Thursday, December 31, 2009

Arriving in 2010 - breaking a blogging silence

What do we carry forward into 2010 that has the potential to contribute to, or constrain, systemic transformation of how we humans think and act? In 2009 the latter - constraints - have dominated and driven me into a blogger silence. But societal transformation is closely coupled to personal transformation so after a short holiday in a marvelous setting (see photos) I have regained some of my enthusiasm to seek out and contribute to ways forward. But moving forward involves recognising and negotiating what constrains as much as developing something that is new.

In this spirit I hope to post, over the next weeks, a range of material that points to both opportunities and constraints for more systemic and adaptive governance.

The photos - from the top: (i) The remaining 'apostles' on the Great Ocean Road, south-western Victoria; (ii) 'London Bridge' Great Ocean Road; (iii-iv) Views of the Bay of Islands, Great Ocean Road; (v) view from the lounge, Battery Point, Port Fairy; (vi) 'The Crags' - fossilised roots - what needs to happen to so many of our own institutions!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Web petition in support of Paul Krugman

Geoffrey Hodgson has organized a web petition in support of the following words by Paul Krugman:

"Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems. More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy ... the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth ... economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations ... Unfortunately, this romanticized and sanitized vision of the economy led most economists to ignore all the things that can go wrong. They turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the problems of institutions that run amok; to the imperfections of markets – especially financial markets – that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers created when regulators don’t believe in regulation. ... When it comes to the all-too-human problem of recessions and depressions, economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly." (New York Times, September 2nd, 2009.)

If you agree, please sign and forward to others:
SIGN "Revitalizing Economics After the Crash" ON

Saturday, August 15, 2009

In November 2008 the Queen asked why so few Economists had foreseen the credit crunch.

'Ten leading British Economists write to Her Majesty, claiming that the training of economists is too narrow: “Mathematical technique should not dominate real-world substance.”

During a visit to the London School of Economics in November 2008, the Queen asked why few economists had foreseen the credit crunch. Dated 22 July 2009, she received an answer from Professors Tim Besley and Peter Hennessy. This was widely quoted in the British press.

Ten leading British economists – including academics from top universities, three Academicians of the Academy of Social Sciences, academic journal editors, a former member of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and the Chief Economic Advisor the Greater London Authority – have responded by writing their own response to the Queen. They note that the letter by Professors Besley and Hennessy fails to consider any deficiency in the training of economists themselves.

Following similar complaints by Nobel Laureates Ronald Coase, Wassily Leontief and Milton Friedman, the ten economists argue that economists has become largely transformed into a branch of applied mathematics, with little contact with the real world. The letter by Professors Besley and Hennessy does not consider how the preference for mathematical technique over real-world substance diverted many economists from looking at the whole picture.

The ten economists uphold that the narrow training of economists – which concentrates on mathematical techniques and the building of empirically uncontrolled formal models – has been a major reason for the failure of the economics profession to give adequate warnings of the economic crises in 2007 and 2008.

The ten signatories also point out that while Professors Besley and Hennessy complain that economists have become overly ‘charmed by the market’, they mention neither the highly questionable belief in universal ‘rationality’ nor the ‘efficient markets hypothesis’, which are both widely taught and promoted by mainstream economists.

The ten economists call for a broader training of economists, involving allied disciplines such as psychology and economic history, as well as mathematics.'

Sigantories to this letter included at least three Australians - Peter E. Earl, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Queensland, Australia, and author of Business Economics: A Contemporary Approach, John Foster, Professor of Economics, University of Queensland, Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and President Elect of the International J. A. Schumpeter Society and Geoffrey C. Harcourt, Emeritus Reader, University of Cambridge, Emeritus Professor, University of Adelaide, Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences, Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Is it too early to acknowledge the timely 'death' of the targets culture?

With the Daily Telegraph on the case perhaps it is not!

'Why were targets introduced? The Government [UK, Labour] would have you believe it was to drive up standards; but in reality they were a means of showing that Labour "cared". They were a political device. Whenever ministers were challenged about high levels of offending or poor levels of literacy they could say: "But we have a target to reduce it/increase it/scrap it, so we must be good." Targets were ostensibly introduced to hold the Government to account, but were used as a means of deflecting criticism.'

What about in Australia though?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Thankfully Melbourne has The Age, but....

In visits to Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane in recent times I have become appalled at the lack of a 'critical' broadsheet in those cities - and appreciate why there is so little real engagement with the global issues of the day by many in these states. The Murdoch press, present in all Australia's cities, does little to provide anything other than a reactionary perspective (except for the odd journalist).

Take for example the excellent articles by Paul Krugman and Paddy Manning in The Age on Monday 18th May. Krugman makes the valid points that 'China will have to help save the planet' and that when 'the US and other advanced countries finally move to confront climate change, they will also be morally empowered to confront those nations that refuse to act'. He is right- but he and others will have to be vigilant in the face of those who might be seen to act, but actually do nothing. Australia is likely to be a case in point.

