There is something so very, what’s the word — piquant? Utopian? Turnbullian? — about virtually simultaneous announcements this week: that there is going to be a “data-based” “assistance” program for the long-term benefit dependent, following the lead of the McClure Report; and the Minister for Whatever His Title Is This Week Greg Hunt that $23 million of government money would be provided to start-up incubators. Taken together, they’re an ideal indication of zombie policy of our era — responses to an old world of work.

Take the incubator money first. An incubator, for those who still have a real job, is a company devoted to developing start-ups. A start-up is a new company with a tech product of one sort of another — increasingly, these days a social media concept yet to be actually taken much beyond that stage, and seeking seed funding so that it can acquire an office with exposed brick walls, retro foosball table and antique gin still.

Incubators are the new cutting edge, blinding white heat of ultra-tech dazzling … hang on. If incubators and start-ups are at the cutting edge, not only of innovation but of profit, why are we sticking in gumment money to help them along? Indeed, why are we funding not the raw tech, but the second-tier financial/conceptual/strategic developers? This would appear to be not only an example of the egregious sin of the state “picking winners”, but of picking winners among the winner-pickers. Given the fabulous profits to come, why do they need the ultra-tech equivalent of superphosphate bounties?

Could it be that, hush, this sector is not quite the sure bet for Australia’s radiant future that’s it made out to be? Could it be that, across the world, a sector that has zero bar to entry — a start-up is a doodle on a napkin (or eepkin, a digital idea incubator device being developed by my new start-up incubator, Grundalator. Eeepkin simulates napkin-like textures on a tablet, in order to enhance the blue-sky thinking process. Blue-sky is now (TM) I’m afraid) — is subject to the law of diminishing returns? It could.

Indeed, it’s inevitable. Zero-degree entry — no plant, no process required — means people will gravitate to the easy options, which tend to be social media start-ups. So tech expertise and innovation that could be applied to deeper innovation follows the path of least resistance. The result? Thousands of tech graduates leaving university, ready to join the gold rush. Fair enough, if there’s any gold. We now appear to be planting some of the stuff in order to keep the rush going.

Better, at the same time as these frou-frous are funded, we cut funding to key CSIRO and university sectors, where real grunt work and leaps of innovation occur. It takes a particular type of anti-genius to cut funding to an organisation that has produced a printable solar cell — as the CSIRO has — and give money so that people can get couches for those offices, business cards printed on raw chips of silicon, and all the other malarkey everyone knows is happening. The interest in deep tech innovation is close to zero — in part because of an accurate surmise that such deep tech innovation is inherently post-capitalist in form — while the desire to keep the busyness of business going is absolute.

Which brings us to the welfare reforms, which are targeting 20,000 people who spend years or decades on benefits and run up the announced cost of $10 billion — frightening, as it’s meant to be, until you realise that that too is a decades-long cost. Were this to be a genuine investment in improving the lives of people trapped in long-term caring roles, various issues to do with work and so on, it would be welcome. But it would cost more than the money being spent already on such people, not less. It would require investment in them. The strong impression one gets from the UK and New Zealand examples of these reforms is that it involves a fresh round of individualisation of the welfare “problem” — via psychological “intervention”, skills coaching, etc, most of which is a ritualised bullying, based on gimcrack theories, and designed not as investment or development, but as a deterrent to anyone thinking of rock-n-rolling it for a few months.

So, a state-funding program to lend to capitalism the impression that it remains dynamic, at the same time as we harass people towards a world of work that, as Tim Dunlop reminds us, is fast disappearing. Both policies are exactly wrong, and they’re wrong because they have the settings of scarcity and abundance reversed. There is an abundance of “innovation” in the weightless world of commercial tech, a scarcity of real profit. So we fund the appearance of such. There is an abundance — relatively speaking — of the money to support 20,000 people without harassing them in a futile fashion. There is a scarcity of the work we are driving them towards.

Reverse it out — fund genuine, deep tech innovation through the state and associated institutions, and stimulate demand through guaranteed basic incomes — and the process becomes synergistic, not antagonistic, oriented to the future, not to an industrial past. This will happen. But we will have to go through a lot of dimwitted crap first, the afterglow of Thatcherism, and the statist “free”-market era we remain contained within. What a time for a government to be so naive.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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