While I’m not a member of the Greens, I have a lot of sympathy for their positions on issues. Over my voting life, I’m pretty sure I’ve put 1 next to a Green more often than an ALP member, despite having handed out for the latter party on a number of occasions. It’s possible this makes me a a hypocrite or a tribalist, although I tend to think of it as an attachment to the principles of the ALP combined with a dissatisfaction about their seeming reluctance to put those principles into practice. Anyway, it seems to me that one of the key problems the Greens face is a lack of institutional support. The symbiosis (though occasionally toxic) between the ALP and the unions is a key factor in the ALP’s longevity and ability to call upon trained and committed people for operational and leadership positions. The connections between the Liberal parties and the business and legal communities provide them with a similar bank of resources and personnel, though this broader catchment is more informally attached. The Nationals, for their part, have a steady base of support through the farmer’s federation, the CWA, and rural (non-mining) business and social groups. The Greens, however, are limited to the occasional support of environmental groups; which are a hotch-potch of feuding, single-interest groups reliant on public charity or unstable public funding. It’s notable that most of their parliamentary representation do not have a background in organisations like Greenpeace or the Conservation Foundation, which might have provided the kind of hands-on experience and political training they desperately require; nor in ostensibly sympathetic groups like microfinance banks, environmental regulation agencies, green power businesses, internet providers or tourism operators, which might give them the kind of policy expertise (and financial support) they often seem short on in the very areas they are most committed to reforming.
If the Greens want to get beyond 13%, they’re going to need to develop not only a set of policies that appeal to people, but a party structure that’s not only capable of sustaining itself (they’ve got that), but growing, organising in areas of weakness, and marshalling and directing large quantities of money, resources and personnel during election campaigns.
Beyond a few derisory efforts at “progressive business forums” (a contested territory that Left Labor has already colonised, the Greens lean heavily on environmental groups. However, the key problem is that every such group considers itself a peak body – single-handedly assigning itself responsibility for speaking on behalf of the earth. If an environmental peak body can be said to exist, it’s arguable that it’s the Greens Party itself playing this role. This leaves them inflexible on environmental issues – unable to differ on policy with any of its constituent groups without risking their defection from the cause. The ALP can disagree with its unions occasionally (all too often, perhaps), because the ACTU acts as a buffer between them, allowing dissention without all-out war.
So, what should they do about it? In a sense, this is the wrong question – a party shouldn’t theoretically need to build its own institutions – the same community that the party represents (if it’s large and dynamic enough to be desirous of representation) should be expressing itself and organising in other ways, the most successful expressions of which would become the stable insitutional wing of the party. But since this doesn’t really appear to have occurred for the Greens, they do need to consider what kind of institutions would best support and express their particular philosophies; and how they can sustain themselves and hopefully provide financial support for the party from a position in the private sector.
Now, to that idea I first mentioned.
In Australia, right now, governments of all hues are determined to build “open markets” in areas that were once public monopolies. Think NBN, think electricity, think primary health care, but also wheat, fish, timber, ore, and other commodities that have become increasingly federally regulated in recent years. The market structures being implemented are characterised by the artificial creation of two rigidly seperated arenas – a “wholesale” market and a “retail” market. The wholesale market is tightly regulated, perhaps dominated by a public monopoly, and players in this market are prohibited by law from intervening in or directly entering the “retail” market. The retail market, on the other hand, has a limited choice of suppliers, but can rest easy in the knowledge that their retail competitors are only able to purchase their wares at exactly the same rates, and under the same conditions as they are. The point, of course, is to protect and control supplies, while driving innovation, entrepreneurship and product differentiation at a retail level.
There is one business model that enjoys significant tax advantages, consumer engagement, and flexibility, and which should be very much to the philosophical taste of the Greens – the co-operative. Why not use the organisational resources of the Greens to start seeding co-operatives designed to tap into these market “grids”, and pass on the benefits of consumer control and low NGO tax rates to consumers? A renewed focus on co-operative businesses would be a great trigger to help the Greens recruit those with hands-on commercial expertise and an understanding of small business, tax and regulatory burden.
Co-ops do have a major problem – diseconomies of scale. As the size of a co-operative grows, the necessity of providing voice and a vote to its members becomes more and more of a burden – especially over basic operational matters that businesses deal with summarily. For “grid” markets, like power and internet, that’s not a problem – there’s no real economies of scale to be found (because bulk pricing from the wholesaler or vertical integration are disallowed), so growth is not an imperative. If your co-op ISP (the most obvious “first step”, to my mind) is having trouble dealing with customers in two exchanges, it makes more sense to simply split it into two co-operatives, dealing with one exchange each.
One hitch is that these “open markets” often seem to have a gateway cost – a big fixed price charged for access to the network, after which each additional customer or unit of product comes with a much smaller, variable charge. If that remains the case with the NBN, then it might fall to the Greens (or whoever funds them) to set up a “peak body” for the co-operatives – a single provider that pays the big fixed costs and onsells retail amounts to the local co-operatives. Preferably, to maintain the tax advantages, this would be a not-for-profit organisation, which would also give it more ability to advocate on behalf of its “constitutent” co-operatives, or get involved in politics (hint, hint).
The support of localised, democratic organisations, providing members with a tangible benefit that they could not otherwise access? That was the formula that saw Australian Labor parties increase their vote from 10% in the 1890s to more than 50% by 1911. And I’m pretty sure that with a bit more vision and little less entitlement, the Greens could achieve something similar.
In Australia, I could only find one internet co-op; which seems to have closed down in the last few years, unfortunately: http://www.cacom.uts.edu.au/articles/profiles/netc.html
However, there are a number in the US – it’d be worth finding out how they work, and what services they provide.
Depending on what I’m doing next year, I might seek out a technical expert, get a NSW govt. business development grant and see if I can’t put together some kind of business plan, actually. Anyone else interested?
Instead of staring at my longer, unfinished post about why partisan politics is destroying the usefulness of economics, I thought I’d post a quick one about the misuse of a particular economic theory.
The Free Market
You’ve almost certainly heard of the concept of a “free market”. Most people chalk this up to one Adam Smith, the father of classical liberal economics; although as far as I can tell, the phrase is actually attributable to John Stuart Mill, writing about 60 years after Smith’s death (and not about economics, either). It describes a situation where individuals have complete power to buy and sell property and services to other individuals at will; bound only by government enforcement of the laws of contract and private property. The advantage of a truly free market, Smith argued, was that the “invisible hand” of the market would set prices at the correct level. Subsequent economists like Ricardo and Cournot cleared up what he meant by this confusing statement, introducing the supply/demand curve and explaining the mechanism behind it.
Simply put, (and in the absence of all other stimulus):
1. People buying in a market will look for the lowest possible price amongst the sellers. If the lowest possible price is above the amount they’re willing to pay, they drop out, and are no longer buyers.
2. Sellers will look for the highest price amongst the buyers. If the highest possible price is less than they’re willing to sell for, they drop out.
3. Prices will move to the point at which the number of sellers is equal to the number of buyers.
4. At this price, this is neither a surplus nor a shortfall, so it is the most efficient and stable state.
So far, so good. It hangs together, it can be proven logically and by experiment; and from the late 1700’s to today, it’s been a centrepiece of anti- or minimal-government thought. Basically, the wisdom of crowds is superior to the wisdom of bureaucracies.
However, there is a key problem with the theory – it relies on information symmetry. For it to come off without a hitch, every single one of the buyers and sellers needs to have complete knowledge of every other transaction and possible transaction able to take place in the market at any given time. That way, they can compare all the options, and come to the perfect, rational decision. Obviously, this isn’t possible in practice, and where one party has access to better information than the other, they can take advantage of this to get a higher or lower price than the model says. This problem is the source of much of the consumer protection law of the 20th century; which was a project begun by the British common law, and continued by the Liberal party in the UK, the Republicans in the US, and the Menzies-era Liberal Party in Australia.
However, where the theory causes real problems is when you’re buying and selling money itself.
The global economy is worth about $61.06 trillion US dollars. That’s an estimate of every single economic transaction taking place all over the world. Of that, the world stock market is now worth $36.6 trillion dollars (measured at one of the lowest points of the financial crisis, it’s picked up since then). So a little more than half the world’s economy is listed on a sharemarket somewhere.
However, average daily turnover of the foreign exchange market alone is $3.98 trillion US dollars; and the total value of derivatives is $791 trillion US dollars. That’s more than 11 times the total value of the world economy.
So the vast bulk of transactions made every day in the finance industry aren’t for tangible things. They’re making and taking bets about what happens in that “real” economy, the tiny little $36.6 trillion dollar nub that deals with the measurable, regulated, material world. They’re buying and selling a chance to make more money.
At the start of the 20th Century, there were two schools of thought that rebelled against this emerging financial capitalism. Broadly, they were called Fascism and Communism, and both seem to have largely died out – but their unifying thread was the complete rejection of speculative earnings. They both argued that this kind of trading was unproductive, parasitic, and, after the 1890 and 1929 stock market crashes, dangerous, too.
The answer from economists was to develop the Efficient-markets Hypothesis. This says that in financial markets (where people are buying a chance at more money, rather than an item they need to consume or trade), the market is actually dealing in information and trading risk. The price someone is willing to buy or sell for is dependent on their knowledge of what’s likely to happen to that price in future; so the market price will move quickly to reflect all available information about the item. So if you’re trading in the market, you don’t really need to know what you’re buying or selling – if you have an idea as to whether the price is going to rise or fall in future, that’s all you need to know, because the market will always get it right. Government, by “regulating” will just slow down the wealth creation process, and add the risk of the market getting it wrong.
You see where this is heading, right? In the leadup to the financial crisis, new types of derivative products flooded the newly deregulated US exchanges – most famously “sub-prime” mortgage bundles, but these weren’t the only culprits – food and fuel futures and foreign exchange bets played a role too. Since a downturn in the US economy in about 2000, the US federal reserve had been giving out loans at near 0% interest – certainly below the rate of inflation, and this free money found a place to go. A massive bubble built, but because people knew that the market couldn’t get it wrong, there was no reason to check out what they were buying.
