Why there will never be a revolution, and why there should be

Ross Gittins wrote an article in the Sydney Morning Herald the other week reporting on a fascinating study which should have been, but wasn’t, titled Why There Is Never Going To Be A Revolution.

The study found, basically, that the majority of Australians in every income bracket thought that most people lived on roughly what they themselves did. This was true for households living on between $20,000 and $40,000 per annum; it was equally true for households living on $120,000 to $150,000. More of those on over $150,000 had the grace to admit that perhaps they were more affluent than most – presumably because this income band includes the mega-rich, who one assumes have the grace to realise that most people don’t buy an extra Lexus just for the nanny – but even then close to half thought of themselves as normal.

There are, of course, a number of flaws with the study, one of which is that it doesn’t take into account fixed costs. The day to day life of a family of six in Sydney on $120,000 may not bear many similarities to that of a 20 year old apprentice plumber living with his parents – for one, I suspect more housework is involved – but the amount of disposable income at the end of the week may be comparable.

So, let’s discount fixed costs. Has our family of six burdened themselves with an $750,000 mortgage in order to live in an old Glebe terrace? That’s $4000 per month they’re up for, and don’t even talk to them about rates and utilities, you wouldn’t believe the prices, so you can’t tell them they’re richer than Dave the not-quite-a-plumber, who pays his Mum $200 board a week. Well, hang on, says Dave. I’d bloody love to live in Glebe, not stuck here in a dank bedroom in Gagebrook, Tasmania. Just because they choose to spend their money that way doesn’t make us even. It’s like saying that you have to deduct the caviar from their food bill. Their lives are richer for having the option to live somewhere like Glebe.

Well, alright. Is housing a fixed cost or not? What about transport? We all know that poor people don’t drive, but they do have to spend a lot of time in their imaginary cars, which are usually older and less fuel efficient than the real and not at all made up cars of the rich. Is that a fixed cost? What about children? I used to earn exactly the same as another friend; we started our law careers at the same time, in the same firm, and merrily broke our contractual obligations by comparing our salary raises, so I know this to be true. But five years down the track, I was paying $1000 a month from my after-tax salary in childcare, and it was only that low because I’d dropped to part time, which means I also lost 20% of my salary before we started. But then again, having children was my choice; in a way, that’s discretionary spending too. What’s a fixed cost? At what point in the monthly ballet that is income and expenditure do you start calling money ‘disposable income?

The flaws are many, is my point, and to make a proper, scientifically rigorous comparison is beyond my abilities, although one of these days I’m going to have a damn good crack at it. What I’m interested in today, though, is the fact that, flaws aside, the study feels instinctively correct. Everyone does, in fact, basically assume that most people are on sort of around what they themselves are. And in fact, everyone I know looks at everyone else I know and thinks well, hang on, how is it that they can afford to do A Thing when I cannot? They can’t earn that much more than me, surely? Or can they? Am I, in fact, massively underpaid compared to my peers?

It’s because we notice the things we don’t have rather than the things we do. There’s probably some fancy sociological term for this, covering the human desire for status, and awareness of one’s position within any given group because we’re social animals by nature, and good old fashioned grass-is-greener syndrome. But it happens all the time. I notice that one friend sends her children to a private school whereas mine are state; how does she manage that? But I’m not exaggerating when I say that as I typed this, I just realised that my annual budget for books is probably equivalent to the fees for one child. (In my defence, it’s a cheap private school) (I actually can’t believe I just admitted that). Another friend buys entirely organic food, but cuts her hair at home, which I have to make myself remember. And so on.

What I’m saying, really, is not about their expenditure at all. It’s that my own expenditure feels invisible. I have to really think very hard about it to realise that actually quite a lot of my spending is discretionary, because it doesn’t feel like it. Most of the money I spend isn’t fun to spend (books excepted), it’s just…what I feel like I need to keep up with the people who are my peers. And because it isn’t fun, it doesn’t make me feel well off to spend it. I felt richer when I was 14 and my birthday cheque from my Dad arrived and I had to decide whether to buy three new CDs or a dress. The limitless horizons!

It’s awkward, talking about money, and this whole post makes me feel very vulnerable. But although on a broad, intellectual level of course I know that I’m better off than most people in the world who would love to have fresh water and good sanitation and food left on the plate at the end of dinnertime, on a day to day basis it never feels like that at all.

I wonder if there’s a way to go back to the feeling of one’s first paycheque and make it fun again. Maybe if we had some sort of system whereby the basic needs of everybody were met from a communal pool of money, after which the little disposable income left was shared out, and although it was very little, it would be for frivolous spending only, like my birthday CDs, and all the more valuable for it.

We could call it something like…I don’t know. Communal..community..communism!


Inequality is a feature, not a bug: How to make sense of the Federal Budget.

