The Quaintly Archaic Realm of Pointless Professors: A Case Study

Of course, when you are paying tuition fees (deferred or otherwise) the aim of the game when doing an undergraduate degree at a university is to pass all your courses and gain the intended qualification. What is the point otherwise? And these days, all undergraduates pay tuition fees (of one sort or another).

When your progress through a degree is measured by examination results, you will be wanting to avoid failures. The routine is pretty straight forward: follow what’s being delivered by your lecturers and return the answers that your instructors would judge as being correct for all assignments, tests and formal examinations. There is no real place in this routine for a good old argument. Usually. You either get a grasp on what are perceived by your instructors to be the ‘correct’ answers to likely examination questions or you fail. All of which is reasonably tried and true and perfectly acceptable to most students, particularly at the undergraduate level. Most undergrads have yet to derive a hot critical capacity through which to question the established wisdom of their instructors; so they mostly accept what they are taught as being, more or less, correct.

Now there is a huge cultural infrastructure behind this standard routine of trusting in what you are taught. All students come to appreciate the traditions of academic pecking orders and the related ascendency of apparent omniscience as an instructor progresses from the mere tutor level through to the god-like pinnacle of perfection embodied by full professors. But it is not just the students who tend to lap up this hierarchical pedigree thing; most academics believe in this ranking system with all the passions of a religious cult.

I am reasonably sure I started to question the perfection of this scheme by about the second year of my own four year undergraduate degree. Mainly because it was perfectly possible to uncover completely opposite opinions on some of the cardinal facts presented for our dutiful regurgitation. All you had to do is follow a few references down the chain into at most the mid-depths of grey upon which each fact floats to inspire ugly scenes of dissent in our orderly lecture halls. Libraries are dangerous places! Naturally, there are some teachers who like a good argument and reward those who seek nuance to the basics of any subject with higher marks. But there are even more teachers who take arguments from undergraduates as a personal assault. You can pick these latter instructors by the yes/no, tick box style exams they design.

Way back in the 1970’s, I completed a bachelors degree in Agricultural Economics at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia. My favourite courses were those that welcomed argument. My least favourite were those which demanded unequivocal, pin-point precision: like mathematics. Which is why, I now believe, the very least intelligent economists are those who like to articulate their thoughts through mathematics rather than equivocal prose. Which kind of explained why there was such a huge emphasis on mathematics as the language of economics at the University of New England at that time…

Marriage brought me back to Armidale ten years later after a wonderful stint as an economist with the then Department of Agriculture (where I could specialise in my favourite subject of the bee keeping industry). My wife was on a farm so was kind of fixed location wise (its hard to move house with 8,000 sheep in tow). So I applied for a tutorship as a pathway to a PhD.

Now that I was on the teaching side of things, I recalled the frustrations of argument avoidance when the pleasures of argument could be so much more fulfilling; for both me and my students. I bet you can see a problem developing here…

In the mid to late 1980’s, the ‘agricultural’ side of the agricultural economics teaching domain was regarded by my almost universally mathematically bent colleagues as a the crude, embarrassing side of an otherwise illustrious disciplinary domain. Our esteemed ‘senior colleagues’ would universally carve out the mathematical economics side of things as their own and find some poor schmuck to take on icky stuff like ‘farm management’ and the like. The tradition was to dump the dirty boots stuff on tutoring staff; like me. Fortunately, that suited me just fine! At least from my point of view.

You see, as I implied above, when mathematics is not the language of instruction, the prospect for argument and endless loops of animated research debate are free to reign. The very first thing I did when I took over the farm management dimension of my school’s agricultural economics undergraduate degree was to throw out all the archaic nonsense of programmable management; like linear programming and the like. Real farmers don’t construct elaborate mathematical predictive pathways to the resolution of perfect, optimal solutions to the conundrums that confound the vagaries of their cash flow. Most farmers know that all those unknowable bits like the weather, casino -like commodity prices and government policy shifts will always get in the way of any pretence to predictive precision. Rather, farm management is all about being systematic at interpreting and understanding the fundamentally chaotic system within which they operate. The more you admit the real world of chaos into farm management, the less and less mathematics has to offer. This suited me just fine. So I shifted the entire teaching programme towards farming systems management, with a big emphasis on understanding the various and numerous sources of chance that confront any real world manager. I kept hiring busses and kept on bussing my troops out to farms and forests to interact with primary producers first hand. My course started to cost a lot… Questions started to be asked. My contract renewals never exceeded two years at a time.

Incrementally, I stepped up from tutor to lecturer (level A to level B). Then I started to take on natural resource economics as well. Which is pretty well in line with the direction of my PhD (focused on the pollination business of the beekeeping industry). I started to observe some disquieting things. Like an active market in used major assessment projects for one of the courses I had just taken on. One of our Associate Professors had a kind of relaxed approach to the design of his student assessment projects: he’d simply rotate two projects over an ever recurring two year cycle. Canny students would search for high ranking projects from past students and simply tinker with their workings and resubmit for top marks. The market for these high ranked past project reports had become busy to say the least. So I had some major re-design work to do here as well.

As time passed, I started to develop some rather strong misgivings with regard to some of my colleagues. There were a few professors, I noticed, who contributed almost nothing at all. These kings were kind of light-on. One would tend to turn up irregularly only to lounge in his office listening to the cricket. Another, ‘highly esteemed international star in his field’ tended  mainly to visit to pick up his more than regular deliveries of wine. Then one day, my PhD supervisor (an Associate Professor en route to full Professorship two years hence) confronted me in the corridor and suggested that he would need to resign as a supervisor because ‘your inevitable failure will put a black mark on my record’. Now this guy had contributed virtually nothing to my work from day one (he was appointed to me rather than the other way around) and my work had started to diverge well into territory he considered to be heretical; but I still, naively, thought academics loved a great argument so this would be a journey for both of us. That was the big turning point for me in relation to my hitherto at least marginal acceptance of the hierarchies of grandeur upon which academics are wont to pose. This bloke was an embarrassment to my ideals for what a Professor should be all about! Yes, he was mathematically bent. He had diverted me onto pointless mathematical dead ends from day one. He even insisted that I visit his own personal academic hero when I went off on a study tour to the USA. At least I had the chance to meet an academic of at most equal worth to my supervisor and thus confirm the international spread of this academic malaise. But I got my PhD and it won an award. No doubt this helped my supervisor to get his promotion to full professor. He has only barely grunted at me since. He’s probably still embarrassed by my heresies… But this guy was a wonderful mentor for how to supervise a PhD. Henceforth, I would adopt an opposite approach in every way; which worked over the 20 PhD’s I supervised since.

But it all got worse when, following the duties I perceived for the teaching of natural resource economics, I started to explore the very new territory of ecological economics. I could have started to urinate in church by the reaction from my professorial colleagues. The Head of School started to receive complaints (he loved to tell me all about the antics of these complaining dorks). When I went on the organise the inaugural Ecological Economics Conference for Australia, I discovered that one of my ‘colleagues’ had threatened his own post graduate students with expulsion if they went to the event. This Conference was a huge hit. Academics came from around Australia (we located the event in the beach venue of Coffs Harbour). Not one academic from the University of New England attended. Not one. Two of my own students turned up. Something was wrong at the University of New England. And something was wrong with the renewal of my academic contract. I was to be ‘let go’ at the end of the year.

At this point I discovered the one and only Professor for whom I ever had any regard (in Australia). Professor John J Pigram. A geographer by training, he was then the Director of the rather world famous Centre for Water Policy Research at my university. John’s Centre was, literally, an island out on its own. A long and successful Centre with a cast of of high repute players on board; this crowd were disciplinarily eclectic to the core. So together with two of my PhD students, we went to pay John J Pigram a visit. Would he like all my Phd students (four at the time) and two of my Australian Research Council grants to add to his Centre’s core? He considered for a minute or two, picked up the phone and we were in. I was put on the books as a ‘consulting academic’. I would be paid in accordance with the research income I would bring in. I ended up being paid more than a full professor within a year. My PhD students grew to 18 within two years and our research income grew to the same degree. This Centre for Water Policy Research had taken on Ecological Economics with a passion. We prospered. We had a great time.

