Memo To Government: Having An Opinion Is Not A Crime

By now we ought to have learnt this lesson: don’t let lawyers write law. At first glance, the Gillard government’s proposed changes to federal anti-discrimination law seem pretty benign. The expressed goal is to merge a bunch of acts into one omnibus act, reducing red tape and duplication. But this impression lasts for exactly as long as it takes to read the draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012. Then it becomes clear the goal is something else entirely – to politicise civil society and tangle our interpersonal relationships in litigation.

It is an extraordinarily broad, excessive, vague and dangerous piece of legislation. To take one of the bill’s most revolutionary provisions: it would become unlawful to offend someone in a work or any work-related environment because of their political opinion. Yes, the bill actually says “political opinion”. If it became law, our beliefs would become sacrosanct. It would be against the law to insult them. The idea is absurd. Politics – the winner-take-all contest for power – is always going to be offensive to someone.

”Work-related area” could mean almost anything as well. The government says it intends to take a broad view of what counts as work-related. Even volunteering would be covered.

So, did a colleague say something disparaging against the Greens? Sue them. Not amused by a cartoon on a co-worker’s Facebook wall? Sue them. Didn’t get invited back to the bake sale after you called the Prime Minister “Juliar”? Probably discrimination – sue them all. Don’t be shy. If you disagree with someone’s politics, you can just take them to court.

Has the government really not thought this all through? Or do they genuinely want to bury society in an avalanche of lawsuits and legal threats?

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Sure, oppositions are sometimes pressed for time, but governments bother to read their own legislation. It seems there are lawyers within the Attorney-General’s Department who believe Australians should be encouraged to take each other to court for trivial slights.

Australia’s political classes have long made a hobby of suing each other. Now the government wants the hoi polloi to share the fun.

The draft bill even reverses the burden of proof in favour of the persons saying they were offended, and ensures that they won’t be penalised if they lose. These provisions are all designed to make the process easier; to ensure more lawsuits are launched.

On Wednesday, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, conceded the bill perhaps goes too far. “Maybe there’s wisdom,” she said, in raising the threshold for legal action above offence.

Wisdom, yes, but wisdom her organisation does not share. The Human Rights Commission’s official recommendation to government was not to ease back but to double down – to make it unlawful to politically offend anybody in any area of “public life”. This would include “access to public places”.

Still, that argument has a perverse logic. If the government thinks of workplaces as part of public life (that’s what the draft bill says) why should the ban against political offence be limited to the office or factory?

But it’s hard to think of anything more undemocratic than the exclusion of controversial political opinion from public life. Free debate is a pillar of liberal democracy. We should be resolving our political disagreements in public, not through lawyers.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has a brief to promote and protect human rights. And it’s been pushing for these changes for years. There’s no surprise there. The commission faces a specific set of incentives. Discrimination complaints go to the commission for “conciliation” before they head to court. And the more human rights problems there are, the more human rights problems the commission will be asked to conciliate.

In a 2009 paper, one Human Rights Commissioner even said the government should “moderate” the expression of religion in public. In his view, religions needed to be tamed by “the hand of government, even if gentle and gloved”.

Freedom of religion and expression are our oldest liberties. Yet in the mind of the government’s chief human rights body they ought to take a back seat to new rights such as the right not to be offended.

The commission talks about trade-offs between competing rights. These trade-offs seem very one-sided. Inevitably, the government ends up with more power and civil society ends up subject to more legal control. This bill goes to a Senate committee over the Christmas holidays. It needs to die a quick death.

Addicted: The Medicalisation Of Bad Behaviour

Our ancestors used religion to ward off the things that scared them. We use medicine. There are few better illustrations of the perverse “medicalisation” of society than the claim that “video game craving is as bad as alcohol”.

We’re taking the human condition (passion, obsession, desire, pleasure) and trying to turn it into a medical condition.

The story is as follows: a PhD candidate at the Australian National University recruited 38 gamers who played an average of 10 to 15 hours of video games a week. Those who reported feelings of withdrawal or cravings to keep playing their favourite game were classed as addicts.

All participants then did a simple test: they were shown a series of differently coloured words and asked to name the colour, not the word, as quickly as they could. Some of the words were related to video games, and with those words the ”addicts” took longer to name the colour than the casual gamers.

The conclusion? Gaming addicts are as consumed by games as alcoholics are consumed by drinking. This is apparently ‘”some of the first scientific evidence that video gaming can be addictive”.

