US Senate numbers and the ‘small state effect’

Posted as comment on Real Clear Politics site, December 2020

There have recently been views expressed by some left-wing commentators that the Republican numbers in the Senate are artificially inflated due to the number of small (by population) states where both senators are Republican. Analysis of the numbers, however, does not bear this out.

We can determine whether a state is ‘small’ by looking at the number of House members it has. There are 14 states which have three or fewer House members. Of these, Montana, Maine and West Virginia are split, with one senator from each party. These three can, in effect, be removed from analysis.

Of the remaining 11, there are five – Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming, and South Dakota – where both senators are Republican. There are six – Delaware, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont – where both senators are Democrats.

It is true that the Republicans do well in the small mid-western states. But this is offset by the Democrats doing well in the New England region (counting Bernie Sanders as a Democrat). The only Republican senator in New England is Susan Collins in Maine (the other Maine senator, Angus King, can be classed as a Democrat, on the basis of his voting record). So it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who have an advantage from the ‘small state’ effect, although it is not great.

At the other end of the size scale, looking at states that have 15 or more House members, and can therefore be classified as ‘large states’, the Democrats have both senators from California (which has 53 Representatives). The Republicans have both senators from Texas (36 Representatives) and from Florida (27 Representatives). New York (also 27 representatives, although Florida is larger on a total population basis) has two Democrat senators. Illinois (18 Representatives) has two Democrat senators, and Ohio (16 Representatives) has two Republicans. Pennsylvania (18 Representatives) has one senator from each party so it can be removed from analysis.

Overall, it might be said that Democrat senators in the six largest states (not counting Pennsylvania) represent more people than Republicans. But it should also be said that California and New York are, according to census data, shrinking in population and are likely to lose a seat, while Texas and Florida are growing and likely to gain.

It should also be noted that the highest-profile Democrat, Joe Biden, represented the state of Delaware in the Senate for 36 years. Delaware can be classified as an ‘ultra small state’; it has only one member in the House of Representatives. Bernie Sanders, the leading light of the socialist left, represents another ‘ultra small state’, Vermont. This is something that commentators of the left might consider when alleging a systemic bias tied to small states and their Senate numbers.

Bad year, good books

Appearing in Australian Spectator, Christmas issue

A decade from now, we might look back at 2020 and laugh. Then again, maybe not. It has been a difficult year but at least there has been some decent things to read while stuck in quarantine.

One of the most interesting books is The Rare Metals War (published by Scribe) by French writer Guillame Pitron. He is interested in a category of materials that underpin renewable energy and digital technology, a group known as ‘rare earth metals’. Some, like platinum and germanium, are fairly well-known while others, such as cerium, dysprosium, and yttrium, are obscure to all but specialists. Always alloyed with some other material and only available in tiny quantities they are difficult and dangerous to mine. But they have properties that make them essential in computers, cellphones, catalytic converters, solar panels, wind turbines and, most of all, batteries. Far from being clean and safe, says Pitron, renewable energy and digital technology involve a range of costs connected to these materials. But green activists in the West, obsessed with fossil fuels, have chosen to ignore those costs.

China has worked hard to hard to corner the market, accepting the terrible environmental and social damage. There are no prizes for guessing where this might lead but Pitron notes that rare earth metals occur in many places, including Australia. If companies (with government support) are willing to make the required investments they can break China’s stranglehold. Pitron is not confident this will happen but you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Former diplomat Geoff Raby takes a broader look at the rising superpower in China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order (Melbourne University Press). He believes that China has already achieved enough of its goals – dominance in the region through economic weight, critical influence everywhere else – that it feels it can ignore Western complaints, especially of its human rights record at home and its meddling abroad. Despite this, Raby believes that Australia should work to develop its diplomatic ties with China and with countries that share Australia’s concerns. This would probably not hurt but it is difficult to see why the hard men in Beijing would take talkfests and entreaties seriously in the future when they have not in the past.

If straight talking is needed then perhaps diplomats should read Rooted: An Australian History of Bad Language (NewSouth) by Amanda Laugesen, a dictionary specialist. It provides a colourful romp through our legacy of swearing and slang, tracing the origins and evolution. We are a creative people when it comes to finding ways to express ourselves, and coining new insults is akin to a national sport. But Laugesen notes that at some point bad language can become intimidating and even frightening, especially when it has a misogynist edge. She cites a series of harassing messages that union boss John Setka sent to his wife, and which resulted in a court case in 2019; they are undeniably disturbing. Nevertheless, Rooted is an entertaining package, although it might not suit those who are easily offended.

Someone who has the capacity to laugh at themselves is Christopher Pyne, who held a range of positions over a long political career. In The Insider (Hachette) he reveals that he started off believing he could become Prime Minister, although he eventually realised that it was unlikely for a South Australian from the minority liberal wing of a conservative party. But he pressed on and moved up the ministerial hierarchy, notching up a number of policy achievements.

Never a hater, he was happy to get along with people on the other side, and some of the funniest incidents of the book deal with sharing media platforms with opponents. He also recounts the various leadership changes of the Liberal Party, some of them ruthlessly efficient while others were exercises in Olympic-level bungling. In the end, Pyne departed at a time of his choosing and with a good amount of grace, which is more than can be said for many others.

While Pyne is moving on Tim Wilson likes to project himself as an up-and-comer. His stated intention in The New Social Contract (Kapunda Press) is to bring liberal philosophy back to the political mainstream. Conservatism, he says, is reaching a dead end and is unable to respond to emerging social issues. The generation of Millennials is drifting towards socialism, although it is a type of socialism so mushy and vague it hardly qualifies as an ideology. Liberalism can provide an alternative to both, especially if it is built around decentralisation of power, a fairer tax system, and a resurgence of home ownership amongst the younger generations.

