From: Tony Dickson
Sent: Friday, 22 April 2016 12:24 AM
Subject: The Money on volunteering
Dear Professor …………………,
I have just listened to this programme about the value of volunteering with my usual frustrations with the city-centric focus of the media in this country.
Whilst I do not disagree with the analysis presented, I suggest that its focus was on relatively trivial examples of the failure of economic orthodoxies and public policy to account for the value of volunteering.
I certainly do not devalue things like child-care, domestic chores or coaching the local soccer team, but they are largely things that people choose to do for reasons of personal satisfaction. They are just a part of the mosaic of private life, albeit an important part.
However, the programme entirely ignored a far more serious and ugly dimension of our failure to value the exploitation of both volunteers and people who exist in a shadowy limbo economy somewhere between volunteering and slavery.
I have been writing about this issue for decades and refer you to a couple of polemics that examine the implications of an ageing civil defence force that annually provides over 700,000 hours of hard and dangerous work in South Australia alone; at great financial and personal cost. Just one fire in December last year cost an estimated 180 million dollars and two lives. What would the cost have been without the efforts of these exploited social activists?
The latter link is the text of the address I was asked to give to the Adelaide Climate rally in Sept 2014.
On 25-Apr-16 4:10 PM, …………………. wrote:
Thank you for your interest in the RN special on unpaid work. My fields of expertise do not include estimates of volunteer labour of the sort that you speak of, and hence I wouldn’t have been qualified to talk about it (nor did such questions come up in my interview). The producers of the program are the real ones you should address if you feel the omission is important.
That said, as an economist I do have a number of reactions to what you write, which I will briefly sketch. First, I do not disagree that the subsidies implicitly handed out to banks and other corporations are deplorable. They add to inequality and do not add to growth. Indeed I have a recent piece broadly on this topic that you might enjoy:
Second, the logic of free market economics does extend to the volunteer-labour situation that you describe. In particular, if the volunteer fire brigade members are unsatisfied with their lot then they should quit. Their very continuation in roles that they are angry/frustrated/feeling unappreciated about is a travesty from the perspective of Adam Smith, as it prevents the transmission of market signals that DO hold the power to change the allocation of resources. Specifically, what would happen if the entire volunteer fire brigade disbanded and hence were not there to provide support during the next national fire emergency? Australia would be outraged at the heavy destruction that would ensue (if your description of the crucial role the brigade plays in preserving resources is accurate) and the population would demand more direct subsidies towards fire protection, paid for by the government. It would not be an easy transition, but it is one that can only realistically be achieved if the volunteers are willing to simply walk away. Do they care enough about the long-term viability of Australia’s system of rural defence (or whatever term you like) to vote with their feet by walking away? Or is volunteering mainly about the feeding of their ego and having a soapbox on which to complain about the unfairness of their lot?
Like most economists I also think that direct agricultural subsidies are a bad idea, but that trying to internalise externalities into crop prices (and other goods) is a good idea. Direct subsidies to farmers are not an accurate means of internalizing environmental externalities – indeed they have the opposite effect, by enabling the continued plunder of natural resources in the name of producing goods that are priced artificially low. If Australian farmers cannot compete in the international food market without subsidies, then they should switch into some other line of work. We can get our bananas from the Philippines and invest not in subsidizing farmers but in preserving our natural environment instead of driving it to destruction by supporting the planting of crops we have no comparative advantage in producing.
These statements may sound provocative to you, but I am merely trying to show you the way I see things. No offense intended – just realism.
Thanks again for the interest in the program.
From: Tony Dickson [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Thursday, 28 April 2016 10:59 PM
Subject: Re: The Money on volunteering
Thankyou Prof. ……….,
I appreciate your prompt reply; and yes I have written to The Money, but with no expectation of a cogent response.
Regarding your observations, I appreciate your candor in acknowledging that civil defence and unpaid agricultural labour are not your areas of expertise. However, this did not inhibit you from offering some rather broad observations that clearly owe more to ideology than insight. Whilst I do agree with some of them, I feel that I must challenge others that are at odds with the reality that I am attempting to convey.
