A Brief History of Australian Xenophobia


To say that Australia has had its share of misunderstandings and misperceptions about the world that exists outside its own borders is somewhat of an understatement. Seemingly, if something can be gotten wrong about the wider world, Australia has gotten it wrong at one stage or another. Just how much of this can be attributed to genuine ignorance and how much is wilful deception—self- or otherwise—as well as whether or not it is necessarily a problem, will be the focus of this post.

(N.B. The reader should take ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘misperception’ to mean, respectively: believing something that is factually incorrect, due to a lack of information; and, believing something that is factually incorrect, as a result of faulty information.)

The Australian character is most often defined in terms of what it is not. ‘Un-Australian’ has become a common descriptor in both public and private discussion. The term’s frequent use in politics, popular media and everyday speech could be seen to speak of an identity founded on misperception and misunderstanding. A typical national reflex in a range of texts and conversation has been to define Australia in terms not of what it does, but what it does not, contain; which is to say, practices and customs that are seen as occurring outside its cultural or physical borders. The nation chooses to recognise itself chiefly in the terms of what it isn’t. As such, Australian misunderstanding of other nations could be said to be not merely an error of judgement, but part of the very substructure—however unsound—upon which the nation is built.

From settlement-era fears that it would be ‘Aboriginalised’[1] by its Asian neighbours, to current political rhetoric surrounding foreign investment, the fear of ‘Otherness’[2] has undoubtedly been a constant throughout Australia’s history. Simultaneously and peculiarly, though, this Otherness has an essential function: without its unAustralian Other, the national identity dissolves.

Considering the ‘invention’[3] of New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land—born of a British desire for a strategic base in the Pacific, in addition to a sort of ‘cocoon’ to protect their own people from the criminal element[4]—it is perhaps unsurprising that the future Australia’s residents would be inclined to retain security as a central preoccupation.

As far back as their colonisation of it, the British inhabitants of the world’s largest island have—perhaps somewhat understandably—had a disproportionate anxiety about being ‘invaded’ from the sea.[5] Australia’s geographical location has resulted in those anxieties regarding invasion being directed, almost exclusively until quite recently, towards Asia; concerns unhindered by any meaningful understanding by its people of their northern neighbours.

Geography notwithstanding, Australia has always regarded itself a part of the West. Abstract notions of empire, a sense of ‘imagined community’[6] and emerging theories of race, rather than any physical contiguity, were the ties that bound Australia to Great Britain. For all of the individualism championed by Enlightenment-era thinkers, the period had done much to entrench a sense of tribalism amongst people of western European descent, with theories—or, more accurately, hypotheses—such as polygenism immensely popular at the time. Espoused by such prominent philosophers as David Hume and Voltaire, these race-as-species pseudoscientific approaches to human heredity only sought to confirm the biases of the invariably white European authors, eager to validate their self-perceived physical, mental and moral superiority.[7] As is the case with all such scientific ‘paradigms’[8], this thinking would prove difficult to shift.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Australia had seen a substantial number of Chinese arrivals on its shores as the Qing Empire’s economic downturn saw many flee poverty, towards the promise of riches in the gold fields.[9] The arrival shortly thereafter of a number of Japanese immigrants and labourers from the Pacific Islands, gradually reignited Australian fears of being ‘overrun’ that had largely become dormant over the decades prior.[10]

‘Yellow hordes’ coming from the north would become a recurrent theme in the news media and popular novels from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, usually depicting a sense of European culture being gradually usurped by that of the ‘lower types’[11] from the East.[12] This narrative would alter somewhat, shortly after Federation—the push for which can be partially attributed to anti-Chinese sentiment, particularly in Victoria[13]—replaced with much more immediate concerns about a Japanese military invasion following the Russo–Japanese war of 1904–1905.[14] A misunderstanding of Japan’s military power quickly translated into misconceptions of its military aspirations as they pertained to Australia. (The newly independent nation may have been huge, but it was almost entirely devoid of people, with the few that it did have mainly located in its south-eastern corner; hardly a deterrent against invasion from the north.)

Policy, such as the Immigration Restriction Act, that was seen to work in the interest of Australia at the domestic level, would have negative repercussions for foreign diplomacy in a rapidly globalising marketplace. Such antagonism towards a group of people might go unpunished when one has a 49:1 advantage, but this was far from the case for Australia on the world stage.[15]

Australians had been involved in a number of military expeditions—Sudan (1885), the Boer War (1899–1902) and the Boxer Rebellion (1900)—in the lead-up to the twentieth century at the behest, and with the support, of Britain. Independent or not, Australia would not be looking to dissolve its marriage of convenience to Mother England any time soon. An expeditionary strategy was secretly established in London in 1911, in which Australian forces were routinely committed to war by a handful of British ministers. [16] As Greg Lockhart tells us:

For some years before 1911, British officials helped to establish the precedent by manipulating the anxieties of Australian ministers. Contrary to their own [Anglo–Japanese Naval Treaty] policy, the British encouraged the Australians to believe that Japan was a threat to the new country and that expeditionary support for Britain in a prospective war in Europe would best lock the Empire into the defence of Australia in the Pacific.[17]

By the time war did break out in the Pacific, the implicit support of Britain seemed little more than a misperception on Australia’s part. Churchill’s plan to ‘beat Hitler first’ effectively left Australia in the lurch, and wartime prime minister John Curtin was forced to appeal to the United States of America for help.

As luck would have it, the previous government had laid some of the groundwork. Robert Menzies had assigned Richard Casey as Australia’s first legation to Washington with the aim of setting straight any misunderstandings they may have had regarding his homeland. Framing Australians as freedom-loving pioneers, akin to Americans—or, at least, how many Americans chose to view themselves—went a long way towards convincing the superpower that Australia deserved its help.[18] Though it appears, with the benefit of hindsight, that Japan had no plans of occupying Australia at the time, this misperception served as a catalyst for securing diplomatic allegiance with the US.[19]

In the period immediately following the Second World War—with Japan having bombed Darwin and various other sites in northern Australia, as well as having captured 22,000 prisoners of war, one third of whom died—cold public sentiment towards the Japanese people had certainly not thawed. However, and despite Australia’s record of staunch anti-immigration, then-prime minister Ben Chifley would launch a large-scale immigration program, appointing Arthur Calwell as the country’s first Minister for Immigration. ‘Populate or perish’ was the slogan used to sell the idea to the public; on its face, an appeal to people’s invasion anxieties, but some, such as Teicher and Griffin, suspect concerns surrounding economic growth, in what promised to be a boom period, may have been a significant factor in the decision[20]:

[A]fter the Second World War practical considerations saw the relaxation of [the Immigration Restriction Act] policy, the consequences of which has been the emergence of a multicultural society, admittedly more by default than design.[21]

With its ties to Britain then little more than symbolic, Australia had to go it alone against much more established players in the global capitalist system, and for that it would need more people, and fast. This is not to say that Australia was throwing open its borders to all comers—far from it. Calwell himself was a stalwart advocate of the White Australia policy: any new arrivals would be European, or they would be sent home. To that end, at the same time, Calwell was deporting wartime refugees from Malaya, Indochina and China, even many who had married Australian citizens and started families in Australia.[22]

Though the majority of Australians may have been clinging to their misconceptions of the Asian world, the 1960s saw a new generation of young adults eager to explore the region for themselves. Due in no small part to The Beatles’ well-publicised experimentation with Transcendental Meditation at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, India was the new destination of choice for many travellers. For those who could not afford or were too scared to travel to India, cheaper, closer places would suffice. For hippies and New Age types alike, the experience was more about their individual experiences than any specific destination. It was, as Sandip Roy would later call it, ‘white people discovering themselves in brown places’.[23]

The White Australia Policy would officially stay in place until 1971, by which time Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War—due to numerous misunderstandings and misperceptions, both its own and America’s—was nearly a decade old. The political landscape was changing rapidly, due in large part to the media. Images of the atrocities of war were beamed into people’s homes for the first time. While a dislike for the Other as an abstract notion may still have been the default position for many Australians, seeing the reality of what was being done to Others, brought to them via their home television set, would be an impetus for many to say, ‘It’s Time’.

Gough Whitlam campaigned on a platform of universal health care, social justice and an end to Australia’s involvement in the war; but it was arguably the television spots, featuring a number of prominent Australians singing the bespoke campaign song ‘It’s Time’, that sealed the 1972 election for his party. While the media had long played a part in shaping public opinion, television would change the very nature of politics. Charismatic leaders were the order of the day if the party wanted to pick up the youth vote, and they had better say all the right things lest they wind up on the nightly news looking a fool.

It has become popular in recent years—perhaps due to Malcolm Fraser’s determination to rewrite his own history[24]—to attribute the influx of refugees in the post–Vietnam War period to compassion on the part of the Fraser Liberal government, who had ousted Whitlam in a very uncharismatic fashion in 1975. But it was not until two and a half years after the end of the war that the government began to resettle significant numbers of Vietnamese people and, when six boats arrived in one day during the 1977 election campaign, Fraser told the media: ‘some Vietnamese [boat people] who landed in Australia might have to be deported.’[25]

As is characteristic of conservative governments around the world, the right wing of Australia’s political class has, if not explicitly encouraged, at least not actively discouraged discrimination against the Other. This is not to say that the left are without fault in this regard; it was, after all, Paul Keating’s Labor government that first instituted mandatory detention for all non-citizens without a valid visa, in 1992. Then-Minister for Immigration, Gerry Hand, said the government was determined ‘that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community’.[26]

Fears are leveraged, on both sides of politics, for political gain; perhaps never more so than in John Howard’s 2001 election campaign. In August, Howard ordered Special Forces to board distressed fishing vessel, the Tampa, as it neared Australian waters. Amid international outrage over their conduct, the government introduced a harsher Border Protection Bill within days. That October, in an atmosphere of increased fear following the September 11 attacks in the US, Howard alleged a number of asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea. Preying on public fears of waves of monstrous Others arriving on Australian shores, the Coalition—whose pre-September poll numbers predicted a significant defeat—went on to a landslide victory. The allegations were completely unfounded, but the political narrative has remained the same ever since.

Through a modern, Western liberal lens, it is tempting to see all prejudice as intrinsically detrimental, but this may be an overly simplistic view. One does not need to approve of such views in order to recognise that they may have been—or at least had the potential to be—advantageous to the nation at the time. Let it be plainly said, this is not an ethical statement. Rather, it is in line with the extra-moral techniques of leaders who find advantage in ‘unAustralian’ prejudice and use it to expedite policy.

The Australian people are hardly unique in their attitudes towards foreigners. A 2011 study of 23 countries found that 45% of Australians thought that immigration has had a generally negative impact on the country, exactly in line with the global average.[27] Perhaps where the national misperception is unique is not in its intensity but its quality. Unlike other Western liberal democracies, Australia’s cultural and political dependence on the very idea of Otherness as the means by which it defines itself and offers the apparently unmistakable ‘Australian’ by comparing itself against the unAustralian, is its mark of toxic difference.