On this note, despite the many strengths of The Age, it is a great pity it did not have a full, wrap-around colour display of the 5000 or so people who sent a very clear message, in the form of a 350 m sign, to Canberra from St Kilda beach.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

New Labour architect attacks government for failing to convince public on climate change urgency:

'Anthony Giddens and Lord Stern have made recent major attacks on Government Policy. The latter has very sensibly criticised Heathrow and Kingsnorth decisions and Anthony Giddens calls for 'revolution in attitudes to politics'.'

I am grateful for John Colvin to alerting me to these posts, if for no other reason than they reflect some positive signs - and signs of an awakening 'intelligence' around these issues. Australia is a good case of how we need a 'revolution in attitudes to politics.' The examples, unfortunately are all too obvous:

* being too slow on creating conducive policy and fiscal settings for 'green infrastructure' (both 'soft' and 'hard') innovation;

being caught out by US policy moves - e.g emissions limits on cars; secret deals with China on positioning for climate change talks;

* the indefensible $12 billion of subsidies being handed out to big carbon-polluting industries.

Australia's policies seem well designed to create a 'backwater' nation as others gather momentum to do what has to be done.
A meaningful response to climate change will depend on the US and China

For some time I have been boring my friends with this claim. It is therefore encouraging to know that the US and China have been engaged in secret negotiations prior to the Copenhagen summit in December.

It is claimed that it "It will be serious. It will be substantive, and it will happen." Let's hope so!

Monday, May 04, 2009

Universities need to “show more imagination”.... create a culture of lifelong learning in the higher education sector, said Sir David Watson chair of the Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning.

Sir David called for universities to set up a more flexible framework to allow learners to accumulate credit towards degrees and other qualifications. He also demanded that universities work more closely with further education colleges.

In his first major public address since the commission began work in September 2007, and before it publishes its findings in June, he described the current lifelong-learning system as a “jungle of provision” with accountability requirements of “Kafkaesque proportions”.

“The current framework is recognised by almost all participants and commentators as radically unfit for the purposes of effective and equitable lifelong learning. What is more, it has been subjected to violent lurches in policy compounded by serious lapses in policy memory on the part of successive governments,” he said.

Although the UK has the highest percentage of part-time students, the highest average age of participants and the second-highest rate of working-class participation in the European Union, the higher education system still favours the participation of young, full-time students studying away from home, Sir David said.

The commission is calling for a credit framework that will allow people to step in and out of formal education throughout their lives. “The flexibility that a proper credit framework brings will be all the more needed in the light of current economic turbulence and the effects this is having on employment.

“Large numbers of adults will be seeking to improve their qualifications without having to commit themselves to a long stretch of full-time education.

“This is not a technical issue: we have the systems. It is a cultural and moral issue: we fail to use these systems for reasons of conservatism, snobbery and lack of imagination.”

Sir David also warned: “Universities have always tended to use further education as a kind of header tank: a useful source of recruitment when needed; of displacement during periods of rapid expansion; and of collaboration on their own terms. This will not do in the future.”

Source: Open University

Monday, April 27, 2009

Carbon storage an impossible dream

Given my postings earlier this week I was fascinated to read Paddy Mannings G-BIZ column in today's Age. The column is developed around the concerns of Graham Brown aged 57, a former coal miner of 20 years. Some quotes give a flavour:

''He says most people working at the coal face know CCS is "just not do-able. It's never going to get off the ground. The technology's so expensive that it's not going to be economical."

The main problem is the sheer volume of carbon dioxide that needs to be captured and stored. Brown explains it this way: for every tonne of coal burnt there are 2.5 to 2.7 tonnes of carbon to store. A tonne of carbon is about 500 cubic metres, as a gas at sea level at room temperature.

Now, say coal-fired power stations in Australia emit 100 million tonnes of carbon each year. The Government hopes CCS will trap 20 per cent of those emissions. If the gas is compressed 500 times, that's 20 million tonnes a year.

Transporting 20 million tonnes of highly compressed gas is no mean feat. "Look at the infrastructure that needs to be in place to get 80 million tonnes of coal to port," says Brown. "Moving gas is a different kettle of fish to moving coal … because it's got to be stored in an intrinsically safe way — either pipe or trucks or trains".

In other words CCS is a pipe dream!!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Epitaphs for New Labour have a convincing tone...what of our democratic forms?

Reading the demolition of New Labour in Guy Rundle's epitaph today I was left with little satisfaction depite my criticism of New Labour and the Blair government in particular. Within our current democratic system the alternatives (both in the UK and and in Oz) seem like a choice to jump out of the frying pan into the fire. We need more systemic and adaptive forms of governance!
Juxtaposing is a practice that can be revealing

Some claim that the capacity to 'see' emerging pattern is key to systems thinking. There is no doubt that juxtaposing certain things can reveal more than either component seen by itself (an example of managing for emergence?) Perhaps this is part of the editor, or sub-editor's art?

In The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday April 1st (News 3) the titles of two articles were nicely juxtaposed: 'Scrap coal plan, says Rudd's man' and then 'State owns biggest polluters'. Despite the date the joke is at our expense - for accepting this as 'how things are' or 'how they have to be'.

Good on Peter Newman for taking the stand he has, including his dismissal of the Federal Government's $500 million committment into researching clean coal technology. Compare this with the PM's recent prognostications on 'clean coal'. Go to Guy Pearce's Quarterly essay for reasons why this may be so! Or see why leading scientists have attacked the Wong-Rudd position on Australia's proposed climate response.

