The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Why So Many Community Groups?

Community groups are everywhere you look.  There are groups working with the homeless, those with disability, the unemployed.  There are support groups for head injury, survivors of sexual abuse, parents of children with autism.  There are advocacy groups championing environmental causes, prison reform or the plight of refugees.

In many cities in the western world there are general community development groups attempting to build communities within particular suburban areas.  Often there can be more than one, sometimes several, such groups all working in the same geographical area or issue.

Why so many?  Surely they can get together, pool resources and hence become more efficient?  I hear these questions frequently from politicians and government bureaucrats.  If there weren’t so may groups, they argue, there wouldn’t be the same call on “our” funds to support them.

The questions are completely rational – if you start from the assumption that efficiency is the be all and end all of community organisations.

But, efficiency should almost be the last criterion by which community groups are judged.  One of the primary benefits of so many community groups is that of encouraging and maintaining civil society.  Without the plethora of groups people would have;
  • little chance to participate in society,
  • less opportunity to debate issues,
  • nowhere that they can become involved in public affairs,
  • little ability to manifest a sense of local (let alone global) community,
  • reduced opportunity to challenge powerful elites,
  • no chance to build social capital and,
  • no mechanism for pursuing social justice.
Each of these characteristics of community groups is important in building civil society.

Global Civil Society

The term Global Civil Society has been with us for approximately twenty years and describes a society in which all the above aspects of life in society are upheld, promoted and respected.

Civil society (at least in the west) has long been bound up with the concept of the Social Contract and hence with the State.  All that began to break down in the 1960s and 70s in Eastern Europe and South America.  In western nations a sense of unease about the role of the state was also underway, especially within the feminist, anti-war and anti-apartheid movements.

With the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the ousting of military dictatorships in South America the ideas surrounding global civil society began to grow.  In the west, the emergence of globalisation helped to engender a more robust critique of western society and a willingness to look within.  When western thinkers and activists did look within their own societies they found monsters that they didn’t like.

In the US particularly, Robert Putnam1 found that American communities were losing their connectedness.  They were losing social capital, even though economic capital was growing at an enormous rate.  Others were finding that within their own societies there were alarming levels of racism, child poverty, environmental degradation and marginalisation of minorities.

The idea of the state being the provider and arbiter of all things, via the social contract, began to look unsustainable.  Community organisations, non-government organisations (NGOs) and non-profits increased in numbers.

Identifying and counting community organisations is akin to counting bubbles in a bathtub.  There are so many and they come and go as quickly.  However, the group Open Democracy has been tracking International Non-Government Organisations (INGO) over the past two decades and have found a steady increase in the numbers.

Why So Many?

Why so many groups, then?  Simply – because they are necessary.  They are necessary if we are wanting a society in which people can feel actively engaged and able to participate in the decisions and mechanisms that govern their lives.

Such a society must be our continual quest.

1. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Joseph Stiglitz on Inequality (Part 2)

Joseph Stiglitz packed out the Sydney Town Hall
The previous post on this blog was a guest blog from a member of the Economic Society reporting on a presentation that Joseph Stiglitz (ex Chief Economist for the World Bank and winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001) gave at the Sydney Town Hall on 8 July 2014.

This second part concludes the guest post by outlining Stiglitz’s thoughts on the causes and consequences of inequality.  He also makes some proposals for addressing the issue.

Causes of inequality

Echoes of a distinctly North American debate rippled across the Pacific after this year’s Australian Federal Budget.  Speaking to the Sydney Institute, Joe Hockey (Australian Treasurer) argued that more Australians should be ‘lifters, not leaners’‘ and that the government should be concerned with “equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcomes.”

