All posts by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy, information issues, education and other topics.

Snowflake journalists

Some Australian media outlets have been warning that university students are unduly protected from disturbing ideas. But are these same media outlets actually the ones that can’t handle disturbing ideas?

For years, I’ve been seeing stories in The Australian and elsewhere about problems in universities associated with political correctness (PC). The stories tell of students who demand to be warned about disturbing material in their classes, for example discussions of rape in a class on English literature. The students demand “trigger warnings” so they can avoid or prepare for potentially disturbing content. Detractors call them “snowflake students”: they are so delicate that, like a snowflake, they dissolve at exposure to anything slightly warm.

Former Labor Party leader Mark Latham, for example, referred to “the snowflake safe-space culture of Australian universities.”


Richard King

Richard King, the author of On Offence: The Politics of Indignation, reviewed Claire Fox’s book I Find that Offensive. King says that the principal target of Fox’s book “is ‘the snowflake generation’, which is to say the current crop of students, especially student activists, who keep up a constant, cloying demand for their own and others’ supervision. ‘Safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘microaggressions’ are all symptoms of this trend.”

I treat these sorts of stories with a fair bit of scepticism. Sure, there are some incidents of over-the-top trigger warnings and demands for excessive protection. But are these incidents representative of what’s happening more generally?

Before accepting that this is a major problem, I want to see a proper study. A social scientist might pick a random selection of universities and classes, then interview students and teachers to find out whether trigger warnings are used, whether class discussions have been censored or inhibited, and so forth. I’ve never heard of any such study.

What remains is anecdote. Media stories are most likely to be about what is unusual and shocking. “Dog bites man” is not newsworthy but “man bites dog” might get a run.

Most of the Australian media stories about trigger warnings and snowflake students are about what’s happening in the US, with the suggestion that Australian students are succumbing to this dire malady of over-sensitivity.


Trigger warnings: Australian movie and video game classifications

My experience

There is a case for trigger warnings. Nevertheless, in thirty years of undergraduate teaching, I never saw any need for them — except when I asked students to use them.

For one assignment in my class “Media, war and peace,” students formed small groups to design an activity for the rest of the class. The activity had to address a concept or theory relating to war or peace, violence or nonviolence. Quite a few student groups chose the more gruesome topics of assassination, torture or genocide, and some of them showed graphic pictures of torture and genocidal killings.

Never did a single student complain about seeing images of torture and killing. Nevertheless, I eventually decided to request that the student groups provide warnings that some images might be disturbing. Thereafter, when groups provided warnings, no students ever excused themselves from the class. I was watching to see their reactions and never noticed anyone looking away.

This is just one teacher’s experience and can’t prove anything general. It seems to show that some Australian students appear pretty tough when it comes to seeing images of violence. Perhaps they have been desensitised by watching news coverage of wars and terrorist attacks.

However, appearances can be deceptive. My colleague Ika Willis pointed out to me that students may hide their distress, and that few would ever complain even if they were distressed. So how would I know whether any of my students were trauma survivors and were adversely affected? Probably I wouldn’t. That is an example of why making generalisations about trigger warnings based on limited evidence is unwise.

A journalist attends classes – covertly

On 8 August 2018, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story attacking three academics at Sydney University for what they had said in their classes. The journalist, Chris Harris, wrote about what he had done this way: “The Daily Telegraph visited top government-funded universities in Sydney for a first-hand look at campus life …” This was a euphemistic way of saying that he attended several classes without informing the teachers that he was attending as a journalist, and covertly recorded lectures without permission. Only in a smallish tutorial class, in which the tutor knows all the students, would an uninvited visitor be conspicuous.


Chris Harris

Harris then wrote an expose, quoting supposedly outrageous statements made by three teachers. This was a typical example of a beat-up, namely a story based on trivial matters that are blown out of proportion. Just imagine: a teacher says something that, if taken out of context, can be held up to ridicule. Many teachers would be vulnerable to this sort of scandal-mongering.

One issue here is the ethics of covertly attending classes and then writing a story based on statements taken out of context. Suppose an academic covertly went into media newsrooms, recorded conversations and wrote a paper based on comments taken out of context. This would be a gross violation of research ethics and scholarly conventions. To collect information by visiting a newsroom would require approval from a university research ethics committee. Good scholarly practice would involve sending a draft of interview notes or the draft of a paper to those quoted. In a paper submitted for publication, the expectation would be that quotes fairly represent the issues addressed.


A typical Daily Telegraph front page

Where are the snowflake students?

So when Harris attended classes at universities in Sydney, did he discover lots of snowflake students who demanded to be protected by trigger warnings? He didn’t say, but it is clear that at least two individuals were highly offended: a journalist and an editor! They thought the classroom comments by a few academics were scandalous.

In a story by Rebecca Urban in The Australian following up the Telegraph expose, Fiona Martin’s passing comment about a cartoon by Bill Leak comes in for special attention. According to this story, “The Australian’s editor-in-chief Paul Whittaker described the comment as ‘appalling’ and ‘deeply disrespectful’.”


Paul Whittaker

So apparently News Corp journalists and editors are the real snowflakes, not being able to tolerate a few passing comments by academics that weren’t even intended for them or indeed for anyone outside the classroom. Or perhaps these journalists and editors are outraged on behalf of their readership, who they consider should be alerted to the dangerous and foolish comments being made in university classrooms.

Where in this process did the call for students to be tough and be exposed to vigorous discussion suddenly dissolve?

The contradiction is shown starkly in a 10 August letter to the editor of The Australian by Andrew Weeks. The letter was given the title “Bill Leak’s legacy is his courage in defending the right to free speech”. Weeks begins his letter by saying “I am unsure what is most disturbing about the abuse of sadly departed cartoonist Bill Leak by Fiona Martin.” After canvassing a couple of possibilities, he says “Perhaps it is the fact that Sydney University has supported its staffer, offering lip service in support of freedom of speech when that is exactly what is being endangered by the intolerance characteristic of so many university academics.”

The logic seems to be that freedom of speech of Bill Leak (or those like him) is endangered by an academic’s critical comment in a classroom, and that a university administration should not support academics who make adverse comments about Leak.


Bill Leak

Again it might be asked, what happened to the concern about the snowflake generation? The main snowflakes are, apparently, a journalist, an editor and some readers. Perhaps it would be wise in future for journalists to avoid visiting university classrooms so that they and their readers will not be disturbed by the strong views being expressed.

Final remarks

Universities do have serious problems, including a heavy reliance on casual teaching staff and lack of support for international students, both due to lack of money. More students report problems with anxiety and depression. There is also the fundamental issue of the purpose of higher education, which should not be reduced to job preparation. Instead of addressing these issues, News Corp newspapers seem more interested in the alleged danger, apparently most virulent in humanities disciplines, of political correctness.

My focus here is on an apparent contradiction or discrepancy in treatments of PC and “snowflake students” in The Australian and the Daily Telegraph. While decrying the rise of the so-called snowflake generation, journalists and editors seemed more upset than most students by comments made in university classrooms.

One other point is worth mentioning. If you want to inhibit vigorous classroom discussions of contentious issues, there’s no better way than spying on these discussions with the aim of exposing them for public condemnation. This suggests the value of a different sort of trigger warning: “There’s a journalist in the classroom!”

Further reading (mass media)

Josh Glancy, “Rise of the snowflake generation,” The Australian, 8-9 September 2018, pp. 15, 19.

Christopher Harris, “Degrees of hilarity” and “Bizarre rants of a class clown,” Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2018, pp. 4-5.

Amanda Hess, “How ‘snowflake’ became America’s inescapable tough-guy taunt,” New York Times Magazine, 13 June 2017.

Richard King, “Fiery blast aimed at ‘snowflake generation’,” The Australian, 1 April 2017, Review p. 22.

Mark Latham, “The parties are over,” Daily Telegraph, 9 January 2018, p. 13.

Bill Leak, “Suck it up, snowflakes,” The Australian, 11 March 2017, p. 15.

Rebecca Urban, “Uni backs staffer on secret suicide advice,” The Australian, 9 August 2018, p. 7; (another version) “University of Sydney stands by media lecturer following Bill Leak attack,” The Australian, 8 August 2018, online.

Further reading (scholarly)

Sigal R. Ben-Porath, Free Speech on Campus (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

Emily J. M. Knox (ed.), Trigger Warnings: History, Theory, Context (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

Acknowledgements
Thanks to several colleagues for valuable discussions and to Tonya Agostini, Xiaoping Gao, Lynn Sheridan and Ika Willis for comments on a draft of this post. Chris Harris and Paul Whittaker did not respond to invitations to comment.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

An HIV mystery in Africa

According to mainstream scientists, HIV transmission in Africa operates differently than elsewhere. An alternative view has been systematically ignored and silenced.


HIV prevalence in Africa

AIDS is the most deadly new disease in humans, with the estimated death toll exceeding 30 million. In order to restrain the spread of the infective agent HIV, scientists have tried to figure out how it spreads. The consensus is that HIV is most contagious via blood-to-blood exposures, such as through shared injecting needles, and in comparison the risks of transmission via heterosexual sex and childbirth are small.

However, there’s a mystery in relation to Africa. The scientific consensus is that in Africa, unlike elsewhere, HIV spreads mainly through heterosexual sex. Why should this be?

John Potterat is a public health researcher who spent decades tracking the spread sexually transmitted diseases in the US. He became interested in the African mystery and developed an alternative hypothesis. He and colleagues wrote many scientific papers about it, but were rebuffed by mainstream scientists. Here I will tell about Potterat’s experience drawing primarily on his engagingly written book Seeking the positives: a life spent on the cutting edge of public health, in particular the chapter “Why Africa? The puzzle of intense HIV transmission in heterosexuals”.

Some background

My own interest in research on AIDS derives from a different controversy, the one over the origin of AIDS. The standard view is that AIDS first appeared in Africa and was due to a chimpanzee virus, called a simian immunodeficiency virus or SIV, that got into a human, where it was called a human immunodeficiency virus or HIV. Chimps have quite a few SIVs, but these don’t hurt them presumably because they have been around long enough for the population to adapt to them, in the usual evolutionary manner. There are various species of chimps, and when a chimp is exposed to an unfamiliar SIV, it can develop AIDS-like symptoms.

            So the question is, how did a chimp SIV enter the human species and become transmissible? The orthodox view is that this occurred when a hunter was butchering a chimp and got chimp blood in a cut, or perhaps when a human was bitten by a chimp, or perhaps through rituals in which participants injected chimp blood.

In 1990, I began corresponding with an independent scholar named Louis Pascal who had written papers arguing that transmissible HIV could have entered humans through a polio vaccination campaign in what is present-day Congo, in which nearly a million people were given a live-virus polio vaccine that had been grown on monkey kidneys. The campaign’s time, 1957 to 1960, and location, central Africa, coincided with the earliest known HIV-positive blood samples and the earliest known AIDS cases.

            Despite the plausibility and importance of Pascal’s ideas, no journal would publish his articles, so I arranged for his major article to be published in a working-paper series at the University of Wollongong. Independently of this, the polio-vaccine theory became big news. Later, writer Edward Hooper carried out exhaustive investigations, collected much new evidence and wrote a mammoth book, The River, that put the theory on the scientific agenda. Over the years, I wrote quite a few articles about the theory, not to endorse it but to argue that it deserved attention and that scientific and medical researchers were treating it unfairly.

In the course of this lengthy controversy — which is not over — I became increasingly familiar with the techniques used by mainstream scientists to discredit a rival, unwelcome alternative view. I had been studying this, on and off, since the early 1980s; the origin-of-AIDS saga made me even more attuned to how dissenting ideas and researchers can be discredited.

With this background, when I read John Potterat’s chapter “Why Africa?” it was like he was providing a front-row seat for a tutorial on how an unwelcome view can be marginalised. I saw one familiar technique after another.

