Figures Without Feelings

This post was first published on Be Collective.

Richard Denniss and The Australia Institute have been on fire these past few weeks.

Denniss published a piece entitled “Spreadsheets of Power: How economic modelling is used to circumvent democracy and shut down debate.” As you might guess from the title, he’s not mucking around.

In the piece, Denniss explains how easy it is for an economist to spin figures to serve their argument - any argument, whether or not it has any real value. Any economist or statistician will tell you that a dataset is only as good as the assumptions you’ve made when compiling it, and your assumptions can be as wide ranging as you like, if they serve your agenda.

Following on from this, Denniss also published a piece on the skewed nature of the tax debate in Australia - a specific example of how these discussions are being distorted.

As Jonathan Green wrote for ABC, “Surely we should talk about what sort of Australia we'd like to create before we discuss how we're going to raise the revenue to pay for it?” And he’s absolutely right in this suggestion - all the Intergenerational or IPCC reports in the world are useless to us, until we’ve reached some kind of consensus on where we want to be beyond the next election cycle.

Says Green:

“What if rather than some tense consideration of varying imposts considered in isolated contest with a predetermined well of spending, we had a preliminary conversation?

We might conclude that as Australians we wanted to create a place of truly equal opportunity, a place of incentive, both personal and entrepreneurial. A country with educational excellence for all. With health care that did not discriminate against wealth or circumstance. A place that felt secure in its geographical and psychological presence. A place that invested to facilitate Indigenous advancement through a free process of self-determination.

Perhaps our collective generosity is not flattered by the cynicism of a political debate that seeks only to keep taxes lower and spending down. We might opt to renew infrastructure, to ease the path of integration for the disabled. We could decide to house the homeless. To reframe conversations around violence and various forms of harm that grow from shadowy conspiracies of social circumstance and misfortune.

Or we might agree to disagree. Or settle on some compromised version of a debated national self that produced some general sense of harmonious agreement. It might be possible.”

Until now, Australia has been a relatively new and relatively small player on the world political stage, without hundreds of years of political ideology to fall back on (except obviously that of our indigenous population - from whom we can definitely learn some lessons). If the current political predicament we’re facing is anything to go by, it is certainly time for us to have that conversation as a nation.

At Be Collective, we think figures are useful - very much so! - but only when you’ve first considered values. Gladly we’ve already done a great deal of thinking on that front. We’re excited about the opportunity to measure where our efforts for positive social incomes are most impactful, or which areas can maximise their impact with additional support or funds.

We believe in greater transparency - we just want to make sure this is in support of the kind of country and community we want to create, not destroying it.