But his project looks difficult at best. He is trying to claim ground that is already occupied, and has been for some time. Yes, home ownership and tax fairness are good objectives, but is there anyone who disagrees? Does the constituency that Wilson is aiming at, in the centre but not already held by the major parties, actually exist? Still, one must admire him for nailing his colours to the mast and daring to discuss the importance of ideas. We should wish him luck. He will need it.

This year the Miles Franklin Award and the Stella Prize were both won by the novel The Yield (Penguin) by Tara June Winch, and it has also taken a clutch of other awards. At first glance it resembles Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, as both books feature indigenous trauma echoing across generations. But The Yield unfolds in a quite different way. One narrative stream is centred on the Wiradjuri elder Albert Goondiwindi, who seeks to record his life in the form of a dictionary of his language. Another voice is that of his grand-daughter August, returning home after an extended absence. She is forced to reflect on her life, determining where the lines of responsibility should be drawn. The third narrative is told through the letters of a nineteenth century missionary, Ferdinand Greenleaf. It ties the parts of the sad history of the Wiradjuri people together, highlighting the point that good intentions mean little when confronted with the violence of the real world.

The Yield is a carefully layered novel, written with a sense of texture and an ear for language. It is not always easy going but it repays the effort.

Another novel worth a look is the imaginative Factory 19 (Black Inc) by Dennis Glover, set in a decaying Hobart in the near future. At the instigation of a mysterious billionaire the town decides to switch off all the accruements of the Digital Age and return to the year 1948. They even set up a factory that actually makes useful stuff. It works surprisingly well, with a few wrinkles, and the idea begins to spread. But problems set in, with some people wanting to move to the 1970s. Social stratification and militant unions appear, and a couple of eco-terrorists wander in. The story runs off the rails somewhat as it goes on but the essential idea, that the present is not as good as its advertising makes out, is an important and interesting one. Yes, there was life before cellphones, and it had its advantages.

A different take on the Internet comes from the wonderfully titled Trampled by Unicorns (Wiley). Maëlle Gavet asks why so many of the heavyweights of the technology sector – Bezos, Zuckerberg, Kalanick, Musk, and so on – are such awful people. She points to the insularity of Silicon Valley society, the incredible sums of money involved, and the growth-at-any-cost strategies of the companies. There is a belief in tech culture that geniuses are always jerks, and therefore being an uncaring misogynist is simply part of the package. Gavet has no shortage of stories, some of which would show the titans to be merely comical if they did not cause so much pain to other people.

There is little to laugh about in Ben Mckelvey’s Mosul: Australia’s Secret War Inside the ISIS Caliphate (Hachette). To date only fragments of the story have come out, and Mckelvey does a good job of showing the big picture. There are two interwoven stories here: one about the militants living in Australia who eventually ended up in Islamic State (two of them became executioners for ISIS videos after showing a talent for it), and another about the Australian commandos who played an important role in the critical battle of Mosul as well as other aspects of the conflict. The soldiers did everything possible to avoid civilian casualties but the use of innocents as shields by ISIS made it difficult.

Mckelvey points out that the jihadis could be effective and innovative fighters, often led by former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army and equipped with captured US hardware. But he also makes clear that they  were vicious, rapacious thugs, slaughtering people in the territory they controlled for the fun of it. ISIS was an evil cancer that had to be destroyed. The tragedy is that the cost of doing it was so high.

From the title of How to Win an Election (NewSouth) one might think it is about the dynamics and procedures of, well, winning elections. Not so. Wallace, a former Press Gallery journalist turned academic, quickly drops any pretence of fairness to focus on what the ALP needs to do to win. One cannot help but wonder if her hatred – there is no other word – of the Coalition is a universal trait in the Press Gallery. In Wallace-world Labor governments are always elected on a wave of idealism and hope while Liberal-led governments grab office through manipulation and trickery. Morrison, who had the gall to unexpectedly win the 2019 election, makes her splutter with indignation. Conservatives in general give her apoplexy, and she almost runs out of nasty things to say about them. All this reaches a nadir with the claim that Labor often loses because it has too much integrity. Presumably, she does not recall Mediscare. Her prescriptions for Labor – get a good leader, build relationships, create better advertisements – are so obvious that they do not really get you very far. Really, is this the best that the left can do?

This reviewer’s prize for the most unnecessary book of the year, the Trees Are Dying For This Award, was a close call. Lindy Edwards’ Corporate Power in Australia (Monash University Press) examines some interesting cases, including the mining tax and the NBN. Her research is comprehensive but the notion of casting big business as the villain has whiskers on it. No-one particularly likes mega-corporations, and saying that they are nasty things is preaching to the choir.

There were books much like this around forty years ago (and probably before), and they have continued to regularly pop up. There was a slew of them when the Occupy kids – remember them? – were doing whatever it was they did. Edwards’ remedies, such as her suggestion that the government should direct super funds to not invest in companies it does not like, sound a bit silly. It is not a bad book, but the question is: why?

A Highly Commended effort but the TADFTA has to go to What Happens Next: Reconstructing Australia After COVID-19 (Melbourne University Press), a collection of essays edited by Emma Dawson and Janet McCalman. Despite the clear title and the cover having a picture of the virus the book actually has very little to do with COVID-19. The contributions are essentially re-hashes of the standard left-wing agenda, from renewable energy to the republic. Eight of the essays are from current or past ALP politicians, and they have nothing unexpected to say. Some of the contributors tack on a pandemic-related paragraph or two but others don’t bother. So: Ms Dawson, Professor McCalman, you have taken a global disaster and turned it into an opportunity for boilerplate agitprop. The award is yours. Congratulations.

Holiday reading

Appearing on In The Black Digital site, December 2020

Samsung Rising
By Geoffrey Cain
Virgin Books, $35, 416 pages

Samsung is mainly known in the West for its phones but in its native South Korea it is a huge conglomerate that dominates the economy. This rollicking book recounts its path over three generations of the founding Lee family as it grew from a modest retailer of vegetables into consumer electronics and eventually chips and communications tech.