And then, disaster. There are plenty of reasons the EMH doesn’t work in practice, but the key problem is that it’s using Adam Smith’s old theory in a context stripped of the things that make it work. Why? Because until the market fails, it makes a lot of people a lot of money. And when it does, it turns out they can shift that failure on to the taxpayer or consumer.
Built-in Market Failure
But even where the market is of a type that Smith could have forseen, the problem of information asymmetry remains strong. The theory argues that where buyers and sellers have differing levels of information, there is an incentive to improve it; so as they do so, the market returns to equilibrium. OK, good answer, but what about markets where a large number people only buy occasionally; but a small number of producers sell all the time? It’s very much in the interests of those producers to have all the information, but the time and energy involved in collecting it as an individual makes it prohibitive. What if, even better, the producers can invest money to misinform, selectively inform, or otherwise manipulate the buyers? We call this sort of thing “advertising”.
A pretty good example of a free market vs an efficient market is the US pharmaceuticals market and the Australian one. In the US, medicines are sold subject to a check from the US Food and Drug Administration; doctors then have leeway to prescribe whatever drug they wish. Consumers, in addition, are able to request particular brands or drugs from their doctors, and in some states regulation prevents doctors from refusing to prescribe these alternatives, if it’s appropriate to the patients’ condition. There’s public assistance for the poor and the elderly, but everyone else pays full price. Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars a year marketing to and influencing both consumers and doctors; with very little regulation. This is a deregulated market in action, and in 2009 constituted 17.3% of their economy (public + private spend).
Australia, on the other hand, bans direct-to-consumer advertising and severely limits marketing to medical professionals. Doctors can specify what is prescribed by brand, and can refuse to prescribe anything they don’t think is worthwhile. It also operates a subsidy for medicines called the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which dramatically reduces the prices of drugs considered by an expert panel of scientists to provide good value-for-money. You can still buy the other drugs; but they’ll cost you the full amount, just like in the US. This is a highly regulated market; and in 2009 constituted 9.1% of our economy (public+private spend).
The American market is clearly more free; so why is it more expensive and greatly less effective?
Well, the trick is that the word “free” doesn’t just apply to governments. By limiting the information that the sellers can put into the marketplace, and by adding a major and highly accurate price signal to the matket in the form of the PBS, the Australian system actually corresponds more closely to what liberal economists would term a “free” market. It’s not the removal of regulation that makes markets work efficiently, it’s the removal or minimisation of market distortion; and business is just as capable as government of distorting a market – in fact, that’s pretty much their job.
So next time someone tells you that free markets are more efficient, check that they actually know what they’re advocating – the strict regulation of corporations, consumer protection, banning advertising or inexpert buyers, government guidance to market participants, the removal of distortionary incentives like yearly executive bonuses and sales commissions and possibly the closure of most of the global financial system.
I have a feeling I’m probably a bit too oblivious for most travel. I’m reasonably alert, given coffee or an amphetamine-flavoured substitute; I have a grounding in a number of romance languages, I can put on a surprising burst of speed if menaced by thugs, and I’m reasonably sure I can hide things in my anal cavity, given 5 minutes and two condoms. So I’m likely to make it through an airport terminal relatively unscathed – but I do worry about what I’d actually gain from the trip. It’s a vicious circle, in fact – I’m worried that I’d be so concerned to make the most of it that I’d cram too much “important stuff” in, and miss getting the feel of the place, or meeting the locals. Or that I’d avoid doing anything at all to preclude that problem, and wind up sitting in a blisteringly hot hotel room, waiting daytime soaps on peseta-per-view.
So it’d have to be somewhere that doesn’t have too much “stuff”, but not none, either. Because, really, wilderness is just another word for “no-one could be arsed to tidy”, isn’t it? So Rome’s out. The Grand Canyon’s out. No Beijing – too busy, no Kenya – not busy enough. Unless you’re in the private security sector. What I’m really looking for is an area that never really “made it”, world-dominationally speaking, but at least had a bit of a crack. Looked like it was going somewhere at one point, before sputtering to an ignominiousstop. The kind of regime Harry Turtledove might pit against aliens.
So, given those restrictions, I have two excellent alternatives.
But wait, Spain was like, the biggest empire on earth for a couple of hundred years – that’s a heavyweight champ, not a near-miss! No, further back than that. Cartagena’s name is a distorted clue to its actual origins – originally Carthago Novo (in Phoenician, of course), it was founded by Hamilcar Barca in 228 B.C. to solidify off Carthage’s claim to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, less than 30 years later, his son, Hannibal, found out that it’s not safe to drive elephants on Italian roads, and the gig was up.
In Cartagena, you can see the remnants of this brief window when the scales of world history were so precariously balanced – before the centre of Western civilisation was cemented with finality, and a dash of mythical salt, on the unlikely Italian peninsula.
But there’s another important way in which the city came off second best. In the 1930’s, Cartagena was on the wrong side of history again, during the Spanish Civil War. The deep water port that had attracted the sea-faring Cathaginians centuries before had made Cartagena the home of Spain’s Mediterranean navy; and it remained loyal to the Republican cause until the bitter end. Cartagena was the last Republican stronghold to surrender to Franco, and suffered some of the most brutal experiments in urban aerial bombardment carried out in the entire war. Thanks to the superbly named Condor Legion for those shennanigans.