Stiglitz shuns these ideas.  The belief that hard work determines one’s income or security (when most workers’ incomes are inadequate reflections of their contributions) or that opportunities can be separated from outcomes (when the lucky few seem only to get luckier) contradict recent common experience and common sense.     Stiglitz points to the world’s wealthiest 100 individuals, suggesting that most of these ultra-rich made their fortunes not by their physical inventiveness or their superhuman productivity, nor by the creation of a happier, healthier society.  Instead, Stiglitz states, they did it by seizing more of the available economic output.     Rather than ‘increasing the pie’ (of available resources), Stiglitz claims that these ultra-rich simply ate more of it.  And although greater ‘equality of opportunity’ may spark the hope that ordinary effort might be more justly rewarded, Stiglitz shows that opportunities are only more equal tomorrow if outcomes are more equal today.

Consequences of Inequality

Despite his training as an economist, Stiglitz knows that the costs of inequality are not only measured in dollars.  An unequal society is a divided society and a less democratic society. More enlightened social sciences have described these consequences for many years.  But Stiglitz notes that the economics profession is gradually realising that faster economic growth and greater equality are not exclusive, but co-requisite.  Inequality stifles growth and leads to more fragile economic and political systems.  These and a host of other maladies inflicted by inequality are the centrepiece of The Price of Inequality.1

The Great Rebalancing

The effects of inequality are known, so how can they be redressed?  Free markets cannot guarantee fair outcomes, but government policies in many nations have proven to be inadequate.  Stiglitz argues that, nonetheless, politics remains paramount and that the policies we choose dictate the level of inequality we tolerate.  Taxes and welfare settings mould the distribution of income and are decided by governments.  But these adjustments are not enough to tackle a persistent and pervasive problem.

The package of policies that Stiglitz proposes for the United States apply similarly well to Australia and elsewhere.  Stiglitz advocates for reform of the financial sector by breaking monopolies and ending privatisation, legal reform to ensure fairer access to justice, taxation reform for a more progressive system with fewer loopholes, repairing the social safety net to provide free education and universal health care, and an economic policy agenda which promotes growth led by public investment and which guarantees full employment at a fair wage.

While these ideas seem ambitious in a political system which itself has become more unequal, we can take heart from Stiglitz’s intellectual forerunner Keynes, that
“…soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”
1. Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How todays divided society endangers our future.  W W Norton and Co., New York, London, 2012, 2103.

Note from editor.  Stiglitz is pro-growth as this report indicates.  This blogsite has often argued for de-growth if we are to move towards a sustainable future.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Stiglitz on Inequality (Part 1)

Recently a French economist, Thomas Picketty, has been making headlines around the world with the publication of his book Capital in the Twenty-first Century.  In it, Picketty describes the sharp rise in the incomes and wealth of the top 1% and 10% of society.  This, claims Picketty, suggests that politics and how wealth is distributed must be addressed.

Yet, Picketty and his ideas are not new.  Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s excellent book The Spirit Level1 (first published 2009) showed the damaging relationship between inequality and social ills in society.  Joseph Stiglitz, ex-Chief Economist at the World Bank and Nobel prize winner in economics, has been studying inequality since the 1960s and published The Price of Inequality in 2013.

On 8 July 2014 Joseph Stiglitz discussed his ideas about inequality and the perils of not addressing it to an audience at the Sydney Town Hall.  A member of the Economic Society was in the audience and wrote this guest blog for Rainbow Juice.

Joseph Stiglitz with Sydney Mayor: Clover Moore

“Regardless of which side of the Pacific you’re on, the laws of economics remain the same,” says Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics and author of The Price of Inequality.  Stiglitz suggests that it is politics and policies which, for good or bad, govern the degree of inequality that a society permits.  The role of government, Stiglitz argues, is to step in where the market fails and to craft the most appropriate rules for an equitable distribution of income, wealth and resources.  In The Price of Inequality, Stiglitz appeals to the economist’s bent to put a “price on everything,” but his arguments extend beyond the economic domain.  Over the past 40 years, the rising disparity in health, wellbeing, access to justice and political representation for the citizens of many advanced economies has accompanied the divergence in their money incomes.  A number of such citizens packed Sydney’s Town Hall to watch Stiglitz discuss the dimensions, causes and consequences of rising inequality, and to hear how to close the gap.  A video of the lecture and of the panel discussion which followed can be found here

Dimensions of Inequality

Stiglitz has studied inequality for nearly 50 years, beginning with his PhD research in 1966 and culminating in The Price of Inequality, published in 2013.  Although he has mainly traced the re-emergence of inequality in the United States economy over the past half century, Stiglitz contends that similar troubling trends are emerging in Australia and other nations of the western world.  He suggests that if Australia wants to emulate the policies of the US, which is “the world’s largest producer of inequality,” it should also be prepared to suffer a more divided and malcontent society.

