Saturday, December 07, 2002

Martha Nussbaum, Michel Foucault, Power

My time during the last few days has been spent searching for an inner-city postmodern electronic cottage in the heart of the city of Adelaide. We actually found one near the Central Market. this has meant that I have slipped behind in dealing with blogging. I had intended to deal with the second article that Tim Dunlop linked in his post Pomo RIP (28th November). I have the day off from househunting today so I can catch up with my blogging. So I will deal with Tim's post on postmodern thought.

The article The Professor of Parody is by Martha Nussbaum, who just happened to be in Australia at ANU working on this years Tanner Lectures on Human Value called Beyond the Social Contract:Toward Global Justice. What caught my eye with Nussbaum's review of the work of the postmodern feminist Judith Butler were her passing comments on Michel Foucault. I had intended to pick up on these. Fortunately the academic Oz bloggers who commented on Tim Dunlop's post were also critical of Foucault. Since the ideas were not discussed there I will take some up and see what happens.

In the first bit of the passage that I have selected, Nussbaum says that postmodernism is more insidious that provincialism:

"Something more insidious than provincialism has come to prominence in the American academy. It is the virtually complete turning from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women.

Feminist thinkers of the new symbolic type would appear to believe that the way to do feminist politics is to use words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness. These symbolic gestures, it is believed, are themselves a form of political resistance; and so one need not engage with messy things such as legislatures and movements in order to act daringly. The new feminism, moreover, instructs its members that there is little room for large-scale social change, and maybe no room at all. We are all, more or less, prisoners of the structures of power that have defined our identity as women; we can never change those structures in a large-scale way, and we can never escape from them. All that we can hope to do is to find spaces within the structures of power in which to parody them, to poke fun at them, to transgress them in speech. And so symbolic verbal politics, in addition to being offered as a type of real politics, is held to be the only politics that is really possible.'

After describing this threat to the American academy Nussbaum then traces these postmodern ideas back to the French poststructuralism in general, and to the work of Michel Foucault in particular. She says:

'These developments owe much to the recent prominence of French postmodernist thought. Many young feminists, whatever their concrete affiliations with this or that French thinker, have been influenced by the extremely French idea that the intellectual does politics by speaking seditiously, and that this is a significant type of political action. Many have also derived from the writings of Michel Foucault (rightly or wrongly) the fatalistic idea that we are prisoners of an all-enveloping structure of power, and that real-life reform movements usually end up serving power in new and insidious ways.'

Well I would say wrongly, since Foucault's thesis that we are involved in networks of knowledge/power also involves acts of resistance as a form of countervailing power. Thus as a member of academic philosophy in a a regional university in the grip of provincialism, I was working within the disciplinary knowledge/power of analytic philosophy that worked to ensure that I became an analytic philosopher. And it was an enormous amount of pressure. I resisted this pressure and the formation of my self/comportment/identityas a philosopher. I did so through acts of resistance that eventually involved turning to continental philosophy, and then using its ideas to engage in a critique of analytic philosophy. So the ' fatalistic idea that we are prisoners of an all-enveloping structure of power' does not apply due to resistance.

What I was engaged in was fighting one kind of philosophy with another kind of philosophy within an academic philosophy institution. So Nussbaum's claim is appropriate when she says:

'We are all, more or less, prisoners of the structures of power that have defined our identity as women; we can never change those structures in a large-scale way, and we can never escape from them. All that we can hope to do is to find spaces within the structures of power in which to parody them, to poke fun at them, to transgress them in speech. And so symbolic verbal politics, in addition to being offered as a type of real politics, is held to be the only politics that is really possible.'

Now this is pretty unfair. My identity as a philosophy was tied to the knowledge/power of analytic philosophy (I as anti-analytic philosopher); I could never change the network of power of analytic philosophy across Australian universities in a large-scale way;and I could never escape from this network of power if I was to work as a philosopher in an Australian university. All I could do was to find a space within this power network to work differently, and I chose to do this by developing tools and ideas from continental philosophy to transgress the limits of analytic philosophy. And that's all I could be expected to do as a Ph.D student. A life of political activism in reforming the institution of philosophy (along the lines of Maoism) was not going to get me a Ph.D., and I needed that to have any credibility within the philosophy institution.

Nussbaum is unfair because what else is academic life but fighting ideas with ideas? So what is Nussbaum suggesting? That we scholars engage in trade union politics to protect the staff from the negative impacts of economic reforms instead of doing scholarship---reading the Greeks to recover different kinds of philosophy to the scientific one propounded by the analytic school? She cannot be serious. And she is not. She has engaged in the same enterprise of finding alternative ways of doing philosophy in her book, The Therapy of Desire.Nussbaum does not like a literary philosophy that works in terms of the weapons of parody and poking fun--the weapons deployed by Richard Rorty to deflate the pretensions of serious, analytic philosophers to be the master thinkers. And Richard Rorty was very good at it because the analytic philosophers were stung into response.

We can escape from the disciplinary power of a philosophy institution by stepping outside the university and into the legislature to locate philosophy within political life as the Romans did. But that is stepping from one knowledge/power network into another one and into different modes of resistance. Yet we still are engaged in a battle of ideas as well as getting the numbers.

So Nussbaum is misleading here. Why is she?

UPDATE:Becasue she is defending her liberal humanism. And to do so she will block Foucault's power network thesis in terms of it lacking any ethical depth. Consider the following remark:

'Try teaching Foucault at a contemporary law school, as I have, and you will quickly find that subversion takes many forms, not all of them congenial to Butler and her allies. As a perceptive libertarian student said to me, Why can't I use these ideas to resist the tax structure, or the antidiscrimination laws, or perhaps even to join the militias? Others, less fond of liberty, might engage in the subversive performances of making fun of feminist remarks in class, or ripping down the posters of the lesbian and gay law students' association. These things happen. They are parodic and subversive. Why, then, aren't they daring and good?'

