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Asymmetric Humour

Why is it okay for the weak to make fun of the strong but not the other way around? I’ve heard of the saying that it’s okay to punch up, but never to punch down, but why? What is it about our culture that allows the ugly to joke about the pretty, the fat to insult the thin, the poor to lampoon the rich? In other words, why is humour asymmetrical?

The simple answer is that if you’re in a position of status and power, ridicule isn’t necessarily mean-spirited. The edge is taken off because at the end of the day, you’re still on top and a few jokes aren’t going to change that.

Western European culture and its derivatives have had a strain of thought that assumes that everyone has equal worth. If one of your basic premises is the equality of all people, then when faced with the reality of inequality, those at the bottom would need to be taken up and those at the top brought down to bring the world into balance. Thus if you feel this way, you would find it vaguely disgusting when the strong prey upon the weak and vaguely pleasing when the weak get their comeuppance on the strong.

This is something that’s been going on since ancient times, though the strain of thought was never as dominant as it is today. Whether it’s stories of the ugly yet quick witted slave Aesop getting one over on a dull and oblivious master, whether it’s Christianity’ assertion that all people are equal in the eyes of God or the egalitarian Germanic traditions that gave us Common Law, it manifests itself over and over in our culture.

Maybe this assumption of equality is something that’s somehow innate in people, but I’d be inclined to think not. There are many examples of societies in history where floating the idea that all people are equal would have gotten you laughed out of the room.

For instance, the very first account of a peasant weeping when it wasn’t a subject of ridicule happened in the Gospels, when the Apostle Peter was overwhelmed with regret over having denied knowing Jesus three times. This may have something to do with the fact that writing was, up to this time, the near exclusive preserve of the ruling elite and their records are the ones that get preserved. Still, history is replete with examples of people who clearly did not believe in equality. Imagine the response you’d get from a medieval Mongol or an ancient Spartan if you asked them what they thought about the basic equality of all people.

If we were to see how a Spartan might treat a Helot slave or a Mongol one of his subjects, we would call that bullying today, even if they were not physically abusive. These people were strong and their victims were weak and as their cultures believed that might makes right, making fun of underlings was just part of the natural order of the world. Because we see equality as a basic ideal, such attitudes become distasteful.

In the modern world, we see this yearning for equality in the political correctness movement. Its aims, at their base, are to promote equality by couching touchy subjects in scrupulously neutral terms. Encouraging people to use less scornful or insulting language regarding anyone in a position of weakness puts people on more equal footing within public conversation.

A side effect is that it encourages the asymmetric humour I pointed out.

When a Chris Rock (to use a famous example) pokes fun at white America, he gets a free pass because he is doing so from a position of cultural weakness. As an African American, he is part of an underclass that is still struggling to achieve social parity with the dominant culture. Were a white comedian to make similar comments regarding black culture however, that comedian would be a pariah because they would be speaking from a position of cultural strength.

The same applies for women making fun of men or the poor making fun of the rich – the strong are fair game. After all, they’re strong.

They can handle it.

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On the Frances Abbott Affair

I thought I’d comment on a political story that had emerged recently here in Australia wherein Prime Minister Tony Abbott is being forced to answer embarrassing questions about whether or not he used his influence to expedite the accreditation of a school attended by his daughter Frances. The school in question, the Whitehouse Institute of Design, is a private vocational establishment in Surry Hills, a gentrified suburb of inner Sydney known for its fashion.

The main thrust of the story is that the owner and director of the school, a close friend of the Abbotts, awarded Frances a one-off scholarship worth $60,000. This scholarship is not advertised, not regularly awarded, not open to applicants and conferred only at the discretion of the managing director. Ms Abbott received it after a single one-on-one interview between herself and said managing director and no announcement of any kind was made about the award.

In Australia, politicians are expected to disclose all gifts and donations they and their families may receive as a result of their positions in order to provide transparency to the public. A politician may be invited to attend a movie premiere or gala and such a thing might be declared. However, if a benefit is earned, say a political scion is paid a bonus at work or wins a competition, it need not be declared. This is only fair. After all, the proceeds of their own hard work is their own business.

