Belling the cat

The Tyranny of Big Tech
By Josh Hawley
Regnery, $42, 194 pages, ISBN 9781684512393

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody
By Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
Swift Press, $23, 296 pages, ISBN 9781800750326

There was a time when tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook were like cute little puppies, happily knocking over the furniture and offering the prospect of a cheery future. But at some point they turned into snarling attack dogs, snapping at any criticism and enthralled by their own muscle.

They need a leash, and a strong one, says Republican US Senator Hawley. They have become the censors of our age, making apparently arbitrary decisions about who gets a gold star and who gets ‘cancelled’. It is always conservative figures that are de-platformed, according to Hawley, and he gives plenty of examples of people from the left that have said things that are incitements to violence, defamatory or just plain crackers, yet remain untouched.

Hawley notes that the book was itself almost cancelled. The original publisher, Simon & Schuster, reneged on their contract due to comments that Hawley made questioning the veracity of some aspects of the 2020 election – comments that look pretty innocuous. In any case, the attempt at censorship backfired badly, and the book has become a best-seller (through Amazon, ironically).

Hawley began his crusade when he was attorney-general in Missouri, his home state. He suggests that existing anti-monopoly legislation could be used to break up the behemoths, probably by splitting them by function. He also has interesting things to say about removing the liability protection that applies to social media platforms. None of this will happen while the Democrats hold the levers of power, says Hawley, because the leading tech figures donate billions to them. In many cases the key company figures share the ideological attitudes of the left (although they are usually laissez-faire libertarian when it comes to making money).

The problem with the book is Hawley’s tendency to undermine his case through speculation and hyperbole. In some places the book reads more like a partisan diatribe than a considered analysis. This is a pity, because the issue is an important one and his proposals for reform are sound. The idea of ‘cancelling’ is bad enough: that it can be done by mega-corporations that have shown themselves to be manipulative, aggressive and paranoid is profoundly disturbing. How did Zuckerberg and his kin get to decide who could enter the arena of public debate?

Which brings us to Cynical Theories. Pluckrose is an editor and former academic (she describes herself as “an exile from the humanities”), and Lindsay is a mathematician and writer on politics and religion. This is a good combination to examine how critical theory became so important so quickly, devouring much of the old left in the name of identity politics.

Pluckrose and Lindsay trace it back to philosophers like Foucault and Derrida, who hypothesised that social reality was a construction designed to entrench the interests of the powerful and oppress everyone else, mainly by the control of discourse. The theory had been around for a while but it got a new lease of life when traditional Marxism collapsed in the 1990s. The left needed something new to talk about, and when the idea migrated to America identity politics fitted the bill. The essential premise was that all people were defined solely by group characteristics of race, gender, sexuality, and so on. Every minority was by definition oppressed by white, male, heteronormative culture.

For a time this was limited to a few universities and academic journals but it began to go mainstream in numbers and influence around 2010. Pluckrose and Lindsay sort through the key essays and articles, noting the increasingly militant tone. Significantly, the new movement saw their enemies as not only conservatives but also liberals – Pluckrose and Lindsay are clear that they are writing from a liberal perspective – who were seen as defenders of an irredeemable system.

The crucial mechanism for putting the Theory (deliberately written with a capital by the authors) into practice was social media. It was culture, not elections, that would be battleground. Infiltration into corporations, schools, and cable television were the follow-up tactics.

It began with Critical Race Theory but it soon metastasised. It became Critical [INSERT GRIEVANCE HERE] Theory. There is now even Critical Fat Theory, which argues that doctors who advise obese patients to lose weight are actually oppressing them.

There was an equivalence of virtue with victimhood, with extra points for anyone who could claim membership of several minorities. At the same time, academic achievement and self-betterment through hard work were deconstructed and dismissed as inherently oppressive. Even maths was attacked as racist. The Theory became a meta-narrative.

Pluckrose and Lindsay let much of this silliness speak for itself but they are entirely aware of the dark undertone. Social Justice Theory soon became intolerant, tribalistic and vicious, endlessly finding new complaints and targets. There was a particular emphasis on language. A misplaced word, even if spoken years ago, could end a career. It turned into the Spanish Inquisition, and nobody expected it.

In fact, Social Justice Theory now bears the hallmarks of a religion: the True Faith of the Woke. They know what they know and will not be moved. There is no room for discussion. Dissent is heresy.

Pluckrose and Lindsay believe that liberals need to fight this, with reasoned arguments, reliable data, and personal courage. Not easy but it can be done. Someone has to bell the cat, they say.

Or have the claws gone too deep, the rot too far? We will have to wait and see, perhaps – and do whatever we can to ensure that it does not take full root on Australian shores. In the meantime, Cynical Theories is a good explanation as to how America got to its current parlous state.

Taxing times an old story

Appearing in the Australian, August 2021.

Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages
By Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod
Princeton University Press, $45, 536 pages, ISBN 9780691199542

At first glance, a book on the history of taxation seems like something only an accountant could love. But as it turns out Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue is an enjoyable romp, a fascinating mix of stories and insights.

Keen, deputy director of fiscal affairs at the IMF, and Slemrod, an economics professor, write with engaging authority, asserting that taxation has always been a defining aspect of government. In fact, the text of the Rosetta Stone, which allowed for the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, deals with a tax exemption for priests. So exemptions are as old as taxes, which is partly why the business of tax gets so complicated. Allowing deductions for dependents, for example, has often led to people claiming for non-existent children.

Some people will go to astonishing lengths to minimise their tax payments, even with tactics that cost more than the tax. In Georgian England, there was a tax on windows (used as a proxy for wealth) which led to many windows being bricked up. A tax on ships, which were assessed on width, led to vessels that were narrow and tall – and which, understandably, tended to capsize. Pretending to be dead was once a common ploy.

Governments have used this dislike of taxes to try various forms of social engineering. In Czarist Russia, Peter the Great levied a tax on beards, not for the revenue but to induce the nobility to shave. The same principle applies to carbon taxes: impose taxes to change behaviour. The results are mixed. Taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and gambling – ‘sin’ taxes – have done little to reduce consumption, in Australia or anywhere else.

A constant problem for the officials who create tax policy is working out who will eventually end up paying a given tax. Businesses largely see tax as a cost and will pass it on to consumers if possible. Taxes on consumption are an alternative but often lead to smuggling and black markets. High taxation has triggered civil unrest and even insurrections, although there are often underlying causes as well.

The invention of the income tax was something of a revolution. The first income taxes were connected to wars, which are expensive undertakings. In Australia, the first federal income tax was introduced to pay for World War One (there were also state income taxes at the time). During World War Two, Canberra legislated to give itself a monopoly in the field.

Another crucial step was withholding, so that tax was deducted from a person’s salary and paid on by the employer. It effectively became invisible. A stroke of genius, in its own way.

There is now a broad acceptance that income taxes should be progressive, with the affluent paying more. This is easier said than done, and there is a continuing contest between the people who write the rules and those who are generously paid to get around them. But in the past few years tax agencies have introduced data-matching systems and AI technology, so dodging taxes is harder than it used to be.

One persistent problem is the use of international tax havens, and there is no clear antidote. Keen and Slemrod suggest that a global agency for “setting and enforcing some aspects of tax rules in the way that the World Trade Organization has done for trade” might be needed. A good idea but the devil will be in the details, as it usually is.

All this is good fun but Keen and Slemrod make some serious points. Their study of history is meant to reveal how to balance efficiency and equity in a tax system, and they come up with a list of criteria. Undue complexity undermines public faith, so the law should be as clear as possible. Using taxes for anything other than raising revenue usually creates more problems than it solves. Seeing rich people manipulate the rules so they pay very little undercuts the willingness of everyone to pay, so consistent enforcement is important.

Keen and Slemrod note that “when it comes to designing and implementing taxes, our ancestors were addressing fundamentally the same problems that we struggle with today”. Certainly, no-one likes taxes. But they are, as the saying goes, an inevitable part of life.

Advantage, new work, overload

Appearing in In the Black magazine, August 2021

Rethinking Competitive Advantage: New Rules for the Digital Age

By Ram Charan

Random House Business, $35, 224 pages

With several dozen bestsellers to his name Charan is a heavy hitter in the field of business thinking. His 2020 book was a detailed examination of Amazon, and Rethinking Competitive Advantage builds on the lessons found there to establish a conceptual framework. Success no longer comes from hard assets, distribution channels, or established brands, he says, but from continuous innovation to capture, hold and develop consumer preferences. He backs this up with good case studies and data, pointing to cash generation and growth rates as the crucial metrics.

The key is to think of the company as an ecosystem which constantly responds, adapts and evolves. Leaders who are ‘born digital’ are usually better at it but even those whose early training was in the pre-digital era can make the transition, if they are open-minded about it. Charan provides a set of rules ranging from the use of algorithms to the personalisation of customer experiences, knitting them together to form a competitiveness model. He notes that this is not only for technology-based B2C companies but for B2B firms as well, and even government agencies. It adds up to a package of clear thinking, useful to managers and executives at every level.

Work From Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Becoming a World-class Hybrid Team

ByAlison Hill and Darren Hill

Wiley, $27.95, 240 pages

The authors of this interesting book are the principals of a consulting firm specialising in workplace organisation, training and coaching. Pre-pandemic, the company was based on close-fitting teams. Then, almost overnight, the company structure had to be re-configured for remote working – what the Hills call ‘work from anywhere’ (WFA). To their surprise, they found that it was actually more effective and productive. Here, they explain the model they developed, combining their hands-on experience with research and the views of experts in the area.

Getting the technology linkages right is important but the real issue is keeping people connected and on track. Creating maps with team members’ responsibilities and timelines is useful, and everyone has to understand and share the goal. Do not overuse Zoom and similar tools, advise the Hills. Instead, the team leader should maintain regular one-on-one contact and supervision. Effective teams are often a combination of WFA people and others working in a central office.

Getting the mix, the tech and the culture right takes effort and planning, and sometimes adjustments will be needed along the way. But remote working in some form is probably here to stay, so it is a skill that managers need to have.

Too Much Information: Understanding What You Don’t Want to Know

By Cass Sunstein

MIT Press, $48, 248 pages

Here is an odd piece on information: Facebook is bad for you. People who use it are, on average, more likely to become depressed, anxious and stressed – yet most would not want to give it up, even knowing that. This is one of the strange things that Sunstein, an expert in consumer law who has worked in government on regulations that require disclosure about matters like nutrition and safety, uncovers in this fascinating book. He admits that he long believed in maximum disclosure in all matters but has had a change of heart, and now thinks that authorities should focus on the question of whether a particular disclosure has a positive effect. Endlessly increasing the information burden can lead to people feeling overwhelmed, and that they are being admonished by an intrusive nanny-state.

