The School of Athens

The School of Athens
The School of Athens by Raphael (click on picture to view short documentary from Columbia University)

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Truth: The final frontier (published November 2010)

Colleagues and scholars from coast to coast, across Bass Strait and all the ships at sea.
Dateline: Australia, Federal Politics 2010.  
Please note, this is a lengthy piece with a number of links to references and youtube videos, so you may want to collect a beverage and a piece of baklava (or for the nut intolerant, a fruit plate) to enjoy while reading.

1.  It's the truth, stupid.
(i)  Politics suffocates the truth and destroys trust.
(ii) Quid est veritas? Huh?
(iii) The phoney clarity.
(iv)  Pavlov's dogs; Skinner's rats and pigeons; politicians and the media
(v)  Good politics should never trump good policy
(vi) The phoney debate and the phoney agenda
2. Case study: The banking "debate".
(i) The political industry
(ii) The media
(iii) Supermarket retail, petrol retail, and banking
3. The no agenda, agenda.
(i) A real agenda
(a) The philosophy
(b) The policy agenda
4. Conclusion.
The Greek tragic dramatist and poet Aeschylus (525 - 456 BC) wrote these most famous of words: 
"In war, truth is the first casualty."
Aeschylus, of course, is correct.  Unfortunately, he would have been equally correct if also he wrote: 
"In politics, truth is the first casualty.

1. It's the truth, stupid.
(i) Politics suffocates the truth and destroys trust.
It is an undeniable and disturbing fact that the Australian public does not trust its politicians. 
What escapes the political world's comprehension is that the reason the public has little trust in politicians, and the political process more generally, is because politicians refuse to tell them the truth.
Rather than tell the public what they need to hear, they tell them what they want to hear.  Rather than tell them what is true, they tell them what makes them feel good.
Consider any recent debate on any issue, or what is laughingly called a "debate", and you'll see the contributions from the political world are mostly of the lowest order.  The current banking "debate" is a prime example.  (Which we will explore later in this newsletter).
Do those who live in the political world not see that from truth comes respect and from respect comes trust?
Truth---------------> Respect------------------> Trust
Can they not see that no truth leads to no respect and therefore no trust?
No Truth---------------> No Respect------------------> No Trust
Is this so difficult to understand? 
Some of the public, perhaps many, may not like to hear the truth, but they will respect those telling them the truth and will trust in what they are being told.
Which person visits their doctor not expecting to be told the truth?  What respect would they have for that doctor if they did not tell them the truth?  How could they then possibly trust that doctor?
Abraham Lincoln said: 
"If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."
and...."the people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust."
Robert Kennedy embodied Lincoln's words in his response in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968 to the assassination of Martin Luther King and in doing so managed to calm a decidedly angry crowd ready to explode, thereby helping to avoid a riot in that city.  
Significantly, Kennedy was advised by the Chief of Police in Indianapolis to avoid stopping in what was considered a dangerous area of the city and speaking to what was assumed to be a predominantly black crowd, as he could not be provided with adequate protection.  Understanding the risk, Kennedy decided to proceed anyway and addressed the crowd, many of whom had not yet heard the news of the assassination.  He spoke from the back of a truck for less than five minutes.
Indianapolis, unlike 110 other cities in the United States, did not descend into chaos that evening.
You can watch the speech here:

Something for the Australian political world to think about while they sift through their focus group results working out clever one-liners for the next doorstop interview?