The scandal then in this case, all stems from Mr Abbott’s failure to declare the scholarship. When the story broke, the Prime Minister’s office held to the line that the scholarship was earned and thus did not need declaring. Opponents in turn say that it was given in the course of lobbying by Whitehouse and accuse Mr Abbott of having a conflict of interest, especially in light of proposed sweeping changes to the way higher learning institutions are funded.

It seems to me that such accusations and insinuations are overblown. The director of Whitehouse probably saw in young Ms Abbott an opportunity to greatly enhance the prestige of her school at minimal cost to her bottom line. Counting among your alumni a child of the most actively powerful man in Australian politics is no small thing. That it would ingratiate her to the Abbott family on a personal level was, I’m sure, just a valuable bonus.

Much of the story sounds like people doing favours for their friends, something that happens all the time. Far from being frowned upon in private life, it is positively encouraged by many as the primary way to get ahead in life. Among business owners, this can take the form of discounted or gratis services, preferential hiring/promoting and referrals to/contact with other prosperous or influential people.

This kind of favoritism (dare I say nepotism?), while understandable and commonplace, has the effect of accruing these unearned personal benefits at the top. The list of rich people’s friends tends not to include many people on the dole, after all. This is fine on an individual moral level, but bad for society as a whole if you believe that equal opportunity is a public good.

Which is why this behaviour, which is perfectly acceptable in the private sector, is abhorred by the public when exhibited by politicians. The Commonwealth exists for and belongs to all of us, not just those who were born into the right families, attended the right schools, live in the right postcode or have the right hobbies and priorities. Fitting the correct mould should not, by definition, be a prerequisite for fair treatment in a just society. People who presume to legislate and control the public purse strings are held to a higher standard for just this reason.

I’ll be honest, to me it doesn’t look as though there was intent on the part of Mr Abbott to grant Whitehouse any kind of preferential treatment and I don’t think any evidence of such actions will be found. That doesn’t mean that Mr Abbott hasn’t failed multiple times to live up to the standards expected of a public servant, let alone the office of Prime Minister.

I couldn’t tell you if this is a scandal fit to bring down a government. My gut says no, that it lacks substance and will blow over in a month or so, though not before causing untold embarrassment to the Abbott family and especially the young woman at the centre of this furor. The fact is however that it looks bad, and looking bad, from a political point of view, can be just as corrosive to public trust as being guilty.

What rankles me the most about this is the sheer hypocrisy. At a time when the government proposes to deregulate tuition fees, impose real interest to HECS/HELP loans (government-provided student loans hitherto interest free and linked to inflation alone) and gut the welfare schemes that allow many students to study in the first place, the child of the man presiding over these changes gets her degree for free and for no other reason than because the director of the school likes her. It’s appalling and flies in the face of the personal responsibility mantra the Abbott government preaches.

Liberal Party ideology sees the world split between the ordinary and the excellent. The excellent, as they see it, have an outsized role in driving the engine of society and it is only just, they believe, that they should get to accrue as much of society’s rewards as they can get their hands on. Similarly, the ordinary, making less of a contribution, are thus deserving of less. This is why high taxes are bad – they take money from the pockets of the excellent. This is also why welfare is bad – it puts money in the pockets of the undeserving.

That those who see the world this way and would count themselves among the excellent get such an unearned head start on the rest of society and do it so unapologetically puts a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who has had to work their way through university or carries an unpaid student debt into their 30s (and following fee deregulation, their 40s). Life isn’t fair, obviously, but public life should be about doing as much as possible to make it fairer.

Economics are Hard

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There are probably a thousand little things about finance and economics you need to know if you’re going to be a “proper” grown-up in this day and age. However, the important thing to know about economics is that it’s still something of a hybrid between a black and arcane art and a rigorous and sophisticated science and the important thing about finance is that you need to understand it before you start dabbling in it.

Right now, economics is what you’d call voodoo science – it’s a discipline where there are concrete steps and all the principles are rooted in demonstrated real-world results or at least mathematics. Intuitively, this means that if you carefully follow each step from the beginning, you end up with predictions that follow the real world somewhat. However, as anyone who has spent any amount of time watching the news or tried to follow what the dollar or the price of fuel are doing week-to-week, this is rarely the case (and even when it is, you chalk it up to coincidence).

The reason for all this is that economics is hard.