Since reading Pearce's essay I have become aware that most reports about clean coal use seemingly big numbers ungrounded (for the average reader) in what these numbers actually mean. In addition the clean coal technology itself is rarely referenced in relation to the total infrastructure development that would be needed to make it a viable CO2 reducing system capable of making a significant and timely impact on overall CO2 emissions.

Juxtaposed to these issues, the biggest polluters (in NSW) include, according to the report, Qantas Airways, Caltex and NSW government owned power stations in Lithgow and the Hunter. The details come from a report 'Hidden Costs of Electricity' which estimates the health costs of coal and gas generators were $2.6 billion, about the same as vehicle pollution.

PS Good to see that Minister for Finance, Lindsay Tanner was prepared to launch the 'Hidden Costs' report.
Maynard Keynes is supposed to have said...

what exactly? In my previous posting Robert Skidelsky ended his article by quoting Keynes:

'John Maynard Keynes wrote that "practical men who believe themselves to be quite immune from intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist".

I have seen this quote and variations of it attributed to Keynes in several places. Does anyone know what he actually said and where? Or perhaps he said the same thing, more or less, several times in different places?

Perhaps starting a search here might help!
Robert Skidelsky mounts another attack on 'Chicago school'- tainted economists

This short article gives a very readable account of why the financial system has gone into systemic failure. Skidelsky contrasts his own analysis with that of 'the "money glut" school. In their view, there was only one cause of the crisis: excessive credit creation that took place when Alan Greenspan was US Federal Reserve chairman. .. This view draws on the "Austrian" theory of booms and slumps, and also Milton Friedman's explanation of the Great Depression. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.'

Unlike many political leaders who have learned to use the phrase 'systemic failure' Skidelsky is able to point to key influences which have given rise to the failure: i.e. economists and economic theory that 'assumes that markets are perfectly efficient. If they go wrong, it must be because of policy mistakes. This view is also self-contradictory, for if market participants are perfectly rational and perfectly informed, they would not have been fooled by a policy of making money cheaper than it really was.

This suggests a more fundamental reason for the economic crisis: the dominance of the Chicago school of economics, with its belief in the self-regulating properties of unfettered markets. This belief justified the deregulation of financial markets in the name of the "efficient-market hypothesis". It led to the spread of financial risk-management models, which grossly underestimated the amount of risk in the system.'

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Some of the best coastline and beaches in the world?

Bemagui on the far south coast of NSW proved a delight and visits to Tathra and Wallagoot Lake revived memories from years ago. Seeing for the first time many of the beaches and inlets as we drove south, including two nights at the marvelously situated Marlo Hotel overlooking the mouth of the Snowy River, it was hard to imagine better beaches anywhere else.

There were also many new birds to be seen on our Easter 'circuit'.
Worth a listen from 'Background Briefing' - MBA: Mostly Bloody Awful!

'Something happened to management culture decades ago and now being a Master of Business Administration, especially from Harvard, is rather on the nose. MBA, it's being said, can also stand for 'Mediocre but Arrogant', or 'Management by Accident'.

This report by Stephen Crittenden features Henry Mintzberg:

'McGill University Professor Henry Mintzberg says what we call a financial crisis is really at its core a crisis of management, and not just a crisis of management, but a crisis of management culture.'

And quotes Russell Ackoff:

'In 1986, when Russell Ackoff, a pioneer of management education, retired as Professor at the Wharton Business School, he was asked what were the benefits of a business education. With savage irony he replied that there were three. The first was to equip students with a vocabulary that enabled them to talk with authority about subjects they did not understand. The second was to give students principles that would demonstrate their ability to withstand any amount of disconfirming evidence. The third was to give students a ticket of admission to a job where they could learn something about management.'

The following references provide further background.

Title: The Puritan Gift: Reclaiming the American Dream Amidst Global Financial Chaos
Author: Kenneth Hopper and William Hooper
Publisher: I.B. Taurus 2009

Title: Managers not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development
Author: Henry Mintzberg
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2004

Title: From Higher Aims to Hired Hands:The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession
Author: Rakesh Khurana
Publisher: Princetone University Press, 2007

Title: Business Schools Share the Blame for Enron
Author: Sumantra Ghoshal
Publisher: Financial Times, 17 July 2003

From mountains to coast - travels through a 'green drought'

I do not know the Monaro region of south-eastern NSW well. Travelling from Jindabyne to the coast via Dalgety was a new experience. I could not help but feel as we traversed the dissected but expansive plateau that many landholders must feel themselves trapped by their on-going commitments to farming in that region. Perhaps it has always been so?

An unexpected surprise was a large group of bikers travelling also from Dalgety towards the coast. We encountered them on a stretch of dirt road travelling slowly in single file. Given recent biker-gang violence in Australia I did not feel it prudent to pass them and expose them to my dust, but fortunately they pulled up and we were just able to edge past!

