they need into the true values of the Abbott government. And I hope that when they think of the asylum seekers being turned away from Australia, they don’t feel satisfied that Abbott is succeeding in turning back the boats. That they don’t think he’s doing something good for the country and good for them. Even if Australians can’t, on the whole, feel empathy for asylum seekers, I hope they can at least have the emotional intelligence to be worried about themselves. Especially those who know what it is like to be poor and who want to make, or have made, a better life for themselves and their children. I hope they look at the Abbott government and wonder what their futures would be like if they were forced to go back to where they came from. Abbott is trying to exclude whole sections of the community, to define them as less than citizens and to send them back to the misery they came from – just like the asylum seekers. Through his ideological budget, and every decision he has made since becoming Prime Minister of Australia, Abbott is already proving that he will decide who belongs to our community and the manner in which they belong. My question is, are people worried about how he treats the waitress?

Compare the pair

UnemployedJobsJoe Hockey’s budget has been widely rejected by the Australian people. And he knows it. How do I know he knows it? Because why else would he ramp up his rhetoric about welfare bludgers to desperation levels in such a whiney and pathetic tone?

This week Hockey’s been promoting hatred of welfare recipients by telling Australian workers that one month of their annual salary is being sucked away by these sub-human, leech-like, lazy, good for nothing dole bludging sloths. Ok, he didn’t exactly use these words, but this is the image he’s clearly trying to conjure up.

It is moments like these that I am reminded how important it is for independent media sites like this one, and independent voices, to get an alternative message out there. Because Hockey’s hobby of blaming Newstart and Pension recipients for all the world’s problems is not only bully-boy lazy, but it also completely misrepresents the situation to make it appear that the only people in society who benefit from government spending are those receiving welfare payments. And the mainstream media, on the most part, support this lazy myth.

The inconvenient truth for Hockey is that all Australians benefit from government spending of one kind or another, because without government spending there is no civilisation. And as I wrote recently, the key fact that Hockey will do his best to supress because it doesn’t fit his ‘let’s-blame-welfare-recipients-while-we-bring-about-an-ideologically-inspired-small-government’ narrative is this: it’s the rich who benefit most of all from the very existence of government. You don’t believe me? Well how about we compare the pair? Who’s really benefiting most from Australia’s publically-funded civilisation?

Olivia’s life
Olivia is 32 years old and rents a one bedroom studio apartment in western Sydney for $140 a week. Olivia has been out of work for two years ever since the manufacturing company she worked at sent all their factory jobs to China, and since then she’s been sending out resumes via the computer at her local library but hasn’t had a single call back. She completed a qualification in production systems at TAFE while she was working five years ago, but very rarely sees a job advertised requiring this qualification. Each week she receives a Newstart allowance of $255.25. After her rent and household power and water bills are paid, she is left with $90 a week for food (three meals a day across a week equates to $4.29 per meal, so sometimes she skips meals). Some of the food she buys includes GST so a portion of her spending goes back to the tax office. Olivia can’t afford to go out and walks everywhere as she can’t afford public transport. She avoids seeing a doctor as she can’t afford to go to the chemist to fill a prescription. She hasn’t bought new clothes in the two years she has been unemployed – when her clothes wear out she goes to the local op shop. Her TV broke eighteen months ago so she doesn’t have any entertainment at home, except when her elderly neighbour invites her over for a tea and they watch the ABC news headlines together. Olivia is an only child and her parents live on the Central Coast of New South Wales and don’t own a car, so she only manages to see them every few weeks when she has enough money for a train ticket. She has friends who call her sometimes to chat, but she can’t afford to call them as her phone never has any credit. Her friends don’t ask her out anymore because she can’t afford to do anything. Her life is lonely and miserable and most of the time she is depressed.

So let’s recap the benefits Olivia receives from government spending in an average week. She completed her education at a public school and co-funded her government funded vocational training at Tafe. She sometimes sees a bulk-billing doctor and if she got seriously sick or injured, she would have access to a public hospital. She could also call the police if ever she needed to. And she has received a Newstart allowance for two years, and hopes one day to find a job. So this hypothetical Olivia doesn’t exactly sound like someone who is really enjoying their ‘welfare Queen’ status while screwing tax payers, does it? She doesn’t sound like she’s benefiting that much from the civilisation she lives in.