(September, 2014)


[1] D Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the rise of Asia, 1850–1939, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 2012, p. 9.

[2] E W Said, Orientalism, Random House, New York, 1978, p. xvii.

[3] R White, Inventing Australia: Images and identity 1688–1980, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981.

[4] A Burke, Fear of Security: Australia’s invasion anxiety, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008, pp. 18–19.

[5] J McAdam, ‘Australia and asylum seekers’, International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 25, no. 3, 2013, p. 435.

[6] B Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, Verso, London, 2006.

[7] D Keane, Caste-based discrimination in international human rights law, Ashgate Publishing, Hampshire, 2007, p. 89.

[8] T S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012, p.5.

[9] K W Larsen, ‘The Qing Empire (China), Imperialism, and the Modern World’, History Compass, vol. 9, no. 6, 2011, pp. 501–504.

[10] Burke, p. 27.

[11] C H Pearson, National Life and Character: A forecast, Macmillan and Company, London, 1893, p. 341.

[12] McAdam, p. 436.

[13] Burke, pp. 27–28.

[14] Walker, p. 38.

[15] W C Lines, Taming of the Great South Land: A history of the conquest of nature in Australia, UC Press, Oakland, 1991, p. 140.

[16] G Lockhart, ‘Race Fear, Dangerous Denial: Japan and the great deception in Australian history’, Griffith REVIEW, Griffith University, Edition 32, 2011, p. 58.

[17] ibid.

[18] C Bridge, ‘R.G. Casey, Australia’s First Washington Legation, and the Origins of the Pacific War, 1940–42’, Australian Journal of Politics & History, vol. 28, no. 2, 1982, p. 182.

[19] Stark, 1940, cited in Barclay, G, 1977, ‘Australia looks to America: the Wartime Relationship, 1939–1942’, Pacific Historical Review, vol. 46, no. 2, p. 256.

[20] J Teicher & C S G Griffin, ‘Australian immigration: the triumph of economics over prejudice?’, International Journal of Manpower, vol. 23, no. 3, p. 209–236.

[21] ibid., p. 209.

[22] Koon Wing Lau v. Calwell, 1949, cited in M Foster, ‘An “alien” by the barest of threads: the legality of the deportation of long-term residents from Australia’, Melbourne University Law Review, vol. 33, no. 2, p. 500.

[23] S Roy, ‘The new colonialism of “Eat, Pray, Love”’, Salon.com, 14 August 2010.

[24] Fraser, M & Simons, M, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Miengunyah Press, Carlton, VIC, 2010.

[25] R Stevens, ‘No, the Fraser era was not a golden age for asylum seekers’, SMH, 2 February 2012.

[26] Commonwealth, Parliamentary debates, House of Representatives, 5 May 1992, 2370 (Gerry Hand, Migration Amendment Bill 1992, second reading speech).

[27] Ipsos, ‘Global views on immigration’, findings of the Global @dvisor Wave 22 survey, conducted between June 15th and June 28th 2011.


Anderson, B, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, Verso, London, 2006.

Barclay, G, ‘Australia looks to America: the Wartime Relationship, 1939–1942’, Pacific Historical Review, vol. 46, no. 2, 1977, pp. 251–71.

Bridge, C, ‘R.G. Casey, Australia’s First Washington Legation, and the Origins of the Pacific War, 1940–42’, Australian Journal of Politics & History, vol. 28, no. 2, 1982, pp. 181–189.

Burke, A, Fear of Security: Australia’s invasion anxiety, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.

Commonwealth, Parliamentary debates, House of Representatives, 5 May 1992, 2370 (Gerry Hand, Migration Amendment Bill 1992, second reading speech), viewed 18 September 2014, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansardr%2F1992-05-05%2F0031%22

Fraser, M & Simons, M, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Miengunyah Press, Carlton, VIC, 2010.

Foster, M, ‘An “alien” by the barest of threads: the legality of the deportation of long-term residents from Australia’, Melbourne University Law Review, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 483–542.

Ipsos, ‘Global views on immigration’, findings of the Global @dvisor Wave 22 survey, conducted between June 15th and June 28th 2011, viewed on 20 September 2014, http://www.ipsos-na.com/download/pr.aspx?id=10883

Keane, D, Caste-based discrimination in international human rights law, Ashgate Publishing, Hampshire, 2007.

Kuhn, TS, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012.

Larsen, KW, ‘The Qing Empire (China), Imperialism, and the Modern World’, History Compass, vol. 9, no. 6, 2011, pp. 498–508.

Lines, WC, Taming of the Great South Land: A history of the conquest of nature in Australia, University of California Press, Oakland, 1991.

Lockhart, G, ‘Race Fear, Dangerous Denial: Japan and the great deception in Australian history’, Griffith REVIEW, Edition 32: ‘Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas’, Griffith University, 2011, pp. 58–96.

McAdam, J, ‘Australia and asylum seekers’, International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 25, no. 3, 2013, p. 435–438.

Pearson, CH, National Life and Character: A forecast, Macmillan and Company, London, 1893.

Roy, S, ‘The new colonialism of “Eat, Pray, Love”’, Salon.com, 14 August 2010, viewed 21 September 2014, http://www.salon.com/2010/08/14/i_me_myself/

Stevens, R, ‘No, the Fraser era was not a golden age for asylum seekers’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 2012, viewed 22 September 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/no-the-fraser-era-was-not-a-golden-age-for-asylum-seekers-20120201-1qtce.html

Teicher, J & Griffin, CSG, ‘Australian immigration: the triumph of economics over prejudice?’, International Journal of Manpower, vol. 23, no. 3, p. 209–236.

Walker, D, Anxious Nation: Australia and the rise of Asia, 1850–1939, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 2012.

White, R, Inventing Australia: Images and identity 1688–1980, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981.

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Vive la liberté! (Part 2 of, probably 2)

(From 0:25:16)

‘By the way, they’re also immoral. The Left talks about these things as though [they’re] moral. It’s not moral to steal other people’s wealth just because you’re poorer than they are.’

Again with the fucking Objectivism. You realise that property rights are man-made and don’t just naturally occur, right? Of course you don’t, even though they comprise a substantial part of the exact same legal system you studied at Harvard Law, including the Sixteenth Amendment to your favourite document, which states pretty clearly that income tax is not theft.

Also, since you have provided no argument to support your moral claim, I won’t bother spending thousands of words explaining why there can be nothing moral about a tautological theory of value that justifies an opportunistic author receiving upwards of $400,000 a year while a nurse, whose job is far more demanding and infinitely more important, makes a tenth of that. And don’t try and tell me it’s about ‘freedom’, either.

But, okay, even if we grant that all taxation over and above the government’s people-shooting budget is theft—and I honestly don’t know why we would, but I guess I’m feeling charitable (call it tzedakah, if you like; of which paying taxes sounds a lot like the second-best type)—why not choose to actively engage in some non-violent tax resistance? That would be the moral thing to do, right? Take a stand, Ayn Ghandi. Sure, you will likely face imprisonment when you refuse to pay the fine, but it’s not like they’ll shoot you. After all, the government’s not just a big ‘people-shooting machine’. And you must adhere to your morals, Yahweh is watching.

‘As government has gotten larger, it turns into this giant grab-bag of cash. So, what you have is a bunch of constituencies in the United States who are dependent on these grab-bags of cash.’

You mean, how the government stepped in to save the American people from that other unmitigated disaster your beloved free market created? What, with its dreadful New Deal policies and such? The ones that worked, even despite those noble ‘captains of industry’, those ‘supermen’, the ‘job creators’ you so admire refusing to create any jobs? And the Keynesian policies that followed, which saw your heroes forced to pay a marginal tax rate of anywhere up to 94%, the results of which were so devastating that people typically only dare refer to the period by way of euphemism, such as ‘the long boom’ and ‘the Golden Age of Capitalism’? Yeah, I thought that’s what you meant.

‘Palm Beach is a very rich area, and this little old lady toddles up to [former GOP Governor Linda Lingle]—pearl necklace, diamond earrings—she walks up to her and says, “What will you do to keep them from cutting my Social Security?” And I thought to myself, who are you? Like, you paid fifty dollars into Social Security when you were thirty-five and you’re probably getting out three thousand dollars a month now.’

I mean, I could run those numbers, but I understand you were just being hyperbolic. Still, what’s your point, exactly?

‘But, because people have been made that promise, they’re now dependent on the government.’

Right, so you weren’t implying that her pearls and diamonds suggest that she is not in fact dependent on the government, but simply being greedy? Kinda seems like you were.

‘Once you get into the business of, the government takes care of you in your old age, now we’re just arguing over methodology; we’re not arguing over morality.’

Aren’t we? Because your whole objection to taxation and using it to take care of people to this point has revolved around your deontological—i.e., rule-based—‘ethical’ claims that all tax is theft, theft is impermissible, and all thieves must be shot.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of consistent, universalisable rules. Prima facie, they seem very appealing. Herein lies the appeal of religion for a lot of people. The only problem is—to use your words—they don’t work, they’re crap. Allow me to demonstrate.

‘Don’t kill people.’

Okey dokey. Except inadvertently, in self-defence, right?

‘Don’t kill people.’


‘Don’t lie.’

Except if the SS officer at my door asks about the Jews in my attic, right?

‘Don’t lie.’

The only way such an approach could be viable is if you were to have an infinite number of very specific rules for the infinite number of very specific circumstances that could possibly arise; which is to say, it is not viable at all.

‘My view is that, people have been made promises. We have to keep those promises, because otherwise we just have too many people who have no source of income. You make a promise; you keep a promise. But, if you are under a particular age, no Social Security at all.’

Even though those people have also been made exactly the same promise since exactly the same date on which the promise was made to the elderly? Now, if you’d constructed an argument about how best to pay for the social safety net as a whole, that would have been about methodology. But, no, you are suggesting that some people be excluded because you deem them to be less deserving. That’s a moral position. ‘You make a promise; you keep a promise’ is a moral statement. And, not only do they happen to be in direct conflict with one another, but they’ve got fuck-all to do with methodology.

‘I want my money back, okay? I’m getting fifteen per cent of my salary taken every year to be put in a fund that I will never see again.’