We’ve all had that conversation at a party.  The one with the person who turns out to hold such staggeringly bigoted, or illogical beliefs that it is impossible to argue with them.  And yet you can’t tear yourself away.  You keep thinking, against all evidence, that if you just explain things to them properly, maybe they’ll come around; look, here are some statistics!  And here, see, here are some well-respected, peer-reviewed studies by experts in the field!  Maybe if I appeal to their better instincts, or draw an analogy with something tangible from their own lives?  No? 

But the reason you can’t connect with them is because the fundamental axioms of their life are so different from yours that there is, simply, no common ground.

That’s the fundamental disconnect that is happening between the Abbott Government and, well, everybody else, from the AMA to the IPA.  Outraged articles reporting on leaked documents that prove the Government knew that the budget would hit the most disadvantaged the hardest miss the point completely.  Of course they knew that.  You’d have to be a completely illiterate idiot with no rational thinking skills at all to miss the point that, if you take a young unemployed person and give them absolutely no money at all for six months, they might find it a wee bit hard to make ends meet.  And this Government is not full of idiots.  To assume that it is, is also to miss the point.  Of course you don’t get to occupy the most privileged positions in society, even if you are a white privately-educated male and therefore have one fuck of a head start on everyone else, if you can’t grasp the basics of budget modelling and social policy.

So, no, they’re not idiots, although I can see that it feels like the only logical explanation once you’ve discounted all the others.  Somehow, believing that a group of highly educated men who are being advised by specialists in their field are idiots is more palatable than believing the truth.

The truth is that they understand entirely the impact of the Budget.  And they’re not only fine with it, they see it as desirable.


Classical conservatism, remember, predicates that society benefits from inequality.  Adam Smith talks about maximising state wealth by paying workers the bare minimum that is necessary for survival.  John Locke considered the main function of government to be the preservation of private property.  Edmund Burke, who was a bit of a dick but meant well, was absolutely convinced that there was a line to be drawn between the ‘common people’, who weren’t worthy of a vote, and government, which featured the best and brightest.  These are guys who are still studied today, because their politics, whilst a tad quaint, have been formative to Western society.  At the heart of their philosophy is the assumption that inequality is good for a country.  It might not be great for individuals, obviously.  But it’s good for the country as a whole.

When left wing commentators write in outrage about the fact that the Government knew that their budget would disadvantage the poor, they’re assuming that this is considered to be a universally bad thing.  They’re appealing to a particular view – that all individuals should be given a fighting chance and a minimal standard of living to preserve their self-respect – and assuming that it’s the only view.  To advocate for anything else would be such insanity that it can’t be contemplated.

But that’s exactly what this Government is doing. They’re thinking about the country as a whole, and approaching the question of governance with a completely different view.  They’re saying that it is only by encouraging inequality that we, as a country, can grow great.


Once you accept that, the Budget makes sense.

Let’s look at education, because to look at everything would be beyond the reach of a humble blog post.  As I dash past the other areas of the Budget, though, let’s not forget that the proposed $7 fee payable by patients as a Medicare gap was specifically modelled to discourage people from going to the doctor.  It’s a feature: not a bug.  

We’re squawking about the fact that deregulated university fees will discourage people from poorer families – those who will be less able to pay off their HECS early – from going to university.  How can the government not see this, we cry.  How can they be so blind?  But that’s because we’re assuming that they’re not trying to orchestrate just that result.  The University of Canberra’s Vice-Chancellor believes that too many people are going to university; policies that force people into accepting blue-collar careers are considered a positive thing.  Catherine Livingstone of the Business Council of Australia agrees.

Even if people do still go to university, the policies will help ensure that the best and brightest careers are retained by the people who deserve them: upper-class men.  Here’s Christopher Pyne, on the 7.30 Report yesterday, where he was asked whether he accepted that changes to HECS will disadvantage women:

women are well-represented amongst the teaching and nursing students. They will not be able to earn the high incomes that say dentists or lawyers will earn.

So that’s alright then.  Women can’t earn high incomes, like dentists or lawyers can. Nothing to see here, carry on with your ironing.  

Quite apart from the fact that Pyne’s answer is completely disingenuous, ignoring as it does the fact that over 60% of law graduates are female, it betrays a deeper assumption about the way that society should work.  A different person, acknowledging that women ‘will not be able to earn the high incomes’ might present that fact as one that needs to be addressed.  Pyne presents it as a defence of his policy.  A feature, not a bug.

I did it again, didn’t I?

Just popped out for a second and failed to come back.

There’s a better excuse this time.  I’m pursuing a career in freelance writing, so when I think of something I want to spend serious time on writing about, I want to sell it.  Also I have another blog under a pseudonym, which is gaining in popularity and takes up quite a lot of time.  And I’m studying, which is involving weekly writing assignments.  Oh, and also writing a novel.  And part of my day job involves writing and editing a bi-annual industry journal, which is due out at the end of this month. So there’s that.  Goodness.  Actually that’s quite a lot now I think about it.

So maybe what I’m going to do here is use this blog for the rough drafts, the things that I might not have the energy to write about in full, the frothing outrages that don’t have a natural home.

Turn up the music.