August 2010 archive

The New New Left

The ABC’s Drum site has picked up my riffs on the sorry state of federal politics in Australia and the need for a new 21st century political party that isn’t shackled to unions or religion.

It’s an issue I’ve been thinking about for quite some time – well before this shambolic campaign was thrust at us. Both the Labor and Liberal parties in Australia political anachronisms today, with neither representing the growing number of voters – particularly those under 40 – who believe in economic liberalism but are also socially progressive.

Labor is socially progressive, but its unionist and socialist foundations (and ugly factionalism) make it increasingly unappealing. The Liberal party has embraced more liberal economic principles – often too laissez faire – but it’s also the haven for religious social conservatives, and promotes a brand of fear-based, racist, xenophobic and homophobic politics that many find repulsive.

The Greens are a promising party in many respects, and I heartily applaud their commitment to sustainable economics and social progressivism. But The Greens are prone to big government semi-socialism with some issues; their wonderfully clear policy document (why don’t the major parties have such a coherent document?) involves a lot of spending without necessarily facing up to the cost of such government activity. In fact, the election results suggest many voters who went Green did so through disillusionment with Labor, and distaste with the Liberals, rather than a broad commitment to Green values.

Some commenters on the Drum article have suggest the Democrats were the party. Perhaps they were (emphasis on were). The Democracts allowed themselves to implode for the very reason that they were beginning to shift – under Natasha Stott-Despoja – to the kind of centre-left party I’m talking about and, for a variety of reasons (internal personality conflicts being a major one), they couldn’t make the shift. They’re not the party I seek.

So where to now? I think we’re ripe for a new major party, one that brings centre-left politics to the fore, one that embodies the shift to economic liberalism that Labor has attempted (but failed, largely thanks to its unionist/socialist underpinnings), and the shift to social liberalism and tolerance of diversity that is a hallmark of generation X and Y.

Could it happen? It wouldn’t be easy to build critical mass sufficient to overtake Labor (which would be the likely casualty), but it is possible. It just needs the right leadership, the right strong and well-respected voices backing it, and a clear values and policy message to be delivered to the people. It might take years – and a couple of elections at least – to really take hold.

But we live in a democracy, after all. The habit of voting Labor or Liberal is just that, a habit. There’s nothing stopping us from voting differently as a nation, except the expectation that no-one else will vote differently. Make an alternative party look electable, and it will be electable. We now only need those brave enough to try.

Evolved Fear of Sharks Prompts Front Page News

Today, roughly*:

  • 133 Australians died of cardiovascular disease
  • 116 died of cancer
  • 30 died from respiratory diseases
  • 24 died from injuries or external trauma, including 6 from suicide, 4 from falls and 2 from road accidents
  • 18 died from behavioural or mental disorders
  • 16 died as a result of nervous system disorders
  • 16 also died of metabolic diseases
  • 14 died of diseases of the digestive tract
  • 9 died from genitourinary diseases, mainly renal failure
  • 5 died from infections or parasites
  • 3 died from other causes
  • And 1 died from a shark attack

Yet, can you guess which made news internationally? Yep, the shark attack.

You're more likely to accidentally drown in the bathtub than be eaten by me.

It made news not because it was a rare occurrence – even though it is – because there were many other deaths that occurred today that could be counted as rare. It didn’t get news because it was common and preventable, because it’s not either of these things.

It got news because there’s something deep down in our monkey brain that finds the idea of being eaten by a predator to be a shocking and outrageous way to die. Individual deaths from modern ailments – from cardiovascular disease, cancer or infection – rarely rate a mention, and certainly don’t get reported worldwide.

A list of common human fears typically includes “heights, storms, large carnivores, darkness, blood, strangers, confinement, deep water, social scrutiny, and leaving home alone” because “these are the situations that put our evolutionary ancestors in danger” (Pinker, 1997).

Strikingly absent from this catalog of human fears are the things humans should be afraid of in contemporary environments. The sight of a car or a gun, for example, should strike far more fear into the heart of a modern human than does the sight of a snake, for cars and guns kill far more people than do snake bites. (Buller, 2005)

The moral of this story is that we should remember that we’re not much more than occasionally thoughtful primates – and we’re still more primates than thoughtful.

* Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics document, Causes of Death, Australia, 2008

When ‘Best Practice’ isn’t Best

Like any other journalist, I get a torrent of press releases every day. Certain words and phrases feature prominently. Too prominently, too often. This post is not specifically about those words and phrases, it’s about how these words and phrases have come to be so numbingly banal. The phrase is ‘best practice’, and this post is a cautionary tale of when ‘best practice’ actually leads to failed practice, and why.

It seems as though ‘best practice’ would, by definition, always be the best way to do something. But sometimes it’s not. This is because some problems aren’t conducive to the creation of one ‘best practice’, but instead need to constantly adapt to a changing set of background conditions.

There are, broadly, three types of problems in this world: those with static background conditions; those with changing background conditions; and those where the background conditions change in response to your actions. ‘Best practice’ only works well for the first of these problems, less so for the second, and often fails entirely in the third.


Why Variety is the Spice of Life When it Comes to Our Evolved Moral Sense

Here’s the riff (developed from the paper I delivered at the recent AAP conference): because the success* of behavioural strategies – including moral strategies – depends on the environmental conditions in which the agent is situated, and because that environment includes the strategies employed by other agents, it pays to Mix It Up A Bit in terms of the strategies employed by the population.

As a result, you’d expect to see a diversity – or a ‘pluralism’ or ‘polymorphism’ – of strategies employed in a population. Some will be ‘nice’, some will be ‘suspicious’. That’s what I call Lesser Moral Diversity. Some will be ‘nice’, some ‘suspicious’, some ‘nasty’. That’s what I call Greater Moral Diversity. Details below: