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.

What leaders read, dealing with disruption, and boiling frogs

Appearing in In the Black magazine, 2021

Burnout Survival Kit: Instant Relief from Modern Work
By Imogen Dall
Bloomsbury, 192 pages, $25

Like a frog being boiled, we can become used to ever-increasing levels of work-induced stress – except that at some point it becomes too much, and crashes in on us. Eventually, the frog is cooked. Dall, a writer who has personal experience of near-burnout, has good advice on how to recognise the signs. Panic attacks are a sure indication that things are slipping, and she shows how to create a space of personal calm, with breathing exercises and coping statements.

A slow build-up of stress, usually involving insomnia, anxiety and depression, is more difficult to deal with. It requires understanding the causes and getting away from them, with scheduled breaks and some digital de-toxing. She suggests that you give yourself ‘permission slips’ – a way of allowing yourself to do things you enjoy (“to drink wine in the bath” is a good one). Make a point of connecting with family and friends, she says, and talk about anything but work.

For the longer term, knowing when and how to refuse unwanted projects is important. It might even be necessary to downshift or to change careers. Fine, says Dall. After all, no-one ever died wishing they had spent more time at the office.

The Leader’s Bookshelf: 25 great books and their readers
By Martin Cohen
Rowman & Littlefield, 232 pages, $64

Cohen is interested in why certain individuals are outstanding in their fields, and he provides an answer in the way they approach the books they read. The people he discusses are avid readers and always have been. Investor/philanthropist Warren Buffett consumes hundreds of books a year, while Barack Obama counts Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls as a lifelong favourite.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, share a fascination with the novel Dice Man, about the balance between risks and rewards. Steve Jobs’ reading focused on a search for meaning in life, and he often returned to Be Here Now, a collection of aphorisms connected to Eastern philosophy. Evelyn Berezin, a pioneer in the tech sector, credits the early sci-fi magazine Astounding Stories as providing a ‘conceptual grid’ for seeing things differently. Oprah Winfrey, who treats reading as a path to authenticity, cites Gary Zukav’s The Seat of the Soul as her inspiration.

Cohen covers a great deal of ground, and includes summaries of the books mentioned. The recurring pattern is that highly successful people read widely and intensely as a way to not only build knowledge but also to understand the world, their culture, and themselves.

Power-Up8: Discover the 8 Critical Capabilities to Navigate an Unpredictable World
By Debbie Craig
KR Publishing, 310 pages, $38

The end of the COVID-19 crisis might be on the horizon but disruption of some sort is going to be a permanent part of our lives, says Craig, a South African consultant. The silver lining of the pandemic might turn out to be that it has underlined the necessity of developing the right mindset to deal with unpredictability, and the importance of working to make the world a better place.

Craig lists eight changes in thinking, with the themes of avoiding complacency, enhancing social responsibility, and acting with self-awareness. It begins with a level of self-examination that can be difficult but Craig offers useful guidance on the questions to ask, and there are several diagnostic tools in the book. She draws on a wide range of resources, and looks at the experiences of people who have mastered the practice of imaginative thinking.

A part of the creative process is being willing to move out of the zone of the known. This means acknowledging the possibility, and probably the reality, of occasional failure. Don’t be afraid of it, Craig says; only be afraid of not learning from it. Embracing change is never easy but in the end it is the only way forward.

Downloadable Resources

Banking troubles

The end of the COVID-19 crisis may be in sight but the long-term implications for the banking sector are very problematic, according to the latest McKinsey Global Banking Annual Review. The immediate issue is severe credit losses, which are likely to continue into 2022. Then, with a muted global recovery, the sector will face continuing pressure. The study sets out several possibilities: in the base-case scenario, US$3.7 trillion of revenue will be lost over the next five years. Most of the major banks are sufficiently capitalised to survive but any solid recovery to balance sheets is a long way off.

Download from:
The old one-two: Banks could lose $3.7 trillion in revenue over five years | McKinsey & Company

Expert insights

This weekly podcast is a spinoff from Harvard Business Review magazine, and it provides a searchable collection of research and insights. Rather than free-flowing interviews each podcast focuses on a specific topic, a format which allows for in-depth analysis and discussion. Contributors include academics, authors and industry figures. The subjects range from organisational effectiveness to culture to branding to career development. Episodes that are particularly worth catching are the discussions by author Martin Lindstrom on how to inject common sense into bureaucracy, business coach Mimi Nicklin on managing across generational divides, and academic Marissa King on different methods of networking.