It's a good question. This is where ethics would come into play. And Nussbaum knows a lot about ethics. It is her forte. She continues:

'Well, there are good answers to those questions, but you won't find them in Foucault, or in Butler. Answering them requires discussing which liberties and opportunities human beings ought to have, and what it is for social institutions to treat human beings as ends rather than as means--in short, a normative theory of social justice and human dignity. It is one thing to say that we should be humble about our universal norms, and willing to learn from the experience of oppressed people. It is quite another thing to say that we don't need any norms at all. Foucault, unlike Butler, at least showed signs in his late work of grappling with this problem; and all his writing is animated by a fierce sense of the texture of social oppression and the harm that it does.'

So how did the late Foucault grapple with this ? What did his ethical turn back to the Greeks result in? Well we won't find it in Nussbaum. She has the knowledge of Greek ethics to tell us what he was trying to do. But she is determined to keep Foucault outside the gate. So she blocks. Foucault dumps norms.

'But let there be no mistake: for Butler, as for Foucault, subversion is subversion, and it can in principle go in any direction....For every friend of Butler, eager to engage in subversive performances that proclaim the repressiveness of heterosexual gender norms, there are dozens who would like to engage in subversive performances that flout the norms of tax compliance, of non-discrimination, of decent treatment of one's fellow students.'

No attempt is made to engage with Foucault's ethical notion of care for self and creating the self as if it were work of art.' Norms are involved here, not of social justice, but involving a reworking of ' human dignity'. This is a poststructuralist turn to ethics through a return and re-reading of the Greeks. How does this transgress the limits of the univeral norms of liberal humanism? You have to look elsewhere since Nussbaum wants to leave us with a Foucault ensared in postmodern nihilism.
Farewell to A Hail of Dead Cats

I have been caught up in buying a house---upgrading my innercity electronic cottage---these last fews days. I am tired of living in 1890s Adelaide heritage. I desire something more postmodern---not modern---and in the very heart of the city. I want to feel the throb of urban life whilst I am on the toilet, or see the flow of urban life whilst writing in my study. My time these last few days has been spent looking at lots of overpriced, trashy town houses---most of the inner city blocks of high rise looked and felt like prisons. So I haven't really been able to keep in touch with the layers of commentary in the newspapers and the Oz blogworld.

I have only just caught up with the farewell to blogging by Don Arthur posted last Thursday. It is sad to see a dead cat, especially when he was so very good at blogging. I enjoyed reading his blogs. Don was anything but mediocre. But I can understand his decision to quit. Blogging takes up a such lot of time and the work is given no recognition in academia. And doing a Ph.D. in an Australia university is akin to hard labour---so something had to give. Let us hope that Don returns to blogging after he has broken all the intellectual rocks he needs in order to acquire his trade certificate. We are all the poorer for his absence.

A Ph.D. as doing time in a boot camp? You can see that I'm still smarting from the putdown from my ex-academic colleague. It has activated my bitterness about doing a Ph.D. in Australia. By large and large Australian universities are quite good at providing an undergraduate education, mediocre to poor at a postgraduate education at MA level and downright terrible at providing a Ph.D. education. They are simply not equipped for Ph.D.'s---most of the older teachers don't have one, or if they do they did it on the job---and so those students game enough to do one in Australia have to do it on their own. Supervision is a joke---one hears so many stories of supervisors not reading the written work, failing to turn up for appointments, knowing nothing about the subject matter they are supervising, or supervising 20 Ph.D.students. This is called academic management. It may look good on the academics job creditionals---they are a manager and not just a teacher---but the students suffer.

Consequently, A Ph.D. is intellectual bootstrap work. You just have to do it all yourself. Students have not been prepared for this by doing honours. The move from honours (or even an MA ) to a Ph.D. is a quantam leap over a big chasm. Few resources are provided to ensure that the move is a successful one.

There are so many bleached bones lying scattered on the side of the Ph.D. highway. If you travel on this highway and desire to do good creative work, then be prepared to be shot down by your supervisor, colleagues and examiners. An institutional space devoted to defending freedom---liberal inclusion and the open society---is all about being chained to habitual (and cliched) ways of thinking. If you fail to complete---or even if you are slow in getting the Ph.D. done----the answer is clear and forthright: it is because you are not bright enough to make the grade of excellence that is required. Stupidity has no place in a university. You are dumb, so leave this institution. People leave feeling they are failures.

This academic ideology is used to cover up the impoverishment associated with the frequently-given advice that, 'you can study Foucault's texts in your own time, but you cannot use his ideas in your thesis.' The subtext of the message is that you will not pass if you rely on Foucault's ideas, or are sympathetic to postmodernism. There are so many students who have encountered that reaction to poststructuralism from middle-aged white males and females; academics who are nearing retirement and who have never even read the texts! But, despite the evident lack of scholarship, they know all about these texts and their big flaws. The students were just too dumb to see that there is little point in reading these radical/subversive texts before they read them. They were dumb because they were unwilling to be guided by the wisdom of their academic betters.

So much for the ethos of scholarship of the liberal university. That ethos had decayed so why not clean out the timewasters. Why should the liberal university be a sheltered workshop that destroys some of the best minds of a generation. You can see that the economic rationalists had a point about needing to reform the institutions of higher education. But it will not do anything about the damage that has already been done to so many promising students with something interesting to say.

And it is not just poststructuralism that is so summarily dismissed by the academic gatekeepers. This has been going on a long time in the Anglo-American liberal academy. In my journey through graduate school I meet many analytic philosophers who could refute Hegel with ease, even though they had not read a single paragraph of his texts. They had been told by higher academic authority---usually a big overseas name---that Hegel had no arguments. He did not argue in a deductive manner. So there was no point in reading Hegel because the secondary literature said so. The justification went like this. Philosophy was about arguments. Since Hegel had no arguments he stood for non-philosophy. So there is not point in my engaging with him. (Derrida was treated in a similar fashion). And this was done with a straight face by the nook dwellers without even a hint of awareness at the intellectual poverty that was so openly displayed. What was acknowledged though was the arrogance and elitism of academic life. Why bothering pretending? Someone had to carry the torch of knowledge.