But let’s back up a bit. Ten to 15 hours of gaming a week isn’t very much. The Australian Communications and Media Authority says Australians watch about 20 hours of television a week.

Sometimes we might even suffer negative consequences from this indulgence. (“One more episode of Homeland? It’s already 10.30, but …”) We may get emotionally involved in a show. We might even crave it.

But you could say the same thing about any hobby. And nobody is suggesting the average Australian is addicted to television or fishing or woodwork. At least, not in any meaningful, medical sense.

Addiction is a notoriously slippery concept. In a 2000 study published in the journal Addiction Research, 20 senior addiction experts in the American Psychological Association were asked to define what they meant by the word “addiction”. The answers differed wildly.

Only half the experts could get on board a definition that included “physical dependence”. And that was the closest they came to consensus – except for a general dissatisfaction with the way addiction has come to mean more than dependence on chemical substances.

Yet this is the muddy, vague, uncertain, ill-defined concept that we seem desperate to stamp on every sort of abnormal behaviour. Without any firm foundation, the popular use of the word addiction is creeping into the scientific world.

Excessive shopping? Addiction. Excessive internet use? Addiction.

Yes, people can make a lot of money treating the choices as pathology. There’s always a pill available, or a specialist spruiking their professional services. But we’re as guilty as the medical profession here. The medicalisation of everything is comforting.

First, there’s nothing more appealing than a scientific veneer. If someone has a few too many boozy nights in a row, they don’t go easy for a while, no – they ”detoxify”. All those cultish detox diets offer little more than clean living. But they’re dressed up in pseudo-medical jargon.

Second, if something has a medical cause, it has a medical cure. This is an era of expertise and technological fixes. There is no problem that money and experts cannot fix. In January, a British MP called for the government to pay for the treatment of “those who suffer from internet or gaming addictions”. (But that’s not remotely silly compared with the Swedish heavy metal fan who is on disability support because of his heavy metal addiction.)

Medicalisation comforts because it suggests that our bad decisions are not our fault. Describing self-destructive behaviours as addictions is the ultimate way to shirk individual responsibility. Rather than agents of our own choices, we become passive recipients, preyed on by our surroundings. This is utterly dehumanising. One could ask why we’re so eager to dehumanise ourselves.

Sure, video game addiction looks a lot like a bog-standard moral panic. When someone dies from playing a game 40 hours straight – as a teenager did in Taiwan this year – commentators pontificate about video games, not, say, depression. Every pleasure has to have its dark side.

But society’s fear of addiction – our desperation to turn everything into a medical condition – goes to something deeper. We no longer burn witches; we diagnose them. Either way, we’re still chasing witches.

The Coalition’s Impressionist Platform Paints The Wrong Picture

The Queensland state election was only held in March. But it feels like such a long time ago. Nobody would feel the distance between then and now more keenly than Tony Abbott.

After Campbell Newman’s extraordinary landslide, Abbott and the federal Coalition were being told by polls and commentators that they, too, were looking at a record win. Julia Gillard would lose Queensland-style.

It made sense. Labor was crippled by leadership questions, multiple scandals, and the imminent introduction of the carbon tax. The polls even suggested the Coalition could win the Senate. If not, then a quick, comfortable double dissolution would sort that out.

Eight months later, the polls are back roughly where they were at the last election – the one the Coalition didn’t win.

Tony Abbott is increasingly unpopular. Colleagues are telling the press he should cut down media appearances. His disapproval rating is the highest of any opposition leader since Alexander Downer.

Is this comparison unfair? Of course. Abbott has had Labor on the back foot almost continuously since 2009. Under Malcolm Turnbull, the Coalition would have been on the receiving end of a Queensland-style wipeout. But it’s not true to say Abbott is the most effective opposition leader in history. The only mark of success in opposition is becoming the government. And Tony Abbott is going to have to change tack if the Coalition wants to remain competitive at the next election.

Sure, if an election were held today, the opposition might win it. But an election is probably a year away. Victory requires more than optimism. Ask Mitt Romney. The Coalition has long believed it can win government on an impressionist platform: a few bold, strong strokes (stop the boats, axe the tax, pay back the debt) that, if voters step back and squint, offer a picture of what an Abbott government might look like. Those strokes are looking worn and colourless.

Asylum seeker policy has been so fudged that it’s not clear which party is promising to be toughest any more. More boats are arriving than ever. But in retrospect Julia Gillard irretrievably confused the whole issue with the Malaysia solution back in 2011.