Regulators should think about whether requiring a particular disclosure is making people happier, and recognise that there is no one-size answer. He has some harsh words for companies that bury information under jargon and volume (software providers are especially guilty of this). Keep it simple, useful and relevant, he says. This might be easier to say than do, but nevertheless Too Much Information is thought-provoking and entertaining.

Shaking on it

Appearing in the Australian, July 2020

The Handshake: A Gripping History
By Ella Al-Shamahi
Allen & Unwin, $30, 176 pages, ISBN 9781788167802

Ah, what’s in a handshake? Quite a lot, according to this sparky, well-researched book. Ella Al-Shamahi is an evolutionary biologist and archaeologist who dabbles in stand-up comedy – interesting combination! – and in The Handshake: A Gripping History she looks at her subject from a variety of perspectives. Her knowledge, enthusiasm and sense of humour make for an enjoyable mix.

She is (aside from the unique CV) well-placed to do it. She was raised as a fundamentalist Moslem (in Birmingham, UK), and physical contact between women and unrelated men was forbidden. When she moved away from her faith in her twenties and began shaking hands, she was struck by the social importance of it, as well as the sheer enjoyment of an act that can bridge the gap between strangers. The handshake used to be a male-only thing but now it extends across gender boundaries.

Al-Shamahi notes that chimps and some other primates shake hands, and it seems to have the function of ‘let’s make up’ after a conflict, similar to one type of handshake amongst humans. Isolated tribes that have had no contact with the modern word often shake hands as well.

Another purpose of a handshake is to seal a deal. Al-Shamahi points to a ninth-century sculptured relief from Iraq that shows two kings shaking hands. Even now, successful negotiations in business or politics are wrapped up with handshakes all round.

But the most common form is the handshake as greeting. It probably stems from the idea of each participant showing that they are not carrying a weapon, although it is also connected to the closeness involved. The palms are intensely wired with sensory receptors, and movement of the skin releases oxytocin, a social bonding hormone. There is, says Al-Shamahi, “no room for anything other than positivity in the handshake”.

For this reason, the coronavirus-era fist-bump or elbow-bump simply do not measure up. Al-Shamahi believes that the handshake will re-emerge once the pandemic is past. She notes that handshakes have been socially or legally prohibited in earlier pandemics, like the Spanish Flu, but came roaring back as soon as possible.

But if shaking hands is somehow rooted in our DNA, how is it that there are some cultures, such as Japan and Thailand, that do not do it? Al-Shamahi speculates that there may have been protracted epidemics in the past in those countries, and as a result alternatives, such as the Japanese bow, evolved. Well, maybe. Al-Shamahi does not feel any obligation to explain absolutely everything, and her telling of the rollicking  story is the richer for it.

Of course, Al-Shamahi devotes a chapter to the right way to shake hands, including choreography, grip, the all-important eye contact, duration, and eventual release. Someone has actually developed a formula for this but Al-Shamahi takes the view that you should largely follow your instincts, with a measure of social sensitivity. “Get in with a smile and some warmth,” she advises. “The handshake is not the endgame. Human connection is. So that is how you shake hands. Godspeed.”

There have been many occasions where a handshake has resonated beyond the act itself. The 1985 handshake between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was one, signalling the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Another was that between Nelson Mandela and South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar in 1995, bringing a divided nation together. Princess Diana shaking hands with a dying AIDS patient was an intimate moment that changed how the world perceived the disease.

On the other hand, there have been some real shockers. The handshake between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler ended badly for all concerned. US President William McKinley was assassinated by someone who got close under the pretence of shaking his hand. The 2015 handshake between Raoul Castro and Barack Obama was, according to Al-Shamahi, “an unchoreographed mess”. But in terms of rating awful handshakes, she gives the award to Donald Trump, whose 29-second grip on Japanese PM Shinzo Abe set something of a benchmark.

All this is good fun as well as being insightful and informative. It makes you look forward to the time when handshakes can again be a part of our lives. Start counting down the days.

Free, money and crises

Appearing in In The Black magazine, July 2021

The Flip Side of Free: Understanding the Economics of the Internet
By Michael Kenda
MIT Press, $50, 249 pages

One of the traditional principles of economics is that there is no such thing as ‘free’. Kende, an academic specialising in Internet governance and regulation, asks a simple question: in the Digital Age, does that principle still hold?

Maybe, he answers, but it needs to be re-worked. The ‘free’ wi-fi in Starbucks, for example, is free for customers but the company pays a fee for it, which is presumably passed on or absorbed. But the real cost might be elsewhere. The sign-on contract (which virtually no-one reads) gives Starbucks the right to collect and use customers’ data however they choose. This is, Kende discovers, a common arrangement.

Kende sees data collection and its connection to targeted advertising as a key driver of the Internet’s evolution. Looking broadly, he also examines how open-source protocols have shaped the technology, and where it might be going. He is a firm believer in the benefits of the Internet but accepts that there are the downsides. Kende puts forward some options for reform, including legal mechanisms to stop uncompetitive behaviour from the tech giants and to provide privacy protection. Easier said than done, but nevertheless Flip Side is a fascinating account of how we got to here.

