Politicians

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Motherhood used to be the hardest job in the world. Now it’s being a politician in a modern democracy. Their power has waned as that of corporations and lobbyists and special interest groups has waxed, but they are still blamed for everything and subjected to merciless ridicule. Worse, they are accused of dishonesty, usually not with malice but which a casual assumption that the words ‘politician’ and ‘liar’ are pretty much interchangeable.

This is both unfair and dangerous. It’s unfair because the job of a politician is to find ways to make everyone feel that their opinions have been respected and their interests served. This is impossible without saying things that are, at the very least, misleading.

And it’s dangerous because if someone is accused of an offence often enough they will start to think, “Well, if everyone thinks I’m guilty of this terrible thing I might as well be guilty of it!” Let’s call this the Suspected Spouse Syndrome. Are we training our politicians to behave dishonestly, just by letting them know that we expect it?

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Hunter Gatherers at Heart

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We have a tiny lemon tree in our garden – so tiny that it fits in a pot. Twelve lemons have been slowly growing on it for a very long time, turning a slightly yellower shade of green each day, and today I harvested the first one. On my way back to the house I found myself singing an old song under my breath:

To reap and sow
And plough and mow
To be a farmer’s bo-o-o-oy,
To be a farmer’s boy!

My family left the land five generations ago, but deep down I’m still a peasant. I think we all are. In Australia the atavistic memory has more to do with cattle-droving or sheep-shearing, among the white population anyway, but the difference is superficial.

Even deeper down we are hunter-gatherers still. Why else do we experience a thrill when we enter a supermarket? Why else do we stalk special offers through the undergrowth of overpriced junk food and boring staples? Why else do we mutter thanks to forgotten gods as we take the last “reduced” packet from the shelf? Why else do our eyes dart to the bottom of the receipt to see how much we’ve “saved”?

For two million years we’ve been honing skills that have served us so well that… well, we have survived. From ocean to savannah to jungle to supermarket aisle. Go, Humanity!

Fairness

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Children develop a sense of fairness from an early age. Hitting someone younger and weaker is unfair. Collective punishments are unfair. Paying pocket money below the going rate, determined by a survey of one’s peers, is unfair.

On Tuesday our Treasurer presented the annual budget to Parliament and announced it to be ‘a fair budget’. ‘Fair’ is now the top buzz-word in Australian politics. The trouble is that the word means different things to different people.

On the left of politics, it means taking more from the rich and distributing it to the non-rich. The exact positioning of the dividing line between the rich and the non-rich is itself a matter for debate of course. Or rather, it is left to each elector to decide which side of the line he or she sits. For most of us ‘rich’ is defined as ‘better off than me’, so policies that involve taking from the rich are generally popular.

But on the right of politics fairness involves allowing people to earn and retain as much as possible of the value of what they produce. According to the Economics textbooks, that value is represented by the wage or profit that the free market assigns. So whether one is a banker, a nurse, a soldier or a casino owner, what you receive is what you’re worth. Obviously it’s unfair to take more from the most productive members of society.

The Economics textbooks support the left-wing view too though. They point out that an extra dollar in a poor man’s pocket does him more good than it would do for a rich man, so the total wellbeing of society will always be increased by redistributing from rich to poor until perfect equality is achieved.

I would rather take ‘fair’ out of the conversation and substitute ‘pragmatic’. The rich always have to pay more (both absolutely and relatively) because, to borrow bank-robber Willie Sutton’s famous quotation, “That’s where the money is.” But the rich are also the most able to find ways to avoid and minimise taxation; or, if paying tax in Country A becomes too onerous, move to Country B.

So it’s a balancing act. Pragmatism is all. To paraphrase a line by Clint Eastwood, “Fair’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

Community

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About 30 years ago I was listening to the radio and heard an alarming news item. Mental hospitals were to be closed and the patients were to be cared for in the community. “Holy cow!” I thought. “Mrs SG and I have no training in caring for mentally ill people, nor inclination to do so! And anyway, since the boys have their own bedrooms we don’t have room for any!”

I was really expected someone with a clipboard to come to the door and ask how many deranged people we’d like, and what sort. Then it dawned on me, after hearing the issue dealt with in interviews and chat shows, that being cared for in the community just meant putting people in suburban houses and flats, procured for the purpose, and having professionals look after them there. ‘In the community’ didn’t mean ‘by members of the community.’

But it made me think: What is a community nowadays? The word ‘community’ suggests to me a group of people who have some kind of affinity, some interest in one another’s welfare, even some sense of responsibility for one another. Just living in proximity to someone is surely not enough.

There are places where geographical proximity and affinity do go together. My sister has lived for 35 years in a 13th century Italian village called Anguillara Sabazia. She knows everyone, everyone knows her, and when anything happens to anyone it is a subject of conversation in the streets, shops and cafés. An old lady died while I was visiting my sister. A poster advertised news of her death and details of her funeral, and the buzz was all about who would look after her cat and who would give her cleaner a job.

Newsreaders often say things like “A community is in shock following the death of a Bungaroo fisherman at sea yesterday,” or “Leaders of the Muslim community affirm their opposition to extremism.” They conjure up images of people coming onto the streets to share their feelings, huddling over beers and coffees or feverishly texting one another in an echo-chamber of agreement.

But it’s not like that where Mrs SG and I live. Is it like that where you live? Do you belong to a community? Does it have a physical boundary or is it a reality only in cyberspace? Do share.