The carbon tax no longer resonates as it once did. It will do nothing to halt climate change. It is designed to get more costly every year. But people are already forgetting about it. Voters tend to tolerate policies – even intensely hated ones – once they’ve been introduced. It still should be repealed, but it’s hard to see the Coalitionwinning on that alone.

And certainly, it seems unlikely the government will soon bring the budget into surplus. But few people care about the deficit, per se, they care about a government being so reckless with the public purse that it goes into deficit. So, until the opposition offers an alternative plan, the government just has to pretend it is sweating blood to fix the problem.

Yes, offer an alternative plan. Impressionism isn’t working.

One alternative would be to roll out a series of clear, detailed, and memorable policies that will stand alone long after Julia Gillard has left the stage. Nothing makes an opposition look more like a potential government than policy debate. Drafting policy is risky without the bureaucracy backing you up. It is a necessary risk. Or the Coalition could embrace abstraction, and present a fresh, philosophically driven vision of government. Even today, politics is still about ideas.

Abbott is better placed than most politicians for this latter approach. His 2009 book Battlelines is a manifesto of a modern, activist, big-government conservative philosophy.

Joe Hockey offered a different direction in his ”End of the Age of Entitlement” speech in April – a wholesale rethink of how government relates to its taxpayers.

But Abbott steers clear of the philosophy of Battlelines. And nobody grasped Hockey’s nettle. This lack of story about what would drive an Abbott government is why Coalition supporters are wrong to blame character assassination for their troubles. The polls were heading down long before Julia Gillard made the misogyny speech.

Every government says the opposition is being negative. Negativity is only a problem if it looks opportunistic. A cohesive philosophical vision is a shield against such charges.

And claims that Abbott is unpopular because he is too effective a critic of the government … well, that’s like saying in a job interview that your biggest weakness is you care too much about your work.

Personal unpopularity is not a barrier to success. Australians don’t want to be seduced by their politicians. We are not romantic about the prime ministership. Quirks are appealing. Gaffes are easy to forgive.

But right now, the Coalition has to start looking like a government, not a pressure group.

In praise of ticket scalping, horse eating and trading in human organs

Should we be able to buy horse meat at restaurants or for home cooking? It is not as if horses are a protected species. We already export them for human consumption. Australian food markets sell goat, kangaroo, camel, buffalo, crocodile, even wallaby and alpaca. Why not horse?

Yet when a Perth butcher and a Melbourne chef tried to introduce horse meat two years ago, they were met with a storm of protest, and had to withdraw it from sale.

If horse meat seems a bit banal, then what about pets? How would you feel if somebody slaughtered their family dog and sold the meat? Disgust? More likely repugnance.

These odd questions are among the valuable contributions to humanity by the 2012 co-winner of the economics Nobel Prize, Alvin E. Roth.

Roth won for devising a system where donor organs are matched with patients. There is a global shortage of organ donors. One Australian dies every week waiting for a transplant. A strategy to help deserves all the recognition it gets.

So where does repugnance come in? We already have a great way to harmonise organ supply and organ demand – markets. If donors were able to charge for their kidneys, there would be more kidneys available. People respond to incentives. And a legal, regulated, safe market for organs would be better than today’s dangerous illegal market. Yet it is unlawful to compensate someone for donating a kidney. We are relying on altruism to meet our transplant demand.

Roth devised an algorithm to efficiently allocate what little organ supply there is with some of those who need transplants – given that legislators have decided it is immoral for people to trade organs for money.

The Nobel committee described this anti-market bias as ”ethical grounds”. Some ethics. By limiting the amount of organs available, those ethical grounds are killing people.

Roth published an influential paper in 2007, Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets, in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. We find all sorts of things repugnant. And we do so instinctively, not rationally.

Take gambling. Many find sports betting obnoxious, as if it undermines the purity of sport. Calling for a ban on internet betting, Nick Xenophon once complained cricket had been ”reduced to just another event to have a punt on”. Likewise, some political professionals believe that gambling on an election is highly distasteful.

When, in 2003, a team of Pentagon economists tried to set up prediction markets – that is, using betting to predict the likelihood of future events – for terrorist attacks, they were pounced upon. One congressman described the program as trading in death. ”There is something very sick about it,” said Senator Barbara Boxer.

Just ”something”. Sure, betting on future terrorist attack probabilities is unorthodox. But it might have worked. The purpose was to predict attacks and stop them. Yet for those politicians, it felt wrong. The program was quickly shut down.