Like a hoard of Miss Haversham’s, my ex colleagues muttered and brayed behind closed doors; but I had plants on the inside to tell me all. I connected with the University’s Vice Chancellor who could see the merits of what it is that we could do. I eventually became the Centre’s next Director on the retirement of John J Pigram, ‘normalised’ (in the magical language of this University’s HR bureaucrats) down to a five year contract at the level of Associate Professor. And so we went for five great years. My emphasis was on matching PhD research projects with real world issues of significant regional concern. We were always testing the capacities of our ‘transdisciplinary’ team based approaches to dealing with hitherto intractable issues like logging in Tasmania and resolving unresolvable regional planning issues like the management of floods and the development of regional visions through which to underpin community-driven regional development planning.

But it all came crashing down. My supportive VIce Chancellor came to the end of her contract and moved on. The university’s professorial elites banded together to influence the selection of a replacement who would ‘respect their traditions’ and, generally, make their lives more comfortable than had been the case thus far. So they selected one of the most profoundly appalling intellectual dullards of all time to take over the show. They selected a pathological managerialist to drive the ship. They selected a professor who’d developed the notion that an organisation as complex as a university could be managed like a self regulating machine. His task was to rewire the works so that his autopilot could work. Out went anything vaguely challenging to his vision of sharply connected disciplinary cogs. His vision was for mechanisms of self regulating silos under a cascade of pathologically linear command and control. A ‘transdisciplinary’ research centre unconnected to the silos of his dream was hardly a sustainable proposition, as we were soon told.

In his first week, this Professor in charge came to pay us a visit. I had arranged for our impressively enthusiastic cohort of students, mentors and staff to entertain his visit and seek pathways through this vision with which we could never agree. We presented our work and our aims. We noted that what it was that we did was a precise fit to the new University Vision he had imposed (via a process of ‘consultation’ that Hitler would have admired): Regional Relevance with Global Impact. That’s precisely what we had been doing for years. Very few groups at our university had become so involved in work of strong regional relevance by way of extension to Global Impact as us. But I soon became crippled with embarrassment as this astoundingly appalling man declared that we would be wound up no matter what: we did not fit into his grand silo plan. As we were transdisciplinary, we would always be an ill-fit for a structure to be built around disciplinary concentration. This guy set the University back by, I reckon, 100 years.

So, they waited for my contract to fizzle out and like a bunch of cowards, refused to discuss any ideas for keeping an at least laterally re-conceived version of our show on the road. Like a bunch of cowards, they would avoid a hefty redundancy bill by simply waiting for my contact to expire before declaring our doors to be shut. That this would involve, literally, throwing my five remaining PhD students out on the street was considered to be ‘attrition’.

I will never forget my very last day. After 26 years on the teaching staff, I expected someone, somewhere, might like to actually express an at least insincere expression of farewell. By my last day, all our staff had moved on and my students had started to seek out other universities with which to enrol. (My adventures in seeking out these positions is a story for another time…) While we had a few big budget projects to complete, no one would be left to do the work. No one but me was left to explain the contempt of this university to those who had invested in us. I will never forget that last day. There was a phone call from the Vice Chancellor’s deputy: I should make sure I leave my keys behind and return my library books. That was it. That was the last word. I took my stuff and off I went. Never, ever, to return.

I wish I could report that things have improved at the University of New England in the past five years since my Centre was destroyed. But from all accounts, the managerialists have won. That Vice Chancellor left soon after me (in an unseemly hurry it would seem). The new guy suggested to me that the past was none of his concern. It was all ‘before his time’. He didn’t want to know. I was seeking formal resolution from the University to all my Centre’s clientele: I was seeking apologies and explanations to those who still, it would seem, are blaming me.

But, and here is a wonderful irony, on my last day that VIce Chancellor, as some kind of perverse parting gift of astonishing inanity, appointed me to the illustrious level of a full professor (adjunct). Which, I guess, helps defray any claim that my abject contempt for that most generally worthless class of academia – the Professors – is driven by any kind of jealousy on my part.

I could never, ever, recommend the University of New England to anyone. Until that appalling floating raft of tenured professors has ceased to clog the arteries of what could be a university of value and relevance to its own, ludicrously misplaced Vision. The true cutting edge of academia is rarely, if ever, driven by these tenured elites. The cutting stuff, in my experience, is always attributable to PhD students and junior staff still engaged with enthusiasm and something to prove. The role of a Professor is to facilitate learning and connection. It is not to serve as a brick wall to the learning journeys of others. Professors should never be there there with the aim of producing clones. If we are to take Professors as role models for learning, those professors at the University of New England with whom I had the misfortune to interact must be regarded as role models for disciplinary fundamentalism and self-constrained, blinkered thinking. But the biggest insight all is that these professors should never, ever, be appointed to lead universities and pretend competence with management. A publication record of (always limited) peer reviewed contributions to unutterably arcane disciplinary journals does not automatically qualify anyone to lead a complex organisation, let alone one where egotism has an institutionalised free rein.

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What’s the Business Model for Next-Gen Record Stores?

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In the past month, I’ve been busy upgrading my stereo Hi-Fi. I’ll underline the word ‘stereo’ there. As in two channel. CD’s, LP’s. Not video. Not home cinema. Hi-Fi. I love music. I am an audiophile. But now, it seems, I am to be a dispossessed music loving audiophile.  

For many years, I’ve been tinkering away at my Hi-Fi hobby via the good graces and enthusiasm of a local retailer. He’s a one man band operating like a store within a store. It’s my local RetraVision; purveyors of fridges, stoves and vacuum cleaners, all of dismal Chinese descent. But way up the back, my local Hi-Fi man has been keeping a store of Hi-Fi bits; some extraordinarily brave – like turntables and stereo speakers (speakers for stereo, not the usual Home Theatre super 8.1surround thunder-in-a-box-for-$599.99). And he’s the keeper of the keys as an agent for anything I might ever want to order in. Which I have been doing. Furiously. For the past two weeks. Why? Because no sooner had I put my order in for a new CD player, he announced that this business was, well, out of business. Closing down. Finished. After 30 years. So, I’ve been measuring my orders against the final closing day. Because after that, the nearest retailer is 550km away. My last pair of bookshelf speakers are due to arrive at 4pm Friday, one hour before final closing time…

Now all we’ll have left in this town (Armidale, New South Wales) are two mega chain purveyors or mattresses, Home-Threatre-in-a-Box, hair dryers and digicams for the purposefully undiscerning, without the bit up the back selling Hi-Fi gear. 

But we do still have a record store! Which is for sale. 

So why is there, apparently, no demand for music playing gear these days? What happened to the record industry. What happened to Hi-Fi? Who cares? 

Culture shifts come and go. Once we had pyramids for Pharaohs. Then we had the penny farthing craze. We had mini skirts and punk. Cravats and bear baiting. Hula hoops and Lady Gaga. But is the wholesale disappearance of proper audio equipment really a culture on the move? Over the past 100 years, we’ve had plenty of shifts from one manifestation of music reproduction to the next, but the basic game stayed the same: the reproduction of music in as realistic a manner as possible. Always getting better; in perpetual pursuit of the perfect sound. 

But now, for the very first time, the fidelity of music is on the decline. These days, the demand is for lo-fi MP3 downloads, preferably for free. I suspect that the latter is more important than quality for most consumers of such stuff. Free has become the key here. This is the culture shift. It’s almost as though it’s an insult to suggest that someone should actually have to pay for recorded music these days. Twenty somethings raise their eyebrows in dismay, if not incomprehension over the prospect for actually paying for the recordings they demand. An entire generation has emerged that has never, ever, heard music played to a standard that could be called Hi-Fi. And that applies even if they actually did attend a live show, where the music is now so loud that it’s almost impossible to hear. Fidelity has been redefined. Where once we received music via vibrations in the inner ear, now the demand is for our whole bodies to vibrate. And then pass out. 

So, what’s the business plan for a Hi-Fi retailer these days?

What’s the business plan for a record store?

What’s the business plan for making penny farthing bicycles?

There are multitudes of frantic business people searching for answers here.