Doing a Ph.D. in an Australian university is crossing the badlands of academia. Academia is all about gatekeeping, defending a particular disciplinary school from criticism and using the various forms of disciplinary knowledge/power to prevent academics from a rival school being appointed. Merit has very little to do with it at this power level. If rival schools do happen to exist in the same department, then we have a very hostile environment and the politics of the backroom. Bad things happen to you in the badlands and being wounded by the intellectual thuggery of the bully boys and girls is a part of normality in the badlands. The law is nowhere to be seen in the badlands and there a few doctors to be found. One slowly dies from the wounds becoming infected and turning poisonous. The only way to survive is to cut off the infected limb. But to be able to do that you have to have remembered to have bought a sharp knife with you. But how would you know that you had to be an armed liberal in the first place?

The wounds inflicted in the badlands take years to heal, even for those who bravely fought the baddies and eventually acquired their certificate. Few want to hang around afterwards. They only do so because they are so highly specialised that they cannot land another job outside academia. It is a death trap many want to escape from. There are many stories about the horrors of the death trap. Most of them are still untold.

Most academics pretend that the badlands don't exist. They say they exist only in the imagination of disgruntled graduate students who cannot cut the heat in the kitchen of academic debate. These students are like startled rabbits caught in the shooters spotlight. The rationale so offered protects the poor performance of Australian universities at the graduate level and puts a civilized veneer over the bootcamp.

More money will not fix the badlands. The institution of higher education needs to be re-shaped, but it is not clear that dismantling the regulatory regime of higher education will stop the killings in the badlands.

As you can see, I'm still smarting from the putdown by my ex-academic colleague. It has opened the old wounds that I thought had long healed. I do enjoy looking at the university from within a political life, and my heart lifts when I hear the odd story about the mediocre academics struggling to hang onto their jobs because of their poor performance. Maybe the killings in the badlands will stop one day---when it is finally recognized that many Australian universities should be undergraduate colleges and not trying to reach for the stars by having graduate schools.

Hang in there Don. We want you back blogging away with your Ph.D.

Friday, December 06, 2002

Debunking Academics
I ran into an academic colleague the other day along North Terrace in Adelaide. I asked him, 'how is life as a fulltime academic these days? Enjoying it?' He told me that things were getting worse day by day. Less resources, increased teaching loads, less staff; well, you all know the story. I expressed my sympathy for his state of health which was not good. (Depression and stress etc). He asked me what I was doing. 'I haven't seen you around much', he said. I said I was still writing my books. But it was slow and painful, due to my commitments from being involved in a political life. He looked somewhat embarrassed and scornful, and made some cutting remark about the futility of political life. I felt quite defensive, as if my "applied" work on the River Murray counted for naught whilst his scholarship on some obscure European philosopher was all so worthwhile. He was furthering the culture of humanity whilst was merely greasing the cogs of power. Then the mobile rang---a politician was on the line---so I made my excuses---work calling I said---smiled, said my goodbyes to the defender of the great texts of the west, moved on, and took the call.

It was the contempt in his voice that stayed with me. It rankled me and got under my skin, even though I knew that most academcs had little in the way of people skills.

I was still in a resentful and angry frame of mind about the arrogance of this member of the 'educated intelligentsia' when I read the last chapter of Stephen King's, Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences at a coffee shop across the road from SA Parliament in North Terrace. So I read it quickly with a jaundiced eye and contrasted it with Lindy Edwards', How to Argue with an Economist.

In the conclusion to his book Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences, Stephen King gives us some good news. He says that critical economists are very aware of the flaws in conventional (neo-classical) economics and that there are developments in vibrant alternative approaches to analyzing the economy. He says that we can use this knowledge he has given us as a lever. Then this passage caught my eye:

" If you are or advise a person in authority in the public or private sectors, you should know now not to take the advice of economists on faith. They have received far too an easy ride as the accepted vehicles of economic knowledge. As a few enquiring questions, and see whether those vehicles ring hollow ... there is no reason to remain quiet [and defer to the authority of the economist].Economics [is] too important to be left to the economists."

I mulled over that passage. Here was an academic talking to me as someone involved in political life. I reacted negatively to what he said.

The strength of King's book is the excellent account he gives of the contradictions within the theoretical edifice of neo-classical economics for those not formally trained in economics. It is primarily about the predominant views within the economics profession over the last 50 years, as the Keynesian predominance in Australian economics has faded, and so it it remains bounded by disciplinary concerns. And King does a good job of this.

The book's weakness is the lack of an account of free market & small government economics in public policy, the changes to the economic policy regime in Australia, and the public reaction to economic reforms, such as competition policy. Consequently, we get a one dimensional view of politics that is so typical of academia. Academics fail to see the complex and tension-filled inter-relationships between policy makers in the bureaucracy, politicians and their staffers/advisors, the media and public opinion. Unless they are involved in public policy they they have little grasp of these inter-relationships, how politics intersects with the professional policymakers and their public nor the skills or capacities that need to be acquired to operate in such a world. Academia remains the standard by which everything is measured and it is the lens through which everything is viewed. Academia as the centre of gravity in market capitalism? Who is fooling who here?