No, wait, scratch that. Economics is easy. It’s predicting the future down to the day that’s hard.
It’s a bit like trying to predict the weather. How many times have you heard your mother tell you the equivalent of the phrase “They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t tell me if it’s going to rain tomorrow”?

It’s a notion that we’re all familiar with, where the unaccountably good-looking and well-spoken meteorologist (that’s fancy-talk for weatherman/woman) on television tells us at the beginning of the week that your weekend at the beach is going to be ruined and you shouldn’t even bother trying to hang out your laundry, but by the time Friday afternoon comes along, the skies are as clear as a supermodel’s skin.

“Ha! Stupid weatherman/weatherwoman!” you scoff. “I could do a better job than that!”

And you probably could, if predicting tomorrow’s rain was all that meteorology entailed. In fact, there are statistical studies that have been done that attest to the fact that on many TV stations, the predictions on whether it’ll rain tomorrow are right about 50% of the time. You could get the same results by flipping a coin every time it looked like it might rain the next day.

The thing is that meteorology is about more than just having an unreasonably good-looking presenter tell you whether or not you should do your laundry tomorrow. The stuff they’re good at, and I mean really good at, is predicting how much rainfall is going to happen in a given year, how bad the storm season this year is going to get, whether or not emergency aid agencies should stock up on bales of hay or extra life rafts this year – that sort of thing. The models used in modern meteorology can track enourmous systematic trends like El Niño and La Niña and predict how they’re likely to rear their ugly heads in a given year and they get better all the time.

It’s all very sophisticated, mathematical and very scientific and it all works in percentages. Run a model a few times and you get a lot of useful information about this trend or that trend, but what you don’t get are exact numbers. You know storms are coming, but you can only guess at where or when they’re going to hit. The way modern meteorology works is that you can tell whether or not it’ll be a wet or dry October, but not whether it’ll be a wet or dry 12th of October.

People want to know what the science says about whether or not it’ll rain tomorrow, though, even if the predictions are going to be utterly meaningless. The result is that periodically, news programs scour the universities for suitably fresh-faced and well spoken meteorology graduates to come out, doll them up and trot them out in front of a green screen with a fancy-looking weather map so they can saucily explain that this high pressure region is hovering just over the G-spot of the nation, so expect things to get hot and steamy in the not so distant future in the naughtier parts of the country, perhaps while holding one of the legs of their black-rimmed spectacles to their lips.

What does any of this have to do with the price of eggs?

Everything.

The way we look at weather is almost exactly the same way we look at economics. We listen intently at the news, at the talking head from this bank or the consultant from that financial services company, or, if we think we’re really clever, we read the Financial Review. We take heed of them, take their nuggets of wisdom to heart, but when push comes to shove, we trust their judgements about as much as we trust the pronouncements of the weatherman. Not very much at all.

Instead, we put our trust in things we know we can trust. In some places, this trust is placed in property investments. Other times, those in the know say gold is the way to go. Still others think all that guff is far too risky and it’s better to leave your money in the bank to earn interest. Others, like my late grandfather, having lived through a bank failure or two, stockpile their cash around the house as though they were financial squirrels, burying nuts for a rainy day.

As tempting as it is to try to forget about the whole thing and live life, what the economy is doing affects huge portions of your life. It can mean the difference between having a job and being unemployed, between planning a holiday or losing your house. People vote governments in and out of power based entirely on how the economy is going under their watch. Even if you believe that material things aren’t all that important to you, you have to admit that money is a bit like love, freedom or air – not constantly on your mind, unless you don’t currently have enough to get by with.

We are all at the mercy of the world of economics and finance.

It’s all very bewildering and it’s so very difficult to get simple advice that breaks it all down in easy-to-understand terms. When you’re dealing with concepts with names like franking credits, debentures, credit default swaps, GDP, amortisation or even deceptively simple terms like inflation, debit and credit, all the English you’ve been using every single day hitherto seems to fail you in this utterly alien land. This is the land economists and financiers inhabit, where bankers roam free and accountants graze at the rolling foothills.

The good news is that the basics of this world aren’t all that hard to understand. The bad news is that beyond that, it gets very complicated very quickly.

Before getting into the nitty gritty of accounting and finance and why money moves the way it does, why some people have it while others don’t and why it seems to always conspire to screw you over, we first have to establish how economics works. After all, economics is the big picture stuff, right? Well, yes and no. Economics is also about small picture stuff. Individual decisions, really.