I’m not here to say that Potterat’s view is correct. Furthermore, unlike the origin-of-AIDS debate, I haven’t studied writings about HIV transmission in Africa. What I do here is outline Potterat’s account of his experiences and comment on the techniques used to dismiss or discredit the ideas he and his collaborators presented to the scientific community.


John Potterat

Contact tracing

HIV is infectious, so it is important to know exactly how it gets from one person to another. Knowing transmission routes is the basis for developing policies and advice to prevent the spread of the virus.

In Seeking the Positives, Potterat tells about his personal journey in scientific work. It was unusual. With a degree in medieval history, he ended up with a job in Colorado Springs (a moderate-sized town in Colorado) tracking down networks of people with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Learning from his mentors, the approach he developed and pursued with vigour was to interview infected individuals, find out their sexual or injecting-drug partners and proceed to build up a database revealing the interactions that spread the disease. The military base near the city meant there were lots of prostitutes (some permanent, some seasonal) and STDs to track. This sort of shoe-leather investigation (seeking those positive for disease) led to many insights reflected in a vigorous publication programme. For the Colorado Springs research team, AIDS became a key focus from the 1980s on.

When submitting a paper to a scientific journal, editors and reviewers are supposed to assess it on its merits. It should not matter whether an author has a PhD in epidemiology from Oxford or no degree at all. The test is the quality of the paper. Potterat became the author of dozens of scientific papers. However, his unusual background may have been held against him in certain circles.

In Seeking the Positives, Potterat doesn’t tell that much about his team’s clients/informants. Sensitively interviewing prostitutes, partners of prostitutes, drug users, gay men and others would have been a fascinating topic in itself, but Potterat focuses on the research side of the story.


A diagram from one of Potterat’s papers

            You might think that contact tracing is an obvious way to study the transmission of disease, especially a new disease for which the patterns of contagion are not fully understood. But what Potterat’s team was doing was unusual: mainstream AIDS researchers pursued other approaches. Because the mainstream researchers had lots of research money, they didn’t take kindly to a small, non-prestigious team doing something different.

Mainstream groups, both researchers and activists, raised a series of objections to HIV contact tracing. First they said there was no reason for contact tracing unless there was a test for HIV. Second, after a test became available in 1985, they said tracing would allow the government to compile lists of homosexuals. Third, they said that without effective treatment, notifying individuals would distress them and lead to suicides. Fourth, after the drug AZT became available in 1987, they said contact tracing would be too expensive.

            The interesting thing here is that none of the objections was backed by any evidence. Potterat says that in his team’s studies nearly all of those approached for contact tracing were very helpful.

“Contact tracing was generally opposed by AIDS activists, by civil libertarians, and (disappointingly) by many public health workers, who were often influenced by political correctness and by not wanting to offend strident constituencies.” (pp. 68-69)

Later, mainstream public health officials in the US took the line that AIDS was a danger to the heterosexual population, not just to gays and injecting drug users. If HIV was highly contagious in the wider population, this lowered the stigma attached to gays and injecting drug users, and coincidentally made it possible to attract more funding to counter the disease, a worthy objective. However, contact tracing showed that HIV transmission was far higher in specific populations. This was another reason the research by Potterat’s group, published in mainstream journals, didn’t lead to changes in research priorities more generally.

HIV transmission in Africa

In 2000, Potterat was approached by David Gisselquist about the spread of AIDS in Africa, questioning the usual explanations for why the mechanisms were claimed to be different from those in Western countries. After his retirement the following year, Potterat and some of his collaborators joined with Gisselquist in examining the studies that had been made.


David Gisselquist

            The orthodox view was that in Africa, uniquely, HIV transmission occurs primarily through heterosexual sexual activity. This, according to Potterat et al., was based on assumptions about high frequencies of sexual interactions and high numbers of partners, neither of which were supported by evidence. They said the evidence suggested that sexual activity in Africa was much like elsewhere in the world.

In this was the case, the orthodox view couldn’t explain HIV transmission in Africa, so what could? The answer, according to Potterat and his collaborators, was skin-puncture transmission that occurred when contaminated needles were reused during health-care interventions such as blood testing, vaccinations and dental work, plus tattooing and traditional medical practices. This was heresy. It was also important for public health. Potterat writes, “Only when people have accurate knowledge of HIV modes of transmission can they make good decisions to protect themselves and their families from inadvertent infection.” (p. 200)

Potterat’s team wrote dozens of papers, but they had a hard time getting them published in top journals, where orthodoxy had its strongest grip. Nevertheless, they were quite successful in publishing in reputable journals of slightly lower standing.

Responses

The most common response was to ignore their work. Even though Potterat et al. had poked large holes in the orthodox view, orthodoxy was safe if the critique was given no attention.

Another response was to try to prevent publication of orthodoxy-challenging research. One study was by a team, not Potterat’s, involving Janet St. Lawrence, then at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and her colleagues. According to Potterat, St. Lawrence’s CDC superiors asked her not to publish the paper, but she refused. The paper was rejected by several journals, and then submitted to the International Journal of STD & AIDS. After peer review and acceptance, the CDC applied pressure on the editor to withdraw acceptance, but he refused. This is just one example of efforts made to block publication of dissenting research findings.


Janet St. Lawrence

“… it does not engender trust in the official view to know that our informal group has solid evidence of several instances by international health agencies actively working to suppress findings supportive of non-sexual transmission and to discourage research into non-sexual transmission.” (p. 221)

Another tactic was to misrepresent views. On 14 March 2003, the World Health Organisation held a meeting of experts to, as stated in a memo to participants, “bring together the leading epidemiological and modeling experts with Gisselquist and Potterat.” Potterat was dismayed by the consultation: data disagreeing with the orthodox view was dismissed. After the meeting, a statement was put out by WHO presented as representing a consensus. Actually, this so-called consensus statement did not represent everyone’s viewpoints, and was actually finalised prior to the conclusion of the meeting. (This was an exact parallel to what happened at an origin-of-AIDS conference.)

Potterat was surprised and disappointed to be subject to ad hominem comments, otherwise known as verbal abuse. He writes:

“Among other, less printable, things I was called ‘Africa’s Newest Plague’; ‘Core Stigmatizer’; ‘Linus Pauling—in his later years’ (when Pauling was thought to be advancing crackpot ideas); and [a reward being offered] ‘for his head on a platter’.” (pp. 193-194)

Potterat was surprised at this invective because none of his team had imagined the resistance and anger their work would trigger among mainstream agencies and researchers. He was disappointed because many of the comments came from colleagues he had previously admired.

Undone science

Researchers into the dynamics of science have coined the term “undone science” to refer to research that could be done and that people are asking to be done, but nevertheless is not carried out. A common reason is that the findings might turn out to be unwelcome to powerful groups. Governments and industry, through their control over most research funding, can stifle a potential challenge to orthodoxy by refusing to do or fund relevant research.

            Undone science is most common in areas where citizen groups are calling out for investigations, for example on the environmental effects of mining in a particular area or the health effects of a new chemical. Three research students who I supervised used the idea of undone science as a key framework for their theses, on drugs for macular degeneration, on vaccination policy, and on the cause of the cancer afflicting Tasmanian devils. My former PhD student Jody Warren and I, drawing on our previous work, wrote a paper pointing to undone science in relation to three new diseases. With this experience, I was attuned to notice cases of undone science in whatever I read. In Potterat’s chapter “Why Africa?” there were many striking examples.

In their papers, Potterat and his colleagues presented findings but, as is usual in scientific papers, acknowledged shortcomings. In one case, to counter criticisms, they reviewed research on the efficiency of HIV transmission by skin-puncturing routes, while admitting that new studies were needed to obtain better data. Potterat concludes, “To my knowledge, such studies have not been fielded.” (p. 199)

In another study, on discrepancies in studies of Hepatitis-C strains and patterns, Potterat writes, “In the intervening decade, however, no studies had been fielded to resolve these uncertainties.” (p. 199)

Potterat and his collaborators were unable to obtain external funding to carry out studies to test their hypotheses. So Potterat used his own money for a small study of HIV transmission in Africa. “Yet this pilot study supported our contentions and should have provoked the conducting of larger studies to confirm our findings. Regrettably, this did not happen.” (p. 205)

Similar responses

As stated earlier, I am not in a position to judge research about transmission of HIV in Africa. I approach the issue through Potterat’s account of the tactics used by supporters of orthodoxy against a contrary perspective. The tactics, according to him, included ignoring contrary findings, denigrating the researchers who presented them, putting out a misleading consensus statement, and refusing to fund research to investigate apparent discrepancies. I was struck by the remarkable similarity of these tactics to those used against other challenges to scientific and public-health orthodoxy. This does not prove that the dissident viewpoint is correct but is strong evidence that it has not been treated fairly. To be treated fairly is usually all that dissident scientists ask for. The hostile treatment and failure to undertake research (“undone science”) suggest that defenders of orthodoxy are, at some level, afraid the challengers might be right.

Potterat nicely summarises the multiple reasons why the findings by him and his colleagues were resisted.

“By their own admission, the international agencies feared that our work would cause Africans to lose trust in modern health care, especially childhood immunizations, as well as undermine safer sex initiatives. (Recall that their condom campaigns were also aimed at curtailing rapid population growth in sub-Saharan Africa.) We speculate that disbelief on the part of HIV researchers that medical care in Africa could be harming patients may have been a significant factor in their defensive posture. We were also impugning the quality of their scientific research and potentially threatening their livelihoods. In addition, our analyses also directly threatened the politically correct view that AIDS was not just a disease of gay men and injecting drug users, but also of heterosexuals. Lastly, our data were undermining the time-honored belief about African promiscuity, a notion that may well have initially contributed to the (pre)conception that AIDS was thriving in Africa because of it.” (p. 194)

The depressing lesson from this saga, and from the many others like it, is that science can be subject to the same sorts of groupthink, intolerance of dissent, and defence of privilege that afflict other domains such as politics. To get to the bottom of long-standing scientific disputes by trying to understand the research is bound to be time-consuming and very difficult, something few people have the time or interest to pursue. I aim at something easier: observation of the tactics used in the dispute. This doesn’t enable me to determine which side is right but does give a strong indication of whether the dispute is being pursued fairly.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Al Klovdahl for valuable suggestions.

Obtain free downloads of John Potterat’s chapter “Why Africa?” or the entire book Seeking the Positives

Supply and demand: think again?

Some of the things we learn in economics classes may not be as simple as they seem.

            One of the basics taught in economics classes is that the price of a good is determined by supply and demand. There’s a curve showing how the supply varies with the price and another curve showing how the demand varies with the price. Where the two curves intersect determines the price.

            This seems plausible, but I must admit I never thought deeply about these curves. So I thought I’d try to figure out what the supply curve might look like for product I know something about: printed books.

            What happens to the supply of a book when the price goes up? Well, most books are sold at the same price until they go out of print: the price doesn’t go up at all. Sometimes remaining print copies are “remaindered”: they are sold off to discount booksellers at a rock-bottom price, maybe $1 each, and the discount booksellers mark them up a bit, maybe to $2 or $5, though they are still a bargain compared to the original retail price.

            When the book goes out of print, then it’s usually possible to buy used copies, for example via booksellers who sell through Amazon. If there’s still a demand, then some suppliers jack up the price. On the other hand, if the demand is great enough, the publisher may do another print run, so then the supply is suddenly increased.

            So what does the supply curve look like? Here’s what the textbooks say.

Whoops. The textbook curve doesn’t seem to fit what happens with printed books. Instead of supply increasing as the price increases, the price stays the same and then, if there’s still a demand for the book as supply dwindles, the price goes up.

Ryan on economics

            If this is as confusing to you as it was to me, then read Michael Ryan’s book The Truth about Economics. Ryan was a high tech executive who decided to become a school teacher in Texas and, after having to teach economics, became sceptical about some of the basics. To him, the claims in the standard textbooks used in the US didn’t make sense. So he wrote a book to explain, in simple terms, what’s going on.