Listen to at:
https://hbr.org/2018/01/podcast-ideacast

Capturing carbon

Bas Sudmeijer heads a team within global consulting firm BCG developing options for carbon capture and storage to combat climate change. In this TED Talk he discusses proposals for a network approach: partnerships between local governments, national governments and companies that would share the cost and geological resources needed to collect and store carbon emissions underground. He looks at several trial projects that have been successful, noting that the technology is readily available. The cost would be significant but no greater, says Sudmeijer, than many other infrastructure projects that have been undertaken around the world in the past seventy years.

Watch at:

Job hunting mistakes

In an interesting article, specialists from Hays Recruiting examine the most common reasons for not landing a desired job. A mismatch between your online CV and your real-world interview is a regular failing, as is not backing up claims with solid evidence. All jobs now have a digital element so it is important to demonstrate your tech knowledge and your ability to upskill. The Hays specialists also suggest that any inappropriate material on your Facebook page should be deleted, as employers will look at your social media. One more piece of advice: be sure to turn off your phone during the interview.

Read at:
https://www.hays.com.au/career-advice/job-hunting/10-reasons-why-you-didnt-get-the-job

Challenges for boards

A report from Deloitte, Leading in a Brave New World, has found that most company boards in Australia have risen to the challenge of the pandemic, and that there will be positive and permanent changes. Resilience and social responsibility have moved up boardroom agendas, as well as long-term planning. The chairs of 46 ASX100 companies were interviewed for the study, with questions including immediate responses and the impact of the crisis on corporate strategy. The report was structured to reflect Deloitte’s Respond, Recover, Thrive model, with an emphasis on unlocking a ‘new normal’ in which organisations can grow and succeed.

Download from:
https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/risk/articles/leading-brave-new-world-how-boardroom-changed-better.html

Change, blunders and blockchain

Appearing in In The Black, March 2021

Reimagine Change
By Ciara Lancaster
Grammar Factory, $33, 234 pages

Dealing with transformation and managing crises is the new paradigm for work but most of us have not yet adapted, according to change capability consultant Lancaster. We are trying to impose stability on an increasingly dynamic system, and the common result is mental exhaustion. Lancaster, a former executive at Deloittes, came close to burnout so she knows the signs of change fatigue, and she sets out a framework for personal reconstruction and growth. The first steps are understanding the warning signals and overcoming the defensive instincts hard-wired into the brain. She draws on behavioural science research and the views of thought leaders to illustrate her points.

In the second half of the book she examines the processes of mental change, with advice on how to slow down, develop resilience, and “re-code” thinking. Allow yourself to be creative at work and home, she says. Re-connect with loved ones and with enjoyable experiences, and make time to improve fitness (which includes getting enough sleep). At the end of the road is a sense of flow and the true humility that good leadership requires. The journey is not always easy and takes time but it is essential for survival in the modern world.

Who Blunders and How: the Dumb Side of the Corporate World
By Robin Banerjee
Sage Publications, $33, 312 pages

What were they thinking? It is a recurring question in this book, which focuses on the reasons for decisions which were undeniably foolish. Banerjee, a senior executive, casts a wide net, looking at American, European, Indian and Japanese cases. A root cause is what might be called the victory disease, when companies that experienced early success with a product line became arrogant and complacent. Kodak failed to recognise the emergence of digital technology, Nokia missed the importance of software innovation, Blackberry did not realise how fast the telco business was changing.

In other cases companies that had generated a lot of cash went on an M&A binge without examining the value propositions. Others put incompetent people into key positions because they were related to the founder.

Several, when faced with a serious public relations problem, did the worst possible thing: they denied it, and then lied. This underlines a point that Banerjee emphasises. When you make a blunder, admit it, seek ways to remedy it, and devise a system to prevent a recurrence. Everyone makes mistakes, and the real point is what you learn from them. What worked yesterday might not work today, and it will certainly not work tomorrow.

The Definitive Guide to Blockchain for Accounting and Business
By Saurav Dutta (editor)
Emerald Publishing, $72, 320 pages

Professor Dutta currently heads the School of Accounting at Curtin University in Western Australia but he also has an broad background in financial research. For this guide he has put together a strong team combining practical experience and academic knowledge. The aim is to provide both a primer for people with little understanding of blockchain technology as well as a guide to new challenges for those with more experience.

As a starting point the chapter on terminology is useful, as are the sections dealing with tokenisation and internal controls. Several contributors discuss the transparency that underpins blockchain and examine the role that cryptocurrencies play. A number of security problems connected to blockchain have recently emerged; they are serious but there are solutions available, and much depends on the robustness of the initial design.