Except in the form of the police, military, and judicial system of which you approve, as well as all of the infrastructure you presumably don’t use. Which, of course, you do; but perhaps you’d like it all to be privatised? A small fee every time you step out of your house to use the footpath (ugh, fine, ‘sidewalk’) or drive on a road? But then, that would require an awful lot of that bureaucracy you’re not very fond of, so I guess the whole neighbourhood would have to be privatised. Then, just throw a fence around the whole thing and you’ll keep those undesirables out, right? Nope. Oh, and don’t invite any friends from outside to visit you, or one of your fellow shut-ins is likely get spooked and blow them away. Plus, it’s still not very efficient, so you’d probably be better off just privatising the whole city, so you could consolidate the payments you have to make in order to have access to its conveniences into a single payment. Wait, what does that sound like? Oh, that’s right, it sounds exactly like taxation, except much more expensive, because every fucker involved at every step along the way is doing it for the sole purpose of making a profit.

Also, if you’re telling the truth about your income, you should really be paying at least 33% in tax.

‘I would much prefer to put that in a SEP IRA and just let that grow with the stock market.’

Leaving aside the pretty generous tax breaks you’re already getting on any SEP IRA contributions you make, when that stock market—completely unregulated, just the way you like it—inevitably crashes again, wiping out most of your retirement fund, I’m sure we won’t hear a peep out of you. You’ll just let the chips fall where they may; because, hey, you win some, you lose some, right? No, you’re probably pretty confident that governments around the world will step in, like they always do, to shore up your investments with taxpayer dollars. And exactly how, pray tell, do you suppose that would work if there were no taxpayer dollars? Oh, who cares, just as long as they’re no longer funding the global homosexualist agenda.



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Vive la liberté! (Part 1 of, I dunno, 50?)

Got another email.


Okay, let’s see what your new favourite guy has to say. I’m not going to bother with the host, because he’s already revealed himself to be exactly as intelligent as he looks. (I’ll be doing this on the fly, because this video is too long to watch multiple times. Really long. Feature-length, in fact.)


‘There’s a couple of things that I like about Trump: one is, he says things that are not politically incorrect.’

Bold claim. Please, elaborate.

‘There’s a difference between being rude and being politically incorrect. Being rude is telling Megyn Kelly she’s bleeding from her … wherever. Being politically incorrect is saying that some immigrants that cross our southern border are criminals.’

Both of which Trump did say, albeit less delicately in the case of the latter. Way to completely gainsay the claim you just made, genius.

‘That’s politically incorrect, but it’s not rude. But, saying Megyn Kelly’s bleeding from her wherever, that’s not being politically incorrect, that’s just being a jerk.’

Unless, of course, we consider:

a) women to be a group that experiences discrimination, in which case it is politically incorrect; and

b) labelling undocumented Mexican workers ‘rapists!’ impolite, in which case it is rude.

In other words, what everybody except you understands those terms—which are not mutually exclusive—to mean.

‘We live in a “me” culture and a “me” time …’

True enough.

‘The Left, for a hundred years, has fallen in love with the idea of the “strong man” …’

Unlike the GOP, whose candidates would never dream of falling over each other to associate themselves with a certain somebody whom they are convinced singlehandedly ended the Cold War.

*** Many minutes of waffle about personality politics and how it’s bad for conservatives, but Bernie Sanders should do more of it ***

‘… if Sanders can stay away from the whole “you’re a racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe” thing …’

You mean, the kind of personal attack that you just acknowledged he doesn’t engage in, before insisting that he really should? (UPDATE 14/6/16: okay, he’s kinda started to do it against Trump now that Hillary’s got the nomination sewn up.) And why, I wonder, might Sanders—if he were inclined to such behaviour—elect to use those particular slurs against Ted Cruz? You seem pretty certain that they’d be the obvious go-to, almost as if it’s a ‘whole thing’ with Cruz.

‘Is income inequality something we ought to worry about, or is it just ramifications of a free-market system in which people make voluntary transactions happen?’

Voluntary transactions. Like, say, those with your landlord and your boss. ‘Accept whatever pay and conditions we decide are appropriate, or be homeless and starve. Your choice. Oh, no, there’s no public housing or dole for you, because we decided the government must only exist to protect our property. Yay, freedom!’

‘We’ve broken down into this identity politics that … traps people into a group identity, rather than, “go out and make something of yourself, go out and do something.”’

So, the ‘me, me, me’ mentality you described earlier is a good thing. Right. Because you said it like it was a bad thing.

‘Every society in history has had income inequality.’

Guess your parents skipped their time in the kibbutzim, huh.

‘… you’re not showing me a villain.’

We are, you’re just refusing to acknowledge its presence. Look, this fellow is even pointing at it for you:


Too abstract? Need to put a face to it? Here’s one. Here’s another. And another. Here’s one we saw earlier. Just say when you’d like me to stop. Okay, one more.

‘The problem with the Occupy Wall Street movement … is they were saying, “crony capitalism is bad. Therefore, the government should pick more companies to help. Or, should nationalise companies outright.”’

[citation needed]

‘Being a person who operates in business does not make you a capitalist.’

Unless it’s a for-profit business, in which case it definitely does.

‘… cut off the tie between the government and the private sector completely, which I would certainly prefer’

Sounds familiar.

‘If you’re gonna argue against crony capitalism, you also have to argue against government-subsidised loans for people who can’t afford them for houses, which causes massive economic crashes …’

That’s an interesting reversal of causation. Y’know, considering the government only stepped in to subsidise those loans—that is, to ‘bail out the banks’—after the fact, because the absence of government regulation had allowed your beloved private sector to tank the global economy.

‘… which Bernie apparently doesn’t oppose, right? I mean, he would like more of those things. He would like all of us to subsidise folks with bad credit taking out loans.’

If, by that, you mean he thinks the bailout money would’ve been better spent on shoring up people’s means of shelter, rather than rewarding the finance sector for its utter incompetence, sure. But you literally couldn’t have put it in a more convoluted way.

‘[Bernie Sanders] sees somebody in a room with five dollars and somebody with one, and he immediately says the guy with five dollars must’ve stolen something from the guy with one dollar. Whereas, I say I have no evidence of that until you show me that evidence. Maybe the guy with five dollars produced more than the guy with one dollar.’

Leaving aside the baseless and ridiculous claim about what Sanders would assume about the two dudes in your little thought experiment, WHERE DO YOU THINK PROFIT COMES FROM? Because, apparently, you think it just pops into existence when you produce something.

Hey, maybe the guy with five dollars actually did produce more, is self-employed, and sold his goods in the marketplace. Good luck to him. Alternatively, the guy with one dollar may have produced more, but he works for the guy with five dollars, who sold the goods for six dollars, paid him one dollar for his labour, and kept five for himself. Or maybe, just maybe, the guy with five dollars inherited that room, and as soon as he’s done extracting that six dollars rent from the other guy, he’ll kick him out on his arse and begin the process again with the highest bidder.

I’ll let Michael Hudson explain further (from Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy):


‘I am [in the 1%]. Yeah, I am. But, I mean, it took me a long time to get there.’

You’re 32 years old. You finished full-time study less than nine years ago.

‘I think that’s the only thing that’s charming about Donald Trump. I think you should be proud of how much money you earn in this country, because if you worked to get there—I spent a lot of money going to law school, I spent a lot of time working in the trenches …’

Let’s see now. If you’re in the top 1%, you make at least $400,000 per year. So, $400,000 divided by 52 weeks in the year, divided by, let’s say, six days a week—you’re a religious man, after all—divided by, I dunno, 12 hours a day? My, you have been working hard for your … $106.84 AN HOUR? Goodness, you must have been productive in those trenches! Considering the minimum wage in the US is $7.25 an hour (or $2.13 an hour, if there are tips involved), and given that you think income lines up exactly with productivity, you must have been really fucking productive in those trenches.

‘And I work a lot of hours to make that really good living.’

Okay, so perhaps 15 hours a day, six days a week then? With no vacation time or sick days? $85.47 an hour. According to your logic, that would mean you’re 11.8 times more productive than a minimum-wage worker for every one of those 90 hours you work each week. And that’s presuming you are paid only $400,000 a year. Yeah, that seems reasonable.

‘I think the progressive tax is a bunch of crap … I don’t see why you deserve a bigger percentage of my money because I make more money.’

You say ‘make’. Are you printing that money? Assuming you are actually producing something—legal advice, I guess?—that people are voluntarily buying from you in the marketplace for at least $85.47 an hour, how are they paying for it? Or, perhaps you are making your money from book sales, in which case it’s your intellectual property that’s returning profits for you. I realise you’d like to be John Galt, but you’re really more of a Wilt Chamberlain, only less promiscuous and not—heaven forbid!—black. Still, it kinda undermines your whole productivity–income assumption.

‘All taxes are, is a gangster shakedown. That’s all they are. And so, we can all agree that some gangster shakedowns are worthwhile, because we have to pay for police …’

Is that what gangsters spend their money on? Seems a little counterintuitive.

‘Here’s the problem with any sort of progressive tax … you have three people in a room, two of them are not Bill Gates, and one of them is. They vote two to one that they should take half of Bill Gates’ wealth.’

That sounds a lot like a criticism of majoritarian democracy, and not at all like a criticism of progressive tax. I mean, are there people outside this room? Is there a world outside this room? If so, why are only these three people voting? And if not, you’re describing a Hobbesian war of all against all, in which there is no government to demand taxes from anyone. And what, pray tell, are they going to do with all of this wealth? Is there a vending machine in the room? If not, it’s not really wealth at all, is it? It’s worthless. Money has no intrinsic value. Boy, are you bad at thought experiments.

‘Here’s my basic rule for all legislation and all taxation: if you pass this law, are you willing to shoot the person who disobeys? Because that’s what the government is. The government is just a big people-shooting machine.’

No, you want government to be a big people-shooting machine. Millions of Americans, over centuries, have democratically elected to have governments that are much more than just big people-shooting machines. You don’t like it, but—again—that’s just you not liking democracy.

‘The question is, are you willing to shoot people who don’t pay taxes if those taxes go for the national defence that protects us all? The answer is yes. Because, if nobody pays their tax, then, presumably everybody dies in some sort of terrorist attack.’

Look, I realise it can be difficult to nail down an exact definition of terrorism, but it’s not that.

‘I think the purpose of the tax is just as important as the percentage of the tax.’

So, just cut the 78 per cent currently spent on frivolous things like health, welfare, education, transportation, infrastructure and foreign aid, and people can simply pay their own way? From their $7.25 an hour? Except that, of course, that number will also fall, because you’ve decided the government shouldn’t be allowed to enforce it. But, I’m sure the market will correct for that by dropping prices, despite the complete absence of any incentive for it to do so.

From the Harvard Business Review:


‘Makes no sense. [Sanders] says, “I’m going to tax you five thousand dollars and you’re going to get ten thousand dollars back in medical service.” What magical box did you make that happen in?’

The equivalent of what would currently cost you ten thousand dollars. Because, yes, the public health system is much cheaper and more efficient than the private one.

‘Honestly, I wish Leftist solutions worked, because they’d be the easiest solutions in the world, right? “It’s a recession, tax everybody at 100%, redistribute the wealth”; in two days, the recession’s over. But they don’t work, they’re crap.’

First—with the possible exception of the Communist Party USA’s two thousand (at best) members—absolutely nobody is arguing for that. Second, yes, the recession would be over, because millions more people would have money to spend, and they would spend it. This is a fun little explainer on the deflationary cycle from Salman Khan, but his conclusion is wrong. Khan assumes that people—being rational actors, equipped with perfect knowledge, as they are in most modern economic models—will invariably hoard money. This might be true for those with enough disposable income to do so; e.g., deliver a stimulus package to the banks, and its management will spend it on bonuses for themselves while still refusing to lend people money. But, give a low-income earner an extra $900, and—as this guy successfully demonstrated—they’ll spend it. Because they have to. They simply cannot afford to save it. They’ll pay down their credit card debt, buy groceries or, yes, even a flat-screen TV. Which stimulates the economy. So, third, it’s not crap.

Hang on. 2160 words? That’s probably just about enough for now.




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Fun with Milo


A little while back, my best drinking buddy sent me this email:


I had not seen this bloke before, but, having now seen him, ‘interesting’ wouldn’t be my adjective of choice.

To be fair, the above correspondence immediately followed one of my tedious rants about putatively Leftist movements—to which he has often been subjected on those many nights we have drunkenly attempted to solve the world’s problems—and this time, it had been popular liberal feminism. Seemingly, he had inferred that ‘feminism’ was the troublesome part of that equation. (Imagine my surprise upon learning that I can be less than perfectly clear about the object of my criticism when shitfaced!)

What follows is my reply email, which seems to have done little to clarify my position in my friend’s mind, but which he insists others might enjoy:

Re: Milo

Okay, so, it gets off to a bad start.

‘The picture you paint is perfectly accurate …’

Except that it’s not. A shitload of first-wave feminists—the suffragettes—were staunch conservatives who belonged to organisations like the Christian Women’s Temperance Union and wanted the vote because they thought the world was going to hell and we needed to outlaw booze and generally be more proper.

‘… lesbianic sort of feminism.’

Presumably, since he’s gay and doesn’t like feminists, all lesbians hate men. Similarly, I don’t much care for grapefruit, which is how I know that oranges are out to get me.

‘The wage gap is a myth.’

Yeah, it demonstrably isn’t. The argument that women are being paid less for doing the same jobs is one that nobody is making. It is true that a lot of popular feminist articles about the wage gap are intellectually lazy, but there are complex structural reasons why women make less money. It is simply not true that women just like nursing better than engineering. What is true is that if the societal roadblocks to women becoming engineers all disappeared (a proposition that, granted, is likely to remain hypothetical for the foreseeable future), there’d be twice as many engineers and their wages would fall to something more in line with those of nurses, because that’s how capitalism works. (See also, Half the Sky’s assumption that doubling the work force in less developed countries will magically create twice as many jobs, and not simply halve real wages; or that a micro-loan for a small businesswoman will somehow also create customers in a destitute country under IMF-imposed austerity measures.)

‘No reputable economist takes this seriously.’

‘Reputable economist’ is an oxymoron, because mathematical models are closed systems and can therefore never account for both growth and value. They also fail to account for time and space. But, all economists use them, because it lends an air of legitimacy to the profession, and they know that policymakers will simply defer to their ‘expertise’. So, you have right-wing economists (like Milton Friedman or Alan Greenspan) working from the assumption that wealthy capitalists will invariably reinvest their profits to create jobs, and left-wing economists (like Thomas Piketty, whose statistics are good, but whose maths is horseshit) assuming that wealthy individuals simply hoard their money; neither of which is true for anything more than a handful of individuals.

‘The most brazen untruths always come from the Left … because they believe in narrative over fact.’

This is somewhat true, except that he’s done that thing that you love to do, which is to conflate liberal progressives with Leftists. And, in doing so, he’s done exactly what he has accused others of doing: giving primacy to a convenient narrative over fact (just as he did with the aforementioned rewritten history of the suffragettes). Even if we accept that ‘liberal progressive’ is what is meant by ‘Leftist’ now, the belief in personal narrative is learned behaviour from the Right, who still do it best. Because, of course they do. Individualism, after all, is the central tenet of their belief system (see, e.g., Tony Abbott’s favourite ‘historian’; or Joe Hockey’s strict-father-as-a-model-for-the-national-economy stories, the idiocy of which sees austerity as the sole prescription for economic growth). That idiot progressives have wholeheartedly embraced individualism does not make it their invention.

‘Christina Hoff Sommers … debunks some of this stuff …’

She does, but offers as an alternative explanation a reality that only exists in the hive-mind of her American Enterprise Institute and similar conservative thinktanks, in which absolute meritocracy is real, everybody is completely free, markets are perfect—or would be, if only that pesky government would get out of the way—and poor people only have themselves to blame.

‘Feminists will never talk to you about this difficult stuff.’

Except, of course, that heaps of them will. It doesn’t generate nearly as many clicks as a story about how Jennifer Lawrence does not earn quite as much as Bradley Cooper, though, so you won’t read it in the mainstream press. This, again, is how capitalism works.

‘… put on Ritalin because … they’re held up to female behavioural standards’

I love how biological determinists always rely on unfalsifiable hypotheses about ‘what the world would be like, if not for [this thing I don’t like]’ and then pretend that it’s science. One might look instead at the ever-expanding DSM and the shift in psychiatry from ‘talking cures’ to writing prescriptions with the advent of drugs like Ritalin and Prozac in the ‘90s, a practice that trickled down to GPs (see, e.g., your doctor’s readiness to prescribe you antidepressants for what was basically a hangover). This is emblematic of the transformation from the old doctor-knows-best model of health to the new ‘consumer model’, in which patients shop around for doctors until they find one that will give them some pills. Also—and this is especially true for Americans, given their fucked healthcare system, but also true everywhere else—pills are just cheaper than alternative treatments. Add to that laws that give special consideration to ADHD-diagnosed kids and the lifting of restrictions against pharmaceutical companies marketing directly to the public, and you’ve got a recipe for overprescription. (Y’know, I suspect this may also be tied to capitalism in some way.) Plus, If Milo’s assertion were true, surely all Ritalin prescriptions would be for males. They’re not.

‘In a Cornell study from 2015 showed that women have a 2:1 advantage going for the same job, just because everybody’s desperate to hire women.’

And just why are they desperate to hire women? Perhaps they find it hard to meet their quota, because (from the study referred to): ‘Despite these successes, Williams and Ceci acknowledge that women face other barriers to entry during adolescence and young adulthood, in graduate school and later in their careers as academic scientists, particularly when balancing motherhood and careers.

‘As Camille Paglia, the wonderful, dissident, feminist critic says …’

Oh, so now he likes lesbianic feminists.

‘It’s the patriarchy that built [list of everything, ever]; women didn’t want to do that.’

Men didn’t want to do those things either; that’s why they were either paid to do it, paid someone else to do it, or were what we commonly refer to as slaves. Have I mentioned capitalism yet? Remind me, because I really should.

‘We’re perfectly happy to complain about gender representation when there aren’t enough women … but we don’t make the same complaint the other way around.’

And yet, here you are, Milo, doing just that. Say, I wonder a) what these jobs are, and b) what the pay is like. Oh, that’s right: a) nursing, teaching and retail; and b) shithouse.

‘This all comes from the discredited Leftist idea that gender is socially constructed.’

‘And so I shall now counter it with the even-earlier-discredited idea that one’s genes determine everything about them, as though they exist in a vacuum. Because, let’s not admit that it might be a little more complicated than that and that we don’t really know; it has to be one or the other. PICK ONE.’

‘If you can be born with a female brain, there must be such a thing as a “female brain”.’

Or maybe transgender people aren’t neurologists from the future and they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about either. Maybe they just feel wrong and it’s complicated. Maybe that’s the same reason, despite sensationalist headlines every couple of years or so, we haven’t found that bloody ‘gay gene’ neuroscientists have convinced themselves is a thing. (Camille Paglia maintains that lesbianism is a choice, btw.)

‘She was created by progressives, who said that blackness is a performance … that race is a social construct.’

I mean, in some regards, it quite obviously is. Just not in the actual skin colour regard. Plus, Rachel Dolezal is clearly an idiot. Which is weird, since she’s white. I’d send Mr Yiannopoulos a message asking him to clarify, but, given his name, I can only presume he’d be too innately lazy to respond.

‘We know that people look different …’

That, they do.

‘… and behave differently.’

‘Like that Barack Obama fellow, always “gang-banging” and smoking those “weeds”.’

‘All of this stuff is starting to fall apart now.’

‘It’s like my mind, in that sense.’

‘Certainly, the women I know … they’re not happy people.’

Well, while we’re inferring ridiculous conclusions from a limited understanding of things, and given that the common thread here is knowing Milo, I’d have to say we’ve isolated the source of their unhappiness.

‘If you want to settle down and have a nice happy life, well, there are certain things that men like in women.’

‘All men. We all like the same stuff. Every one of us. Except for those who like other stuff. Fuck those guys, though. Except me. Did I mention I’m a gay? That’s how I know this stuff.’

‘What I want is for people to be happy.’

Oh, I can tell.

‘Very often it’s 30-, 40-year-old, bitter old women, trying to lecture 20-year old girls on how to behave …’

‘… and that’s my job.’

‘Feminism is collapsing in popularity among women.’

Yeah, it isn’t.

All of which is to say, yes, popular feminism can be stupid, but no more so than pop sociobiology, and if Milo were half as bright as he thinks he is, he’d know that.

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The policy and politics of negative gearing reform


Negative gearing was first introduced in the Tax Act of 1936 in an attempt to stimulate Australia’s economy following the Great Depression. Its aim was to incentivise new building activity, thereby making home ownership more affordable. And, for a time, the policy performed admirably at achieving this goal.

By the mid-1980s, however, it was clear that negative gearing had long since begun yielding the opposite of its proposed effect. Rather than boosting new construction, the majority of investor loans were being spent on already established housing, thus fuelling property speculation and inflating housing prices. The Hawke government abolished negative gearing between 1985 and 1987 in what Keating described as an effort to ‘reduce tax-sheltering opportunities in the rental property area.’ Results were somewhat mixed. Rental prices largely stagnated or fell around the country, with the exception of Perth and Sydney, where the public backlash against the minor increases seen was sufficient to pressure the government into reversing its policy.

The 1999–2000 financial year saw the Howard government halve the rate of capital gains tax, the result of which has been a doubling of the number of negatively geared properties. By 2012–13, 1.3 million people owned loss-making properties, meaning a transfer of $12 billion dollars from the public purse to private hands.

Negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions have grown rapidly ever since. This year, they will cost the federal government over $10 billion—more than is spent on higher education or childcare—despite doing precious little to increase housing stock.[1] A large-scale 2015 rental affordability study by Anglicare Australia found that fewer than 600 properties—or 0.9 per cent of Australia’s total rental stock—would be affordable for a single person on the age pension. For a single person receiving the Newstart allowance, the total number of affordable rentals was just ten.[2]

In February this year, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced that negative gearing tax concessions will be restricted to investments in newly constructed housing, should the Labor Party win the 2016 election.[3] Any negative gearing arrangements that predate the reform will remain in place—known as ‘grandfathering’—but buyers of existing real estate will be unable to claim the tax offset from the 1st of July, 2017.

The cost of maintaining current negative gearing policy is unsustainable without significant cuts to other areas of the budget, and the proposed reform would be a significant step toward redressing the shortfall. Parliamentary Budget Office figures show an estimated saving of $565 million for the federal budget over forward estimates, and $32.1 billion over the next decade.

The Government has vowed to leave existing negative gearing policy unchanged. Prime Minister Turnbull has responded with an appeal to voters’ aspirations, claiming figures that show wealthy property speculators overwhelmingly benefit from the existing policy are ‘beside the point’, since ‘hard-working mum and dad investors’ account for ninety per cent of negatively geared properties.[4] While the latter claim is demonstrably true, it obscures the fact that these are overwhelmingly owner-occupiers who do not profit from rental losses and do little to drive up housing prices. The former highlights a fundamentally different conception of fairness in the Coalition’s rhetoric to that expressed by Labor; a point of difference that, as will later be shown, perhaps provides some insight as to why the ALP would now choose to back a policy that has long been perceived as a political third rail.

The main actors responsible for driving the ALP’s decision appear to have been relatively few. Statistics provided by think tanks and interest groups will undoubtedly help bolster Labor’s argument for the policy, but the extent to which they actually drove the decision to announce it is questionable. While numerous[5] recent[6] reports[7] whose conclusions support negative gearing reform have been published, this is hardly a new phenomenon.[8] The majority of housing affordability studies conducted since the mid-1970s have produced similar recommendations[9], especially those subsequent to 1999.[10] But, since the Hawke government’s reversal of its own short-lived negative gearing abolition in 1987[11], the issue has gained little political traction or media attention.

Further, Labor’s decision to grandfather existing arrangements cannot be said to be wholly evidence-based policy. For example, Louis Christopher, Managing Director of independent property advisory and forecasting house SQM Research, while broadly supporting Labor’s proposal, suggests that it does not go far enough; recommending instead a ‘scaling mechanism’ that would see existing arrangements completely phased out over time. He warns that an unintended consequence of grandfathering will likely see a spike in housing prices as demand grows in the lead-up to the July 2017 deadline, before any reduction in prices will occur.[12] So, we can probably assume that Labor’s grandfathering decision was a strictly pragmatic one, intended to placate current investors and property speculators, who will have ample opportunity to buy up established loss-making dwellings before the new policy takes effect.

In order to determine what constituted the tipping point that spurred the ALP’s announcement, analysis of the policy alone is clearly insufficient, and closer examination of the political landscape is required. It seems plausible that the catalyst for Labor’s announcement was provided by a combination of two key factors.

First, a widespread increase in the public’s appetite for media stories about economic inequality. Such stories gained prominence in much of the Western media after the 2007 Global Financial Crisis and the resultant Occupy Movement, but largely failed to resonate with the Australian public. This is perhaps due to the effectiveness of the Keynesian-style stimulus package implemented by then-Treasurer Wayne Swan, which saw middle- and lower-income Australians avoid much of the immediate economic hardship experienced by those in the United States and Europe. At the time, the policy was effectively framed as ‘waste’ by the Coalition, and dutifully reported as such by much of the media.[13] But, the nine years since have seen a gradual increase in the general public’s awareness of the effects of neoliberal economic policies, as Australia’s fortune has begun to falter under the pressure of falling global commodity prices.[14]

And second, the rude health[15] of Turnbull’s polling numbers in the ‘honeymoon period’ following his replacement of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister arguably gave the ALP cause to think they had nothing to lose.

Much has been made by the public, the media[16], and academics alike[17], of the perceived policy convergence of Australia’s two major parties. In short, when voters feel that there is precious little difference between the parties, and no viable alternative, elections tend to become a battle of personalities. Prior to the change in leadership, polling suggested that Labor stood a healthy chance of winning the next election, simply by virtue of its leader not being Tony Abbott, whose approval ratings had been in steady decline since shortly after taking office.[18] In stark contrast to Labor’s 2010 replacement of Kevin Rudd—who had little internal party support and whose only ‘faction’ appeared to be the Australian public[19]—Abbott remained a party favourite, but lost the support of both the public and many formerly sympathetic branches of the media.[20]

Turnbull’s public statements on issues such as climate change and same-sex marriage had long seen him considered too ‘progressive’ by many of the Coalition’s conservative members.[21] But, the wider party, seeing his potential as a vote-getter—both from centrist swing-voters and the ‘cultural Left’ alike[22]—opted to install him as Prime Minister in a bid to ensure a 2016 election win. And, given the number of pro-Turnbull articles that appeared in traditionally left-leaning media outlets[23], it can safely be assumed that Labor, too, would have recognised this potential.

Given that Bill Shorten was not even the first choice of Labor’s own rank-and-file members to lead their party[24], a battle of personalities was the worst possible scenario for them. Few have accused Shorten of being a charismatic leader. As such, a change of strategy was urgently needed if Labor was to stand any chance of winning the upcoming election.

Although it is, of course, impossible to verify, it seems probable that Labor would have tested a number of potential policy ideas on focus groups in order to find one that ‘stuck’. And, considering the aforementioned inequality narrative, the public were as primed as they were ever likely to be to revisit a long-standing driver of inequality within Australia. The ALP had been gifted an opportunity to meaningfully distinguish themselves from the Coalition by the knowledge that, if they failed to do so, they faced certain electoral annihilation. Somewhat ironically, they would have to revert to their ‘mass party’ roots if they were to stand any chance of beating a ‘catch-all’ opponent; the latter of which two approaches Labor had introduced to the Australian political landscape in the 1980s, with great success.[25]

This is not to suggest, however, that there has necessarily been any kind of fundamental ideological shift in the ALP. The Labor Right, effectively converted to the post-materialist Third Way[26] thinking of Anthony Giddens by way of Paul Keating during the 1980s and ‘90s, is still the party’s dominant faction. It is simply to say that, the proposed reforms provide a substantive way for voters to distinguish between two competing approaches to fairness: the deontological approach of the Coalition, which guarantees everybody the ‘right’ to be a property tycoon; or the more consequentialist approach of the ALP, which recognises that abundance for the few must necessarily come at the expense of the many. Unfortunately for Labor, though, the former lends itself much more easily to a five-second sound bite.


[1] Australian Labor Party (ALP), Positive Plan to Help Housing Affordability, ALP fact sheet, 2016, retrieved 30 March 2016, http://www.alp.org.au/negativegearing

[2] Anglicare, Rental Affordability Snapshot, April 2015, p. 5, retrieved 2 April 2016, http://www.anglicare.asn.au/docs/default-source/default-document-library/rental-affordability-snapshot-2015.pdf

[3] Heath Aston, ‘Shorten Unveils Labor Election Policy: No More Negative Gearing for Existing Homes’, Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 12 February 2016, retrieved 1 May 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/shorten-unveils-labor-election-policy-no-more-negative-gearing-existing-homes-20160212-gmsyky.html

[4] Gareth Hutchens, ‘Malcolm Turnbull: It’s “Beside the Point” That the Rich Earn More from Property’, The Guardian, 27 April 2016, retrieved 1 May 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/apr/26/malcolm-turnbull-hits-back-at-grattan-institute-over-negative-gearing

[5] John Daley and Danielle Wood, Hot property: negative gearing and capital gains tax reform, Grattan Institute, April 2016, retrieved 1 May 2016, http://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/872-Hot-Property.pdf

[6] Matt Grudnoff, Top Gears: How Negative Gearing and the Capital Gains Tax Discount Benefit Drive Up House Prices, The Australia Institute, April 2015, retrieved 1 May 2016, http://www.tai.org.au/sites/defualt/files/Top%20Gears%20-%20How%20Negative%20Gearing%20and%20CGT%20benefits%20top%2010%20per%20cent.pdf

[7] Peter Davidson and Ro Evans, Fuel on the Fire: Negative Gearing, Capital Gains Tax & Housing Affordability, Australian Council of Social Services, 2015, retrieved 1 May 2016, http://www.acoss.org.au/images/uploads/Fuel_on_the_fire.pdf

[8] Judith Yates and Vivienne Milligan, Housing Affordability: A 21st Century Problem, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Report No. 105, September 2007, pp. 9–10, retrieved 1 May 2016, http://www.ahuri.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/2178/AHURI_Final_Report_No105_Housing_affordability_a_21st_century_problem.pdf

[9] Callum Pickering, ‘Why Negative Gearing is Australia’s Biggest Policy Failure’, Business Spectator, 9 July 2014, retrieved 30 March 2016, http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2014/7/9/australian-news/why-negative-gearing-australias-biggest-policy-failure

[10] Mike Seccombe, ‘The Rich People Who Pay No Tax’, The Saturday Paper, 12 March 2016, retrieved 3 April 2016, https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2016/03/12/the-rich-people-who-pay-no-tax/14577012002989

[11] A result of public backlash against rental price rises in Sydney and Perth. The increases were minor, not reflected in the rest of the country, and chiefly the result of high interest rates and a share-market boom. Damien Murphy, ‘Cabinet Papers 1986–87: Negative Gearing Almost Axed’, SMH, 28 December 2013, retrieved 2 April 2016, http://news.domain.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/cabinet-papers-198687-negative-gearing-almost-axed-20131228-3011r.html

[12] David Taylor, ‘Negative Gearing Won’t Push Up Rents: Property Experts’, ABC News Online, 16 February 2016, retrieved 2 April 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-16/negative-gearing-wont-push-up-rents-experts/7172502

[13] See, e.g., ‘Anger Over $40m in “Dead” Bonus Payments’, Editorial, SMH, 28 May 2009, retrieved 30 April 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/national/anger-over-40m-in-dead–bonus-payments-20090528-bob8.html

[14] Neal Woolrich, ‘Commodity Price Crash Causing Australian Economy to “Unwind”’, ABC Online, 2 December 2014, retrieved 2 May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-02/commodity-price-crash-causing-australian-economy-to-unwind/5933532

[15] James Massola, ‘Malcolm Turnbull Extends Huge Lead Over Bill Shorten in First Poll for 2016’, SMH, 22 January 2016, retrieved 30 April 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/malcolm-turnbull-extends-huge-lead-over-bill-shorten-in-first-poll-for-2016-20160122-gmc9w7.html