We spent two nights camping on a block owned by friends near Brogo (just north of Bega). We were prepared to enjoy one full night of rain - it is something one cannot complain about!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Rudd Government's defence of large carbon polluting industries is unforgivable

In 'After Capitalism' Geoff Mulgan argues that '.. the great depression was both a disaster and an accelerator of reform. It helped to usher in new economic and welfare policies in countries like New Zealand and Sweden that later became the mainstream across the developed world. In the US it led to banking reform, the New Deal and the GI Bill of Rights. In Britain depression, as much as war, led to the creation of the welfare state and the NHS.'

Although Mulgan does not say it - nor do many other politicians, least of all G20 leaders - the environmental crisis with climate change adapatation at the forefront, but by no means the only issue, ought to be recognised as THE primary accelerator of reform throughout the 21st century. Instead we have in Australia - and probably other areas of the world - a government committed to supporting and sustaining what are effectively 'sunset industries'. In his excellent, systemic analysis, Guy Pearce in the latest Quarterly Essay (No. 33) Quarry Vision: Coal, Climate Change and the End of the Resources Boom (Black Ink 2009) explains why this is so (see this review). For any one in need of convincing Pearce's essay reveals the extent of the systemic failure of our current governance arrangements. As I have blogged earlier, our governance arrangements can be understood as a 'structure determined system' which does what it is capable of doing - hence the 'capture of government' by the big carbon lobby. Unfortunately what we need at this historical moment is more than current governance arrangements seem capable of delivering.

Mulgan in his essay promotes the historical analysis of innovation cycles by Carlota Perez, a Venezuelan economist. He says: 'One implication of Perez’s work, and of Joseph Schumpeter’s before her, is that some of the old has to be swept away before the new can find its most successful forms. Propping up failing industries is in this light a risky policy.' Australian Labor seems well disposed to taking policies and practices (both good and bad) from UK Labour so let's hope that Senator Wong and PM Rudd take on board this advice from Geff Mulgan in respect to creating the conditions for transformation of our own economy and society.

Mulgan argues, following Perez, ' that we may be on the verge of another great period of institutional innovation and experiment that will lead to new compromises between the claims of capital and the claims of society and of nature. In retrospect these periodic accommodations are as integral to capitalism as financial crises—indeed it’s only through crisis and institutional reform that capitalism adapts to a changing environment and rediscovers the moral compass that is so vital for markets to work well. ' Thus, the key to transformation, it appears, is in the creation of new institutional forms. I would also argue it involves understanding existing institutional complexity and how institutional innovation exacerbates, or not, systemic complexity including increased transaction costs. Unfortunately Australia is not well endowed with institutional economists nor does government appear to have well developed policies or research in place to address the institutional reform that is warranted!

Australia has a mountain range

Until our Easter travels took us from the upper Murray across to Khancobin and thence to Thredbo and Jindabyne I did not really feel that Australia could claim to have a 'proper' mountain range - rather an elevated tableland. This view (final photo below) from Scammell's Spar lookout has made me change my mind.

Storms across the Snowy Mountains gave rise to nostalgic smells (as only rain in Australia can) and great variations in light.
Economics, economists and differing perspectives

A few friends and colleagues have been politely (thus far) taking me to task for some of my postings about the role of economics, and thus certain types of economists, in relation to contemporary crises (notably the financial one, but more importantly the environmental one). It has been pointed out to me that as I write economics (or more correctly John Geanakoplos, of Yale University) is contributing fundamentally important new ideas. Time will undoubtedly tell how fundamental and important this new idea is. But contrast this perspective with that of Anatole Kaletsky (editor-at-large of The Times and Chief Economist of GaveKai Research).

His article in Prospect was reproduced in the Financial Review yesterday under the banner ' Never let the facts get in the way of a good economic theory'. Kaletsky opens by making the point that by today's standards Adam Smith, Keynes, Ricardo and Schumpeter would not be regarded as economists and certainly would not be published in top ranking economics journals. He suggests that if any applied for a top post at a University today they would almost certainly be rejected.

In relation to the financial crisis he goes on to say:

'But in general how many academic economists have had something useful to say about the greatest upheaval in 70 years? The truth is even worse than this rhetorical question suggests: not only have economists, as a profession, failed to guide the world out of the crisis, they were also primarily responsible for leading us into it.'

Kaletsky has a strong critique of the focus that has emerged in 'mainstream economics' on quantification, forecasting and predicting, arguing that:

'economics should recognise that, as a discipline, it cannot be about predicting, but is instead about explaining and describing.'

The failure, and thus complicty of academic economists in the financial crisis, began, he argues, in the 1970s 'about “rational” investors and “efficient” markets'. .......And on those two reassuring adjectives, rational and efficient, the victorious academic economists erected an enormous scaffolding of theoretical models, regulatory prescriptions and computer simulations which allowed the practical bankers and politicians to build the towers of bad debt and bad policy.'

'So what is to be done?' he asks: 'There are two options. Either economics has to be abandoned as an academic discipline, becoming a mere appendage to the collection of industrial and social statistics. Or it must undergo an intellectual revolution. The dominant research programmes must be recognised as failures and instead of using oversimplified assumptions to create mathematical models that purport to give precise numerical conclusions, economists must re-open their subject to a range of speculative approaches, drawing insights from history, psychology and sociology, and applying the methods of historians, political theorists and even journalists, not just mathematicians and statisticians. At the same time, they must limit their ambitions to explaining only what the tools of economics allow you to understand.'

