Tag Archives | policy

Mind the Gap

What can public transport tell us about a city’s character? Danu makes an unlikely comparison of the public transport experiences in Melbourne and Singapore and thinks through how to make sense of the differences.

Melbourne-Singapore Transport

I have what many would consider to be a peculiar fondness for public transport. Sometimes I will catch trains and buses just to see where they go. The logic and layout of a city’s public transport network, it seems to me, reveals a lot about the character of a place. Thus, whenever I find myself in a new city, I make a point of getting to grips with its public transport system.

In the course of my travels I asked myself an innocent question. Why is it that in Singapore (one of my favourite cities) I can get from the airport to anywhere in the entire city in a clean and comfortable train that leaves every 6 minutes, for less than $2, while in Melbourne (also one of my favourite cities, and where I live) I have to get a $17 bus that connects to an unreliable, expensive and often filthy train network where I have to spend another $3.70 using a different ticket that may or may not work? Melbourne is, after all, the second most populous city in one of the richest countries in the world. Singapore is now a rich and developed country also, but this is a comparatively recent development. To put the comparison another way, Melbourne’s last new suburban train line (Glen Waverley) opened in 1930. The last major work was the city loop, completed in 1985, whereas Singapore’s entire 150km island-wide rail network was constructed since then.

Without quite doing so consciously, I now realise I have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to find good ways to make sense of this. Among other things, this has included taking a course in contemporary planning issues as part of my postgraduate policy studies, as well as relocating to Singapore and working for a time as a researcher inside the country’s Land Transport Authority to get an inside perspective. Not to mention a lot of time riding road and rail in both places.

A large part of this search for answers has consisted in deciding what terms of understanding are appropriate to the situation. Many people would reject a comparison between Melbourne and Singapore out of hand, given that one is a city and one is a nation in its own right, or on the basis that one is a liberal democracy while the other is perceived as an authoritarian state. Would it not make more sense to compare Melbourne to somewhere like Berlin?

Rather than rejecting the comparison on such a basis, this to me seems an excellent reason to pursue the question. What if the different political arrangements are not merely incidental factors, but part of the explanation? What would be the implications of this? In any event, the comparison I want to make is based on experience and conceptual rationality rather than demographics, so I have deliberately chosen Singapore as an extreme, or limiting, case. That is to say, I am mostly interested in what it is like to experience public transport in Melbourne and Singapore as someone who uses it, and how the city’s respective attitudes towards public transport result in that kind of experience. Continue Reading →

✱ An Open Book

The influence of globalisation can be felt in countless obscure policy areas, in situations where it not obviously apparent what is the best thing to do. One such example is the arcane matter of parallel importing as it pertains to Australian publishing.

Most products manufactured overseas have authorised distributors in Australia. Parallel importing refers to a process by which someone other than the authorised distributor legally imports such products (genuine products, not knock-offs) and sells them on the market, often at significantly cheaper price points.

The Copyright Act 1968 includes protections for Australian publishers from the parallel imports of books. Upon the publication of any overseas title, Australian publishers have 30 days to publish an Australian edition, which local booksellers are then obliged to buy. Economics of scale being what they are, the local version often costs $10-$15 more than the equivalent overseas edition, even taking into account shipping. In 2008, the federal government asked the Productivity Commission to investigate whether these protections should be removed for the benefit of consumers.

Australian authors soon launched a concerted (though poorly articulated — much irony to be had there) campaign against removing the protections. This is where it gets complicated. Parallel importing does not directly affect the majority of local writers. Rather, by ensuring the existence of a local publishing industry that can pick and choose which overseas titles are bankable, it supports an ecosystem of local authors and their more uncertain commercial success. It is this ecosystem that the local campaign argued was under threat if the rules were changed.

For the bestselling Australian authors, parallel importing also raises the threat of remainder sales. In the odd supply chain system of the book industry, once a publisher decides a title is no longer commercially viable, it pulls it from shelves, and booksellers are able to send back all their unsold copies for full credit. The publisher then sells this invariably large stock of ‘remainders’ cheaply and directly to wholesalers, where they end up in bargain bins for a few dollars. Importantly, authors receive no royalties on these remainder sales. It is therefore entirely possible to imagine a situation (for a few authors, anyway) where the overseas run of an Australian title ends and Australian bargain bins are full of copies of it, selling for prices that hugely undercut the local edition and on which the author makes no money.

In a perfect market, presumably, authoring would be done where authors enjoyed the greatest market advantage and local authors would simply move there. This means we probably wouldn’t have another Storm Boy, but it may also spare us from Gretel Killeen’s My Life is a Toilet. Qualitative judgments are never straightforward.