Oh, and there’s other cool stuff, too.
Again, Spanish-speaking, but that’s not the connection. During the 19th Century, Latin America was t
he Next Big Thing. After finally clearing up the debris of San Martin’s revolutionaries, having won their freedom, looked to be on the same trajectory as the North Americans – a robust economic balance between urban industrialism and rural slave-run plantations. Agressive expansion into untrammelled wilderness, clever protectionism and open immigration turbocharged their ascent into the ranks of first world economies. But it all went horribly wrong in the 1930’s. Unlike the US, who renewed the social contract with the New Deal, Argentina turned to oligarchism and protectionism, and spent the bulk of the 20th Century at war with its own citizens under a variety of military and civilian regimes.
But so close! From the 1880s to the 1920’s, Argentina considered itself one of the emerging powers of the new world order, and built its capital city on that scale; and in a style both European and American deco. Here’s a few of the best:
Neat, theme week. You’ve all just been spared from a rambling discussion on the politics and possibilites of the Fair Work Australia bill – which passed last Friday; something which is probably very worthy, but may or may not have interested anyone greatly. And has also been rather done to death in the nation’s trad media. So a winner is you, dear reader.
But you’re not dodging the ramble entirely – because Percy, perhaps foolishly, has played right into my mental hands. It’s probably common knowledge to the average reader that I did my Honours thesis on computer games – specifically turn-based strategy, what used to be called “God” games. There’s a rather obvious reason for this – my teen years were split near perfectly between world domination and masturbation; and trying to tell academics about onanism would have been like teaching the proverbial granny to suck proverbial eggs.
(The concepts in that sentence are probably NSFW. So I made the best bits into tags. P.S. Hey there, Senator Conroy! How’re you doin’, sailor?)
Oh yes indeed, I was a 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) machine, back in the day. From the classic (and according to Wiki, genre-titling) Master of Orion, Warlords II, Heroes of Might and Magic, Colonization, Star Wars Rebellion, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Imperium Galactica, Europa Universalis and Victoria: Empire Under the Sun, right up to the more modern Total War series, Galactic Civilisations II and Sins of a Solar Empire*, I’ve been responsible for more deaths than cholera, launched more ships than Helen of Troy and Captain Picard put together, destroyed more governments than a well-timed sex scandal, and long regarded genocide as the desirable endpoint of nearly all state activity.
And there is one man I think I can safely blame: Sid Meier and his ludicrously addictive Civilization series.
Back before I had a computer (I know, I know, how did we live?), I used a variety of methods to get my gaming fix. I enjoyed the pixelated pleasures of my already aged Atari 2600; I frequented the local fish and chip shop which possessed a Street Fighter II machine that annihilated my supply of pocket money most weeks, my selection of friends had more than a little to do with who owned a second controller for their console, and I once borrowed a gameboy for 3 months. I asked, seriously! The fact that I happened to know that I would be changing schools within a week was probably information I ought to have shared; but that’s hindsight for you. But the pinnacle of my gaming experience was heading in to the library where my Mum worked on Saturdays; and plonking myself in front of the anachronistically titled “Word Processor”, which happened to have a copy of Civilization installed for “educational purposes”.
If anyone’s actually interested in reading 3000 words about how influential, important and world-changing Civilisation is, I’ve still got a copy of my thesis around somewhere. But why did 11 year old me like it?
The original Civilization is a brilliantly simple game, at heart. It takes a brutally straightforward view of human history, politics and society, and divines about 4 basic mechanics – combat, growth, production and technology/finance. Balancing these goals through the development of cities, armies and fleets, Civilization judges that you have a pretty complete representation of life on planet earth. Oversimplified, but compelling; and one of the first games that gave a genuine illusion of balance and human competition by setting the AI and human player up with the same starting hand and identical goals. It cheated, sure, but that was part of the fun – outsmarting and outplaying someone who’s not quite playing by the rules is just that little bit more satisfying.
And once you’ve dropped yourself into that world, the game unfolds quite beautifully. In the beginning, when your decisions are few, you’ll race along, with your full attention focused on every unit, able to manage your handful of cities and fight off your handful of enemies. As you expand, your focus moves outwards, from units to armies, citizens to cities to production regions and key map features, barbarians to other civilisations, tech advances to, well… higher tech advances. Turns that took 10 seconds can easily take 10 minutes; the steady increase in complexity mirroring the scaling up of human civilisation Basically, it’s possible to lose entire days playing “just one more turn”.
I enjoyed it because I was both a computer geek and a history nerd. I was the kid who because briefly known as Norman, not because I had the archetypal no-mates, but because I turned up to a year 2 show-and-tell in replica 11th century armour and proceeded to explain how Harold got shot in the face with arrows, to the mild dismay of my teacher. Civilisation spoke to both sides of my bookish soul; and I responded with love, affection, and rampant, raging addiction.
Sid Meier, you wonderful bastard, we salute you!
Nonsequitur #1: Robbed! Timezone illiterate bastardry has snatched the prize from my clammy grasp! Well, since I was in the process of being lynched anyway, I doubt it would have made a huge difference. Possibly having my alignment confirmed today is more useful for the town than having another fight about it tomorrow, Cop results or not.
