A user friendly ramble on neolibs and economic rationalism

25 November 2013
Doing the household finances with DH, and realising that there was too much Christmas coming for our slender budget, we discussed how we were going to fix this. "Well", I said, "there's plenty of opportunity in this society for someone who's not afraid of a bit of hard work". And we both had a good laugh over that.

The thing is with society, we're always hearing how it's broken down. To scroll through a Facebook news feed or listen to a taxi driver, children are running out of control, young people are binge drinking, the economy is a mess, there's no respect and crime is rampant. And who or what is the culprit? Variously feminism, permissive parenting, asylum seekers, the Greens (who manage to be both irrelevant and control the country at the same time...). Well if society is going to hell in a Kardashian handbag, we never hear of blame being assigned to the real culprit - economic rationalism.

Economic rationalism - the notion that corporations and government alike must be run to maximise short term profits above all else - has destroyed society devastatingly and simply, by destroying the basic social contract - that if you work hard and are a good person, good things will happen to you. The basic premise of capitalism for the average working Joe (or Jose, or Johanna) was that by working diligently and budgeting carefully, you'd be able to make slow but steady progress up the career ladder, buy a home, raise a family, pay for school fees and holidays and sports, make a comfortable life for yourself.

In an economy dominated by economic rationalism, this is no longer the case. The idea of job security is gone; at any moment, no matter how hard you work or how well your department is doing, you can be called in to a meeting, told your position or division is no longer needed, that it's being sent offshore, replaced with a machine. And even though customers might hate it, and service levels and safety fall, and in the long term profitability of the company suffer, the efficiency boffins who made the decision won't be around to see it; short term profits will rise, and they'll be rewarded with their next contract. Meanwhile you, you poor sap,  are forced to look for work in am economy that's saturated with this mindset of economic rationalism. Employees of three years service on casual contracts that can see them dismissed for any reason at all with one hour's notice. Fear and lack of certainty. Stretches of unemployment, with unemployment insurance to pay the bills if you were lucky (and whilst you were working, few insurers would have touched you if you were a casual), or Newstart Allowance if you're not.

No such thing as choosing a career in public service for safety, either. Witness the thousands of nursing and teaching graduates forced into years of casual employment because budgetary restraints prevent them from gaining the permanent roles they need to build their professional skills and personal lives. Children dying because there aren't enough community services workers to return the calls reporting signs of abuse. Schemes, departments, programs axed because they are not "efficient", human services be damned.

And it affects the housing market too. In the drive to maximise profit, investors have so saturated the housing market that is almost impossible for first home buyers to join the market, especially if employed as a casual or on contract, preventing them from getting a home loan. So we huge numbers of people in insecure employment and insecure housing. No wonder they are angry.

They choose the wrong targets for their rage. It's fair to say that in a rationalised economy, opportunities for working class, more poorly educated men are particularly limited; the men know this, and there's a branch of the men's rights movement dedicated to blaming feminism for this. But it's economic rationalism. We get mad at the offshore call centre employees with semi-coherent English for taking Australian jobs, but it's an Australian CEO who made the decision to cut a huge chunk of their Australian workers. We blame bleeding heart do-gooders who won't let us smack our kids for kids running wild, when it is still legal to smack, and as many parents do as ever, and kids aren't idiots and pick up on their parents' anxieties and they are scared and worried too and scared and worried kids are more likely to act out.

Of course the people who stand to profit from this ethos-of-profit above all else don't want you to think about it, don't want you to question it. So they use their newspapers and TV hosts to whip up fear of asylum seekers, creating the impression that boat people are stealing jobs; they demonise the Greens for questioning the profit motive and not taking donations from corporations; they have all but destroyed the union movement, knowing that workers united was their greatest threat; they respond to any questioning of the doctrine of unrestrained capitalism by proclaiming "socialism!", socialism being such a slur at to shut down all questioning immediately.

It wasn't always thus. In the early days of the Australian Liberal Party under Menzies - much idealised by modern conservatives - social as well as economic liberals were welcome in the party; nation building was seen as a lofty goal, tax rates were high and no one wet themselves with fear that high taxes would cause everyone to quit work and go on the dole. If only it had remained thus. But economic rationalism took over - championed by Labor under Hawke and Keating, as well as the Liberals - and now we have timid, parsimonious governments that have left us with third rate, run down infrastructure. Can you imagine the Sydney Opera House, for example, being built under economic rationalism? It would never, ever happen. Editorials in the Daily Telegraph and callers to 2GB would bristle with anger. "Why should I have to pay for some inner city elites to watch opera?" We'd have the Opera Hut and the Sydney Harbour Punt. People are surprised that 44 years after the moon landing, we've never attempted anything so ambitious again and couldn't even go back to the moon now if we wanted. I'm not. Economic rationalism first came in in the early 1970s, right as the space program would have been making progress. Space exploration is insanely expensive, and sure it might have huge long term benefits for society, but where's the instant profit? Of course it was a bust.

As it is, the new Coalition government have quickly moved to curtail the building of the national broadband network, forcing the nation to run a 21st Century economy on a decayed century old copper phone network. "Who is going to pay for it?", they ask their critics.

I'd like to know who is going to pay for all that we lose. We've lost the very foundations western society was built on - hard work, family, achievement - with all that entails. And yet we are still being sold a lie, that the economic rationalist brand of capitalism is fair, and rewards hard work, and if you fall behind you only have yourself to blame. Dissent, be it Occupy Wall Street Protesters or columns in the Guardian - is quickly shut down, dismissed, vilified as the views of a lunatic fringe who want us all to live in communal mud huts. Well I don't (the thought of living communally breaks me out in a cold sweat). I'd just like to know that if I get a job, the company can't dismiss me as long as I'm working hard and the division is turning a profit. I'd like to see corporations and mining companies put up or shut up when they say higher taxes will force them to leave Australia (the corporations are already leaving...and maybe Gina Rineheart plans to bury her bauxite sin another country so she can mine it there). I'd like to see restraints on destroying farmland that has been in families for generations, and sacred to the Indigenous inhabitants for milennia more, to create mines with a working life of seven years. I'd like to not be faced with a choice of waiting years for surgery or paying thousands to get it done right away, when I need the surgery before I can work to earn that money. I'd like to see all this without giving up home WiFi, and I'm sure there is a way as an economy and a society we can do it. It may not be perfect but anything has to be better than the lie we are being fed now.


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