Yet the truth of the matter is that few academics are connected to the world of public policy; very few have a good understanding of the day-to-day grind of parliamentary work; most do very little research work on public policy issues and assume that the academy is the centre of the universe. Most academics are teachers in second-rate universities who do a bit of research here and there and take an interest in politics as citizens. Academia is all that many of them have ever known. Their ignorance, however, does not prevent them from looking down on those involved in political life from their superior vantage point--- (eg.,ex-scholars involved in political life are treated as if they have sold out) whilst the work they do is dismissed with a wave of an academic hand as superficial and lightweight. Yet you will not find many of the academics who passionately hold forth on the damage down to the liberal university by a neo-liberal mode of governance fronting up to a Senate Inquiry into Higher Education to lay their concerns on the table for the politicians. When confronted with, 'well why don't you put your money where where your mouth is', they scurry back to their little cubby holes muttering about it all being too much work. In short, they don't have that much to offer they know it, prefer to live with the cobwebs of their mind, are afraid to mix it with political power and are not willing to parade their ignorance for the politicians to see. They prefer to live with their illusions that they are the ones who know, have expert knowledge in a world of mass ignorance. These academics prefer to strand on the sidelines of political life and shout abuse.

So let us come back to King's statement that after reading his book politicians 'know now not to take the advice of economists on faith. They [economists] have received far too an easy ride as the accepted vehicles of economic knowledge.' Well, polticiains wioll not read his book. Its their staffers/advisors/researchers who will. It is not the case that all politicians took free market policies on faith. They did not think that the application of free market economics would lead to market equilibrium and guarantee the best possible welfare for all members of society. For instance, many have been deeply sceptical of competition policy delivering public benefit because of their close contact with ordinary citizens living with the negative consequences of competition policy. They know free market economcis delivers unbalanced chaos and inequality, undermines community and devastates the environment. You don't need a Ph.D. in economics to figure that out. Nor is the current impasse in public policy due to a lack of knowledge, which is what King implies.

The strength of the Lindy Edwards book, How to Argue with an Economist is that is located within the intersection of professional policy advisors in the central bureaucracies and public opinion: Politics for her is where these two worlds collide. She says that politicians have the policy elite in their ear on the one hand and the public on the other and they are forced to bridge the gap between the two. She has got it dead right. It was so far from the academic understanding of things--- the 'educated intelligentsia' looking down on the ordinary (ignorant) punter and oozing contempt for politics. She had a good sense of the current policy vacuum; how the current political impasse is more about a conflict over values than a lack of knowledge about how things work; and about how economics is used as a weapon in political life. It is knowledge gained from being a staffer/advisor to a federal Senator from South Australia. You would not gain it from working in academia.

It is this practical, tacit knowledge of being a political animal that is so scornfully dismissed by so many of my academic colleagues. They do not acknowledge it as knowledge, and those who write texts informed by this practical knowledge encounter an academic bile and hostility from the sandstone, ivory tower that wants nothing more than to exterminate them as the enemy. Academic life is filled with many poisons. Some of them are quite lethal, especially those about political life.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

A Desert Island Joke about Economists

I found this in Steve Keen's, Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences, (Pluto Press, Sydney, 2001), p.148.

"Have you heard the joke about the chemist, physicist and economist who got wrecked on desert island with a huge supply of canned beans as their only food? The chemist says that he can start a fire using the neighbouring palm trees, and calculate the temperature at which a can will explode. The physicist says that she can work out the trajectory of each of the baked beans, so that they can be collected and eaten. The economist says 'Hang on guys, you're doing it the hard way. Let's assume we have a can opener.'"

Neat. It addresses the widespread belief in Chicago School Economics ( eg., Milton Friedman) that economics cannot be judged on the accuracy or realism of its assumptions about objective reality, but only by the accuracy of its predictions. In other words, the assumptions (or axioms) upon which the theoretical edifice has been built through a series of mathematical equations, don't matter.

If a philosopher had been on the desert island she would have treated the others to a long discourse on the flaws of positivism and so bored them all silly about why they should be scientific realists.

She intuitively knew that a lecture would get her nowhere with these scientist types so she pull an old battered text from her back pocket and said, 'forget about the food guys. Its a great night. Lets get the camp fire going. This is a great opportunity to have a Socratic discussion about some paragraphs from Adorno & Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment. Its an underground classic. Look, I've got a good passage here. Check this out:

'To the Enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to one, becomes illusion; modern positivism writes it off as literature.'

That's food for thought eh? A philosophical oneliner as it were. We could put off the beans for a while. With the starry skies above us and the moral law in our hearts we could explore what is being said here. It sounds pretty deep.'

There was silence. Taken back, the philosopher quickly recovered her poise and said:

'Well, maybe that is too simple for you scientists. Try this one then. Its more meaty'.

"The reduction of thought to a mathematical apparatus conceals the sanction of the world as its own yardstick. What appears to be the triumph of subjective rationality is paid for by the obedient subjection of reason to what is directly given. What is abandoned is the whole claim and approach of knowledge: to comprehend the given as such; not merely to determine the abstract spatio-temporal relations of the facts which allow them to be just grasped; but on the contrary, to conceive them as the superficies, as mediated conceptual moments which come to fulfillment only in the development of their social, historical and human significance.'

How about that guys? Pretty heavy huh. Interested in discussing it? It is a direct attack on your science, the way you construct scientific knowledge, and marginalize non-scientific knowledge. Surely, we can bite some chunks out of that paragraph and kick some of the ideas around.'

There was even a longer silence. The philosopher persists even though she was the only woman on a desert island with three men. The moment had to be seized and she was rather cool.

She says: 'Listen to what these continental folks say next. Its pretty dam outrageous, very dark stuff indeed. Adorno & Horkheimer say:

"The task of cognition does not consist in mere apprehension, classification, and calculation, but in the determinate negation of each im-imediacy. Mathematical formalism, however, whose medium is number, the most abstract form of the immediate, instead holds thinking to mere immediacy. Factuality wins the day; cognition is restricted to repetition; and thought becomes mere tautology. The more the machinery of thought subjects existence to itself, the more blind its resignation in reproducing existence. Hence enlightenment returns to mythology, which it never really knew how to elude."'

