tip off

Memo to Bono and TED fans: look closer to home for poverty

U2 rocker Bono gave a TED talk in California this week addressing global poverty. But has the wealthy TED audience found what it’s looking for? California-based Australian writer Jason Wilson investigates.

Bono

If you want a living demonstration of American inequality, the details of this week’s TED conference in Long Beach, California, might do the trick.

TED is a non-profit which aims to spread good ideas, through conferences, projects and a video site. In the conference’s fifth and final year here, attendees have paid US$7500 apiece to attend and soak up a week of “ideas worth spreading”. Tuesday morning, Bono (estimated personal wealth: US$600 million) spoke to 1400 other rich or otherwise privileged people about solving global poverty.

It would take someone on California’s minimum wage 937.5 hours to make enough money for the ticket price (many undocumented migrants work for far less than this). It is a shade less than the five-year decline in California’s real median family incomes to 2011, according to the latest census data (US$7726) — a figure that indicates the further disappearance of the American middle class. Long Beach’s unemployment rate is 11.5%, and benefits in the US are far more miserly than in Australia.

One block west of the Long Beach Performing Arts Centre, where Bono was speaking, charity workers were scooping out meals of lentils and rice from a big orange casserole dish. Many of the 30 or so homeless people they fed were clearly also suffering from untreated mental illnesses and other health problems that charity simply cannot address. A few blocks in the other direction, a disabled man who said he was a veteran was panhandling as young men milled around the LA metro stop near a discount shopping area.

It’s true that you didn’t have to show up to participate. TED was offering individuals and institutions like primary schools “TED live” online memberships for only US$995. It’s unlikely that Long Beach’s public schools will be taking that option, though — the United School District has suffered cuts that in 2012 alone meant $20 million in budget shortfalls. The City College and CSU Long Beach have had similar problems, as the state slashes public services following revenue crashes during the recession. Until the recent passage of Proposition 30, California’s constitution meant that no new taxes could be raised to address this shortfall.

Sure, it’s easy to point out the public squalor nearby to any glitzy cosmopolitan event. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. And with TED, it’s actually quite important because of the organisation’s history of proffering apparently simple solutions to (or summaries of) complex social problems that tend to dodge or obfuscate the central issue of distribution of wealth.

Bono — who called himself as a “factivist” — described “soul-crushing” poverty in the developing world, where people live on less than $1.50 a day. It may be a problem on the way to being solved, and Bono said governments needed to act to further reduce this poverty. He didn’t discuss his native Ireland, where, as in most of the Western world, poverty has increased on every measure — as austerity bites, the poor, and especially the welfare-dependent, suffer the consequences. Public services have been slashed, including the educational services that remedy poverty. Above the “soul-crushing” threshold (the determination of which helps make poverty distant and African, not proximate) are millions of people worldwide who live in constant deprivation in unequal societies.

To fix this would require either the reduction of the large fortunes of people like Bono, or a longer-term change in the way wealth flows through the economy.”

To fix this would require either the reduction of the large fortunes of people like Bono, or a longer-term change in the way wealth flows through the economy.

The common atmosphere in TED talks — and the reason Bono condescended to describing himself as being “s-xually excited” by data — is a kind of hegemonic wonkism. They share a common narrative: a problem that has existed in its present form since time immemorial is solved when someone does something counter-intuitive, or a clever geek takes a new look at the data. As a generic structure, this enables the promulgation of a political fantasy: that individuals can master and alter complex events without engaging in any serious conflicts over values or resources. But the world, as most adults know, is rarely so responsive to individual will — historically, the biggest changes come from concerted communal activism and social movements.

It’s not that TED doesn’t attract smart people — eminent sociologist Saskia Sassen spoke. And it’s not that some of the ideas presented aren’t worth hearing. But the problem is that TED’s basic format, and its generic traits, are depoliticising, precisely because they exclude debate. An illustrative example from TED’s front page yesterday is a recent talk to TEDx Thessaloniki by Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana, Albania, from 2000-2011. Rama talked about how painting the buildings in the city bright colours reduced crime and bolstered civic pride, only briefly mentioning his “demolition of illegal buildings”.

He engaged in large-scale removal of informal and illegal businesses that had for a long time operated out of kiosks in public parks. He seized other private property in order to expand public space. Can we believe that this did not involve intense political conflict and principled resistance? Can we believe that there aren’t lasting resentments in the city, which doesn’t even have reliable drinking water? It may be that all of this was justifiable and necessary, but Rama is allowed to present his only real opposition as “corruption”. The paucity of alternative information available to English speakers allows his unchallenged talk to stand as a definitive record of events. There’s no debate here, and therefore no politics, only a deceptively simple solution — which might be just be deceptive.