Confused yet? I know. I’m really very sorry.

Let’s make start with the concept of the rational actor, though, and see if I can salvage something half-sensical from this mess.

Remember what I said about economics being a voodoo science? Well, the voodoo starts here. Just as in voodoo (or at least the voodoo you see in the movies – I haven’t really done my research here), where you make a little effigy or doll of the person you’re trying to torture and stick pins in various parts of its anatomy, economics makes a little doll that represents you and uses it to predict what you’ll do.

Yes, you.

Why do they do it? Quite frankly, because it’s a lot easier to use a simpler version of you made from proverbial sticks and sackcloth than going up to you and asking you what you’d do in real life in a given situation. I imagine it’s the same reason voodoo doctors stick pins in little dolls rather than going to all the trouble and effort of kidnapping people and torturing them in person. It’s a real time saver.
They call this doll Homo Economicus – the rational actor.

The reason it has this name is because of a lame little in-joke economists have. As you may already know, a real human being is biologically speaking, a member of the species Homo Sapiens, which means “Wise man” in the Latin. The doll’s name is then a pun on this name, which means “Economic man”. Yes, I too can hear the guffaws coming from the School of Economics of the local university over this little detail.

Anyway, the thing you need to understand about Homo Economicus, this soulless doll version of you is that it is a bit of a menace. Not that the doll should be in jail, would cut in front of you and deliberately drive slow in traffic or tease little children for fun or anything, but it is stunningly selfish. Remember that this doll is a simplified version of you. This doll takes no prisoners, doesn’t believe in charity and makes every decision based entirely on how to maximise its own benefit. Teamwork? Friendship? The power of believing in yourself? Those other pro-social values you were taught by Saturday morning cartoons? They don’t matter to the doll. This doll slept in on Saturdays.

Now that we’ve established that the doll will not, under any circumstances, give your mother a discounted rate at the shops unless it is getting something in return, we’ll continue the lesson.

The doll does, however, possess one good quality that you, sadly, do not always display. It is coldly rational and always makes the best decision for its own well-being. Think about all the times you’ve eaten something you know is bad for you, contacted an ex you were still hung up on, procrastinated when you should have been studying or bought a lottery ticket. The doll would have done exactly none of these things.

Now, hang on, you say. If this doll doesn’t act like me, why do economists use it to represent me? Like I said, this is voodoo science and using it is easier than following you around and seeing what you do. Just like the voodoo doll kinda looks like the person being tortured, the economic doll sorta acts like you. It’s close enough that it doesn’t make a lot of difference in most situations and it allows the magic to happen.

And by magic, I mean sums.

See, the equations only work if you assume that, on average, people work in a predictable way. Otherwise, you have to account for a billion little things that people do that don’t appear to make any sense.

And the big things too.

For instance, cooperation. Our society is built on the idea that people agree not to harm one another in the pursuit of their own happiness. The flaw in this idea is that it gives people an incentive to cheat.

After all, if everyone agrees to be nice and share the resources, everybody benefits. However, if everyone else is being nice, being nasty can have quite big payoffs for you.

Why then does society not just devolve into Mad Max style dog-eat-dog chaos?

I think it’s because on some level, most of us understand that this is not sustainable. Niceness, you see, cannot be unconditional. You cheat one too many times and people will stop being nice and seek to punish you.

The best illustration so can think of is the money splitting game and people’s reactions to it. Now, I don’t remember the proper name of the experiment off the top of my head, but the basic way it works is that you give somebody an amount of money. You then tell them that they can split the money with you any way they like, as long as you accept the amount they offer you. If you don’t like their offer, neither of you get anything.

Now, a Homo Economicus would do a cold, rational calculation on any amount offered, realise it’s greater than the big fat nothing you’d get for rejecting it and automatically accept. So if the “pot” is $10 and you’re offered $0.05, you would rationally accept the offer since it’s better than nothing.

However, try to okay this game in real life and something curious happens. When people are offered paltry sums, they get offended and reject the offer. So, offer a person $0.05 when they know you’re getting $9.95 and they will likely say no, even though it’s better than nothing.

Why?

