Behind the scenes in the life of a blogger

Photo: Sean Boyd/In the Frame Productions
PERSONAL INSIGHTS

In the few short moments that we have together as you read this post, may I begin by thanking you for following my blog during 2021. In the lead up to Christmas, people give shout-outs to loyal clients and I wanted to let you know how much your continuing patronage of Elephant in the Room means to me.

The public comments and private feedback that I receive inspire me to continue as a blogger, and to work hard to curate great content – delivered straight into your inbox. I have a loyal community of readers who click-on each fortnight to view the latest post that I have published in cyberspace.

In our rapidly changing digital world, we must always be learning, which is why the best blogs provide information that help people in search of answers. Lifelong learning is now seen as an economic imperative and well-crafted blogs can assist online knowledge seekers.

This blog is a place for reasoned argument supported by corroborating evidence to give you a clear understanding of the forces shaping our world. My blog brings readers face-to-face with the issues that are shaping politics, impacting economies, transforming societies, and driving technology.

It is my enduring hope that this eclectic mix of topics will pique your interest and encourage you to read more extensively for yourself. Nelson Mandela believed, quite rightly, that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

All posts published under the Elephant in the Room banner are designed to be interesting and educational. They are replete with content which is topical and open to debate and discussion. I do my best to present both sides of an argument before outlining my own position on contentious issues.

While I’m not a journalist, I’m aware that a basic tenet of fair journalism is captured in the Latin phrase audi alteram partem meaning “let the other side be heard as well”. That maxim requires that any report should be balanced and fair towards all parties.

Unlike most blogs, I don’t focus on a single niche topic (e.g., dog training, gardening tips, and so on). Rather, I deliberately cast a broad net and publish posts that are wide in sweep – but that does not mean my blog is a hodgepodge of anything that interests me.

The assorted topics that I cover are grouped under four umbrella categories – Political, Economic, Social, and Technological. These categories work in unison to provide readers with fresh perspectives on the interplay between a range of PEST issues which are of national and international significance.

Elephant in the Room shines a light on some of humanity’s biggest challenges. In a world which is increasingly interdependent, the subliminal message in many of the posts is that we need to reframe our thinking and see ourselves as global citizens working together to create a more harmonious society.

The posts are deliberately designed to make you think as they tangle and weave through disparate but connected topics. By joining the dots, you will gain a helicopter view of where individual disciplines intersect and overlap, thereby enabling you to see more creative solutions to contemporary problems.

For my part, I have an inquiring mind and am always imagining how the world could be a better place. That’s why one of my all-time favourite quotes is by Robert Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are, and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were, and say ‘Why not’”.

Each post ends with a pithy one-liner, often in the form of an aphorism. Aphorisms are pointed, witty statements which express a general truth and are sometimes paraphrased quotes. My closing one-liners are designed to pack a punch and leave you pondering.

Blogging helps me keep up with what’s happening in the world. It’s also a great way to become a thought leader, but it does require some effort. Unless you are a walking encyclopedia, most posts require you to conduct research and check facts and this increases your understanding of an issue.

When it comes to blogging, content is king and the seed of an idea for a post can come from anywhere. Some of the articles that I have written germinated when I grew curious about a subject and decided to explore it. Others have been penned in direct response to a contemporary issue.

Regardless, this blog has provided me with a creative outlet in which to share my ideas and opinions. In the process, it has enabled me to create a professional portfolio of “short papers” on important topics. This has required me to distil a lot of information into coherent and cohesive arguments.

The golden rule of blogging is that you have to be authentic as it’s an up close and personal writing medium. So, my relationship with my audience is built on being open, transparent, and factual. My blog is an online extension of my true personality – a real version of my “doubting Thomas” self.

I’m always intrigued as to what subject matter piques the interest of my readers. I still can’t explain what makes certain posts more popular than others. The reality for all bloggers is that some posts rank higher than others on Google and attract more social shares and “likes”.

The biggest thing that I have learned in researching and writing blogs is how often supposed experts are wrong. “Experts” who appear on television, get quoted in newspapers, and speak at conferences are often no better than the rest of us when it comes to the risky business of predictions.

I’m deeply indebted to my behind-the-scenes webmaster, Kieran Weston. Kieran is a family friend and one of nature’s gentlemen. He meticulously uploads and publishes each post and professionally maintains the blog site. He is a talented executive and web designer and I salute his unfailing support – on a voluntary basis.

Someone else who deserves praise is my wife, Beverley. She proofreads each post before publication and has developed an eagle eye for spotting grammatical and typographical errors. Beverley is also a volunteer but extracts payment in other ways! I have made a rod for my own back by encouraging her to point out my mistakes – which she happily does!

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This post is my penultimate missive for 2021. In reflecting on the year that was, humanity faced looming threats and some hard truths. Yet, despite the dire warnings of the headline grabbing doom-and-gloom merchants, we are still here. COVID-19 did not wipe us out, China did not start a nuclear war, and America did not implode. Even the Tokyo Olympics went ahead!

My next blog post on 19 December will be the final one published for 2021 and will take the form of a Christmas parody. It will be set to the rhyme scheme of Clement Moore’s classic poem, The Night Before Christmas. It will broadly imitate the style and form of Moore’s original lyric while addressing a different subject matter – a look back at the biggest news story of the year, COVID-19.

As we approach the season of goodwill to all, my Christmas wish is that we reflect as a nation on all that is good about Australia. In truth, we have little to complain about. There may be a place where the grass is greener, but in all my travels, I am yet to find it. May peace and happiness be yours during this holiday season.

Have a sparkling New Year!

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why the world has been disjointed in managing COVID-19

Source: OECD
POLITICS OF FIGHTING A PANDEMIC

Around the world, the coronavirus has put multi-level governance systems under unprecedented pressure. It has exposed the immense challenge of developing a collective and coherent response to a public health crisis when power is dispersed. The virus is a shared external threat, yet – in many democracies – governments at national and subnational levels have failed to confront the virus as one team, united against a common and formidable enemy.

At the height of the pandemic in Australia and other jurisdictions, political posturing and jousting saw politicians at different territorial tiers work against each other resulting in fragmented and muddled policy responses. In some cases, critical relationships turned toxic as political leaders – in search of scapegoats for rising deaths and infections within their respective geographic patches – played the blame game, attacking opponents and causing an escalation of tensions.

In an attempt to shut out COVID, many national governments rushed to close their external borders to foreign nationals. In contrast, only a handful of countries, including Australia, sealed their internal borders by ring-fencing entire states. The extraordinary decision to impose state border restrictions barring entry to other Australians was made by state premiers against the wishes of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.

When the pandemic took hold in February 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advised against the closure of even international borders, warning that restrictions could “have negative social and economic effects on the affected countries”. The WHO also declared that “restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions”.

It’s a natural human reaction to pull up the drawbridge when under attack, and countless politicians did this in an effort to halt the spread of the virus. Still, many experts believe that border closures were of little benefit in containing the virus. “I think they’re mostly useless, to tell you the truth,” said Ira Longini, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida who has studied the effects of restrictions.

Controlling a pandemic requires effective and integrated leadership at all levels. Yet, in Australia, securing a nationally consistent approach to key issues including schooling, lockdowns, border closures, and vaccinations proved elusive. Federal and state governments expressed divergent viewpoints, leaving citizens confused. States set their own agendas and refused to let the federal government call the shots.

In a crisis, words matter and politicians across the globe dialled up the rhetoric on the need to protect national (country) and subnational (regional) borders. Australia’s political leaders did likewise with some state premiers resorting to a discourse combining fear and tribalism. Humans regress to tribalism when afraid – it’s the biological loophole that politicians of all political persuasions have long used to tap in to tribal instincts.

Political tribalism is about identities and Aussies not only see themselves as Australians but also as members of a state tribe, and this begets proud declarations such as “I’m a Victorian”. At its extreme, tribalism means that the tribe never concedes an inch to other tribes. It’s an “us versus them” mentality which saw some state premiers frame messages around the need to “protect Queenslanders” and “isolate Western Australians” from other Aussies.

