Interpost notes for Saturday

1. Kevin Rudd The Australian’s Australian of the year

See Leadership forged in the financial fire and be amazed.

WITH the exception of wartime prime minister John Curtin, few Australian leaders have faced a more daunting crisis in their first term of office than that which confronted Kevin Rudd.

Mr Rudd was barely a year into his job as prime minister when a collapse of confidence in US financial markets spread like a contagion across the globe in late 2008, plunging much of the world into recession. What happened next proved to be a defining moment, both for Australia and for its new leader, who had never before held an economic portfolio.

Rather than risk waiting for a clearer picture to emerge, Mr Rudd and his team saw the need for urgent and radical action to protect the economy, approving a series of unprecedented financial stimulus packages to taxpayers and giving sweeping guarantees to the nation’s banks.

It was, at its heart, an epic gamble. Failure would mean recession and job losses on a grand scale, causing untold suffering to ordinary Australians and tarnishing forever the reputation of the new government and its Prime Minister. Less than 18 months on, it is beyond dispute that Rudd’s historic wager has paid off. Australia stands as the only major Western nation to avoid a recession and emerge relatively unscathed from the largest global downturn since the Great Depression…

2. Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World, by Barbara Ehrenreich (2009)

Reviewed in today’s Australian by Miriam Cosic, this sounds quite fascinating. Miriam Cosic’s review in not online, but see Smile! You’ve got cancer and Lucy Ellmann stoutly supports a passionate refutation of the power of positive thinking.

… Americans seem proud of being able to clap themselves into a frenzy of certainty for certainty’s sake. "They had distributed motivational books and . . . they came to believe it themselves," writes Ehrenreich of the macho world of finance; "$3trn-worth of pension funds, retirement accounts, and life savings evaporated into the same ether that had absorbed all our positive thoughts." Optimism convinces you that cancer results from a deficient immune system and can be healed through meditation, or that Lehman Brothers would survive because Richard Fuld wanted it to survive. According to motivator Zig Ziglar, who helps companies such as AT&T bounce all the blame back on to the worker, if something goes wrong, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough or pray effectively. Boo! Boo!

Positive types aren’t just misled, they’re mean. "Negative people suck!" claims one American motivational coach, an exemplar of the "empathy deficit" in positive thinking. The pitiless message to the powerless from all these motivational speakers, megachurch preachers, self-help gurus and other assorted selfishness-sellers is that sad sacks get what they deserve.

Promoting the idea that happiness is within your grasp is in the interests of corporations trying to bamboozle an overworked and underpaid workforce. It’s also favoured by churches trying to get rich quick off the American dream. Ehrenreich traces the fad from Calvinist self-control through Christian Science to blatant assumptions of the holiness of cash. Informing the uneducated and unmedicated that their plight is all their own fault is followed up by instructions for making anything you desire – from a new TV screen to a trip to Mexico – "materialise" through mind control. The censorship of negative opinion combines perfectly with the American policy of each man for himself in the best of all possible worlds.

This is the philosophy that gave us the smart bomb, the space programme, sub-prime mortgages, plenty of psychopaths and Sarah Palin…

3. The Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers 2009

See the list.

Especially read a wonderful essay by historian Niall Ferguson.

There is nothing like a really big economic crisis to separate the Cassandras from the Panglosses, the horsemen of the apocalypse from the Kool-Aid-swigging optimists. No, the last year has shown that all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. On the contrary, we might be doomed.

At such times, we do well to remember that most of today’s public intellectuals are mere dwarves, standing on the shoulders of giants. So, if they had e-mail in the hereafter, which of the great thinkers of the past would be entitled to send us a message with the subject line: "I told you so"? And which would prefer to remain offline?