The interesting question for our purposes is what role does policy have in all this? The Productivity Commission recommended the removal of parallel import protections after three years, to give enough time for another appropriate means of support for the local industry to be developed and implemented, though what that might look like, the Commission gave no indication. The Government apparently decided this was too hard or too unwelcome a conversation to have and announced it would be leaving the legislation as it was. Tellingly, it said ‘if books cannot be made available in a timely fashion and at a competitive price, customers will opt for online sales and ebooks.’6

This decision appears to benefit both consumers and the local publishing industry, but it leaves the actual local booksellers in perhaps the most unworkable position. They are obliged to buy the higher-priced local editions, while exposed to the market and distribution power of Amazon and the Book Depository (free overseas shipping!). This is a large factor — as well as poor management — in the recent collapse of REDGroup and its Borders and Angus & Robertson brands. It’s also why you now see many independent booksellers with in-store signage demanding/pleading that customers not simply use their store to conduct research for a later online purchase. Then there’s the ebook, which threatens to disrupt the entire print publishing industry altogether.

It seems to me that this is not so much a problem of free trade/protectionism as it is of ensuring a flourishing capacity for imagination, knowledge and cultural life (or cultural capital, if we must insist on that language). Policy should be directed at ensuring this capacity, rather than maintaining a particular institutional set of affairs or attempting to pick and choose winners, as neoliberals sometimes call it. In other words, it matters less how we ensure we have a capacity for unique cultural life than that we do it. This will first require that we begin to think of people, wherever they are, as producers and readers of books and ideas rather than simply vendors and consumers of them. ◾

The Price of Everything: Neoliberalism and its blind spots

Neoliberalism is among the most influential social, political and economic forces of our time. Danu describes the neoliberal project and examines its effects upon higher education in Australia by beginning with a simple question — does it produce good social outcomes?

The Price of Everything

Have the economic reforms pursued in Australia since the early 1980s produced positive social outcomes?

To give this question proper consideration, we shall need to do a number of things, beginning of course with an explanation of what economic reforms are in question. To do this, I will focus on one particular policy area — higher education policy. This is an area of policy to which the sort of economic reforms we will be discussing have been applied visibly and purposively; it is also a policy area in which we can comfortably discuss social outcomes. We will also need to tackle the more difficult issue of evaluating what constitutes a positive social outcome and how we might recognise one.

Let us turn first to the discussion of the economic reform itself. ‘Since the 1980s’ is code for a number of related and complementary notions and assumptions about economics, society and human behaviour that became widely influential and accepted around this time — the sort of constellation of ideas that we might best describe as a movement. The movement in question has been variously described as ‘neoliberalism’, ‘economic rationalism’, ‘free-market’, ‘Friedmanite’, ‘lassez-faire’, ‘small government’ and even ‘Reaganomics’. These labels all emphasise different aspects of the movement and are largely interchangeable, though my preferred term is neoliberalism, which I will use hereafter.

Attempting a precise definition of such a fuzzy category as neoliberalism is a futile exercise, so let me instead lay out some of the core principles that underwrite it. At heart, neoliberalism combines a libertarian political philosophy with an economic world-view. That is to say, it invokes an image of humanity as a collection of rational individuals each acting in their own self-interest — the role of public policy on this view is to ensure each individual has freedom to exercise his or her rational choices as efficiently as possible. Efficiency here means with as much information (price signals) and as little interference (government) as possible. Neoliberals believe that in this state of affairs, the sum of each individual’s rational, self-interested choices in a perfect market will secure the best possible outcome for all. Free markets, free people. (In that order.)

By valuing education wholly on economic terms, we begin to deprive ourselves as a society of the capacity to comprehend our own folly in doing so.

When former US President Ronald Reagan famously said, ‘government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’, we can see what he was getting at. Similarly, when former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher more ominously said ‘there is no such thing as society’, we see she was appealing to a vision of homo economicusEconomic Man. Continue Reading →

Going Nowhere

Public transportation is a complicated business. Liam examines Melbourne’s much-maligned network, stepping past the anger and obfuscation to think clearly about the shape of the problem.

Going Nowhere

A lot of things have been said about Melbourne’s public transport. Whether you think it’s good or atrocious depends on what you compare it to and what sort of criteria of quality you want to apply. It is, in a lot of ways, good. A lot of people have also gone to great pains to diagnose and describe problems with the network. The main newspapers in Melbourne, The Age and The Herald Sun, have run a lot of articles highlighting the notable service failures, the mistreatment of commuters by ticket inspectors and the minimal government response.