When announcing his decision to segregate his state from the rest of Australia, the WA Premier, Mark McGowan, stated that: “In effect, we’ll be turning Western Australia into an island within an island – our own country”. This sort of parochial decision-making should not come as a surprise – all politicians do it. Pandering to the immediate demands and desires of voters is the classic way to get elected/re-elected.

Consequently, Australia’s states and territories displayed almost unprecedented independence as they responded to the needs of their populations/tribes. Throughout the pandemic, premiers were not afraid to go it alone if they felt that the PM’s national strategy was not in the best interests of their “tribal constituents”.

Tribalism is also defined as a “blind loyalty group” and the local-town pitch of some premiers made their citizens fearful and insular. Moreover, the rabble-rousing by premiers fuelled political rivalries between state-based tribes. To quote the opinion editor at The Guardian Australia:

It is astonishing to witness the “border wars” as people have become warriors for their state and developed particularly strong parasocial relationships with their premiers along the east coast of Australia. It has featured in Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia too but is most venomous in NSW, Queensland and Victoria.

Embarrassingly, the childish bickering between the states was reported in no less than The New York Times under the banner headline: “Australia’s States Are Feuding Like Siblings. What Else to Do but Laugh?” The January 2021 article went on to say:

In Western Australia, which has a long history of flirting with secession, Premier Mark McGowan, its top official, had an approval rating of 89 percent a few months ago after going further than any other leader with restrictions and rhetoric suggesting that Australians from other states were diseased threats to stability. He is expected to be re-elected in a landslide in March.

That prediction proved to be correct – McGowan was electorally rewarded for his tough stance on border restrictions, achieving a crushing victory at the ballot box. His promise to continue providing a border security blanket to protect the WA tribe from COVID-19 was extremely popular at a state level but divisive at a federal level. McGowan’s decision to retreat behind borders is an example of a harmful “beggar-thy-neighbour” policy.

Beggar-thy-neighbour policies were also evident globally, with many world leaders adopting a “my-country-first” approach to the pandemic. As with subnational governments, this resulted in national governments also pandering to their electorates. This was most evident in the rush by first-world nations to buy-up the majority of the world’s supply of vaccines to the detriment of poorer nations.

As I explained in a previous post, the WHO labelled such blatantly inward-focussed behaviour as “vaccine nationalism”. In fairness to national leaders, their nationalistic stance was driven by their respective citizenry who expect their elected officials to look after them first and foremost. As every president and prime minister knows, their party’s fortunes depend upon giving the majority of people what they want.

It’s axiomatic that politics, like economics, is driven by self-interest – the selfish ambitions of politicians (personal advancement) and the self-centeredness of voters (what’s in it for me?). Given this dynamic, it’s clear that (a) at a national level, domestic political goals will invariably be placed above those beyond national borders and (b) at a subnational level, regional goals will invariably be placed ahead of national goals.

The only governance organisation that has had a global focus throughout the pandemic is the WHO. It warned national and subnational governments that a “whole-of-government, whole-of-society” approach was necessary to crush the virus, but its pleas fell on deaf ears. The harsh reality is national and subnational governments will always focus on their respective constituents first and echo back the concerns of their electorates.

I have long maintained that Australia is over-governed and that we should eliminate the states. I also hold the view that individual countries are ill-equipped to deal with global issues like climate change and pandemics and that we need to move to a new form of global governance. I am absolutely confident that neither of these changes will happen in my lifetime!

Meantime, I believe that the world would be a better place if we acted like global citizens. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy’s famous line:

Ask not what the world can do for you, but what you can do for the world.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Is the era of the specialist over?

Source: thereluctantcfo.com
BECOME A DEEP GENERALIST

In 2018, the world held its collective breath as two Australian doctors spearheaded the rescue mission of 12 school boys and their soccer coach who were trapped underground in a flooded Thai cave. Both Aussie rescuers are proficient medicos and adept divers and it was this atypical combination of skills that made the duo perfect for the daring operation.

Research has long shown that we can all gain from spending time outside of our specialism. With reference to the cave rescuers, they have formal training and acclaim in two unrelated domains – medicine and cave diving – and this qualifies each of them to be called a polymath*. The word polymath is a 17th century Greek term which describes a person with “many learnings”.

Throughout history, many notable individuals have pursued multiple interests. Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist as well as a physicist. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, inventor, scientist, architect, and engineer. Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor, entrepreneur, poet, and writer. The world’s most intriguing Renaissance men were all polymaths or deep generalists.

The label “polymath” is often applied to Elon Musk as he excels in multiple fields and has used his cross-discipline expertise as a physicist, engineer, economist, and entrepreneur to tackle some of society’s most pressing challenges. He has built three multibillion-dollar companies in three disparate industries – aerospace (SpaceX), automotive (Tesla Inc.), and energy (SolarCity). But that’s not all!

In 2016, Musk co-founded a mind-computer interface company (Neuralink Corp.) which is developing brain implants that can communicate with computers. In the same year, he started a tunnel construction business (The Boring Company) to create fast-to-dig transportation tunnels. Musk also came up with the idea for an ultra-high speed, futuristic transportation system (The Hyperloop).

Throughout his life, Musk has displayed a relentless pursuit of knowledge and an unrivalled talent for applying his learnings across a range of industries. He has been called the quintessential modern polymath. His world-changing intellect has become a symbol of the power of being an expert generalist with the ability to generate breakthrough insights and innovations.

Yet conventional wisdom still frowns on being a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none”. From the time we enter school, we are constantly encouraged to specialise by choosing a clear path and then sticking with it. And once we enter the workforce, the pressure to specialise is ever present. Being a generalist has long been seen as the road to mediocrity.

Paradoxically, research shows that people with too many interests are more likely to succeed. This certainly holds true for the founders of five of the largest companies in the world – Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway), Larry Page (Google), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon). All are polymaths who follow the 5-hour rule (minimum learning time each work week).

Polymaths see the world differently and make connections that are otherwise ignored. A case in point is Francis Crick who discovered the structure of DNA. He began his scientific career in physics and later made the transition in to biology. Crick claimed that this diverse background gave him the confidence to solve problems that other biologists couldn’t.

Many of the world’s other great inventions also arose as a result of multifaceted thinking. Nikola Tesla was a pioneer in many fields but is most remembered for inventing the radio. In doing so, he drew on his skills as an electrical engineer, theoretical physicist, mathematician, and futurist. Elon Musk’s electric car company is named after Nikola Tesla.

Even though the world remains obsessed with specialisation, the evidence for deep generalists is growing. In his book, Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein examines the world’s most successful individuals across a range of human endeavours. He discovers that in most fields – especially those that are complex and unpredictable – generalists, not specialists, are the ones who excel.

Epstein reports that when researchers study great innovators, they typically find “systems thinkers” with an “ability to connect disparate pieces of information from many different sources” and who “read more than other technologists”. Simply put, generalists invariably do better than specialists in putting two and two together across domains.

Charles Darwin is considered by Epstein to be the ultimate example of someone whose breadth of training enabled him to remain open-minded and innovative. Prior to sailing to the Galápagos Islands, Darwin studied natural history, medicine, theology, and geology. This cross-training enabled him to build the intellectual firepower that he would later need to overturn centuries of dogma.

The Digital Age has made it easier for us to become polymaths. Today, information is everywhere, and more often than not, it’s free. Wannabe polymaths can become proficient in multiple fields by allocating at least one hour per day for deliberate learning and reading. The one habit that all high-performers share is reading lots of books across various disciplines.

My desire to continually learn new things and improve my knowledge is one of the reasons I maintain a blog. Without exception, the research I undertake in writing each post helps broaden my horizons and aids my self-development. Moreover, learning keeps my brain active and stimulated and this (hopefully!) helps boost my cognitive health.

For readers of this blog, my posts are deliberately designed to make you think, as they tangle and weave through disparate but connected topics. By joining the dots, you will gain a helicopter view of where individual disciplines intersect and overlap. And by cross-pollinating ideas from a range of fields, you will be able to make new connections and see more creative solutions to contemporary problems.

Notwithstanding this, Western educational systems still lean towards deep specialisation, which is why UK researchers argue that we need a radical shake-up of school curriculums to ensure arts and sciences are no longer taught separately. Educational experts believe that teaching children to think like Leonardo da Vinci would better prepare them for tackling complex issues.

