Once in a moment of despair, a friend of mine (a cartoonist) told me that the whole world was lying into computers. No one, he said, knew what was really going on, and all ‘official’ pronouncements were to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. I think he was probably right.
One major example could be the economy. I live in a major port. Almost every day, I see gargantuan container ships from China and Taiwan, filled with underpants, vacuum cleaners, toys and computers, unloading at the depot across the river. This is proof positive that Australia these days makes virtually nothing and that we have become a super consumer – or lifestyle – economy. I don’t need the balance of trade figures to tell me that, for the umpteenth month, the country is in the red.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
At budget time, when the Treasurer tells us that the national surplus is X billion dollars, how do we know it’s true? All I know is that there is something unnerving about those giant container ships. They reflect the true nature of our economy.
When the Minister for Ageing tells us that there has been a Y per cent increase in the number of aged-care facilities in the last financial year, how do we know it’s true? All I know is that I’m having terrible trouble getting my dear old mum into an old folks’ home, where I hope she will be decently looked after.
When the State Minister for Health announces there has been a Z per cent increase in the provision of hospital facilities, all I know is that my wife spent six hours on a trolley in the corridor when she had severe abdominal pains last month.
When we are told that unemployment has dropped by N per cent, should we believe it?
There is no real way of telling if the country is running a surplus or not. We only have the Treasurer’s – and the Treasury’s – word for it. The surplus has become a political tool, rather than an economic measurement.
Would day-to-day life be any different for most people if we ran a deficit?
We often see the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, briefcase in hand, bounding up the steps of the bank in Washington for his monthly meeting. Greenspan has but three choices: to leave interest rates where they are; to put them up; or put them down. A high school student of economics could make this kind of decision – and thus control the world’s economy. (I sometimes think that Greenspan’s briefcase contains nothing but a tatty old computer printout and a half-eaten bagel.)
Alan Greenspan is part of the illusion of wise – or rational – economic management. The Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia is also part of that illusion. It is doubtful whether he knows what is going on in the economy any more than you or I. But he looks impressive, standing behind the podium at an economists’ breakfast.
Governments these days are in the business of manufacturing reality. An example of this is the Howard Government’s current industrial relations advertising campaign. In the Melbourne Age of 20 October it was reported that workers in a Dandenong factory claimed they were being filmed for a work safety ad, only to find themselves in an ad promoting the new IR laws. Naturally, a spokesman for the Workplace Relations Minister, Kevin Andrews, refused to comment.
To be fair, the ads sponsored by the ACTU were presumably prepared by an advertising agency and starred actors; so they, too, were part of the illusion. It is estimated the Government will spend up to $100 million on their media campaign and the ACTU has so far allocated $6 million on theirs.
With the rise of literacy, the advent of the penny newspaper and press barons, the radio and then TV, there is nothing new about persuasion and illusion. But the problem is exacerbated now, for this is the age of mass media. And mass deception.
Reality only sets in when someone in your household disappears, then phones up to say that he/she is alright, but they can’t say where they are; reality sets in when your autistic child can’t get effective schooling; reality sets in when you lose your job and can’t get another because you’re over 50; reality sets in if your mentally damaged child can’t get proper therapy.
The problem that we face is how to distinguish between illusion and reality. A large dose of cynicism – or skepticism – is necessary. I think any government, or corporate, announcement should be regarded as a lie, or illusion, until proven otherwise. And how do we prove it?
That is the question.
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