In many ways, though, TED is consistent with the long history of liberal politics. It’s not just that it’s colossally smug and patronising — what, after all, makes an exclusive conclave of rich people think they have the collective knowledge to solve, say, the problems of poverty? But it’s also that what’s on offer is less ideas than reassurance — primarily the reassurance that our problems are reducible to a series of technical problems or lateral-thinking puzzles, and people like us — members of a cosmopolitan liberal elite — have the answers. Like all versions of liberalism, it tries to gentrify politics.

Needless to say, the TED program offers very little insight or discussion about what’s at stake in the US, California or LA County. The only idea I could find that is remotely concerned with this neighbourhood is a man who began a community gardening project in South Los Angeles. But unlike earlier kinds of paedagogical institutions, TED is not much concerned with the community that hosts it. TED is in the cloud. It’s an essentially rootless and mobile entertainment product: when it rolls up and moves to Vancouver next year, few traces of it will remain.

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  • 1
    Saugoof
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Come on, Crikey is normally better than this! As much as I hate Bono, this sounds like it was written as devastatingly negative as possible purely because Bono was speaking.

    - Having a lot of money yourself does not preclude you from being worried about African poverty, nor from wanting to do something about it
    - As horrific as being poor in the US/Ireland/Australia/etc. is, and I know, I’ve been there, this is nothing compared to what being poor in Africa is like.
    - Just because there are poor people next-door to where the TED talk was held doesn’t mean you can’t aim to reduce African poverty. There are plenty of problems to solve in this world, luckily there are lots of people looking at a variety of problems rather than everyone concentrating on the same one.
    - Attempting to do something about poverty is imminently more worthwhile than doing nothing. Even trying and failing is more worthwhile. At least this teaches you about what may or may not work.

    I like the idea of there being no discussion at TED talks. Not that I want to advocate for dictatorships, but particularly on topics like poverty, any discussion quickly descends into party politics. I’d rather see action. The tone of this article really should have been “will this TED talk lead to action?” or “are the solutions proposed workable and achieve their goals?” rather than “hey, isn’t Bono just a tosser!”

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    The US “where the top 1% of earners take 23% of earnings”?

    (Leaving that other 77% to be shared among the other 99% of their fellow Americans)

  • 3
    Bob the builder
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Well said!
    I’ve always found it hilarious how the rich pontificate about the complex problems of poverty, when the primary cause if not having enough money (or other resources). there’s only a certain amount of wealth around and if you’ve got $600 million of it then someone else doesn’t.
    With all that money a more effective way to alleviate poverty would be to give it to people who don’t have much - rather than talking about ‘the problem’.

  • 4
    Steve Carey
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    When rich people don’t give a stuff then the commentariat berate them. When they DO give a stuff then the commentariat apparently feel entitled to complain that it’s the wrong stuff. Not only Shalt Thou, but Thou Shalt As I Decide. No! Don’t help them over there - help these over here. No, not like that - like THAT. What we really need, apparently, is a society where some “US-based writer and academic” gets to tell other people where, when and how to spend their money.

    Utter piffle, from start to finish.

  • 5
    Alan Carpenter
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    ….few traces of it will remain” is just not true.

    TED talks remain alive on the web for years and are exposed to a massive audience - many presumably development practitioners like me - always on the look out for new possibilities to improve our life and work.

    I’d defy anyone to view say Sugata Mitra ‘school in the cloud’ at TED 2013 and not conclude that promulgation of such ideas is not good for the planet.

  • 6
    Alan Carpenter
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Sorry - erroneous double negative in my previous - I mean to say TED is a brilliant resource of free ideas for the planet. This article misses the point of it.

  • 7
    Monash.edu
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Bob,

    The problem isn’t (usually) that the poor have no money. It’s largely that they have no capacity to generate wealth. If the rich gave the poor all their money, once the poor had spent it they’d be poor again.

    Secondly, you talk of economics as a zero sum game. It’s not. The rich obtaining a lot of money does not deprive others of it. Often it is obtained by creating value that others are willing to pay for (not that I’m saying this is the case for all wealthy people). Perhaps brush up on some basic economics before mouthing off online.

  • 8
    Bob the builder
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Monash.edu for giving as some stock-standard economic rationalist theory.