'Pretty left of field, don't you think? I reckon you can hear resonances of old Hegel cranking away in the background there. Now's our opportunity to get serious, exercise the old brain cells in figuring out what the hell they saying, and then get stuck into their attack on an enlightening science turning itself into mythology.

What do you reckon? Is that a good account of modern neo-classical economics? A tricky idea? Look, I'll defend these claims about economics for the sake of a Socratic discussion, if you want?'

Sad to say, no one was interested in a Socratic discussion of this old text under the starry heavens. They all thought it was nonsense. The scientific guys were only interested in eating beans not dialectics. And to hell with Socrates. He was a dead white male. What was the point of the moral law when the canned beans were free.

Such is the way of analytic judgement.
A Joke

I came across this in Lindy Edwards,How to argue with an economist I could not resist sharing it.

'Q. How many economists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A. None. They just sit back and wait for the invisible hand to do it.'

I love it.

More on 'How to argue with an economist'

I reckon Lindy has nailed the habitual mode of thought in which the discipline of economics understands itself. She says neo-classical economics has tried to align itself with the natural sciences; is atomistic; see itself as a value free science; clings to a mathematical framework;is a grand theory; is deeply ideological in its understanding of how society works; presupposes that its theories of spontaneous market forces reflects the natural order of things; and is deeply utopian. (She misses the bit about the economy being a finely tuned clockwork mechanism). What she does show is that economics stands for Science and so the politicians believe that the advice they receive is soundly based.

Yet the policies associated with the core doctrine that the market will ensure the welfare of all are often applied in a universal fashion, without taking into account history or culture. So why persist with applying this scientific toolkit to solve economic, social and environmental problems in the face of the destructive consequences of its free market policies? Why do smart, highly-trained people persist with bad policies?

Many economists would say that it is due to the smart people using unsmart economics. They had chosen the wrong tools in the toolbox. Why is this so? Is it because of a bad education by analytic mathematical reason into the theoretical edifice without economists gaining a deep understanding of the history of intellectual disputes within their own discipline? This answer is often explored by academic economists, for instance, Steve Keen's Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences, (Pluto Press, Sydney, 2001) and they show that the theoretical edifice is riddled with inconsistences and internally contradictory.

Okay. But that does not account for economics' grip on, and ascendency over, public policy. In the public policy world economic theory is held to be sound and to be the only body of social knowledge that considers the big picture. Its theoretical scafolding may be internally incoherent, but it is still in charge of public policy. Why so?

One answer is that economics is a value free tool that enables the elite bureaucrats to make their policy decisions, and that this accords with the bureaucrats identity of being the protectors of rationality in a policy world continually destabilised by political passion. Edwards says that the grip economic rationalism has on power lies in its secret weapon---that its practitioners believe in it. This faith in what is true and right enables them to dismiss the public anger with the consequences of their policies, deflect criticism as irrational, and counter the challenge of the politicians. So we have the key contradiction of the Enlightenment:---the foundation of science (or rationality) is grounded on faith. Hence we have the oft-noticed dogma and zealotry in response to criticism and the failure to work within the conventions of public debate.

Edwards tends to downplay the role of science within the institutional power of the central agencies, and they way science is transformed into a knowledge/power system, where those who work within this system are highly trained in the techniques of a neo-liberal mode of governance in which power is deployed to achieve policy ends. It is a way, or mode, of governing that can shape the conduct of a population for certain policy ends.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

River Murray:Taking but not Returning

There was a little piece on p.36 in todays Advertiser by Greg Kelton, the state political reporter, called, Filtered water for the Clare Valley. In it Kelton reports on a 83 km pipeline project that will be built to transport 8000 megalitres of River Murray water to the Clare Valley.

Though this pipeline will give families access to filtered household water for the first time, most of the spin about the pipeline is about about the provision of irrigation water to the valley. This was sold by Premier Rann 'as a huge benefit for the Clare Valley's tourism industry. The economic benefit could amount to $73 million with 1400 additional jobs.' The additional water 'would lead to increased horticulture and irrigation activities'. Pat Conlon, the Government Enterprises Minister, said that regional development had ben held back. For instance, water constraints in the Clare Valley in 2000, had cost the region's 40 wineries more than $7 million and cut vintage output in half. The pipeline 'will bring reliability of supply allowing for for the development of new vineyards as well as protecting existing vineyards'.

Kelton, as usual, makes no evaluation of this 'water for development.' It is tucked away on p.36 whilst all the stories of the Murray Mouth closure are placed on the front page. Why should he? Premier Rann says that the 8000 megalitres does not mean any additional water being extracted from the River Murray. So all's well. Why upset the Rann Government by asking questions that dig below the smooth media release surface of political life? After all its a few thousand megalitres when the River Murray needs a couple of thousand gigalitres.

Where is the water going to come from? How does Clare Valley plan to get the water? After all this is a time when there will be no reserves in the Murray-Darling basin after the irrigators have used up all the reserves over this summer? And Don Blackmore, the head of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, says that the authority has never before managed the river system with such a lack of water and that he expects increased evaporation of water because of high temperatures.

So where is the water coming from then? This is a reasonable question since we are supposed to be finding ways to return water to the River Murray to restore its health. And SA has been been calling on the eastern states to be responsible and claw back water from their irrigators so that the River Murray can flow freely again. Odd isn't it. It is so easy to take water from the River but so difficult to return water to ensure the health of the river.

Similar pipelines have been built in the Barossa Valley and Langhorne Creek to allow the development of new vineyards. So water development is alive and well in SA in the vast expansion of the vineyards. Nothing is ever said by the State Government that it plans to return water to the River Murray. It says that it is alway the upstream states that have to return water to the River Murray. Little questioning is undertaken in The Advertiser about this water development. It's state politics is to boost development, despite its very public campaign to 'save the Murray'. The The Advertiser is a lap dog not a watch dog.

Does the water for the Clare Valley come from trading on the open market----say from the low-value dairy farmers in Victoria? Or does it come from efficiency savings within SA? Say from the upgrading of the dairy farms in the lower Murray Swamps near Murray Bridge? And, what is the state government doing within its borders to return water to a stressed River Murray?

I don't know the answers. I do not have the information to make a judgement. But I do see inaction by the SA government in returning water to the Murray? It appears to be unwilling to tackle the irrigators. We still have the politics of economic necessity. Its de facto economic strategy in a globalised market economy appears to keep on boosting the export-orientated wineries.

Do we have an example of the general policy drift or paralysis noted by Lindy Edwards in her book 'How to argue with an economist? Have the politicians grabbed onto the River Murray because it was a way to connect with the hearts and minds of South Australians? It plays well in punter land. But the Labor politicians don't know what to do about the sustainability issues the Murray raises and they have no vision of how to move forward.

Is the oh so moderate Rann Government and the experts in its central bureaucracies still locked into seeing the problems of society through the lens of neo-liberalism? Is neo-liberalism still the dominant policy culture in the state bureaucracies? Are the Labor Party politicians still convinced that the neo-liberal policy agenda of unfettered markets will deliver the best allocation of resources and set SA on the right path?

We do seem to have a case of neo-liberal priorities and values going virtually unchallenged, with this being reinforced by a steadily more business-focused public policy.

UPDATE I am not the only one puzzling about what is going on in SA. Questions were asked about the Clare Valley pipeline in the SA Parliament by Ian Gilfillan, the SA Democrats Member of the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council Hansard Wednesday 4th December 2002 reports the following:

Legislative Council Hansard, Wednesday 4th December 2002


The Hon. IAN GILFILLAN: I seek leave to make an explanation before asking the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation, representing the Minister for the River Murray, a question relating to a filtered water supply to the Clare Valley.

Leave granted.

The Hon. IAN GILFILLAN: This morning's Advertiser carried an article on page 36 with the heading `Filtered Water for the Clare Valley.' I will quote a couple of paragraphs from it, as follows:

A pipeline will be built to take River Murray water to the Clare Valley, giving families access to filtered household water for the first time. Up to 8000 megalitres of water will be pumped from the Murray each year.

Mr Rann said the additional water would lead to increased horticulture and irrigation activities but would not mean any additional water being extracted from the Murray.In the article, government enterprises minister Patrick Conlon is quoted as saying:

This upgrade will bring reliability of supplies allowing for the development of new vineyards as well as protecting existing vineyards.

Some eyebrows have been raised, I might say, with the fact that filtered water will be required for new vineyards and existing vineyards. Although one does not deny households filtered water, it does seem to be rather extravagant to be delivering full potable household water for the irrigation of vineyards either new or old.

On the basis that there is a national campaign to show responsibility in respect of the use of water from the Murray River-in fact, strong pressure to reduce the take of water from the Murray River-I ask the minister: was the allocation of this water, the equivalent of 8000 megalitres, bought on the open market, possibly from irrigators upstream, perhaps even interstate? Was some of that water allocated from the program which has been exercised in the dairy farms in the lower Murray area swamps where water has been planned to be saved through more efficient use of irrigation and upgrading of the whole of the system at that part of the Murray?

Since there is a COAG meeting on Friday about water reform, does the minister believe that other states will see this particular increased use of Murray water by the South Australian government at this time as hypocrisy when, at the same time, this state is pushing for upstream interstate restraint-in fact, a substantial reduction in water use?

The Hon. T.G. ROBERTS (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation): I thank the honourable member for his very topical and important question and I will refer it to two ministers in another place, the Minister for Government Enterprises and the Minister for Environment and Conservation, and bring back a reply.

At best, there will be no reply until State Parliament sits in February next year. But don't hold your breath. Unlike the federal Senate the SA Government is not required to reply within 30 days to questions without notice. They do not have to reply at all, and in many cases the questions asked in the Legislative Council take a year or more to be answered. Many never even get a reply. So we do not have a commitment to open government in SA. Things, are kept tight and closed by the bureaucracy and government., which operate with a technocratic, management style that scorns open dialogue in a democratic public sphere and opposes greater accountability of the state to informed citizens.
Current Reading

I am currently reading Lindy Edwards, How to Argue with an Economist, (Cambridge University Press, 2002). It looks at public policy from the perspective of politics, which is where the two worlds of policy elite and public opinion collide.

This book was canned by Alex Robson in a review of Linda Edward's How to Argue with a Non-Economist (Archives November 8 2002). Alex said that:

'How to Argue with an Economist is classic “vision of the anointed” material. It is also one of the most irrational books ever written. Nearly every word in it is wrong. The back of the book reports that, in her role as an adviser to Natasha Stott-Despoja, Edwards has apparently gained a “unique understanding of economics from the inside of politics”. After reading this book, I would agree that her understanding of economics is unique.'

Edwards responded. She said:

The review by Alex Robson of my recently released book "How to Argue with an Economist" demonstrates a degree of intellectual cowardice of which The New Australian should be deeply ashamed .... Unable to engage with the arguments of the book, he [Alex Robson] misrepresented it and then dismissed it as foolishness. Robson's review is intellectual cowardice in the extreme. He fled from any serious discussion. And he made disturbing efforts to shut down discussion and silence debate.'

Not one to back off Robson replied:

'In her reply to my review of How to Argue with an Economist, Lindy Edwards claims that her goal was to create a more productive dialogue between the advocates and opponents of free markets. My simple point is that the book failed - spectacularly - to achieve this goal, primarily because it ignored underlying economic realities which most members of the public are already aware of. I attempted to expose her book for what it actually was, not what she intended it to be. My point was that an author cannot legitimately claim to have written a scholarly examination of economic issues if the author ignores basic economic realities - realities which any high school student of economics would be intimately familiar with. Publishing a book with Cambridge University Press is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to qualify a work as scholarly.'