            According to Ryan, the supply and demand curves in textbooks like Paul Samuelson’s Economics and Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics simply don’t apply in many situations. The texts say that the curves apply when other things are equal. The trouble is that other things often aren’t equal.

            Even worse, Ryan shows that some of the data provided in the textbooks to show the operation of supply and demand are made up. Rather than using actual data from markets, the numbers in the texts are chosen to give the right answer, namely the answer that agrees with the theory. In other words, the authors work backwards from the theory to generate data that shows that the theory works.

            If your mind goes blank at the sight of a table of numbers or a graph, you will find Ryan’s book challenging. Actually, though, it is easier than most economics texts, not to mention econometrics research papers, because Ryan patiently explains what is going on.

            The Truth about Economics made me think for myself about supply and demand. I already knew about some of the abuses involving pharmaceutical drugs. Some companies exploit their patent-protected monopolies over drugs by raising prices unscrupulously, even though it costs no more to make the drug than before. When patients desperately need the drug, the demand is inelastic: it doesn’t change much even when the price goes up.

            Another example Ryan uses is buying a car. He notes that there are different price ranges. You might be in the market for a low-cost Nissan Versa or a top-of-the-range Porsche. Most buyers only want one car, and want it within a particular price range. The result is a very different sort of supply-and-demand diagram.  

          As well as markets for goods and services, there are also markets for labour. Ryan analyses what US textbooks say and is withering in his criticism. He presents arguments showing why raising the minimum wage makes almost no difference to unemployment rates. Instead, raising the minimum wage benefits workers at the expense of owners and managers. Ryan points to the ideological role of conventional economic theory, at least as presented in US textbooks. He quotes from standard texts to show the authors’ hostility to trade unions. This raises the suspicion that some facets of economics texts are more a glorification of capitalism than a neutral presentation.

            Could it be that generations of students have studiously learned about supply and demand curves and never questioned whether they actually described what happens in real markets? That is what Ryan claims. He presents ideas about groupthink to explain the economics profession’s continued commitment to a model based on questionable assumptions and for which there are so many counterexamples — such as book sales. As for students, Ryan believes most are too young and inexperienced to question textbooks, or they just suppress their rebellious thoughts.


Michael Ryan

            I’m not here to endorse Ryan’s critique. Instead, I recommend it as a way to encourage you to think for yourself about markets.

            Ryan argues that high-school students should be given the option of taking courses in financial literacy, learning the basics of bookkeeping and profit-and-loss statements. Financial literacy, he says, is far more relevant to the lives of students when they are in jobs and perhaps running their own businesses. However, Ryan is excessively optimistic to imagine that, based on his analysis, a movement will arise to introduce financial literacy courses throughout the US.

Learning about economics

You may have no interest in economics, but if you do, what’s the best way to learn about it? I’d say there are three things to look at.

            First are expositions of the dominant neoclassical perspective. Currently in the US the most popular textbook is Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics, so you could start there, but just about any basic text would be fine.

            Second, to avoid simply accepting standard ideas without question, you can also look at critiques. Ryan’s The Truth about Economics is one possibility. Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics is a more advanced analysis.

            Contrary perspectives have been put forward for decades. Ryan quotes from early economists like H. L. Moore, who challenged Alfred Marshall’s dominant ideas about supply and demand. That was in the early 1900s.

            You can dip into the large literature on political economy, which is based on the idea that the economic system cannot be understood separately from the political system. John Kenneth Galbraith in a number of books, for example Economics and the Public Purpose, showed the value judgements built into orthodox economics.

Those with a mathematical bent can appreciate John Blatt’s 1983 book Dynamical Economic Systems in which he showed that the assumption of equilibrium in markets, an assumption that underlies a vast body of econometric theory, is untenable. Blatt also wrote a paper, “The utility of being hanged on the gallows,” that challenged the assumptions underlying utility theory, central to much work in economics.

            Third, it is illuminating to look at alternatives to standard economic theory. For example, you can read about local currencies, which provide a radically different way of thinking about markets.

A more radical alternative is the sharing economy based on an expansion of the commons, with production done collaboratively without pay, as with free software. Then there are models or visions of economic systems that avoid reliance on organised violence. Current market systems do not qualify because the power of the state is required to protect private property. I have found only four models or visions of economic systems that could operate without organised violence: Gandhian economics, anarchism, voluntaryism and demarchy.

            If you’re going to study standard views, critiques and alternatives, what’s the best order to approach them? My suggestion would be to look at all three in tandem, because each throws light on the others.

            It is not surprising that the discipline of economics is, to a considerable extent, a reflection and legitimation of the existing economic system. Challenges are needed to orthodox economic theory as part of challenges to the dominant economic system. That means there is still quite a lot worth investigating, indeed entire realms. Most likely, though, improved theory will depend on economic alternatives becoming a reality.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Write, write, write

Researchers need to write as part of their job. It’s remarkable how stressful this can be. There is help at hand, but you have to be willing to change your habits.

Writing is a core part of what is required to be a productive researcher. Over the years, I’ve discovered that for many of my colleagues it’s an agonising process. This usually goes back to habits we learned in school.

Sport, music and writing

Growing up, I shared a room with my brother Bruce. I was an early riser but he wasn’t. But then, in the 10th grade, he joined the track and cross-country teams. Early every morning he would roll out of bed, still groggy, change into his running gear and go for his daily training run. After school he worked out with the team. He went on to become a star runner. At university, while majoring in physics, he obtained a track scholarship.

As well, Bruce learned the French horn and I learned the clarinet. We had private lessons once a week and took our playing seriously, practising on assigned exercises every day. We each led our sections in the high school band.

I also remember writing essays for English class, postponing the work of writing and then putting in hours the night before an essay was due. At university, this pattern became worse. I pulled a few all-nighters. To stay awake, it was the only time in my life I ever drank coffee.

Back then, in the 1960s, if you wanted to become a good athlete, it was accepted that regular training was the way to go. It would have been considered foolish to postpone training until just before an event and then put in long hours. Similarly, it was accepted that if you wanted to become a better instrumentalist, you needed to practise regularly. It was foolish to imagine practising all night before a performance.

Strangely, we never applied this same idea to writing. Leaving an assignment until the night before was common practice. And it was profoundly dysfunctional.

Boice’s studies

Luckily for me, while doing my PhD I started working regularly. On a good day, I would spend up to four hours on my thesis topic. I also started working on a book. Somewhere along the line I began aiming to write 1000 words per day. It was exceedingly hard work and I couldn’t maintain it for week after week.


Robert Boice

In the 1980s, Robert Boice, a psychologist and education researcher, carried out pioneering studies into writing. He observed that most new academics had a hard time meeting the expectations of their job. They typically put most of their energy into teaching and neglected research, and felt highly stressed about their performance. Boice observed a pattern of procrastination and bingeing: the academics would postpone writing until a deadline loomed and then go into an extended period of getting out the words. However, these binges were so painful and exhausting that writing became associated with discomfort, thereby reinforcing the pattern. If writing is traumatic, then procrastination is the order of the day.

Procrastination and bingeing is just what I did in high school and undergraduate study. It’s what most academics did when they were younger, and they never learned a different pattern.

Boice observed that a small number of new academics were more relaxed and more productive. They didn’t binge. Instead, they would work on research or teaching preparation in brief sessions over many days, gradually moving towards a finished product. Boice had the idea that this approach to academic work could be taught, and carried out a number of experiments comparing different approaches to writing. (See his books Professors as Writers and Advice for New Faculty Members.)

In one study, there were three groups of low-productivity academics. Members of one group were instructed to write in their usual way (procrastinating and bingeing). They ended up with an average of 17 pages of new or revised text – in a year. That’s about half an article and far short of what was required to obtain tenure.

Members of the second group were instructed to write daily for short periods. In a year, they produced on average 64 pages of new or revised text. Members of the third group were instructed to write daily for short periods and were closely monitored by Boice. Their average annual total of new or revised text was 157 pages. This was a stunning improvement, though from a low baseline.

It didn’t surprise me too much. It was the difference between athletes who trained just occasionally, when they felt like it, and athletes who trained daily under the guidance of a coach. It was the difference between musicians who practised when they felt like it and musicians who practised daily on exercises assigned by their private teacher.

Gray and beyond

Decades later, in 2008, I came across Tara Gray’s wonderful book Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar. In a brief and engaging style, she took Boice’s approach, extended it and turned it into a twelve-step programme to get away from procrastinating and bingeing. Immediately I tried it out. Instead of taking 90 minutes to write 1000 words, and doing this maybe one week out of three, I aimed at 20 minutes every day, producing perhaps 300 words. It was so easy! And it promised to result in 100,000 words per year, enough for a book or lots of articles.

Gray, adapting advice from Boice, recommends writing from the beginning of a project.  This is different from the usual approach of of reading everything about a topic and only then writing about it. For me, this actually reduces the amount of reading required, because I know far better what I’m looking for. Over the following years, I gradually changed my writing-research practice. Previously, writing an article happened late in a project. Now I write from the beginning, and there is more follow-up work. The follow-up work includes looking up references, doing additional reading, seeking comments on drafts from non-experts and then from experts. It’s much easier and quality is improved.

I introduced this approach to writing to each of my PhD students. Some of them were able to take it up, and for them I could give weekly guidance. I also set up a writing programme for colleagues and PhD students. Through these experiences I learned a lot about what can help researchers to become more productive. An important lesson is that most academics find it extremely difficult to change their writing habits. Many can’t do it at all. Research students seemed better able to change, perhaps because their habits are less entrenched and because they think of themselves as learners.


Tara Gray

With this newfound interest in helping improve research productivity, I looked for other sources of information. There is a lot of advice about how to become a better writer. Our writing programme was based on the work of Boice and Gray, so I looked especially at treatments that would complement their work. Excellent books include Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot and W. Brad Johnson and Carol A. Mullen’s Write to the Top! It was encouraging that most of these authors’ advice was similar to Boice’s and Gray’s. However, there seems to be very little research to back up the advice. Boice’s is still some of the best, with Gray’s research findings a welcome addition showing the value of regular writing.

Jensen

To these books, I now add Joli Jensen’s superb Write No Matter What, and not just because it has a wonderful title. Jensen, a media studies scholar at the University of Tulsa, draws on her own experience and years of effort helping her colleagues to become more productive. As I read her book, time after time I said to myself, “Yes, that’s exactly my experience.”

“Writing productivity research and advice can be summarized in a single sentence: In order to be productive we need frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.” (p. xi)      

Jensen excels in her exposition of the psychological barriers that academics experience when trying to write. She approaches this issue — one pioneered by Boice — through a series of myths, fantasies and fears. An example is the “magnum opus myth,” the idea held by many academics that they have to produce a masterpiece. This is profoundly inhibiting, because trying to write a bit of ordinary text feels so inadequate compared to the shining vision of the magnum opus. The way to avoid this discrepancy is to postpone writing, and keep postponing it.

Another damaging idea is that writing will be easier when other bothersome tasks are cleared out of the way. Jensen calls this the “cleared-desk fantasy.” It’s a fantasy because it’s impossible to finish other tasks, and new ones keep arriving: just check your in-box. Jensen says that writing has to take priority, to be done now, irrespective of other tasks that might seem pressing.

Then there is the myth of the perfect first sentence. Some writers spend ages trying to get the first sentence just right, imagining that perfecting it will unleash their energies for the rest of the article. This again is an illusion that stymies writing.

A colleague once told me how she was stuck writing the last sentence of a book review, with her fingers poised over the keyboard for an hour as she imagined what the author of the book she was reviewing would think. This relates to the perfect first sentence problem but also to Jensen’s “hostile reader fear.” Jensen also addresses the imposter syndrome: the fear that colleagues will discover you’re not a real scholar like them. Then there is the problem of comparing your work with others, usually with others who seem to be more productive. Upwards social comparison is a prescription for unhappiness and, in addition, can inhibit researchers. If others are so much better, why bother?