I offer the following observations in reply:
• The salient point of my argument is that rural fire fighters should be treated in the same way as their counterparts in the regional (part time) metropolitan equivalent service; i.e. paid at a rate commensurate with the value of the service they provide. To this extent I am arguing for the application of a market based analysis that I am sure actuarians are conversant with, but disinclined to disclose for obvious reasons.
• However, your suggested application of market signals to the plight of the people I am describing, is so at odds with their reality, that I am reminded of the observation made by Lord May, former Chief Scientist of Great Britain, when he described economics as being a faith based discipline.
• You appear to subscribe to the assumption that current manifestations of market based economies are inherently rational, which a quick glance at the world around us rather refutes. Your assumption could be theoretically correct, but would be dependent on the validity of two other assumptions:
o That human societies are rational entities; and
o That genuine free markets can exist in corporatized and corrupt economies such as ours.
I suggest that your article in The Drum rather supports the view that they cannot.
• Your assumption that the solution to the exploitation of volunteers is for them to take industrial action in the form of withholding labour in the face of a fire emergency, demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of the realities of this sector of the economy.
Let me try and explain a few things for your edification in these matters. Firstly, rural Australia is, as a broad generalisation, politically very conservative and consequently has a tendency to be its own worst enemy. Farms are, by definition, rather solitary entities and farmers are not well practiced at collective behaviour in an economic context. It is also correct to say that my analysis of the big picture regarding their situation is not often articulated among this community, whose values are generally coloured by different perspectives to mine; which are informed by my background in law and economics; in addition to farming and volunteering for 35 years.
I am afraid that your suggestion that “…volunteering (may be) mainly about the feeding of their ego and having a soapbox on which to complain about the unfairness of their lot? “ is indeed exceedingly offensive; particularly when a comparison is drawn with the vacuous narcissism I habitually observe among many of my acquaintances in the “burbs”; not to mention the boardrooms and executive suites , where that most extreme manifestation of narcissism (psychopathy) is disproportionately represented. I would go so far as to suggest that overweening ego is far more common among the highly competitive inmates of our ivory towers, than with people coughing their lungs up after a twelve hour shift on the fire ground; while their livelihoods and families go unattended .
(But perhaps you were just directing your disapprobation at me for having the effrontery to suggest that civil defence is inherently different in nature and scale to being a volunteer at a museum or heroically “volunteering” to care for one’s own children.)
However, more significantly, your suggestion demonstrates a profound disconnect that has long sponsored my conclusion that the biggest cultural divide in this country is not one of race, or poverty or gender, but rather geography. This vast land is, ironically, one of the most urbanised of countries, which explains the general detachment from the real world by the vast majority of the population.
I am indeed continually frustrated that more volunteers do not complain about the situations that I describe and have given much thought to why they don’t. One reason is that they are largely disenfranchised; in a country where the urban majority hold similar views to those articulated by your good self, they are used to being ignored.
As to why they do not go on strike; the fact that you ask this question helps confirm my perceptions about the denizens of the coastal theme parks that dominate the politics of this “Clever” country.
Let me try to explain some of the basics. If a fire starts, it rather makes sense to deploy the brigades that are closest. The reason for this is that the further from the fire a brigade is, the longer it takes to get to the fire and thus the bigger the fire becomes. The bigger the fire becomes, the more difficult it is to extinguish and the more dangerous it is. Are you with me so far?
If the closest brigades are deployed, it rather follows that the people on the trucks are local people. (Local trucks for local people.) That is, they are likely to live in relative proximity to the fire. Are you getting my drift here?
So, if these brigades went on strike and half the state burnt, it may well get the attention of the media and the political classes, but it would be a rather pyrrhic victory, wouldn’t it?
I certainly agree with you that we could refuse to respond to lesser emergencies like road accidents or trees down. But what if someone died driving into that tree; what if a St Johns’ volunteer was hit by a car because we weren’t controlling traffic, or immolated because the fuel tank went up? By way of comparison, would your enthusiasm for market signals countenance industrial action by teachers that put school children at mortal risk? If so, you are clearly a better economist than I am.