These days, the default for sellers of stuff such as this is to hope for a landing in a nice cushioned niche.

You can observe that reaction from the shifting nature of record stores (amongst the few that remain). Way back in the 50’s and 1960’s, the record store was usually a small,  local, independent family run affair. Every shopping centre had at least one. There were even specialists (one for Jazz, one for Classical, and one for Rock and Pop). When I was living in Sydney back in the 1980’s, I would do a weekly traverse of my local classical retailer only a suburb away. Then I would hop on a train to visit the big city Jazz store. The local shopping centres catered for all the rest. 

Then came the mega store.  Virgin/HMV, Tower Records and an entire floor in the Meyer Department Store. In 2003, you could spend all day browsing across any conceivable genres, with CD’s stacked from ceiling to floor. CD’s by the million. There were five stores within 5km in the Sydney CBD. By 2009, they were all gone. Every last one. 

From 2010 the trend was to go all ’boutique’. Interior decorated with wood panelling for the classicals and glass and metal for rock and roll. They were trying hard. And failing all over again. 

Then came the shift from physical retailing to one-time record stores selling on-line. But that rarely, if ever, worked. Site after site went down to follow demand. 

Now  the record companies are trying to direct sell via their own web-stores, when they are not selling direct through the global behemoths like Apple’s iTunes store, Amazon and now Google. Even artists are getting in the game. Hi-Resolution audio files to cater for the audiophile and MP3’s for all the rest. You can now purchase virtually anything on-line. But how much business now happens this way? Is this the final niche? Has the industry now entirely dispensed with the wholesale/retail game? 

So, what happens to those few remaining record stores? What’s their business plan? Now they even seem to have been deserted by the record companies, if not entirely by the customers they once had. And if no one’s buying records, there’s going to be even less demand for gear to play it on. 

Is Apple Inc the final player in the music game? With both players and media tied together in the Apple Store, what’s left for anyone else? The entire industry has restructured itself out of wholesaling and retailing. It’s now all about direct sales. 

From the consumers’ point of view, our needs are still covered. I can spend extraordinary sums on a high-end DAC (Digital Analogue Converter) with an asynchronous USB interface to my Mac. That connects me to some seriously great Hi Resolution download files (via sites like HDTracks.com). Instant downloads and instant gratification. I can even listen to previews on-site. I can download from my favourite record labels as well. Chandos and Hyperion to name but two. Music itself is not going away.  

But, what’s gone is the community of search and discovery that we once got at our local record store. What’s gone is the independent view and advice. What’s gone is the artistry of display and the tactile sense of something hard and real. What’s gone is the atmosphere. The intentionality and dedication of purpose to travel to a record store. The thrill of finding a bargain, of discovering something entirely new. Web based search is just not the same. Even iTunes can only display a handful of new releases at any one time. My old HMV had an entire floor of stuff that rotated through the release cycle. Touch, sound, atmosphere. Noise, overheard customer critiques. Box sets. Imports. Special deals. I miss the condescensions of the record store man… ‘You want what? You can’t be serious…’ or, ‘These guys are vastly better… try this one out instead’. Sometimes, I’d be in the front row for an hour long lecture on the latest performing style, or on why Havergal Brian is the next Big Thing. Or why, over his dead body, he’d never be selling albums by Yes in his store… I miss all that. Like a cherished, now dead, friend. How can I argue and cajole, rail and declaim, if I am just shopping on line? Having a two hour argument with a record store clerk is much more fun than inserting a comment in a chat box or posting to a forum of people I’ve never met. So now I’m set to become a music recluse. Shut off behind ear buds attached to an iPod. Alone in my listening room.  It’s all too much like going underground. In a bunker. After the holocaust.

So is there a way of capturing the social dimension of record collecting and audiophile fanaticisms to keep a physical shop on the street? Perhaps this is the core for a 2012 record store business plan. I rather think this might be the key. That’s the essence of the recent Record Store Day movement (for example check out Record Store Day Australia), but this model can be extended further still. Let’s celebrate our physical record retailers. Put celebration into the shop. Live bands, events. New release celebrations. Celebration is the key. It seems that we need to turn record retailing into a show. 

Borders tried to merge book retailing with latte-sipping and a newsstand. They failed. But it was worth a try, that’s the right direction to go. We shouldn’t assume that the socialisation of retailing in the music game is necessarily going to fail because a few corporates failed a similar test. There were other reasons to underpin their demise, not just falling sales. 

I am hoping for a new era of what might be described as a Music Campus Store. It seems to me that the prospect is for a synthesis of social hangout, record retailing, audio equipment retailing, live music making, maybe even instrument lessons and associated teaching. Let’s have a Music Campus in every town. In other words, bring together everything that on-line music retailing cannot provide. Live instruments and good audio gear. What a combination to reconnect our youth with music and the fidelity of sound. What a combination to extend horizons and reintroduce diversity outside the Lady Gaga commercial mainstream. 

It’s either something along those lines or just hanging out for the next closing down sale. 

Adventures with a Manic Managerialist

Check box

I always expected my interaction with the local council (Armidale Dumaresq in Northern New South Wales, Australia) would turn to frustration and anger, even before the journey began. Years ago, I supervised a PhD project that traversed the slopes of ‘expertocratic’ planning at the local government level. More specifically, this show was all about how the ‘expert’ mindset of local council professional planners was a real impediment to meaningful community engagement and genuine partnerships between community and council as the foundation for a sustainable future. The ‘I am an expert’, machine-management culture of Planners had become a disease endemic to the Planning profession. Our project was all about how to escape the debilitation of top-down management with which nearly all local councils have become thoroughly contaminated. 

Some councils are better than others. Some Planners know that working with community should be fundamentally different to working on people like some kind of clay on a potter’s wheel. You don’t have to apply the heat of law and adversarial process when you have genuine engagement. You don’t have to spend all your time in court when you work with, rather than against your constituency. Plus, and here is the biggie, when you have meaningful colaboration, you get a synergy of intellect to apply to problems and issues. More minds working together in harmony can often apply a more detailed understanding of the issues at hand and work towards finding solutions that are as robust as possible across the greatest possible diversity of interests and positions. In other words, better collaboration leads to more resilient communities. 

The place to start is to try and persuade those in charge that they do not, in fact, know everything. That the world does not work like a machine, and that the Planners’ job is not one of a mechanic working on the machinery of their local community to achieve some desired outcome. Planners are not ‘cog tinkerers’, mainly because, in nearly every possible planning scenario, at least some of the cogs and the mechanisms that drive any situation at hand are unknown or at best poorly understood. You can’t wrench on a machine if you don’t know how that machine works. But that mechanic analogy is a very tight fit to the way so many Planners operate. 

Once upon a time I was involved in a project to open up local government planning to creative community collaboration. The context for the work was an explicit recognition, on the part of those who funded our work, that the old engagement models of command and control were inappropriate for at least environmental and sustainable community work. So we set out to work with lots of communities on community visioning and the like with a view to articulating processes for meaningful engagement that might then underpin some re-writing of Planning guidelines and underlying rules. The whole show really started to shine via some extraordinarily positive community enthusiasm and endorsement. So much so that it soon became apparent that local communities, when meaningfully engaged, really do have a terrific capacity for creative futures planning. I use the word ‘terrific’ intentionally here as terror became increasingly obvious by way of reaction from the upper hierarchies of the Planning profession as our work progressed. it became ever more evident that effective community engaged planning would mean ever greater devolvement of planning activity and responsibility to the communities involved. If the processes of engagement, or the methods of collaboration are effectively managed, what you end up with is a highly creative, synergy driven super intelligence of talent through which to identify, understand, manage and organise local issues. Which implies the beginning of the end of the old machine manager mentality of conventional, old-school Planners and their bureaucracy. The first victim of creative community engaged planning is top down management. That is quickly replaced with what could be termed ‘discursive’ deliberative democratic process and associated governance. The feedback loops of information and communication weave right around all levels of the Planning show via a breathtaking complexity of animated engagement. Top to bottom engagement becomes meaningless. No one is in charge anymore in the old ‘Top-down’ command and control sense. No wonder, then, that the State Government level Planning department sponsoring our collaborative community planning work soon pulled the plug and disowned our work in short order. I have never seen a project divested of official support so quickly as that. The local authorities even stooped to the level of sending out a letter to the legions of community members who had participated in our work to suggest that we had ‘gone off the rails’ and that the future of that particular project was under ‘new management’. That work never went anywhere. The communities have never heard a word since. 