(ii) Quid est veritas?  Huh?
If those in the political world were asked the question "Quid est veritas?", almost all would respond with "sorry, I don't understand."
This is reasonable and entirely acceptable, as the quote is in Latin and unless you understood the language you couldn't possibly understand the question.
So far, no problem.
"Quid est veritas?" is Latin for "What is truth?" and is attributed to Pontius Pilate, Governor of the Roman Province of Judea from 26 -36 AD, who reportedly asked it of Jesus of Nazareth during the trial which led to Jesus' crucifixion.
Having understood the translation, many in the political world would still respond with "sorry, I don't understand", maybe thinking there is some philosophical aspect to the question seeking a deeper meaning, perhaps as Pilate did 2000 years ago.
This is still reasonable and somewhat acceptable because deep philosophical thought is not one of the political world's best attributes.
So again, so far, no real problem.
However, when the question is laid bare to just seek an answer to the simple question "what is truth?", unfortunately, disturbingly, if past behaviour is any guide, the response would still have to be "sorry, I don't understand."
This time, this is not reasonable or acceptable.
This time, we have a real problem.
(iii) The phoney clarity.
In the political world, truth appears to be an item of little worth.  It is considered a disposable and dispensable item; one that is a nuisance, a hindrance, an obstruction which interferes in the important business of politics.  
Indeed, truth is simply an alien concept in the political world.
Yet every mistruth, half truth and lie, merely sinks the political world further and further into an abyss and lower and lower in the esteem of its citizens.  It's a bizarre disconnect that those in the political world do not understand this.
There is a buzzword currently doing the rounds of the political world called "clarity".  If you have clarity, the argument goes, you have political ascendency because your "message" is breaking through the clutter.  However, the clarity that is referred to and held in such regard is really just an intellectual description of a simple slogan.  It's a phoney clarity.
If you want to break through the clutter and achieve an ascendency: here's an idea - try telling the truth, then your message will be heard clearly enough.  
How's that for clarity?
(iv) Pavlov's dogs; Skinner's rats and pigeons; politicians and the media.
As if Pavlovian dogs salivating at the ringing of a bell indicating the imminent arrival of food, the media similarly salivates over politicians' announcements, however deceptive or misleading, whether it's good policy or not, as long as it's "newsworthy" and then repeats verbatim whatever the politician wants them to communicate.  Just like Pavlov "classically conditioned" his dogs to respond on command, the media has been similarly "classically conditioned" by the politicians.
Then the behaviour of the media provides a Skinnerian positive reinforcement for the politicians to continue with their behaviour, however poor, knowing full well the positive response they will receive from the press.
In fact, a Skinnerian negative reinforcement for the politicians is also evident when those politicians who do attempt to develop good policy, that is not deemed to be newsworthy, receive scant media coverage for their efforts and therefore see no point in continuing with that behaviour.
This continuous cycle has now become an immutable law of politics and, unless broken, will continue to erode good policy development.  
Notes: The original and most famous example of classical conditioning involved the salivary conditioning of Ivan Pavlov's dogs. During his research on the physiology of digestion in dogs, Pavlov noticed that, rather than simply salivating in the presence of meat powder (an innate response to food that he called the unconditioned response), the dogs began to salivate in the presence of the lab technician who normally fed them. Pavlov called these psychic secretions. From this observation he predicted that, if a particular stimulus in the dog's surroundings were present when the dog was presented with meat powder, then this stimulus would become associated with food and cause salivation on its own. In his initial experiment, Pavlov used a bell to call the dogs to their food and, after a few repetitions, the dogs started to salivate in response to the bell.
B.F. Skinner showed how positive reinforcement worked by placing a hungry rat in his Skinner box. The box contained a lever in the side and as the rat moved about the box it would accidentally knock the lever. Immediately it did so a food pellet would drop into a container next to the lever. The rats quickly learned to go straight to the lever after a few times of being put in the box. The consequence of receiving food if they pressed the lever ensured that they would repeat the action again and again.
Skinner showed how negative reinforcement worked by placing a rat in his Skinner box and then subjecting it to an unpleasant electric current which caused it some discomfort.  As the rat moved about the box it would accidentally knock the lever. Immediately it did so the electric current would be switched off.  The rats quickly learned to go straight to the lever after a few times of being put in the box. The consequence of escaping the electric current ensured that they would repeat the action again and again.
The explanatory notes above are excerpts from the following references which explain the concepts in more length.  These references include youtube links which visually illustrate how the concepts work.
See Pavlov's dog experiment on video:

See Skinner's positive and negative reinforcement, video only:

See Skinner's rat box video:

(v) Good politics should never trump good policy.
While ever the political world, participants (politicians) and observers (journalists) alike, admires, even prefers, "good politics" over "good policy", there is no incentive for a politician to change their ways.
"Good politics" is just a con job and is simply a euphemism for preying on the ignorance of the public by offering simplistic solutions to complicated problems or, worse, flaming public emotions by feeding into prejudices in the community.
It should not be admired and certainly not preferred, rather it should be exposed and condemned for what it is - snake oil selling and carpet bagging of the worst kind.
(vi) The phoney debate and phoney agenda.
How often do we hear reported "this politician is leading the debate"?
What debate?  There's almost never a debate.  There's usually just a bunch of hysteria whipped up by someone employing "good politics" and then the Pavlovian and Skinnerian forces, which dominate the political world, do the rest.
Similarly, how often do we hear reported "this politician is setting the agenda"?
What agenda?  There's no agenda, other than a media agenda consisting of a series of stunts designed to get maximum attention and then once again the Pavlovian and Skinnerian forces come into play to do their work. 