And then there is what I call The Western Front Syndrome.
There were many cases of injured or sick diggers who could have gone home, but chose to go back to the horror because their first obligation was to their comrades.
Whilst I do not compare the intensity of their experiences in the trenches to fighting wild-fires, (although PTSD is not uncommon among firies), it is worth noting that those tragic children were comrades for only four years, whereas I have depended on comrades on the back of fire trucks for decades. If I resign, or refuse the call, it puts everyone else under more stress and danger. We are morally trapped.
I do understand that moral commitment is not an economic concept and presumably of no relevance to your calculations. So tell me, how do loyalty, trust, friendship, obligation and that quaint anachronism -a commitment to a broad social contract- fit into your analysis of market signals?
We are not talking about the price of pizza and a coke. This is the real world; not arcane economic theory, but a visceral reality of life and death.
This brings us to your observations about the economics of farming. I entirely agree that subsidies are anathema to market economics; that is why I couched my letter in terms of rural subsidies to the cities.
I also agree with you that the pricing of food, indeed everything we consume, should reflect all of the currently ignored externalities. I have been making precisely that argument for over forty years. The problem is that there is no market mechanism to do this without government intervention. Effectively this means a guiding tax regime to allow the market to reflect the real world rather than the homocentric preoccupations of consumerism. Perhaps we could try something like a tax on carbon and see if the punters embrace it. Now there is a novel idea! If that worked perhaps we could tax plastic pollution or biodiversity loss. But hang on…..
Such taxes would of course have profound implications for economic growth.
“If Australian farmers cannot compete in the international food market without subsidies, then they should switch into some other line of work. We can get our bananas from the Philippines”
I am not sure whether you are joking here or not; irony is always risky in such conversations. Assuming however that you are serious, you are advocating letting the market determine where we source our food, based on price alone. In a world that is on the cusp of global famine, massive population dislocation and widespread conflict, this seems a little risky.
You presumably discount considerations such as the consequences for the 30% of Australians who live in regional areas and who are dependent directly or indirectly on the multiplier effect of primary production which is responsible, with value adding, for 12% of GDP and a 40 billion dollar contribution to our terms of trade.
And then there is the small matter of national security. There is not much point in spending huge amounts of treasure on defence if all your enemies have to do is cut off your access to food. Your economic plan has the potential to make the odd terrorist attack seem like a bad hair day by comparison.
We have been at war for half of our national history. The justification for these conflicts has been consequent to the belief that our security is dependent on strategic alliances with regional powers, because our geographic and economic realities make us very dependent on unencumbered shipping lanes. Has this changed in your assessment?
[It is worth noting that when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, the conservative government very quickly abandoned market orthodoxy and introduced rationing, because despite the accepted wisdom that market economics was about managing scarcity, real and intransigent scarcity was clearly beyond such a remit. It is also worth noting that subsequent to the introduction of rationing, the incidence of rickets, a scourge of the poor, largely disappeared. This presumably made the exploited classes significantly more productive for a very small subsidy; sorry, I mean investment.]
So, you suggest that we should let farmers go broke and continue to kill themselves, because they cannot compete with subsidies that include much lower environmental and quality standards than Australia requires; and let the depopulation of rural Australia continue apace. Instead you suggest that we should invest in “preserving our natural environment.”
This laudable ambition does beg some obvious questions, not least of which is why a market that was sanguine about the demise of a valuable domestic agriculture industry, would finance a project with no tangible return (from its perspective) at all?
What is your plan for the compulsory acquisition of the property rights of 60% of the country and how will the compensation required under the constitution, be determined? How would you fund these acquisitions?
Who is going to provide the labour for such a monumental task? Presumably you would have to offer massive financial incentives to coax people from their theme parks, to put up with heat, dust, mud, no shops or doctors or phone coverage. How could they tell their friends about their latest cup of latte? Hell, their cars might even get dirty!
How will you sell the fiscal consequences to the urban consumers (note we no longer speak of “citizens” in this country), who join campaigns on Change.org against the imposition of emergency services levies? Oh, and who would fight the fires raging through the costly attempts at revegetating the landscape so ravaged by agriculture? I guess we would have to create a highly trained professional civil defence force to deal with this serious security threat.