What we think is repugnant is determined by our culture. Historically, lending money at interest has been unacceptable. This makes some strange sense. Lenders who charge for the privilege of borrowing money seem a bit heartless – it is not like idle money is being used. And why should people get rich just for sitting around?

Ticket scalping is another repugnant market. It somehow seems unfair to pay more than the cover price for concerts. But a basic lesson of economics is that markets allocate goods to those who value them the most (that is, those who are most willing to pay). Scalping is a good thing.

Ticket scalping also shows how special interests can use repugnance as cover for their own private gain. Ticket sellers want governments to stamp out the secondary ticket trade. They don’t like the competition.

Yet anti-scalping laws make it harder to get tickets to popular events, not easier. Just like outlawing the organ market makes it harder for sick people to get transplants. Or banning horse meat restricts the availability of tasty horse meat.

It is fine for individuals to object to certain practices. If you don’t want to be compensated for your organ donation, you don’t have to charge. And nobody is forcing you to bet on future terrorism.

But it is a real problem when feelings obtain the force of law. That gut reaction – ”there is something very sick about it” – can sometimes cause real harm.

Rose-Coloured Glasses Make For Sentimental Fools

TLabor used to say John Howard had a shameful nostalgia for the 1950s. The ALP is sentimental, too. But Labor’s nostalgia is entirely about itself.

That’s the lesson from two recent books: Politics with Purpose by former finance minister Lindsay Tanner and Speechless: A Year in my Father’s Business by James Button (a former Age journalist and son of John Button, a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments).

Tanner writes of the end of ”labourism”, a pragmatic, union-centred philosophy that dominated the 20th century. Labourism had broad community appeal. Labourism, Tanner argues, is gone now.
Button writes of his failure to recapture what drew his father to the ALP: a world of political combat and idealism and Trades Hall.

Labor’s soul-searching about whether the party has values, a base, a purpose, is essentially about the past. It’s odd for a progressive party to be so weighed down by its own sense of history. Yet it is. Just before Gough Whitlam staked his own claim to Labor mythology, he, too, was rueing the ALP’s decline. Even in the 1890s there were Labor people certain that their movement had abandoned its earlier principles.

You can understand why. The Light on the Hill, the Tree of Knowledge, the turn-of-the-century strikes – how could anybody live up to these poetic legends? They’ve been so built up they’re weaknesses, not strengths.

Liberals fret about their history, too. Malcolm Fraser’s ghost haunted the Howard years. No Coalition government wants to squib market reform like the Fraser government did.

Neither major party looks as it did half a century ago. They’re no longer ”mass” parties at all. Membership is shrinking. Branches are closing. Nearly 200,000 people were members of the Liberal Party in 1950. It’s now less than half of that. Across the aisle, the 2010 review by John Faulkner, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks showed Labor membership had declined by a quarter since the 2007 election.

Only about 1 per cent of Australians are members of any party. Labor feels the pain strongest. It thinks of itself as a movement. A movement without people isn’t very impressive.

The conservatives are more stoic about their shrinking membership. A review by Peter Reith on Liberal Party reform was produced with much less fanfare than the Faulkner-Carr-Bracks attempt.

But both reviews came up with the same ideas. Parties have to give the rank and file more influence over policy. They should experiment with American-style primary elections. In his book, Tanner proposed expanding the ALP’s national conference to accommodate some of the lowly branch members.

Many people claim primaries will counter the rising power of party machines. Yet those machines have probably never been less powerful than now. In recent leadership ballots the ALP factions have split every which way. No longer is Australian politics controlled by anonymous warlords. The faceless men are now publicity hounds. They run internal campaigns on Sky News. They taunt their opponents on Twitter.

It isn’t lost values or machine politics or a desire for empowerment behind the decline of the mass-member party. It’s that the mass party doesn’t make a lot of sense.

In the 1950s, Australians didn’t have much choice: if they were interested in politics they would have to go to a local branch meeting. We are better off. We can watch Lateline and 24-hour news and argue forever on the internet. For political types, party gatherings were once the best entertainment around. Now, surely, they are the worst.

Parties are vehicles to shepherd politicians into seats and form governments. Why do they also have to be debating societies, ideas factories, or social movements?

But there’s a deeper issue. Sectarianism is passe. Choosing a political identity is not a matter of picking one side or another side. We prefer to join lots of causes rather than one team. We tend to take bits and pieces from everywhere, and resent parties that fail to live up to our highly specific preferences. This is healthy – Australia is a nation of individuals, not tribes – but it is a hostile environment for a mass political party.

When federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said earlier this year he just wanted to ”fight Tories” it struck a weird note. There is nobody who thinks of Australia in such sectarian terms – nobody outside the tiny, declining fraction of the population who are party members. But that’s the dead-end of political nostalgia. Pity those who still think like that.

Stay tuned for the red underpants theory of bad TV

Occasionally, usually by accident (sometimes if they think nobody is listening) politicians say what they really believe.

“I have unfettered legal power,” Communications Minister Stephen Conroy told an obscure conference in New York in September. “If I say to everyone in this room, ‘If you want to bid in our spectrum auction you’d better wear red underpants on your head’, I’ve got some news for you. You’ll be wearing them on your head.”

Conroy was clearly having a bit of fun. But he’s right. He has complete, arbitrary and absolute control over who broadcasts on the airwaves and the circumstances in which they broadcast, and that control has been disastrous for television consumers.

Let’s call this the ”red underpants” theory of why Australian TV is so bad. Australia seems to have completely missed the great television renaissance. In the US and Britain, audiences are being treated to some of the most brilliant high-quality television the world has ever seen – think of everything from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to The Thick of It.

But Australian commercial TV is languishing. The networks are producing nothing comparable to what’s being made overseas. Their biggest problem is how quickly they can show foreign programs before everybody downloads them. This week Channel Ten announced both a full-year loss and voluntary redundancies. Channel Nine is buried in debt and flirting with receivership.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for those whose livelihoods are threatened. It’s hard to feel sympathy for the networks. The television broadcasting industry is probably Australia’s last, greatest vestige of crony capitalism.

Mr Conroy’s unfettered red underpants power – and that of the communications ministers who’ve gone before him – has been used to protect broadcasters from competition, lock out new technologies and entrench tired business models.

Basic economics tells us that when you deliberately limit competition you lower quality. Basic politics tells us when governments and corporations get into bed, consumers lose.

Broadcasting was a protected industry from day one. In 1905 the Commonwealth government took absolute control over the airwaves with the Wireless Telegraphy Act. The government had delayed passing the legislation for a few years. It was worried that the new wireless technology would be a competitive threat to the existing telegraph cable companies.

From then on, anybody who wanted to broadcast had to apply to the government for permission.

Throughout the 20th century, politicians forged close relationships with media moguls. Each scratched the other’s back. Politicians who played ball were treated kindly by the broadcasters. In return, governments kept away competition and protected advertising revenue. As one broadcasting regulator said in the 1970s, all decisions about the airwaves were ”very substantially influenced by political considerations”.

The number of radio and television stations has been strictly limited. It is extraordinary that in 2012 we still do not have a fourth television network.

New technologies were deliberately held back. The US had FM radio in the 1940s. There were experiments with FM transmission in Australia in 1947. But AM broadcasters didn’t want the competition. The government only licensed FM stations in 1974.

The delayed introduction of pay television was just as scandalous. There were several proposals to offer Australians pay TV services in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s the government relented. Even then it banned pay-TV advertising for the first few years – just to keep existing free-to-air broadcasters happy. Free-to-air television is still protected by laws that give it first dibs on the best sporting content. Don’t imagine this is done for the public’s benefit.

When the government finally got around to introducing digital television – a technology that allows the broadcast of dozens more channels on the same limited spectrum – the spectrum was offered exclusively to the three existing commercial networks. This is effectively a gift of hundreds of millions of dollars to a broadcasting cartel.

In 1959, Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase proposed a way to get politics out of the airwaves. Treat radio spectrum like property, he argued, and let broadcasters use and trade their property as they see fit.

Because a government with unfettered power to force people to wear underpants on their head also has unfettered power to make deals with its media mates against the interests of the public.

Rebels Without A Cause Indulge In Delusions Of Revolution

Comparisons between the Arab Spring and Wall Street protests are facile.

It’s hard to imagine a comparison more trite than that made between the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. The former involves millions in the Muslim world revolting against dictators and autocrats. For decades, police states have squashed dissent and violated human rights.

The latter is a small protest against consumer capitalism. The Wall Street protesters don’t like executive salaries, industrial agriculture, drug patents and personal debt. They’re annoyed with corporate influence on politics and society.

The Occupy Wall Street protest has spread to 100 American cities. It seems no press report on it is complete without reference to events in the Middle East.