[16] See, e.g., Peter Chen, ‘Party Spin Steps on Policy Toes in Election Dance’, The Drum, 5 August 2013, retrieved 1 May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-08-05/chen-federal-election-convergence-dance/4864560

[17] See, e.g., Benjamin Reilly, ‘Convergence Theory Explains the Lack of Choice in Australian Politics’, The Conversation, 19 May 2015, retrieved 1 May 2016, http://theconversation.com/convergence-theory-explains-the-lack-of-choice-in-australian-politics-41956

[18] Australian Associated Press, ‘Poll Gives Tony Abbott Record Low Approval Rating’, The Guardian, 9 February 2015, retrieved 2 May 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/feb/09/poll-tony-abbott-record-low-approval-rating

[19] Emma Rodgers, ‘Gillard Ousts Rudd in Bloodless Coup’, ABC Online, 24 June 2010, retrieved 2 May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-06-24/gillard-ousts-rudd-in-bloodless-coup/879136

[20] Lisa Cox, ‘Conservative Commentators Bolt, Jones and Albrechtsen Turn on Abbott’, SMH, 28 November 2014, retrieved 1 May 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/conservative-commentators-bolt-jones-and-albrechtsen-turn-on-abbott-20141128-11w0qx.html

[21] Paula Matthewson, ‘Turnbull: Too Left to Be Right for the Liberals?’, The Drum, 16 February 2015, retrieved 1 May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-16/matthewson-turnbull:-too-left-to-be-right-for-the-liberals/6114396

[22] As opposed to the ‘materialist Left’, who are traditionally ALP voters. See, e.g., Helen Razer, ‘The Left Has Lost Its Way Through Symbolism and Stupidity’, Crikey, 3 May 2013, retrieved 2 May 2016, http://www.crikey.com.au/2013/05/03/helen-razer-the-left-has-lost-its-way-through-symbolism-and-stupidity/

[23] See, e.g., Sean Kelly, ‘Malcolm Turnbull: Still Not Tony Abbott’, The Monthly, 19 January 2016, retrieved 2 May 2016, https://www.themonthly.com.au/today/sean-kelly/2016/19/2016/1453181751/malcolm-turnbull-still-not-tony-abbott

[24] Emma Griffiths, ‘Bill Shorten Elected Labor Leader Over Anthony Albanese After Month-long Campaign’, ABC Online, 13 October 2013, retrieved 2 May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-10-13/bill-shorten-elected-labor-leader/5019116

[25] Dean Jaensch, The Hawke–Keating Hijack, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989.

[26] Anthony Giddens, The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998.

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A SPECTRE is haunting Europe: the spectre of nationalism.

Far-right political parties have been gaining traction since 2008’s financial crisis; a trend greatly accelerated by a recent influx of refugees, prompting many European governments to adopt strict border-control policies and distance themselves from their formerly cosmopolitan stances.[1] ‘Euroscepticism’, as it is euphemistically known, has become so widespread in England that the British Prime Minister has scheduled a referendum, in order for the public to decide whether there will be a British exit—or, ‘Brexit’—from the European Union (EU).

This post adopts a Classical Marxist perspective, drawing solely upon analysis of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The reader should consider ‘Marx’ to be a synecdoche for ‘Marx and Engels’, employed in the interest of brevity to avoid repetition.


Following the Second World War, European states sought to consolidate their peace and prosperity. The 1948 Hague Congress saw the creation of the European Movement International and the College of Europe, the first steps towards European integration, intended to counter the extreme nationalism that had arisen throughout the continent during the interwar period. In 1950, the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community began the process of economic and political integration that would eventually become today’s EU. Now geared towards making European economies competitive in an era of globalisation, the EU has become a largely neoliberal institution.[2]

When the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) threatened to collapse the euro, harsh austerity measures were imposed on Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain at the behest of the German government and the European Central Bank. The defeat of the ‘Grexit’ proposed by Greece’s radical-left government, Syriza, confirmed the hold of austerity in Europe, dashing the hopes of social-democratic reformers. At the same time, while millions flee civil wars in the Middle East, European governments have sought to block the safe passage of refugees into Europe.

In the United Kingdom—or, more specifically, England[3]—the rise of the UK Independence Party and the resurgence of widespread Euroscepticism has pressured the ruling Conservative Party into calling an ‘In/Out’ referendum on Britain’s EU membership, to be held on the 23rd of June this year.

Having rejected calls for a referendum in 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron remains opposed to a ‘Brexit’, advocating instead for reform of the Union.[4] The Labour Party is also officially backing the ‘In’ campaign, although its leader Jeremy Corbyn has been a vocal critic of the EU’s lack of democracy.[5] Opinion at both ends of the political spectrum is divided as to exactly what is in Britain’s best interest, and whether it would be most effectively achieved by reform or rupture.

In the event of a successful ‘Out’ vote, Cameron has stated his intention to immediately trigger the process to enact Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows members states to leave the Union ‘in accordance with its own constitutional requirements’.[6]

Theoretical analysis

Absent from, or at least minimised by, most contemporary accounts of the nationalism prevalent in European countries before the Second World War is any causal inference drawn from economic conditions. The dominant liberal narrative revises downward the significance of the Great Depression as a root cause of WWII, pointing instead at a lack of international institutions and peace-making free trade between states. By contrast, realists see economics as a variable, but consider nationalism a constant; a necessary precondition for power politics.[7] For constructivists, nationalism is simply another learned idea, albeit one so popular that it gave rise to the modern state system. This may well be true, but it is of little help to us in understanding why a specific idea should so predictably regain primacy during times of economic downturn.

Marxism, while sharing a partial theoretical framework with constructivism, shuns the latter’s ‘ideas all the way down’[8] approach. Instead, it considers ideological positions such as nationalism a part of society’s superstructure—along with other non-material aspects such as law, religion, and the state—the shape of which is ultimately determined by the economic base: the means and relations of production.

‘The mode of production of material life’, according to Marx:

… conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.[9]

Marx saw ideology as a form of false consciousness[10] that causes subjects to misidentify the true source of their unease; that is, their sense of alienation, that arises due to the capitalist mode of production.[11] It is this false consciousness that misleads English workers into thinking their economic woes are the result of weak borders and insufficient democracy, rather than the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism.

‘The ideas of the ruling class’, according to Marx, ‘are in every epoch the ruling ideas’.[12] The liberal ideology with which people are constantly bombarded describes a world of infinite abundance, in which everyone can be rich if only they work hard enough. When their upward mobility fails to materialise, they convince themselves it is because they are paying too much tax to support immigrant Others who seek only to destroy ‘our way of life’[13], rather than the downward pressure the capitalist class has been putting on their wages in order to stay competitive in a global marketplace.

Many of the strongest proponents of the ‘Out’ vote are the same people who were most enthusiastic about joining the EU in the first place; i.e., the English bourgeoisie.[14] One possible explanation for this is that, having witnessed the job losses and fall in real wages of the proletariat over the past four decades, they have begun to sympathise, and now seek to correct their previous error. The Marxist explanation is that ideology has lead them to conclude that their deserved wealth is being stolen from them, not by employers or the rent-seeking financial institutions who have an obvious incentive to do so, but by hordes of ‘terrorist immigrants’[15] and ‘lazy Mediterraneans’[16] who refuse to work hard and pay their taxes.

Ultimately, though, Marxism holds that the outcome of the referendum is immaterial. Even if Britain is permitted to leave the EU, such an act would be largely symbolic. Greater economic and political integration will inevitably continue apace, because that is what capitalism demands as it marches inexorably towards monopoly. 


Despite the impartial rationality often attributed to him by his adherents, Marx’s work was very clearly a moral project. Although the ‘mature Marx’[17] shied away from the predictions about the imminent collapse of capitalism he made in his youth[18], his work remained littered with ethically charged notions of ‘progress’ and ‘higher planes’ of human existence.[19] His overtly scientific pretensions seem to have been a largely strategic device, intended to lend an air of empiricism to his arguments. But, that the legitimate concerns of a modern English website designer should be identical to those of a nineteenth-century anvil smith is essentially an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

Implicit in Marx’s notion of alienation is a coherent form of Aristotelian eudaimonism.[20] It relies heavily on a specific conception of ‘human nature’ in order to establish what is truly best for people. Such optimistic biological determinism would appear to favour an ‘In’ vote on the basis of people’s natural urge to cooperate. However, similarly fallacious appeals to nature can be just as readily employed to assert the opposite.[21]

Eurosceptics’ stated concerns about loss of cultural identity or state sovereignty, security, and the lack of democratic accountability in the EU, must necessarily be dismissed by Marxism as a case of false consciousness; a mere trick of perception that distracts them from the more legitimate concern of genuine emancipation. This denies outright the possibility of an agent who is fully aware of the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism, but who deems it unobjectionable. But, we can see that social Darwinists, Randian objectivists, Hobbesians, Malthusians and neoclassical economists really do exist, and many of them have given the matter serious consideration.

Given that the ‘reserve army of the proletariat’[22] has effectively been outsourced to the Global South, few English workers will ever actually bear witness to the most ferocious examples of capitalist exploitation. If the people are being blinded to exploitation, it is not simply by ideology, but by the globalised mode of capitalist production itself. At the same time, they do not own the means of production, so they cannot be considered members of the bourgeoisie. They are the proletariat, but they are materially benefitting from another, even more exploited proletariat offshore. Further, many modern knowledge workers may not feel alienated from the products of their labour. In this, we can see that Marx’s bourgeois–proletarian binary fails to account for much of the middle class. Ideology undoubtedly plays a significant role in inflating the threat of terrorism and downplaying the long-term economic benefits of mass immigration in their minds; but, given their relative comfort, preferencing short-term security concerns—however statistically unlikely—could be said to be rational.

The predictive limitations of Marx’s dialectical equation were demonstrated by his failure to anticipate either the mixed economies of post-war Europe or the impact of labour unions. For him, the conflict between thesis—the unbridled capitalism of the nineteenth century—and its antithesis—the ‘spectre of communism’[23]—would inevitably lead to a new synthesis in the form of socialist revolution. In fact, the resultant synthesis would usher in what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Capitalism. Keynesian macroeconomic prescriptions, which combined free trade and government austerity in prosperous times with a quasi-socialist welfare safety net and stimulus spending during economic downturn, effectively saved capitalism from itself.[24] The subsequent return to deregulation during the 1980s that ultimately lead to the GFC arguably puts paid to Marx’s view of history as a linear progression. So, too, would a Brexit.

Even if Marx’s vision for the eventual withering of the state comes to pass, today it appears far more likely that such an occurrence would see control seized, not by the people, but by large corporations who could potentially employ private militaries to impose their will on the public. Therefore, while a vote to regain national sovereignty may not be a permanent solution, it could be an effective stop-gap measure for delaying such an eventuality.