When it comes to tertiary education, it has long been my contention that universities around the world will increasingly be challenged to turn out graduates with broader interdisciplinary degrees. The answers to the big global issues we face – like climate change – cannot be found within traditional single disciplines such as economics or science or politics on their own.

For this reason, I believe that one subject that should be embedded in most university degrees is the study of biomimicry. Biomimicry is the art and science of emulating nature’s best biological ideas and applying these solutions to product design, architecture, engineering, technology, business, and medicine. Biomimicry is relevant in every sector of society.

Velcro is probably the best-known example of innovation inspired by nature. The product’s inventor, George de Mestral, stumbled upon the idea by examining how burrs stuck to the hair of his dog. By mimicking the strong attachment forces of the burrs’ small hooks, he was able to develop Velcro straps and fasteners.

Similarly, Airbus observed how sea birds sense gust loads in the air with their beaks and adjust the shape of their wing feathers to suppress lift. As a result, Airbus installed probes on its A350 aircraft which detect gusts ahead of the wing and deploy moveable surfaces for more efficient flight. Airbus engineers continue to study the natural world for modern aircraft design solutions.

Mother Nature is by far the smartest “person” I know. She is the ultimate polymath and genius and we humans can learn much from her. She has been giving lessons in design and solving problems for billions of years, but only in recent times have we started “enrolling” in her classes. Using nature as a mentor, professionals from a range of fields are now studying biomimicry, but more of us need to look to nature for creative solutions.

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It’s never too late to pick up a new area to add to your repertoire of skills. If you can combine unique skills in creative ways, you may well be one of tomorrow’s great problem-solvers and innovators. In an era of rapid-fire technological and social change, we all need to embrace our inner polymath because we are more than the sum of our parts.

May polymaths inherit the Earth.

*Some academics argue that only individuals proficient in three disparate areas can call themselves polymaths.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Are we living in an age of ignorance and stupidity?

Source: Eudaimonia and Co.
FOOLS ARE EVERYWHERE

Uninformed voters repeatedly elect politicians who are demagogues and incapable of delivering on their promises. Anti-vaxxers fervently oppose immunisation and base their denunciation on fake news and conspiracy theories. Climate change deniers doggedly undermine scientific experts and cast doubt on well-established findings and conclusions.

The world is fast becoming fact-phobic and is awash in wilful ignorance. A growing number of people are rejecting science and expertise in favour of junk news, with online users an eager audience for gibberish. The line between fact and fiction has shifted and – while questioning is fine – social media echo chambers have turned healthy scepticism into unhealthy paranoia.

The Internet was supposed to spur universal enlightenment; however, it’s taking us back to the Dark Ages. We know more but understand less because the social media algorithms which feed us information are based on our desire to hear only one side of every story. That’s the side which confirms what we already believe and this strengthens the radical polarisations which divide society.

Everything, it seems, is up for debate – even reality itself. During his presidency, Donald Trump made alternative facts a way of life and took the degradation of the truth to new lows. The twice-impeached president peppered his time in office with a barrage of falsehoods and misleading statements and left a legacy of shameless, blatant lies.

Around the world, people viewed Trump’s outrageous fabrications with disbelief and disdain – but not his credulous supporters. Over 72 million Americans voted for Trump and swallowed the egregious claims that he made over four tumultuous years. As noted by Nobel prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, Trump empowered America’s “anti-rational streak”.

While Trump is a compulsive liar, his loyalists are compulsive believers and believers enable liars. Many people have argued that Trump’s supporters were insane for embracing his many deceits, with the late Sen. John McCain claiming that Trump “fired up the crazies”. Others contend that the effusive admiration for Trump was due to the president’s pathological appeal.

This explanation aligns with an arm’s length diagnosis of Trump by forensic psychiatrist, Bandy Lee. In her book, Profile of a Nation: Trump’s Mind, America’s Soul, Dr Lee helps us understand the Trump presidency from a mental health perspective.

Dr Lee, who is also president of the World Mental Health Coalition, was interviewed by online magazine, Scientific American, following the release of her book. When asked why people are attracted to Trump, she answered that it was due to two major emotional drives: narcissistic symbiosis and shared psychosis.

Narcissistic symbiosis refers to the developmental wounds that make the leader-follower relationship magnetically attractive. The leader, hungry for adulation to compensate for an inner lack of self-worth, projects grandiose omnipotence – while the followers, rendered needy by societal stress or developmental injury, yearn for a parental figure. When such wounded individuals are given positions of power, they arouse similar pathology in the population that creates a “lock and key” relationship.

Simply put, the president’s mental health affected the mental health of Americans. His narcissism was like a contagion which spread through the population and infected millions of uneducated (some say, “stupid”) voters. While democracy is supposed to enact the will of the people, many of Trump’s followers had no clue what they were doing.

Trump proved that doing or saying unintelligent things is no barrier to political success. That a diabolic charlatan was even elected as the leader of the free world is a damning indictment on the American electorate. Notwithstanding the “shared psychosis” explanation, Trump’s mass appeal remains incomprehensible to many, particularly to those of us outside the USA.

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It’s said that we are living in a post-truth world. The Oxford dictionary defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Post-truth includes forms of public discourse colloquially referred to as “bullshit” and has given rise to the phrase, post-truth politics.

Of course, it’s not just in politics that “Homo stupiens” cannot tell the truth from the untruth. In seemingly all walks of life, the world has become untethered from reality and lost its mind. We are in a battle between logic and emotion – those who think with their head and those who know with their heart. America, in particular, has descended into Fantasyland according to author Kurt Andersen.

Inspired by the unlikely accession of Donald Trump, Andersen published Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. Shortly before the book’s release, Andersen penned an article for The Atlantic in which he lamented that America had gone “overboard” in “letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts”. He went on to say that many Americans inhabit untrue realities as they:

… believe that the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous and shocking truths from us, concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of AIDS, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

According to Andersen, the great unbalancing and descent into full Fantasyland was the product of two momentous changes – one of which was the onset of the new era of information. Andersen notes that digital technology empowers real-seeming fictions.

Among the web’s 1 billion sites, believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists, with collages of facts and “facts” to support them. Before the internet, crackpots were mostly isolated, and surely had a harder time remaining convinced of their alternate realities. Now their devoutly believed opinions are all over the airwaves and the web, just like actual news. Now all of the fantasies look real.

Many people are know-nothings yet see themselves as know-everythings. This, as I explained in a previous post, is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect which reveals the tendency for people to misjudge their abilities. It’s a cognitive disconnect which results in the skilled putting themselves down and the inept hyping themselves up.

All humans have blind spots, which is why many of us are oblivious of our own ignorance. We can believe things about our ability and knowledge that are just not true because – to be blunt – some of us are so dimwitted we don’t realise how dense we really are. This includes those who argue that the Earth is flat, Elvis is still alive and the Apollo 11 Moon landing was a hoax.

Humans are naturally drawn to wild conspiracy theories and they are more prevalent in times of crisis. The US elections and COVID-19 both provided fertile ground for alternative takes on reality – with disastrous consequences. Misinformation spurred the insurgent mob which swarmed the US Capitol Building and insidious false claims have underplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic causing unnecessary deaths.

Far-fetched theories threaten our democracy and safety, yet people latch on to them. Apparently, we are wired to be attuned to plots by the powerful who we fear are out to exploit us, but we mostly get “false positives” – conspiracies that don’t exist. Given this, it’s baffling to watch family and friends pass on such theories like they are gospel.

We had a good laugh when Trump suggested injecting bleach to clean out the coronavirus from the lungs, but that doesn’t mean it was a joke. What we face is not a laughing matter as conspiracy theorists are becoming more extreme, more violent, and more globalised. They are trying to disrupt our way of life, which is why their baseless theories have no place in serious conversations.

We all need a healthy dose of scepticism to make us less susceptible to fake news.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Explaining the bizarre world of non-fungible tokens

Image by Zachary Crockett/The Hustle
RISE OF DIGITAL OWNERSHIP

Collectors have long been willing to shell out huge sums of money on unique items such as fine art, classic cars, and antique books. Collectables are tangible assets which can be hung on a wall, stored in a garage, or displayed in a cabinet. Historically, the buying and selling of rare and desirable items has occurred at auction houses. Regardless, a new trend is emerging which enables investors to buy intangible, digital assets online.