Joli Jensen

Write No Matter What is filled with valuable advice addressing all aspects of the writing process. Jensen offers three “taming techniques” to enable the time, space and energy for doing the craft work of writing. She has all sorts of practical advice to address problems that can arise with research projects, for example when you lose enthusiasm for a topic, when you lose the thread of what you’re trying to do, when your submissions are rejected (and subject to depressingly negative comments), when your project becomes toxic and needs to be dumped, and when you are working on multiple projects.

She says that writing can actually be harder when there’s more unstructured time to do it, something I’ve observed with many colleagues.

“When heading into a much-desired break, let go of the delusion that you will have unlimited time. Let go of vague intentions to write lots every day, or once you’ve cleared the decks, or once you’ve recovered from the semester. Acknowledge that academic writing is sometimes harder when we expect it to be easier, because we aren’t trying to balance it with teaching and service.” (p. 127)

Jensen is open about her own struggles. Indeed, the stories she tells about her challenges, and those of some of her colleagues, make Write No Matter What engaging and authentic. Her personal story is valuable precisely because she has experienced so many of the problems that other academics face.

With my experience of running a writing programme for a decade and helping numerous colleagues and research students with their writing, it is striking how few are willing to consider a new approach, how few are willing to admit they can learn something new and, for those willing to try, how difficult it is to change habits. Boice’s work has been available since the 1980s yet is not widely known. This would be like a successful sporting coach having superior training techniques and yet being ignored for decades.

To me, this testifies to the power of entrenched myths and practices in the academic system. Write No Matter What is a guide to an academic life that is both easier and more productive, but the barriers to shifting to this sort of life remain strong. In the spirit of moderation advocated by Boice, Gray and Jensen, read their books, but only a few pages per day. And write!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

A disastrous quest for justice

On 1 June this year, I received an email from Hildie Spautz. She wrote that her father, Michael E. Spautz, had died the previous day.


Michael Spautz, 1970s

I had only met Michael once, in 1981, and had not corresponded with him for a decade. But I knew a lot about his story.

Hildie was writing to me because she had found articles I had written about Michael’s difficulties at the University of Newcastle. I was one of the few who showed any sympathy for Michael’s concerns.

Hildie and her sister Laura, who each live in the US, were going through Michael’s belongings. He had vast numbers of paper files. Would I like to have them, or did I know anyone who would? My immediate response to both questions was no.

Michael’s death made me reflect on the events that derailed much of his life. Be prepared. This story does not have a happy ending. It is a story of wasted effort and dysfunction. There are, though, some useful lessons. I for one learned a lot from it.

The Spautz case

Spautz was originally from the US. He took a job in Australia at the University of Newcastle, where he was a senior lecturer in the Commerce Department. There were no particular dramas until 1978, after the appointment of a second professor in the department, Alan Williams.

Alan J Williams

In Australia at the time, the main academic ranks were lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor, and professor. Relatively few academics reach the rank of professor, and decades ago it often came along with the role of the head of a department. To be a professor usually meant having an outstanding record in research or sometimes administration.

Williams, though, had far less than an outstanding record. He had recently received his PhD and had published two articles in management journals. Even though commerce was not then as research-intensive as disciplines like chemistry or sociology, nevertheless Williams’ record was decidedly lightweight for a professorial appointment. The back story was that the department was having trouble finding a suitable candidate and, it was suggested, made an inferior appointment rather than lose funding for the position.

Spautz had not been an applicant for the position when Williams applied, but had applied for it in earlier rounds when no appointment was made. Initially, there were no tensions between Spautz and Williams. However, after Williams was made head of a section within the department, Spautz began raising concerns. Alerted by two colleagues to problems with Williams’ research, Spautz started digging further.

Williams, in his PhD thesis, had studied the owners of small businesses, in particular their psychological problems. His argument was that such problems made the businesses more likely to fail. Spautz – who had a background in psychology – argued that the reverse process could have been responsible: when businesses struggle and fail, their owners are more likely to suffer psychologically. Spautz therefore claimed that Williams’ research was flawed due to “inverted causality”: he had mixed up cause and effect. Spautz also questioned some of the statistical methods used by Williams.

It is nothing special that scholarly research has shortcomings. Many academics exert great efforts in trying to find flaws in previous studies. This is part of the process of testing data and theory that is supposed to lead to reliable knowledge. In this context, Spautz’ critique of Williams’ research was nothing out of the ordinary.

However, it is uncommon for an academic to undertake a detailed critique of the work of an immediate colleague and then to do something about it. Academics often gripe about the weaknesses, irrelevance or unwarranted recognition of their colleagues’ research, especially colleagues who are arrogant or who seem to have gained unfair preferment. But griping is usually the extent of it. To openly criticise the work of an immediate colleague can be seen as disloyal. In some cases in which an academic speaks out about a colleague’s scientific fraud, it is the whistleblower who comes under attack by administrators.

Spautz, though, seemed to have few inhibitions in challenging the quality of Williams’ research. Spautz began his challenge in a conventional, scholarly way. He took his criticisms directly to Williams and to others in the Commerce Department, but obtained no support. He wrote a rebuttal of Williams’ published papers and sent it to the journals where those papers had been published. However, the editor was not interested. This should not have been surprising. If an article has had no particular impact, few editors would be keen on publishing a detailed rebuttal years later. This might be considered a shortcoming of the system of journal publication. It is far easier to publish an original study, with new data and findings, than a replication of a previous study, whether or not the replication supports the original study.

Williams had recently received his PhD from the University of Western Australia. Later on, Spautz wrote to UWA raising his concerns about shortcomings in Williams’ thesis. The Vice-Chancellor replied saying that this was a matter for the examiners of the thesis. Neither the identity of the examiners nor their reports were publicly available, as is usual in Australian universities. There is no standard institutional process for questioning the work in a thesis.

Spautz was stymied. He had tried the official channels for questioning Williams’ work and been blocked. This was long before the Internet, otherwise he could have posted his criticisms online.

There was one other institutional channel to be tried: the University of Newcastle itself. But Spautz’ complaints led nowhere.

Plagiarism, a scholarly sin

Along the way, Spautz added another claim to his allegations about Williams’ thesis: that it involved plagiarism, namely the use of other people’s words or ideas without appropriate acknowledgement. In the eyes of many academics, plagiarism is a cardinal sin, deserving the most severe condemnation. When undergraduate students are detected plagiarising in their assignments, they may be given a mark of zero or even referred to a student misconduct committee. (On the other hand, some teachers treat much undergraduate student plagiarism not as cheating but as a matter of not understanding proper citation practices.)

The plagiarism in Williams’ thesis is a subtle type, which can be called plagiarism of secondary sources. Williams gave references to a range of articles and books. Spautz was able to deduce that in quite a few cases Williams apparently had not actually looked at these articles and books himself, but had instead copied the references from a later publication, a “secondary source.” This sort of plagiarism basically involves copying references used by another author but not citing that author. It’s a common sort of plagiarism in many academic works. It is hard to prove, but in this instance Spautz was a super-sleuth, finding secondary sources and subtle clues that Williams had relied on these secondary sources, as I verified for myself.

Personally, having studied plagiarism, I don’t think this should be a hanging offence. However, because plagiarism has such a terrible reputation, especially plagiarism by academics, it would have been embarrassing for a university inquiry into Williams’ thesis to acknowledge any sort of plagiarism at all.

The snowflake campaign

Spautz started writing memos, in the form of typed or handwritten statements, mimeographed or photocopied. He put them in the mailboxes of academics on campus. This was his “campaign for justice.” It is accurately described as a campaign, because Spautz produced memo after memo, sometimes every day. He also called his efforts the “snowflake campaign” because there were so many white memos that they could be likened to flakes of snow landing on (or littering) the campus.

Spautz’s efforts drew the attention of the administration, and an inquiry was set up. Spautz’s aim was for his allegations about Williams’ research to be investigated. However, the inquiry instead focused on Spautz’s behaviour. Basically, he was told to shut up.

Spautz was not deterred by the admonitions from the inquiry, and continued his campaign. There was a second inquiry. Then in May 1980 the Council, the university’s governing body, dismissed Spautz. This was news: in Australia it is quite rare for a tenured academic to be fired. Furthermore, the circumstances in Spautz’s case were quite unusual.

From Spautz’s point of view, he had concerns about Williams’ research, had tried to raise them with Williams, journal editors and university administrators, and had been fobbed off, told to shut up and then dismissed. He wasn’t going to shut up, and dismissal just made him more determined to expose what he saw as injustice.

From the point of view of university administrators, Spautz was an annoyance. The solution was to go through some formal processes and then, when Spautz didn’t cooperate, to take the ultimate step of dismissing him. If administrators thought that this would be the end of the matter, they were wrong. Most dismissed academics are humiliated and go quietly. Others take legal action for dismissal, hoping to receive some compensation. (Reinstatement is exceedingly rare.)


Spautz never hired a plane to distribute his memos

Spautz was not like most other academics. He continued his campaign, and greatly expanded it. He continued production of memos, distributed to people on campus and numerous others beyond, including journalists. He heard about my work on suppression of dissent and contacted me in June 1980. I was henceforth on his mailing list.

Spautz expanded his allegations, claiming that various individuals were involved in a criminal conspiracy. He launched court cases, and more court cases. In the following years, at one point he was unable to pay court costs and was sent to prison. After 56 days, a judge found he had been falsely imprisoned. This was grist for more legal actions, and he later obtained compensation. Eventually he was declared a vexatious litigant. This was the only thing that stopped his decades of legal cases against various individuals he accused of wrong actions.


Michael Spautz, 1980s

The verdict: what a waste!

There are no winners in this story. From the time of his dismissal in 1980 until his death this year, he devoted most of his effort to his self-styled campaign for justice. For four decades he was obsessed, initially with the shortcomings of Williams’ research and then with the aftermath of his dismissal. Prior to this quest, Spautz had been a productive scholar, teaching undergraduates and authoring quite a few publications.

When I met him in 1981, I told him it would be better to put effort into writing up his story, and that pursuing action through the courts was likely to be futile. Others told him similar things. But he didn’t listen. He was convinced his course of action was the right one.

Alan Williams was another victim. He was unlucky to become the target of Spautz’s campaign. In another way, Williams was unlucky to have been appointed as a professor at the University of Newcastle on a thin research record, which made him vulnerable.

The University of Newcastle paid a severe penalty too. Spautz’s campaign brought it unwelcome attention, and several senior figures at the university had to spend considerable time dealing with Spautz’s charges against them. There were occasional news reports about Spautz’s legal cases. For a university administration, this is not a desired sort of media coverage.


University of Newcastle campus: a desired image

More damaging was the effect of the dismissal on the academic culture at the university. Although many staff found Spautz’s behaviour objectionable, many also were disturbed by his dismissal. The executive of staff association produced an informative report.

When I visited the campus in 1981, a year after Spautz had been dismissed, I could sense fear. Some staff did not want even to discuss Spautz, as if that would taint them and make them vulnerable. Openly expressing disagreement with the dismissal was felt to be risky, perhaps because they might be next. Spautz was unbowed by his dismissal, but it frightened many others.


A less desired image (http://stop-b-uon.blogspot.com/)

Social, academic and legal systems are not designed to address cases such as this. When Spautz started raising concerns about Williams’ research, there was no one in a position of authority who was able or willing to step in and cut to the core issues he raised. At the University of Newcastle, all that administrators did was set up committees of inquiry that focused on Spautz’s behaviour. In many cases, such committees work well for their purposes, but they were manifestly inadequate to address Spautz and his campaign. The individuals involved in all these arenas were well meaning and following typical protocols. It was not a failure by individuals so much as a failure of the system.


Another saga at the University of Newcastle: Don Parkes tells how fraudulent candidatures, a scholarship and doctoral level examinations were handled by university, state and federal officials (http://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/Parkes11.pdf).

Similarly, the legal system was not a good place to address Spautz’s concerns. It’s possible to imagine a more flexible system that would refer Spautz to a wise intervener who would look at the original grievance, namely the one not addressed by the university, and deal with it at the source. But of course the legal system is about applying the law, not about finding creative solutions to problems. As a result, the legal system suffered, with lawyers, judges and others spending a huge amount of time and money dealing with Spautz’s unending cases and appeals.


Would mediation have helped?

If systems are ill designed, then even the most well-meaning individuals can be caught up in them. Most people are likely to blame Spautz, but blame doesn’t provide any answers, just a feeling of superiority.

Occasionally in any society, there will be individuals who become obsessed about particular things. There is still much to be learned about how to find ways to channel obsessions into productive channels.

What I learned

Though the saga of Spautz’s ill-fated campaign for justice had no winners, I learned a lot from it. I studied Spautz’s allegations about Williams’ plagiarism, and to put them in context I read a lot about plagiarism more generally. I wrote a paper titled “Plagiarism, incompetence and responsibility” (and have now added links to numerous relevant documents). That paper was rejected by the first nine journals to which I submitted it. The tenth journal accepted a drastically revised version. From this experience, I learned how difficult it is to publish, in a scholarly journal, a discussion of an actual case involving allegations of incompetence and plagiarism. I talked with one journal editor on the phone. He told me that he would have liked to publish my article but the editorial committee, taking into account legal advice, decided not to proceed. They were worried about being sued.

I wrote a different (and less felicitous) article about the way Spautz’s actions were dealt with at the University of Newcastle. This was published in Vestes, the journal of the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations, FAUSA (which later became a union, the National Tertiary Education Union). It was delayed for a year due to concerns about legal action. It seems that writing about actual cases can be worrisome.

Most of all I learned about the failure of official channels. Spautz tried quite a few: journals, university administrations, courts. None of them worked well, certainly not for him. This was my first immersion in a case that showed clearly the shortcomings of formal procedures. This stood me in good stead when, over a decade later, I became involved in Whistleblowers Australia and talked to numerous whistleblowers. They told the same story: when they took their concerns to bosses, boards of management, ombudsmen and courts, they were regularly disappointed.

Official channels work fine in many circumstances, and most of the people on appeal committees and working in agencies are concerned and hard-working. But when a person with less power tries to challenge one with more power, or challenge the entire system, it is usually a hopeless cause. So that’s what for many years I have told whistleblowers and what I’ve written in my book giving advice to whistleblowers. Yes, you might be very lucky and find justice in official channels, but don’t count on it. Indeed, you should assume they won’t provide the justice you’re looking for. Although Spautz never learned that lesson, he taught it to me, and for that I am thankful.


Michael Spautz, 2011

Michael’s daughters Hildie and Laura had the unwelcome and overwhelming task of clearing his belongings from his unit, including  accumulated files about his campaign that filled seven book cases (that’s cases, not shelves). Perhaps, whimsically, the files could have been placed as a display in a museum as a testament to the futility of spending years seeking justice through formal channels, with the message for those who might follow his path, “If at first you don’t succeed, then try something else.”

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

See also The Subversion of Australian Universitieswith a chapter by John Biggs about the University of Newcastle.

‘Doing Time’

Don Parkes in his book Doctored!mentioned above, made the following comments (page 12).

During the mid 1980s and through the 1990s, if one had an academic problem that required administrative attention, then at the University of Newcastle NSW, too often, one became ‘the problem’. As a serious enough problem one could end up in gaol, as was the case for Dr. Michael Spautz. Vice Chancellors and others will not give much attention to you, will not treat you as a colleague, or pay much real attention to the problem that you have raised: you become the problem and that is how they relate to you. Nevertheless, it is really quite easy to overcome the predicament: cooperate; just leave it to the powers that be: promotion and positive references await for such cooperation.

At about the time that our story was kicking in, Dr. Michael Spautz was sent to prison for 76 days in the high security, 150-year-old Maitland NSW gaol. He was an American, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Economics and Commerce. Spautz fought the University all the way to the High Court of Australia because he was not satisfied that due process had been followed in the handling of reports of alleged plagiarism in the work of a newly appointed professor. Spautz was required to undergo psychiatric assessment and was eventually dismissed. He continued the fight.

Maitland gaol was a nasty place, high security prisons are nasty places, usually for nasty people. Dr. Spautz was not a nasty person. I knew him for many years and have often looked back, with some shame at my ‘bystander role’: though he was always openly welcome in my office; we met where and as we wished and together with my good friend Richard Dear from the university’s computer centre, we gave him many sheets of computer print-out paper on which to ‘roneo’ copy his ‘in vita veritas’ letters distributed to hundreds of staff and students. The reason for his imprisonment was clamed to be non-payment of an account. That’s believable? Technically probably ‘yes’, it is believable: but it was draconian, a ‘teach him a lesson’ sort of punishment. The university was well connected.

Fourteen years later, in 1996, he received a paltry sum of $75,000 for wrongful imprisonment; he was never reinstated in the University.

http://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/Parkes11.pdf

Happiness and buying a house in Sydney

The price of housing in Sydney is sky-high. If you’re in the market, it’s worth seeing what happiness research has to say.


Derelict two-bedroom terrace house in inner Sydney valued at more than $1 million

In 2015, the median price of a house in Sydney surged to over a million dollars. That’s about $750,000 in US dollars or 630,000 euros.

For decades, Sydney house prices have been increasing way beyond inflation. The ratio of median prices to median income is one of the highest in the world, and many young people despair of ever owning a house. Some people in occupations like teaching and nursing can only afford houses far from the city centre, often requiring long commutes.

Diagnoses of the problem abound. Commonly cited are government restrictions on land use, the absence of a capital gains tax and the policy of negative gearing that rewards investors who rent out their properties at a loss while anticipating large capital gains.

The problem is replicated in other major urban areas in Australia, where housing prices and rents have grown enormously. The exorbitant cost is largely due to the inflated price of land.

A happiness perspective

It’s useful to step back a bit and ask, why do people want to buy a house or a unit? When they own one already, why do they want a larger one? Why do they value ocean views? A key factor is the search for happiness. This means there is much to be learned from happiness research.

People know when they are happy or sad, but research shows that most people are not good judges of what makes them happy. Most people think that more money will make them happier, so they go in search of better-paying jobs. They think possessions will make them happier, so they obtain a huge mortgage to buy the biggest house possible, and buy new cars, fancy clothes, the latest iPhone and all sorts of appliances.

If you’re poor or destitute, having more money will definitely improve your wellbeing. But for those with a modest income or above, pursuing more money is not a particularly good way to improve happiness.

The reason for this is a process called adaptation. When you get used to something, it loses its appeal. Adaptation applies most of all to the environment around us. Having a large house initially is appealing but after a while it loses its novelty and just becomes the way things are, and you’re not much happier than if you lived in a small house. Similarly, a great view is appealing, but only when you pay attention to it. When it becomes routine, it no longer gives a happiness boost.


Renovated four-bedroom house in outer Sydney sold for $1.7 million in 2015

There’s a saying, “Don’t buy groceries on an empty stomach” because you’re likely to end of buying much more than you need. The same applies to housing. The biggest and most prestigious options are attractive but may not give lasting satisfaction.

For promoting happiness, other options are more reliable. Among the things that research shows reliably improve happiness are fostering relationships, engaging in physical activity, helping others, expressing gratitude, practising mindfulness and avoiding social comparison. These are worth considering in relation to housing issues.

(For accessible treatments of happiness research, see for example Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness; Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness; Paul Dolan, Happiness by Design; Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier. For popular critiques of the research, see Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided; Ruth Whippman, America the Anxious.)

Relationships and housing

For most people, personal relationships with family, friends, co-workers and others are the most important factor in happiness. So when choosing where to live, it’s worth asking, “How will this affect my relationships with the people I care about the most?”

Sarah is considering whether to take an exciting new job. It will require a longer commute and longer hours, but it pays more. Should she take it? If she has a close circle of friends and the new job will leave less time to be with them, this may reduce her happiness. If she’s taking the job so she can afford a bigger house, the same applies.

Positive relationships with neighbours can contribute to happiness. Most buyers carefully inspect the house but do not exercise the same diligence in finding out about the neighbours.

The design of space can make a big difference to the way people interact. In some buildings, there are natural gathering places. In an office building this might be around a photocopier, where people bump into each other and have a chat. Likewise, the design of a house can make a big difference to personal interactions. Occupants might congregate in the lounge room or kitchen or — especially with a proliferation of screens — stick to themselves in their own rooms. A house design desirably allows privacy while providing ample opportunities for interpersonal contact.

Surveys show that commuting is one of the least pleasurable activities in people’s lives, especially when travel times are extended. Driving through heavy traffic is more stressful than walking through leafy laneways. So in choosing a house, an important factor should be the implications for travel to work, to shops, to friends and family. If there’s a convenient cycle network, this makes commuting a form of exercise, with the associated benefits of physical activity.

There’s one other factor worth taking into account: social comparison. People compare what they have with what others have, and usually feel better if they have more. This is the driving force behind conspicuous consumption, which means showing off through your fashionable clothes, new car and big house, and generally “keeping up with the Joneses”. Ideally, it’s better to avoid social comparison and focus on the positives in your own life. But if comparisons really bother you, consider living in a less expensive area so you’re not comparing your circumstances to those who seem better off.

In summary, people tend to focus on aspects of housing — the size and cost — that are less important to their happiness than being close to friends and family, enabling exercise and minimising social comparisons.

Happiness-driven policy

Housing policy in Sydney seems primarily driven by money and status. The policies on capital gains and negative gearing serve those who are most well off at the expense of others. Developers seek to maximise their profits, so new housing caters more for the rich than the poor.

Another way to approach policy is for governments to seek to maximise people’s happiness. Danny Dorling has done this in his book A Better Politics: How Governments Can Make Us Happier, available free as a pdf. Dorling focuses on Britain but most of his suggestions apply to Australia.

Dorling reports on his research about the major events in people’s lives that have the greatest effect on their happiness, either positive or negative. The biggest negative is the break-up of a significant relationship, including through death. The biggest positive is formation of a significant relationship.

If loss of relationships is the biggest negative then, Dorling argues, policy should be designed to support relationships. This has several implications for housing. One is that people should have secure housing, so they have the opportunity to build and maintain relationships. Being evicted from one’s abode is a big negative. So is being homeless. Governments should ensure that there is ample low-cost housing, and ensure that residence is secure, so that everyone can be confident of having a place to live and therefore can build relationships.

After starting a new relationship and getting a new job, the third most significant single event associated with higher than usual happiness in any given year is securing a permanent home.” (p. 53)

Dorling has written extensively on economic inequality, and this is a prominent theme in A Better Politics. There is actually enough housing for everyone, but it is unequally distributed: wealthy people have two or more homes but live in only one at a time, so there is a lot of unoccupied housing. Dorling favours progressive taxation plus a tax on wealth, and introduction of a basic income.


Danny Dorling

Dorling points to other countries in Europe where governments collect more taxes and provide more collective welfare. Britain lags behind on many criteria, including equality.

“We cannot be happy if we do not feel safe and secure in our homes. The government has a responsibility towards the quality and quantity of housing available and it must introduce the security and quality in socially and privately rented housing that we [British people] currently lack compared with nearby countries.” (p. 57)

Using happiness as a criterion for policy is well and good, but this is far off the agenda in most parts of the world. Governments still aim to increase economic growth, which in practice primarily benefits the wealthy. Mass media, advertising and governments perpetuate the belief that more money is the most important way to make people happier. Meanwhile, the implications of happiness research are neglected so far as policy is concerned. Instead, seeking happiness is seen as something for each individual to pursue on their own, within the social system as it exists.

Action

If housing is something you really care about, there is another option: become a campaigner for affordable housing. Research shows that when you help other people, it makes you happier. This is why some lawyers are willing to take a huge salary cut in order to practise public interest law: the satisfaction of serving those who need help the most outweighs the financial benefits of working for a big corporation. Similarly, jobs such as teaching and nursing provide satisfactions that can compensate for low wages and stressful working conditions.