It all comes down to the innate sense of justice we share. Maybe it’s built into our brains from birth or it’s strongly instilled by our upbringing, but none of us like to see others get away with murder, especially when it comes at our expense. Perhaps a very long time ago, our mammalian ancestors discovered that by cooperating and not competing, that everybody benefited long-term, and this sense of fairness evolved to try to enforce cooperation, even when members of the party might prefer to cheat.

Having this sense means that the people rejecting insulting offers out of pride are often doing it because punishing a miserly player of the game is worth more to them than getting the money. Even when you play the game with huge amounts of money (say $150,000 total with a $1500 offer) and the person would benefit a good deal by accepting, they still reject the offer.

If course now you’ve given Homo Economicus something new to value – fairness. How much fairness is worth can then be measured in monetary terms by watching what offers they reject and which they accept. You’ve kept your voodoo doll and made it just a little more human.

Is he still rational? I would argue yes. It’s just that he factors other things, like justice, into his thinking too, not just money. Not only that, but his thinking can be resolved into dollar amounts too, which makes it easier to do sums.

The very long-winded point I’m trying to make in all of this is that at the end of the day, economics is the study of human behaviour when it comes to decision making. It starts off with simple concepts that quickly run away from you if you’re not careful and it’s important to remember what its concepts mean and what they don’t.

At the end of the day, a rational actor is not automatically a psycho. It’s important to remember this because there are those who would argue that rational actors are psychos, therefore we must smash any system built around them. There are also those who would argue that the system built around rational actors brings many benefits, therefore it’s important to become a rational actor (which they interpret as being a psycho).

Neither argument has a full grasp of the facts.

Categories: Society Tags: , ,

A Rant on the Refugee Issue

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For those of you unaware of Australian politics or reading this at some future date, there was recently an election in Australia, wherein the right-wing National-Liberal Coalition won a sweeping victory over the left-wing Labor party, ushering in the Tony Abbott prime ministership. One of the most visible issues during the election campaign was the increased arrival of asylum seekers in boats from places such as Sudan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iran and how their arrival was handled by the federal government.

Now, this issue was first put into the national spotlight by the government of John Howard (another Liberal Party prime minister) who, in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the US, elevated the issue to become a matter of national security. There were strategic electoral reasons he did this, which I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that attitudes toward boat arrivals, which had been quite lenient since the Vietnam war, hardened considerably. When Labor took government under Kevin Rudd, this policy did not change. Public opinion had shifted sharply to the right on the issue and the new government was terrified of being painted as “soft” on the issue.

This last campaign (2013) had the hysteria over the topic reach fever pitch, with prominent newspapers actively reporting a count on the number of boat arrivals daily. The Labor party announced ever tougher measures on the issue of boats, promising to resettle asylum seekers arriving by boat in places such as Papua New Guinea, while the Coalition promised to use the navy to turn or tow boats back into Indonesian waters.

No policy was too harsh, no measure too draconian, no rhetoric was too xenophobic during the campaign, and it came from both sides of the narrow aisle. Mandatory voting in Australia means that parliament is closer to representative of the electorate, but it does mean that substantive policy differences are often either nonexistent or illusory.

I wrote the following rant during this election campaign, with emotions running high. I was angry and disgusted, first at the politicians themselves, for pandering to these xenophobes and at the news media, for their complicity.

My family came to Australia under a refugee visa, fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War.

I used to play with some kids who lived across the road. Their names are César, Maria Elena and Edgar. One day, soldiers bashed down their door and seized their dad. He was never seen again.

For much of my childhood, I was afraid of soldiers, police and helicopters and knew that I was to hide under my bed when I heard the sound of a helicopter or a door knock after nightfall.

My uncle and aunt had to duck and weave through the streets of the village while she was in labour because it was after dark and the midwife refused to break curfew for any reason, not even for a birth. People were being shot on sight if they were caught in the streets at night.

I saw the decapitated body of a man lying in the village square as my grandmother and I were going out to breakfast. He had been executed by the army in the night and left there as a warning to the other villagers that this is what happened to anyone who joined the leftist guerrillas. My grandmother covered my eyes and rushed me away as soon as she realised what was going on, because that isn’t the kind of thing you want a four-year-old to see.