Our experiences and insights definitely do not spell the end of the expert. Rather, the role of the expert is transformed. The discipline of Planning and the discipline of management is just as important, but these disciplines are differently organised and differently implemented under genuinely collaborative planning process. Indeed, there is a key need for a new discipline to be added to the Planning portfolio: the discipline of engaged community facilitation. Facilitating community engagement is most emphatically not something ‘anyone’ can do. There are profound skills involved, including a thorough grounding in sociology, psychology and philosophy. This skill set needs its own university degree and accreditation programmes. I am always stunned by the abject ineptitude of Planners appointed to the facilitation of community engagement tasks. Usually, we get a suited expert equipped with a clipboard and an enthusiastic aid manning a flip board of butchers paper seeking to list audience needs and wants to be followed by some kind of communal prioritisation of the ensuing lists. This is an abjectly dysfunctional way of going about a task such as this. For starters, you will never, ever, get any kind of meaningful community representation in gatherings such as this. Next, those with the loudest voices (and or those with the most to gain/loose) will shout their contributions to such lists over the top of any and all other potential interests in the room. But, worst of all, this listing process completely, and artfully, dodges all possibilities for the creative synthesis across the points represented in such lists. The possibilities for merging and synergising across different individual’s priorities and concerns are lost. The possibilities for really getting to know and understand why it is that two different people or groups can have such opposed viewpoints is a difference to be explored, not sorted via arbitrary voting protocols. Why do two people hold opposite viewpoints? What are the fundamentals of these differences? We have found, time and time again, that seemingly opposite viewpoints often become simply two ways of expressing the same set of preferences once those differences are systematically explored. ‘Systematic’ is the keyword. There is a process and skill set involved in managing a conversation such as that. The expert with his flip board assistant may not have the ideal skill seat to catalyse that kind of infinitely revealing dialogue. 

To foreshorten a book that could be written around these themes and my experiences in this regard (which I am, indeed, currently writing), I would simply say at this point that the old command and control, machine manager mentality of Planning is alive and well in the Planning community and, particularly, within the Council with which I have recently had ‘dealings’. 

My particular dealing was over a simple rural residential development application. Nothing could be more straight forward, I had thought. If ever there was a rubber stamp to be applied this particular exercise would be the most likely candidate. But we all came unstuck when the Planner-in-Charge discovered that the historical road that would access the new house site also services the residence of one of our rural neighbours. Though the road is entirely on our land, our neighbours had managed  (50 years ago) to derive a ‘residential benefit’ exclusive to themselves. Which implies that we could not use that road to access our new house, even though the road is on our land. Though there was no objection from those neighbours of any kind to us using the road ourselves, our Planner-in-Charge decided that there could be contestation over access (even when there was no contestation of any kind) so denied our application unless we chose to build a new access road. My proposal to build a new road exactly parallel to the existing road, with a metre or so separating them, was not interpreted as the sarcastic response I had intended. 

The point to be made here is that, once again, when faced with even a slightly complex issue, all possibilities to determine a solution via engaged collaborative process were dismissed by this Planner with a dismal incapacity to even notice shades of grey between the ‘pass’ – ‘fail’ check boxes of his planning routine. Indeed, the only possibility for engaged discussion across all parties involved was, apparently, one of full legal adjudication. A process of discussion across already amicably disposed parties (us and our friendly neighbours) was not considered to be a meaningful foundation for  resolution. Rather, our Planner-in-Charge could conceive of no other possibility than pushing parties inclined to simple negotiation into the adversarial setting of the legal system. What were once a group of neighbours, if not friends, would be put to each other’s throats and into the cess pit of outrageously expensive legal arbitration. Why should two parties be forced to arbitrate over an issue that had not been an issue before this Planner became involved. At no stage did this Planner or his Planning cohort suggest or even, I suspect, conceive of the merest prospect that simple discussion across all involved parties could resolve what really is a very trivial problem. 

My simple development application case study reveals an endemic dysfunctionality in the Planning profession. The context of my group’s larger community planning work suggests the problem is a culture of managerialism at work within local government Planning. Managerialism is a disease that inflicts managers with an incapacity to understand real world systems as being complex, and as such, as being something more difficult to manage than the mechanisms of a clock. The invocation of the command and control perspective of management over people-involved planning situations is a tragedy given the modern political and bureaucratic rhetoric that would raise the necessity for ‘community participation’ in policy and governance to the highest possible priority. Indeed, the necessity to work effectively with communities of all kinds is actually embedded in the core planning legislation that governs Planning and policy making at local, state and federal levels. The simple problem here is one of mismatching professional capabilities with the job at hand. A manager with a command and control mindset should be appointed to tasks no more complex than the organisation of departmental coffee breaks or the organisation of the executive staff Car Park. They should never be unleashed on the public, particularly within the context of a job description that actually demands sensitive and effective collaborative engagement as the setting through which to transact client interaction. 

But most perversely of all, this council with which I have had such a frustrating engagement is one that had won a planning award for the machine-management system of check box planning that their chief planner had instituted late last century. I always delight in suggesting that the ultimate outcome of effective machine management is management by machine. Thus rendering those very machine managers redundant. 

Facing the Crisis

Tv2

I wasn’t there when they first invented the TV. But I do recall once watching an early era black and white set before colour broadcasting began. I remember the wooden box-like set. I remember the small glass screen. I remember the single mono speaker and the big fuel tank  filler cap-like channel switcher. I remember the turned cylinder legs and the flower pot permanently planted on the top. I do definitely remember that all this felt so amazingly modern. And I do not ever recall thinking that all this technology would be in for much in the way of change. Colour was not something that ever occurred to me. Yes, that little Pye set was bigger and better in every way than its predecessors that more resembled a gramophone set with a window than a Jurassic Home Theatre array. But progress felt… gradual. Not frantic. We didn’t purchase on the knife edge of fast paced imminent redundancy. We didn’t worry that what we might purchase today would become an antique the very next day. 

Which is how I feel when I buy a TV these days. Which is exactly how I feel two days after installing the one I have just bought. Two days after purchase, that model has been deleted. But it was current two days before. So now, apparently, I have an antique…

But it’s not just TV’s that give me this riding-a-technology whirlwind feeling these days, And that’s not because I am some kind of grumpy technologically outpaced old man either, I might add…

This latest model Macbook Air I am using here was fresh for five days. Then Apple added USB 3. So now I am a legacy user disconnected from the world of high speed devices to which, it seems, every other Mac user now has access, except me. Now I’m stuck with USB 2.0.  One day I was on the cutting edge. Now I am in the dust. Feeling like the victim of technological assault. Inadequate. Left behind. Old. Which is all very odd because before the latest Macbook update, USB 2.0 was just fine. I was happy using the equivalent of black and white TV serial bus technology. USB 3.0 was for PC users and I wasn’t one of them. And that was just fine. 

Which is why, and I am sure I am not alone, so many folk are having such fun with LP records once again. Vinyl has become a concrete barricade of protection from the howling gale of technological change. We can tinker and enjoy without any fear of becoming out-of-date. Indeed, in those Jurassic vinyl grooves is a sound that even the highest end computer audio would  find it hard to match. But I digress.

If you are a person subject to techno-adadequacies or insecurities of this kind, the whole world becomes a little unsettling. We seem to be tuned to the pace of being left technologically behind. Most of us know that what we have today is not going to cut it by some time mid next week. Some of us don’t care at all (to a degree that improves the closer we get to the nursing home), some are mildly unnerved. And some are in a perpetual state of panic (like those who choose to queue every time Apple releases a new iPhone). 

My bandwidth of concern is pretty wide. Relishing, as I do, the technological resilience of bicycles and vinyl LP’s, I can drift off to an island of unconcern. But when it comes to computer IT, I dread every upgrade. I am, after all, that guy who bought into DCC and MD (remember those?) only to watch both music formats completely disappear within a space of two years, along with the media needed to keep that equipment in use. Go on, try to buy a Digital Compact Cassette these days. Go on. Try. I feel like I have been robbed. Dropped. Ditched. Redundant without redundancy pay. And no one cares…

All of which explains why I seem to be permanently carrying a back pack of worry around whenever I enter some kind of electronics store, or search for a new car, or search for a new ebook to download. Will I be left with unusable stuff all over again? It’s like carrying a permanent virus, or having to live with a permanent limp. All the while knowing that, really, it’s all self-inflicted and induced by the evils of modern marketing and a raging culture of consumerism. Which is why it’s so great to know that I can aways drift off to that moated barricade of bicycles and vinyl LP’s when ever I like. In that place, I can overtake anyone’s million dollar cutting-edge super car when all that oil-fuming technology trickles down to a sludge in congested city streets; and from where I can nuance away all I like to the nth degree of fidelity on my LP’s while the techno buffs are all reinventing bit rates and DAC codecs in a battlefield mess of unsettling audio attrition. 

But all this presents a context through which to frame every visit I choose to make to my local bookstore, my local record shop, or even to my local newsagent. I pick up a book and find myself Amazoning the price of its ebook counterpoint for my iPad. I pick up a magazine and check out the price of subscriptions on Zinio. The latest issue of Peloton magazine is $15.99. An annual sub for my iPad is $12. Knowing these choices makes it so hard to commit. Which translates into a non- commitment to the continued existence of these stores dancing their death throes on the tipping point of relentless change. Every time I buy an ebook, my local book store is one page closer to that final closing down sale. I can’t enjoy buying the latest cycling ezine without reflecting on the abject economic disaster about to dump on my friendly local newsagent. What’s life going to be like without those local stores? Is our community to become an array of disconnected social recluses all hardwired to the internet while the village green transcends to jungle and unemployment reaches 100 per cent?

Stop the bus. It’s time to get off. 

I’m done with all those awkward silences of unsaid condolence I feel whenever I visit my newsagent, bookshop or that last, assaulted record store. Is it time to become a technological recluse? 

It’s hard to listen to music on my bike with a LP turntable strapped to my handlebars. I want the latest toys but want the social infrastructure of community commerce as well.

It’s hard to put my head in the sand. But I don’t want to put a knife into those gentle decent folk who run their Last Stand book/record/newsagency stores, waiting for the vultures to finally swarm the poverty of their final days. 

Where do they all go in these days of 10 per cent plus unemployment and global recession? Too young to retire, too old to begin again. Do they all just go off and die? Do they all just go off to live under a bridge? What happens to the human-centred purveyors of technologies-left-behind. Who’s going to provide the spare parts for TV sets rendered obsolete when the product cycles cycle around to less than a week? Who’s going to service anything when all commerce is transacted by faceless drones in cyber space. What happens when the economic efficiency of technological improvement leaves us all unemployed? Do we only ever reflect on such things when the impacts hit us hard in the face?

Of course, the world these days is not just transmitted in black and white. Fortunately there are lots of shades of grey in between. But I do fear that it’s that grey scale that’s the real issue under assault. Are those shades reducing to a five tone scale? At one end, we have the Made-in-China globalised cess pit of the economic rationalist’s  sado-massochistic perverted world view. On the other end we have us cyclists and LP lovers ignoring the assault. But in the middle are all the struggling record stores, magazine sellers and book store purveyors bleeding tears as they reconcile their tills at closing time. I can see a time when the technologies of the recent past reduce to be serviced by niche markets of residual cranks and luddites perverse in their pleasures from stuff from the past. Like readers of paper books and magazines. And cyclists eschewing the bestialities of e-motors and even stupider electronic gears. What’s the ideal market size for a niche of paper books and plastic compact discs? One store per town or one store per million of population? Who’s going to catch a plane flight to visit the nearest record store? What’s the business plan for my local newsagent these days? Or worse, for that local record store? We know that technologies get left behind (remember the Digital Compact Cassette and Mini Disc?). So stuff will fail and markets will crash. They can’t all be sustained by niche markets for the hardcore. The grey scale between no market and the global market place is going to get really thin. And we all need to consider this final point. How many local jobs will there be when the global market place has entirely diverted to an exclusive serenade between the Chinese shop floor and their faceless, country-less global corporate sponsors? 

Which is why, maybe, this current post- Global Financial Crisis Crisis is a good thing after all. When the world economy slows to a crawl, the wheels of commerce slow and we get time to work out a better plan. There are some economists who have given this process a name: Creative Destruction.

Which is why, in turn, I have that unsettled feeling of impermanence and insecurity when it comes to making technology choices these days. We are in a world just like we were when black and white TV became mature. We are sitting on the edge of a great tipping point. The grey scale is about to turn into colour. Hopefully the next spectrum of our economy will be displayed in something better than VGA. Hopefully, the middle will fill out and niche markets will return to a broader base; just like the LP industry these days where more and more and ever more people are re-introducing themselves to the latest technical iterations of the good-old turntable and the latest grades of heavy weight vinyl. And, yes, as more and more people discover the whole-of-life enhancement of cycling as a wondrously steam punk synthesis of the old and the new, cycling and re-cycling all over and over again. 

A Very Necessary Revolution

Pardon my noise… But just like everyone else, I have an opinion on the taxing state of carbon that is at least as partially informed as anyone else’s. Perhaps slightly less so, given the investment of a quarter of a lifetime in the ecological economics game. Perhaps not. You don’t have to read this after all…

As some might know, the current Australian Federal Government (to provide all its capitalisations, despite the fact that that Government is really nothing more than a Coup…) has recently launched itself into the carbon tax game. The aim is to deliver the world’s first and best testimony to political responsibility following the occasion of the failed Copenhagen Climate Change Summit of 2009.

But the negotiations thus far to sequester a policy on carbon pricing are much more of a testimony to the failures of human kind when it comes to humans paying any kind of mind to humans other than their individual selves. Self interest, in other words, is rising to the top in these discussions just like the sludge in an overused septic tank. Self interest applies here just like it does to the passage of traffic through a roundabout. The rules of roundabouts and the rules applying to this particular exercise in policy making go something like this: ‘I am here. I matter most. Give Way applies to everyone but me’.

Now in the classical economics game, we have a long track record in ascribing all kinds of powers to the objective force of the marketplace. Let the market rule. The marketplace will sort things out. Rewards go to the most efficient, and appropriately undisguised signalling (think of an oncoming steam train) goes to those who need to get out of the way. Once upon a time, an economic instrument like, say, a carbon tax, would simply be imposed and, if the policy settings that underpinned it were even vaguely well-considered, the market would head off approximately in the direction intended. More or less. With policy tuning via legions of bureaucrats to steer as we go. We know any policy will be incompletely considered as even economists know less than all that’s needed to be known about the situation at hand. Thus, we expect the repair-as-we-go approach is what will happen. That’s why we spend billions and billions on those legions of bureaucrats who weave and cast their way though the fertiliser of tax payer tenured salaries.

But as politicians find themselves in ever more marginal electoral positions, their bravery to launch policies of the more experimental kind diminish in direct proportion with the margins they hold. So, given that this current Australian Federal Government is one of the most precarious of recent times (being a Coup founded on alliances between Labor, a Green Party completely unused to be taken seriously and a bunch of intellectually feeble independent nutters – an assortment of religious and rural fundamentalists) you’d have to wonder at the strategic merit of launching a policy of such heroic proportions as a carbon tax. It must have been obvious from the start that any policy made in an environment such as this will be more bandaid than a thick skinned instrument through which market forces might wield their way.

A bandaid policy is what it has become. So much so that you really have to wonder at what madam Prime Minister’s actual intentions might be.

Right now, that great fundamental bulldozer of human-caused climate change, the coal industry, is making a case for its exemption from the tax! The sheer unmitigated gall of that pox of an industry to take such a stance is simply breathtaking; but completely expected. The problem is that under present circumstances of enfeebled government empowerment, the Coal Industry is likely to get its way. But there is more! All those wonderful family folk out there who fume up the environment with their cars are to be exempted as well. As will be any ‘small business’ operating in situations of less than carbon neutrality (what ever that might mean). So, who is this tax actually going to impact on? And what was the point of such a policy in the first place?