On ABC’s Q&A last Monday, journalist Mona Eltahawy said the American movement was directly inspired by the Arab revolts. And the organisers of a local Occupy Melbourne – convening next Saturday to avoid weekday traffic – claim kinship with those who paid with their lives to rise against Muammar Gaddafi. That’s not just trite; it’s insulting.

It’s hard to detect much of a relationship beyond their shared use of Twitter and Facebook.

When Arab revolutionaries talk about their human rights being violated, they refer to murder, torture and looting. The Occupy Wall Street crowd refer to having to repay college loans or a mortgage.

Yet the comparison is made, just as it was with the London riots. We now know that three-quarters of the rioters had existing criminal records. Commentators claimed the riots were a social revolution like Egypt. They were just opportunistic lawlessness.

If Occupy Wall Street is nothing like the Arab Spring, what is it? The protest was conceived by counterculture magazine Adbusters. It shares the mag’s unfocused anti-capitalist ennui. And its belief corporations play the US government like a cheap violin. Occupy Wall Street is mostly occupying the wrong place. The bank bailouts were obscene. Yet it seems the protesters think government should spare no expense keeping the economy afloat. It’s hard to work out what their critique is – apart from saying bankers are rich.

If the protesters are truly incensed about the taxpayers’ money given to bankers, they’d be better off blockading the White House. ”We Want The Sacks Of Gold Goldman Sachs Stole From Us” stated one placard. Stole? Those sacks were handed over willingly by the political ”representatives of the people”.

Their other prominent complaint concerns the widespread housing foreclosures. But those foreclosures are the result of decades of legislators and bureaucrats chipping away at lending standards in pursuit of social goals. Again, Washington is to blame. Instead, Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Melbourne talk simply about standing up to the ”dictators of capital”.

Sure, juvenile social rebellion is common. But many journalists and commentators are eager to believe 2011 is a year of discontent – that the financial crisis has led to a global mutiny against ”neoliberalism”.

Celebrities give the protest a carnival atmosphere. Danny DeVito. Susan Sarandon. Alec Baldwin. Michael Moore, of course. Another supporter, Rosanne Barr, said she’d use a guillotine on Wall Street’s ”worst of the worst”. Barr’s rhetoric could come from the Arab Spring, but from the dictators’ side.

Many people imagine great economic crises must spark great social revolts. In the past few years, economic growth in the Middle East has been slow but still among the highest in the world. Middle Eastern protesters are angry about tyrants, not student debt and other people’s salaries. By comparing themselves with the Arab Spring, all the Occupy Wall Street crowd demonstrate is that people in the First World have nothing like the problems of those living under autocracy in the Third.

McMansions A Sign Of Our Country’s Wealth, Not A Lack Of Taste

Is there any more snobbish word in the Australian vocabulary than “McMansion”? This nasty term describes the big, new houses out in suburbs with names like Caroline Springs and Kellyville. McMansions, their nickname suggests, are the McDonald’s of housing – they’re super-sized, American and mass produced.

Australians build the largest new houses in the world. The average size of a new freestanding home is 243 square metres. That’s 10 per cent larger than the average new American home. Naturally our big houses have critics. Sustainability advocates say McMansions are bad for the environment. Yet there’s more going on here. Because even the most high-brow academic critiques of McMansions seem to focus less on the houses and more on the people who live in them.

Terry Burke, a professor of urban studies at Swinburne University, wrote in The Conversation last year that McMansions breach the ”good principles” of environmental sustainability. Fair enough. But Burke doubled down: McMansions are very ugly, and their occupants, who also apparently own four-wheel-drives and send their children to private schools, are giving ”an ‘up yours’ message to the world”.

That sort of sneering contempt is not uncommon. The word ”McMansion” is usually deployed not to appraise a type of house, but an entire way of life. It is all about culture – the inner city world trying to understand their strange, alien suburban cousins.

Suburban living in general is more environmentally friendly than inner-city living. A study by the Australian Conservation Foundation (no fan of consumer capitalism) concluded that, even taking into account car use, “inner-city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption”.

Someone who lives in a big home can still train to work, conserve energy or water, and, if they choose, live a fashionably carbon-neutral life.

Why do we build our houses so big? Well, Australia has a lot of space. But more importantly: we can. Australia is probably the richest country in the world. We have the fastest growing income in the world. We have the highest median wealth. Our only real competition in the rich stakes comes from city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong or oil plutocracies such as Qatar. And many Australians have decided to spend their riches on new homes.