A focus for Cain is how Samsung interacts with Apple, as both a rival and an occasional ally. Along the way he looks at the internecine conflicts within the empire, the endless parade of scandals, and the Galaxy 7 phone (which tended to explode). Through it all Samsung continues to thrive, with plans for further global expansion. Not just rising but apparently unstoppable.

Better, Not Perfect
By Max Bazerman
HarperBusiness, $63, 256 pages

No-one is perfect, says Harvard academic Bazerman, but we all have an obligation to try to be better. The task of ethical self-improvement is best taken one day at a time, and business leaders should focus on how to create as much value as possible for the most people, in a sustainable way. Getting rid of waste (especially of time) is an important part of this, and everyone should determine what they really need to lead a satisfying life – and perhaps give away the rest. Bazerman illustrates his points with interesting cases, highlighting the need to consider one’s life and continually look for a path to betterment.

A World Without Work
By Daniel Susskind
Allen Lane, $45, 336 pages

People have been worrying about machines displacing human workers since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution but this lucid book makes the point that so far the fears have not been realised. Susskind argues that technology has vastly improved society by removing back-breaking jobs, increasing productivity and generating wealth.

However, he says, a qualitative change in work is now under way, driven by AI and robotic production. As remedies Susskind favours a system of skills-based education, increased regulation of tech companies, a ‘robot tax’, and financial incentives to encourage large-scale employment. The point, he says, is not to stop technological progress but to balance it with human needs.

Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing
By Jacob Goldstein
Hachette, $25, 304 pages

Why does money have value? Because people want it. Why do people want it? Because it has value. This paradox lies at the core of this fascinating book. Money might be only a consensual fiction, says Goldstein, but it is the driver of economic and social structures. He traces its development from lumps of metal to paper currency, connecting it to government policies, banks and financial collapses. He identifies taxation as the means by which a particular form of money is legitimised and has interesting things to say about the adoption of the euro. He also looks at Modern Monetary Theory and the rise of cryptocurrencies. It adds up to a genial, entertaining package.

Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life
By Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein
Little Brown, $52, 256 pages

Kondo became a cult figure with her 2014 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and in Joy of Work she applies the same theory to the workplace. A messy, cluttered desk is an unproductive desk, she says. Her co-author Sonenshein, a business researcher, provides the data to prove it. They advise taking a thorough inventory and getting rid of anything with dust on it. Only keep things that have a clear, helpful purpose.

The same goes for digital clutter. Get rid of all those old emails; keep no more than fifty on file and purge irrelevant contacts, links and material. Yes, this level of tidying up requires a certain ruthlessness but the eventual rewards make it worthwhile.

Behavioral Insights
By Elspeth Kirkman and Michael Hallsworth
MIT Press, $28, 248 pages

This book is meant to be a primer on behavioural science, and the authors do their best to keep it accessible. They argue that the idea that individuals, whether stakeholders or observers, act on a rational basis is often misplaced. Much of behaviour is nonconscious, habitual, and driven by cues in the environment or the way in which choices are presented. Kirkman and Hallsworth, experts in this field, offer ways to determine the real basis of particular decisions, which is useful information for managers and leaders. Another important aspect is how people can analyse their own decisions, aiming to reach the right outcome rather than the easiest one.

Office boy

Appearing in Australian Spectator magazine, December 2020

The Momentous, Uneventful Day: A Requiem for the Office
By Gideon Haigh
Scribe, $25, 144 pages

For most of us, going to work means going to an office, to sit at a desk and perform bureaucratic tasks. Haigh, an experienced journalist and author, believes that the office has been the dominant cultural institution of the past hundred years, shaping both the urban environment and the modern psyche. Office work has always been defined by forms, records and procedures, and getting it all done with maximum efficiency at minimum cost has always been the task of senior managers.

Haigh draws on a wealth of business-related thinking as well as popular books and movies to illustrate the dualistic nature of all this. On the one hand the office underpins much of the process of wealth creation but the social cost often involves dehumanisation and a particular sort of mind-deadening boredom. And, of course, the time-wasting, life-consuming commute between office and home.

In many ways, the evolution of the office has been driven by technology aimed at constant improvement, from the typewriter to the photocopier to the computer to the Net. Along the way, it drew women into the workforce, giving them an income but often locking them into subordinate roles. In the decades following 1945, office administration was based largely on a military command-and-control model, and Taylorism added an extra dimension of measurement and routinisation. By the mid-1950s the administrative corporation had truly arrived. The world changed with the appearance of the cubicle. The office became a place where not much happened, but everything happened.

It was the development of IT systems that first raised the possibility of separating office work from the office. But telecommuting remained a mere novelty for a long time. Senior managers often disliked it, as it raised the possibility of workers moving outside of their control. The Net gave the idea of remote work a burst of momentum but it remained more a theory than a practice. One crucial aspect of change as the gossamer threads of the Net spread, however, was the deformalisation of the giant tech companies, as they moved from vertical skyscrapers to low-rise ‘campus’ buildings.

Haigh is clear that deformalisation was not designed to make life better for the people working there but to extract more productivity from them. This was especially important for companies where the ultimate business objective was itself morally dubious. The idea was to separate means from ends. All the plushness, the casual clothes, the free candy, says Haigh, was “to obscure their part in the debasement of civil society. We could call it Zuckerbergism”.

Haigh follows some issues down some interesting alleyways of the Digital Era, such as a discursion into office furniture and the hierarchy it implies. The office chair, notably the type called the Aeron, was not only a sign of prestige but also an indication of how much of their life the occupant was willing to put into the job, with the people putting in the most hours to keep their jobs. In the other words: “survival of the sittest”.

Another point, in relation to non-tech companies, is the never-ending search for cost savings. This includes the amount of space available. Haigh notes that twenty years ago the average worker had about 25 square metres of space; these days it is less than ten.