    At least you didn’t mention “trickle-down”…

  • 9
    el tel
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Presumably the nearby spectacle this week where millionaires gave other millionaires gold statues also raised some issues about inequality.

  • 10
    Michael Galvin
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    So 1,400 people paid $7,500 each to attend - $10,500,000. I wonder where that money went????

  • 11
    mattsui
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Not all the ideas on TED are great ones, No doubt many of those that give TED talks could be called in some way on their past or motivations - or thier bank accounts, or their last three albums - but it is a freely available library of ideas, inspirational or challenging or just plain interesting.
    It’s on the internet, where the next generations will get the majority of their inspirations and that’s what matters.
    If even bono could get thirty minutes of air time on commercial tv to talk about poverty it would be a miracle.
    That’s the value of TED….. also its intellectual entertainment which, also you won’t find much of on tv.
    Matt.

  • 12
    mikeb
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Bono is an easy target being rich rock star a with a lot of time on his hands. Plus it’s ever so trendy to sniff at his good intentions. If every rich person had a social conscience like Bono then maybe they could make an appreciable difference. I relate this to todays story on Clive Palmer who says he want to spend his money before he dies. So what does he do? He bulds Titanic 2. See the difference?

  • 13
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Wankers wonking world’s woes works well. Not.

  • 14
    Christopher Nagle
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Clearly Jason doesn’t watch much Ted. If he did, he would appreciate the enormous diversity of its intellectual offerings. I think this article is intellectually slack and written by someone who is obviously used to getting away with with using ideological judgmentality to vent his own prejudices and stereotypes, and then passing it off as ‘criticism’.

  • 15
    Oliver Townshend
    Posted Friday, 1 March 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Memo to Jason: TED is posted for free on-line if you can’t afford the fee to get in. Or maybe you could ask for a press pass next time.

  • 16
    dropBear
    Posted Friday, 1 March 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    monash.edu

    The rich obtaining a lot of money does not deprive others of it”

    This may be one of the basic tenets of your faith, but here in the real world things are a bit different.

    Let’s take it at face value:
    This can only be true if the amount of money increases. This means the amount of wealth has to increase.
    Or inflation, but lets ignore this option for the sake of brevity.
    This means production needs grow.
    This means we need continuing exponential growth. Exponential in the mathematical sense meaning growth at a constant rate.
    You probably will disagree here, but we cant have that on a finite planet.
    Not even if we close our eyes and wish really really weeely hard.

    Economic transactions may not be a zero some game, although most of the speculative ones, the ones that make you really rich, certainly are.
    But they are not a free for all.

    And you can fall behind even in a positive sum game.

  • 17
    cassandra.richardson
    Posted Friday, 1 March 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Bono does whatever he can to ensure that his vast millions are not redistributed to the poor in his own country by the use of tax minimisation schemes. It’s easy to puff yourself up as a global do-gooder by mouthing off at every opportunity, but actions speak louder than words.

  • 18
    prembrowne
    Posted Friday, 1 March 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Sorry Jason, but I tend to agree with others here.
    If TED, as a non-progit organisation, can manage to persuade 1400 rich people to hand over 7000-odd bucks each to further a cause, then kudos to them. Of course there is poverty around the corner from the event, as there is poverty in every city in every country in the world. Of course you can mention the lentils and rice. Of course you can regurgitate data: the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. Understood.
    Here we have 1400 rich people convening in an attempt to solve global poverty. They may not be hitting the mark with it yet, but it’s an aknowledgement that there’s a problem, and I’m sure there are plenty of other rich folk you don’t give a sh*t.
    I think you’re being overly negative.

  • 19
    warwick fry
    Posted Sunday, 3 March 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    The following is my take on ‘Celebrity Charity’. If it is labelled the politics of envy, then people are missing the point.

    I remember around the time Bono did his Australian tour I discovered that a software company he owned had collaborated with the Pentagon to create a rather offensive war game (“Mercenaries 2: World in Flames”) that simulated an invasion of Venezuela, complete with maps and replicas of buildings of the capital, Caracas. It stimulated me to write a song and a radio sketch (http://vensol.blogspot.com.au/2010/09/bonos-anti-venezuelan-war-game.html) to introduce it:

    Bono was a rock star
    Wrote a pretty song
    got himself a fan club
    With words of right and wrong
    He made himself some gold off
    a little bit of fame
    and learned from Mr. Geldoff
    to play the money game.