In his concluding chapter Professor Dutta looks at future opportunities. He sees that finance professionals can make important contributions on the tax and regulatory issues around blockchain. He also identifies the health, energy and maritime sectors as areas where blockchain systems can be effectively developed. It adds up to a comprehensive package in a field which is likely to become a key element of the financial landscape.

Downloadable resources

Crisis management
Guiding an organisation through a crisis involves a number of counter-intuitive steps, according to leadership expert Amy Edmonson. In this TED talk she argues that leaders should not pretend to have all the answers but should focus on transparent and ongoing communication. In a crisis leaders must be willing to act even though they have limited and conflicting information. Edmonson believes that honesty is more likely to engender trust than a show of strength, and leaders should be able to adjust their moves as circumstances change. She points to New Zealand PM Jacinta Ardern as a good example of crisis leadership.

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

Showing skills
After a difficult year companies have begun to hire professionals again but landing the right job has become more difficult. This blog post from recruitment firm Michael Page shows that while elements such as an impressive CV, a compelling cover letter and strong interview skills are still crucial, employers are also asking candidates how they can contribute to business recovery and continuity. Ways to respond to this include showing customer skills, an understanding of digital trends, and a capacity for critical thinking.

The post includes links to other articles dealing with common interview questions, salary negotiation and building a personal brand.

Read at:
https://www.michaelpage.com.au/advice/career-advice/starting-out/how-navigate-job-search-future

Successful start
A McKinsey survey shows that only 20 percent of start-ups launch successfully and scale up, and only 24 percent of incumbents’ new ventures become viable companies. This article suggests ways to overcome the most common pitfalls, including understanding the customer base before launching, observing market preferences, and using a beta program or wait list to drive early interest.

The article also notes that successful ventures plan around weekly rather than quarterly cycles and utilise social media as well as paid advertising. These strategies can not only underpin a successful launch but also form the basis of a durable operating model.

Read at:
https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/derisking-corporate-business-launches

Tax law
Once upon a time the Australian Tax Office was a somewhat secretive organisation but that has changed radically. Its website has a great deal of information for finance professionals, and in particular the legal section provides a valuable database. It has a number of search options to find legislation, cases, interpretations and policies that the ATO uses when making decisions. There is a list of fact sheets for employers, and guidance on policy issues that are currently being developed. The ATO also offers a subscription service that allows clients to see when the database information has been updated or revised.

Go to:
https://www.ato.gov.au/Law/#Law

Sustainable finance
The Sustainable Financing and Investing Survey 2020 conducted by global bank HSBC has found that capital market participants are attaching greater importance to sustainable finance than a year ago, even as they have had to navigate unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, more than half of investors and three-quarters of issuers say the pandemic has made them realise they had paid insufficient attention to social issues.

The bank has also released research showing that stocks of large companies with strong environmental, social and governance ratings have outperformed the global average by 4.7 per cent since mid-December 2019.

Read at:
https://www.hsbc.com/media/media-releases/2020/hsbc-survey-of-issuers-and-investors-finds-largest-share-believe

In the land of the blind

Appearing in Australian Spectator magazine, February 2021

Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage

By Dan Crenshaw

Twelve, $41, 256 pages, ISBN 9781538733301

Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another 

By Matt Taibbi

Tantor, $12 (e-book), 304 pages, ISBN 9781682192122

Somehow, American culture has got itself into a terrible mess of division and acrimony: elites against mainstream, progressives against conservatives, blue states against red states. They have always been an argumentative bunch, our American cousins, but the level of conflict has reached such heights that the whole system is starting to totter. How did this happen, and what can be done about it?

These two books, in their own ways, supply some answers. Crenshaw, for one, cuts a distinctive figure. A former Navy SEAL officer, after a close encounter with an IED in Afghanistan he now wears an eyepatch and carries some scars. As a Republican congressman for a Texas district, he has been marked as an up-and-comer. Fortitude shows that he is not just another partisan hack but a well-read person who thinks carefully and looks to his military training as a source of strength. With one eye he sees more clearly than many people can with two.

He depicts the outrage culture of the left as a critical threat to American society (although he also has pointed things to say about right-wing cable television demagogues). The kids of the snowflake generation were raised to believe that they were special and entitled, and that their feelings were definitively important. Crenshaw takes particular issue with those who equate comments they do not like with physical attacks. Merely silly, says the man who knows a few things about real violence.

A central problem is social media. Immediate and anonymous, it has become an echo chamber for vitriol and craziness. Doing some research about an issue and listening to the other side is seen as a sign of weakness. If you look hard enough for insults, says Crenshaw (quoting Barack Obama), you will surely find them. Politics becomes a matter of hunting heretics rather than seeking converts.