The tone of the discussion reminds me of a cheap perfume bought on sale — sharp, shallow and repugnant whilst ostensibly respectable. This is a fact that is in many ways more interesting than the object of the outrage. It’s the shape of the problem that I’m interested in discussing here, rather than the ‘substance’ of horserace-like commentary. I’ll do that by setting out a few aspects of the state of affairs and then attempting to formulate some questions with which to ask what can be done about it.

Continue Reading →

✱ Being economical with the truth

When Malcolm Turnbull asked Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong, during the famous Spycatcher trial, the difference between a misleading impression and a lie, Armstrong replied that a lie was a straight untruth whereas a misleading impression might be regarded as being ‘economical with the truth’. The phrase promptly lodged itself firmly in the language.

If the phrase is pithy and/or apt, it’s because we have some idea that economics is concerned with making choices about distribution, and doing so as efficiently — that is with as little ‘waste’ — as possible, where in this case waste refers to sharing information that did not need to be shared.

The choices that economics is concerned with are those that involve some sort of goal-directed action, which is to say they are practical choices. Economics is, after all, a practical science. It is therefore inseparable in some sense from other practical sciences, if we are to take seriously, as Aristotle did, the idea that the goal such actions are directed at is a good, or flourishing, life. For Aristotle, the practical sciences were economics, politics and ethics, though economics then meant something closer to ‘household management’ than perhaps what we mean by it today.

Incidentally, the ‘economy of truth’ line comes originally from Edmund Burke, where he relates it to the exercise of virtue in the proper amount (an Aristotelian idea), which shows how much things change even as they remain the same.

Policymaking, also a decidedly practical activity, can be regarded as a combination of all three of the practical sciences — what ought we do, who for and how much? This is probably not how many would frame it today, though it comes close to the view of Adam Smith, who also argued that questions of morality, politics and economics were inseparable.

There seems to be a great deal of confusion today as to whether to regard economics as a branch of knowledge — a technical means for providing information to help make choices — or as a framework by which such choices can be made. Some people argue for a conflation of both. It seems trivial and a little churlish to point out that it might be helpful to decide on this in some fashion before we engage in policymaking, but all evidence suggests this is advice that frequently goes unheeded.

A major source of this confusion is that money has for some time now been supposed to act as a stand-in for utility, which is to say, happiness. The rather loopy train of thought leading to this proposition is far too convoluted to relate today, but it’s hard to talk seriously about contemporary economics or policy without making reference to it, as it informs much of what we think we know.

In hugely oversimplified terms, the thinking goes like this. What’s good is what produces happiness. We’re unable to say precisely what happiness is (utility might be a more useful term) but it would be helpful if we could quantify it somehow. If we can somehow measure happiness (or utility), we can do things that will increase the amount of it that we gain over the amount we lose — we can maximise our marginal utility. Despite a number of variously amusing and/or embarrassing attempts to measure happiness (including the hedonometer), economics as a discipline has largely settled on using money as a proxy — close enough!

In this sense, economics is connected with ethics — utilitarian ethics — so much so that the manner of the connection has become very nearly invisible. Economists often proceed as if what they are doing is value-free, but the very methods they employ are profoundly value-laden. This would be perfectly fine were it not for the fact that the ethical system being employed is mostly incoherent, in no small part because of those methods.

All this is simply by way of saying that when we want to analyse how economics informs or shapes a policy we must remember that economics is hardly the neutral, value-free approach it is often assumed to be. Rather it comes fully laden with its own values (many of which derive from utilitarianism) — it just usually doesn’t declare them as such. This is not to devalue or discredit economics as a valid way of thinking about things, it is merely to insist on the inseparability of economics from ethics and politics. Good policymaking begins when we proceed from this observation and think through the implications carefully. Anything less is simply being economical with the truth. ◾

Stricken from the record

This journal is part of a series on living and working in Singapore.

A few weeks ago, around 100 Chinese bus drivers employed by one of the two public transport operators did not show up for work. The incident has quickly become a heated national story, one that reveals many of Singapore’s social and political idiosyncracies.

Bus strike

Being a bus driver is a low-paid profession. Like many jobs the locals don’t particularly want to do, the majority of the workforce is comprised of foreign labour. The group of Chinese drivers were protesting what they felt were unfair wages and conditions in comparison to their Malaysian and Singaporean colleagues, who had just received a payrise while the Chinese workers had not. 102 drivers based in a depot in the country’s north did not show up for work on November 26 – as a result, services were disrupted. The transport operator (SMRT) organized temporary workers to be brought in the following day in case the protest continued, which it did.