They are just illusions - they don't exist.

2. Case study: The banking "debate".
A prime example of the poor quality of "debate" on an issue that does deserve a proper debate, discussion and analysis, is the banking "debate".
We simply have here an effort by Joe Hockey, trying to keep his position of Shadow Treasurer within his party, using a populist attack on banks.  Wayne Swan, fully aware of the populist appeal, is trying to show how he will not be out-toughed by Hockey.  The Commonwealth Bank, ignorant of these dynamics, makes a decision to increase mortgage rates by 0.2% higher than the Reserve Bank's 0.25% increase (and the other banks follow similarly) which emboldens Hockey, unsettles Swan and sets the Pavlovian and Skinnerian forces illustrated above into warp speed.
The core claim by Hockey is that he wants to increase competition in the banking industry.  Swan wants to make it easier for consumers to switch mortgages.  In doing so, both want us to believe, consumers will be protected from the outrageous behaviour of the banks.
You'll get no argument from your correspondent on increasing competition and protecting consumers: that is what the Trade Practices Act 1974 was introduced to do.  
But if we are going to have a real debate on these two issues, so central to the effective functioning of our economy, let's have a proper and thorough debate across a range of industries that need shaking up.  
Perhaps there should be full root and branch inquiries into: the political industry, the media, supermarket retail, petrol retail and, of course, banking.  