Now let’s compare Olivia to Mark and Jenny:

Mark and Jenny’s life
Mark and Jenny, both 32 years old, live in a three bedroom townhouse in Wollstonecraft on Sydney’s north shore that they bought for $750,000 four years ago with help from both of their parents and the first home owner’s grant. Their home has appreciated by 4% each year since they bought it. Mark works as an accountant at a large pharmaceutical company in North Sydney, which sells many of its products via the government funded Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Mark takes the publically-subsidised train to work every day. Jenny works as a physiotherapist in a public hospital and drives to work every day on publically funded roads. Together they take home a weekly household salary of $3,000 after tax, and after they’ve paid their mortgage, they have around $2,000 each week to spend on life’s necessities like energy and water bills, insurance, internet, car payments, petrol, Foxtel, groceries, gym memberships, take away food, wine, beer, spirits, Friday night drinks, Saturday night dinner parties or movies, tickets to sporting events and concerts, designer clothes, books, magazines, gifts, pet toys, home wares and furniture. Each week they put money away in a savings account to pay for their yearly overseas holiday. Both Mark and Jenny needed a university degree to work as an accountant and a physiotherapist and they both contributed to the cost of their degrees through the HECS system, whilst most of the investment in their education was made by the government. Mark attended a public school and Jenny went to a private school, with the cost of her education partly funded by her parents and partly funded by the government.

Mark and Jenny have a good life and much to be grateful for. They are content in their work and have busy and enjoyable lifestyles. When you look closely at the lives of Mark and Jenny, you can see that government spending has not just influenced much of their success, but it has been at the very foundation of the civilisation where they enjoy their affluent lifestyles.

So back to Hockey. He is clearly trying to make the Mark and Jenny’s of the world resent Olivia. He wants Mark and Jenny to think about all the hard work they do each day (and no one is questioning that they do work hard) and to resent that some of what they earn is taken away from them and given to someone else who needs it. But what Mark and Jenny need to also understand is that they did not reach their level of happiness, comfort and first-world lifestyle on their own. The government funded civilisation that they live in enabled their lives and continues to enable their lives every day. It’s the fact that there are so many government-enabled lifestyles in Australia that makes Australia a rich country – a place where so many people make money by relying on others being able to afford whatever it is they sell. If there really is a class war going on in Australia as Hockey says there is, Mark and Jenny are winning and Olivia is clearly losing.

So rather than resent the tax that the likes of Mark and Jenny pay, and begrudging people like Olivia who benefit so little from our civilisation, how about everyone ignore Hockey and instead offer some gratitude for the opportunity they’ve been given to be part of a civilisation that gives them so much benefit? And how about some empathy for the Olivia’s of the world who exist day to day in poverty? Because the truth is, Olivia isn’t lazy. Olivia doesn’t bludge. Olivia just survives. And Olivia would love to pay as much tax as Mark and Jenny do, so as to reap the benefits of the position in their society that their highly-paid government enabled lifestyles affords them. Think about that next time you see Hockey blaming Olivia. Think about that next time someone talks about lifters and leaners.

What does Kenny’s ABC defamation case mean?

What does Chris Kenny’s $35,000 settlement and apology from the ABC over the Chaser’s dog f*cking joke mean for Australia’s culture? I don’t know, but I must admit I’m worried.

For those who haven’t caught up on this news, you can read David Marr’s summary of the situation here. There was a lot of discussion of this case on Twitter yesterday, and already Kenny was inserting himself into the conversation in an intimidating, litigious tone, requesting an apology and no doubt aiming to remind Twitter users that they better watch what they say about him, lest they get the same punishment as the Chaser team and the ABC got:



As I write this post, and discuss what Chris Kenny has said, which is all of course my opinion, something I am completely and utterly entitled to, I am nervous. This morning I’ve been warned privately by a fellow Tweep to watch what I say about Kenny on Twitter, to avoid being sued by him. The inference of course being that he has form in suing people who make jokes about him and therefore I should watch what I say. But if I decide that this Kenny/ABC defamation case has resulted in the demise of Chris Kenny’s credibility, this is my opinion and I should feel completely safe in voicing this opinion. Shouldn’t I? We live in Australia, an open and fair society so we should feel safe to make a joke or to voice an opinion without fear of a law suit, as long as I am remain within the law. Shouldn’t we? And if we can’t do this, what has happened to our society? What has Chris Kenny, with the support of Tony Abbott, done? The ramifications are far reaching.