The police took in several dozen of the drivers for questioning and after a couple of days announced that 29 of the drivers would be ‘repatriated’ (ie deported) back to China after the ‘illegal strike’. The rest would be warned but allowed to return to work, except for one ringleader who was given a six-week jail term. The government also publicly criticized SMRT for not better attending to its HR practices and for allowing such a situation to develop. Following these developments, Singapore’s consulate in Hong Kong was picketed and the Chinese government dispatched officials to Singapore to investigate the situation to make sure it was being handled ‘appropriately’.

So, what’s going on here? Continue Reading →

✱ Flexing organisational muscle

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer sparked a debate recently when she announced telecommuting would no longer be an option for company employees — a move that seemed to fly in the face of trends towards telecommuting since the 1970s that had largely been pioneered by tech companies. To be blunt, Yahoo! as a company is so moribund that it is probably doomed at this point whatever it does, but the telecommuting debate is interesting nonetheless!

NPR’s Yuki Noguchi says it’s about flexibility vs serendipity:

Davis, a business professor, says what you miss in telecommuting is the “Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you … ” conversations that turn into something more.

“It’s more efficient, but you lose that serendipity,” he says.

This is a common sentiment heard especially from those companies with modern office facilities that contrive to be a home away from home. Steve Jobs famously insisted that the Pixar headquarters have a large atrium and centralised bathrooms so people from all around the building would keep running into each other.

On the other hand, that does not mean there aren’t necessarily real benefits to be had to employees and to the company by practising telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements. The question doesn’t have to be answered one way or the other, or decided for all time. Of course, that the debate is happening about Yahoo! is interesting in itself, as Noguchi points out:

John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas, says tech companies were early adopters of telecommuting, and they’re now finding that the practice sometimes goes too far. But he says it’s interesting that this edict is coming from an Internet company that offers email and instant messaging.

“There’s so much irony here,” Challenger says. “Not only is this high-tech company that’s been at the forefront of the technology that’s changed how we work now asking workers to come back in, but also it’s a 37-year-old mother who is seeing the advantages of being able to balance her work life and her personal life by telecommuting and yet saying, ‘For the good of the company, we can’t do this. We have to change.’ “

I recently worked on a research project with the Singapore government which is investigating telecommuting and flexible work arrangements (FWAs) as a way of solving transport congestion problems. In fact, transport planners around the world love FWAs and can be found constantly recommending them to public policymakers.

What I discovered is that while there is an abundance of research on which kinds of organisations tend to adopt FWAs, for what reasons they do so and what measures can be taken to help persuade them, there is a surprising lack of research evidence on how effective FWAs actually are in practice. Continue Reading →

A Clash of Ideals

This article originally appeared at www.julianburnside.com.au. Reproduced gratefully with permission from the author.

The second series of Go Back To Where You Came From has highlighted a familiar clash of ideas and ideals. As Jonathan Green noted in The Drum on 30 August, the encounter was unlikely to shift either camp into the arms of the other. In those circumstances, it seems useful to try to identify what lies beneath the two stark positions. What is the bedrock which supports the views of Anderson, Reith and Smith on the one hand and Asher, Bailey and Deveny on the other hand.

The views of each camp seem to rest on unstated propositions which are worth exposing.

Continue Reading →

Grade Me: The Trouble With Teacher Accountability

When it comes to education and what to do about our schools, everyone has an opinion. Melinda, a high school teacher, turns up the heat on the politicians, the teacher’s union and her teaching colleagues to ask the burning question — how can we improve the practice of teaching?

As a profession, teaching is one of the great political footballs. We teachers are often regarded, if not with actual contempt, then certainly with extreme suspicion. We have it easy, what with all those holidays we take and with the wage we earn, not to mention the accolades and praise we are occasionally given. Worse, we are constantly claiming some sort of special status, as if the work we do is somehow exempt from the performance measurements, standards measurements and efficiency criteria that everyone else has to work with. We’re forever going on strike and when we are at work it’s the taxpayer who’s footing the bill. The cheek!

I am not here to again have that fight, so let me clear up a few things right away. No-one wants students or teachers to fail or do badly. No-one. Not the administrators, not the public, nor any government, and certainly not the teachers themselves, or the students. The continuing decline in educational performance is of real concern for all of us. We should take no option off the table when it comes to addressing the problem. If performance pay for teachers helps, we shouldn’t resist it. If greater accountability gives us better teachers, then make me more accountable. The politics of education is distracting and so far only seems to be scoring us own goals.

This may be tired old territory, but I’m tired of other people trampling through it, speaking on my behalf. I want to tell you what I know about teaching as a teacher, explain some of the biggest obstacles to good practice and what might help clear some of them.

Continue Reading →