The extension of this is a culture of victimhood, with extra points for those who can claim membership of the largest number of oppressed groups. This would be amusing if it were not so dangerous, especially when it turns into a belief that your ends are so noble that any means – any means – are justified. There are no reasonable opponents, only enemies so evil they must be destroyed.

Where did outrage culture and victimology come from? Yes, it is certainly fuelled by social media but Facebook did not create it, and neither did Trump. Crenshaw admits that he is not sure where the circle started but speculates that ‘helicopter’ parenting had something to do with it. Over-protectiveness led to a generation without the mental toughness to move outside the little world that they know. Crenshaw, himself a parent, recognises the desire to keep one’s children safe but emphasises that coddling them is not the answer. Let them be kids, he says, even though that will include some skinned knees and bruising mistakes. Don’t be forever telling them that the world is a dangerous place and they live in a toxic culture, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This leads Crenshaw to advice for escaping the outrage trap. His solution is for people to look within themselves, to develop their inner resources of resilience, courage and tolerance. Before you start shouting about something find out the background and the details. Context, consideration and clarity are the antidotes to permanent anger. Be willing to agree to disagree, rather than automatically attribute the worst of motives to the other side. And do not instantly look to government for the solution to every problem. Maybe an answer is in your own backyard.

Does this make him one of the marines of morality, wanting everyone to shape up and march in lockstep? By no means. America’s long history of social innovation and progress is built on dissent, debate and a willingness to question the status quo. But, says Crenshaw, to do so with respect and compromise.

The idea of seeking out differing views brings us to Matt Taibbi and Hate Inc., a book of essays that started out as online articles. Taibbi, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine, sits firmly on the left but he has considerable common ground with Crenshaw. He is likewise deeply concerned with the fractures within American society but his focus is on cable television. He notes that his colleagues wanted the book to be a hatchet-job on Fox and were horrified when he extended his criticism to the far-left MSNBC and its most famous talking head, Rachel Maddow (in fact, the cover features equivalent pics of her and right-winger Sean Hannity).

Taibbi has fun recounting some of Maddow’s more ludicrous anti-Trump conspiracy theories but he has a deeper point to make. In particular, he notes that there is now no professional penalty for getting things utterly, hilariously wrong. Even though all of Maddow’s theories have been thoroughly debunked she has never admitted to error, and her paycheques keep getting larger.

Taibbi attributes this to the corporations that run the cable networks, who have found that polarisation is good for profits. Maybe, but it does not explain why there is an appetite for extreme views in the first place. Taibbi assumes that companies can create demand but this is by no means clear. Nevertheless, he has interesting things to say about the interaction of media and politics, and he has a sense of humour usually missing from the cultural warriors of the left. His solution? Turn off the  television and do something useful instead.

Regrettably, American-style extremism is now infecting Australia. Fortitude and Hate Inc. offer important insights, so perhaps that awful road can be avoided. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Resilience, overcoming insecurity, and Instagram

Appearing in In The Black magazine, February 2021

The Resilient Leader: Life Changing Strategies to Overcome Today’s Turmoil and Tomorrow’s Uncertainty
By Christine Perakis
Sourcebooks, $30, 168 pages
When Perakis says that she knows how to weather a storm she is not speaking metaphorically. As a former ship captain, sailor, and professional rescuer she successfully navigated through a series of hurricanes and disasters, and then applied what she had learned to business. She has developed a set of ‘barometers’ to deal with a crisis and then effectively recover.

Most crises can be foreseen, at least in general terms, so a good leader should set up contingency plans and communicate them to their team.  Foresight, preparation and planning are the key elements, and when a crisis erupts the leader must be the calm centre. Perakis advises that a leader should write a plan for themselves as well, although there might be a need to make adjustments as the situation evolves. The experience of people who have weathered their own storms can be a valuable resource.
Planning for the recovery should start well before the storm is over, not just for its own sake but to keep the team focused on the future. Getting through a storm can make a team stronger and more cohesive but it is up to the leader to communicate a sense of vision, direction, and purpose.

No Filter: The Inside Story of How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity and Our Culture
By Sarah Frier
Random, $35, 352 pages
Even those who do not use it would probably accept that Instagram has become a cultural touchstone of the Digital Age. Frier, a journalist specialising in technology issues, turns out to be a good person to tell the story of how it happened.
The founders of Instagram, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, set out in 2010 with the intention of creating a photo-sharing app. The key feature was that it could make any picture more attractive, even a mediocre selfie. From a small community of photographers and specialists the app quickly caught fire, to the point that in 2012 Mark Zuckerberg paid a billion dollars for the company. Systrom and Krieger stayed on as managers.