Preparing for the Next Financial Crisis
By Olivier de Bandt, Francoise Drumetz and Christian Pfister
Taylor & Francis, $94, 386 pages

Ever since the Global Financial Crisis, policymakers have sought to strengthen the finance sector, particularly the major banks. This book, aimed mainly at advanced students and researchers but likely to be of interest to many in the broad finance community, reviews the work that has been done. It finds that results have been patchy at best, with much of the good effort on debt reduction being overturned by the COVID-19 crisis. The US has done fairly well in improving the underlying health of its financial sector but even before the pandemic Europe remained in a shaky position. The sovereign debt crisis of the eurozone has been pushed into the background in the past few years but it has not gone away.

However, there has been some important progress on international agencies and standards, and most governments have developed more tools for macroprudential management. This is good news for the long-term outlook but the concluding section of the book discusses a number of emerging challenges, including cyber-risks, crypto-assets and climate change. All of these are daunting but the book’s authors believe that there are now avenues for global co-operation and information sharing that can provide a foundation for action.

Your Money, Your Investments: Preserving and Growing Your Wealth in Good and Tough Times (2nd ed.)
By Ben Fok
Marshall Cavendish, $26, 240 pages

Dr Fok is a very experienced financial adviser based in Singapore, and also a prolific writer of articles and columns. This book collects his articles into a coherent package, with an emphasis on the volatile financial environment of the past few years. He notes that in Singapore, as in many other countries, a significant part of the population is preparing to move into retirement, and he discusses a range of suitable strategies to ensure a comfortable future. He realises that many people like to do their own investing but suggests that a financial planner can provide useful guidance regarding retirement, including drawing up timelines and assessing the level of security needed.

The stock market can be a good way to generate wealth but he underlines the need to do careful research about sectors and companies. Leave derivatives and other complex products to the professionals, he advises, and look for long-term growth. When the market dips – as it inevitably, occasionally will – do not panic; hold your position and ride it out. A broad-based portfolio, with some investments in other areas, is a good hedge against downturns. The overall message is: know what you want, plan carefully, and stick to your strategy.

Downloadable Resources

Temp job advice

This interesting blog article on the Hayes Recruitment site provides advice on being interviewed for a temporary assignment or contract role, and how the process differs from an interview for a permanent position. The applicant needs to be able to show that they can step into the role immediately, often with minimal supervision. Questions are likely to focus on technical skills, with a discussion of past jobs and roles. Interviewers are also likely to ask the reasons for seeking a temp job as opposed to a permanent role. Useful advice, and the site has several related articles on non-permanent work.

Read at:
https://www.hays.com.au/career-advice/interview-tips/career-advice/interview-tips-for-contract-temp-roles


CFO future

The Corporate Reporting Survey from accounting giant EY uses the views of over a thousand CFOs and financial controllers to map the path ahead, with an emphasis on how reporting can be re-designed for the post-pandemic era. The critical issue is to balance resilience and flexibility with the stability needed to generate sustainable, long-term value for stakeholders. Related to this is the need to integrate social and environmental issues with financial reporting. Most senior finance leaders are willing to use or create innovative tools to generate new outcomes, although there is also an acknowledgement of the difficulties down the road.

Download from:
https://www.ey.com/en_au/assurance/how-can-corporate-reporting-connect-your-business-to-its-true-value


Female focus

Women Are The Business is an award-winning podcast series from the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Melbourne, focusing on the hurdles women face at work and in life. Some articles are based on academic research while others use the perspective of real-life experience. There are important pieces on the reasons for the gender pay gap, the impact of flexible work arrangements, and the expectations placed on working women. The podcast series includes interviews with prominent women in business, and the panel discussion on how to promote greater gender equality in the recovery period is particularly interesting.

Go to:
https://fbe.unimelb.edu.au/womenarethebusiness


Indonesian opportunities

Global bank HSBC is in a good position to assess the future for many Asian countries, and this report on Indonesia identifies opportunities and challenges. The Indonesian government was quick to implement a range of fiscal and monetary initiatives to combat the COVID-19 crisis, and the economy weathered the storm fairly well. The bond market is likely to do well over the next year, with large corporations, state-owned enterprises and government all seeking to raise funds to finance the next stage of the recovery.

The report includes an interview with HSBC’s Sean Henderson, co-head of debt capital markets, Asia Pacific.

Download from:
https://www.gbm.hsbc.com/insights/growth/investing-in-indonesia-a-special-report


Changes to working

Patty McCord was formerly the Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, and she now works as a consultant on workplace issues. In this Ted Talk she draws on her experience to review the changes brought about by the pandemic, discussing what is likely to be permanent. One change is that the crisis has led many people to re-consider how much of their time they want to commit to work. Another relates to the importance of good communication skills, especially if organisations are going to be flatter, more dynamic, and with a higher proportion of people working with flexible, customised arrangements.

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/patty_mccord_4_lessons_the_pandemic_taught_us_about_work_life_and_balance

Down Memory Lane

On Charlatans
By Chris Bowen
Hachette, $17, 130 pages, ISBN 9780733645235

The ‘On … ’ series of books, of which On Charlatans is a part, is meant to be the opportunity to show the author as a serious thinker, a chance to put forward original ideas and survey the political environment. The publisher, Hachette, should receive credit for its willingness to do this but with Chris Bowen they struck a dud. This might be a bit surprising, because Bowen, who entered Parliament in 2004 and has held a number of interesting portfolios and positions, is often touted as a possible future ALP leader. Well, when you look at Labor’s recent leadership efforts maybe it should not be surprising.