But even if the office was undergoing a metamorphosis it remained an office. Working from home was increasing as an option but the trend was slow to develop.

And then there was COVID-19, and suddenly the option was a necessity. The surprise was that it worked so well, with many employees relishing the flexibility and the lack of a commute. Remote management was made possible by virtual meetings and a new level of online connectivity. Haigh cites several companies that like remote working so much they have no intention of ever returning to a physical office. After all, it is much cheaper than actually paying rent on space and buying desks. Why not pass all those costs onto the employee? Sure, they will have to foot many of the bills but they can work in their pyjamas if they want. It sounded like a fair swap.

But WFH can have a significant downside for many employees. It means that work is invading personal space and managerial control is extending into private life. Indeed, the amount of work often expands to fill the available time. At some point, working from home can blur into living at work.

The implications of widespread WFH are profound. All those CBD office towers begin to look less like statements of corporate power and more like depreciating liabilities. The inner-city cafes, restaurants and stores that depend on the lunch-time crowd suddenly look bereft of a future. The crush of peak-hour trains is replaced by an eerie semi-emptiness. What, in the end, is a city without offices? What property developer, asks Haigh, would undertake a project such as Barangaroo in Sydney or the Docklands in Melbourne in the WFH era?

So is the office as a physical place finished, and deserving of an obituary? Actually, Haigh is not so sure. When COVID-19 ends – assuming it does – there is likely to be a measure of office re-population. But it will be less intense and very different to what has gone before. Not so much a gradual evolution as a trauma-induced leap into an uncertain future. We will probably muddle through to a hybrid of work-styles and a new urban geography. Probably.

Haigh recounts the evolution of the office with imagination and fairness, and he can turn a fine phrase when he wants to. The Momentous, Uneventful Day reads like a good story – and it is, for better or worse, the story of our lives.

Vigilance, Slavery and Estates

Appearing in In The Black magazine, December 2020

See Sooner, Act Faster: How Vigilant Leaders Thrive in an Era of Digital Turbulence
By George Day and Paul Schoemaker
MIT Press, $50, 208 pages

There is not much new in saying that the business environment is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – and that was before the COVID-19 crisis. Knowing what to do about it is a different matter, and the aim of the authors of this book is to provide a roadmap for anticipating and responding to change. A key issue is being able to discern real change signals from background noise, and there is good advice on how to do that by linking pieces of information together.

At the same time, leaders have to be willing and able to delegate a range of operational tasks to others, so they can focus on strategy and building resilience into the culture. There are good examples of companies who were successful in taking advantage of shifting trends, such as Adobe’s move to the Cloud and Mastercard’s digital transformation. There are also lessons from some who failed.

A useful aspect of this book is the diagnostic tools, including checklists and templates, that it provides. The ‘vigilance assessment’ test at the end is especially interesting. Day and Shoemaker were obviously writing with American readers in mind but the lessons of See Sooner, Act Faster are universal.

Addressing Modern Slavery
By Justine Nolan and Martijn Boersma
NewSouth Books, $35, 272 pages

The current form of slavery, say academics Nolan and Boersma, is less about the ownership of people than their exploitation through deceit, intimidation, and coercion. People from under-developed countries are the most likely victims, often tricked into working in factories, on farms or in mines, because paying them effectively nothing is more cost-effective than using machinery. It is not just an overseas problem: in Australia there have been many cases of illegal immigrants or others of dubious legal status being exploited. There is now legislation in force, the Modern Slavery Act 2018, that requires large corporate entities ($100 million and over in annual revenue) operating in Australia to report on what they are doing to monitor the situation and address the problem in their supply chains, subsidiaries and contractors.

Finance professionals and others who prepare company reports need to know their obligations, as do directors. They should also understand how to report offences when found, and the legal follow-through. Nolan and Boersma clearly have strong feelings about their subject but they show admirable restraint in their writing. Nevertheless, the nightmare stories stay in the reader’s mind. This is an awful book, and a very important one.

Taxation of Deceased Estates for Estate Practitioners(2nd edition)
By Ian Raspin
BNR Partners, $25, 47 pages

With an aging population and the increasing complexity of personal finance arrangements, estate management is an area that most accountants in public practice will encounter at some point. Raspin, a senior CPA and director of the specialist firm BNR Partners, notes that this is one of the fastest-growing areas of litigation in Australia, and practitioners should understand it as part of their risk management processes. This second edition of Taxation of Deceased Estates updates and expands the first edition, and includes recent changes in regulations and caselaw. An important issue is the new ATO Practice Compliance Guidelines affecting estates, which Raspin unpacks with the systematic approach of the well-organised expert.

He clearly knows everything there is to know about his subject, and he is able to communicate his points in a straightforward, comprehensive way. The scenarios he discusses are pertinent and realistic. Anyone wanting a complete picture of tax and estates should also look at Raspin’s other books, especially The Australian Tax Pitfalls of Administering an Estate with International Connections. Another Raspin book, The Tax Obligations of a Legal Personal Representative, is available as a free e-book from Raspin’s site.

Blame game

Appearing in Australian Spectator, November 2020

Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation
By Anne Helen Petersen
Penguin, $35, 304 pages

Ah, millennials. Golden children of the Digital Age or dysfunctional, over-educated slackers? Bit of both, says Anne Helen Petersen, although it might be more a case of an author who is unable to make up her mind. In the first part of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, she recounts how many millennials – and she is one, although at 38 she is at the older end of the spectrum – have great difficulty in doing basic things, such as paying bills or finding a dentist. They seem to have a problem with the Post Office. In short, they have trouble ‘adulting’, and often seem to think they are still feckless teenagers.

Petersen has a lot of stories about this, including a few of her own experiences. Unfortunately, she never comes up with a convincing explanation for it. Instead, she points to the parents of millennials, who pushed them through over-scheduled childhoods and an endless search for credentials. The quest for certificates and pieces of official-looking paper had a point: it was so you could get into a better school, so you could get into a well-regarded college, so you could get a prestigious job.