Collectable items have moved into the virtual world using trendy new technology called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). An NFT (also called a crypto-collectable) is a one-of-a-kind asset which can be bought and sold like any piece of property even though it has no physical form of its own. Almost anything can be minted as an NFT including digital art, music videos, film clips, video games, luxury goods, and sports collectables such as football cards.

NFTs are changing how musicians and artists can earn a living. NFTs offer a way for “creators” of music and art to monetize their work via the sale of a token and get a slice (in the form of a royalty) of any resale value in the secondary market. Each token is unique, can’t be duplicated, and is basically a certificate of authenticity. While other people might have a copy of the artefact that you have purchased as an NFT, they don’t own the original item.

Think of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa. It is the most famous portrait in the world and there are hundreds of thousands of reproductions of this masterpiece – but only one original. The same principle applies to NFTs – you can copy and paste an image, though only the original – digitally signed by the artist – holds value. Buying an NFT is like buying the original Mona Lisa, but instead of receiving an oil painting on wood, you get a JPG file.

Some people compare owning a crypto token to buying an autographed print. Each token contains computerised code that verifies it is the only asset with its specific digital identity. The tokens, as asset identifiers, are considered to be non-fungible since their uniqueness makes them irreplaceable and impossible to swap. As non-fungible tokens cannot be replicated, they are incapable of mutual substitution. An example will help here.

You and a friend are travelling together on a plane and have been issued with boarding passes. If the information on each pass was identical, they would be considered fungible – i.e., capable of being swapped for one another. However, each boarding pass contains unique information such as passenger name, seat number, and airline membership details. Consequently, they cannot be randomly exchanged with anyone else thereby making them non-fungible.

In contrast, a fungible asset is something that can be readily interchanged – like money. If I lend you $20, it doesn’t matter whether you pay me back with a different $20 banknote from the one that I gave you – any $20 bill will do. Equally, you can repay me with two $10 bills since the total equals $20. Items are considered fungible if exchanging them is meaningless, such as two people swapping $5 notes with each other.

Details of (non-fungible) digital tokens are recorded on an encrypted and publicly accessible ledger called a blockchain. Blockchain is the software architecture that underpins Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Blockchain ledgers are not stored in one place but are distributed over thousands of computers around the world. These replicated ledgers are spread geographically across multiple sites, countries, and institutions.

Blockchains work by using a network of computers to create a shared digital ledger that no one computer can change. All computers must approve a transaction that has taken place before it is recorded in a “chain” of computer code. Every transaction is cryptographically chained to the previous transaction making blockchains perfect for creating unique digital identifiers which can be easily and securely exchanged — hence the creation of NFTs.

The idea of registering digital assets as NFTs on a blockchain began with CryptoPunks in June 2017. CryptoPunks are a set of unique collectable characters (10,000 to be precise) of randomly generated pixel-based avatars. However, NFTs did not come to prominence until October 2017 with the release of the blockchain based CryptoKitties game which enables players to buy and “breed” limited-edition virtual cats.

This past August, the global card payments processor, Visa, bought a CryptoPunk for nearly $150,000. Visa’s CryptoPunk is a pixelated digital image of a woman with a mohawk (see image below). Commenting on the purchase, Visa’s Head of Fintech, Terry Angelos, said: “We see an emerging new category of commerce that we’re calling NFT commerce”.

Visa’s NFT | Courtesy of Larva Labs

Cuy Sheffield, Head of Crypto at Visa, believes that NFTs will play an important role in the future of retail, social media, entertainment, and commerce. “To help our clients and partners participate, we need a first-hand understanding of the infrastructure requirements for a global brand to purchase, store, and leverage an NFT.”

Sheffield remarked that CryptoPunks have become a “cultural icon for the crypto community” and that Visa’s CryptoPunk purchase signalled that the company was “jumping in feet first”. He added: “This is just the beginning of our work in this space”.

According to online financial magazine, Barron’s, Bitcoin was predicted to take middlemen, like Visa, out of commerce entirely by allowing people to transact directly over the Internet, but that has not come to pass. That leaves an opening for incumbent players to maintain their importance. To quote Barron’s:

Visa sees an opportunity to be the rails for the new digital economy just as it has been the rails for the current one. It’s already connected to consumers and businesses, so people don’t need to use a completely new system. Visa’s interface with the public can be similar whether they pay through cryptocurrencies or dollars. The company already has helped crypto exchanges issue credit cards and other products.

Other companies to jump on the NFT bandwagon include Pizza Hut (pixelated pizza), Pringles (CryptoCrisp, the chips you can’t eat), Nike (Cryptokicks, limited edition sneakers), Vodaphone (augmented reality game), and McDonald’s (pixelated Big Mac). These brands have seized on NFTs as a way to engage with their audiences and promote their products. All want a seat at the NFT table because the crypto economy is expected to evolve rapidly.

Recently, the Australian Federal Government, along with the Reserve Bank of Australia, leading companies, and universities set up the Digital Finance Co-operative Research Centre (CRC). The CRC will undertake a decade-long research program examining the digitisation of real-world assets. The projected growth in this market is staggering, with tokenised assets expected to grow from almost nothing today to $US24 trillion ($A32 trillion) by 2027.

The government believes that the CRC’s work could add billions of dollars to Australia’s gross domestic product each year. The aim of the project is to unlock new assets and make them efficient to trade*. As reported in the Australian Financial Review, the CRC’s CEO predicts that the creation of digital versions of real-world assets “will have a profound impact on the rate of achievable economic growth and pave the way for new types of investable assets”.

As the craze of cryptocurrencies gains momentum, NFTs are emerging as a new investment option. New age collectors and investors are paying thousands and even millions of dollars to own digital collectables. Still, is this a bubble waiting to burst? Are NFTs highly speculative bets or do they offer value for money? The bottom line is that the NFT market is too immature to judge its long-term worth as an investment option.

So, it’s a case of buyer beware because the NFT market’s recent stratospheric rise is no guarantee of future returns. The harsh reality is that while some early investors have achieved insane windfalls, others will fork out inflated amounts for digital assets that may wind up being worthless. Another point to note is that the underlying technology is complicated for a layperson to understand, let alone use on their own.

Right now, NFTs are in the midst of a hype-cycle and trending upwards. Still, there is no assurance that demand for digital assets will continue at current levels. As with any new disruptive technology, there are pros and cons. So, take care to closely examine what could go wrong – the dark side of investing in NFTs is real, particularly as the value of art and other collectables is fundamentally subjective.

When it comes to NFTs, value (like beauty) lies in the eye of the beholder.

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*To be clear, the work of the CRC is not focussed on digital assets like virtual cats. Rather, its mandate is to ensure that Australia is in a position to exploit the coming universal digitalisation of all real-world assets (such as gold, real estate, fine art, and carbon credits) so they can be traded and exchanged directly and in real-time between any individual or organisation.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why the free market economy is under attack

Source: azquotes.com
DEFENDING CAPITALISM

It’s been called the greatest engine of material prosperity in human history. It’s lifted people out of poverty, raised living standards, funded research to cure diseases, given us better nutrition, driven mind-blowing innovations, revolutionised the way we live and work and provided us with access to goods from around the world.

Capitalism has done all these things and more, which is why I believe it’s a force for good. Capitalism has made the world a better place by alleviating human suffering. Today, we enjoy lives that are longer, healthier, and better. This is largely because of advances in science, medicine, agriculture, and technology. These advances have been driven by the foundation stone of a capitalist economy – private enterprise.

Central to a global capitalist system is international trade and this, according to the capitalist peace theory, offers a path to world peace. Free trade is built on voluntary interactions of buying and selling and this encourages nations to live in harmony. Free trade raises the cost of war by making nations more economically interdependent. The more that people rely on trade with others, the greater the cost to all parties of a conflict.