Thats the debate between author and reviewer.

So how does one argue with a free market economist? Edwards begins this from the perspective of politicians and public policy. Both are caught in the divide and conflict over priorities and values between the administrative policy elite committed to a neo-liberal mode of governance and a public heartily sick of economic rationalism. Edwards claims that there is a policy drift. The old era of neo-liberalism is dead and both sides of politics are grappling for a new way forward. The flail around because their policy compasses have gone haywire. Politicians drift in the gulf between our professional policy makers and their public. Australia stands at a historical turning point and the political parties have no vision about how to move forward. How Australia resolves the divide between the public and administrative policy elite, and addresses the debate about values, will shape the character of the nation over the 21st century.

This is all fair enough. It is pretty much how I see things from my sustainability perspective. The way we arrange our economy is deeply intertwined with our culture and the kind of life we want to live. This is the bit that is missed by the neo-liberal policy elite. They have interpreted the public's angry resistance to their economic reforms as being about the pain of change----structural adjustment to an open market economy. What we have in our political parties are Lib/Lab apparatchiks using policy as an instrument to get their hands on the levers of power. So the policies and plans we get, more often than not, are developer friendly. What we don't get are policies and plans that enhance the liveability of Adelaide.

What we do get in terms of sustainability is wastewater recycling if it enhances development ---eg., the Bolivar Virginia project that diverts treated effluent to market gardens across the northern Adelaide plains; or the privately funded waste water recycling diversion scheme for the vineyards in McLaren Vale that were confronted by saline groundwater and caps on groundwater water extraction. What we don't get is waste water or storm water recycling for the city of Adelaide to reduce the city's dependence on River Murray water. Household's in Adelaide are still a long way from water efficiency as most mains water is used only once before it is sent out to sea. We continue to build new subdivisions that do not have substantial improvements in water use efficiency. Storm water in Adelaide is still viewed in terms of being transported as quickly as possible into the receiving streams, rivers and seas.

These considerations mean that I basically accept Edward's argument about the divide between the views of the administrative elite and public opinion and the current political impasse of the policy vacuum being a symptom of a broader conflict over values and the kind of community. We do not see the push for an ecological sustainable Adelaide coming from the central state bureaucractic agencies--the elite of the bureaucracy---that vision is seen by these elite as wishy, washy greenie stuff compared to freer and more competitive markets, lower taxes and cuts in public expenditure. Yet is unclear that the market will enable the shift to sustainable urban water use to help put water back into the Murray: this public good requires government intervention to redesign the old, inefficient urban network of pipes so storm water is reintegrated into urban water cycles; facilitates the building of small-scale treatment plants for water reuse, and provides incentives for urban users.

Efficient water use in Adelaide is still perceived as an emergency measure to be adopted during drought conditions---despite the current drought Adelaide is still not on water restrictions. Nor is there any indication that the Rann Government is moving towards sustainable urban water management, or has recognized that the city has a systemic unsustainability of water. Adelaide has yet to acknowledge that sustainable water use is not just a rural problem and that it is not just about farming practices.

What the Lindy Edwards, How to argue with an economist shows is that we argue with an economist in order to reintegrate our economic and ecological systems (Edwards focuses on the need to reintegrate our economic and social systems) . We do so in order to reclaim control over our future to ensure that healthy people live in a healthy river country. It is this quality of life---called well-being or a flourishing life----that should be the goal of public policy, not economic efficiency. Hence political conflict is also a conflict about values since it is about the kind of life we want to live.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Water Politics on the Boil
Things are hotting up in the politics of water. Water has become a key public issue, the political temperature is rising, and the politics is becoming increasingly confrontational. This is due to the limited storage water in the basin's storage systems caused by the drought and the implications of the ongoing water reforms.

For the way the issue of water is being politically raised in the US see the Lisa English post Who owns water?. For this way of posing the issue in Australia see the two posts by called Water theft on 6 Nov.2002 and Who's Water is it Anyway? 12 July 2002. (The direct link to the articles don't work). What these pithy headings give us is the way the line is being drawn in the sand. The line indicates the ground on which the battle is going to be fought.

In Australia water has become a key policy issue for the Howard Government. Despite all the political spin about the drought causing our rivers to dry up, it is now accepted by policy makers that too much water has been taken out of the river system in the Murray-Darling Basin. That is common ground. What is also becoming publicly accepted is that this over-allocation of water has been largely caused by the past actions of the basin state governments. It is now well known that the state governments have encouraged irrigation at heavily subsidised prices, and that this water for development encouraged very strong links between politics and public irrigation. The old practice in the 1950s and 1960s (as exemplified by Henry Bolte, the Premier of Victoria) was for politicians to buy political support in electorally critical areas with development projects. It was still happening in Queensland in the 1990s with their dam building.

So what is the state of play today? Well, water has become a key political fault line between the states and the Commonwealth in our cooperative federation. A good insight into where we are at the moment is given by Asa Wahlquist in her piece, Water on the Brain in the The Weekend Australian on Nov.30-Dec 1(no link because it's archived). Asa says:

'With water now being sold at its real value, the cost of returning it to the river could be very high. State and federal governments agree that water management must change. But they are split on who should pay. This sets the scene for a showdown for John Howard, when he meets premiers next Friday. Howard sees water reform as his legacy, but achieving it could be harder than he thinks.'