As a result, says Petersen, millennials never learned how to do the mundane chores which are a necessary part of life but yield low returns. Well, maybe, although the connection seems a bit tenuous. But it starts the book off on a recurring pattern of finding someone to blame. Someone else. Anyone else.

This is interesting enough, in a self-indulgent sort of way. So it is a bit odd that Petersen veers off into an analysis of work, which takes up a large part of the book. The parents of millennials – invariably socially liberal, left-wing helicopters – told their children that just getting a job was not enough. It has to be well-paid employment that is socially meaningful and which connects to one’s passions. Oh, and it has to impress other people as well. And if you had to rack up a lot of student debt to get the right degree – well, someone else would pay for it, eventually. Wouldn’t they?

The problem was that as millennials were starting to enter the workforce, technology was evolving to re-define work as a 24/7 deal. Those oh-so-loving parents had failed to mention that you would have to work for a living, and that it might not always be satisfying fun. The high-prestige jobs drew more competition, which meant you had to increase both your input and your output. At the same time, millennials have to keep up their Facebook page, their Instagram accounts, their Twitter feed. So many people that have to be impressed, so much to tell the world about – that is, about yourself.

Yes, it is the road to burnout: constant pressure, too much to do, too much to think about, never enough time. Far from being slackers, says Petersen, millennials are working constantly. If not working for the company, they are building their online profile or scouring the Net for the next, better opportunity. The to-do list, once a tool confined to the workplace, became a never-ending list of tasks that infected every aspect of life.

Blame techno-capitalism. Blame unscrupulous employers. Blame … oh, why not blame Trump? True, student debt and always-on work began well before he took office, but surely, says Petersen, he must have had something to do with it.

Petersen does not offer much in the way of answers to the questions she poses. Just the usual left-wing mush, really: nothing worth repeating here. This section is a bit cursory, in fact, as if she is just walking through the standard discussion points for the inevitable talk shows. She is more interested in pointing fingers. And avoiding the idea that those millennials who are facing stress-driven burnout made their own choices. It is because of our parents, Petersen says. They made us think this way. Their fault.

Here’s a news flash for millennials, Ms Petersen. The parents may have been pushy but your choices are your own. No-one forced you to take on massive student debt – you did that. You do not have to be on social media all the time – that’s your decision. You can turn your phone off if you want, there is a little button that does it. And if you want a business card that impresses your friends – well, that’s on you. Here’s an idea: why not get an ordinary job that allows you to have a decent life? Just a thought.

It must be said that Petersen raises some interesting ideas, and she can turn a good phrase when she wants to. But there appears to be a lot of padding here, with anecdotes that do not lead anywhere and statistics that seem irrelevant to the argument. Perhaps this is to be expected, since the book began as a Buzzfeed essay (Petersen was a ‘senior culture writer’ with Buzzfeed, which explains a lot). A firm editorial hand might have helped, but millennials do not do that sort of thing.

There is also a sense of disconnection in the book. How did we get from the millennial generation having trouble mailing stuff to demands for taking workplaces back to the Good Old Days? Can’t Even is a bit of a mess, really. No doubt, millennials will love the idea that someone else is responsible for whatever troubles they have. The rest of us are unlikely to be so impressed. Our response is probably going to be: welcome to the real world, kid.

Accountants provide the steady hand in time of stress

Appearing in InPractice magazine, July 2020

The New Zealand government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been swift and determined, legislating a relief package of around NZ$18 billion, equivalent to about six per cent of the country’s GDP. Accountants, working as finance specialists and business advisors, are providing critical support to their SME clients, guiding them through the crisis and ensuring that government support can be accessed.

Saurav Wadhwa, Managing Director of IBBZ Accounting, a practice based in Auckland, believes that providing certainty is essential in a time of stress.

“I see that part of our job is to keep our clients from succumbing to panic,” he says. “We have been taking their calls, providing updates, and trying to give them as much comfort as possible. New businesses, and those that were already struggling, are more concerned than existing businesses. Established businesses are not too worried but that will change if the situation goes on for another six months or so.

“As for our own business, we are expecting a 30-40 per cent reduction in sales and there has been a marked drop-off in new clients. All our employees are working remotely and everyone’s hours have been reduced to 32 hours as a way of sharing the burden. We had previously invested in the technology to allow remote working and had simplified our processes, and that is now showing the benefits.”

Wadhwa notes that his firm is not charging any professional fees to clients for helping them access government support. Clients have been given extensions of payment terms for other services whenever they have asked.

Bridgette Pretty, Director of the Nelson-based practice Pretty Accounting, likewise acknowledges the crucial aspect of providing reliable information to clients.

“During the first two weeks after the relief package was announced I worked long hours to help clients with information around the subsidy applications. I turned billing off during this time as having access to answers during challenging times can greatly help to reduce stress levels,” she explains. “It’s a way of giving back to clients. And clients have shown remarkable resilience, even those who have been hit very hard.

“It’s important to be here for them, to offer answers and steadiness in a time of stress. That has extended from providing guidance on cashflow planning for the future to developing some coping skills on how not to kill family members during lockdown!”

Accessing support

Pretty identifies the wage subsidy as a valuable part of the government support package, allowing businesses to retain valued staff. Assistance has also been important for self-employed people, as it has meant the ability to plan cashflow with the assurance that some money, at least, will be coming in. This part of the support package is fairly easy to access but Pretty’s firm has been there to assist clients with applications and documentation.

Wadhwa agrees that the wage subsidy scheme is one of the most effective government initiatives, and his practice has helped many clients with it. Other aspects of the government support program are more complex, such as the re-introduction of depreciation for non-residential buildings, changes to some tax rules, and the temporary increase in asset write-offs. These usually require professional advice for clients.