(i) The political industry.
What efforts will those advocating increasing competition in the banking industry make to increase competition in the political industry?
How about making it easier for smaller parties to gain representation in the House of Representatives?  How about a full independent inquiry investigating the duopoly that exists in the political market and recommending ways to break that duopoly power?
If that's too long term, how about, at the very least, encouraging Senators and Members of the House of Representatives who have differing views from that of the majority of their party to fully and frankly disclose those views to the public without being vilified or ostracised for doing so?
Would that not increase the competition that is so greatly admired and enthusiastically pursued?
As for protecting consumers: what efforts will be made to ensure there is truth in political advertising?  Why is it that those politicians who are now so keen to protect consumers have overlooked that their organisations (political parties) do not have to adhere to the same standards expected of all other organisations?  The Trade Practices Act is very clear about prohibiting misleading and deceptive conduct, yet those sections of the Act have no relevance to the political parties.  
Why?  Because the parties have jumped through this loophole in the Act which they've never wanted to close:
- Trade Practices Act 1974 - Section 52 - Misleading or deceptive conduct 
(1)  A corporation shall not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive.
And this is how it plays out - according to the Advertising Standards Board (ASB):
"Many public complaints regarding political advertising raise issues about the truth and accuracy of the advertisement, in particular concerns that the advertising is misleading. The Advertising Standards Board considers complaints under Section 2 of the Code of Ethics, which does not cover matters of truth and accuracy.
The ASB ordinarily refers public complainants with concerns about the truth or accuracy of advertisements to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) or the State/Territory consumer affairs/fair trading body. However, although these organisations deal with claims of false and misleading advertising, their jurisdictions are limited to matters involving trade and commerce and do not extend to political advertising.
Currently, there is no legal requirement for the content of political advertising to be factually correct. Complainants are advised to raise their concerns with the advertiser directly and/or with their local Member of Parliament."
Isn't that delightful? How awfully decent of our elected representatives.  Awfully decent.
Why does it take the current parliamentary numbers and the additional leverage it has provided to the Greens and Independents to finally get our political parties to be forced to tell the truth to the public in their advertising via the legislation Senator Bob Brown has been advocating for some time?
And while we are at it, in the interests of consumer protection, why is it that the commercial TV networks are allowed to sell more advertising time per hour between 6pm and midnight during election campaigns?  Why has this arrangement never been made an issue of by either the politicians or the media?  
According to Free TV Australia, who represents all of Australia's commercial free-to-air television networks:
"Additional Political Advertising Time - During election periods, stations are permitted to schedule an extra minute of political advertising per hour as outlined in Clause 5.7.2 and 5.7.4 of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice." 
So not only does the public have no protection from being deceived by election advertising, they are subjected to more of the deception than otherwise would be the case and the only people they can complain to are the political parties and politicians who have allowed this to exist.
Awfully decent, indeed.
There are many in the political world who profess to be Christian people, so for the benefit of them, and for all, a quote from the Bible on judging others:
Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." 
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye."
Something for the Australian political world to think about?
(ii) The media.
There are many in the media advocating increased competition to shake up the banks.  Are they as keen to see increased competition in the media market?  
A full independent inquiry into the media to investigate how to increase competition and in doing so protect consumer interests from a lack of diversity would be very beneficial for our democracy.
Additionally, a full and open investigation into the media coverage of the last election campaign would be warranted to see how well (or poorly) served the public was by the collective press.  
For example, was the TV news coverage of the campaign (which often appeared more suited to the vaudevillian stage than serious news coverage) of an acceptable standard?  
Was it appropriate, or acceptable, for newspapers to editorialise on their front pages?  Or TV and radio news bulletins to editorialise in their headlines?  Or were these just an obscene abuse of market position?
Was it then (or is it at any time) acceptable for TV, radio and newspaper commentators to have entered into voluminous tirades on issues even though they were ignorant of most of the facts, and thereby misled their audiences and readers?
If we are serious about increasing competition and protecting consumers interests, such questions would need to be asked and answered.
Which champion of fostering competition and consumer interests in the banking industry is keen to pursue this market?
(iii) Supermarket retail, petrol retail and banking.
The companies who dominate these three industries do what all companies who have great market power have done in the past - they use their power to maximise their profits.
They dominate their markets because they dominate the access to the customers via their distribution networks - that is, the sheer number of supermarket stores, petrol stations and bank branches.
It's incredibly difficult for a small player to compete with that distribution, and advertising power, and so competition does not increase.
The only way to break the power of these companies is to break their distribution power.  Either by enabling other smaller players access to an existing but unused network such as regional banks using Australia Post outlets; or by forcing the big players to dispose of a percentage of their outlets, perhaps 20% each (randomly selected, so they lose good ones and bad) to be sold to domestic or international players.
The first option of using the existing Australia Post network is viable and is being considered in the banking industry.  Logistically this may not be as easy as it appears, but if implemented it will make a difference to increasing competition.
The second option will definitely increase competition in all three industries but it will also see a multitude of QCs, SCs, even ACs and DCs, employed by these companies to ensure such action never occurs.  
If it's currently not legal - then pass the laws necessary.
If those laws are unconstitutional - then change the constitution via a referendum.  There would never be a better time.
If inquiries into these industries clearly showed a lack of competition was the problem, then this is the only effective way to deal with that problem.  Everything else is just tinkering and media stunts.