He thus argues the need for more heterodox approaches, something sadly lacking in Australia, because:

'they reject the ideological orthodoxies of rational expectations and efficient markets and the equally stifling methodological demand that economic insights must be expressed in mathematical formulae.'

My motivation in making the postings I have about the role of economics in our contemporary world is grounded in my own experience. From this experience I could not have expressed a better conclusion than Kaletsky's that:

'Economics today is a discipline that must either die or undergo a paradigm shift—to make itself both more broadminded, and more modest. It must broaden its horizons to recognise the insights of other social sciences and historical studies and it must return to its roots. Smith, Keynes, Hayek, Schumpeter and all the other truly great economists were interested in economic reality. They studied real human behaviour in markets that actually existed. Their insights came from historical knowledge, psychological intuition and political understanding. Their analytical tools were words, not mathematics. They persuaded with eloquence, not just formal logic. One can see why many of today’s academics may fear such a return of economics to its roots.'

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Easter travels and the state of the countryside

We left Melbourne on Good Friday travelling north up the Hume Highway to Beechworth and thence to Jingellic on the upper Murray. The countryside is very dry and in many cases I have never seen paddocks so overgrazed. Other places seem to have been destocked and look better. Many of the stock are in poor condition so close to winter. Lake Hume (a major dam on the Murray River) was not to be seen - essentially empty from our vantage points. On the bright side as we headed over the range through Mt Granya State Park we had a cloudburst that made driving difficult, but was none-the-less very welcome rainfall. The rain continued on into the evening but I am not sure how widespread it was. Despite the poor season the Murray Vallley had many scenic turns.

We spent a very comfortable first night at the Jingellic pub (pictured) and admired the variety of birds on walks along side the Murray.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The saga continues - but a review may be in sight: 'Secret computer deals that are costing the taxpayer billions'

The Times reports that:

"It is costing the taxpayer almost as much as the autumn bank bailout. But the huge amounts being spent by the Government on information technology - £16 billion this financial year - are barely noticed. With no central regulation by one ministry, civil servants enter into contracts worth billions with a few select companies. The details are protected by confidentiality agreements and periodic progress reviews in Whitehall are kept private, despite calls by MPs and anti-privacy campaigners for their disclosure. The cost of most large projects balloons. The Government admits that only about 30 per cent are completed on time and on budget.

An investigation by The Times and Computer Weekly shows that the overrun of the largest IT projects totals £18.6 billion. Those include a controversial plan to computerise all NHS patients' records, originally estimated to cost £2.3 billion over three years but the cost of which has grown to £12.7 billion. Two companies have dropped out of the project, which is already four years behind schedule. Hospitals left with obsolete equipment have had to up-grade on their own. Yesterday Whitehall sources told The Times that the NHS programme, which aims to link more than 30,000 GPs to nearly 300 hospitals, would be reviewed. Non-foundation-trust hospitals would be allowed to opt out and buy from smaller providers. . ."

Monday, January 26, 2009

Recent coups - some reflections

One of the meanings of the word coup is 'a stroke or move that one makes especially a notable or strikingly successful move'. Even the word 'coup d'etat' has meant 'any sudden and decisive stroke of State policy'. Why this reflection on what a coup may or may not mean? Well I was reminded yesterday by arguments in an article by Guy Rundle (Morning in America) about the nature of the Bush, or more precisely, the neo-conservative ascendancy. He says, for example that:

'The plain fact about the Bush/Cheney — more exactly, Cheney/Bush — era was that it represented the most substantial counter-revolution against the principles that America understands itself as living by that has occurred since the Republic was founded.

Torture, detention, illegal wars, lies were simply the surface effect of the Cheney/Bush era's deep and abiding aim — to realign the separation of US powers sufficient to give the executive arm of government, the presidency, an overwhelming authority that effectively destroyed the checks and balances of the three branches of government.'

I was somewhat amazed to read, for the first time, that this was largely achieved through:

'the use of "presidential signing statements" and restrictions on information flow'.

The obvious question is why had I not seen this reported before? Certainly I may have missed it - but if it was just not reported then it raises some pretty profound questions about the journalist profession.

Having been a close watcher of the happenings of Downing St in the Blair years and the rise of New Labour I have for sometime held ...and occasionally espoused ... an analysis that argued that the rise of New Labour could be considered as an internal Labour party coup mounted and maintained, even in government, by a small group around Blair. In office they maintained the sort of group think that gives rise to a 'coup' - and ultimately this was their undoing. The same dynamics appear to have been played out in the rise and fall of the neo-cons in the USA. For this reason the transparency and lobbying restrictions imposed by Obama are to be welcomed - they are key checks to the unfettered powers that can be assumed by the executive in our still very flawed democratic forms. As Rundle notes, Obama's changes 'for those wanting to contest such a policy' .... 'changes the nature of what is to be contested to a realpolitik, more open in its aims and motives, more open to criticism, challenge and dissent, and less bound up with grand schemes of dominance and global transformation, less need to make Mosul into Missouri.' This may not make for easy politics but the reward that can be reaped is genuine transformation.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