There is a very dated feel to the whole undertaking. Bowen comes from an old Labor family – his father was a mechanic who liked a drink – and Chris does not seem to have ever really left home. Or, perhaps more correctly, his views seem to have crystalised around 1980 and have not changed since then. He still thinks of Labor as the party of the battlers and the Liberals as the party of the toffs. At least, that is how it should be, in Bowen-world. He acknowledges that Labor is in structural trouble, and he notes that the 2019 election saw a significant chunk of its traditional base defect to the Liberals. He points out that Labor-ish parties are in trouble all around the world: in the UK, in Canada, in Israel, in Greece, and so on. It was lucky that Donald Trump rescued the Democrats in the US, eh?

The reason he offers for this is an old one: Labor’s enemies cheat. Specifically, the leaders of conservative parties around the world are charlatans, selling a poisonous, volatile concoction of populism, division and fakery. This is a very flexible definition, and it expands as the book goes on, to include everyone that Bowen doesn’t like. It’s a long list, with Scott Morrison at the top. Bowen is unwilling to give ScoMo an inch, and he almost runs out of nasty things to say about him. Almost. Bowen nearly splutters in indignation at the idea that Morrison might have anything useful to offer mainstream Australia. Authenticity? Empathy? But … but that’s our thing!

It is when Bowen starts to discuss social divisiveness that the book gets a bit silly. Reverting to an earlier era, he projects Labor as the party of Bringing Australia Together and the Liberals as the Great Dividing Range. Really? Even the Hawke model of corporatism had plenty of room for venom and spite. But surely the prize for divisive leaders must go to Paul Keating, who made no bones about it. Rudd and Gillard also had nice little earners in us-against-them hyperbole, and Bowen was at the Cabinet table at the time. (Rudd is still trying to whip up populist fervour with his anti-Murdoch crusade, although Gillard had the grace to depart the stage when the curtain came down.)

Certainly, our-side/other-side rhetoric is one of the tools of any politician, and there is always enough to go around. But that is the point: Bowen’s picture of Australian politics simply does not match the reality. It never did.

If the book sounds foolish here then it gets positively weird when Bowen looks at US politics. His disdain of Trump is a given, and he blames right-wing commentators on cable television and social media for spreading hatred with overwrought language. Amazingly, Bowen says there is no equivalent infrastructure on the left. This is astonishing. Has he never heard of Rachel Maddow? Don Lemon? Joe Scarborough? MSNBC? CNN, surely? Apparently not. It makes one wonder whether Bowen actually knows anything about the modern world. It’s back to 1980, again. And again.

When it comes to rescuing Labor from its doldrums, there is not much on offer from Bowen. A vague reference to genuine nationalism and a commitment to “excellence in democracy”, whatever that is. Oh, and the old chestnut of the republic. Perhaps Bowen was not in the country when there was a referendum on the issue (fyi, Chris, it failed dismally). This is the smart, fair-minded guy, is it? What, then, might the others be like? It looks like Labor might be in more trouble than even Bowen might be ready to admit. Memory Lane turns out to be a dead end.

Automation, learning and doing good

Appearing in In The Black magazine, June 2021

Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation

By Kevin Roose

Hachette, 256 pages, $30

As a technology columnist for the New York Times, Roose has watched many waves of disruption come and go. For a long time he was zealous about AI, algorithms and automation but in the past few years he has become concerned over the loss of jobs and the broader social impact. The introduction for AI sometimes means people being fired but is more often felt through fewer hires and stagnant wages. The most vulnerable jobs are those with high levels of predictability. If a job has an operations manual of under three pages, he says, it will probably be ripe for automation. But he also points out that AI systems are capable of staggering errors, so a good system of human oversight is a wise idea.

The jobs that will remain are those which require adaptability, judgement, and creativity. Not all of them are high-level positions: nursing is an example of a field that is actually growing. It is best to have multiple, integrated skills and a capacity for rapport. In fact, human connection will become a critical asset. He also offers advice to business leaders: think carefully about this before you rush into something that cannot be easily reversed.

Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet

By Michelle Weise

Wiley, 272 pages, $42

With working lives that can last for fifty years or more a critical question is whether the traditional four-year university degree completed when someone is about 22 is still appropriate. Weise, an academic who doubles as an adviser to companies on their skills requirements, answers that it is clearly not. But it persists because many people have a stake in it. She proposes a technology-driven “learning ecosystem” which will allow for rolling waves of reskilling, with educators and employers working together to identify and meet emerging needs. This requires an understanding of the future job market, including possible career pathways; education tailored to both the learner and potential employers; an integration of training, skills development and existing responsibilities; and a clear, transparent hiring process. The principles would be underpinned by a robust data infrastructure, so that information can be shared between all the stakeholders, including government policymakers.

Weise believes that the outlines of a new system can be discerned in the rising levels of dissatisfaction with the current degree-based structure. Eventually, a new system will be determined by market forces. For their part, if traditional universities cannot map a path for change they will eventually find themselves without a role.