    (Chorus)
    Now the Bones aren’t Strolling
    and Marley doesn’t Wail
    The Dead are so Ungrateful.
    He’s a Whiter Shade of Pale.

    Bono found religion
    in a new financial State
    With a gleaming corporate penthouse
    Just above the Golden Gate
    He found a tax-free heaven
    on a stairway to the stars
    And money from the Pentagon
    for kids to play at wars.

    (Chorus)

    Your cash for Blacks ain’t magic
    It plays on greed and fear
    When money isn’t talking
    But the people say it swears
    The Times again are a’changing
    The future’s in arrears
    To a pop star and the Pentagon
    Looking backwards through the years.

    (Chorus)

    Your bloody game is sold
    to battle new ideas
    But the Venezuelan people
    Walk peaceful past your fear.

    (Chorus)

  • 20
    Foo Fighter
    Posted Friday, 8 March 2013 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    This article was a rare ray of sunlight in the Australian
    media, threatening, just a little, to reveal the true nature
    of Civil Society, though it’s an argument that has been made
    better elsewhere.

    It’s true, Bono is an easy target, and picking on him makes
    an easy target of one’s argument, though I think the critics
    here should note that Bono was more of a figurehead for the
    article and was not the central theme. The author failed to
    mention, though, Bono’s hypocrisy in moving some of his financial
    affairs from Ireland after its famous, massive tax advantages
    for artists were capped.

    An excellent article presenting Wilson’s minority view of
    TED was provided in Salon last year [Pareene, “Don’t
    mention income inequality please, we’re entrepreneurs”;
    2012-05-21, http://goo.gl/OVsCR ] A scandal arose when Nick
    Hanauer, one of Amazon’s original investors, gave a TED talk
    arguing that entrepreneurs aren’t job creators – the purchasing
    middle-class are. Despite his early enthusiasm, TED’s curator
    decided that his business-minded audience might by “insulted”
    by some of Hanauer’s comments. TED never published his talk
    on its website. (Saugoff, is this a good lack of discussion, too?)

    In that article, Pareene recognised the value of some of TED’s
    content, as does Wilson here (as several critics failed to observe),
    but Pareene also noticed a bias in the spirit of that content.
    This is the kind of bias that Wilson seems to want to imply,
    but that wasn’t named quite so explicitly by him as by Pareene.
    Consider what Pareene had to say of Jonathan Haidt’s talk on
    morality:

    Haidt is talking about politics, or liberalism, in the way
    it’s commonly defined by the sort of liberal rich people
    who make up the majority of the media elite and the Hollywood
    elite and even the (more libertarian) Silicon Valley elite:
    “social liberalism.” He is talking about moral issues,
    and while economic issues are also moral, he does not mention
    social justice or economic redistributionism.

    That’s it in a nutshell: for all TED’s intentions to be making
    the world a better place, its talk seems to be pointed in a
    particular direction, and that direction must never, ever threaten
    the social order in which those privileged TED attendees are
    situated.

    Several people in this thread have commented upon the worthiness
    of Bono’s frequent focus on poverty in Africa. Undoubtedly the
    many poor Africans are of “the deserving poor”.
    (That phrase, by the way, is a concept of the privileged, so
    critics should stop complaining when the poor borrow the idea.)
    Nevertheless, that does not mean that the African plight should
    become an excuse to forget inequality in one’s own backyard.
    And it is clear that this is precisely how the issue of African
    poverty is frequently used by the contented-majority in Australia,
    who seem to switch between rights issues among themselves – 
    issues orthogonal to class – and concern for the third
    world, constantly leaping over the world in between, the first-world
    poor. Exemplifying this is the fact that it’s much more politically
    incorrect to say “At least you’re not X in Africa”,
    where X=“female” or “gay”, than where
    X=“poor”. (eg See Saugoof’s comment.) Getting the
    contented majority to focus on inequality in their own backyard
    is like getting them to stick the north head of magnet to the
    north head of another magnet: there’s some kind of invisible
    force-field preventing the two from connecting.

    Never was this so obvious as at the City Talks event organised
    by the City of Sydney Council in April, 2012. It was a panel
    discussion entitled “Poverty Amid Plenty”. What
    was striking was that almost none of the panellists actually
    came to talk about that topic. Most of them seemed to have said
    to themselves, “Poverty amid plenty? Yes, the environment
    is a very important issue!” Indeed, Paul Gilding &
    Rachel Botsman had previously given TED talks, and in TED tradition
    neither came to talk about “poverty amid plenty”.
    Gilding came to talk about the environment in a fairly traditional
    way, whereas Botsman had come to speak of new forms of consumption
    that might help avert ecological disaster – essentially
    presenting a narrative where the first-world middle-class saves
    the Earth by slightly tweaking its patterns of consumption.
    That the topic was so clear, while so few panellists actually
    took it literally, is incredibly telling.