It has, for example, been a bad year for Adam Smith (1723-1790) and his "invisible hand," which was supposed to steer the global economy onward and upward to new heights of opulence through the action of individual choice in unfettered markets. By contrast, it has been a good year for Karl Marx (1818-1883), who always maintained that the internal contradictions of capitalism, and particularly its tendency to increase the inequality of the distribution of wealth, would lead to crisis and finally collapse. A special mention is also due to early 20th-century Marxist theorist Rudolf Hilferding (1877-1941), whose Das Finanzkapital foresaw the rise of giant "too big to fail" financial institutions.

Joining Smith in embarrassed silence, you might think, is Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992), who warned back in 1944 that the welfare state would lead the West down the "road to serfdom." With a government-mandated expansion of health insurance likely to be enacted in the United States, Hayek’s libertarian fears appear to have receded, at least in the Democratic Party. It has been a bumper year, on the other hand, for Hayek’s old enemy, John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), whose 1936 work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money has become the new bible for finance ministers seeking to reduce unemployment by means of fiscal stimuli. His biographer, Robert Skidelsky, has hailed the "return of the master." Keynes’s self-appointed representative on Earth, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, insists that the application of Keynesian theory, in the form of giant government deficits, has saved the world from a second Great Depression…

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Reflections, mostly about a chequered teaching career: Part One

To quote Jim Belshaw, who was up with the lark this morning: “It’s just coming up on dawn. Yesterday was a hot day, today is expected to be more so. They are talking about 43c, 109.4F. That’s quite hot.” Indeed it is.

This morning too (our time) Ramana in India posted Doubts And Regrets.

…“A man is not old until his regrets take the place of his dreams.” – Yiddish Proverb.
I have learnt to like or at least accept what I attract rather than attract what I like. That enables me to live now without doubts and regrets leaving both to others to handle to the best of their ability. They can chase their dreams and spend a lot of money on all the books, tapes, videos, blogs etc that sell “The Secret” and the “Law of Attraction.” I shall watch the fun and chuckle.

Now for all those sixty plus readers of my blog, here is something that each of us would like to sing and for those younger, you have some catching up to do.

And so spurred too by Mr R on Facebook as he is about to teach in Wollongong (as I did long ago) I have been on an archaeological dig and have uncovered some of the great highs, and lows, of my teaching career. As for Mr R, a SBHS ex-student and great friend, I was struck by this remark of his: “I am creating the future here!!!!” Whether tongue-in-cheek or not one can never be sure with Mr R, but that’s true for teachers anyway, at least up to a point.

Quite a few of my Facebook friends — not that I have anything but a modest collection — are ex-students, and one, Craig Donarski, goes all the way back to my Wollongong days. So too does my friend Simon H, mentioned on my blogs from time to time, whom I first met in 1970. Of course my oldest ex-student (from Cronulla) turns 61 this year!

Here is a snapshot from my last year in Wollongong.

J opens the door. He has just moved in, a year in America behind him. He will be a writer, is starting a course, will live alone not answerable to anyone for who he is what he does. He has been painting: the walls white, the furniture brown.

– Mr Smith!

– Hi, J. It seems we’re neighbours. Rosemary rang me from Wollongong and told me you were here. I’m living just around the corner.

– Really! Have you been transferred?

– Yes, to Simmons Street.

– That’s a good school isn’t it?

– So they say.

– Well… nice to see you. Would you like to come in? Sorry about the mess.

– What mess? You’re a model of neatness. You should see my place, books and boxes everywhere.

[There were rumours last year that Mr Smith was having it off with a Year 12 girl.]

– Would you like some coffee?

[There were rumours last year that Mr Smith was having it off with that spunky librarian.]

– Thanks, J.

[There were rumours last year that Mr Smith was having it off with the milkman. “Had your cream this morning?” the class wit, Carcase, used to ask him.]

No prize for guessing who Mr Smith is, or that Simmons Street is Fort Street. I took the name from “Brian James”, The Advancement of Spencer Button (1950), a bit of a classic and still one of the best (satirical) novels on teaching in NSW.

— continues in the next post.