Leading Tomorrow: How Effective Leaders Change Paradigms, Build Responsible Brands, and Transform Employees

By Raj Aseervatham

Routledge, 260 pages, $43 (e-book)

Aseervatham is a project engineer by profession but in his global consulting work he has seen growing demands for businesses to move beyond making profits towards making a positive difference in the world. He identifies the key element of the transition as a generation of leaders who are willing to remake the corporate culture, building connections with stakeholders as well as undertaking collaborative projects with like-minded companies. He does not under-estimate the difficulty of this transformation, and notes that it will probably entail a personal journey for the leaders as well.

Meeting legal obligations and giving money to worthy causes is no longer enough. Investors, regulators and community activists now make up a new environment for corporate activity. Tapping into emerging networks of information and developing appropriate metrics are key tasks for leaders.

The world’s problems are too urgent for change to be incremental, says Aseervatham. Instead, radical action is needed. He believes that playing a positive social role will be supported by shareholders, who want to be proud of their company. Likewise, a company’s brand will benefit if the company acts with integrity and responsibility. A business that does good is, in the end, a business that does well.

Downloadable Resources


Looking ahead

A new report from KPMG Australia, 30 Voices on 2030 – The New Reality for Financial Services, brings together industry experts to explore issues such as changing societal expectations, new business models and regulatory frameworks. Their predictions relate to the need to clarify purpose, build novel sources of revenue, and integrate developments in digital currencies and blockchain. Another critical area going forward is managing the data environment, including resource allocation and security. Several of the experts note that the past year has shown the need for resilience, with the most successful companies likely to be those that can quickly adapt to crises and disruption.

Download from:
https://home.kpmg/au/en/home/insights/2021/02/30-voices-on-2030-new-reality-financial-services.html


Charting a path

Consulting giant McKinsey has done much to map the path to global recovery but its expertise extends into a wide range of fields, from finance and leadership to science and demographics. A tool that it offers is a daily chart, delivered by email, on a pertinent issue. The McKinsey charts database is easily searchable and there are often links to other material. Some of the most interesting charts deal with climate change and emissions pricing, as well as the impact of ameliorative steps already taken. These charts are useful for providing at-a-glance information or to enhance a presentation or report.

Go to:
Charting the path to the next normal | McKinsey & Company


Crisis consequences

The World Economic Forum, a conference of government leaders, senior business figures, and thought leaders, produces an annual analysis of global-level risks, and its most recent publication focuses on the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. The report forecasts increasing social fragmentation in the next few years, and a greater level of geopolitical instability in the medium term. This will make it even more difficult to deal with long-term concerns such as environmental degradation and climate change. The Global Risks Report 2021 also examines the impact of digitisation, which offers productivity improvements but also raises the prospect of large-scale job displacement and chronic unemployment.

Download from:
https://www.weforum.org/global-risks/reports


Cyber link

The Australian Cyber Security Centre offers a wealth of information, and one of the best ways to access it is the ACSC Partnership Program. There are three streams: network partners, for people and organisations with responsibility for and expertise in technology networks; business partners, for companies that want to be kept aware of cyber security information; and home partners, for individuals that have an interest in technology issues. The Program includes a subscription to the ACSC Alert Service, which flags new threats and problems; a monthly newsletter containing advisories and collaboration opportunities; and invitations to events co-ordinated by the ACSC.

Explore at:
https://www.cyber.gov.au/partner-hub/acsc-partnership-program


Talent search

Recruitment firm Michael Page sees demand for talented professionals growing strongly over the next year, based on survey data from over 5500 businesses in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. The data, provided in the Talent Trends 2021 report, indicates that many corporates are conducting recruitment drives and are also offering incentives to keep the people they have. The growth of contracting and work-from-home arrangements is likely to continue, even in those Asian countries where it has not been common to date. A particular area to watch, according to the report, is Chinese companies that are investing in markets outside of China.

Download from:
https://www.michaelpage.com.au

A Fake’s Progress

Beautiful Things: A Memoir
By Hunter Biden
Simon & Schuster, $33, 272 pages, ISBN 9781982151119

There are  people whose lives simply run off the rails. Sometimes it is due to bad luck. Sometimes it is the circumstances of the world at large. And sometimes it is all their own work. Hunter Biden, son of Joe, is definitely in the third category, although he spends a good part of this book trying to claim that he is in one or both of the others. It is hard, reading Beautiful Things, to know whether you are supposed to laugh or cry.

True, there were tragedies in Hunter’s life, which he recounts in the first dozen pages: the loss of his mother and sister in a car accident, the slow death of his brother Beau from brain cancer. He claims to have been especially close to Beau, who was the ever-rising star of the clan. Hunter’s respect for his brother’s memory, however, did not stop him from having an affair with Beau’s widow. And later her sister. The astonishing thing is that he saw nothing wrong with it. He never understood why his first marriage collapsed.

Even before Beau’s death Hunter seemed bent on self-destruction. Crack cocaine was his drug of choice although booze also figured prominently. He admits that he simply loved the high. There are lengthy chapters detailing his binges of drugs, drink and sex: “riding bareback on a rocket ship” is how he puts it. He is hardly the first person to slide into multiple addictions but there cannot be many who started with so many advantages and embraced the fall so voraciously. He explored numerous ways to clean up but his heart was not in it. He says that meeting the woman who would become his second wife put him on the road to sobriety. Well, let’s wait and see.