Wadhwa is less enthusiastic about the loan scheme. He sees the possibility that some companies will take the loan but then not have the capacity to repay it. But he sees the overall package as very positive in the level of support it has provided.

Recovery phase

Both Pretty and Wadhwa see that the accounting profession will have an important role to play when the economy moves into recovery phase.

“Cashflow planning is going to be a big one, as well as tax planning, which was invaluable in the recovery from the previous recession,” Pretty says. “We will also provide assistance with information to give to client’s banks. That will be important as we come out of lockdown, a means of keeping relationships between clients and the banking sector open.” 

She believes that the recovery period will open up new opportunities for many businesses, and is working to ensure that her clients will be in a position to take advantage.

Wadhwa agrees, saying: “Using our expertise to look ahead is one good way we can add value to our clients. We make it part of our regular update service, and we are also providing advice on financial planning and business restructuring.

“Looking ahead a bit further, we will help our clients with disaster recovery plans, which includes contingency funds in the form of liquid cash. For some time I have been working with clients to build contingency funds – nine months of total gross expenses is a good target, in my view, and three months is the absolute minimum. This crisis underlines the value of that.

“As accountants and CPAs, we are our clients’ most trusted source of advice. I believe they need us more than ever before, and we cannot let them down.”

Virtual conference to provide insights and opportunities

Appearing in In The Black Digital, July 2020

2020 has been a tough year for everyone but especially for CPAs in public practice, as they are asked to advise clients on how to manage the pandemic environment while keeping their own businesses afloat. At the same time, they have to continue with the usual tasks of upgrading their skills and staying current with information and issues.

In previous years, the Public Practice Conference has been a key event to fulfill these needs. It will be essential this year as well, but with face-to-face (F2F) gatherings impossible a virtual event has been designed. It is a one-day event that will take place on 8 October, with the theme ‘Build the Firm of the Future’. Registration is through the CPAA website. The cost is A$120 (including GST) for members and $220 for non-members. The Virtual PPC  provides nine hours of CPD.

The content in the program will examine the current climate and give insights on how to navigate the challenges faced by accountants in public practice. Speakers include demographer Bernard Salt, senior ATO executive Deborah Jenkins, and transformation specialist Alan Fitzgerald. The head of New Zealand’s tax agency, Naomi Ferguson, is also on the list.

There will also be an important panel discussion dealing with ‘The Firms of the Future’.

“We know how difficult business is at the moment so we have designed the event to be job-relevant and cost-effective,” says Tiani Bradilovic, Product Development Executive, Conferences & Events at CPA Australia. “The event is web-based so there is no need for additional software. The conference will provide all the key elements of a F2F conference. There will be the opportunity to attend sessions, ask questions, to communicate with your peers, and view content – all from your office or home.”

There will be 20 sessions available on the platform. Some speakers will have Q&A during or after their talk. Others will go to a moderated chat room to answer questions from conference participants.

 Planning pays

Graeme Beattie, Partner in Worrells Insolvency and Forensic Accountants, has ‘attended’ several virtual forums and he sees a range of benefits in online events.

“You can learn and network without having to factor in travel time, transport options and accommodations costs,” he says. “But it pays to ensure the mechanics are right. Check your Internet connection is working properly, have your contact information ready to distribute to people, and prepare some questions to ask presenters.”

A virtual conference offers flexibility but getting the best from it requires focus. Dedicate the whole day to it, with all other work put on hold. Decide which conference events are most relevant to you, but recognise that all the material will be archived so there is no need to frantically take notes of a speaker’s address. Ensure that any follow-up material is collected.

While Beattie notes the high calibre of the PPC speaker roster he is particularly interested in Bernard Salt’s address, ‘The Future of Work: Planning for Tomorrow’s Workforce’.

“As a business owner who is constantly looking for talented employees to manage our workload, I’m interested to hear about future employment trends and opportunities,” he says. “Like many practices our ability to grow depends on the success and happiness of our people as well as our ability to attract new staff.”

He suggests that any CPA who has to convince a sceptical employer about the value of a virtual event should highlight the breadth of topics that will be presented at the conference. They might also emphasise that professional development opportunities as comprehensive as this event are uncommon at the moment. And he makes the point that, now more than ever, it is important to be aware of new developments and to network with other finance professionals.

Connection model

Conference participants should also prepare for a different form of networking. While there will not be video capability at Virtual PPC, participants have the opportunity to connect with people they otherwise may not have known were in the same room in a F2F event. Delegates can email each other (without seeing each other’s email addresses) and connect via Linked In if the information is provided. These methods of connection can take some getting used to but at this stage nearly everyone is in the same boat, so do not worry if there are some awkward moments as people get used to the technological intermediation.

“The biggest challenges for me in the current environment are the social isolation as well as finding the time to think Big Picture,” Beattie says. “This conference offers a break from the usual daily activities, providing the opportunity to take a step back and reflect while absorbing the lessons offered by respected experts. It is also the first time I will be able to network with a group of other accounting professionals in this style of event, something I’ve missed in recent months.”

Leaders, fintech and cash flow

Appearing in In The Black magazine, November 2020

Cracking the Leadership Code: Three Secrets to Building Strong Leaders
By Alain Hunkins
Wiley, $30 (e-book), 274 pages

Hunkins has been a leadership coach for many years, and in this book he distils his observations into practical advice. He believes that the best leaders are more concerned with objectives than processes, while operating within a framework of connection, communication and collaboration. He unpacks each of these pieces of the code, mixing research with anecdotes and emphasising the need to build trust and credibility. Once upon a time, leadership might have been about exerting control, but now it is about guiding strategy and influencing the context for action. Share the vision, ask open-ended questions, pay attention to the voices of experience.

True leadership is not easy, says Hunkins. It takes practice and self-awareness. Most leaders have made mistakes; the key is to reflect on them and take away the right lessons. He also warns about the danger of getting bogged down in complexity and detail. Get out of the corner office to engage with people down the line, he advises.