Even better, join an action group pushing for homes for poor people. You will be helping others and gain the benefits of working with others on a common cause. Activism can be its own reward.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Pearls before swine, by Stephan Pastis, 6 May 2018

The perils of measurement

Measuring performance sounds like a good idea, but it has downsides.

How well are you doing your job? And who would like to know? It makes sense to measure outputs, and it makes sense to provide rewards according to these outputs. Actually, though, rewarding people for measured outputs can be harmful.

One problem is that people may try to perform well according to the things that happen to be measured. When police are judged by the number of arrests they make, they may pick easy targets and ignore the harder and bigger cases. They might even give false figures.

During the Vietnam war, US commanders reported body counts. These were grossly inflated, and counted civilian deaths as deaths of enemy soldiers. The result was that Washington decision-makers thought the war was going much better than it was. In command economies, like the former Soviet Union, unrealistic targets were given to enterprises with the result that production figures were falsified, corners were cut and unnecessary output produced. The targets were supposed to lead to increased production but instead became ends in themselves.

            In the academic world, the measuring process changes what people do. Enrolment targets can lead to dubious recruitment practices. Rewarding scholars by the numbers of their publications can lead to a reduction in quality and to exploitation of research students. Ranking universities in part by the number of citations to publications by their researchers has led to recruitment of staff simply for their citation counts. (Marc Edwards and Siddhartha Roy have written a superb critique of perverse incentives for academic research.)

In these examples, measurement leads to changes in behaviour by those being measured. The problem occurs when these changes are undesirable. Sometimes the problems are anticipated and sometimes not.

Another disadvantage of measuring performance is that it can undermine intrinsic motivation. In some occupations, for example health and education, many workers are driven by their commitment to helping others. External inducements, such as salary and promotions, are secondary. External inducements can actually reduce intrinsic motivations.

When metrics rule

These issues are comprehensively covered in a new book, The Tyranny of Metrics, by Jerry Z. Muller. “Metrics” here refers to measurements. Muller is not opposed to metrics. He repeatedly observes that many metrics are valuable, helping to identify areas for improvement and identify good practice. But in too many cases, measurements cause problems.

            One area for measuring performance is surgery. The success rates of different surgeons can be collected and, in what is called transparency, published. There are some initial benefits: surgeons with very poor outcomes may decide to withdraw from particular operations or from surgery altogether. But if used for ongoing scrutiny, measuring outcomes can lead to surgeons avoiding complex or difficult cases. After all, tackling the most challenging surgeries is likely to lead to a lower success rate.

If a hospital is judged by the percentage of patients who are able to leave intensive care within a specified number of days, there will be pressure to move some patients out too soon.

The problem is basically that the thing measured becomes a goal in itself. This is aggravated when rewards are attached. When real estate agents are paid according to sales, it can lead to shady practices of giving loans to individuals with no assets or income. This was part of what led to the global financial crisis.

Muller says there are three key components of “metric fixation”: (1) a belief that numbers can replace judgement; (2) a belief that making metrics public ensures accountability; (3) a belief that giving rewards for measured performance is the best way to motivate workers. To these I would add a belief that there are no good alternatives for improving performance.

There is yet another problem with measuring performance. Only some things are easily or accurately measured, and other things are intangible or obscure. In a workplace, outputs that can be measured include sales, share prices, new clients and so forth. Often given short shrift are collegial support, mentoring and morale boosting, which are important but not easily quantified. The result can be that self-interested narcissists get ahead at the expense of those who are generous and supportive.

            Muller describes eleven predictable though unintended negative consequences of metrics: goal displacement, short-termism, costs in employee time, declining value of continuing use, proliferation of rules to address faults of metrics, rewarding of luck, discouraging risk-taking, discouraging innovation, discouraging cooperation, degrading of work and eroding productivity. With such a list of negatives, no wonder Muller tries to give credit to metrics when he can. Even so, he actually may be overlooking some of their shortcomings. In the case of police, Muller says that systems to identify areas where crime is more likely to occur are useful for making decisions about deploying police. However, Cathy O’Neil in her book Weapons of Math Destruction argues that identification of at-risk areas may actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy and contribute to racially biased arrest patterns even when individual officers are unbiased.

Muller gives examples of the problems of metrics in quite a few areas: universities, schools, police, military, business, hospitals. His chapters on each of these areas are valuable. But even more valuable is the way his analysis encourages readers to start thinking more critically about metrics.


Jerry Z Muller

Other examples

When activists organise a rally, its success is commonly measured by the number of people who attend. Sometimes estimates differ considerably, for example with organisers saying 100,000 people showed up whereas police say 20,000. Discrepant estimates testify to the importance put on the metric of crowd size. What both sides miss are the less observable factors, such as the extent to which participants are energised by the experience and the number who decide to become more deeply involved. Hahrie Han in her book How Organizations Develop Activists distinguishes between mobilising and organising. Mobilising aims to get people who are already sympathetic to take action. Organising aims to develop the motivations and skills of individuals, a transformative process. Counting numbers at rallies is a reasonable way to judge the success of some sorts of mobilising but can be misleading in relation to organising.

            I’ve written before about citizen advocacy, in which paid coordinators seek to identify people with intellectual disabilities who have unmet needs and then, for each such protégé recruited, find a member of the community who will be the protégé’s advocate, without any compensation, often on a long-term basis. In Australia, various forms of disability advocacy have been funded by the government. Citizen advocacy was discriminated against by use of a misleading metric. The efforts of paid advocates were measured by the number of separate advocacy actions. However, the efforts of citizen advocacy programmes were measured by the number of new protégé-advocate relationships created. Not only was the support for existing relationships overlooked, but so were the actions of the citizen advocates. The metric made citizen advocacy seem like a boutique (that is, expensive) form of advocacy when actually it is often more cost-effective. (Some funders have become better informed about citizen advocacy.)

One of the challenges in questioning metrics is that understanding their shortcomings requires deep knowledge of what is involved, and this can take time and effort to acquire. It’s so much easier to look at a number of publications or arrests or successful surgeries than to probe into goals and methods of achieving them.

Some metrics continue to be used because they serve the interests of powerful groups. A good example is GDP, gross domestic product, a standard measure of economic activity. Having a big GDP is widely seen as a good thing, and a high per capita GDP is often used as a surrogate for quality of life. The shortcomings of GDP have been analysed for decades. Expenditure on traffic accidents, prisons, planned obsolescence, me-too drugs and oil spills contributes to an increased GDP though these are negatives rather than positives. Producing a $20,000 dress counts as much as 1000 pairs of inexpensive shoes. Various alternatives to GDP have been proposed, such as the human development index. Nevertheless, GDP continues to be used while alternatives are given little attention. This is convenient for governments that tout their economic performance while allowing inequality to increase.

What to do?

If you are unaware of the problems with a particular metric, you can hardly be blamed for relying on it. Let’s assume, though, that you have become aware of the metric’s shortcoming. For example, you are a police officer aware that total arrest numbers are not a good way to measure effectiveness or a surgeon aware that the survival rate from an operation is not an ideal way to measure your skill. What should you do?

The cynical response is to aim to achieve well according to the metric even though you realise this may harm actual outcomes for your occupation. This is most easily rationalised by trying to forget about the shortcomings of the metric, denigrating those who question the metric, and pointing to arguments in support of the metric. Basically, you conform to the misleading metric’s imperatives and convince yourself, and maybe try to convince others, that this is the only or best way to proceed.

In contrast, a high-minded response is to ignore the misleading metric and do your job according to what you believe is in the best interests of citizens, patients, your colleagues and other stakeholders. A police officer thus might sacrifice good arrest figures by focusing on more important outcomes. The trouble with this response is that you might miss out on opportunities or even derail your career. Meanwhile, your cynical co-workers get ahead and make decisions that continue the misguided practices.

Another response is to gripe in private about the bad metrics. This sounds pointless but actually can be useful in finding out who else is dissatisfied and potentially building a constituency for change. However, griping can also be an unproductive release of emotion that allows problems to fester.

Rather than just griping, it is possible to promote alternative metrics, assuming they are available. Just using them in conversation can help raise awareness. If friends talk about growth in the economy, you can comment about a worsening in the Gini coefficient (a measure of economic inequality). This can help start conversations and get others thinking about and discussing alternatives.

            If you are enterprising, you can study more about metrics and their shortcomings. Muller’s book is a useful tool. Then you are in a position to make more informed comments or even to publicise concerns and propose alternatives.

Even more time-consuming is development of alternative ways of promoting good practice, which might not involve metrics at all. This is not a task for everyone, but it’s important that some people put energy into it.

It’s worth thinking about different options because no one can do everything. Metrics are all around us, some good, some bad and some pointless. There’s no universal solution to the problems but it’s valuable to be aware of the problems and take action when possible.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Is US politics a lost cause?

Many people despaired at the election of Donald Trump. But would things have been all that different if Hillary Clinton had become president?


Hillary Clinton and Warren Buffett

Anyone who follows politics in Western countries knows that the US is different from other liberal democracies. It is commonly noted that the US is the only country where there has been no major socialist or communist party. Its politics is skewed to the right.

This wouldn’t make all that much difference if the US were a small country like Estonia or Ireland. After all, every country has its own political peculiarities. But the US is a looming presence on the world stage, with nearly half of all military expenditures, military bases in dozens of countries, a disproportionate influence on world economic arrangements (usually to serve US-based massive corporations), and more generally a society that is dysfunctional in many ways. Among the world’s affluent societies, the US has the highest imprisonment rate, an extraordinary murder rate, the highest infant mortality rate, the lowest life expectancy despite the world’s highest per capita medical expenditure, and a shockingly high level of economic inequality.

            Although such statistics would cause leaders in other countries to be ashamed, US politicians and many citizens continually proclaim that the US is a shining beacon to the rest of the world. But that is another story.

US politics are so skewed to the right that the policies of conservative parties in many other countries would be seen as extreme left in the US and called socialist, used as a term of abuse and dismissal.

Since the 1980s, with the rise of neoliberalism in much of the world, many governments have adopted policies that benefit large corporations, disadvantage workers and hurt people in need. This process has been just as savage in the US, but starting from a worse position.

Decades ago, I read a book titled The Best Congress Money Can Buy. The author, Philip Stern, documented the way the US Congress is driven by campaign contributions. It’s possible to predict the votes of most members of Congress: the more money received from a group with a vested interest, the more likely the Congressperson’s vote will serve that interest.

My colleague Sharon Beder has written extensively on what she calls “business-managed democracy,” which basically means the manipulation and control of the system of representative government to serve the interests of big business.

Within the US, the Republican and Democratic parties are often seen as embodying right-wing and left-wing politics. However, the Democrats are left-wing only by contrast. Transposed to countries such as Australia, they would be on the far right.

Listen, liberal

In case you had any illusions about the Democrats, you should read Thomas Frank’s highly engaging and hard-hitting new book Listen, liberal, or, what ever happened to the party of the people?

The subtitle refers to “the party of the people”. That has been the self-image of the Democrats since the 1930s, during the great depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” introduced welfare measures and when trade unions were recognised. The federal government came to play a much larger role in managing the economy. Since then, the Democrats have had the reputation of being pro-labour.


Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, 1935

            Frank says all that has changed. He argues that since the 1990s, including with the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats have forgotten the working class and tried to distance themselves from the New Deal.

Frank’s diagnosis is harsh. He analyses all the major initiatives under the Clinton and Obama administrations, finding that poor people have been sacrificed. One example is the “welfare reform” bill passed under Clinton’s administration that removed benefits from struggling families, plunging them into abject poverty. Another is the crime bill that vastly expanded the prison population, with penalties that unfairly targeted African Americans.