~ Dateline, western Prussia, 1870-something. Screaming villagers rampage through the Jewish quarter of a trading town, somewhere in the silver-mining arc between Poznan and Dresden.
My Dad’s family story is a lot sketchier than my Mum’s; but it seems to go back a fair bit further. Unlike the Webbs, who exerted a continuous pull on every successive generation, the Fischers exerted a continuous and often cantankerous repulsion; with the end result that while lineage can be retrieved, the individuals in the chain are essentially lost to history.
My Dad has attempted to put together a family history; and it turns out that he can get as far back as Germany, circa 1875. Post-unification Germany was turning out to be a dangerous place for Jews. Initially, Bismarck, unifying the country with the support of liberals – many of them educated Jews – had made good on his promises to emancipate the jewry across the new German Empire. But in the wake of the 1873 economic crisis, characterised by collapsing banks and the freezing of credit, Bismarck reverted to form, and began stirring emotions against the immense Jewish communities within the German Empire.
By the late 1870’s, a young silversmith decided he’d seen the writing on the wall. We don’t know what his real first name was; the Austrian border guards documenting the steady stream of refugees into that comparatively liberal nation list him only as Fischer & family. We suspect there was at least a child, but we’re not entirely sure.
Later that year, he boarded a boat at the port of Trieste – Austria’s grand military and industrial port – Central Europe’s pipeline to the New World and Africa, and at this time, one of the foremost embarcation points for emigration anywhere in the world. 3 times a day, immense steam liners would leave Trieste – bound for Liverpool, or Manchester, or direct to New York, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Congo, Singapore or Melbourne. The young man and his family had become Edward Fischer – a professing Catholic with an Anglicised name, apparently – and his wife. No child is mentioned.
From Trieste, he shuttled to Liverpool, and there, perhaps, considered his options. America was the land of opportunity – but was still on its way out of the Long Recession. Buenos Aires or Malaya would do well for a man with farming experience, or a tolerance for heat – which he was neither. The Congo and Joburg remained wild – for the adventurers and get-rich-quick types. But in Melbourne, there was the lure of gold. The second Bendigo gold-rush was in full pelt, and along with it, explosive growth in all forms of metal mining from the rich Victorian hills- nickel, iron, manganese; and along with these, precious silver. Edward could see an antipodean future spread out before him – not grubbing around in holes, but commanding a healthy income from applying his old-world art to new-world materials. Edward, it should be noted, was an Anglican of good standing during his Liverpool sojourn.
And so he landed, circa 1887, setting up shop in Melbourne, towards the grimier, Geelong end of the city. Apparently this was quite near the docks, where many of the shipments of ores were headed. It was also home to a large chunk of Melbourne’s Jewish Community – although Edward remained staunchly, if disingenously Anglican. Edward was likely in his late 20’s by this point, and we aren’t certain if the wife he had in Trieste was still with him. Photos of the period show him with a woman significantly younger than himself. We wouldn’t have photos, of course; except for the fact that it turns out that Edward was perhaps Australia’s preeminent silversmith at this point, crafting such fashionably gaudy pieces as a silver emu egg to act as the Victorian parliament’s crest, a kilt-pin destined to be delivered to a visiting royal (put never actually presented), and other valuables now on display at various museums and galleries across Victoria.
Edward, and his probably younger, Australian-born wife (possibly) had a pair of children later in (his) life; around 1910, I think. The dates have me a little confused. But one of them was a son. I have no idea what sex the other sibling was – I suspect they did something terrible and fled, and no-one ever spoke of them again. Such were the ways in those days. Anyway, the son was my Grandfather, Pa. It has just occurred to me that I don’t actually know what his first name was. Just before 1914, the family anglicised their names, taking the c out of Fischer, and Pa lived his entire life without it. He married a good Anglican girl, and had a job as an engineer of some sort. I think he worked on the trains, but again, I may be wrong. The wealth from Edward’s silversmithing was gone; though, gambled away by a relative I know absolutely nothing about. I know very little about his and my Grandmother’s lives – save that they revelled in a marriage so toxic that without overt violence they successfully alienated both their sons and their daughter.
Their daughter, Nina, stayed closest to home, involving herself in a series of disasterous and sometimes violent relationships with brutal men in and around Melbourne, until she finally settled down with an avaricious Dutchman. As far as I can tell, he was the best of them, but he’s not well liked.
Their older son, Richard, who had suffered polio as a boy, tuned in, dropped out and joined the working-class counter-culture of Fitzroy, where he lives to this day. I don’t think he was a drug-user, ever, but he had similar problems to Nina with relationships; spending vast sums on a series of scary-sounding women who all ended up leaving him broke. He worked as a printer for many years, I believe, but he now buys and sells antique furniture and toys. Which is pretty neat.
But the important one, Alex, is the character that we’re really interested in. As a left-hander, he suffered under a series of disturbingly psychotic school teachers determined to cure him of his problem; but decided that the way to beat them was to get an education and get away from the lot of them. So he stuck it out, completing his leaving certificate and competing for a Commonwealth scholarship, with the intention of doing law. However, despite getting the marks (or rather, the levels – some kind of subject-based ranking thing), he chose to do psychology instead. As a child, he’d had a number of operations to cure a speech impediment, and his parents’ lack of confidence in his speaking abilities seems to have influenced his decision. The operations must have been successful, incidentally, because I had no idea that he’d ever had a speaking impediment until he told me. However, I do find it odd that he then chose to take up “the talking cure”, but meh.
At the end of his degree, it was time to bail; as I suspect he’d always intended. He packed up his camera and beret (parents, LOL) and headed for his new life as a clinical psych in a ward attached to RPA. That’s where the previous story left off; so it’s probably a good place to leave this one, too. I’ll deal with how I came to be next time I’m on the topic.
Nonsequitur #3: Oops, went a day over. Sorry. But in unrelated news, I found out something disturbing in torts today. Torts are a kind of legal action aimed at recovering damages for injuries or economic loss; and part of what determines the damages is how culpable the victim is in their own injury. Sounds reasonable, right? If someone jumps off a cliff, they should probably be mostly responsible for their injuries at the bottom, even if someone has thoughtlessly left a slab of concrete down there that actually does the damage.
However, in Australia, it is possible to provoke or contribute to damages from even criminal offences, like assault. If you’re walking down a dark alley in a bad part of town, and it can be demonstrated that you could have avoided the situation – such as by taking a taxi – you are probably entitled to less compensation than someone assaulted in their home. So far, maybe. But the location of the offence can be taken into account as part of the determination on whether it was a sensible decision on your part to be there in the first place.
So, the upshot of all this is that someone mugged in Woollahra has a right to more compensation than someone mugged in Redfern. Someone who can afford to take the taxi and is robbed on their way to the taxi-rank is entitled to more than someone mugged while waiting for the bus. For some bizarre reason, Australian law maintains the proposition that you were asking for it by living in a poor area, or by lacking the economic resources to pay for safer modes of transport. My lecturer seemed unperturbed, but that can’t be right, right?
First off, here’s that linking stuff I always do except when I forget and fall asleep on Sunday night:
And now, something much more appealing:
So, yeah, this is my new cat.
I’ve never had a pet before, so it’s quite a strange thing having a little animal around the house. We’ve had mice; and they were quite cute, but they never actually wanted anything from you – they were just scenery, essentially. A cat appears to be quite a different proposition. First, another photo:
It’s a lot more like having a little person around the house. Something like a very quiet, co-ordinated toddler without the opposable thumbs to get into real trouble. I’m told flametiger is somewhat unusual. Although we got him from the RSPCA, he’s not at all afraid of people, and likes lying on people, headbutting them, and standing on their shoulders. He’s only a couple of months old, but he came to us already litter-trained – which means I get to avoid the whole stepping in cat-poo thing. And he seems to be extremely inquisitive, which I find charming – he’s spent the last two days scampering wildly around the house, exploring all the dark corners and crannies, and occasionally freaking Julia out by disappearing behind large stacks of bags in rooms where a window may have been open at some point. Then I have to check outside for… yeah, but such a thing has not yet come to pass, knock on wood.
But what I find most intriguing are his front paws.
Both Julia and I talk with a degree of hand motion, and – being humans – we use them for just about everything we do. I’m unsure of how active other cats are with their paws, but I have the distinct feeling that Flametiger is trying to imitate our hand motions. He does this unusual thing, where he opens one paw up wide, like a spread hand, and puts it up towards us, and then relaxes it and repeats the motion with the other hand. He’s definitely a smart little sucka; I’m kinda wondering if that’s normal, or if he’s trying to actively communicate.
Welcome to The Amazing World of Imaginary Anthropropathia, with your host, Tom the first-time pet owner! So yeah, probably not true. But it is curious.
He also swings between looking very much like a cartoon cat, all scrambling limbs, big eyes and pink nose, and something very much more alien and dangerous.
Anyways, enough about Flametiger. You’ll hear all about him soon enough. It’s time, instead, to psychoanalyse my own reaction to our new flatmate.
I was mainly nervous about getting a cat. Having never had one before, and having the impression that most cats were kind of standoffish or bezerk, I was a bit leery of introducing a new, unfriendly and demanding creature to my hitherto quite welcoming home. I figured, moving out of home some years ago, that I’d get to pick and choose my living partners based on temperament and agreeability from that point onwards. No more erratic or dull siblings for me! (Apologies to any siblings reading (Sort of)) A cat – whose moods may not be easily inferred from the interview, I assumed – could easily mess up the pattern. And a pet is a long-term commitment, so I couldn’t boot it out again if it turned out wrong. However, I’ve never had a cat, so I didn’t really feel I had the expertise to say no to what might be a perfectly nice cat. Try anything once, or something like that.
So I’m quite glad that this particular cat has none of the aloof, unfriendly qualities I’d sort of dreaded. That’s sort of a pleasant surprise; and it’s a lot more fun than I’d anticipated. The kind of dumb stuff you can only really do with toddlers once they’re old enough to respond to “Chief”, “Champ” and “Bigfella”, you appear to be able to do with cats straight away – throwing stuff and having them knock it around the floor, make them chase stuff on a string, and playing hide and seek all seem to be kitten specialties. I also probably have a somewhat sanguine view of its ability to take care of itself, as evidenced by the fact that Julia has me progressively shutting all the windows whenever Flametiger is in a 5 meter radius. Our window sashes are probably on the verge of collapse by now.
It also seems relatively cheap. On the way to the supermarket to get cat things, Julia played it coy.
“Well, it might cost a bit of money…”
“Oh?” I enquired lightheartedly, writing off my delicious tax-payer funded shamwows in my gut.
“You know, ten, maybe twelve dollars a week.”
If I was a cat, I may well have farted in relief at this point. Actually, probably not. It seems to be a remarkably clean little animal, also. I dare say it’s more bothered by our smell (clustered around bin and laundry pile) than we are its. Apart from pooing entirely in the litter, and then burying it (better than most humans), it also seems to exude little of the “cat-odour” the normally trustworthy infomercials on our stories-box warn us of.
But yeah, me. I have the impression from Julia and others that having my first pet at 25 is in some way odd, or shameful. Apart from the normal little contrarian in me yelling “Up yours, sicko animal fanciers!”, I suppose statistics tell me they must be right. In 1994, 40% of households owned a dog, and 25% owned a cat. Less than 30% of households with a child between 10 and 14 had no pets at all in 1994 – when I was 11. Woohoo! My first minority experience! (Says the brown-haired anglo-irish straight guy with a university degree)
Her sister’s reaction was even more extreme: “My god, seriously? How is he not a serial killer?”
(Because my other two siblings armed themselves after Terrence disappeared,
(Yes, that’s a joke.)(End creepy aside.)
Apparently, she had always harboured doubts about the ability of any child growing up without pets to know the emotion of love. I think that might be slightly hyperbolic, but apparently deeply felt. But, uh, shouldn’t a properly formed child be able to know love without relying on training dummies? You know, with that parent(s) it presumably has? Harry Potter, he could use an owl or something; but your average kid should be alright, right? Apparently not.
I used apparently 3 times in that last paragraph. And presumably once. In 4 and a half sentences, that’s a lot of scepticism, I feel.
Anyway, I’ll wrap it up. Lastly, one more picture of my new cat:
And lastly, this one here, posted last, is the actual, bona fide blog entry, at last.
And it’s about my family; who get a lot of airtime, but only snatches of backstory.
I should point out that I generally think of myself as having a couple of families – the one I grew up with; and the people I’ve become attached to as an adult. Obviously, Julia sits at the middle of the second group; which also includes the members of her extended family, and the urban tribe (not this urban tribe) we orbit around. The former includes Mum, Dad, a sister, a brother, and Nana and Da on my Mum’s side. At a greater distance, geographically, at least, are my Mum’s sister and her husband, their son (my cousin), his wife and children; and my Dad’s brother in Melbourne. While I have my Dad’s my last name, it’s probably fair to say that my Mum’s family has been a whole lot more influential on my life to date. This post is mostly about them.
As you may well have noticed, I don’t find my own family particularly onerous. In general, even high drama elicits a response from me somewhere between amused and nonplussed; which I’m sure must be quite infuriating for the various family members who enjoy a spot of the dramatic. As a result, I rarely feel the need to fill in my friends on their antics. However, for Julia – who, let’s be honest, only really signed on for Tom, not the whole crew – they can occasionally be a frustrating mess of conflicting personalities, flouncing, affected outrage and bizzare vendettas. I should note at this point that Julia seems to get on with the vast majority of my family members very well individually – even the prickliest – it’s the interactions en masse that really get to her.
My mum grew up in 1950’s Sydney, as the oldest girl of her generation in a family of Eastern Suburbs Irish Australian matriarchs, the Webbs. Since the 20’s, this branch of the family had operated a successful grocery business that flourished through the Depression, the War, and the rationing that continued into the early 50’s. It would be difficult to believe the success of this business wasn’t connected to the rise and rise of the black market in essentials throughout the period that only ended in the early 60’s – incidentally when the family business went belly-up. Combining this with the occasionally colourful stories about business associates like Big Charlie, and Uncle Frankie the SP bookie, I think it’s probably fair to say that we were heavily involved in the Irish organised crime scene of the period. If any of you remember Julia’s 1930’s-themed WoD game, my family was the inspiration.
My great-grandmother ran this sometime empire with an iron glove, apparently. She was the head accountant, business manager, and undisputed alpha of the clan. Her husband was a mild alcoholic and a serious gambler; but was kept on a tight leash, while her brood of 6 sons was deployed with military efficiency to keep the shops and fruitbarrows turning a profit. My Da was somewhere in the middle of this group, and lived at home until he was called away to war at 18.
At about this time, my Nana, an ambitious young thing from a sprawling rural family of dairy farmers outside Bega (and liberally sprinkled across the South Coast), made her way to the big city, to find herself a life. I’ve never got the full story from her – was it wanderlust, curiousity, independence, or something more interesting; but she ended up working in a milk bar in Bondi Junction; one of the grubbier slums of the down-at-heel, eastern suburbs – and chock full of Catholics. A few hundred meters from the stinking, clanking tramsheds that gave the Junction its name, and the thriving vice market that gave it it’s spark, she met my Da over a 3p malted milk. According to him, he decided then and there that this was the girl he would marry – but Doreen, tough as nails, wasn’t immediately convinced. It took countless letters, and his return from Papua New Guinea in 1946 to seal the deal. Once bound in holy matrimony, Doreen was a Webb – a point her new mother-in-law appears to have made chillingly clear.