That war took a nation of people and turned them mean, violent, callous and uncaring. Law and order broke down because people were torn between two sides and it was never clean. The sheer terrifying scale of the slaughter and rapine turned people numb, because to face what was happening otherwise would be unbearable. It is an awful thing to watch people you know and care about suffer this kind of brutality. It is downright perverse when the perpetrators of that violence are your neighbours, people you know and share things in common with.

Neither the army nor the guerrillas were some invading force, some clearly visible other onto whom we could project all our fear and hatred. The soldiers and rebels both were us, they were people we could name, people we had visited, had meals with, were related to. You couldn’t even discuss what was happening openly, because you never knew who might be listening. Owning a tape of the wrong kind of music could get you killed. God help you if had you ever made an enemy or crossed someone who was particularly vindictive, because a whispered word in the right ear could make inconvenient people vanish.

People who like post-apocalyptic dystopias in their fiction often do because the kind of conflict this sets up is exciting and because the complete breakdown of a society allows a kind of freedom from the moral boundaries that hem in our worst tendencies. Whether we like to admit it or not, there is a kind of twisted, sinister joy in the fantasy of violently killing with impunity, free of the inconvenient baggage of a guilty conscience. Why else would games like GTA or Call of Duty be so popular? Why else would the premise of The Last of Us be anything but utterly repellant?

The people who come here by boat are coming from places where society has, for whatever reason, broken down. They’re not coming so they can live high on the hog off our welfare system and mooch off the Australian tax payer. They’re not coming here because we’re bleeding heart suckers who’ll believe any sob story thrown out way. They’re not packing their children onto rickety boats, paying some shady thug their life savings and crossing an ocean because they want to bask on our sandy beaches and impose their ways onto the land of strangers they’re heading to.

They come here because Australia is safe and has a reputation for being so. This country is blessedly free of the rampant violence, the constant fear and the unending horror of life in a war zone or as a member of a persecuted minority. Nobody who was born and grew up here had to deal with the kind of horror they’ve been witness to and to shut them out simply because it threatens our safe, comfortable existence is a selfish, neglectful kind of evil.

I may vehemently disagree with and strongly condemn the Anglo-Celtic nationalist lunatics who inhabit the fringes of Australian politics, but at least they’re honest about their attitudes on this topic. I hope someday to live in an Australia that believes in a “fair go” for all, and not just for those already here, an Australia that can sing the line of its national anthem “for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share“, and mean it.

Trying to Understand the Country Vote

This post is adapted from one of my comments to a thread about Australian politics. It was inspired by an interactive map that plotted the majority political opinions in the various federal districts around Australia. One thing that really stuck out was the polarisation of opinions between urban and rural areas, especially in the states of Queensland and Western Australia.

One big hot-button issue these past few years has been the matter of taxation reform for the mining industry. Now, what you need to understand about this topic is that land ownership in Australia works a lot differently to that of other parts of the world, most notably the US.

The main difference is that under right of capture, land ownership in the US also includes ownership of any minerals or natural resources buried in that land. This is easy to understand and what most people naturally assume is the case. After all, Jed Clampett became a millionaire after striking oil on his otherwise worthless swamp.

However, in Australia, things are more complicated. It turns out that if you own land, you technically have a freehold, which means you can use that land for most normal purposes (farming, building etc.) but the minerals underneath it don’t belong to you – they belong to the people collectively.

If you want to extract wealth from the ground, be oil, gas, metals etc., you need a special permit allowing you to do so. Sometimes, these permits allow you to extract the resources that sit under land held by other people in freehold or leasehold. More often than not these people are farmers and none too happy being forced by the government to give you access to their land.

In return for the right to mine resources, the system up until a few years ago had you pay a set fee for every tonne of stuff you dug out of the ground. This was a great policy in the early part of the 20th century, when mineral prices were low and mining labour-intensive. It gave the government a stable source of revenue. In recent years, with the high mineral prices and extensive automation of the industry, you had a situation wherein a smaller and smaller proportion of the profits generated by mines were being recirculated in either the communities that serviced them or by the Australian people at large.

Cue the Mining Profits Super Tax, a policy designed to redress this failing and reform the system. Unfortunately for proponents of the measure, it was introduced poorly and politically mishandled, prompting a very loud and very public campaign against this “Mining Tax” by the mining lobby. The government then, fresh off the narrowest reelection margins in living memory, thanks in large part to this campaign, de-fanged the proposal and pushed it through in a watered down form.