If you read only the speeches by Clinton, Obama and other Democrat luminaries, you would not have an inkling of the problem, because rhetorically they continue to express concern about the struggles of “ordinary Americans”. What Frank has done is expose the policy reality behind the public rhetoric.

The new orientation of the Democrats

The Democrats have a new idol: the professional class and “innovation”. Frank reviews writings on what various writers have called the “new class” or the “professional-managerial class”. The traditional working class is in decline and a new group is in the ascendant, composed of lawyers, scientists, engineers, financial managers and a host of others with specialist training who reap rewards from the use of their intellects.

In the Democrats, the rise of this group is most clearly manifested in the appointments in the Clinton and Obama administrations. A large number of those chosen had degrees from Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale, in many cases advanced degrees. Not only are degrees from elite institutions prized: there is a great emphasis on these individuals being smart. Intelligence is the new currency for advancement.

Frank diagnoses the Democrats’ orientation as a commitment to meritocracy, which refers to a system in which those who have the most merit receive the greatest rewards. Attending Harvard is assumed to establish a person as worthy. In this way of seeing the world, being rich is the just outcome of a system that rewards performance. Inequality is the inevitable result of an unequal distribution of merit.

            Frank gives an extended treatment of Hillary Clinton’s politics. (He wrote the book before she lost the 2016 election.) She had many fine words about empowerment of women. How was this to be done? Basically, they just needed to be treated according to their merits. This is the usual prescription of liberal feminism, with the main concern being about well-off women held back from obtaining the very highest positions. As Frank notes, this offers little for the large numbers of women in the worst jobs, or without jobs, for whom equal opportunity is a pious phrase given structural conditions that keep them in their place.

Another feature of the Democrats’ political orientation is an adoration of innovation. Frank describes Boston’s Route 128 area of high-technology start-ups and universities, a haven of support for the Democrats and a model for what Democrat leaders see as the future for the country. Yet just fifty miles away, in the decaying rust-belt small town of Fall River, the desperate workers and townspeople are forgotten. These are the losers in the great transition to an innovation-driven future, and they are forgotten by the Democrats.

            Frank tells of Hillary Clinton’s hope for women worldwide. It is that they become entrepreneurs, running their own innovative businesses, following the footsteps of the multibillion-dollar tech companies. Micro-lending is touted as the salvation for Third World people in poverty, especially women, but, as Frank bitterly notes, it entwines them in the market and often makes them worse off than before.

So why do Democrats turn their back on the traditional working class? One answer is that they have a new source of support: high-tech business, providing ample donations to the Democrats. But campaign contributions are not the only factor, according to Frank. As noted, high-tech companies are exemplars of the success of the smartest people who went to the best universities, and they represent the triumph of innovation, seen as an unalloyed good. Meanwhile, the Democrats took for granted the support of working people. Where could they turn? (The answer: Trump.)

But could it have been any different? Perhaps the Democrats in power are so constrained by various powerful constituencies that doing something different is almost impossible. Frank has no time for this face-saving explanation. He points to the early days of Obama’s presidency. The economy was in peril due to the greed and shady operations of the bankers. This was a golden opportunity to shake up the system, and there were cries from across the country for the bankers to pay the penalty for their corrupt behaviour. So what did Obama do? He bailed out the banks with government money, leaving ordinary workers to pay for the damage. No bankers went to prison or were even charged. Instead, they got to keep their bonuses. Obama served the rich at the expense of the poor.

What next?

Listen, Liberal is an eloquent, impassioned complaint about the failure of the Democratic Party to address the plight of working class people in the US. But what are the implications? Frank hopes to raise awareness about what is happening, and does not propose solutions. In a long afterword written in 2017, after Trump’s election victory, he explains why Trump was so successful: he spoke to the people’s concerns about jobs and income. Frank has no illusions about Trump, anticipating that he will serve only the rich and betray the interests of his supporters. What Frank sees in Trump is the outcome of a two-party system that has offered no alternative to corporate globalisation and every-increasing economic inequality.

In US politics, the focus on the presidency is excessive. It’s as if everyone is looking for salvation from a supreme leader. This is misguided, but it is difficult to turn away from the spectacle. However, vast numbers of citizens have given up on electoral politics, at least if voter turnout is any indication.

What Frank does not describe are the many signs of hope. In my visits to the US, I have always been impressed by the high level of local activism on all sorts of issues. US activists are just as committed, insightful and resourceful as those in many other countries. The difference is that they have little visibility in the mainstream media and little effect on the positions of the major political parties. In Australia, reading the mainstream media, few would realise that after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in parts of the US there were protests against the war for weeks, months and even years afterwards.

Frank doesn’t address this sort of grassroots activism, perhaps because it so often bypasses the political parties. Frank does not even mention the Occupy movement that originated in the US, spread worldwide and put economic inequality on the political agenda. The Occupy movement steadfastly refused to make formal demands of the political system, instead seeking to exemplify a participatory alternative to representative government.

In the US, there are numerous economists questioning the neoliberal model. There are proponents and promoters of local currencies, an alternative to the usual centralised money system. There are climate change and other environmental activists building local energy systems. There are numerous initiatives based around cooperative work, of which Wikipedia and free software are the most well known. There are campaigners for alternative forms of governance.

Frank is rightly depressed by the capitulation of the Democrats, as well as the Republicans, to big business. But instead of yearning for the Democrats to return to the New Deal of the 1930s, perhaps it is time to question the value of party politics altogether.


Thomas Frank

“It is time to face the obvious: that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure for both the nation and for their own partisan health. ‘Failure’ is admittedly a harsh word, but what else are we to call it when the left party in a system chooses to confront an epic economic breakdown by talking hopefully about entrepreneurship and innovation? When the party of professionals repeatedly falls for bad, self-serving ideas like bank deregulation, the ‘creative class,’ and empowerment through bank loans? When the party of the common man basically allows aristocracy to return?” (pp. 255-256)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Building activism

You’re active in an organisation and you’d like to help it become more effective. How do you proceed? You can work harder yourself. You can try to recruit others to support the cause. You can set up a website, run an advertisement, or invite some friends to a meeting. What’s the most effective thing to do?

This question is relevant to a wide range of organisations, including sporting clubs, corporations, government departments, environmental groups, churches and political parties. Despite the importance of the question, surprisingly most organisation members simply rely on what they’ve always done.

For insight, it’s worth learning from the 2014 book How Organizations Develop Activists by Hahrie Han. To try to assess what methods worked better, Han looked at the different chapters of two US national organisations that she calls People for the Environment and the National Association of Doctors. Some chapters were more effective than others. Han interviewed members and observed strategies, and came up with a framework.

Three approaches

Some chapters relied on lone wolves. A lone wolf in this context is someone who takes action on their own. These individuals became committed to the cause, studied the issues, became very knowledgeable and wrote submissions and personally lobbied politicians. The lone wolf approach is usually not very effective because very few individuals maintain a commitment on their own and because collective action is vital for some purposes.


Lone wolf at work

            Other chapters relied on a second approach that Han calls mobilising. Core members would decide on actions, such as a meeting, petition drive or rally, and try to recruit people to join the action, for example by sending emails or ringing. Sometimes a mobilising strategy can bring huge numbers onto the street, especially when there is an event triggering outrage. This happened just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when campaigners were amazed by huge turnouts at rallies. But other times there is little response to the messages calling for action.

Han calls mobilising a “transactional” exchange between the organisation and the activist. The organisation seeks to make action as easy as possible so that, for the activist, the benefits of acting outweigh the costs.


Mass mobilisation: London, 15 February 2003

            Yet other chapters relied on a third approach that Han calls organising. Experienced members, in their role as organisers, try to identify members or supporters who might take a leadership role, and spend time helping them to develop their skills and motivation. In this model, organisers identify and train others to become autonomous leaders.

Han calls organising “transformational” because it aims to change individuals, developing their understanding, perspectives and emotional investments. Through this process, activists become more knowledgeable and involved, and start thinking strategically of how the organisation can achieve its goals.

Han says the most effective chapters use a combination of mobilising and organising. They use mobilising, for example getting people to public events, to achieve the goals of the organisation, and to identify potential leaders. Then organising methods are used to develop possible leaders, who go on to train others, building the capacity to mobilise many more people.

Although mobilising and organising are used in the most effective chapters, organising is the most easily neglected. In the heat of a campaign, core members may focus on getting out the numbers rather than the slower, long-term effort in helping others develop skills and motivations. Organising requires much hard work.


For decades, the Highlander Center in Tennessee has been training organisers

            Another factor is that media technologies now make mobilising easier than before. With databases giving the demographics of community members, it is straightforward to tap into pre-existing commitments. One consequence is that organising is sidelined.

Han’s analysis of civic organisations deals with US environmental and medical campaigning groups, and is oriented to influencing politicians. Whether her observations apply more widely is uncertain. Even with this caveat, I think Han’s conceptual division of organisational development into lone wolf, mobilising and organising approaches is immensely valuable. It provides an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of a range of organisations well outside the domain studied by Han.

“Distinct philosophies about transactional mobilizing and transformational organizing underlie these choices about how to engage with volunteers. In transactional mobilizing, the chapters were most focused on minimizing costs to maximize the numbers of people involved. In transformational organizing, the chapters were focused on creating experiences for volunteers that would begin to transform their affects and orientations towards activism. Thus, they were more likely to create work that brought people into contact with each other, and support that work through extensive coaching.” (p. 122)


Hahrie Han

Trade unions

Large unions have paid staff, and often the paid officials take on the bulk of union work, from holding meetings with employers to deciding on industrial action. There may not be much sustained effort to select workers who can become effective labour activists, thinking strategically, acting autonomously and in turn recruiting others to become activists. Why not? One reason is that unions have a natural constituency, the workers, with common interests, so it’s far easier to call on workers to take action than to develop more organisers.

Recently, I attended a campaign forum held by the local branch of my union, the National Tertiary Education Union. The presidents of branches at two other Australian universities — Damien Cahill at Sydney University and Vince Caughley at the University of Technology Sydney — told about their unions’ efforts to protect and improve staff conditions. They told about how union membership had declined in the aftermath of enterprise bargaining. Many university employees don’t see the point of being union members because they receive all the benefits of union efforts without having to pay union dues.


Vince and Damien at the University of Wollongong

Damien and Vince told about the importance of face-to-face meetings with individuals, of encouraging members to help in small ways (like putting up a notice about a meeting) and of identifying potential leaders. What they described fits perfectly in the organising mode. Because unions have a natural constituency for mobilising, organising is all the more important.

Other examples

In Australia, political parties are poor at organising. Party memberships have been shrinking for decades, and ever more activity is driven by political staffers. One factor is compulsory voting. There is no need to “get out the vote,” and therefore less incentive to employ either mobilising or organising strategies.

Universities, for the most part, do not do much organising. Most of the effort at marketing is done by paid staff. There are quite a few people willing to be volunteers, especially alumni and retired staff, but at most universities it is not a priority to identify and develop volunteers who will become ambassadors for the university. As a result, most of the efforts are by lone wolves, individuals who take the initiative themselves.

Learning via organising

Consider education and the challenge of helping people learn. Imagine there is an independent campaign group that tries to promote learning. This is not a lobbying group, seeking more government or private funding, but a group that directly engages with eager learners. How can such a group become more effective?

Following Han’s insights, the most promising model is a combination of mobilising and organising. But are there any such groups? In Australia, they exist only on the margins. One place is refugee support groups. In Wollongong there is a group called SCARF (Strategic Community Assistance to Refugee Families). Among its activities is a tutoring programme for refugee children. SCARF can extend this programme through recruiting more tutors and by more systematic mentoring of tutors so they can become leaders to recruit and train others.

Another place for direct learning is the home. Many parents take it upon themselves to assist their children’s learning. Home schoolers take a much heavier responsibility. Campaigners for home schooling can use the mobilising and organising methods described by Han.


home schooling

            However, there seems to be no wide-scale campaign in Australia to foster learning. The best examples of such campaigns have been in countries with low literacy, where efforts by social movements link learning with understanding of oppression and resistance. Paulo Freire’s efforts are most well known.