The essence of capitalism is economic freedom. Individuals and businesses are free, within the bounds of the law, to engage in commerce at their will and peril. The father of modern economics, Adam Smith, asserted that economic behaviour is driven by self-interest. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) painfully revealed that the pursuit of self-interest does not always lead to outcomes that benefit society overall.

So yes, capitalism is not perfect, but that’s because human behaviour is not perfect. Economic theory is premised on the assumption that humans make rational choices. However, the GFC showed that we don’t always weigh facts objectively when making financial decisions. As to the ill-conceived subprime lending programs, borrowers, bankers, and brokers were united in the delusional belief that house prices never go south.

Another criticism of capitalism is that it leads to inequalities of wealth and income. Again, this is absolutely true and it’s an undeniable fact that the rich are getting richer. But the poor are not poor because the rich are rich – the two conditions are generally unrelated. The rich did not steal their wealth from the poor. While some do inherit their fortune, most people work very hard to make their money – it has little to do with luck.

No two people are exactly the same – and I say that as an identical twin! You have only to look around you to see that we are not equal in height, weight, looks, intelligence, or on a multitude of other dimensions. Everyone has a unique set of abilities which helps them achieve success. As pointed out by one writer:

Our inherent human inequality should not lead you to despair. On the contrary, imagine how dull life would be if things were otherwise. The fact that I am not equal to LeBron James is a good thing, and so is the fact that LeBron James is not equal to Albert Einstein and that Albert Einstein is not equal to Katharine Hepburn, inequalities are diversity, and diversity is the spice of life.

People will never be wholly equal. Still, those who advocate economic equality would view LeBron James’ basketball superiority as unfair. They would call for James to be handicapped in some way, perhaps by forcing him to give less skilled opponents credit for some of the baskets he scores. Of course, this would do nothing to improve the performance of his opponents nor provide them with any incentive to lift their game.

That’s why taxing the rich more is not the solution to inequality. Around the world, higher income workers already pay the overwhelming majority of taxes. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “You can’t make the poor rich by making the rich poorer”. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, we all live far better lives because of Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the founders of Google. These brave entrepreneurs helped expand the global economy and this assists the poor as much as the rich.

An open-market, capitalist economy is not designed to deliver equal economic status for everyone. People receive varying financial rewards for the jobs they do and the contribution they make to society. While excessive greed benefits no one, trying to make all of us financially equal is a recipe for disaster. Capitalism rewards productive achievement and provides the necessary incentive for entrepreneurs to take risks and innovate and this benefits society overall.

Even if we somehow managed to redistribute wealth so that every adult in Australia had exactly the same amount of money, it would be fleeting. The smart, the strong, and the devious would quickly acquire the wealth of the slow, the weak, and the gullible. Moreover, people would use their money in different ways. The prudent would save and invest their money while the irresponsible would squander it.

Given our differing attitudes to money, the equal distribution of wealth is clearly an unattainable goal. Even so, I believe that the widening gulf between workers and executives has become excessive. I find it hard to accept that any one individual is worth an annual salary of, say, $10 million. Equally, I don’t believe that sports stars and Rock ‘n’ Roll artists are worth the millions that they are paid.

Nonetheless, I accept that in a free-market economy based on supply and demand, captains of industry, the sporting elite and entertainment celebrities can command multi-million-dollar incomes. While excessive greed benefits no one, trying to make us financially equal is a recipe for disaster. As Winston Churchill observed:

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.

The world has seen a number of socio-economic systems including slavery, feudalism, socialism, communism, and capitalism. For all of its imperfections, it’s my contention that capitalism, like democracy, is better than the alternatives. This is certainly the view of economist, Ha-Joon Chang, who is a reader in economics at the University of Cambridge and the author of 15 books.

In his international bestseller, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Chang identifies some of the pitfalls of capitalism. In highlighting these shortcomings, Chang is careful to point out that his book is not an anti-capitalist manifesto. “Despite its problems and limitations, I believe that capitalism is still the best economic system that humanity has invented”, he underscores.

Notwithstanding his tough assault on capitalism, Chang acknowledges that there’s no real alternative to free-market capitalism describing it as “the worst economic system except for all the others”. He says that “being critical of free-market ideology is not the same as being against capitalism”. Rather, his aim is to tell “some essential truths about capitalism”.

I am the first to acknowledge that capitalism has failed to cover itself in glory over the past couple of decades and that public opinion has turned against it. Capitalism is not without its faults because economics is an imperfect social science. Still, humanity as a whole (as I outlined in my previous post) is doing better than it ever has thanks to capitalism. While we still have problems to solve, they are less severe than at any time in history.

As for those nations suffering severe poverty, they must be helped and encouraged to adopt capitalism. The uneven distribution of wealth in the world is due to the uneven distribution of capitalism. Swedish writer, Johan Norberg, makes this very point in his book, In Defense of Global Capitalism, wherein he states:

The poor countries that have liberalized their economies have shown impressive results, while those that have not are stuck in deep misery. Therefore, we need more capitalism and globalisation if we want a better world, not less.

Capitalism offers a practical way to nourish the hungry. Handouts are not the solution to poverty in places like Africa. As Bill Clinton explained: “No country can work itself out of poverty with aid alone”. Training and assistance must be provided to Africa’s private sector to help them drive economic growth and make Africa self-sufficient. Capitalism can do this and more.

Capitalism has changed the world for the better.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

The world is doing much better than the media would have us believe

Source: Unknown
IGNORE THE DOOM-MONGERS

There’s no shortage of bad news – it dominates the headlines. The media concentrates on the negative aspects of life because bad news sells. As readers, viewers and listeners, we thrive on human drama, so the news is replete with stories about terrorism, murders, epidemics, and crashes.

News broadcasts begin with the most traumatic story of the day, in line with the media’s maxim – if it bleeds it leads. This relentless “death and destruction” focus triggers our innate negativity bias and causes us to believe that the world is descending into disaster and chaos.

Following our exposure to a negative event, we tend to overestimate its significance due to a phenomenon called the availability bias. If you have just watched a news report of a plane crash in Sydney and are then asked about aviation safety, you might think (as it’s top of mind) that plane crashes are a problem in Australia whereas they rarely happen here.

In reality, the world is not full of doom and gloom – lots of positive things do happen. However, good news unfolds over time and receives fleeting coverage whereas bad news – such as a rise in coronavirus cases – explodes daily and attracts rolling coverage. Steady progress – like a gradual fall in coronary disease – is not breaking news.

Most positive developments are not camera-friendly as they aren’t built in a day. So, a single act of brutality will capture the headlines while hundreds of acts of kindness over time are ignored. In the words of Harvard University Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker:

News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where war has not broken out” – or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up.

In a time when so many things seem dire, it’s refreshing to learn how many important trends are improving. Providing a balanced view of humanity’s progress is the motivation behind a book which helps us see how the world is really faring.

In Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy debunk the belief that the world is getting worse. In fact, for the most part, it’s getting better. The authors have assembled a superb collection of factual information which provides an uplifting report card on humanity’s progress.

Despite its title, the book actually presents 78 trends. The first chapter, Top 10 Trends, has a global focus. The remaining eight chapters identify other significant trends covering people, health, violence, work, natural resource, farm, technology, and US trends.

Ten Global Trends serves as a counter-argument to doomsayers and leaves the reader in no doubt that human progress over recent times has been nothing short of stunning. As the top ten trends reveal, the world is becoming richer, healthier, greener, safer, freer and a more pleasant place to live.

TREND 1 | THE GREAT ENRICHMENT

The size of the world’s economy has grown more than a hundredfold over the past two centuries. Economic growth leads to higher average incomes, enabling consumers to buy more goods and services and enjoy better standards of living. If global economic growth maintains its 2.8 per cent average rate since 2000, GDP will increase to a whopping $1.1 quadrillion by 2100.

TREND 2 | THE END OF POVERTY

Extreme poverty has plummeted from 84 per cent of the world’s population in 1820 to under 10 per cent today. Over the course of the last generation, more than a billion people left the most destitute living conditions behind. Extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90 per day) is expected to retreat further by 2030 with less than 5 per cent of the world’s population experiencing penury.

TREND 3 | ARE WE RUNNING OUT OF RESOURCES?