People in the cities were broadly supportive of the proposal. It meant that mining companies, Australia’s biggest and wealthiest, would finally pay their fair share. People in rural areas, however, were broadly against the proposal, as it represented a threat to their own pockets.

The economic policies favoured by the country then, are basically the result of people voting to preserve their livelihoods and develop their own communities economically. Queensland and Western Australia both have vast swathes of land where people living there have very few options when it comes to earning a living.

Another big issue on which city and country were divided was on the issue of refugees, and, more broadly, the topic of multiculturalism itself, with its various sub-controversies, such as the recognition of Indigenous/Aboriginal Australians in the constitution and recognition of their rights in general. Opinions on all these topics seem to be broadly aligned. That is, if you hold one opinion, you’re more likely than not to hold others. That is to say that someone who is against Australia accepting new refugees that arrive in the country by boat is far less likely to agree that Aboriginal Australians should be singled out for special recognition in the constitution.

Needless to say, the latter views are far more prevalent in rural areas and these correlate strongly with conservative economic attitudes.

The anti asylum seeker and anti Aboriginal attitudes of rural voters are, I believe, borne out of the isolation and homogeneity of their communities, as well as the fact that the general population in these areas have less education than the cities. We’re talking about the whitest, least educated areas in Australia, which narrows people’s worldviews somewhat, to the point where their preferred solutions to policy problems don’t involve abstractions like social justice or depend so much on stuff like statistical analysis, but are pragmatic and concrete, here-and-now fixes.

A farmer or grazier sees him or herself as a steward of their own land. After all, the farmer who fails to look after their own land exhausts it quickly and bankrupts their business, failing to pass it on to their own kids. This is why they resent these big city greenies (i.e. environmentalists) who come in and tell them that because of aggregate overuse of the fresh water supply, everyone suffers and desertification and salination are taking place.

The farmer resents this because to them, it’s as Ann as the nose on Plain’s face that the fastest way to get desertification and salination happening on their own land is to stop using water on it. What does this greenie know about farming?

It’s the same attitudes that shape views, among white rural Australians, of the welfare state and the services it provides. As far as they’re concerned, welfare is for the lazy and services are for the cities. In the here and the now, they don’t see the intangible benefits of having a healthy welfare state, not in their own lives nor in those of their friends. As far as they’re concerned, their hard earned tax dollars are being unfairly siphoned out of their own pockets and being given to the undeserving or to the cities.

This leads into the prevalence of anti Aboriginal attitudes. In the cities, Aboriginal people have more educational and employment opportunities, more support and more hope, so urban exposure to the social problems facing their communities is somewhat lessened. In the country, and especially in more isolated places, these factors don’t come into play, so a white country person’s exposure to Aboriginal people can often be far less positive.

Perhaps on account of the isolation intrinsic to life as a farmer, people in rural areas tend to rate self-reliance as much higher on the list of virtues than a city person would. This attitude leads people to see one’s success or failure in the face of adversity to be a reflection on one’s own moral character. This means that they’re a hardy and tenaceous lot out there. The trap here, however, is the inability to see the historical and systemic forces that perpetuate the problems in Aboriginal communities and instead see these problems as the culmination of a thousand individual moral failures of the affected Aboriginal people themselves.

Why should we give any special rights or even recognition, they reason, to a bunch of drunken, violent layabouts? They have every chance, they think, to lift themselves out of their situation, clean themselves up and get a job, but they fail to do so consistently. Nope, the thinking goes, they haven’t earned the right to even be treated like equals.

Asylum seekers get it even worse, because not only are they coming and taking up tax dollars, but they’re also foreign, which means they could be bringing problems into the country that haven’t even been dreamed of yet.

I, as a city dweller and big believer in Keynesian economics, the value of using the latest science to inform policy-making and in progressive social policy, am almost the polar opposite of the rural electorate. I am also far removed from their problems and concerns. This does not, however, mean that I shouldn’t make an effort to understand them.

Too often, I see dismissal, mocking and outright contempt for these voters from others whose opinions skew to the left side of Australian politics. The thing is, they’re part of this country too, and their opinions, regardless of how heinous you may find them, matter.