Even if you don’t put much stock in income statistics, the size of our houses is – by itself – evidence that Australia is well off. Prosperity is about more than GDP data. Money isn’t everything. Anybody who has lived crammed into too few rooms knows living standards and adequate space are closely related. In rich Australia it’s understandable that many people desire extra living and storage space.

The people who best understand the relationship between housing size and living standards aren’t architectural academics or urban planners. They’re archaeologists.

Historians of the ancient world don’t have tables of wealth and income data. To estimate how rich societies were, they look at proxies. House are among the best and most accessible.

For instance, excavated homes are one way we know ancient Greece was far richer than other civilisations in the Mediterranean. According to the historian Ian Morris, between 800BC and 300BC the median Greek house size ballooned from 80 square metres to 360 square metres. And this wealth was shared among the free population, not concentrated among the ruling elite. Just as it is in 21st-century Australia. Large homes are now within the reach of moderate-income families. This is something worth celebrating, not deriding.

Antiquity had its share of sceptics about prosperity, too. Aristotle believed there was such a thing as too much wealth. The philosopher had determined what the ”good life” was, and he argued any excess property was unnatural.

It’s easy to imagine Aristotle tut-tutting about the big houses built by fellow Athenians. But it’s just as easy to imagine those Athenians ignoring his snobbery and enjoying the prosperity Greek society could afford.

Privacy To Be Sacrificed As Roxon Takes Liberties With Our Freedoms

Last week Attorney-General Nicola Roxon argued for one of the most significant attacks on civil liberty in Australian history – internet data retention.

There aren’t many details yet. From what we can tell, the government wants to force all internet service providers to record details about every email their customers send, every website they visit, and every communication they make.

The providers will have to store those records for up to two years, just in case the police or the Commonwealth spy agency ASIO want to look at them later.

This data retention scheme would be an institutionalised, systematic invasion of our privacy – at least as bad as the Hawke government’s proposed Australia Card was in the 1980s. And it is certainly scarier than any of John Howard’s post-September 11 security laws.

Admittedly, data retention is not an original Australian idea. Similar policies have been implemented across Europe. But their record is not flattering. Germany’s parliamentary research unit surveyed European crime statistics between 2005 and 2010 and could not find any evidence to suggest data retention was helping solve crimes. And several European countries have even found data retention unconstitutional. In 2009 the Constitutional Court of Romania found that “continuous limitation of the privacy right … makes the essence of the right disappear”. In other words, data retention is so pervasive that it eliminates privacy. You can understand why Romanians would be sensitive. They suffered under communist police state surveillance for nearly half a century.

The idea behind data retention is to try to replicate for the internet what police have enjoyed with telephone calls for decades – access to records of who we called and when. Yet there’s a big difference between phones and the internet. Telephone companies keep those records in order to bill us. So phone records already exist. Internet data retention would require companies to create a giant new database of what their customers were doing online.

This database would be many times larger and much more revealing. Most Australians make a couple of calls a day. But we send and receive dozens of emails. We visit hundreds of websites. In 2012 we do everything from banking, to researching health concerns online. The internet is nothing like a telephone.

On top of this, the government wants internet providers to take responsibility for keeping these vast new information archives secure. But there are hundreds of internet companies in Australia. Many of them are tiny. Few of them are security specialists.

The Attorney-General argued on Tuesday last week that the police needed all this new surveillance to tackle identity theft. This is clever: we need to destroy privacy in order to save it. But it is nonsense.

These new databases would be attractive targets for those very identity thieves. Criminals could just crack the security of a small internet provider. We’ve seen in the past few years how insecure corporate data can be. Even big firms struggle with security.

Making their case, Roxon and her A-G’s Department say they need to “modernise” their powers to deal with cybercrime. Yet the urgent need to modernise this law would be more convincing if it wasn’t for the fact that the 1979 Telecommunications Interception Act has been “modernised” 64 separate times since then. It has been changed on average twice a year for three decades. Indeed, the last modernisation was as recently as August.

Roxon is talking about more surveillance powers literally a fortnight after she has been granted new ones. Our Attorney-General must know this. So when will enough be enough?

Anyway, the August reform gave law enforcement agencies exactly what Roxon claims they need: the flexibility to investigate crime online. Now if police identify a suspect, they can order internet companies to log the data of specific individuals. Such targeted data preservation is reasonable. It’s like traditional phone tapping. Police get investigative powers, but don’t treat every Australian as a criminal.