Despite claims to the contrary, humanity has not run out of a single supposedly non-renewable resource. Fossil fuels and most minerals are more abundant than in the past. Indeed, most resources are so plentiful they will last for centuries. There are compelling reasons to challenge the claims of resource depletion.

TREND 4 | PEAK POPULATION

World population will peak lower (at 8.9 billion) and sooner (by 2060) than UN forecasts and will decline to 7.8 billion people by the end of the century. The significant decline in fertility rates in most nations means that global population will not continue forever on a runaway upward trajectory, but will ultimately drop below its current level. [NB: In a previous post, I explained in greater detail why global population is set to fall.]

TREND 5 | THE END OF FAMINE

Famines have all but disappeared outside of war zones. Adequate nutrition is a basic requirement for human survival, yet throughout history, food has always been scarce. Today, the world’s poorest region (Sub-Saharan Africa) enjoys access to food that is equivalent to that of the Portuguese in the early 1960s.

TREND 6 | MORE LAND FOR NATURE

The global tree canopy increased by 2.24 million square kilometres between 1982 and 2016. This equates to seven-per-cent of the Earth’s surface covered by new trees. Mother nature is beating deforestation resulting in expanding woodlands. There are just over three trillion trees on our planet – that’s roughly 422 trees for every person on Earth.

TREND 7 | PLANET CITY

The world’s urban population in 2018 was 4.2 billion people – more than the world’s total population in 1975. Cities are the centres of innovation and the engines of growth. No country has grown to middle income without industrialising and urbanising and none has grown to high income without vibrant cities. Urbanisation is also good for the environment – fewer humans habituating rural areas enables some land to revert to nature.

TREND 8 | DEMOCRACY ON THE MARCH

Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, democracy has spread rapidly across the world, beating the communist and fascist regimes that had arisen since the 1920s. The supremacy of democracy is reflected in free elections, the rule of law and constraints on executive power. Autocrats reject these democratic norms in favour of ruthless behaviour which limits rights and liberties.

TREND 9 | THE LONG PEACE

Over the past half-century, wars between countries have become rarer, and those which do occur kill fewer people. International trade offers a path to world peace as it encourages nations to live in harmony. Free trade raises the cost of war by making nations more economically interdependent. The more that people rely on trade with others, the greater the cost to all parties of a conflict.

TREND 10 | A SAFER WORLD

The chances of a person dying in a natural catastrophe – earthquake, flood, drought, epidemic, etc. – has declined by nearly 99 per cent over the past century. Today, buildings are better constructed to survive earthquakes, weather satellites provide early storm warnings, and swift medical interventions limit the spread of diseases.

■      ■      ■

Clearly, the world is not going to the dogs and these are not bleak times. Almost everywhere you turn, you can find evidence of some positive trend – if you are prepared to look. The remaining 68 trends outlined in Ten Global Trends show that on all key dimensions of human well-being, the world is in an extraordinarily better place today than just a few decades ago.

Most people are better educated, better fed, more literate, and have more life options than at any other time in human history. Incomes and life expectancy are rising while child mortality and cancer death rates are falling. Stocks of nuclear warheads have plummeted and digital technology has transformed how we live, work, and play.

The world isn’t as horrific as we have been led to believe. Indeed, there’s never been a better time to be alive. In bygone years, life was shorter, sicker, poorer, more dangerous, and less free. So, we need to stop bingeing on bad news and seek out the positives in the world as good news lifts our spirits. We should also follow the advice of the Monty Python song – Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

And if you want to appreciate the simple things in daily life, just listen to the lyrics of Louis Armstrong’s song – What a Wonderful World.

Before you go …
The astounding ascent in living standards over the past 200 years has been driven largely by capitalism. Yet this innovative, free-market system – which has delivered untold benefits to humanity – is under attack by anti-capitalists. I’m a proud proponent of capitalism and in my post next fortnight I will mount a strident defence of capitalism and argue that it remains a force for good – despite its many imperfections.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Lessons learned from the coronavirus outbreak

Source: disabilityhorizons.com
WHAT THE PANDEMIC HAS TAUGHT US

COVID-19 has left an indelible mark on the world. The pandemic has upended our lives and changed our daily routines. Billions of people have been forced into lockdown, unable to visit one another, or go to work, or attend school, or meet with friends in public places. With constraints put on our basic freedoms to reduce the spread of the virus, any sense of normalcy has been lost.

The once-in-a-lifetime health crisis brought with it wide-ranging consequences which have tested our resilience. As with anything in life, experience is the teacher, so it’s vital for humanity to come out of the pandemic as better individuals and a more tightly-knit community. The fundamental question is: What have we learned along the way?

As we reflect on the lives lost, the suffering experienced and the disruption inflicted by COVID, there are many takeaways for governments, businesses, and individuals. The fallout from COVID has ricocheted into all areas of life, so there are myriad lessons – some painful (exposing our weaknesses and limitations) and others uplifting (spotlighting our strengths and generosity).

COVID-19 has been a wake-up call and – as society looks to rebound from this seismic event – it’s not surprising that scholars, think tanks, consultants, and other experts are jumping on the coronavirus “lessons for the future” bandwagon. I have read many of these opinion pieces and, in the main, believe that these analyses contain sound advice.

[NOTE: If you type the keywords – “lessons learned from COVID-19” – into your Google search box, that query will return pages and pages of search results. You can read 15 Lessons the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Taught Us, or you might care to peruse 10 key lessons to be learned from fighting COVID-19, or maybe you would prefer to dive into COVID-19: 6 Meaningful Lessons.]

To provide a succinct summary of the various “lessons learned articles” would be challenging as each analysis comes from a different perspective. Regardless, the pandemic has revealed many underlying societal issues that we’ve long known existed. To fix these problems, we should set ourselves the overarching goal of building a healthier and fairer society which is inclusive and sustainable.

Achieving this goal will require collaboration between governments and citizens and this is something that the boss of the World Health Organisation knows only too well. Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned the world that a “whole-of-government, whole-of-society” approach was necessary to crush the virus.

Predictably, many ignored his advice even though governments and citizens working together is a prerequisite to solving any global or national issue. This, I believe, is the most important lesson arising from the pandemic. Whether it’s defeating a deadly virus or tackling climate change, governments and citizens must listen to experts and work hand in hand.

The pandemic’s catchphrase, “we’re all in this together”, rings hollow as key stakeholders have not been joined at the hip. Around the world, collective action has been undermined by a lack of political trust (confidence in political institutions) and social trust (faith in other citizens). Waging a war against a disease has led to pandemic belligerence.

Ultimately, slowing the spread of the virus relies on people having faith in the policy prescriptions of governments. Citizens have been asked to adhere to a range of directives including stay-at-home orders and physical distancing practices. Even so, the call to make personal sacrifices for the collective good has been a bitter pill for many to swallow.

Governments everywhere have imposed emergency measures which limit the rights and freedoms of citizens and this has led to varying levels of civil disobedience. Mass protests around the world have seen anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and conspiracy theorists march shoulder-to-shoulder in defiance of lockdown laws thereby creating superspreading events.

The pandemic has exacerbated prevailing political discontent and resulted in citizens being quick to blame their leaders for not containing the virus. In some countries, this criticism is completely justified but in others, it is not. In fairness to governments, there is no rulebook for understanding how the pandemic will play out. We are all in unchartered waters, learning as we go.

Still, this does not excuse the “go-it-alone” attitude of many national governments which quickly retreated into populist nationalism in response to a global threat. As I opined in a previous post, Why COVID vaccines are being distributed unevenly and unfairly, wealthier nations have bought up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over.

Rich nations remain focussed on national recovery, not global recovery, as they are prioritising country over planet. The WHO has labelled this behaviour as “vaccine nationalism” and blamed it for the lack of solidarity against a common enemy. Dr Ghebreyesus warned that the lopsided distribution of vaccines harms everyone and protects no one as inoculating certain populations to the detriment of others is medically self-defeating.

This fever of inequality is being fuelled by a chronic failure of national leaders to display true global leadership. The inward focus of most countries places the pursuit of domestic political goals above those beyond their borders. In fairness to national leaders, their beggar-thy-neighbour stance is being driven by citizens who expect their elected officials to look after them first and foremost.