An open letter to my Federal MP

Thank you for making time to see me last week. Like you I am sorry we only had 30 minutes to discuss some very complex matters - that gave us roughly 15 minutes 'airtime' each! I was not encouraged by our conversation. My motivation to meet with you came from what I considered to be the government's totally inadequate response to climate change as embodied in the recent white paper. Nothing you said changed my mind on this matter; in fact I experienced affirmation of the points I made in an earlier posting to my Blog. Many matters germane to the discussion were not said or not fully explored, such as:

* population growth and current government policies;
* mismatch between your pre-election rhetoric/promises and current actions;
* the amount of money going to the carbon polluting industries;
* the intellectually and morally questionable over-hyping and over- investment (by government) in so-called 'clean coal' and carbon sequestration;
* the perverse effects built into the new Federal solar rebate system - recent articles and editorials in The Age expand upon my points;
* whether government policy is driven more by tax revenues from the carbon intensive industries than any other consideration;
* the perverse and systemic impacts that are now arising from earlier decisions by governments to privatise public utilities;
* failure to reformulate institutional arrangements - for example we now need utilities where 'profit' is driven by the delivery of socio-ecological goals rather than the sale of physical materials such as water or energy i.e. de-materialisation.

I was struck by arguments that a government could only go where the electorate was - and that Melbourne was atypical. Also your perspective on surveys! I liked the ideas on household audits.

Overall I could relate to some points but not the overall message that comes from them - because ultimately it is a message that perpetuates a sort of group think and a vicious circle.

The vicious circle I extrapolated from our conversation goes something like this: (i) the electorate are only prepared to do so much (very little in fact) in relation to climate change; (ii) this is particularly an issue (as is political support) in the main electorates where carbon-polluting industries are located (Gladstone, La Trobe Valley, Hunter etc) ; (iii) therefore we (Labor) cannot take decisive leadership; (iv) therefore we pursue policies that have minimal impact on the lives of the electorate - and little overall impact on Australia's gross carbon pollution, so (v) the current undertandings and practices of the majority of the electorate stay much as they are (and as shaped by the reactionary Howard years); (vi) so we cannot lead.

I suggested Labor's reponse was a bit like if Billy Hughes, when PM, had introduced legislation to reduce the worst excesses of horse shit pollution, by providing subsidies to stables, buggy manufacturers and smithies! Your response suggested the government was not really prepared to invest so as to be out in front - through new technologies and investment models, new ways of doing work and providing services, such as green entrepreneurship. Instead government actions tie us to the same old horseshit or its equivalent! This is not to say that government does not have responsibilty for assisting in building and managing a safety net for those most affected by the global transformations that will most surely occur. However I do not see a long term safety net in the government's current strategy - only an 'all eggs in one basket' gamble with Australia's long term future.

On Saturday I was still mulling over my concerns and wondering what if anything I might have said well as considering how much more there was to be said. Then I came across the article by Jonathan Schell in The Age which said, in terms far more eloquent than I, what I would want to say to you and the Rudd government. Let me draw your attention to the following points in particular:

'A fourth crisis is the ecological one, comprising global warming, the human-caused annihilation of species, population growth, water and land shortages, and much else. Like nuclear danger, the ecological crisis threatens something that has never been at stake before our era: the foundations of life on which humans and all species depend for survival. Economic and military ups and downs are for a season only. Extinction is forever.'

Does this strike a chord with our PM and his commitment to espoused moral positions?

'The contemporary crises are interwoven, forming a kind of Gordian knot. The world does not have the luxury of dealing with them one by one. Consider the relationship of the collapsing economy to the collapsing environment. Economics Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has noted that economists are wondering if the graph of the financial crisis will eventually prove to be V-shaped or U-shaped; but he argues it will be L-shaped.

Indeed, there can be neither a V, a U or any other upward-turning graph if the remedy does not include a green revolution and a sustainable-energy program. A dirty recovery, even if possible, would be worse than no recovery. It would be the quickest path to a bigger bust. The just-crashed "successful" economy, excellent as it was in producing cheap goods, was also producing environmental catastrophe.'

Stigliz's arguments echo my suggestion to you - that the only way forward in the current so-called crisis is to frame it as an opportunty - an opportunity to position our future as more viably coupled to our environment through pursuing different forms of 'economic activity'. I agree with Schell when he says:

'political pragmatism in current circumstances may be real folly, as it was on the eve of the Iraq War and in the years of the finance bubble preceding the crash. Smooth sailing down the middle of the Niagara River carries you over Niagara Falls.'

Schell mounts strong arguments, as if more were needed, for the current government to break out of the intellectual and political traps it has set for itself, and to raise the stakes for us all, just as Barack Obama has done for those 80% or so of Americans who, if tested in focus groups, are unlikely to have positioned themselves with where their President sets out to take them. Australia by contrast is being led into a coal-de-sac!

As I understand it you have young children: when they ask what it is that you did under these circumstances what is it that you would wish to answer?

Monday, January 19, 2009

'Warning that we can no longer ignore' headlines are not shifting the 'ignoring' fast enough!

In today's Age an article by Dominic Waughray, head of environment initiatives at the World Economic Forum, reports some of the main points made by '700 international experts in Dubai in November to discuss the world agenda for 2009'. 'Their conclusions were startling' he says!

'we face an environmental security problem that is deeper, more fundamental, more complex and much more systemic than the financial crisis; 2008 could merely be the precursor to a perfect economic storm, the like of which we have never seen before.'

Some of the 'chilling observations' include:

'■ If present trends continue, nearly 4 billion people will live in areas of high water stress by 2030. Simply augmenting water supply is no longer possible in most places — historical approaches to water use will not work in the future.

■ The International Energy Agency predicts an expansion in world energy demand of 45% by 2030, with coal accounting for more than a third of this overall rise. The agency say these energy trends are "patently unsustainable, economically, environmentally and socially". A new energy paradigm for both developed and developing countries is urgently required.

■ The world will need to double food production in the next 40 years to meet projected demand. Our ability to meet current and future production needs is seriously challenged by increasing water scarcity, climate change, and volatile energy costs and supplies.

■ Humanitarian assistance will increase to unprecedented scale if, as commentators foresee, large-scale migration results from climate change and water scarcity. The International Red Cross estimates that there are 25 million to 50 million climate change refugees already, compared with the official refugee population of 28 million. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that 150 million environmental refugees could exist by 2020. Currently in international law there is no such thing as an environmental refugee.'

One has little confidence that policy scenarios of most Governments are equipped to deal with these challenges.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Send this to all the politicians you know

An easy to follow, well made case for why taking no action or minimal action in response to climate change is the wrong choice.

Do what it says - send it around!
Are systemic understandings of climate change being censored?

David Wasdell makes the case that they are in this short video. As a result they have set up the Apollo-Gaia Project. The case is made that one of the main understandings that is being censored is that concerning the implications of non-linearity and positive feedback processes - see the material under: Feedback Dynamics and the Acceleration of Climate Change.

You might like to see David Wasdell explain how feedback processes work through his climate escalator analogy...or parable as he calls it. Or in other YouTube videos.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

News from Triarchy Press

Michael Thompson has been on BBC Radio 4 and talking at the James Martin Institute, the London School of Economics and the RSA about Cultural Theory and its application to the Credit Crunch, Climate Change and other matters of moment. If you want to know more, his new book 'Organising and Disorganising' is available from Triarchy. Or learn more about him.

Andrew Carey's book on the recent innovation project at The Economist magazine is part corporate anthropology and part management guide. One reviewer remonstrated that he had to have an encyclopaedia open whilst reading it. We hope that's better than dumbing down. You can read parts of 'Inside project Red Stripe' online or order it from us at

Edward Lloyd-Jones warned us that another scandal like that of Victoria Climbie was bound to happen soon in England because of recent developments in the children's justice system. Days after publication of his pamphlet, news came of the Baby P tragedy. 'The Forward March of Children's Justice Halted' explains what's gone wrong. Read more at

Edward drew extensively on John Seddon's 'Systems Thinking in the Public Sector' - a diatribe against government attempts to fix the public sector with targets and 'deliverology'. If you haven't seen it, get hold of a copy from us [or your favourite bookshop]. It's an exhilarating read.

And, finally, Cambridge Strategy (a Triarchy Imprint) has new self-assessment audits in the pipeline for next year, but I thoroughly recommend using their existing audits to see how well your organisation handles The Shadow Side, Innovation, Leadership, Customer Satisfaction and Training & Development. See all the audits.

Beyond Bourke - scenes from forty years ago

In a posting last year I described a trip I had made with my brother and nephew to Bourke and Enngonia. My first visit since 1956. Here are some images from the first trip.
The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive

Recent message: ‘it is with great pleasure that we can now officially announce that The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive is available at We would be delighted if you would take the time to have a look at the digital archive web site, and where appropriate, help to spread awareness of its availability, by mentioning it and linking to it in any mailing lists, newsletters, or web sites that you are involved in.

Heathrow decision - hypocrisy in action

The decision just made by the UK Labour Government to proceed with expansion of Heathrow Airport exemplifies the well known phenomenon in political life of not 'walking the talk'. Or, put another way, it demonstrates the common mismatch between what people espouse and what they do (as explained by Chris Argyris and Donald Shön). The Labour Government has done much, perhaps more than most governments, to espouse policies relating to sustainable development and to climate change mitigation and adaptation. This descison however higlights the extent of the mismatch between espousing and acting - it thus holds itself open to the charge of systematic and entrenched 'greenwashing'.

There is nothing moral, intelligent, courageous, ethical or wise about this decision. I hope that the decision is never enacted - whether by change of government, dissent within the Labour Party or civil, non-violent, protest.
Are the carbon and energy footprints catching up with the networked world?

I was interested to see (at last!) that my friend John Naughton has picked up on issues relating to the carbon footprint of the networked world - or at least that part of it generated by the act of 'Googling'. I would agree with him that this is an issue for which the time has come - I too expect it to run and run during 2009 ... as I hope will all attempts to understand carbon and energy dynamics in whole - of - system analyses associated with any innovation or decision.