    (Mayor Clover Moore deserves credit here, whose opening speech
    focused on the issue of inequality in rich countries, by way
    of several references to the work of epidemiologists like Wilkinson,
    Pickett & Marmot.)

    Interestingly, Botsman’s mind-blowing new patterns of consumption
    bear a striking resemblance to what used to be called “sharing”
    and “renting”. Pareene wasn’t wrong when he explained
    that the description of “The model for your standard TED
    talk”, whose “Common tropes include”:

         * Drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.
         * Technologically utopian solutions to said complex problems.
         * Unconventional (and unconvincing) explanations of the origins
         of said complex problems.

         * Staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing
         new insights.

    There is one point that’s missing here though: that so
    many TED talks have an air of entrepreneurialism about them,
    as though it is entrepreneurs who will invariably save the day,
    and that saving the day can always be turned in to a saleable
    product. TED talks always feel like sales-pitches. It is those
    of the sales-pitch community who might be insulted by Hanauer’s
    claim that consumers, not producers, are job creators.

    The gossip about Bono would gain more traction if we hung
    some language on it: is it possible that Bono’s actions are
    demonstrative of what’s called “moral licence”?
    This is the strategy of being moral in one act to offset one’s
    immoraliety or amorality in another. It is possible, too, that
    this is what’s going on at TED – that those talks are
    rituals designed to connote social awareness and compassion,
    though this is belied by the existence of areas in to which
    TED talks cannot go. Such pantomimes of compassion, if that’s
    what they are, serve to fulfil some sense of noblesse oblige,
    whereby privileged people are doing just enough to justify
    their privilege, but without ever really doing something so
    drastic as making their own societies more meritorious, lest
    the social order become too unstable, along with their own place
    in it. (In that respect, Monash.edu is right: distribution of
    wealth isn’t the only issue; of at least equal importance are
    the distributions of opportunity and risk.) It is possible that
    TED talks are an example of rituals that serve a primarily self-congratulatory
    purpose.

    Thus far, this is all speculative, examples of the Freud-style
    abductive reasoning typical of the postmodern social sciences,
    where facts are shoehorned in to an overarching narrative to
    suit a particular political agenda (mine, in this case), and
    where the possibility of other, equally likely, a priori causal
    explanations are simply ignored. Are there more obvious examples
    of this self-congratulatory bias? If so, it might establish
    a trend whereby such bias can be seen as commonplace, and extending
    it to activities such as TED talks is far less contentious.

    In fact there are now masses of them. There are three areas
    of conventional wisdom in particular that I’ve looked in to
    in great detail that we can say are profoundly broken at their
    core – economics, psychiatry & social work – 
    though there are probably many others. So much economical expertise
    is bandied about, including in this thread (eg Monash.edu),
    almost always in support of the status quo, despite the general
    cynicism about economics’ inability to model reality well. People
    like Steve Keen, however, will point out that the matter is
    much worse than that, for economics doesn’t even model mathematics
    well. The core ethical claim of mainstream economics is (1)
    that there is monotonically downward sloping supply curve for
    a marketplace, and (2) a monotonically upward sloping supply
    curve, and that their point of intersection is consequently
    unique, that it maximises profits, but also (3) maximises the
    utility to society. This is economics 101, expounded in Krugman
    & Wells, along with every other economics textbook. Yet
    the general truth of (1) was disproved in the 1970s (Google:
    “SMD theorem”), a result known as “general
    equilibrium failure”. Every round-number anniversary of
    the SMD theorem, another generation of economics papers are
    published saying “Gee whiz, isn’t it funny that we don’t
    seem to have taken this on board yet?” And it turns out
    the result was actually proved in the 1950s by Terence Gorman,
    but wasn’t recognised for the proof that it was. (2) is false
    for other reasons. Worst of all, that (3) – the crux of
    mainstream economics’ core ethical claim – is wrong can
    be readily shown to anyone who possesses the mathematical sophistication
    of first-year university calculus. Notably, this doesn’t include
    most of the people who pontificate about economics; it certainly
    excludes those with undergraduate degrees in economics.