How was this life of vice and indulgence, of expensive hotels and more expensive prostitutes, paid for? Putting it simply, people kept giving him money. He says that he was eminently qualified for a board seat with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, although he fails to explain how. Likewise, a procession of shadowy Chinese firms threw funds at him, for reasons that are unclear. The publisher of Beautiful Things gave him an advance of US$2 million with little information on what the book would be about.

Hunter is unsurprised by the largesse, merely assuming that people like him as much as he likes himself. He suggests that the money from Burisma, in particular, allowed him to attend to Beau during the final stages of his illness. It is a nice sentiment, but the Biden family was already wealthy – itself an interesting story, although one for another time. And it hardly explains the long series of dubious deals that has swirled around Hunter for years.

Along the way, he found the time to father a child with a stripper, although he denied it until a paternity test provided proof. The infamous laptop – which he apparently put in for repair and then forgot about – included videos of him enjoying himself with a range of women, as well as consuming incredible amounts of drugs and vodka. There is also a tangle of financial records, including a maze of front companies and main-chance characters. He asserts in the book that the laptop was the product of a Russian disinformation campaign, although he has since admitted that it might be his. It is an odd thing to be vague about, given his detailed recollections of his crack days.

Remarkably, the legacy media in the US chose to ignore the laptop saga and Hunter’s many other transgressions, presumably because he says plenty of nasty things about Trump and various other Republicans. They must have been thinking: he might be a corrupt cokehead but he is one of us. So the reviews of the book in places like the New Yorker have been kind to the point of sycophancy. As for the book-buying public, they have stayed away from Beautiful Things in droves, despite a massive PR campaign. Most people know a fraud and a manipulator when they see one.

What does all this say about Joe? Biden senior has maintained that his son has never done anything wrong, has always been a good boy. Really? What does that tell us about Joe’s judgement, in the face of Hunter’s lurid confessions? Joe says he is proud of Hunter for overcoming his addictions but is this the sign of a loving, tolerant father or of a gullible old fool? Perhaps both. Despite Joe’s faith it is hard to see what Hunter has done with his life beyond trading on the “coveted credential” of a famous family name. Would people be so willing to shower him with cash and favours if he was called Hunter Jones? Unlikely, since he has not revealed any talents beyond self-promotion. Certainly, his abilities as a writer are only adequate.

The final chapter of the book takes the form of a letter to the departed Beau. It is rather mawkish, coming across mainly as a plea for sympathy. He seems to believe that he is automatically entitled to forgiveness – indeed, entitled to everything. And that is the dominant note of the book: it is an exercise in narcissism, the kind of selfishness that comes from a childhood and adolescence of being told that you are special, talented and important – despite all evidence to the contrary.

In this sense, Hunter Biden is typical of a certain class of person at a certain point in our times. And an object lesson of how a life can be wasted. At the age of 51, he still has time to do something useful. But don’t hold your breath waiting.

Missing the point

Appearing in  Australian Spectator magazine, May 2021

How Good Is Scott Morrison? 
By Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington
Hachette, $35, 320 pages, ISBN 9780733645747

Between them, van Onselen and Errington have a wealth of research and writing experience, and their biography of John Howard was both insightful and entertaining. So it is surprising, and rather disappointing, that How Good Is Scott Morrison? leaves a great deal to be desired. In fact, it simply leaves a great deal out, to the point where there is a question of whether it is actually a biography at all.

The book really looks at only a few events: the Liberal leadership change that put Morrison in the big chair, the ‘unwinnable’ election campaign, the 2019 bushfires, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, these are important aspects of Morrison’s tenure as PM, but really there is not much new to say about them. Nikki Savva’s book, Plots and Prayers, on how the Liberals fumbled their way to Morrison becoming leader, and Aaron Patrick’s book on the election, The Surprise Party, were comprehensive and considered. Van Onselen and Errington seem to have mainly sorted through two years’ worth of press clippings, rather than delve deeply into the formation of their subject’s political personality.

There is almost nothing on Morrison’s upbringing and adolescence in the Sydney suburbs, for example. His university days are virtually ignored (he studied economics and geography). The influence of his family is passed over (his father was a local political figure, as an independent). His periods as the head of Tourism Australia, and as director of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, are mentioned but not really examined.

Perhaps the most surprising omission is Morrison’s tenure as Immigration Minister. It was here that he established a reputation for whatever-it-takes determination, and it was here that he first moved into the public eye. But how did he go from stop-the-boats tough guy to daggy-but-likeable ScoMo? That is a big jump, after all, and just brushing it away as a series of marketing manoeuvres tells us nothing.

True, Morrison never had the sense of destiny or the charisma associated with, say, Bob Hawke, or the raw drive and ambition of someone like Tony Abbott. When he saw his chance for leadership by riding through the middle he grabbed it, as would be expected. That’s about it.

Van Onselen and Errington assert that Morrison does not have much in the way of core beliefs, although they also note that ideology does not play particularly well in Australia. He often makes grand pronouncements that are not followed up. He is very good at taking all the credit and shifting all the blame. Well, guys, that’s politics for you.

Yes, Morrison made a thorough mess of handling the 2019 bushfires, leaving the country for a holiday in Hawaii at the worst possible time and, when he eventually returned, looking generally uninterested in the plight of victims. But he seemed to learn the lessons, and when the COVID-19 crisis hit he moved quickly and with personal involvement. Tough decisions had to be made with imperfect and contradictory information but he generally got it right. Any sense of fiscal rectitude went out the window as the government struggled to stop the downturn turning into a collapse. Hypocrisy? Maybe – or maybe the most appropriate response to unprecedented circumstances.