So, the “my-country-first” approach to vaccines reflects the sentiments of citizens. Even though it shouldn’t be this way, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison – like every other democratically elected world leader – knows that his party’s fortunes depend on giving the majority of Australians what they want – a jab in the arm and quickly!

Politics is nothing if not a mirror of the society it serves. As a society, we crave quick fixes and instant gratification and expect politicians to solve all of society’s ills at the snap of a finger. That’s why politicians who pander to the immediate demands and desires of voters (e.g., to be at the front of the vaccination queue) are invariably rewarded by the electorate.

Complex public policy problems typically involve changing the behaviour of groups of citizens or all citizens. With respect to the pandemic, we as citizens – as I stated in a previous blog – need to change our selfish ways because:

Not enough of us have shown grace under pressure. There has been a lack of camaraderie. Panic has prevailed over common sense. Many have behaved like a marauding swarm of locusts stripping supermarket shelves bare. We needed to be at our selfless best but have been at our selfish worst. The crisis has unmasked who we really are and proved beyond doubt that individual behavior has a profound impact on society. Many of us have failed the civic responsibility test.

Beyond national governments and citizens, a third actor in the COVID-19 saga is subnational governments – states, provinces, and municipalities. In most countries, governments at this sub level have been at the frontline of managing the COVID crisis. Many have recorded operational blunders which have resulted in them playing whack-a-mole with successive outbreaks.

To cover their mistakes, subnational governments have used a classic tactic – shift the blame on to others. When it comes to rising infection rates, some subnational governments have attempted to pin responsibility on citizens for breaking health directives while others have tried to scapegoat their national governments for health policy failures. Amid all the rancour, it’s clear that making a villain of other actors is counterproductive.

Despite this, the blame game – with its finger-pointing and mutual buck passing – is a familiar feature of politics in Australia. As I outlined in an earlier post, the pandemic has laid bare the inherent weaknesses of our three-tier governance structure. Australians have been treated to the unedifying spectacle of states being pitted against states and states slinging barbs at the federal government.

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The pandemic has been a learning curve for everyone and its continuance is stirring unrest. Pandemic fatigue is setting in and is eroding social cohesion. Our interdependence means that we are all in the same boat and need to work together. With that in mind, the territorial turf wars must cease, political leaders must present a bipartisan front and citizens must comply with health orders.

United we stand, divided we fall.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

How to make the world a better place

Source: pinterest.com
EDUCATION IS THE KEY

The idea of changing the world can be daunting. With so many problems to tackle, where do you begin? The list of global challenges is long and includes the need to eradicate extreme poverty, improve health outcomes, foster world peace and build a sustainable planet.

Believe it or not, education can assist in solving these issues and more. Education broadens the mind and helps us see the world afresh, thereby enabling us to make more balanced and insightful judgments. By applying these judgments to societal problems, we can advance the cause of humanity.

You certainly don’t need to wave a placard or chain yourself to a tree to make a difference. To quote Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. It provides us with the knowledge to critically examine our response to all life situations.

We all need to take educated action in a range of areas if we are to genuinely improve life on this tiny planet which we call home. This belief accords with the oft-quoted advice of English sociologist and philosopher, Herbert Spencer: “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action”.

There is a vast difference between knowing something and acting on it. Understanding alone does not solve problems which is why awareness must be backed up with specific measures. In the words of Dale Carnegie: “Knowledge isn’t power until it is applied”.

Periodically, we are exposed to awareness campaigns which are designed to mobilise us to take action on a particular cause or issue. The hope is that once we know that a problem exists, (which is the purpose of this post!), we will be motivated to behave in a way that mitigates the issue.

Citizens of all nations are surrounded by problems, many of which are not contained to national borders. Still, it’s understandable to see ourselves as inhabitants of a community or a country. Yet, we are also citizens of the world and must learn to broaden our focus to effectively tackle cross-border issues.

All of us need to act like global citizens as we are all part of one global village. But our knowledge of supranational issues is often superficial as many of us lack global competency. Even so, we cannot continue to see the world through a narrow, self-absorbed national lens.

The aid and development organisation, Oxfam, defines a global citizen as “… someone who is aware of and understands the wider world – and their place in it. They take an active role in their community and work with others to make our planet more peaceful, sustainable and fairer”.

We live in an interconnected world where our local actions can have global implications. Small acts add up – they initially drive change in a city, then a state, followed by a nation and ultimately the world. This is how people power shapes our planet and it can take many forms.

We can all become agents of positive change by improving our decision-making capabilities. To facilitate this, we must understand the cause-and-effect connections within and between the various roles we undertake in society. Changing our behaviour in the following three critical areas would be a good start.

  1. We need to be better educated as voters to make informed decisions at the ballot box.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. How well-informed and educated were the people who voted for Donald Trump in America? Or those who voted for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil? Or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Viktor Orbán in Hungary?

The harsh reality is that right-wing populist politicians enjoy massive support from uneducated voters. Yet after seeing how unscrupulous and divisive these leaders have behaved, many have come to regret how they cast their vote. Around the world, voters have learned that populists make empty promises.

Populists exploit people’s discontent and raise expectations, but cannot deliver solutions. Unrealistic campaign promises are the trademark of populists and when these pledges are left unfilled, voters feel duped. The electoral gamble of millions of ordinary people has not paid off.

In my post, Why the problem with democracy is voters, I stated that:

Voters have a track record of choosing idiots, authoritarians and demagogues for elected office. These leaders invariably turn out to be incompetent and dishonest and thrive on emotion-driven discourse. They hoodwink people into supporting them by exploiting voters’ credulity and prejudices.

Voting is a choice with consequences. When the electorate gets it wrong, the repercussions can be devastating – not just for an individual nation, but the entire world. Populists shun globalisation and international co-operation and this poses a threat to world peace and stability. That’s why your domestic vote has global implications.

Educate yourself to make more intelligent political choices.

  1. We need to be better educated as consumers to make environmentally sustainable purchases.

Many people understandably jump up and down about humanity’s need to take climate change seriously. These same people typically look to governments and businesses to find eco-friendly solutions, when the real power for change is in our collective hands.

We support governments with votes and businesses with dollars, which means that we can choose who governs and where we spend our money. In my post, How households can create a new model of sustainable capitalism, I advised that:

If we don’t like what a company is doing, we can stop buying their products and services and force them to change. Consumers drive markets and sustainable consumer choices can change corporate behaviour. But we all need to take a stand and, for many of us, this will require a lifestyle overhaul, particularly with regard to saying “no” to unnecessary and/or environmentally unfriendly household items.

It’s incumbent on all of us to become responsible consumers. From the clothes we wear to the food we eat and everything in between, our choices matter. We can reduce our ecological footprint by shopping responsibly, buying less and recycling more. Adopt the mantra: reduce-reuse-recycle.

Educate yourself to live more sustainably.

  1. We need to be better educated as media readers, viewers and listeners to evaluate the credibility of mainstream and citizen journalism.

We should be able to trust and rely on the news. We look to the media to tell us what is happening in the world as many people don’t have the time or skills to sift through vast amounts of information themselves. The media sets the news agenda and political tone and this informs our decision-making as citizens.

So, the power of the media comes from its ability to influence and shape the perception of the public. In return for this privileged position, people expect journalism to be fair, balanced and accurate. But like every sector of society, the media has its own prejudices and biases.

In 2018, the Australian edition of The Guardian published an article: Why is populism suddenly all the rage? The article explained the reasons why “populism is sexy”. Instructively, the article identified the role of the media in the rise of populism by acknowledging that:

Because of dwindling subscription rates, traditional media increasingly focus on topics they expect to sell well, such as scandals and conflict, fuelling the sense of crisis that populists can draw on.

In fairness to the media, I acknowledged in my previous post – Why media standards have fallen – the claim made by media outlets that they simply produce (print/broadcast) what consumers want. I further conceded that:

As a society, we would rather read about the sordid private lives of celebrities than have a serious debate about the long-term benefits of public policy. So, just as we get the politicians (and businesses) we deserve, we also get the media we deserve.