Of course no discussion of free speech in Australia can be complete without mentioning Andrew Bolt’s breaching of the racial discrimination act, an action that resulted in howls of protest from the right, screaming that their free speech was under threat. One example of such protest is this statement:

Many left-liberals in the love media have welcomed the decision as revenge against Bolt, rather than railing against it as an illiberal blow against free speech.

This quote comes from none other than Chris Kenny. Confused yet?

I personally strongly support laws that stop people like Bolt mis-representing the truth in order to discriminate against people of a certain race or nationality, and I am strongly opposed to the Abbott’s government’s proposed changes to Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination act. And it’s important to remember the judgement against Bolt was due to him misrepresenting facts in two articles. Simply, he said certain high-profile indigenous Australians were pretending to be indigenous to gain certain benefits when they were not pretending to be indigenous at all. So Bolt wasn’t sued over a difference of opinion, he was sued for misrepresenting facts – an important distinction.

So back to Kenny. It appears to me that Kenny decided that the Chaser’s dog f*cking joke defamed him (DISCLAIMER, I am not a legal expert). In the same way that I could quite easily decide that this Tweet from Kenny defames me in implying that I have a bad-education (which I don’t):


But it never occurred me to sue Kenny over this Tweet, nor any of the nasty responses it elicited from Kenny’s followers after this exchange, nor any of the offensive abuse I quite often receive on Twitter and on my blog. Kenny doesn’t hold back in belittling and ridiculing left-wingers on Twitter, nor does he criticise the abuse given out by his right wing mates. So the fact that Kenny was the one suing the ABC over a joke does seem to me to be infuriatingly hypocritical to say the least (can I say that without being sued?).

In fact, it would appear that the right are only worried about free-speech being impeded when it’s a right-winger’s speech being impeded. For example, you would think that a staunch defender of free-speech – Andrew Bolt – would condemn Kenny’s court case as damaging the Chaser and the ABC’s right to freedom of speech. But no. As noted in Marr’s analysis, Bolt commented in Kenny’s defence saying:

“Yes, the graphic was clearly fake. But the issue is that it was obscene, humiliating and viciously abusive…”

However, we don’t see such concern from Andrew Bolt or Chris Kenny about obscene, humiliating and viciously abusive images when it comes to right-wing bloggers like Larry Pickering. Pickering regularly publishes highly offensive cartoons of progressive politicians on his right-wing blog, such as one described by Bernard Keane showing Gillard as a “dildo-wielding rapist”. What would Bolt and Kenny have said if Julia Gillard had sued Larry Pickering for the same reason Kenny sued the ABC, by saying that the cartoon implies she is a dildo-wielding rapist and that this implication defames her character? How can they even reconcile their staunch defense of free-speech when it comes to Bolt’s case, but then turn around and try to silence the likes of the ABC’s Chasers from PhotoShopping images in a comedy sketch show? Of course I can only ask these questions, I can’t answer them.

It’s people like me who write a blog, and people like me and thousands of others who partake in Twitter commentary all day every day who should be worried about Kenny’s defamation precedent. And that’s the thing that makes this situation most confusing. Because Kenny is also a regular public commentator, but the difference is, he is paid to offer his opinion and I am not. Kenny is on Twitter numerous times a day and he writes a blog (DISCLAIMER: Kenny’s blog is really badly written and this of course is just my opinion) on The Australian’s website, as well as regularly appearing on Sky News – offering his opinion on a range of subjects. So what if we were all slapped with law suits every time someone felt we had publically offended them? What would this mean for Kenny’s career? Just a quick trawl through Kenny’s twitter feed revealed this tweet with a link to a video called ‘How to behave during an Islamic Massacre’. Kenny also helpfully points out that the video raises questions you’ll never hear on the ABC.

Chris Kenny Tweet

Without forcing anyone to watch this video, I can tell you people of Muslim faith might find it highly offensive. So is Kenny suggesting these offended people should sue Andrew Klavan who made the video? Or should they sue Kenny for posting it on Twitter? What if I decided to sue Kenny because I am deeply offended by his non-factual opinions about climate change?