Let’s go back to basics. The entire point of delivering an instrument of change into a marketplace that generates climate changing ‘externalities’ is to mitigate those externalities to some kind of a lesser degree. The idea is to make it more expensive to gas up the planet, and reward practices and lifestyles that are of a more environmentally agreeable nature. Putting it another way, the idea is to change the behaviour of all players in the climate change game – that is, you, me, and the coal industry, just to name three. The idea of an economic instrument is to bluntly exert influence through the pain reception centres of the hip pocket nerve. This saves all that appealing to the ‘common good’ and related moralising that would seek to change behaviour if we chose to work outside the machinery of the marketplace. Because, after all, it’s way too hard to build policies that appeal to our sense of right-doing, right-thinking as the primary motivating force. We know the difficulties likely through such a course whenever we enter a roundabout…

But with all the fragility of the current political marketplace right now, our Prime Minister may actually do better by appealing to the moral virtues of her constituents than proceeding with what will be one gigantic bodged blight of a patchwork policy as this carbon tax is going to become. I, for one, will simply seethe with resentment as I watch the plutocratic coal and oil industries smirking at us from the bogs they are making of a planet we and every other species currently share.

Personally, I would vastly prefer to attack the climate change problem set outside the instruments of that very market place that created the issues we face in the first place. Any policy instrument as bandaided as that with which the Australian Government is currently involved is likely to make matters worse; by taking the heat off that now almost comatose sense of self-responsibility that has caused human-caused climate change in the first place. With ‘households’ (or ‘family’s, with whom our Government appears to be endeared), the coal industry, the oil industry and every other major agent of destruction involved in this current environmental war taken off the hook, we, the actual perpetrators can sit back and blame whoever or whatever the residual industry this new tax will actually hit once all the power haggling is done. We can revert to now officially sanctioned complacency for ever more (until the seas rise and the tropics take over the alps…). Rather, what needs to be done is to rub the noses of ALL users of our global climate roundabout to the fact that every single player is facing a Give Way sign, all at the same time. There’s a few good ways to catalyse change of this kind. The easiest is to let the system fail and hope that the survivors will, finally, find an existence that actually works with the Gaia our generation has despoiled. Or, we could start to actually use the power of engagement that current communicative technologies have enabled. Maybe it’s time for a new era of deliberative democracy, powered and empowered through a grassroots surge of serious self-responsibility taking. If that sounds a bit arcane, the opposite actually applies. All this means is that we need to dismantle the failed old-school top-down managerialist model of big policy making and empower the bottom-up instead. Grass roots revolutions of the most necessary kind. Arab Spring. Cultural shifts. We all face a Give Way sign when it comes to managing the planet we share.


Martyrs to the Religion of the Market Place

Listening to a future of small farming forum on Late Night Live the other day reminded me that, despite over a hundred years of furious and convoluted oceans of internal debate, economics is still being represented to the rest of the world as a seriously sorted bunch of uncontestable universal laws.

Politicians have become ‘second hand priests’ proclaiming truths from notions that should more appropriately be regarded as contested propositions. When communities and traditions are allowed to fail on the justification of truths that may or may not be truths at all, the pain they are forced to bear might be a pain that impacts, ultimately, even more on the rest of us. It all depends on which particular version of advice is applied to guide the policy maker’s axe.

You can listen to the proceedings of this forum or watch the movie… (recommended for students of body language or, perhaps, those who like to form their impressions of pervasive insincerities and barely disguised contempt – through watching the subtle signals from the faces of those involved).

Listen in to hear just how many times the imperatives of the ‘market place’ were raised to the status of gospel truth via the responses of the ‘Minister for Everything’ to any and every complaint raised from the floor. Listen carefully and you will hear the exasperation in host, Philip Adam’s reactions to what that Minister Bryan Green (Deputy Premier and Primary Industries Minister in Tasmania – also minister for Water, Energy, Resources, Planning, Racing (!) and Veterans Affairs) had to say.

In summary, it would seem that the failings of small landholders are, in effect, perceived to be an inevitable sacrifice to the ‘better ordered economic affairs’ that can only ensue through the inevitability of larger, more sensible economic scale. Politicians need to be brave and uphold the universal Truth of efficiency: bigger is better. Smaller is less efficient. Efficiency rules. If the signal is to get bigger or get out, then getting out is the way to go. Oh, it’s all very very sad, and we really do feel your pain, but suck it up, boys, your demise is for the greater economic good. That’s how someone schooled from the so-called ‘Neo-Classical’ or economic rationalist tradition might interpret and advise on these particular matters at hand.

I am not quite the ‘econoclast’ I might appear to be. I spent 25 years exploring the nuances of heresy which have inspired excitements within the economics profession for over a hundred years. Most people don’t realise just how diverse a field economics really is. It seems that very, very few, of even those within the game, are aware of all the different ‘schools’ of economic thought that might inform how we interpret and deal with ‘adjustment issues’ of the kind outlined above. Institutional Economics, Ecological Economics and the so-called Austrian School are three other economic traditions that might context an entirely different character of advice from the dominant Neo-Classical school. Each school has its own traditions, journals, heirarchies and leading personalities. Each can legitimise its own ideosyncratic positions; each can critique the insights derived through alternative points of view with equal and opposite conviction – at least to those from within each particular tradition. Like religion, each ‘tribe’ can become a passion of deep but distinctive conviction. Each tribe self-referentialises the validity and importance their disciples imagine they should have. Some more than others… Neo-Classical economics is the master at that particular game.

My issue here is why most of the thinking that underpins rural adjustment issues of this kind continues to be dominated, overwhelmingly, by the Neo-Classical, economic rationalist school. But worse than that, I am always astounded by how amateurishly (cynically, naively, and fundamentally ignorant of the specific situations addressed) their economic prescriptions are devised and presented. And worse still, without recognition that alternative positions could, with equal conviction, be devised by their counterparts outside the dominant paradigm. I can see little justification for the privileging the insights that prevail from the Neo-Classical school over those from, say, their Institutionalist counterparts. And when can we expect the perspectives of Ecological Economists to see daylight any time soon?

I have an undergraduate economics degree delivered exclusively (manically – with religion-like fervour) by disciples of the Neo-Classical school. I have a PhD informed by the Institutional Economics perspective. And I directed a university research group that promulgated the Ecological Economics perspective for 10 years. From observation of just these three schools, I can most emphatically state that the Neo-Classical school is, by far, the most insular and non-reflexive of the three (no introspection on underlying philosophies or tenants of the principles they proclaim). I distinctly recall being thrown out of my first teaching position once my perspectives shifted to Institutional Economics. Ecological Economics was the final straw. And that’s not just at the particular university with which I was involved. Prejudices and a profound disinclination to explore the borders of alternative points of view is an endemic academic curse, in most parts of the world.

Let me try to summarise thee different takes that might apply to the consideration of the small landholder issues discussed on Late Night Live. The Neo-cCassical tradition would, as outlined above, be inclined to simply ‘let the market work’. The Institutionalist tradition would focus on how those small landholders interact via cause and effect into the wider economy within which they sit. They would seek ‘pattern models’ of interaction through which to inform judgements of what could be done. Much of the patterns they would review would NOT be reduced to simple quantitative, stick-figure like representations of the kind so encouraged by their Neo-Classical counterparts. And those patterns would certainly not be reduced, necessarily, to the uniform metric of money. Interventions might be proposed without recourse to the vaguest consideration of changes in net stakeholder wealth! The Ecological Economics perspective would, of course, contemplate how the economic and ecological dimensions of the situation under review might interact. Both dimensions are considered as two components of the same integrated whole. Once again, money might not be the metric through which to decide on what to do.

The Neo-Classical tradition is, by tradition of practice all about the simplification of choices down to uniform values that can be ranked and measured. Choices are reduced to facilitate the application of particular decision making instruments (hence, ‘instrumental rationalism’). That kind of game is particularly amenable to third party decision support. Namely, if a policy maker is particularly naive, he or she can be convinced that a choice that is anything but, can be construed as a simple case of yes or no.

I know enough about neo-classical economics to know that a fixation on over-simplification is not a necessary or compulsory mandate for those charged to provide advice. There are layers upon layers of assumptions that pertain to each and every choice economists of this persuasion are called upon to consider. A GOOD economist will consider those assumptions very carefully. A GOOD economist will write all those assumptions down and context all advice through their explicit recognition. Assumptions should remain attached to all advice right down to the most succinct of executive summaries. But that is rarely the case. Whether by negligence on the economist’s part, or through the intervening filters of the bureaucracy, the context of prevailing assumptions tends to be ruthlessly, and systematically removed. Politicians are now accustomed to receiving advice with all shades of grey removed. They are accustomed to now viewing their choices just in black and white. Which is both a tragedy and a shame. The tragedy is that, in many cases, the careful consideration of those excised assumptions might recommend an entirely alternative choice. The shame is that removing the assumptions will frequently remove the source of a wonderful laugh. You see, some of the assumptions of Neo-Classical economics are astonishingly absurd. Like the one that suggests we (farmers) should be and are just simple profit maximising machines. Or that choices are valued in simple linear terms (more is good, much more is much better; ten bicycles are ten times as much fun as just one). And best (worst) of all, feedback does not exist (or is at least assumed away because considering it is just too hard). Everything in our wonderfully curvaceous 3D this-effects-that-and-that-effects-this-all-the-way-back-again world is reduced to just a simple uni-directional line.

So, if Mr Green is advocating some plan of ‘natural unassisted attrition’ for the small farming community for which he has a duty of care, he is either astonishingly ill-advised or has some other agenda which he has not shared. I favour the former. Because I have witnessed the policy making process first hand for many, many years. Both here and throughout the world. Economists are in the very least negligent through underplaying the assumptions they have used. Cultures are at stake. Regional emergence – and even the character of our civilisation is at stake. And, via some fascinatingly complex feedback links, so to is the ecological foundations that sustain activities that generate our money. For instance, if we are to replace small farming with concentrated larger economies of scale, or even monocultures over diversified agricultural production systems, how will the ecological systems that sustain us fare? Are these things simply to be ignored. They are certainly outside the metric that Neo-Classical economics has a capacity to consider (via the tools economists of that kind are inclined to use). A GOOD economist, even of the Neo-Classical kind, should SHOUT the limitations and assumptions of the advice they provide. Choices should be shrouded in IF’s and BUT’s to a torrential degree. The decision maker should NEVER be misled to imagining that theirs is a simple choice to make. Ever. Unless you are in the business of constructing clocks, choices are never, ever a matter of yes or no. Choices are never, ever, black and white.

Rather than the unidirectional conversation we witnessed on the occasion of this small farming forum, what should have been considered was an interactive all-around learning exchange. No one position or point of view should ever be privileged above all the rest. Every perspective has some insight to add. And ALL perspectives should be open to evolution and emergence through effectively facilitated deliberation and consideration. Even that of Mr Green. The Economist’s job is much reduced in a setting such as that. The economist’s job is to present just a limited piece or two of a much larger puzzle to be considered. The economist’s job should never be to dominate discussions such as these. The economist’s perspective is limited and marginal, at best.

Are we to assume, then, that the persistence of perverse, blinkered, and yes, fundamentalist thinking of the kind evidenced by Mr Green, and just about every other politician we can observe with interests (at least) in regional development, is only a consequence of poor and unprofessional advising on the part of economists? If not, who is to blame? Because this kind of ‘reductionist’ thinking (reducing necessary rich complexity to the stupidity of digital-like ‘yes/no’ decision making) is so astoundingly generic in society these days, we must assume that there’s something much worse going on.

My thinking on this is that all humans, me included, are more comfortable with decision making when a stormy ocean of frequently conflicting signals that pertain can, somehow, be rendered down to a more finite, simpler set of criteria to consider. Simpler makes the brain hurt less… It’s vastly easier to choose from a menu of five or fewer choices than five thousand or more. It’s vastly easier to assume that our advisers have grappled with all that nasty complexity for us. Our job is then to simply empower that trust and chose from the options presented. That’s what most Ministers do when dealing with difficult choices. That’s why we have legions of advisors backing up each key political office. It’s perfectly true that the human brain is finite in terms of the detail we can take on board through which to inform the decisions we make. It would seem that some people’s brains are more inclined to simplicity than others… Via the modern culture of ‘managerialism’ (wherein the complexities confronting and characterising any organisation are fallaciously reduced to the delusional simplicity of running a clock-like machine) managers everywhere seek to reduce the depth and breadth of the information we really need to make decisions, more and more the higher up the decision making chain we go. So much so that the person in charge could, in essence, be simply replaced by a switch. With a culture like that, the siren call of ‘reductionism’ to which Neo-Classical economics is so prone, is an offer that’s usually too hard to refuse.

If the desire is for simplicity, as fallacious and dangerous as that desire might be, then those economist charlatans who would ignore their duty of care to context all their advice with an appropriate accounting of assumptions and limitations, will always find favour in decision making circles. Institutional economists have a harder time breaking into the domain of public policy making. Their advice is almost always a study in context, the very antithesis of reductionism. They cannot provide simplistic advice. They always test the patience of politicians and managers hell bent on managerialising the systems under their command. That’s partly why Neo-Classical economics remains the dominant school in public decision making these days. That’s why Institutional Economics remains as an essentially academic pursuit.

Even Ecological Economics has a harder time in breaking into prime time decision support. The interlinked dimensions of economy and ecology is one dimension too many for many managers who we have over-empowered these days. True Ecological Economics (rather than the cynically rebranded environmental economics to which that domain is so tragically drifting) is never about the reduction of all ecological concerns down to the metric of money. True Ecological Economics is a ‘transdiscipline’; a meta discipline of synthesis and synergy releasing insights above and beyond what either discipline could illuminate alone. Synthesis and synergy releases a richer picture through which to context choices; so once again, reductionist decision makers will feel annoyed.

I have contempt for those economists who, knowing the limitations of whatever perspective they follow, still play the game of simplification and placation so that their name will be known and their voice heard. That, in my book, is the true terrorism of this age. They discredit their profession and disservice the society of which they are a part. Part of this blame can be fairly attributed to academic economists who train each generation of decision makers with a stripped-down, over-simplified ‘economics for dummies’ training programme. I’ve seen economics courses pitched at science majors that are so over simplified as to present an entirely toxic perspective on what economics really is all about. If an economics teaching programme can’t accommodate a comprehensive accounting of assumptions/axioms and limitations, that programme should simply not be offered. There is no such thing as the ‘fundamentals of economics’. I know lots of economics professors who don’t even have a basic grasp of the diversity that their field embraces. I know lots of economic professors who submerge themselves in a spiral of ever tighter marginal contribution to an ever tighter sub-sub domain of the economics game. They higher their pay, the ever more marginal their contribution tends to become. We need economist teachers of the other kind to teach decision makers what it is they need to know. We need more generalists, and ever fewer specialists in a world where decisions are always broader in spectrum than any single discipline could ever accommodate. The economics teaching profession is, in my view, in need of a total overhaul.

Re-engineering the teaching side of economics is probably the most strategic lever to pull towards improving public decision and policy making. That decision makers like Mr Green can sit by and let ‘the market’ destroy small farming communities for the sake of toxically simplistic economist mantras of market efficiency and the like is an overwhelming indicator that something is seriously wrong with the processes and substance of politics these days. The character of public decision making needs to change. Changing the way we teach our decision makers is a sensible and fundamental priority for improving all our prospects into the long term.

As E F Schumacher (roughly aligned to the Institutional Economics domain) advocated so convincingly a long time ago, small is beautiful when it comes to managing the future of our regions and local communities. There are huge economic, social and environmental virtues from propagating the small as beautiful in the face of the all-consuming voracious appetites of ugly global corporate greed. It’s about time that our politicians and their advisers should aspire to positions and postures that are vastly less naive. Maybe this means that instead of standing back and allowing the small farmers of Tasmania to disappear, the Government of Mr Green should proactively invest (not necessarily just money) in their sustained future.