Fake news and misinformation are problematic in democratic systems. One way we can combat this is by being aware of the natural human tendency to only seek information that aligns with our personal views. Academics refer to this inbred preference as “confirmation bias” and it impacts the judgments we make.

Online social media platforms – like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – run on algorithms which “feed” us information based on our desire to hear only one side of every story – the side which confirms what we already believe. Algorithms capture what we “like”, “retweet” and “share” and then send us additional confirmatory content, thereby creating a reinforcing echo chamber.

According to Kristina Lerman, a University of Southern California professor whose research focuses on the structure of modern social networks:

… echo chambers strengthen polarization and the divisions in our society. It’s common to feel uneasy because of the disassociation between the warm blanket of a like-minded social media community and the cold reality of a real-world populated with challenging perspectives.

Educate yourself to become a savvy news consumer.

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Contributing to the greater good does not require you to develop a vaccine or win a Nobel prize – you just need to be educated and informed about contemporary issues. Education is the key to better politicians, better companies, better media and ultimately, a better world.

Education helps us become better versions of ourselves.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why media standards have fallen and what it says about us

Source: beconnected.esafety.gov.au
A DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Sometimes I feel that I’ve lost the plot as I increasingly find myself at odds with where society is going. For instance, I rarely watch the programs that are served up on commercial television. Much of what is on “the box” is mind-numbing and/or unnecessarily sensational and I don’t find it entertaining.

Nightly current affairs programs used to be a no-nonsense world with broadcast journalists and reporters fearlessly tackling the serious issues of the day. Nowadays, these programs and their “news” presenters offer trivial stories about weight loss, toddler tantrums and back cures. No wonder Gerald Stone observed in his book, Who Killed Channel 9?, that commercial TV is pitching to the lowest common denominator.

Commenting on the “dumbing down” of the Channel 9 program, A Current Affair, Stone wrote:

Here was a program that once prided itself on a nightly menu filled with hard-hitting interviews, sensational crime investigations and the inside dope on the latest titillating celebrity scandal. More and more it had begun to dwell on diet fads and shopping tips, topped up with melodramatic ambushes of small-time con men, or the inevitable tear-jerkers about battling families who can’t pay the rent.

In fairness, I must acknowledge the media’s claim that they simply produce what viewers and readers want. As a society, we would rather hear about the sordid private lives of celebrities than have a serious debate about the long-term benefits of public policy. So, just as we get the politicians we deserve, we also get the media we deserve.

As citizens, we are complicit with falling standards and they have certainly plummeted. It still staggers me that the reality TV show, Big Brother, was a ratings winner, even though it demeaned contestants, promoted bullying and encouraged sexual behaviour and nudity. Big Brother was vulgar and the antics of its participants eroded the distinction between public and private.

Another reality TV show, The Apprentice, paved the way for Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the US. The show made a hero of Trump in the eyes of the show’s followers and this die-hard fan base supported him in his bid for the presidency. Even so, millions of gullible viewers were unaware that the show’s producers heavily edited the program to portray Trump as a successful, credible and coherent businessman.

Rather than aspiring to educate viewers, the reality television genre emphasises personal conflict and dramatic tension. The media’s appetite for never-ending drama and outrageous arguments finds a natural home in reality television. Media executives like these programs as they are cheap to make (few paid actors) and rate well with viewers. Nonetheless, many find them objectionable, dishonest and trashy.

According to Australian academic, Dr Soseh Yekanians, Aussies have wholeheartedly embraced reality television. In an article that Dr Yekanians penned for The Conversation, she wrote that Australians have an unhealthy appetite for watching people on reality shows psychologically tear one another apart. She cited the following three examples to anchor her assertion.

  • On Channel Ten’s, The Bachelor, two contestants’ merciless name-calling and bullying behaviour became so vicious that they were dubbed the “mean girls”.
  • On Channel Seven’s, My Kitchen Rules, the slurs by two competitors, which included likening one contestant to a “blowfish gasping for air”, eventually led to Seven asking them to leave the show.
  • On Channel Nine’s, The Block, two contestants walked off the show after being heavily criticised by the judges. One of the contestants claimed that the feedback “just became pure insults”.

Clearly, reality television gains ratings by deliberately pitting contestants against one another. As noted by Dr Yekanians, “there is little real about this form of TV, which is heavily scripted and showcases stereotyped characters”.

Regrettably, standards of taste and decency remain in decline as the quality of television programs continues to deteriorate. We seem to have become conditioned to a diet of explicit sex, coarse language and graphic violence with such content now considered the norm. Tabloid television has modelled itself on its close kin, the tabloid press.

Tabloid journalists – the tawdry cousins of broadcast journalists – are known for sensationalism in reporting. Sex, scandals and beat-ups are the order of the day. Journalists must fill column space for their editors by “finding” stories. Many embrace the mantra: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” in order to whip readers into a frenzy, and this was the case regarding Donald Trump’s playbook of deceits.

We should look harshly on the media ecosystem that amplified Trump’s lies. The former president rode to power thanks, in part, to support from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. While in office, Trump was aided and abetted by Fox and other right-wing US media in spreading false claims. Following his electoral defeat, the rioters who stormed the Capital building were “egged on by these US publishers” according to a Sydney Morning Herald editorial.

But as pointed out in an article published in The Atlantic in November 2018, it was not just right-wing media that promulgated Trumps lies. Mainstream journalists were also accused of becoming “complicit in spreading the president’s falsehoods and conspiracy theories”. The article was published under the deadline – Trump’s Lies Are a Virus, and News Organizations Are the Host – and went on to say that:

The traditional news media are thoroughly infected by the Trump virus. It is not only spreading the disease of the president’s lies, but also suffering from a demise in public trust – at least among one half of the electorate.

[Please allow me to insert a parenthetical note here. Shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19, the WHO accused the media of spreading its own virus. The WHO warned that humanity was not just fighting a viral pandemic but also a highly contagious “infodemic” transmitted by the media. As I opined in a previous post, the media’s penchant for sensationalism throughout the pandemic has resulted in inaccurate news dissemination including the reporting of unscientific cures and unverified medicines.]

There are, of course, many fine and ethical journalists who work outside of the irreverent tabloid world. These individuals fulfil a vital role in society. A true democracy requires the active participation of an informed public, which is only possible if citizens have unfettered access to information. Ironically, the phone hacking scandal in Britain only came to public attention due to the free press.

In response to the scandal, The Telegraph in London published the following editorial.

This newspaper cares passionately about maintaining the highest standards of journalism. We believe that journalism, when practised properly, protects the public from abuses of power by exposing those who are guilty of dishonesty, corruption or injustice. Journalism that harms the innocent – by telling lies or spreading falsehoods about them, or by unjustifiably invading their privacy – does the exact opposite of what good journalism aims to achieve.

Hear, hear! Unfortunately, not all journalists and/or media outlets ascribe to this level of professionalism. And that’s not just my opinion – many mainstream journalists also lament falling standards of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality and fairness. One senior Australian journalist put it this way:

I’ve spent my working life as a journalist …. But now, reading the newspapers and watching the news, I can’t help but wonder if this is a craft that is not only losing its centre of corporate gravity and support, but also some fundamental sense of its mission and responsibility … the major market tabloids … are the dominant organs of news in all our capital cities. They cry wolf, they cry terror, they fan the flames of disquiet and distrust. Because fear sells.

In his 2011 book, Sideshow: dumbing down democracy, former Australian federal government minister, Lindsay Tanner, was withering in his critique of the media. He cited a number of examples where the media created unnecessary panic including the Global Financial Crisis, the Year 2K computer bug and the swine flu epidemic. The media reporting of these events produced a public response out of proportion to the threat.

The power of the media comes from its ability to influence and shape the perception of the public. We look to the media to tell us what is happening in the world as we don’t have the time or skills to sift through vast amounts of information ourselves. The media sets the news agenda and political tone and this informs our decision-making as citizens.

The free press plays a vital role in society and can serve citizens by exposing wrongdoings and informing debates. Still, it is disappointing to note that some sections of the media do not operate to the highest ethical standards. No wonder that in Australia – and other parts of the world – journalists are among the least trusted professionals.

Strange how the media can scrutinise the behaviour of others but is incapable of serious self-examination.

Regards

Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting