A New Year Miscellany part two

Trump’s hero Andrew Jackson

Reading Ron Chernov’s terrific biography of General Ulysses Grant the blog learnt a lot about the Southern terrorism which ensured that the South won the peace even though it lost the Civil War. The blog also found out how some southerners, such as General James Longstreet, fought hard to make Reconstruction work.

Equally new, to the blog at least, was the fact that Grant and his wife were due at the theatre with Lincoln and Mary Lincoln on the night of the assassination. Mrs Lincoln’s wife didn’t get on with Mrs Grant so it didn’t happen – prompting the what if? – what if Grant had arrived with an accompanying soldier to stand outside the box.

But one other memorable discovery was Lincoln’s attitude to Trump’s presidential hero, Andrew Jackson. Lincoln described him as a “detestable, ignorant, reckless, vain and malignant tyrant.”

By the way if you think the US tyranny comparison is a bit far-fetched some World Values Survey research by political scientists Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk (published in the July 2016 Journal of Democracy) found that fewer than half the Europeans and Americans born in the 1970s and 1980s believe that it is “essential to live in a country that is governed democratically”. For complacent Australians the figures are: 80% of those born in the 1930s believe living in a democracy is essential whereas only half those born in the 1990s think so.

Moreover, one in six Americans today believe that ‘army rule’ would be a good thing compared with one in 16 in 1995. Given that the US has been almost continuously at war with someone or other – and at least once themselves – the notion might not be that ridiculous.

Passion and ICAN

It is hard to imagine any Australian Government failing to congratulate an Australian, or an Australian organisation, for winning a Nobel Prize. But that’s exactly what’s happened with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. (Declaration of interest: The blog is a supporter of ICAN.)

Neither the incredible shrinking Prime Minister, forever auditioning for the sequel to the latest Matt Damon film Downsizing, nor our Foreign Affairs Minister, Ms Bishop, thought fit to mention it let along offer congratulations.

Yet irrespective of the virtues of trying to avoid the catastrophic consequences of any nuclear weapon use, or the moral cowardice of Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, there is an interesting lesson for communicators in the ICAN success. Australia’s leading issues management expert, Tony Jaques, has devoted a newsletter to the group and its “striking example of the power of passionate people to drive issues, both large and small.” Ranging across the international campaign to ban landmines (another Nobel Peace Prize Winner) and the tobacco disinvestment campaign it is a useful guide to the need to identity early the emergence of issues and their likely impact.

One should also mention that Ms Bishop ought to not only be more vocal on such issues but also less vocal on others. When the Australian government announced in September 2015 its decision to join the latest war, at the invitation of the US, and allegedly on the basis of legal advice that it could do so without violation of international law, it claimed two principal reasons for doing so: first, that it was in response to a request from the Iraqi government and, second, that it was pursuant to the collective self-defence provisions of the UN Charter. According to James O’Neill, writing in John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations newsletter, Ms Julie Bishop told an ABC Radio interviewer, when asked a specific question about the legal basis, this was the rationale for the Australian intervention.

O’Neill says: “That the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office quickly issued a denial any such request had been made was never reported by the mainstream media. The DFAT website was also silent as to whether or not the Australian government reacted to Iraq’s denial of its purported request for assistance.” In other words it was a lie – not the first told by Australian Ministers justifying a decision to go to war.

Fake News and Fake Research

Tony Jaques’ newsletter has also drawn attention to a useful article on ways to spot “fake research”. The author, Dr Sarab Kochhar, Director of Research at the Institute for Public Relations provides five questions to ask of any research. Is it generalizable; is it unbiased; is it transparent; is it objective; and, it ethical? Each question is followed by practical pointers to how you can check the quality of any research. On the other hand some practitioners might find it a useful guide to getting results from research which can then be used to generate fake news.

Why Americans tolerate inequality

It is a puzzle – usually explained by US ignorance and/or stupidity – as to why Americans are so tolerant of inequality. One explanation is that they aspire to being rich themselves but a more plausible explanation is that they are simply ignorant of the extent of the disparity between rich and poor.

In a recent Economist Democracy in America blog the anonymous author said: “Americans appear to be less averse to inequality than citizens of other rich countries. Lars Osberg and Insa Bechert of Dalhousie University found that the most inequality-averse 10% of Americans resemble the inequality-averse in other countries, favouring an earnings ratio between CEOs and unskilled labourers of about two to one. From there the gap widens: the most inequality-tolerant Americans see the ideal ratio as 50 to one; compared with 24 to one amongst the most inequality-tolerant in Britain.

“Why the difference? One reason may be that Americans don’t realise how unequal incomes are. In common with the inhabitants of other wealthy countries, most Americans believe there is too much inequality. But they underestimate just how much of it there is. The average American puts the current ratio of CEO to unskilled worker pay at thirty-to-one; their preference is for about seven-to-one. But the actual CEO-unskilled wage ratio in America is 354 to one.”

Of course the other source of inequality is that between shareholders and bankers. It has been estimated, for instance, that between 1995 and 2016 Deutsche Bank shareholders netted 17 billion Euros once share buybacks, dividends and increased market value are offset by capital increases. In the same period the bank paid out 71 billion Euros in bonuses.