    Meanwhile, there are enormous question marks over mainstream
    psychiatry’s common biological claims about mental illnesses.
    Although the “serotonin hypothesis” of depression
    is still commonly used to justify antidepressants (BeyondBlue
    does this today), over 90 trials have been conducted by a drug
    industry desperately wanting it to be true, and it has never
    been demonstrated. Yet the idea remains lodge in the public
    consciousness and the profession has done somewhere between
    nothing & sweet-F-A to change this. Why? Moreover, the history
    of the hypothesis shows its primary justification to be the
    apparent efficacy of SSRIs (antidepressants). That is, we’re
    told the hypothesis backs the drugs, but in fact the drugs back
    the hypothesis – a kind of circular argument. A further
    problem is that there’s no scientific evidence showing the drugs
    to work through anything other than a placebo effect, so the
    primary justification for them is shaky. Meanwhile, the lesser
    justifications for the drugs are demonstrably false. In fact,
    there are some compelling pieces of evidence that suggest that,
    not only is this placebo interpretation of SSRI efficacy possible,
    simple, and the only complete explanation known, it is also
    probable. Meanwhile, no known biological aetiology for schizophrenia
    exists, though one was claimed to have been discovered in 2003
    by a group who said they’d found that schizophrenia shrinks
    the brain. This research was shown to be very bad science: the
    researchers had had no control group! What they had found was
    not a long sought-after physical correlate to schizophrenia,
    but rather that the medications prescribed to schizophrenics
    shrink the brain. That anti-psychotics cause brain damage, while
    anti-depressants tinker with neurotransmitters such that they’re
    sold with a “black box” warning in the US naming
    suicide and violence as a possible side-effect, and people already
    taking anti-depressants are also the only group for whom depression
    correlates with serotonin, but otherwise they probably have
    no beneficial chemical effect on depression – all this
    raises very serious questions about whether psychiatry is, in
    these very common treatments, even treating mental illness
    or actually producing it. There is so much more that could
    be said about biological psychiatry that one can only conclude
    the entire burden of proof lies, not with doctors to justify
    that their drugs work, but with patients to justify that they
    don’t, and that the burden is almost infinite. A discussion
    of much of this kind of evidence does not require great genius,
    yet it is too complex to fit in the kinds of simplistic, fantasy-world-views
    that TED passes off as “mind-blowing”. Likewise,
    it seems too complex to be considered by the chattering classes,
    for whom Q&A seems today to be their pinnacle intellectual
    arena. A great many volumes have been written questioning psychiatry’s
    biological claims on rational and evidentiary grounds. They
    are mostly ignored.

    As for social work, this is a discipline that was only very
    newly made academic by the 1960s, and so it sought to rationally
    test the efficacy of its own methods. Over the 1970s, the data
    came in, and it showed that more often than not, social work
    does more harm than good. This is not a fringe interpretation
    of social work’s history, but rather the foundation story of
    evidence-based social work (Google “Joel Fischer”).
    In the early 80s, though mainstream social work had not denied
    its own evidence against itself, it nevertheless announced that
    it was suddenly on the right track. Yet critics remained, like
    William Epstein, who insisted that social work had done nothing
    to improve itself except to (1) become reliant on psychiatry’s
    biological claims to blame the client, and (2) become reliant
    on journal bias in order to show itself in a good light. (1)
    means that social work is only as strong as its weakest link,
    viz. psychiatry. As for (2), Epstein himself undertook one of
    the great journal spoofs in 1988 (more important but much less
    remembered than the Sokal Affair), sending two versions of a
    fabricated social work study to over 100 journals. Journals
    of professions allied to social work were among them. He found
    that social work journals in particular – all but the
    most prestigious of them – exhibited a bias towards the
    version that showed their profession in a good light. Whereas
    the establishment had humbly accepted the evidence in the 70s
    against itself, in the late 80s the (American) National Association
    of Social Worker pursued Epstein,claiming his journal spoof
    amounted to unethical human experimentation on the journal editors
    whose professionalism he’d tested.

    Reader, you might have to take my word for it that there is
    voluminous compelling evidence against these conventional wisdoms.
    It’s the nature of reality that a great many issues cannot be
    fleshed out in a TED talk. There are a great many things that
    cannot be learned by listening to a CD while driving a car.
    If your faith in the three disciplines I’ve mentioned above
    is not challenged, even just to prompt you to look further in
    to the matter, then consider the possibility that you are confusing
    “being convinced by their veracity” with “being
    used to their claims”, or even “being satisfied
    that people who remind me of me must know what they’re talking
    about”.