This does not seem to have been the case with recent Environmental Impact assessments of the planned desalination plant for Melbourne.
The Rudd Government response to climate change: GetUp sums up the situation pretty well

My email from GetUp said:

'We need to act fast. Hidden in the fine print of Prime Minister Rudd's woefully inadequate 5% climate target announcement on Monday was over $130 million for an 'information campaign' to sell us his sparse climate package. Doesn't it remind you of the kind of climate policy John Howard would have announced?

So we're planning to make waves this Summer by landing the first blow during the Boxing Day cricket Test.

The Boxing Day Test is the biggest TV event of the season, and our team has been working day and night to get our own climate ad ready for it. Watch it now and help us raise the urgent resources we need to get our ad on the air as families around the nation tune in [to]:

GetUp's Spot The Difference campaign!

Kevin Rudd made climate change one of his major points of difference during the election, and was elected on a promise of real climate action. Yet, as John Howard's former Chief of Staff Grahame Morris said "he's not too far away from where Howard would have ended up".

We know it feels like the fight is over for the year - but it's not. The Government has teams of pollsters monitoring public reaction to Monday's announcement. They're hoping, as it's Christmas, people will tune into the cricket and turn off. We need to respond now to show them strong climate action is non-negotiable.'

I hope the adds made some difference. I am off to see my Federal member about the matter.
The trap. What happened to our dream of freedom?

In 2007 I posted a blog about the series of three programs written, directed and filmed by Adam Curtis under this title. If you have not seen them they are worth watching - now accessible on Martin Flanagan's web site (originally aired on the BBC in March 2007, you can now watch the programmes via Google Video).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Systemic understandings, policies and practices could avoid the tragedies of Gaza and Sri Lanka

It is to be hoped that under the new US administration governance and international relations possibilties based on systemic analysis and understandings will be developed and deployed. Two good examples of what I mean appeared in the media during the week.

The first was entitled: 'Why the conflicts in Gaza and Sri Lanka will continue' by Damien Kingsbury of Deakin University.

The other was published posthumously. Unlike Damien Kingsbury the journlist and editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, who was killed last week, did not live in a state where freedom of speech and protection of life are guaranteed. In fact all the evidence suggests he was the victim of state-based terrorism.

I have been disheartened by the response of the Australian Government in relation to both Gaza and Sri Lanka - the statements seem more attuned to Bush-Howard era doctrine than they do to any renaissance positioning that may, hopefuly will, come to pass. As on many issues of recent times I find the analysis of former PM, Malcolm Fraser, more systemic than most.
State of the Environment Report - Victoria

Dr Ian McPhail and his staff are to be commended on their excellent State of the Environment Report. I only wish it were moving and shaking policy quicker than seems to be the case. Taking the recommendations in this report on board as quickly as possible seems more urgent than ever given recent headlines such as: Victoria, the dirty state, shamed by emissions scorecard'.

As outlined by Ian:

'In December I released the first Victorian State of The Environment Report...... The material presented in the report will be useful as a resource for environmental educators, and for students.

The Report is a 'stocktake' of Victoria's environment and covers a broad range of contemporary issues including climate change, materials & waste, energy, water and biodiversity. Indicators of environmental health are presented in the context of the drivers of change and direct pressures on the environment. The consequences of the condition of the environment are considered in the context of contemporary economics and government decision making. Current management responses to the issues are described and recommendations for improving Victoria’s environment are made. Under legislation, the Victorian government is required to respond to the recommendations within 12 months. The report received excellent feedback from commentators, academics and environmental NGO's, including this editorial in The Age.'

In addition to the main report, a SUMMARY and a series of FACT SHEETS are also available. In addition to the online resources available at Ian advises that he is ' more than happy to provide presentations to post-graduate seminars, professional development sessions on the structure, content and purposes of the report, delivered by a member of my office. In addition, and subject to the availability of staff, the office may be able to deliver guest lectures to students as part of their course'.


The report is published in five main parts, each available from the website.

• Part 1, Introduction, provides an overview of the content, introduces some key concepts, and describes roles and responsibilities for managing Victoria’s environment.
• Part 2, Driving Forces, considers some of the main drivers that influence environmental change.
• Part 3, Production, Consumption and Waste investigates our consumption patterns and identifies how our use of resources acts as a direct pressure on the environment by examining our use and management of energy, water and materials.
• Part 4, the State of the Environment, presents the current state of the natural environment in four chapters, Atmosphere, Land and Biodiversity, Inland Waters, and Coasts, Estuaries & the Sea.
• Part 5, Living Well Within Our Environment, considers the complex interactions between issues covered throughout the report and presents some recommendations for future action by government and the community.

The Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability is situated at Level 16, Marland House, 570 Bourke St, Melbourne, Vic 3000.

The media reporting on this report has been excellent but too often journalists seem to lack any critical or systemic appreciation of the arguments leading to simplistic spin on the part of ministers and advisers being reported. This is particularly the case on matters pertaining to per capita performance and gross performance. Per capta gains mean little if gross demand or output, of say carbon, continues to grow via population growth, housing expansion etc or in the case of Victoria, there is a failure to move away as quickly as possible from the main carbon pollutant, brown coal.