Hunkins explains his points with admirable clarity, and adds flashes of humour. He mainly has C-level executives in mind but most of the book would be useful for leaders at any level, including small firms, business units and teams.

FinTech Future: the Digital DNA of Finance
By Sanjay Phadke
Sage, $25 (e-book), 232 pages

Around the world the old financial order is under challenge, with technology-driven disintermediation threatening the longstanding dominance of the banks. Phadke provides a timely overview of fintech, looking at how tech companies pushed their way into the financial services field. Fintech DNA, he says, is about mobility, rapid change, scale or fail fast, crowd-sourced innovation, and continuous product development.

Something fundamental happened when new players leveraged technology to bypass institutional structures. The current issues are the integration of artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, Cloud tech, and cryptocurrencies into finance. The next wave, already building, will be the effective takeover of finance by fintech. Maybe the banks can survive if they adopt fintech ideas as central to their operations. Maybe not.

Phadke has a great deal of experience in this field and he is not blind to the obstacles and dangers, although he believes that fintech has attained critical mass. Many of the large tech companies now have the financial reserves to step around capital requirements and regulations, and are more trusted than banks by younger consumers. The book also includes a section on how India, where Phadke is based, is seeking to leapfrog its competitors with a fulsome embrace of fintech. Fascinating stuff.

Smarter Business, Stronger Cash Flow
By Paul Roach
Woodslane, $30, 136 pages

Cashflow problems are the single largest killer of small businesses, and sometimes large businesses as well. Roach, a CPA, has worked as a management accountant and consultant for a wide range of firms, and in this useful book he provides a wealth of advice on how to improve the cash bottom line. Many people in business, he says, are not very aware of the cost of goods sold, the contribution of company assets, even their actual cashflow position. Roach walks through each of these problems, explaining the importance of regular reviews, solid analysis of income and outgoings, reliable cash forecasts, and the accrual of reserves. Along the way, he has suggestions on management tools to get the best from employees and on effective inventory control, and also (for very small businesses) on separating personal funds from company resources.

Much of what Roach has to say will not be news to trained CPAs but he is able to explain tricky concepts in simple terms, which would be useful to accountants with SME clients. There are exercises that can be worked through with clients and summaries of each section. The website that accompanies the book is also helpful, with diagnostic tools and checklists.

Downloadable Resources

Trailblazer

Accounting and professional services giant EY has named Dr Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, head of biotech firm Biocon, as its World Entrepreneur of 2020. From just US$500 in  1978, Biocon has grown into a leading firm in India’s technology sector, evolving from manufacturing pharmaceuticals to developing affordable drugs to treat diseases such as diabetes.

Dr Mazumdar-Shaw originally graduated from brewing school in Australia. When she returned to India she discovered that no-one would hire a woman. Undeterred, she decided to create the business that would become Biocon.

“At its core, entrepreneurship is about solving problems,” she says. “The greatest opportunities often arise at the toughest times.”

Read her story at:
https://www.ey.com/en_gl/entrepreneurship/weoy-winner-2020

Lessons for rebound

In an interesting discussion, two senior executives of global consulting firm Mercer, Renee McGowan, CEO Mercer Asia, and Georgina Lee, Growth and Experience Leader, Career, Mercer Australia, shared observations about Asia as it moves out of the COVID-19 crisis period. Their analysis included lessons for Australian leaders on how to promote and strengthen the rebound.

They examine the split-team concept, where people are rotated between working in the office and working from home, which has proved successful in several countries. They also emphasise the need for leaders to continue to plan for new problems, and to constantly communicate with employees and other stakeholders.

Read at:
https://www.mercer.com.au/our-thinking/workforce-and-career/returning-to-work-in-a-covid-19-world-what-aussie-firms-can-learn-from-asia.html

Slow response

PwC’s Global Economic Crime and Fraud Survey 2020 shows that Australian businesses are lagging behind global averages in combating fraud and corruption. According to the report Fighting Fraud: A Familiar Foe in Unfamiliar Times, 35 per cent of Australian respondents experienced a fraud in the past 24 months, with 40 per cent reporting a loss of $1.4 million and 22 per cent losing more than $7 million. However, only 38 per cent of companies conducted a post-fraud investigation, compared to 56 per cent globally. Australian firms have also been slow to adopt advanced technologies to detect and prevent fraud, even though tools are available.

For a summary of the survey, and a link to the full report, go to:
https://www.pwc.com.au/consulting/global-economic-crime-fraud-survey.html

Leadership advice

John Maxwell is a thought leader in leadership and management, having written a series of well-regarded books such as Leadershift and The Power of Your Potential. The articles, podcasts and videos on this site are designed for leaders at every level. Maxwell has a wide range of research to draw upon, and his strength is turning data and expert opinions into practical advice. He has a particular interest in collaboration and mentoring, and several recent pieces deal with co-operative strategies in response to crises. Other posts that are well worth a look are ‘Build Your Team’s Scoreboard’ and ‘Three Ways to Defeat Distraction’.

Go to:
https:// johnmaxwell.com

Gen Z

People born between 1996 and 2012 will constitute a quarter of the Asia-Pacific population by 2025. A major McKinsey survey of 16,000 Gen Zers in Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand revealed several broad conclusions despite the differences among the countries. They rely on social media but are thoughtful about how they engage with it; they look for quality and ‘deals’; video content greatly influences their brand selection; and they want to be seen as concerned for the environment but are often reluctant to pay for it. While reaching Gen Zers represents significant challenges their growing affluence makes the effort worthwhile.