Rightly judged. The political reality is that irrigator's water allocations will have to be reduced by around 20-25%, if we are to see any ecological benefit for the Basin's rivers. However, the market policy of finding water for the River Murray through efficiency savings is not promising. Sure, property rights for water will address the current fuzziness about who owned the water that has saved from efficiency gains. Currently it is unclear who owns the water saved, and consequently, the water so saved has been used to extend the area of farming (notably in the Barossa and Langhorne Creek in SA). Since nothing was returned to the river by way of environmental flows the health of the Basin's rivers worsened. Property rights would clear up this tangle of who owns the water saved. When properly put into place property rights would enable us to say that the efficiency savings made on-farm through micro-drip irrigation systems would belong to the irrigator; whilst the water savings from preventing the leakage and evaporation through piping the open irrigation channel infrastructure would belong to the state government.

However, the water saved through the latter kind of efficiency savings will not produce the amount of water required to ensure the ecological health of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin. At this stage the states are more inclined, and even tempted, to buy water on the open market to restore environmental flows for the Snowy and Murray Rivers, rather than improve their public irrigation infrastructure. Government action and non-decision here is largely inaction.

The Howard Government's position is that irrigators must be compensated for the water clawed back from them, since irrigators have done nothing more than use the entitlements given to them by state governments. Since the states are responsible for water management (s.100 of the Constitution), so they should pay compensation. For its part the federal Government is offering the extension of the $700 million National Competition Policy payment for farmer compensation. The Federal Government reckons this bucket of money is more than adequate.

The states are refusing to come to the party. They are lead by a vocal Carr Government in NSW that is bruised from the ongoing fight with its irrigators over its water reform legislation. The states rightly reckon the money required for compensation would be in excess of $1.5 billion. They fear that compensation for the reduction of water allocation to irrigators would bust their budgets and are disinclined to climb on board the Howard Government's reform wagon.

The Commonwealth's response to what they see as continued state recalcitrance is to warn them. The millions of dollars they receive in dividends from National Competition Policy could be jeopardised, if the state's don't compensate the farmers wearing the costs of the reform process. Hence the showdown at the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) meeting on Friday over the usual source of federal conflict---buckets of money. Will the showdown be a standoff?

The good news about this is that the serious engagement with water reform issues has finally begun and the technocrats now understand that water reform is less about tinkering with machines, and more about people's practices. The bad news is that CoAG will be result in a stalemate because there is no institutional process in place to move forward from the present mess. A way forward will have to be devised through institutional reform. If the power relationships of our federal institutions are going to have a major influence on the negotiated policy outcomes, then the test for CoAG is whether such a pathway forward can be found by the partner governments.

It is not just a matter of finding the big firepower that blasts those dragging their heels out of the water. Institutional ways also need to be found to deal with the onground tradeoffs between wealth creation, sustainability and flourishing communites. To date we have consultation rather than participation---with this 'kindness and gentleness' is designed to reduce the effect of public opinion on policy outcomes that will not be equitable. Since I cannot see the historical pattern of the poor performance on the environmental front being improved in the short-term, there is no point in being nostalgic for times past. Instead we need to begin the process of refashioning our political institutions to make them more democratic to ensure good governance.

That is pretty much the gist of the Asa Wahlquist piece with some embellishments on my part about institutional reform. Wahlquist is a good journalist who knows who stuff, and she has accurately captured the current state of play within our political institutions over the politics of water. What she does not do is put a background context around the water politics in Australia that has defined the ground of the battle. This context is the neo-liberal model of market economics, (and the Washington consensus of the WTO, IMF and World Bank lies further in the background). This model says that the only policy solution for the poor state governance of water resources is privatisation and the commodification of water. Water needs to be priced properly, water should be traded and the market should determine the way water is allocated. All this is taken for granted. We all know the big story about Australia abandoning its traditional economic policy regime of state regulation in favour of a regime based on economic efficiency and market competition in the 1980s and 1990s. We know why the change occurred: the old regime let Australia down. And the instruments of this refashioning are familiar enough: financial deregulation, tariff reform, use of competition policy to effect micro-economic reform, labour market deregulation etc.

The reason why this context is not in the policy foreground is because the debate on reform is seen to be closed by decision makers. It is just a matter of pushing on with a neo-liberal mode of governance. What is needed is to overcome reform fatigue, look after those on the losing end of structural adjustment and implement the neo-liberal policies to privatise water as quickly as possible so that we can get back to wealth creation. After all, democracies are more stable when everyone is making lots of money.

Since Asa works within this overlapping policy consensus of the policy and decision makers, she does not indicate the counter narrative that is forming. This starts from the consequences of the neo-liberal policy solution, that water will increasingly go to those who can afford it. What the drought highlights so clearly is that our federal political institutions are treating water in the Murray-Darling Basin as an asset that can be sold to the highest bidder. The highest bidder then holds the rights to lease or sell water to those who want to use it and can afford to pay. Few have thought through the implications of water being treated no differently to oil. Consider the possibility of the water market being cornered by foreign (eg., Indonesian capital) and then sold during a drought at very high prices to make a killing.

The counter narrative is rarely heard these days amidst all the spin about the wonders of a water market. It advocates retaining the River Murray as an ecological commons because it is common to all users. This puts a limit on privatisation----it basically means the management of water resources based on the principles of scarcity, efficiency and profit maximisation---in the name of sustainability. Protecting the River Murray as an public commons means that the river is held in public trust, that we manage the river in terms of long-term sustainability of the ecological commons and that we act to conserve our water lifeline.

If water is treated as a commodity that can be sold to the highest bidder, then the maintenance of sustainable environmental flows goes to the core of the 'who owns the water' issue. It re-introduces the voice that Asa forgot: that of indigenous people who say that their rights to water depend on the maintenance of good environmental flows and healthy rivers.

In the counter-narrative the ownership of our fresh water is a key political issue that takes us to the very heart of what an Australian identity means. We are talking about our ecological future, the fundamental mismatch between 19th century European agriculture and the landscape on which it was imposed, the impact of global economic flows on current agricultural landuse and the viability of many farms, conserving the watersheds around our cities and redesigning the way we use water in our cities.

Water politics in Australia is definitely on the boil.