Some Western social movements see learning as part of their brief. They can form reading groups, study circles and other processes to build understanding. But such efforts are often seen as low priority because it’s easier to draw on people who have developed their skills through formal education. Movements are thus likely to neglect organising for learning.

Citizen advocacy as organising

In the disability sector in Australia, there is an important role for advocacy, in which an individual supports a person with a disability, helping them to meet their needs. An advocate is different from a service provider, who directly helps by providing food, transport, housing and other essentials. An advocate, in contrast, essentially speaks on behalf of the person with a disability to make sure the service system operates properly on their behalf.

Alice has an intellectual disability. Abandoned by her family, she lives in a group home where she has been subject to abuse by other residents. She has no friends. Jo, an advocate for Alice, puts pressure on the managers of the group home to place her in a safer residence. Jo introduces Alice to a few others who might become friends, uses contacts to get her a job, and helps her develop living skills.

In practice, family members, especially parents, most commonly act as advocates. But in some cases the family is unwilling or unable to help and the service system is overloaded or dysfunctional, so some other form of advocacy is valuable.

Jo could be a paid advocate, who acts on behalf of several people with disabilities. Another possibility is that Jo is a citizen advocate, taking action on behalf of Alice out of a personal commitment.

Citizen advocacy programmes were set up to promote this form of advocacy. Typically they have a few staff paid by government or private donations. The staff search the local community for people with disabilities who have significant unmet needs, like Alice, called protégés, then seek to recruit someone like Jo who will be an advocate, often on an ongoing basis. The staff then support the advocate by providing advice, training and encouragement.


A citizen advocate and protégé: Michelle and Winnie, Citizen Advocacy Perth West, http://www.capw.org.au/stories/michelle-winnie/

            Citizen advocacy in essence operates using an organising model, with a highly specific focus. The paid staff do not do advocacy themselves but devote most of their efforts to finding protégés and a suitable advocate for each protégé, and then supporting the advocates. However, citizen advocacy has only a limited capacity for expansion because it does not recruit or train new coordinators, namely people who could become match-makers themselves, though without pay. As well, mobilising methods could be valuable to expand citizen advocacy.

In contrast, paid advocacy is more analogous to the lone wolf model of activism. Individual advocates may be very good at their jobs, but cannot expand their efforts more broadly because the methods of mobilising and organising are not used.

A previous post: “The rise and decline of Illawarra Citizen Advocacy“. My account here refers to the time before the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Professionalisation

The methods of the lone wolf, mobilising and organising seem to apply most obviously to campaigning, which is Han’s focus. But what about actually doing jobs? Han studied a doctors’ advocacy organisation. But is there any organisation that tries to build a community capacity for health care? In China under Mao, “barefoot doctors,” who learned basic skills but were not professionally trained, served the rural poor. However, where the medical profession is well established, there is little or no fostering of the capacity of people outside the formal structures to contribute. About the most that anyone does is take a first-aid course, or perhaps volunteer at a hospice.


barefoot doctoring in rural China

            By excluding non-trained individuals, occupations maintain a monopoly over service, preventing competition and maintaining salaries and conditions for those accepted into the occupation. This applies in professionalised domains such as medicine, dentistry, law and engineering. The same phenomenon applies to most large employers. A company, to get a job done, hires workers and spends little effort at developing the skills of non-workers to do the same job. To do so would be heresy: it would be seen as undermining the work of those paid to do it. Within government departments, the same applies. There is little effort at recruiting unpaid helpers and developing their skills. That would be a threat to the paid workers and seen as exploitation of the unpaid helpers, even if they were keen to contribute.

Things would be different if everyone was guaranteed a decent annual income, as proposed by advocates of the UBI, universal basic income. If paid work were a voluntary extra, then mobilising and organising would become more important to encourage people to make contributions to worthwhile causes.

Han points out that in practice few organisations rely entirely on one approach. The lone wolf, mobilising and organising approaches are “ideal types” that are helpful for better understanding what happens in actual organisations. One of Han’s most important messages is that organising is often neglected. One reason for this is that so many social institutions are set up to protect those with skills and to marginalise outsiders. Thus, it is bound to be an uphill battle to expand the role of organising. And to do this, the most obvious method is — organising!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Damien Cahill, Sharon Callaghan, Julie Dunn and Jan Kent for valuable feedback.

Comment from Sharon Callaghan

I liked the pointers to longer-term solutions on building activism. Workers in disability services in Australia who are active in their union came together and said they wanted access to quality training and recognition of the skills they bring to their work. The Australian Services Union, as the union for these workers, commissioned a report. Workers in disability are now seeking “A Portable Training Entitlement Scheme for the Disability Support Services Sector“, to give the title of the report authored by Drs Rose Ryan and Jim Stanford. This campaign, if successful, will address other gaps in this sector. Quality training and supervision, whistleblower protections and strong workplace safety mechanisms are important to workers who often have extraordinary responsibilities caring for vulnerable service users. Organising and supporting workers to speak out and demand their entitlements has long lasting flow on benefits for the service and sector.

I was interested in the idea of organising both inside and outside formal structures and accept some forms of professionalisation are not open to those seen as “non expert.” Personal activism with the freedom to speak out may still be limited when lacking the resources, skill development and support that formal groups can provide. Somehow finding ways to allow the authentic voice of the activist come through with assistance of the formal structure of their union, university or community group, may be a good way to go.

Doing your best under pressure

When under pressure, your performance can suffer. There are many proven ways to overcome this problem.

Are you ever nervous at a crucial time? It might be an interview for a job you desperately want. Or a public talk in front of friends or critics. If you play sport, it could be a big game.

Most people have performance anxiety at some times. It is cruel. Not only does it make you feel terrible, but it can harm your performance. Speakers at a big occasion freeze up and can’t remember their lines, or speak in a leaden voice while reading a text. A golfer misses a crucial putt, commonly called choking.

 

I’ve read that many people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. Some famous opera singers are anxious throughout their careers and have to be pushed onto the stage. I’ve talked with academics who never get over their worries about giving lectures. Some professional musicians take beta blockers to calm their nerves.

            Decades ago, I played competition chess, and eventually began to become nervous about making a blunder, a bad move that meant the game was lost. Strangely, after making a blunder I would totally relax, because I knew I didn’t need to worry any more. After several games like this, I stopped playing.

Pressure can also have a more drawn-out effect. I see this among colleagues who have trouble finishing articles and sending them to journals. Their anxiety is caused by thinking their work is not good enough. Some of them fear rejection; others cannot measure up to their own internal critics.

If you suffer performance nerves in any part of your life, I recommend the book Performing under Pressure by Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry. It draws on the large amount of research in this area. Best of all, it has a multitude of practical tips.

Pressure

You might imagine that you perform better under pressure. A looming deadline concentrates the mind, enabling you to get the work done. But in many ways pressure can have a negative impact.

You are in the middle of a crucial interview or presentation. To do your best, you need all of your mental capacity directed to the task at hand, with no distractions. However, the pressure of the situation may cause you to worry about making a mistake. You might even start thinking of worst-case scenarios, if you mess up entirely. It doesn’t matter exactly what you’re thinking of: if it’s anything except the task at hand, it saps mental energy and prevents you from doing your best.

For some tasks, you rely entirely on your unconscious mind: you do things without thinking consciously about them. Your breathing is an example. When you learn a skill well, like a golf swing, eventually it becomes automatic, and you don’t need to think consciously about it. Under pressure though, if you start doubting yourself, you may pay attention to what is usually routine. You start thinking about your golf swing rather than where the ball will go. You lose the benefit of unconscious, automatic processing, and your skill level declines. You may end up choking: your stroke is way off!

Solutions

Part 2 of Performing under Pressure describes “pressure solutions.” When you’re under pressure, these are things you can do to perform better. There are 22 of them!

Pressure solution 1 is “befriend the moment”.  The way you think about pressure makes a big difference.

“… individuals who perceive a task or situation not as a threat but instead as a challenge, an opportunity, or fun are far more likely to perform up to the level of their ability, increasing their changes for success.” (p. 112)

Number 13 is “pressure yourself.” When preparing for a high-pressure situation, the idea is to practise what’s involved with pressure. I did this years ago when preparing to play the Weber clarinet concerto #2 with the Wollongong Symphony, a really high-stress occasion for me. I practised the piece for months, of course,  and rehearsed with the orchestra. Then, closer to the concert, I simulated some of the circumstances. At home, I played through the entire concerto without stopping. I played it along with a recording. I dressed up in my performance clothes and played it, imagining being in front of an audience of 500. At the concert, I was very nervous beforehand but relaxed as soon as I walked on stage. I’m sure that pressuring myself in advance made a difference.

            Pressure solution #15 is to write down your fears. There is a considerable body of research showing the power of writing to reduce the mental effects of traumatic experiences. The technique is simple: spend a few minutes writing down what happened and how you felt or feel about it. This straightforward exercise, spending just 20 minutes writing on three days, has been shown to have lasting benefits. Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry report on one study about using writing in advance of a stressful challenge.

For students who didn’t write out their thoughts and feelings, there was a high correlation between test anxiety and performance – the more anxious the student, the worse the performance. In contrast, those students who wrote about their test thoughts and feelings showed no relationship between test anxiety and performance. In fact, the highly anxious students did as well as the less anxious students. (p. 140)

With 22 pressure solutions on offer, you should find it easy to find at least a few that work. It’s a matter of trying them and seeing what difference they make, and recruiting a few friends who can provide an independent assessment of the outcomes.

I think a big obstacle is that many people do not want to talk about their performance anxiety, or even think about it, perhaps with the fear that this will make it worse. Avoidance is easier in the short term. Checking out solutions means confronting what causes anxiety.

The COTE of armour

In part 3, Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry take a step back and look at ways for people to become more resistant to performance anxiety and more able to use it to their advantage. They present four generic personality strengths: confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm. Each one can be fostered.

Consider optimism. Many people believe that pessimism or optimism are character traits, which is true enough, but also believe that they are unalterable. Actually, though, there ways to change.

Optimism is not just thinking that everything will turn out okay. It involves several features. One is permanence. An optimistic attitude involves assuming that good things will continue but that bad things are temporary. A promotion at work is taken as a sign of continued success, but rejection of a promotion is treated as a short-term setback to be overcome by trying harder.

A second important feature of optimism is pervasiveness. An optimistic attitude treats positives as pervading all parts of life and treating negatives as restricted in relevance. A pessimistic salesperson, having a bad day, might say “I’ll never be any good at anything” whereas an optimistic one might just say “It was a bad day but tomorrow will be different.”

An important part of optimism is looking for positives, even in disastrous situations, and working towards them. The willingness to continue is important.

As well as describing the value of confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm, Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry give tips on becoming stronger in each of them. For example, to become more tenacious, they recommend setting meaningful goals, practising focusing, being adaptable enough to look for alternative paths to achieve goals, and thinking of obstacles as opportunities.


Hendrie Weisinger

Putting it into practice

Performing under Pressure is a valuable manual for improving in clutch situations. Following the authors’ suggestions will lead to short-term solutions and long-term improvement. Eventually, pressure that used to cause anxiety will be welcomed as a challenge and as a prod to doing ever better. Too good to be true? For many individuals, the challenge is to just get started.

Based on my observations, many people seem resigned to their current set of skills. Rather than study and practise how to become better under pressure, they are more likely to continue what they’ve always done. To improve requires a willingness to become involved in self-transformation, to think of yourself in a different way, and to put in the effort to achieve the vision.

Ironically, those with the most confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm are most likely to benefit from the authors’ insights and advice. It requires a degree of tenacity to obtain and read a book, think about its relevance and to institute a programme to implement some of its suggestions.

My guess is that the most promising way to improve is to find one or two friends and work together at changing, helping each other. How to proceed is straightforward. The challenge is to begin.


J P Pawliw-Fry

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au