    If, on the other hand, that faith has been challenged, then
    it’s natural to ask “What is the purpose of these disciplines?”
    In the first instance, note that these three disciplines are
    very entrenched aspects of the conventional wisdom that all
    impact the social order. Economics prescribes that the social
    order be constructed through particular mechanisms. In the case
    of psychiatry, we have an expertise explaining that society
    is just fine and fair – it’s just that there are some
    crazy people with defective biology. In the case of social work,
    it is an expertise that allows Civil Society to claim that,
    even when it isn’t perfect and people fall through its cracks,
    it does the compassionate thing and lifts them back up. These
    significant areas of expertise are hugely flawed – possibly
    to the point of doing more harm than good. Whence does Civil
    Society’s faith in them arise? It’s clearly not from the rational
    nature of their claims: the flaws have been known and discussed
    and ignored for so long that truth and rationality do not seem
    germane to these disciplines’ core purpose. Thus, that purpose
    must be irrational, something much more emotional. It’s no great
    leap of faith to suspect, as many of Civil Society’s experts
    (“the left-wing intelligenzia”) have said of so
    many others, that there is a self-serving bias at work. These
    kinds of expertise, to some extent at least, amount to myths,
    folk-tales that the chattering classes use to explain to themselves
    why things must be as they are. Certainly since the GFC, Nobel
    laureate Joseph Stiglitz has written explicitly of the myth-building
    function of mainstream economics. He suggested that those opposed
    to Nick Hanauer’s position on who the real job creators are
    building self-congratulatory myths. Indeed, Alex Pareene noted
    of Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk in Salon that it contained

        gross flattery of the audience (“This is an amazing
        group of people who are doing so much, using so much of their
        talent, their brilliance, their energy, their money, to make
        the world a better place, to fight — to fight wrongs,
        to solve problems”)

    The three areas of expertise above are self-congratulatory
    in the sense that they prescribe the present construction of
    the social order as ideal and ethical, or otherwise describe
    it as good, natural, necessary and unavoidable. The myth-building
    function, the self-congratulatory and self-justifying bias evident
    in these kinds of expertise, has replaced notions of privilege
    and underprivilege with achievement and failure, often being
    argued – badly – to arise from inherent fitness
    and weakness.

    The existence of such self-congratulatory bias should not
    be surprising. The central tenet of postmodern disciplines is
    “Everyone (but us) is biased”. It is perfectly reasonable
    to assume, when the American race riots occurred in the late
    1960s, and when white psychiatrists (Bromberg & Simon) responded
    by inventing a diagnosis for black protesters – “protest
    psychosis” – that those white experts were being
    biased. It was similar with male experts diagnosing women with
    “female hysteria”, and with straight experts calling
    homosexuality an illness. Why would we expect anything different
    from a collection of middle-class experts speaking on the topic
    of poverty? Out of women, gays and the poor, which group’s ‘advocates’
    are always from outside the group? The poor, obviously. Indeed,
    as the failed, early social inclusion policies of the Blair
    government attest, social work is backed by a large “theoretical”
    (ie ideological) industry of middle-class academic experts – 
    some even posing as advocates – who, when asked “Why
    does poverty exist?”, answered “I’ve had to overcome
    as many challenges as anyone else, so it can’t be that the poor
    face greater challenges. Therefore they must be broken.”
    It’s all very predictable.

    This is why, Steve Carey, empathetic and rational people know
    it’s not enough to “give a stuff” – it matters
    what kind of a stuff one gives, lest one wallow in moral licence,
    doing just enough to maintain and justify the status quo.
    Sure, there’s a risk that all attempts to be compassionate can
    be called “faux compassion”, but the kinds of failures
    of conventional wisdom touched upon above suggest that this
    risk is currently irrelevant, as the pendulum is currently way,
    way over on the other side of its swing. Even the author of
    this article to whom Steve Carey objects, Jason Wilson, has
    invoked the concept of ‘mental illness’ – of the broken
    poor – without an iota of doubt applied to the core claims
    of the experts that have produced it. This is an example of
    why conservatives need not take all the blame: the bourgeois-left
    deserves as much blame as the right, and the “bourgeois”-kind
    seems to be the only left-wing voice left in Australia. As Nancy
    Fraser has noted, there are grounds to reasonably claim that
    “recognition politics” has “displaced”
    “redistribution politics” (her words), and that,
    for all the left-wing connotations of recognition politics,
    it has actually aided neoliberalism. One reason for asserting
    this is that the “displacement” in question occurred
    over the same thirty-year period as the rise of neoliberalism.
    Coincidence? Another is that the social sciences, such as sociology
    which was (to a greater or lesser extent) founded by Marx, concluded
    in postmodernity that “There is no such thing as class”.
    Also, these experts are, to a very large extent, concerned
    with issues orthogonal to class. And these are the same experts
    who, in their postmodernity, became preoccupied with everyone
    else’s bias, and yet it seems they never considered whether
    being situated in unequivocally middle-class places, universities,
    was likely to make them biased. So, conservatives, take heart:
    the bourgeois-left intelligenzia is not your enemy!

