||Issue No. 144||12 July 2002|
The Lotto Economy
Interview: Capital in Crisis
Industrial: No Sweat
Bad Boss: Super Spam
History: Living Treasures
International: Axis of Evil
Solidarity: Pride of Place
Technology: The Art of Cyber-Unionism
Poetry: The Masochism Tango
Satire: Foxtel-Optus Merger 'Anti-Repetitive'
Review: Bob Carr's Thoughtlines
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Letters to the Editor
Here is the text of my letter providing a critique of Mark Latham's stand on "aspirational voters".
Latham - Leader or follower?
Having been returned to the front-bench as the ALP "head-kicker", Mark Latham has made a habit of attracting headlines for his often weird and always, in his opinion, wonderful ideas. Unfortunately his ideas are almost always either recycled from his first-year economics textbooks, copied from similar policies employed in the USA, or strongly against the interests of working Australians.
In the first category is his idea for "education endowments" that parents could contribute to and which children can only access once they reach 18. More concerning is his continued advocacy for the ALP to adopt a policy approach to attract "aspirational" voters and his repeated claims that it is for politicians to follow, rather than lead, public opinion. It is the conflating of these beliefs that makes Mark Latham a potentially very damaging influence on public policy in Australia.
Latham's enthusiasm for the aspirational voter was demonstrated, once again, on the Sunday program of June 30, when he took the Channel 9 journalist to an up-market housing estate within his electorate and stated that the labor party should be "putting the next rung on the ladder for these people". He also stated that his branch of the ALP would have "cheered" a decade ago if someone had told them "this would be the way working people would be living in 10 years time".
One failure in Latham's logic is demonstrated by his own words. It is doubtful that the cheering at his local ALP branch would have been quite so loud if they were told the awful truth: this is the way working people will be living in 10 years time and they will still not be satisfied. They still want to stomp on the heads of the underprivileged to further their own materialistic instincts!
This is also where the conflating of Latham's belief system becomes very dangerous. A certain (unmeasured) proportion of his constituency has developed Gordon Gecko "greed is good" tendencies. A politician faced with such a situation has three choices. Embrace and encourage the will of the constituency, ignore the constituency and pursue policies that ensure the greatest good for the largest number, or attempt to convince the constituency of the error of their ways.
Mark Latham has quite obviously adopted the first of the possible strategies, which is consistent with his view that a politician should be a follower, rather than a leader. By embracing and encouraging materialist values Latham is pushing his constituency to the shallow end of the lake. A psychology that places physical possessions above the higher-order human needs is damaging to both the individual with a materialistic affliction and also damaging to those without the ability to acquire such physical possessions.
For my former students in the Accounting and Finance faculty at Macquarie University, being possessed with a materialistic affliction usually meant subjecting themselves to employment by Macquarie Bank, Arthur Anderson, Anderson Consulting, or KPMG. My straight-A students would then proceed to work 12 hours days, often including Saturdays, for pay of about $35,000 per year.
The firms would brainwash them into believing that they would ALL be partners "within 12 years". My objections regarding the mathematical impossibility of such an outcome were always readily ignored. A firm with several thousand partners? The usual outcome for such students was burnout after three years, often coinciding with a sudden realisation that partnership was not a forgone conclusion.
The damaging influence of the materialist infliction upon middle-aged Australians manifests in ballooning household debt and divorce rates. Official statistics show an incredible blowout in credit card debt in the past 5 years. The average size of mortgages has also experienced a massive jump in recent years. Much of this money has obviously been ploughed into European taxicabs to park in the driveways of newly renovated houses. The social impact of such indebtedness is demonstrated by evidence suggesting that disagreements about money are one of the two main factors that lead to the breakdown of relationships. We only hope that the BMW and the renovations impressed their neighbours / relatives / friends whilst their marriages lasted!
The materialistic affliction clearly works in the employer's favour, by throwing a ready supply of cheap labour in their direction. Doyen of the finance industry in Sydney, Bill Norton, liked to sum up this tendency in intelligent working class kids as "being hungry". I was once described by Mr. Norton as "hungry" myself! I got off lightly. John Hewson was told: "I know every economist of substance, but I don't know you".
The damaging impact of materialist influences is readily obvious to those with knowledge of the economics of development. In South America and Africa it is apparently not uncommon to find starving families consuming expensive luxury products marketed by American multinational firms. I have personally witnessed a similar effect in several Western Sydney households. It is not at all uncommon to find a family surviving on a Salvation Army food hamper with a $20,000 home entertainment system, Nike shoes and designer clothes. Even more ubiquitous are the unemployed single people with massive wardrobes of expensive designer clothes and shoes. It is very common for such people to go without food for several days, or to be unable to afford essential university textbooks, due to their insatiable desire for designer-wear.
The behavioural patterns I have witnessed, and outlined above, are termed "emulative" by development economists. Poor people emulate the external appearance of the wealthy when popular culture has decided that a display of wealth demonstrates the dominance (or "success") of a certain member of society. Poor people cannot be criticised for this behaviour. It may even be the best possible course of action for a person faced with a strongly materialistic culture. At least one female acquaintance of mine claims she was "snubbed", at a Labor-left function, by another friend of mine, because her clothing was not suitably elaborate! A reasonable level of financial expediture is obviously required to achieve social acceptance, even in otherwise open-minded forums.
Labor leaders should not be encouraging materialism and snobbery. Turning to the alternatives, I have said that we can ignore the aspirational voter, or try to convince them of the error of their ways. Twenty years ago Australian culture strongly embraced the later of these choices. Gratuitous displays of wealth were generally considered crass and would probably have the new owner of a European car labelled a "wanker". Not exactly the desired effect! Whilst a return to that type of culture would be refreshing, the middle choice is probably the most desirable from a political viewpoint for three reasons:
1. The liberals will always have more to offer the aspirational voter than does labor. They will always be able to offer bigger tax-cuts for business, lower taxes on luxury goods and better middle-class income tax cuts. The cut in the tax on luxury goods from 32% Sales Tax to 10% under the GST is a prime example.
2. We could attempt to convince the aspirational voter of the errors of their materialistic inclinations, but this would be a high risk strategy. This would involve appealing to the compassionate side of their personalities to convince them that "extending the hand back" to help their poorer brothers and sisters is more desirable than simply accumulating more "stuff". Our current political leaders probably lack the oratorical skills to successfully pursue such a strategy.
3. The aspirational voters may not be large in number. The 1990 World Values survey showed a majority of people in developed countries have post-materialist values, and that the trend is running against materialism. Assuming that this applies equally to Australia, and that Australia continues to experience economic growth and development, materialists should be a shrinking minority.
In conclusion, materialism is a very damaging influence on society in Western Sydney. By encouraging materialism Mark Latham is damaging the interests of the aspirational voters themselves, who should be encouraged to pursue higher-order satisfaction, such as financial security and healthy relationships, rather than expansive houses and the ownership of European taxicabs. He is also damaging his wider constituency by making a majority of people less satisfied with their socio-economic status. Mark Latham: Leader or follower?
Darren Magennis B.Ec(Hons)
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