On the other hand, you could just pay farmers a stipend to stay on their land and continue with an enhanced version of the work they are currently expected to do at their own expense; work like controlling the feral animals and pest plants which are the most egregious environmental problem challenging our ecological values, apart from climate disruption. Given that rehabilitating our landscapes is a huge undertaking that could possibly take centuries to achieve and vast investments of capital; and that the sudden cessation of agricultural activity would of itself create serious environmental problems, there is an argument for a slow transition to a post agrarian society. In the interim how would your environmental “investment” be different to a “subsidy” of current activity?
“These statements may sound provocative to you, but I am merely trying to show you the way I see things. No offense intended – just realism.”
Hmm, realism is it? Well…..
And why ………, would I be provoked by your patronising statements? I have been hearing them for a lifetime and find no novelty. I have been an environmental activist for considerably longer than I have been a farmer. I became a farmer because it occurred to me that if I was going to advocate for more sustainable agricultural practices, I should be prepared to put my money where my mouth was. Since then I have had many more arguments with urban greenies and ideologue economists than I have with farmers. This is because unlike urban theorists, farmers are continually tested by that ultimate arbiter of reality: nature. This is not something that constrains the wilder flights of fancy favoured by economists and politicians and I have long resigned myself to our apparent collective decision that survival would be just too expensive to seriously contemplate.
Linked is the latest iteration of a polemic I first wrote in the late 1970’s. It poses a very simple argument, which if not valid should be an easy matter to refute. Over the years I have sent it to a great many politicians, commentators and economists with a plea that they rebut my thesis and put me out of the misery of its unpalatable conclusions. None have even attempted to do so.
By contrast, sadly, biologists and other scientists invariably endorse the reality I articulate.
I offer you my standard challenge to rebut my argument which goes to the heart of the cognitive dissonance which is endemic in economics faculties and indeed virtually our whole society.
On 02-May-16 11:31 AM, …………………. wrote:
Thanks Tony for the exchange. We are indeed worlds apart on this, but I appreciate the time
you have spent explaining your views.
From: Tony Dickson [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Monday, 2 May 2016 3:30 PM
Subject: Re: The Money on volunteering
…………….., I am afraid that the academic arrogance exhibited in both your replies does little credit to either yourself or your position. Your implicit but inescapable assumption is that whilst I am entirely wrong in our points of difference, you are necessarily entirely correct. Surely you must perceive the hubris in this.
My well intentioned and civil email pointing out an important omission from an analysis of a topic of significant relevance and importance was met with a collection of apparently off the cuff thought bubbles about matters that you admitted you knew little about. Included in these patronising observations was a specific and insulting dismissal of the efforts and sacrifices of tens of thousands of increasingly elderly volunteers; efforts which have saved this country (or more precisely the insurance industry) God knows how many billions of dollars, not to mention immense ecological damage to a biosphere you at least feign to care about. Oh and then there is the small matter of the many lives saved.
I am certain that we are indeed worlds apart on these and many other matters, but I suggest that the salient difference is that I am prepared to test my reasoning and conclusions, whereas you are not. Fortunately, I enjoy the freedom of not being constrained by the weight of ideological baggage.
Lord May’s observation was made in the context of the aspirations of the economics discipline to be considered a science. The essence of empiricism is that no theory, assumption or conclusion is exempt from challenge and revision; as exampled by the current furore among the physics fraternity with regard to the implications of quantum mechanics.
Economics by contrast is, like the law, an entirely homocentric construct based on a set of convenient but ultimately arbitrary assumptions which appear to be sacrosanct and unassailable; this despite such assumptions being clearly at odds with a vast amount of evidence accumulated by real sciences.
I acknowledge that this evidence is extremely inconvenient for all concerned, but the failure of orthodox economic theory to address its implications is nothing less than an unfolding crime against humanity.