    What is the big picture for Australia? One in eight people
    live below the poverty line, while people like Saugoof write
    the issue off by comparing them with Africans. One eighth is
    a smallish, but nowhere-near-insignificant fraction. At the
    same time there exists a massive contented majority here, whose
    jobs increasingly comprise the knowledge-economy Australia was
    supposed to evolve in to. Many of those jobs now demand a university
    education, and to be sure, some fraction of that tertiary level
    knowledge is the product of truth-seeking in the noble, Enlightenment
    tradition. It seems, though, that significant portions of expertise
    that affects the social order is not the product of truth-seeking.
    At the same time, Australia’s production of intellectual property
    and its manufacturing – the process that turns intellectual
    property in to widgets – are embarrassingly poor, and
    as reported on Crikey recently, our prowess in science education
    is declining; that is to say, despite the massive knowledge-economy,
    tangible results seem scarce. Instead and by a process of elimination,
    many knowledge-workers primarily act to prescribe or justify
    the social order. They are pushing opinion, not expertise. As
    a result, a large part of our knowledge-economy is effectively
    a professional commentariat – not just journalists, they
    are relatively small fry compared to those in academia dealing
    in falsified or unfalsifiable descriptions of the social order,
    and compared to the many people working at the social coalface
    who bring their own self-congratulatory world-view to the workplace.
    The main claim of these people to expertise is not rational
    prowess nor critical thinking, but just the cry “We have
    the degrees!” In fact, the evolution of the social work
    profession, the ‘before’ and ‘after’, is illustrative here,
    going from the selfless, righteous, unpaid advocacy of Saul
    Alinsky and his kind, to a university assembly line pressing
    out units whose marks weren’t good enough for medicine, and
    for whom “I am qualified!” has replaced independent
    thought. A large fraction of our knowledge-economy comprises
    practitioners of what the great physicist, Richard Feynman,
    called “cargo-cult science”. It cargo-cults a pseudo-scientific
    justification of inequality, rather than ameliorating it. Even
    the bourgeois-left can use it to feign compassion, with all
    the sincerity of those 19th century explorers who said they
    were holding the hands of noble but dying savage races; they
    were assured of their selflessness, too. TED talks amount to
    the same cargo-culting, albeit for the sales-pitch community,
    and this will remain so as long as there are ideas like those
    of Hanauer that TED refuses to discuss. Needless to say, this
    particular kind of knowledge-economy does not bode well for
    Australia’s future.

  • 21
    warwick fry
    Posted Friday, 8 March 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    MikeB and MattSui - still missing the point. The intrinsic ideological blindness of the privileged. Bono’s mentor, Bob Geldoff was appointed the position of an ‘advisor’ to the Blair governement at a time when British (and other nations’) multinational corporations were enacting yet another economic rape of the African continent. When do-gooder Geldoff was preening himself on promoting and ‘aid caravan’ with all the media razzmatazz, he was advising at a time when Nigeria was suffering yet another economic and political collapse due to the depredations of British corporations. A reading of John Le Carres latest novels afford a ‘ficumentary’ account of what is really going on. Bono with his rose coloured shades, is totally oblivious to all this, I think, but Geldoff probably knows what he is doing, and what he is doing is intellectually and morally inexcusable.

  • 22
    Bob the builder
    Posted Friday, 8 March 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    This is the first time I’ve read a longer-than three paragraphs comment, as they’re usually turgid soup.
    I love stuff that gets to fundamentals and Foo Fighter’s comment does just that.
    Crikey’s not quite TED, but does suffer some of the blindnesses of the middle-class urban pro-business mindset.
    But it’d be great if we got more piercing thinking like this at Crikey!

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