In the United States, inequality has afflicted all three tiers of the income distribution.  The income received by the highest-earning 1% of the population has roughly doubled over the past 30 years.  Despite the US recession technically ending in 2009, the top percentile has claimed almost 95% of the total income earned in the intervening years.  The middle class in the United States works harder than it ever has, but continues to struggle: meanwhile average workers can now produce twice as much as they could 40 years ago, yet the reward for production - average hourly wages - has fallen by almost 10%.  Furthermore, the ranks of the lowest income earners have swelled, stifled by a minimum wage which is unchanged from its level 50 years ago.  Although Australia may not produce the most inequality, it is quickly catching up to the standard set by the US.  The distribution of Australia’s income to citizens is the third most skewed among developed economies.  Government redistribution, in taxes and welfare payments, does little to improve Australia’s relative ranking among its peers.

Stiglitz argues that a resource-rich economy such as Australia should be far more equal.  Resources are pure “common wealth”, which can be taxed much more heavily, for the benefit of citizens, who can be compensated more justly.

Stiglitz suggests that Norway, rather than the United States, should be Australia’s role model in this sense.  Similarly endowed with natural resources, Norway has the most equal distribution of incomes among advanced economies, due to taxes on oil and gas exploration and a sovereign wealth fund which belongs to all citizens.

Stiglitz notes that countries which have tried to impose the ‘US model’ have mostly succeeded in creating a less egalitarian society. (my emphasis - ed)

1. Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why equity is better for everyone, Penguin, London, 2009, 2010.

Part 2 (next week) will continue Stiglitz’s discussion of the causes of inequality, the consequences of inequality and suggest some ways to address inequality.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Political Divides

Left versus right, labour versus conservative; tories, liberals, greens and all the in-betweens.  Our
political representatives come in all sorts of shades, colours and political persuasions.  They do so because they represent our views – right?

Inside the parliaments, debating chambers and city halls of the world we witness politicians debating one another, although most of the time it appears more as a shouting match.  We watch from outside (often via television news) as the debate becomes heated.  It becomes heated because our representatives are representing our views – right?

Well, maybe not.  Maybe politicians represent only themselves and their ideas, wants and desires.  The political divide may be true only of politicians.

An interesting report has recently been published in the US.1  The US is known for having two major political parties: the Democrats and the Republicans.  The political divide between them appears to be insurmountable.  Yet, the divide between citizens of Democratic districts or states and citizens of Republican districts or states is almost non-existent.

The report analysed 24 major studies between 2008 and 2013, involving a total of 388 questions.  What the researchers found was that in just 3.6% of cases did a majority take opposing views on a question (i.e in just 14 of those 388 questions).

Furthermore, on more than two-thirds of the questions there was no statistically significant difference between Republican districts/states and Democratic districts/states.2

Perhaps the experience in the US is different from that in other western, democratic nations.  I suspect not.  So, what does this tell us?

It certainly suggests strongly that the divisions between us are more often created and exacerbated by the politicians themselves.  At a time when our dissatisfaction with politicians and politics is high and we become more and more appalled by the shenanigans of those who are supposed to represent us, we need to question whether democracy cannot do better than this.

The basic purpose of democracy is to enable us to collectively make decisions for the whole of the community or society.  If the divisions are between politicians, not between citizens, then maybe we can do without them.

Why not?  Why not do away with politicians?