Read at:
https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/what-makes-asia-pacifics-generation-z-different

Future, AI and phones

Appearing in In The Black magazine, October 2020

What About the Future?: New Perspectives on Planning, Forecasting and Complexity
By Fred Phillips
Springer, 157 pages

Phillips is a respected academic and consultant, and editor of the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change, so he has spent a great deal of time thinking about the future. But he makes clear that this book is not about making predictions. Instead, it is about ways to think about the future, from trend analysis to scenario planning to expert roundtables. All methods have their strengths and weaknesses – and in most cases, more of the latter than the former.

He examines the issues of risk, complexity and uncertainty, as well as the foreseeability of (apparently) unforeseeable events and the labyrinthine impact of disruptive innovations. All this could easily have become a jargon-heavy jumble but Philips writes with admirable clarity and self-deprecating humour. He also has a good time poking some fun at predictions that turned out to be hilariously wrong, mainly due to the pattern of applying straight-line thinking to radical disjunctions. He eventually concludes that the most reliable tools in forecasting are population demographics and long-cycle Kondratieff waves, although even these have problems. Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating read, and makes one think of Churchill’s famous remark, that the future is really just one darned thing after another.

Artificial Intelligence in Practice: How 50 Successful Companies Used AI and Machine Learning to Solve Problems
By Bernard Marr with Matt Ward
Wiley, 352 pages

For a long time AI looked like a solution in search of a problem but this book shows how it is being used to drive efficiencies that flow through to the bottom line. The studies are grouped into the categories of tech trailblazers, retail/CPG, media, financial/healthcare, and manufacturing, and each follows the same format of problem-analysis-solution-results. Many of the companies are using AI to improve the customer interface but some focus on product innovation, and AI is also being used to fight counterfeiting and pollution.

A particularly interesting case is Starbucks, which uses AI to connect global inventory control with granular analysis of local consumer movements. Another multinational giant, Unilever, uses AI to streamline recruitment and onboarding. Viacom has developed ways to build customer loyalty through data analytics and real-time monitoring.

Some readers might find the bite-sized studies to be overly brief and lacking in detail. That is the trade-off that Barr, who has written extensively about emergent technologies, has made: breadth for depth. But he includes reference lists at the end of each section for those who want to know more. He also provides a significant concluding chapter which examines future challenges for AI, including privacy, disruption and data security.

Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnecting
By Trine Syvertsen
Emerald Publishing, 2020

As Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oslo, Norway, Syvertsen noticed an interesting news snippet: that the current trendy gift in Scandinavia is a ‘mobile box’. It is, in fact, just a box: the idea is that you put your phone into it and walk away for a day or longer. It made her think about how our relationship with our phone is evolving: from seeing them as essential tools and must-have fashion items to annoying distractions that steal our privacy, time and attention.

The research she conducted reveals how people are increasingly looking for ways to disconnect – or, rather, to set their terms for being online. Many people want to feel more “present” in their non-digital lives; others realised that they had forgotten how to have face-to-face conversations. Syvertsen endorses regular disconnection periods, and suggests methods such as offline zones in the house or workplace, removing notification apps, banning phones from beds, and acknowledging that FOMO – fear of missing out – is, well, silly. According to data from Sweden and Norway, periods of digital detox help to increase work productivity and improve overall health.

And as for the ‘mobile box’? A great idea, says Syvertsen. You can order them online.

Downloadable Resources

Looking ahead

The blog section of the Deloitte Australia site has a wealth of useful information, with categories including agility, the economic outlook, COVID-19 responses, leadership and finance. The emphasis is on looking forward, using data from the global Deloitte network. Some of the particularly interesting pieces examine the implications of the COVID-19 crisis for general insurance (under the Financial Services tab), experience as a key aspect of learning (under Innovation), and the connection between skills and wage premiums (under Government). Most of the blog pieces are short but there is usually a link to a longer article or more data sources.

Read at:
https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/our-blog.html

Skills in demand

The latest Jobs Report from Hays Recruitment Australia shows that Management Accountants, Cloud Engineers, Credit Assessors and SEO Digital Marketing Specialists are the skilled people most in demand at present. But the report warns jobseekers that technical abilities are not all that employers want to see. The key factor is for skilled professionals who, regardless of their role or industry, can demonstrate strong interpersonal and creative skills. Employers also want people who can make data-based decisions, adapt well to change and are continuous learners. This is likely to continue, with ‘soft’ skills becoming prerequisites across all job functions and sectors.

Download from:
https://www.hays.com.au/industry-insights/jobs-report

De-stress

Guy Winch is a psychologist and author, and in this interesting TED Talk he examines how to overcome stress and the problems it leads to. He argues that the real issue is what he calls ‘ruminations’, or the tendency to think about work at home – or, indeed, anywhere and everywhere. He advises setting up clear ‘guardrails’, including specific hours and places for work. Another important step is turning off the computer and the phone. He also has suggestions for people who work from home on setting clear divisions. Breaking bad mental habits is not easy but it can be done.

Watch at:

Sustainability

The Insights section of the site of banking giant HSBC contains a wide range of useful articles and podcasts, and it can be searched by industry sector or subject theme. Recent posts in the Financial Institutions section, for example, look at trends in the securities market and how changes are being driven by regulatory issues. An important article by analyst Lucy Acton asks whether sustainability issues will still matter to consumers after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. She concludes that although the pandemic has presented setbacks in some areas it has accelerated other sustainability trends, such as online purchasing and automation.

Read at:
https://www.gbm.hsbc.com/insights

Change leaders

Innosight is a US consulting firm specialising in helping companies develop and implement innovative solutions. The site provides many interesting articles and reports, with one of the most significant being ‘The Transformation 20’, which ranks companies according to their record on innovation. The report also draws lessons for leaders, noting that the biggest problem for successful companies is often complacency and self-delusion.

The site includes an In Memorium post for Clayton Christensen, a founder of the company who passed away in early 2020. He was one of the key figures of modern management thinking, and the author of numerous books on innovation, disruption, and transformation.

For a summary of the report ‘The Transformation 20’, and a link to the full report, go to:
https://www.innosight.com/