Van Onselen and Errington give all due credit to Morrison, whose pragmatism in this case turned out to be the best path. They go so far as to say that his approach, and the broad public support for it, will make him a sure bet in the next election. Perhaps, although the 2019 election demonstrated how unpredictable campaigns can be.

The issue, they argue, is what he will do after another win. Will he undertake courageous reform or opt for the quiet life of administration? Essentially, they don’t know. Peter, Wayne, here’s a news flash: the point of a biography is to provide informed analysis. Leaving the question hanging makes one wonder about the point of the exercise.

How Good Is Scott Morrison? could have, and should have, been a much better book. Instead, it feels like a rush job, although the publishing timeline suggests it was not. If Morrison wins the next election, maybe Van Onselen and Errington will provide a revised and updated version. Let’s hope they make a better job of it if they do.

A Fake’s Progress

Beautiful Things: A Memoir
By Hunter Biden
Simon & Schuster, $33, 272 pages, ISBN 9781982151119

There are  people whose lives simply run off the rails. Sometimes it is due to bad luck. Sometimes it is the circumstances of the world at large. And sometimes it is all their own work. Hunter Biden, son of Joe, is definitely in the third category, although he spends a good part of this book trying to claim that he is in one or both of the others. It is hard, reading Beautiful Things, to know whether you are supposed to laugh or cry.

True, there were tragedies in Hunter’s life, which he recounts in the first dozen pages: the loss of his mother and sister in a car accident, the slow death of his brother Beau from brain cancer. He claims to have been especially close to Beau, who was the ever-rising star of the clan. Hunter’s respect for his brother’s memory, however, did not stop him from having an affair with Beau’s widow. And later her sister. The astonishing thing is that he saw nothing wrong with it. He never understood why his first marriage collapsed.

Even before Beau’s death Hunter seemed bent on self-destruction. Crack cocaine was his drug of choice although booze also figured prominently. He admits that he simply loved the high. There are lengthy chapters detailing his binges of drugs, drink and sex: “riding bareback on a rocket ship” is how he puts it. He is hardly the first person to slide into multiple addictions but there cannot be many who started with so many advantages and embraced the fall so voraciously. He explored numerous ways to clean up but his heart was not in it. He says that meeting the woman who would become his second wife put him on the road to sobriety. Well, let’s wait and see.

How was this life of vice and indulgence, of expensive hotels and more expensive prostitutes, paid for? Putting it simply, people kept giving him money. He says that he was eminently qualified for a board seat with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, although he fails to explain how. Likewise, a procession of shadowy Chinese firms threw funds at him, for reasons that are unclear. The publisher of Beautiful Things gave him an advance of US$2 million with little information on what the book would be about.

Hunter is unsurprised by the largesse, merely assuming that people like him as much as he likes himself. He suggests that the money from Burisma, in particular, allowed him to attend to Beau during the final stages of his illness. It is a nice sentiment, but the Biden family was already wealthy – itself an interesting story, although one for another time. And it hardly explains the long series of dubious deals that has swirled around Hunter for years.

Along the way, he found the time to father a child with a stripper, although he denied it until a paternity test provided proof. The infamous laptop – which he apparently put in for repair and then forgot about – included videos of him enjoying himself with a range of women, as well as consuming incredible amounts of drugs and vodka. There is also a tangle of financial records, including a maze of front companies and main-chance characters. He asserts in the book that the laptop was the product of a Russian disinformation campaign, although he has since admitted that it might be his. It is an odd thing to be vague about, given his detailed recollections of his crack days.

Remarkably, the legacy media in the US chose to ignore the laptop saga and Hunter’s many other transgressions, presumably because he says plenty of nasty things about Trump and various other Republicans. They must have been thinking: he might be a corrupt cokehead but he is one of us. So the reviews of the book in places like the New Yorker have been kind to the point of sycophancy. As for the book-buying public, they have stayed away from Beautiful Things in droves, despite a massive PR campaign. Most people know a fraud and a manipulator when they see one.

What does all this say about Joe? Biden senior has maintained that his son has never done anything wrong, has always been a good boy. Really? What does that tell us about Joe’s judgement, in the face of Hunter’s lurid confessions? Joe says he is proud of Hunter for overcoming his addictions but is this the sign of a loving, tolerant father or of a gullible old fool? Perhaps both. Despite Joe’s faith it is hard to see what Hunter has done with his life beyond trading on the “coveted credential” of a famous family name. Would people be so willing to shower him with cash and favours if he was called Hunter Jones? Unlikely, since he has not revealed any talents beyond self-promotion. Certainly, his abilities as a writer are only adequate.

The final chapter of the book takes the form of a letter to the departed Beau. It is rather mawkish, coming across mainly as a plea for sympathy. He seems to believe that he is automatically entitled to forgiveness – indeed, entitled to everything. And that is the dominant note of the book: it is an exercise in narcissism, the kind of selfishness that comes from a childhood and adolescence of being told that you are special, talented and important – despite all evidence to the contrary.

In this sense, Hunter Biden is typical of a certain class of person at a certain point in our times. And an object lesson of how a life can be wasted. At the age of 51, he still has time to do something useful. But don’t hold your breath waiting.