Doing so would not mean we have to reject democracy.  Indeed, what we could do is allow democracy to take it’s next step on the democratic journey.  We could have a politics that is truly representative and would give a chance for anyone to become a public decision-maker.

How?  By lottery.  That’s right.  We could select our public decision-makers by the use of a lottery system, in much the same way that we select juries.

This not a new idea, nor is it a silly one.  It has been done before, in fact, it was done at the dawn of democracy.  The Athenians used sortition (the process of selecting representatives by lottery) to select their decision-makers.  The idea has been studied and used in a variety of localities around the world.  This blogsite has made mention of some examples previously.

It is certainly worth a try.  If we are not as divided as are the politicians, then chances are that as randomly selected representatives we will most likely make decisions based on genuine dialogue and less on supposed divisions.  Plus, we will be much more likely to make decisions without all the shouting, name-calling and back-biting that presently seems to plague our democratic institutions.

That surely, has to be much better for us as democratic nations.

1. A Not So Divided America, Program for Public Consultation, Center on Policy Attitudes and the School of Public Policy at Maryland University.
2. Included amongst the issues that showed no polarisation were: human rights, climate change, race and gender discrimination, social security and spending on education.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Losing the Trust of Gaia

Source: Alice Popkorn,
Flickr - Creative Commons
Relationships are built on trust.  Trust takes time to build as any person in a committed relationship will tell you.  There are at least two components to trust:
  • The willingness on each part to risk, to become vulnerable, to open up one’s heart and mind to the other.
  • The understanding that the actions, desires and decisions of each partner are done for mutual benefit, not for self-serving ends.
Yes, there is quite a bit to the building of trust.  No wonder it takes time.

But, trust can be broken in an instant.
Have we broken the trust that we built up with Gaia?

Gaia?  Who’s Gaia?  Gaia is the name given by the scientist James Lovelock to his 1970s theory that the Earth and it’s atmosphere is one inter-connected, self-regulating, complex system.  Yes, it is a metaphor.  And no, that doesn’t mean that there is some idea of intention or purpose.  All it means is that the whole of the planet is a complex system that evolves, regulates itself and adapts via feedback loops in a chaotic1 sense.

That Lovelock chose the name Gaia – the Greek mother Goddess – was perhaps not without some sense that he was adding a modern scientific theory to ideas and concepts that belong to just about every culture on Earth.

The idea that the Earth is our “mother” is one that many of the world’s cultures share.  She has been named variously as Anu (Celtic), Tuuwaqatsi (Hopi), Nerthus (Germanic), Pachamama (Andean), Tellus (Roman) and Papatuanuku (Māori).  No doubt many other cultures have their own name for Mother Earth.  Even modern stories reference an Earth Mother, e.g. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and the movie Avatar, where she is known as Na’vi.  The psychiatrist, Carl Jung, suggested that the idea of an earth mother is part of the collective unconscious of all humans.

So, we all share at least a primal concept of the Earth being our mother, even if many of us have either forgotten that, or chosen to ignore it.

Lovelock’s theory though, would suggest that Mother Earth has not forgotten us.  The theory suggests that everything (including us humans) is part of the incredibly complex, inter-connected and inter-locking system called Earth.  That means that what we do has an impact and influences the feedback loops inherent in the system.

Recognising the metaphor of Gaia, we humans have spent thousands of years building up a trust with Gaia.  In that time, Gaia has reciprocated and has nourished us, sustained us and enabled us. 
But over the past century or two (only a moment in planetary lifetime) we have broken that trust.

Returning to the two components of trust that this article began with, we have:
  • exploited and abused the vulnerability of the Earth, and
  • become self-serving in our relationship with Earth.
Is it any wonder then that the Earth is responding in ways different to those we have come to expect?  The chaos of the system is starting to show itself in environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and climate change, and we do not know what the outcome of those chaotic fluctuations will be.

We must rebuild our trust with Gaia.

1. The word chaotic here refers to Chaos Theory, in which accurate prediction is not possible and small changes in initial conditions can have massive differences in outcome.