3. The no agenda, agenda.
As seen in the banking "debate", the political world is replete with participants keen to pursue a media agenda by announcing a series of stunts dressed up as serious policy initiatives and then the Pavlovian and Skinnerian forces of the political world come into force.
Bizarrely, this activity is referred to as "setting the agenda".  But there's no agenda, it's a deception.
If one of the major parties actually wants to set an agenda, a true agenda, an agenda for reform and progression - this is how they should approach it.
(i) A real agenda
(a) The philosophy.
Before they embark on anything, the party and all its politicians need to be able to clearly articulate its philosophy.
What is the party's guiding philosophy?
If the politicians are struggling to come up with an answer, which would be a real problem but not a surprise, then they need to answer these questions first:
What do you believe in?  What values do you hold dear? Why did you enter politics?  What is it you wanted to achieve? Where do see the nation being in ten and twenty years time?
These should not be difficult questions to answer and therefore the guiding philosophy of the party should reflect these answers and thus be very easy to describe.
(b) The policy agenda.
Based on this guiding philosophy, the policy development then takes place to implement it, and should proceed as follows:
Ask the following questions:  Where are we now?  Where are we going?  How do we get there? 
 - Where are we now? 
This would be an audit of the current situation in every area of government responsibility.  
Clearly there have already been a multitude of reviews conducted in many portfolios and so it should not be too difficult to answer this question.  Indeed, one would think that if there was any decent "debate", the current situation in each portfolio would be all too clear.
  - Where are we going?
Then based on the current position, the party would need to determine the objectives it would want to achieve in each of these government areas of responsibility, in line with the party's philosophy. 
This would be a three step process:
Step 1 - within each portfolio, prioritise the objectives into the following categories: those you "must achieve"; those you would "like to achieve"; and those you would "love to achieve". 
Step 2 - consider the budget situation and what needs to be addressed in the financial portfolios of Treasury and Finance, namely how to deal with the structural problem of the Federal Government's budget.  That is, too much committed expenditure (over allocated in the good years of the last decade) and not enough revenue in the future to pay for it.  
Depending on the budgetary circumstance, step 2 may impact greatly on step 1.  It may well see all the "love to achieve" and even "like to achieve" objectives postponed and may even require a re-examination of all the "must achieve" objectives in each portfolio, to re-prioritise those objectives across all portfolios leaving only the ones which are the most important to implementing the party's philosophy.
Step 3 - takes the final prioritised list of objectives following step 2 and proceeds with the "can achieve" objectives.  This is not an excuse to do nothing due to "budgetary constraints", this is a realistic assessment of what is achievable given the current financial situation.
If the final list of "can achieve" objectives does not reflect any reasonable implementation of the party's philosophy, then you need to re-visit step 2 and re-prioritise and re-direct current spending and/or alter the current revenue sources (yes, change taxes if required - see Henry Tax Review) to meet the party's philosophical objectives.
Once determined in principle, these objectives should then be set out over a nine year period (three terms).   
That is, having clear and measurable objectives, regarding outcomes and expenditure, for each 3 year term of government, and each individual year within each 3 year term. 
 - How do we get there? 
This is where the party outlines in detail the strategies it intends to employ to achieve those objectives, over the short, medium and long term.
The implementation phase is the most critical.
The key objectives should have comprehensive strategies developed, that are well thought out and debated within the party and without, to ensure that the best implementation process will be employed.   
They should be clearly articulated in detail on a website (subject to any genuine commercial in confidence issues) and advertised in the press (using party funds) with the theme:  this is what we are intending to do over the next year, 2 years, 3 years and if you are happy with those results, re-elect us and then we could implement stage two over years 4, 5 and 6 in the second term, and if happy again, re-elect us again, and we could implement stage three over years 7, 8 and 9.
Then the communication strategy, which so dominates our current political process, would be driven by the guiding philosophy of the party and would explain to the public, cohesively and comprehensively, what you are intending to achieve and why - rather than responding every day to whatever the Pavlovian and Skinnerian forces determine.
If elected, the agenda is clear and your task would be to implement the strategies outlined; methodically, purposefully and enthusiastically.  The communication strategy would then be to convey to the public how the implementation is progressing and what changes, if any, needed to be made.
Obviously, over time, circumstances do change and therefore the objectives and strategies would also change, so it wouldn't be a static process, however, this approach would see an honest, straightforward and clear agenda for all to see and judge.
THAT is an agenda.  
Does anyone remember anything like that in the last Federal Election?   Something for the Australian political world to think about?
4. Conclusion.
There's little doubt that many people of goodwill are attracted to serve in politics for the public good.  It is a noble calling and worthy of serious people. Yet the behaviour of many of these same people of goodwill, when becoming politicians, is neither noble nor serious.  Indeed, it quite often becomes juvenile and disgraceful.
Something happens in the process that changes people's behaviour, as Thomas Jefferson described, "Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct."  Central to this rottenness is a disregard for the truth but a high regard for whatever is required to "win", including manipulating and deceiving their fellow citizens.  Such contemptible behaviour corrodes the very being of any decent person and as Socrates believed "infects the soul with evil".  
There is no substitute for the truth and apart from the moral imperative, there is no valid practical reason for politicians to wilfully evade the truth because as another Greek dramatist, Sophocles, wrote "truth is always the strongest argument".
Truth is the final frontier of politics and it is open for all politicians and political parties to boldly go where few have gone before (or, to go boldly - for those who don't like splitting infinitives).
The son of a Nazarene carpenter once said, "the truth will set you free" - in this instance not only will it set the politicians themselves free, but indeed the whole political system.
Something the Australian political world might want to think about, perhaps while listening to this:

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