Nana was moved into the family business in short order – as my Great-Grandmother’s lieutenant, along with another daughter-in-law; whose name I forget, and who died some time before my birth, I think. The sons were never trusted in the inner circle – they were to be taken care of, and they were hard workers, but they couldn’t be given the kind of responsibility that women were capable of. A couple of the sons died in the war, and another one never quite recovered; and the women essentially kept the family operating. A few years later, my mum was born, cementing the dynasty; and was involved in “the shop” from a young age.
Throughout the 50’s, the family’s contacts kept the groceries running. Late in that decade, though, I think my great-grandmother died. I have an inkling it was some kind of lung cancer, but I’m not entire sure. In any case, control of the business went not to my grandmother but to her husband, who she’d clearly never expected to outlive her. He and one of the surviving sons rapidly drank and gambled their way through the proceeds of the shops, then through the future proceeds of the shops, and finally through the shops themselves. By the mid 60’s, the empire was gone; and my Da, freed from its clutches, was working as a horse trainer at Randwick Park racecourse; one of Sydney’s most prominent trots venues. He had previously trained as a jockey, before a growth spurt put paid to that dream, and had taken care of the horses for the business prior to their replacement with Ford trucks in the early 50’s. The Randwick racecourse was also one of the glamourous centres of Sydney’s high-profile underworld – for anyone intending to tune in to the new series of Underbelly, I have a feeling my Da would recognise more than a few of the players.
My grandmother, however, had picked up where the Great-grandmother left off; organising and stabilising the still extensive clan around festivals of religious observance – famously over-booked Easter lunches, Christmas dinners and St. Pats Day feasts – all now without alcohol, as though to perform penance to the alcoholism that had destroyed the family business. These were jovial, but dutiful affairs – think Tony Soprano’s business dinners, and you mightn’t be far wrong. Though the Webb clan wasn’t what it once had been, the associates all showed up to pay their respects, and keep in contact. I have no idea if most of the group were still essentially criminal, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I think my Da, at least, had gone straight.
My mum was smart – but the resources of the family as she left school couldn’t stretch to a university education; and I’m not entirely sure if they had even considered this as an option in the first place. Instead, she went travelling around with Da’s youngest surviving brother, Morris. Morry is now Da’s only surviving brother, incidentally. At the time, Morry was a flamboyant women’s hairdresser whose hobbies included bodysurfing, bodybuilding, and coconut oil sunbaking. Morry, one of the few brothers with business acumen, had managed to squirrel away enough money from the failing business to establish himself as a hairdresser, invest in property, and take the occasional trip to Europe. The fact that he would never marry meant that he was able to reinvest the lion’s share of his money in further property and his expensive lifestyle.
Travelling around Europe was great for Mum; I think – perhaps she’d never really had that kind of independence before, and her uncle was a poor chaperone at best. I suspect he was content to keep her secrets, as long as she kept his; which at the time was still a jailable offence. That said, I have difficulty seeing my Mum as anything but cautious; and I can’t imagine too many glossy-eyed midnight psychadelic adventures above the blue Danube, or dangerous liasons in the secluded hills of Tuscany. But staying out too late, drinking too much, and the occasional summer romance, that I’d credit. Her mother, my Nana, seems to have been a fearsome presence in her life at this point; inevitably backed by traditional, taciturn Da.
Upon her return to Australia in about 1970, for her sister’s wedding (I think, if I have the timelines right), Mum landed back on a different planet – uptight, provincial Australia, and the Bondi Junction orbit, dominated by the Webb clan. But the world was about to break open for her – It was soon Time, and Gough Whitlam busted open the universities. In 1972, my Mum was one of the first of her generation to attend Sydney University for free, working her way through a Bachelor of Arts (Anthrop), and following it up with a Masters of Librarianship.
In Melbourne, my Dad had taken a different path. Consciously breaking with his family, he had pursued and won a Commonwealth scholarship in the late 60’s, gaining admission to Melbourne uni for a Bachelor of Psychology course; and bolting for Sydney the minute he had his meal-ticket. In Sydney, he landed a job as a psych registrar (possibly nurse? I’m not too sure) at a major inner-city institution affiliated with RPA, and pursued his interest in photography. The art community based in Glebe and Surry Hills welcomed him as one of their own, and he found himself pulled into the orbit of Sydney University’s thriving student culture. After a series of legendarily doomed relationships, he was introduced to my Mum by her friend Sharon, and, like her mother, Joy was apparently less than impressed at first. The scruffy young southerner with a beard and beret wasn’t her normal target – apparently young naval officers had taken her fancy. This I now find quite difficult to believe; but there you go.
Anyway; this is getting somewhat long, and I’m already 40 minutes overdue. Next week – Why my Family is like it is: Part the second.