Planning My Place

Consider a desert. Make that a featureless desert of endless sand dunes, each indistinguishable from all the rest.

Now, consider the opportunity you might have been given to take ownership of one small bit of this endless sea of sand. Let’s say you have been allocated 100 square meters to call your own. So you take out some pegs and place them on the GPS coordinates your friendly land authority may have provided. You rope off your bit from all the rest. Now stand in the middle of your kingdom. What, apart from these pegs distinguishes this place from the rest of the place within which it sits? If you took away those pegs, and your GPS, do you think you’d be able to recognise your particular place in the sand if you came back in a week or so? Probably not. There’s not much to feature your place as a Place apart from all the rest.

So, what makes a place a Place? Something with which to identify; something to make the place your Place. Maybe a home. Maybe just a tree. Or a termite mound. It doesn’t really matter if the only person who recognises your Place is you; what matters is the identity you build with that Place in your mind or in the minds of those with whom you might share that Place. Your Place might be a favorite camping spot beside a river; or a spot where you might have been thrown from your horse; or the Place separated from all similar Places by the presence of your workplace desk; or farm.

For years I have lived on a farm. This farm is like every other farm and there are farms adjoining farms as far as you can drive in a day. Of course, my farm is my farm; my farm is my Place. But my sense of place might only extend to our boundary fence without the presence of some kind of community space. Consider the village store. We have one of those. While the village store might belong to some person who calls that store his particular Place, the store is effectively a shared common ground across all those farmers within a half hour drive or so. This store is a bit like the shaded cross-over venn diagram core connecting a whole mess of otherwise separated Places. It is the hub of a wheel of Places that would otherwise barely connect. The spokes of this wheel are the journeys we all need to take to get to the hub, and back again.

The village itself is nothing but a collection of about ten houses relatively closer together than anywhere else in a neighbourhood of farms. If you came across this village, you’d probably not recognise it as such until you noticed the store. With the store in place, the local authorities agreed to locate a telephone box, a park bench, and a public amenities buildings all close by. There’s even a small church. People from outside the Place stopped for drinks. So the store keeper added a bar. And then they became a pub. A public Place. We who live around here identify ourselves to this Place (it’s called Wollomombi). When I am asked ‘where are you from’, I could give the name of my farm, but that would draw a blank. So I tell people I am from ‘Wollomombi’, despite the fact that getting there involves a 45 minute drive (or a one hour overland mountain bike ride). I live in a rural Place and the Place is identified by the presence of this village and the village is defined by the presence of it’s store.

It’s a curious thing, but there’s another Place within a 45 minute drive from where I live. This time, it’s an officially designated ‘city’ called Armidale. Instead of a village of 10 houses, Armidale is a Place where 20,000 people live and work. It even has it’s own university (as sadly managerialist blighted, tenth rate of a place). No one I know around where I live identifies with that city Place. Though there are plenty of journey spokes we all travel down to visit that particular hub, it’s such an alien urban Place that those spokes don’t really seem to connect from the Places on our rural rim. Our rural identities are sustained when we head off to the Wollomombi store. But when we visit Armidale, we have to get all dressed up and feel compelled to ‘citify’ our rural minds. There’s a real cultural divide to be negotiated when we travel into town. It’s a Place with its own cultural rules; its own protocols through which individuals engage. There are no traffic lights in the Places we Wollomombi people live! Or roundabouts; or regulated parking, or multi laned roads, for that matter. Despite its claims to be otherwise, Armidale is not a rural town. It’s just like any suburb of Sydney, or Tokyo. That Place is not my Place.

Yes, we all spend lots of money in that big city Place (in my case, mostly at the local bicycle store…). And that City Place keeps on delivering bills we rural people have to pay; particularly rates from the local Council (rates pay the salaries of those who levy the rates we have to pay via an endless wheel of otherwise worthless city-serving enterprise).

All of which leads me to an observation worthy of note. I once led a team of researchers (at that local university which, then, was much better than tenth rate…) who roamed far and wide asking people in all manner of Places what it was that they think made their place a Place. Because once we understand what it is that makes a place a Place we can then, and only then, start to imagine where that Place might be wanting to grow and go (or maybe just stay the same in a robustly resilient kind of way). Nearly everywhere we went we found that people had rarely, if ever, given such matters much thought. People identify with Places in very intuitive ways. Our job was to tease their thoughts out and share them about; to develop pictures of the Place with which the whole group could identify. The results were always, invariably, enlightening to those who took part. I never met anyone who thought the exercise to be a waste of time. Indeed, these collaborative conversations almost always helped to cement notions of Place to the point where identifying future pathways became almost automatic. We called this practical community-driven regional development planning. All we ever had to do was catalyse conversations around the notion of Place. The people would then take it from there. No bureaucrats need to be involved. No professional planners need to drive this kind of development machine. It’s low cost and ruthlessly effective.

Until the bureaucrats decide to intervene.

We seem to be living in an era of big ‘P’ Planning. Planning with credentials, sixteen levels of bureaucracy, procedures manuals and an ocean of policy through which to keep the entire show on its rails; linear, direct, command and control rails bound by policy steel. The planning my group sought to catalyse was small ‘p’ planning. Because the planning was handed over to the people who self-identified with their Places rather than to those from outside. The job for small ‘p’ planning is for Place-based groups to plan their interface with the bureaucracies with which they choose to strategically engage (to engineer the outcomes they decide to pursue).

The deal for big ‘P’ planning is entirely the other way around. There, the credentialed planners turn up and declare the rules of the game. A game which which the locals will probably never, ever, identify. The inevitable response is the over-priveliging of that local few who always volunteer to offer their views and demand the right to be heard on matters concerning mainly themselves. We all know the kind… I’ve heard these types described as the local ‘gazelles’. Those who take the running of local affairs. The problem here is that the Places these gazelles seek to represent are represented only by the impressions of Place that the gazelles hold for themselves. There is never any attempt to elicit a shared notion of Place. Or, indeed, who might actually identify with the Places involved.

All of which, in turn, contexts a process I am watching in this city Place next to the rural other Place where I live. I am watching a government sponsored regional planning process constituted through policy and implemented through bureaucracy. I am watching the head of our local university conversing with these big ‘P’ planning officials holding their inner sanctum regional Planning discussions with a view to delivering some kind of regional progress plan. This Plan will seek to ‘make’ the university locally relevant! They say. They will brainstorm a list of regional planning priorities and channel available funds and resources down funnels of their own exclusive design. The result will signify nothing and do nothing for anyone but them. Key performance indicators will be tick boxed off and notes duly noted in the official minutes. Money will be spent and no one will notice the difference. They’ll probably even erect a sign beside the main road. That’s big ‘P’ planning at work!

The worst thing to observe from this parable of mine is that it is all actually real. Regional planning really works this way. There’s a word for the big ‘P’ planning approach. That word is ‘managerialism’ (managing a world imagined as a machine). Managerialism is probably the most odious, obnoxious, dangerous and insidious disease facing the world today. Managerialism ensured the worst possible outcome from the Global Financial Crisis. Managerialism has given us sixteen layers of government through which to strangle every possible attempt for communities to self-articulate themselves. Managerialism, perversely, killed my local university research group from it’s community-endorsed small ‘p’ planning endeavours. Managerialism explains why our politicians can speak only in a language of platitudes and the convoluted non-sense of marketing spin. The machinery of governance is now too complicated to understand, let alone direct in any kind of meaningful way. The whole world of planning is now restricted to the one set of rails; a steel band of unbreakable connection between command and control all the way down the line.

And all of which, again, contexts my concern that the store in my local village has just shut it’s doors. There’s a store there no more. The houses are still there, so is the telephone box, and the church. The main road now by-passes a hamlet without any kind of public enterprise. What will happen now? Will the Place become a faded place and loose all our well trodden Place-making spokes? Or will the local bureaucrats turn their attentions to the Place and turn it into another kind of place through which to self-validate their master plan? It’s time for a local meeting, I think. Before the bureaucrats turn our Place into some place else rather than the Place of space with which the locals can continue to identify.