Classical Marxism offers a plausible, if imperfect, explanation of how nationalism is an ideological position causally related to economic crises, while simultaneously functioning to obscure that relationship.

We can see how the Great Depression saw a rise in nationalist sentiment, leading to the Second World War; how post-war economic growth then saw nationalism steadily recede from popular discourse, allowing for the creation, expansion, and ever-greater integration of the European Union; and how this trend continued until the financial crisis of 2008, which once again catapulted nationalism to the fore.

However, Marx’s account relies on unfalsifiable ethical assumptions to diminish non-economic concerns, and finer granularity is required to account for the middle class than is allowed for by a bourgeois–proletarian binary.


[1] Katya Adler, ‘Is Europe Lurching to the Far Right?’, BBC News, 28 Apr 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36150807

[2] Engelbert Stockhammer, ‘The Euro Crisis and Contradictions of Neoliberalism in Europe’ (Working Paper 1401, Post Keynesian Economics Study Group, 7 Jan 2014), https://www.postkeynesian.net/downloads/wpaper/PKWP1401.pdf

[3] Polling suggests that public opinion in Scotland, Wales and Ireland is overwhelmingly pro-EU. ‘“Remain” in EU Still Ahead Although Lead Has Narrowed’, Ipsos MORI Political Monitor, Jan 2016, https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3692/Remain-in-EU-still-ahead-although-lead-has-narrowed.aspx

[4] ‘David Cameron Sets Out EU Reform Goals’, BBC News, 11 Nov 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-34770875

[5] Tom McTague, ‘Jeremy Corbyn Vows to Form Left-wing Alliance in Europe to Roll Back David Cameron’s EU Renegotiations’, The Independent, 28 Feb 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-vows-to-form-left-wing-alliance-in-europe-to-roll-back-david-camerons-eu-a6900536.html

[6] Treaty of Lisbon, Article 50, 13 Dec 2007, http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-European-union-and-comments/title-6-final-provisions/137-article-50.html

[7] John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Kissing Cousins: Nationalism and Realism’ (Yale Workshop on International Relations, 2011), http://irworkshop.sites.yale.edu/sites/default/files/Mearsheimer_IRW.PDF

[8] Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 92.

[9] Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, in MECW, Volume 29: Marx 1857–61, 263.

[10] Friedrich Engels, ‘Letter to Franz Mehring, 14 July 1893’, in Marx & Engels—Collected Works (MECW), Volume 50: Letters 1892–95 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), 164. PDF e-book.

[11] Because moralistic radicals had begun to appropriate ‘Entäusserung’ (alienation), Marx ceased using the term in his published work after 1845, but continued to use it in his unpublished work. George G. Brenkert, Marx’s Ethics of Freedom (London: Routledge, 2013), 14.

[12] Marx and Engels, ‘The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets’, in MECW, Volume 5: Marx and Engels 1845–47, 59.

[13] Daniel Hannan, ‘What Brexit Would Look Like for Britain’, The Spectator, 23 Jan 2016, http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/what-brexit-would-look-like-for-britain/

[14] Robert Tombs, ‘Make England Great Again’, Foreign Policy, 22 Feb 2016, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/22/make-england-great-again-brexit-eu-david-cameron

[15] See, e.g., Tim Ross, ‘Liam Fox: Terrorists Could Enter Britain Among Refugees’, The Telegraph, 30 Jan 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/eureferendum/12131945/Liam-Fox-Terrorists-could-enter-Britain-among-refugees.html

[16] Jörg Bibow, ‘Euro Union: Quo Vadis?’, Social Europe, 2 July 2015, https://www.socialeurope.eu/2015/07/euro-union-quo-vadis/

[17] Louis Althusser argues for a distinction between ‘Young Marx’ and ‘mature Marx’ in For Marx (London: Verso, 2005), 49–86.

[18] Most notably, the piece of propaganda literature commissioned by the German Communist League in 1848. Marx & Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in MECW, Volume 6: Marx and Engels 1845–47, 477–519.

[19] Brenkert, Marx’s Ethics, 4.

[20] Alan Gilbert, ‘Marx’s Moral Realism’, in After Marx, ed. Terence Ball & James Farr (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 155.

[21] See, e.g., Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1949), http://www.econlib.org/library/Mises/HmA/msHmA1.html

[22] Engels, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, in MECW, Volume 4: Marx and Engels 1844–45, 384.

[23] Marx & Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 481.

[24] Damien Cahill, The End of Laissez-Faire? On the Durability of Embedded Neoliberalism (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2014), 11–12.

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In which I, once again, take a dump on the World Bank

In September of 2000, the largest meeting of world leaders in history—one hundred heads of state and forty-seven heads of government—agreed to an ambitious list of global targets at the United Nations (UN) Millennium Summit in New York. The list, drafted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a select circle of aides, was later pared down to eight specific goals and given a hard deadline of 31 December 2015. These became known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).[1] This post examines The World Bank’s approach to filling global governance gaps in addressing the first of these goals; namely, the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.[2] More specifically, I focus on the Bank’s role in plugging the knowledge gap, since this is where its influence is greatest. Despite the Bank’s frequent presentations that it was well ahead of schedule to meet MDG 1,[3] actual progress made has been trifling at best. This, I argue, is a result not of gaps in institutional authority or government compliance, but of political paradigms maintained by ‘ideas-controllers’[4] within the Bank, and a questionable approach to statistics.

The first MDG, as it was laid out in 2000, consisted of three sub-goals: reduce by half the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day; achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people; and reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.[5] In the years since, the first sub-goal has had its dollar figure revised upwards three times, the second sub-goal has been all but abandoned due to unfeasibility, and the third has come to be recognised for what it is: wholly dependent on the first.[6] Indeed, in the spirit of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, boosting incomes to ensure that basic physiological needs can be met is the obvious starting point.[7] As such, it is the reduction of extreme poverty that warrants our full attention.

Throughout the 1990s, international finance institutions (IFIs) pressured developing countries to privatise businesses and cut spending on public programs, applied by way of conditions—or, ‘conditionalities’—for receiving support.[8] As a result, Africa saw a rise in its rate of poverty and child deaths, as well as a significant drop in life expectancy; and the effects of economic crises and growing inequality threatened Asia and Latin America.[9] Global inequality, as measured by Bank economists, reached a Gini coefficient level of 0.67 by the end of the twentieth century.[10] In plainer terms, this is equivalent to the poorest two thirds of the world receiving zero income; and the top third, everything. The number of people living in poverty actually increased by approximately 100 million during the 1990s, even while total world income rose by an average of 2.5 percent annually.[11] Figures such as these were typical of those coming out of the Bank in the lead-up to the MDGs and indeed served as their justification; but, following a shuffle in ideas-controlling personnel as a result of pressure from the US Treasury in the wake of mass public antipathy towards global trade policy,[12] the Bank’s figures soon changed.[13]

In order to determine which gaps exist in global governance as regards global poverty, or indeed even to identify a problem, we must first examine the knowledge surrounding it. While the actors involved in tackling poverty are myriad, it is in filling the knowledge gap that the Bank stands virtually alone. As the ‘near-monopoly provider’[14] of world poverty estimates, it has an outsize influence on dictating not only where its own funds are directed, but also—by extension, through this structural power[15]—those of other institutions.[16] On its face, having a single organisation responsible for statistical analysis of the magnitude and causes of poverty makes sense: it is cost-efficient and ensures that everybody is working from the same information. But, while the former is undeniably true, the latter presents concerns about safeguards against misinformation and its potential to shape policy. As Thomas Weiss notes:

 [I]deology can trump or even determine information. When well defined ideological stances and lobbies are mobilised, data may or may not be powerful enough to call into question positions that have already long been formed and hardened … selective use of data can be a significant factor in the persuasiveness of knowledge.[17]

Despite mounting evidence of the counterproductive effects the Washington Consensus policies had on tackling poverty, the neoliberal ideological assumptions behind them remain the dominant political paradigm[18] at the Bank and other IFIs.[19] Of his time as Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the Bank, Joseph Stiglitz recalls:

Decisions were made on the basis of what seemed a curious blend of ideology and bad economics, dogma that sometimes seemed to be thinly veiling special interests.[20]

Robert Wade describes how these special interests shape the Bank’s agenda by way of their own form of ‘conditionality’; that is, making funding dependent on their approval of key appointments to ideas-controlling positions, who:

… can shape what research is done and by whom, what evidence is accepted, what conclusions are drawn, how much and how long the results are scrutinized internally before being published, how the conclusions are advertised, what follow-up research is undertaken, and what is done to inject the findings into operational work.[21]

Such claims may be dismissed as mere speculation, but inconsistencies in the Bank’s published statistics cannot. According to The World Development Report 2000/2001: Attacking Poverty, the number of people living on less than $1 a day increased by 20 million between 1987 and 1998.[22] However, according to the Bank’s next major publication, the number of people living in poverty had decreased by 200 million between 1980 and 1998.[23] This is not to say, though, that the number of impoverished people necessarily fell by 220 million between 1980 and 1987; it is to say that the Bank routinely moves the poverty line and changes its methodology, producing discrete sets of statistics, each of which is utterly incommensurable with previous sets, but compares them anyway. Wade notes that raising the poverty line, first from $1 a day to $1.08, then $1.25, and then to $1.90, as the Bank has done, puts—somewhat counterintuitively—a downward bias on results, ‘making the trend look rosier than it is.’[24] Further, such an arbitrary international poverty line ‘is not adequately anchored in any specification of the real requirements of human beings.’[25] Rather more morbidly, Thomas Pogge adds:

A reduction in the number living in poverty might be due, for example, to many poor people having died. During the MDG reporting period, the ranks of the poor have been continuously thinned by some 50,000 deaths each day from poverty-related causes … These 18 million annual poverty deaths constitute about one-third of all human deaths. Given the World Bank’s method … such deaths improve the results.[26]

Furthermore, the starting date for measurement of the MDGs is 1990, despite their not having been conceived until a decade later, and not officially launching until March 2002. This choice of starting date is unlikely to be arbitrary, though. It not only allows twenty-five years instead of fifteen to reach the target, but also the conflation of poverty reduction achieved through the furious economic growth in China between 1990 and 2001 with that achieved by the MDGs.[27] According to the Bank’s numbers from 2008, the number of Chinese people living on less than $1.25 a day decreased by roughly 265 million between 1990 and 1999, achieving MDG 1 fully two years before the MDGs were even announced.[28]

China’s growth has begun to slow in recent years, but the sheer size of its population means its gains are enough to obscure the fact that sub-Saharan Africa has, at best, stagnated in terms of extreme poverty reduction during the MDG period.[29] China alone accounts for roughly three quarters of the world’s total decline in extreme poverty over the past thirty years, lifting 680 million people out of poverty between 1980 and 2010; more people than the entire population of Latin America.[30] Many Bank working papers now include graphs both with and without China included, in an attempt to show that, even without its growth, the world is still on track to meet MDG 1. In order to do this, though, reductions in poverty are expressed as a proportion, not of the world, but of the population of the less developed countries.[31] Because this population rises rapidly, the proportion of poor people drops significantly even when their number remains constant. Moreover, most of the Bank’s projections for less developed countries’ future poverty reduction optimistically assume they will follow the same trend as China, despite it having ignored all of the MDG recommendations.

In the fifteen years since the MDGs’ inception, the Bank has at different times employed gross domestic product; gross national product; population-weighted or unweighted data; household and individual surveys of consumption expenditure, net income or gross income, adjusted for various levels of purchasing power parity; or some combination of all of these to produce its findings. Each change in methodology is accompanied by a lengthy explanation of its merits, and the shortcomings of that which came before.[32] With the deadline for the MDGs approaching, the Bank’s progress reports showed some progress, but not too much; just enough to suggest that the poverty target could be met if only there were more funding. And, they still come with qualifications; for example, ‘Due to new data and revised methodologies, this Progress Chart is not comparable with previous versions.’[33] Such constant refinements could perhaps be justified if the goal were to come up with a grand theory of poverty, free of real-world consequences. But, as the de facto gatekeeper of the knowledge, the Bank’s role ought to be measuring poverty in an objective and methodologically consistent manner, in order to produce comparable statistics that can be drawn upon to direct its own funds and those of other institutions most effectively.

So, what possible solutions might there be for eliminating the Bank’s tactical selection of data to serve both its internal and external political ends? Perhaps none. Pogge and Reddy propose reform,[34] but only of the Bank’s statistical method, which does nothing to guard against future ideas-controllers tampering with it. Ideally, the Bank’s statistical wing would be wholly independent of its finance and policy wings. This, though, assumes that its funding would not be negatively impacted, which it almost certainly would be. Recent years have seen the Bank increase its transparency somewhat with its Access to Information policy,[35] but individual request are granted or denied on a case-by-case basis[36] and the policy includes a robust list of exceptions[37] that cannot be circumvented while its staff retain blanket immunity from legal action in 184 countries.[38] As such, the Bank continues to fall well short of the level of transparency it demands from its client countries.

Of course, the Bank plays a role in filling other governance gaps. Its very existence fills an institutional gap that would otherwise exist within the UN system for providing statistics and distributing loans—although, the IMF could probably fill the latter role. It serves to lessen gaps in norms and policy by, for example, making loans dependent on a state’s adherence to them. It has been less effective in filling compliance gaps, but, given some of its ill-advised one-size-fits-all former policies, this is perhaps fortunate. All of these, though, are informed by, and therefore secondary to, the role it plays in filling the knowledge gap.

Knowledge, as they say, is power. As the near-monopoly provider of world poverty statistics, the Bank’s influence on development policy has been far greater than that of any other institution. Unfortunately, this gatekeeper status means that any biases—either conscious or unconscious—that arise within the organisation, or that are imposed upon it, can lead to disastrous consequences for the world’s poor. Few would question the nobility of attempting to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. But, the World Bank’s approach to meeting Millennium Development Goal 1 appears to have been one of ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics.’[39]


[1] UN, The Millennium Development Goals, September 2010, retrieved 5 October 2015 from http://www.un.org/en/mdg/summit2010/pdf/List%20of%20MDGs%20English.pdf

[2] As per common usage, ‘The World Bank’ or ‘Bank’ refers herein to only two of The World Bank Group’s five institutions: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and The International Development Association (IDA).

[3] See, e.g., Martin Ravallion, How Long Will It Take to Lift One Billion People Out of Poverty?, World Bank working paper #6325, 2013, p. 2; UN, The Millenium Development Goals Report 2013, retrieved 9 October 2015 from http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/report-2013/mdg-report-2013-english.pdf; UN, The Millenium Development Goals Report 2015, retrieved 9 October 2015 from http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Resources/Static/Products/Progress2015/English2015.pdf

[4] Wade uses ‘controllers of ideas’ to refer to senior positions within international finance institutions, ‘because the incumbent can shape the content of what the Bank tells the world.’ Robert Hunter Wade, ‘US Hegemony and the World Bank: The Fight Over People and Ideas’, Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2002, p. 220.

[5] UN, op. cit.

[6] Marc F. Bellemare, ‘Development Bloat: How Mission Creep Harms the Poor’, Foreign Affairs, 5 January 2014, retrieved 10 October 2015 from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2014-01-05/development-bloat; Michael Clemens & Todd Moss, What’s Wrong with the Millennium Development Goals?, Center for Global Development brief, September 2005, retrieved 9 October 2015 from http://www.cgdev.org/files/3940_file_WWMGD.pdf

[7] Abraham H. Maslow, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Psychological Review, Vol. 50, No. 4, 1943, pp. 370–96.

[8] See, e.g., Sarah Babb, ‘The Washington Consensus as Transnational Policy Paradigm: Its Origins, Trajectory and Likely Successor’, Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2012, pp. 268–297; John Williamson, ‘A Short History of the Washington Consensus’, Law and Business Review of the Americas, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2009, pp. 7–23; Stefan G. Koeberle, ‘Should Policy-Based Lending Still Involve Conditionality?’, The World Bank Research Observer, Vol. 18, No. 2, 2003, pp. 249–73.

[9] John W. McArthur, ‘Own the Goals: What the Millennium Development Goals Have Accomplished’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 92, No. 2, 2013, pp. 152–162; Lolette Kritzinger-van Nickerk, Regional Integration: Concepts, Advantages, Disadvantages and Lessons of Experience, presentation to the Southern African Regional Poverty Network, May 2005, retrieved 11 October 2015 from http://www.sarpn.org/documents/d0001249/P1416-RI-concepts_May2005.pdf

[10] Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion, How Did the World’s Poorest Fare in the 1990s?, World Bank paper, 2000.

[11] World Bank, Global Economic Prospects and the Developing Countries 2000, cited in Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, NY, 2002, p. 37.

[12] See, e.g., Noah Smith, ‘The Dark Side of Globalization: Why Seattle’s 1999 Protestors Were Right’, The Atlantic, January 2014, retrieved 10 October 2015 from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-dark-side-of-globalization-why-seattles-1999-protesters-were-right/282831/

[13] Robert H. Wade, op. cit., pp. 220–3; Joseph E. Stiglitz, op. cit., pp. 33–4; The World Bank, World Development Report 2000/2001: Attacking Poverty, Oxford University Press, NY, 2001; The World Bank, Globalization, Growth, and Poverty: Building an Inclusive World Economy, Oxford University Press, NY, 2002.

[14] Robert H. Wade, ‘Is Globalization Reducing Poverty and Inequality?’, World Development, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2004, p. 574.

[15] That is, ‘the ability to get the outcomes one wants’ without force or payment. See, e.g., Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, PublicAffairs, NY, 2004.

[16] Robert H. Wade, loc. cit.

[17] Thomas G. Weiss, Global Governance: Why? What? Whither?, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2013, ebook, pp. 141–2.

[18] Peter A. Hall, ‘Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1993, p. 275.

[19] Sarah Babb, loc. cit.; Jan Aart Scholte, Globalization: A Critical Introduction, 2nd Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, NY, 2005, pp. 387–8.

[20] Joseph E. Stiglitz, op. cit., p. 14.

[21] Robert H. Wade, ‘US Hegemony’, p. 220.

[22] The World Bank, WDR 2000/2001.

[23] The World Bank, G, G & P.

[24] Robert H. Wade, ‘Is Globalization Reducing Inequality?’, p. 573–4.

[25] Thomas Pogge & Sanjay G. Reddy, ‘How Not to Count the Poor’, Social Science Research Network, 29 October 2005, retrieved 10 October 2015 from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=893159

[26] Thomas Pogge, ‘Poverty, Hunger, and Cosmetic Progress’, in Malcolm Langford, Andy Sumner & Alicia Ely Yamin (eds.), The Millennium Development Goals and Human Rights: Past, Present and Future, Cambridge University Press, NY, 2013, p. 211.

[27] Howard Steven Friedman, Causal Inference and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): Assessing Whether There Was an Acceleration in MDG Development Indicators Following the MDG Declaration, Munich Personal RePEc Archive paper #48793, 3 August 2013, p. 10.

[28] Shaohua Chen & Martin Ravallion, Absolute Poverty Measures for the Developing World, 1981–2008, 2008, retrieved 11 October 2015 from http://siteresources.worldbank.org/ICPINT/Resources/270056-1255977254560/6483625- 1291755426408/20_ICPBook_AbsolutePovertyMeasures.pdf

[29] Shaohua Chen & Martin Ravallion, More Relatively-Poor People in a Less Absolutely-Poor World, World Bank working paper #6114, 2012, p. 16.

[30] ‘Not Always With Us’, The Economist, 1 June 2013, retrieved 11 October 2015 from http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21578643-world-has-astonishing-chance-take-billion-people-out-extreme-poverty-2030-not

[31] Shaohua Chen & Martin Ravallion, ‘The Developing World is Poorer Than We Thought, But No Less Successful in the Fight Against Poverty’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, November 2010, p. 1593; Siew Mun Tang, ‘Rethinking Economic Security in a Globalized World’, Contemporary Politics, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2015, p. 41.

[32] See, e.g., Martin Ravallion, ‘The Debate on Globalization, Poverty and Inequality: Why Measurement Matters’, International Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 4, 2003, pp. 739–53.

[33] UN, Millennium Development Goals: 2015 Progress Chart, 2015, retrieved 11 October 2015 from http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Resources/Static/Products/Progress2015/Progress_E.pdf

[34] Thomas Pogge & Sanjay G. Reddy, loc. cit.

[35] The World Bank, The World Bank Policy on Access to Information, 1 July 2010, retrieved 11 October 2015 from http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2010/07/12368161/world-bank-policy-access-information

[36] Toby McIntosh, ‘Appeals Body Says World Bank Violated Access Policy’, The Global Network of Freedom of Information Advocates, 26 June 2014, retrieved 11 October 2015 from http://www.freedominfo.org/2014/06/appeals-body-says-world-bank-violated-access-policy/

[37] The World Bank, ‘List of Exceptions’, Access to Information, retrieved 11 October 2015 from http://www.worldbank.org/en/access-to-information/ai-exception

[38] Ibrahim F. I. Shihata, The World Bank Legal Papers, Kluwer Law International, The Netherlands, 2000, p. 610.

[39] Often misattributed to Mark Twain, Twain himself credited this phrase to Benjamin Disraeli, though it is not found in any of his works. Joel Best, Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists, University of California Press, 2012, p. 5.

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