The thing is, there are literally hundreds of memes, PhotoShopped images and home-made videos floating around Twitter at any given moment – what if each of these was the subject of court proceedings? What would happen to our culture if we felt scared to take part in commentary on social media – about politics, about business and economics, about sport, arts, culture, the environment, for amusement or maybe just to pass time. What if I felt scared to write open letters, such as this one I wrote to Chris Kenny? I feel Australia would be different and for this I am incredibly upset with Chris Kenny (which I assume I can’t be sued for saying?).

Tax: renting a spot in civilisation

Freeloaders Tax Paying MemeWhile I was reading Josh Bornstein’s excellent contribution on the subject of tax, it reminded me that progressive Australians really need to work harder at reframing this word and the whole concept of tax to make it a positive thing. The question is, how do we do this after the Right have spent so much time and effort turning tax into a dirty word?

The problem with the current concept of ‘tax’ as being something bad, something annoying, something to be avoided, is that it is impossible to even mention the word in a conversation, let alone in a budget speech, without eliciting a negative reflex. So while we should be having conversations about who in our society should be paying what types of tax and how much they should be paying, we can’t even start the conversation. As an example, I am a huge fan of the mining tax, but I am deeply offended by the GP tax. There are fair ways of generating revenue and there are unfair ways. And this is what we should really be talking about, instead of reeling at the very mention of the word.

So how do we fix this problem? How do we change the way our community reacts to taxation? I think we need to turn the payment of tax into a moral act. I’ve got some ideas about how we go about reframing the very act of paying tax.

The first key idea that needs to be communicated is that we are very lucky to be born into a country with the infrastructure that provides us with the opportunity to live the lives that most Australians live. When I say infrastructure, I don’t only mean physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, I mean everything that makes up a civilisation. This includes a banking system that enables investment in the economy, an education system, a health system, support for arts and culture, emergency services and a defence force. A first world civilisation also has an appropriate welfare safety net to protect those who need it. And the reason we have this civilisation is because we have a democratic government, whose activities in organising this civilisation are funded by our payment of tax. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the American Supreme court once said ‘I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.’ He knew a thing or two that too many people have forgotten.

I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but stick with me because this is going somewhere. It’s only a short step from understanding why paying tax is crucial to the existence of the Australian civilisation, to then understand why those who are benefiting most from this civilisation should, morally, be the ones paying the most tax. And this is where I pause to make clear that those on welfare are often the ones that tax payers perceive as benefiting most from civilisation, when really, they are the ones benefiting least. Why? Because our civilisation offers the greatest benefits to those who earn the most and the people earning the most wouldn’t have the opportunity to benefit from this position of wealth without the opportunity to live in our civilisation. Benefits like highly paid, interesting and intellectually fulfilling work. Benefits like a lifestyle where people can list their hobbies as buying nice things and eating nice food. Benefits like a safe, supportive community in which to raise a family. Benefits like an economy where there are enough well-off people to fund a range of business activities, where income from profits contribute to an increase in quality of life. It’s this quality of life that paying tax provides. And the better the quality of life, morally, the more an individual or a company (hello Google, Apple and Westfield just to name a few) should contribute for belonging to this civilisation.

The problem with the way that we speak about tax avoidance currently is the word ‘avoidance’. You avoid bad things. To avoid something is to cleverly do something in your best interest by getting out of the way of something that’s not in your best interest. So when you put the word ‘tax’ next to the word ‘avoid’, the image conjured up is positive, clever, brave even. This is wrong and is yet another example of the way in which the Right manipulate language, and spread this common-usage phrase to suit their ideological agenda.

So how about this for a new frame. What if paying tax is akin to paying rent to live in a civilisation? So just like in the property market, where the more you pay for a property, the better the location, the bigger the rooms, the better the view, the more ‘mod-cons’ available to you, the ‘status’ you receive for living there, and for companies, the more profit you make from the prime real estate you’ve secured, I think tax paying should also be viewed in the same way. The more rent (tax) you pay, the more benefit you receive from living in our civilisation, which is funded by the tax you pay. So what if we start calling those who minimise and avoid paying their fair share of tax ‘freeloaders’? What if we openly refer to them as cheapskates and slackers? What if we start a campaign to name and shame these tightwads? What if we start telling them they are squatting in our civilisation and they either need to pay their rent or we’ll evict them? What if we reinforced this frame in everything we ever say about tax? I don’t know about all of you, but I’m going to give this plan a try. Starting now. Never again will I call a tax avoider a tax avoider. From now on, I will call them tax freeloaders. This is how we will solve the world’s problems one word at a time.


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