Internet data retention isn’t the only new weapon the government wants. A parliamentary committee is currently considering a government discussion paper with dozens of complex proposals to extend security power over the internet. The discussion paper makes some stunning claims. Apparently, some limits on ASIO and the police merely “reflect historical concerns about corruption and the misuse of covert powers”.

Are those concerns really out of date? Politicians like to talk about balancing the need for security and the need for liberty, as if they are shouldering a heavy philosophical burden. Yet it seems new laws only ever satisfy the former. Liberty loses, inevitably, every time.

Confused NASA’s Role Lost In Space

The recent landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars was a great success. But it ought to be a bittersweet one, too. Rather than giving NASA a new lease on life, the landing underscores a big problem: the world’s premier space agency no longer has any idea why it exists.

This is not a controversial claim. At the same time Curiosity was landing on Mars, NASA was holding an independent investigation into the agency’s strategic direction. One former NASA chief put it this way: “I am utterly confused.”

Does NASA exist to put humans into space? The space shuttle program was cancelled last year and a replacement is probably a decade away – if there will be one at all. The shuttles were mothballed with no alternative in mind.

Is it to develop new technologies? Sending rovers millions of kilometres across space is a very roundabout way to subsidise innovation. Anyway, NASA deserves little credit for the inventions commonly attributed to it – Velcro was actually invented in Switzerland in 1948, Teflon by a New Jersey commercial chemist in 1938.

Is NASA’s job investigating basic science? This is certainly the most plausible purpose. But then why did NASA spend half a century symbolically placing people in capsules in the sky? And the agency’s public support, such as it has any, is based on a romantic notion of humanity touching the stars. Voters prefer astronauts – those demigods with the right stuff.

So the US Congress does not have much desire to fund a never-ending procession of robo-jeeps on Mars taking photos and doing chemistry – no matter how impressive that is. Support for a future rover program, a joint venture with Europe and Russia, disappeared when the US Congress realised it wouldn’t even be delivering samples of Martian soil back to Earth for a decade. Barack Obama’s budget dropped any American support of this ExoMars program in February this year.

America’s thrift is understandable. The US federal budget deficit is likely to be more than $US1 trillion ($954 billion) this year for the fourth consecutive year. Nobody has any real idea of how to pull the deficit back. And parachuting cars onto other planets is the ultimate discretionary spend.

NASA’s lot was not always so dire. In the beginning, the agency and its supporters knew exactly what it was all for: to demonstrate American capitalism was superior to Soviet communism. The space race and the arms race were two sides of the same coin. From Sputnik to Apollo 11, the space program was less about extraterrestrial exploration and more about terrestrial geopolitics.
It has been decades since NASA had that sort of clarity. Every other justification has been added later; awkwardly and uncomfortably welded on to rationalise NASA’s budget requests.

The firmest congressional backers of the future Mars program happen to represent districts with space-related industries. Entire programs – such as the space shuttle – have been the result of dubious claims about protecting manufacturing jobs and supporting local industry.

The space program exists to perpetuate NASA and the politically connected corporations that feed off it, not the other way around.

Hence the claims that NASA’s mission is ”to open human hearts to the Martian frontier” (as one planetary scientist wrote recently) or to “rethink our place in the universe” (in the words of a current NASA manager). No one doubts the impressive achievements of all those space missions. But basing major government programs on “feelings” just isn’t a good use of scarce resources.
Australians might be OK with all this. We get to enjoy the wasteful fruits of a dying superpower without having to pay for it.

Economist Robin Hanson, himself a former NASA researcher, has described the space program as “mostly like the pyramids”. That is, it offers prestige but is showy and expensive and pointless.
But it certainly is a monument. The moon landing will be forever tied to John F. Kennedy. Both Obama and George W. Bush tried to replicate JFK’s legacy by promising to put humans on Mars, and soon. Surely they knew this was fantasy. There is no taste for an exotic and expensive space program in our austere century.

There once was a political reason to be in space. Now, there is not. Politicians need political reasons if they are going to pay for things. That’s how democracy functions and that’s why NASA is lost.

But the private space industry is growing, rapidly. Commercial uses of space flight will be more sustainable than the goodwill of the US Congress.

And robotic missions are much cheaper than manned missions. Putting Curiosity on Mars cost little more than Victoria’s myki ticketing system. The global research and philanthropic community should easily be able to raise that sort of money. (Sound far-fetched? Then perhaps our imagination needs to start on the ground before it can dance among the stars.) They would probably be able to do it cheaper than the bloated, politicised and hopelessly confused NASA anyway.