This is where the story takes on a new dimension, as Systrom and Krieger fought to protect the integrity of the brand and Zuckerberg tried to wrap Instagram into the growth-at-all-costs strategy of Facebook. That battle continues but Systrom and Krieger appear to be winning, as Zuckerberg faces challenges elsewhere.
Frier manages to keep a sprawling cast of big names under control and is not daunted by the huge sums of money involved. It adds up to a fascinating story, and offers crucial insights into how the tech business really works.

Unhindered: The Seven Essential Practices for Overcoming Insecurity
By Jaemin Frazer
Jaemin Frazer and Associates, $30, 234 pages
Insecurity, says business coach Frazer, is the invisible but powerful force that keeps many people from reaching their goals. In this book he sets out an action plan for dealing with insecurity, with the first essential step being a thorough self-review – what Frazer terms ‘stepping into the light’. His program moves through the acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions and developing a vision for what you want to achieve. In most cases, he says, the help of an impartial professional is needed, to ask the right questions and act as a mentor. The central issue is how to move past the negative biases that are built into the brain and understand how to think in a positive, reasoned way.
Frazer illustrates his points with cases of people who have succeeded on their journey to overcome insecurity, as well as several examples of those who have failed (which can be just as enlightening). He emphasises that the process is likely to be difficult, and perhaps even painful, for most people, as it can mean unravelling a number of personal issues. But the rewards of confidence, self-awareness, and an understanding of your own life story is, in the end, worth the effort.

Downloadable Resources

Looking towards ‘the new normal’
After a very difficult year many CEOs are growing more optimistic about the future, according to KPMG’s Global CEO Outlook, a survey which included 50 Australian CEOs. Nearly three-quarters of Australian business leaders expressed confidence in their growth prospects over the next three years. The move towards digitisation has accelerated, with 78 percent of CEOs say the pandemic has accelerated the creation of a seamless digital customer experience.
In many cases social purpose has become a more important concern than bottom-line profit. Supply chain risks have risen up the list of priorities, and recruitment strategies are being re-thought to deal with ‘the new normal’.

Download from:
https://home.kpmg/au/en/home/insights/2020/09/global-ceo-outlook-2020.html

Getting creative
In this TED Talk podcast, Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings discusses how the company has developed its growth path. He describes the key elements of a successful work culture, explaining how Netflix is designed around inspiration, creativity and honesty. The crucial step is finding and keeping the most imaginative people, even if it means paying them well above market rates. He looks for individual creativity and motivation although good people must also be able to work in teams. The company principals have to be willing to give creative people the freedom to operate, and should emphasise inspiration over process efficiency.

Watch at:
https://www.globalplayer.com/podcasts/episodes/7DrbvAS/

Security advice
The Australian Cyber Security Centre has released the Australian Government Information Security Manual (ISM), aimed at providing a security framework that organisations can apply to protect themselves from cyber threats. The ISM includes chapters on security documentation, physical security, awareness training, the use and management of mobile devices and email, system hardening, outsourcing, database systems and software development. Companies and agencies can tailor the advice to their own systems and risk management strategies.
The ISM also provides guidance on how to detect and report a cyber attack, as well as advice on resilience and recovery following an attack.

Download from:
https://www.cyber.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-09/Australian%20Government%20Information%20Security%20Manual%20%28September%202020%29.pdf

New workplace
This interesting blog post from Jane McNeill, Managing Director of Hays Recruitment NSW and WA, examines what the office workplace might look like when the COVID-19 crisis eases. The number of people working from home will remain high, compared to pre-pandemic, and in the office itself there will be more physical distance between people. This means that there will be less opportunity for informal communication, and formal meetings will be smaller and fewer.
McNeill suggests that office managers should create more opportunities for online interaction and phone hook-ups. They should also look at the development of hybrid teams of WFH and in-office staff.

Read at:
https://www.hays.com.au/blog/-/blogs/the-post-covid-19-workplace-will-it-suit-your-working-style-

Banks under pressure
Research and analytics firm J.D.Power has released survey data showing the extent to which retail banking in Australia is under pressure. According to the Australia Retail Banking Satisfaction Study, based on responses from 5,584 bank customers, customer satisfaction is higher for midsize banks than for the Big 4 banks, with Queensland-based Heritage Bank ranking highest. But overall satisfaction with the sector is low.
The use of mobile wallets and payment apps continues to grow, with Apple Pay being the most popular. At the same time, younger customers have shown a willingness to change banks, with 22 per cent intending to switch during the next year.

Read at:
https://www.jdpower.com/business/press-releases/2020-australia-retail-banking-satisfaction-study

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.