As you correctly acknowledge, I put a deal of effort into writing to you; as I have writing to a great many smug and complacent people who have some influence over public policy. Perhaps that gives me some entitlement to at least be treated with the courtesy of a cogent rebuttal of my arguments, particularly those articulated in the linked polemic; as indeed I gave you the courtesy of reading your article.
If my argument is mistaken, I will rejoice in its demonstration. If it cannot be easily rebutted, the implications for the entire discipline of economics are profound and surely more interesting than hypothesising about the banalities awaiting us in the budget. Doesn’t that make you even a little curious?
On 02-May-16 5:10 PM, …………….. wrote:
A word of advice. You are not going to convince very busy people to engage in one-on-one debate with you by being patronizing and personally insulting.
If you want to have a public debate about this, suggest something. If more ears could benefit, I’d be more willing to spend the time.
From: Tony Dickson
Sent: Monday, 2 May 2016 11:28:28 PM
Subject: Re: The Money on volunteering
I just got home from a CFS helicopter landing exercise and was delighted to find your email. Finally we are making some progress.
Re. being insulting and patronising, as I made clear I was merely responding in kind. My advice is to be careful what you sow, lest the harvest you reap is unpalatable.
Also, your preceding email was a very clear brush off, so I thought I had nothing to lose by provoking you. Machiavelli has nothing on me.
I understand that being a senior academic is a very demanding position; indeed it is even conceivable that you work almost as many hours as I do. My suspicion however is that you get paid for your efforts. Alas that does not seem to be my destiny. Cest la vie.
I would be delighted to have a public debate, but, unlike you, I really have no mechanism to do so. In fact, I have no voice at all apart from vainly attempting to engage important people in a conversation that they will go to great lengths to avoid, rather than have to confront very inconvenient issues at the instigation of someone who is clearly a nutter. We are talking about serious heresy which no one in public office or even a career wants to be associated with, not even The Greens. Only the guys in lab coats, sandals and socks will talk about it; and even they keep looking over their shoulders.
Actually I and a few friends (scientists) did a mock debate as part of Science in the Pub a couple of years ago. I am afraid that economists, politicians and the media did not come out of it very well. We were cruel, but fair.
You asked me for a suggestion, so how about this: you present my essay to an appropriate group of students. You then set them the task of rebutting it. This could be done as tutorial, or debate or written assignment. I would favour a real debate as the best approach, but only after some exposure to some supporting science. It could become a regular feature for first year students.
As far as supporting materials are concerned, there is a great deal available with a bit of research, but I would recommend starting with the work of Graham Turner’s team at the CSIRO which has been revisiting the Club of Rome’s 1972 report called “The Limits To Growth”. In 2012, they released a 40th anniversary interim report, which Graham kindly sent me a copy of and which I can probably find if it is not on the CSIRO web site.
The Limits to Growth has been consistently dismissed by economists for forty years. Turner’s analysis finds that if the report has a fault, it was that it was a little optimistic in its projections.
I suggest that this could be useful on a number of levels. One obvious one is that I understand that there was some global online insurrection among economics students a few years ago, who were demanding greater diversity in curricula. At some point economic theory will have no option but to recognise the approaching catastrophe and adapt accordingly.
Of course the devilishly clever trap is that you cannot very well give the essay to your students without reading it yourself. That would be irresponsible. I am sorry for being a pain, but consider the time as an exercise in volunteering. And who knows, you might end up saving the world. Did I mention Machiavelli?
I am glad we are friends again,
On 03-May-16 7:35 AM, ………….wrote:
Tony, I repeat my call for a public debate – either verbal or in print. If you are as committed
to this as you claim to be, and if your position is reasonable enough for those who organize such things to give you airtime, then it is possible.
I do not have the time to keep reading reams of text from you. Please email me back when and if you have a firm proposal for a debate. Until then, sionara.
I think you have missed the point again. You do not seem to be able to grasp the fact that questioning economic growth is a banned topic in both politics and the media. People like me are excluded from public forums. Why do you think I write to people like you?
The answer is that in desperation I cling to the whimsical notion that universities are places where heresies are meant to be considered. That was certainly the case when I was a student back in the 70’s; clearly it no longer is.