Friday, June 28, 2013

Do you know what?

Kevin Rudd is back. He is rocking around the place, cooking with gas. But will he be able to save the Labor party? On the face of it, there is a natural complementarity between his two philosophical approaches and a complementarity that could be developed further in the direction of some form of conceptual synthesis. All he has to do is to reverse engineer and start at the third year and move back to the first.

You might be thinking that is just a load of balderdash, a load of absolute bunkum. Well, fair shake of the sauce bottle! Let’s be fair dinkum.

It seems to me that Kevin 07’s second coming has brought humour back into Australian politics. I had to laugh when, just after his re-election to leadership of the Labor party, he said that there is too much negative personal politics in Australia and that ‘all this must stop’. He didn’t seem to be aware of the irony of saying that after having told us earlier in the day that he was contesting the leadership of the Labor party in order to ‘prevent Mr Abbott from becoming prime minister’. It would be hard to imagine anything more negative and personal than a political campaign to prevent another person from being elected.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Kevin would have known he was joking. I don’t think he knew he was joking either during the 2007 election campaign when he accused John Howard of engaging in an ‘irresponsible spending spree’ and said that this ‘reckless spending’ must stop. I didn’t know he was joking then, either. I thought that we had seen a convergence between the two sides of Australian politics and that the Labor party under Kevin Rudd would give high priority to responsible economic management. I even hoped that it might pursue productivity-enhancing reform with some vigour.

Looking back now, I must have been aware that some of the policies announced by Rudd were jokes played on a gullible electorate. For example, I must have suspected that fuel watch and grocery watch were political exercises designed to tell voters that Kevin was listening to their concerns and was prepared to engage in frenzied activity to give the appearance of doing something about them without actually doing anything. I suppose I thought that all governments have a tendency to play those kinds of games.

However, it is now clear that nearly all Kevin Rudd’s policies were like that. Rudd’s first government was like a swan attempting to do backstroke. Rather than gliding effortlessly across the surface of the water, with all its energy being expended below the surface, there was a lot of splashing around in public and a tendency to move backwards. It was as though Rudd saw his purpose in politics as being to just splash around and improve his popularity rating.

My book, Free to Flourish, contains the following suggestion:
‘A more critical attitude should be taken toward the efforts of politicians to be seen to be responding to public opinion. Democratic politics is reduced to comedy when individual members of the public look to politicians for leadership when forming their opinions and politicians look to public opinion polls in developing their policies. Politicians should be expected to maintain principled positions that are not blown around by changes in public sentiment.’

There is no prize for guessing which politician was at the forefront of my mind when I wrote that.

Like many other people in this country, I feel that the Labor caucus has righted a wrong in restoring Kevin Rudd to leadership of the Labor party. It is pleasing that those voters who are able to see through the practical jokes that Kevin 07 played on them (and himself) when he was previously prime minister have now been given the opportunity to vote against him.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

What is life like for a Bhutanese asylum seeker living in Germany?

A few days ago Hemlal Mainaly, a Bhutanese asylum seeker living in Germany, offered to provide information for my blog about the problems he has encountered. I decided to interview Hemlal because of my interest in Bhutan. However, his responses remind me that whatever problems people like Hemlal may pose for the governments of countries in which they seek asylum, they are seeking opportunities for happiness that most other people take for granted.

An edited version of the interview follows:

Hemlal, would you please introduce yourself to readers of Freedom and Flourishing?
I am a 33year old single male, currently living in Germany at Hodenhagen. I have studied applied science, and have obtained a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc) from Tribhwan University, Kathmabdu Nepal.
I am the youngest member of my family. My parents, both age 67 years, have been living in the US at Syracuse, NY since 2010 under a UNHCR resettlement program. I have 5 sisters, four of whom have also been living in the US. My brother, travelled to the Netherlands in 2005 and his political claims were recognized immediately by the Netherlands authorities. He obtained Netherlands citizenship through naturalization in 2011.

Why did you leave Bhutan?
The government of Bhutan confiscated my immovable properties and terminated the nationality of my parents at gun point. It accused us of involvement in the democratic and peaceful protest that took place in 1990 in Bhutan. The royal authorities declared us traitors and at forced us to sign the ‘’voluntary’’ emigration form.
I left Bhutan in 1991 when I was just 12. We migrated to Nepal and lived at the Bhutanese Refugee Camp at Beldangi 2, aided by UNHCR.

How did you come to live in Germany?
The failure of 16 rounds of bilateral negotiations between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan to resolve the refugee problem left no hope of dignified repatriation of refugees to Bhutan. The degree of frustration among young refugees increased and the security situation became fragile. Insurgent groups formed within the refugee communities aiming to begin armed revolution to Bhutan. The position of those opposed to such groups became insecure as refugees started killing each other in an astonishing way.
Meanwhile, third countries had developed proposals to resolve the Bhutanese refugee problem by offering voluntary resettlement. The resettlement proposals added butter on the fire in the refugee communities. The communities divided, one side accepting resettlement while the other maintaining that dignified repatriation was the only the solution.

I campaigned for third country resettlement for a long time while living at Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. As a result, threats were made on my life and I was not able to go back to the refugee camp. I escaped to Germany in 2007 for my own safety. I had to leave Nepal to protect my life.

What have you been doing since you went to Germany?
Since the beginning of 2007, I have been doing absolutely nothing. My political asylum petitions have been refused by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees and by the Federal Court for irrelevant and incredible reasons. The German authorities accused me of leaving Bhutan voluntarily. They claim that Bhutanese who were expelled following the 1990 protests are not political refugees.

Currently, I have a short residency permit  for the period of six months issued in November 2012.This is something like temporary toleration and valid  as long as the authorities are not able to get travel documents for my deportation to Bhutan . The Bhutanese Embassy at Brussels has apparently not responded to inquiries from the aliens authority.
I have no travel documents, but I am not able to take an integration course. My residency permit does not give me the right to leave German territory. I do not even have the right to visit the Netherlands to see my brother.

Do you consider conditions for asylum seekers in Germany are better or worse than in other countries?
To be very honest, on the basis of my suffering in Germany for last seven years, I caution refugees around the globe please never to step into Germany seeking protection. This is the worst place for refugees and asylum seekers. In the name of giving protection, this jurisdiction destroys the lives of thousands of refugees. They suppress people mentally and paralyse them.

Many resettled Bhutanese refugees have told me that the conditions of life for asylum seekers in other EU states are far better than in Germany, and conditions for asylum seekers in Australia, Canada and the US are also better than here. I would like to express heartfelt thanks to the US government for resettling over 70 thousand Bhutanese refugees at a time when it has been struggling to cope with economics crises. The Bhutanese refugee community will remember this act of kindness for all time.

What are your hopes for future?
I have tried all possible ways to obtain refugee status, but without success. I feel hopeless, helpless and paralysed. My future seems very gloomy, terrible and pathetic. I do not know what will happen from one day to the next.  I have no future prospect in Germany. I would request assistance from all the third countries who have been resettling the Bhutanese refugees.

I also request the diplomatic missions of USA, Australia and all core groups states to pressure the German authorities to open their eyes to the suffering of refugees. There is too much suffering. Enough is enough!

Monday, June 17, 2013

How should we encourage kindness?

Kindness is the greatest of all virtues. That is not just my opinion - the importance of kindness has been widely acknowledged for thousands of years. Some prefer to say that charity or love is the greatest virtue, but that seems to me to amount to the same thing. The concept charity or love that has particular virtue is loving-kindness. 

Psychological research provides support for the view that kindness is worth encouraging. Apart from obvious benefits to the recipients, there is evidence that kindness also has positive spill-over effects. Research by Simone Schnall and colleagues indicates that when people see another person perform a good deed they are more likely to be helpful to others. Such behaviour seems to be linked to feelings of elevation.

There is also evidence that kindness is good for those who practice it. Research by Barbara Fredrickson, Bethany Kok et al suggests that when people generate feelings of loving-kindness they tend to experience improved physical health (measured by cardiac vagal tone). The research suggests that perceptions of positive social connections with others account for the link between positive emotions and improved physical health.

I feel slightly embarrassed to be writing about the merits of kindness and how we should encourage greater kindness. That is partly because I am aware of shortcomings in my own behaviour. The main reason, however, is that the merits of kindness have been so widely acknowledged for such a long period that it probably seems platitudinous for someone like me to be asking people to consider how we should encourage it.

Some of my friends might think I should leave advocacy of kindness to religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama (who is currently in Australia preaching kindness) and focus my own efforts on promoting more widespread understanding of the merits of free markets in enabling individuals to promote the good of others by pursuing their own interests. I urge those friends to read on and to further consider the relationship between kindness and self-interest.

I think economists, among others, should be considering how to encourage kindness because incentives to engage in beneficial economic activities are likely to be greater in societies in which people are kinder. That proposition is not new. It is more usually stated in terms of the importance of trustworthiness in reducing transactions costs, including costs of contract enforcement and protection of persons and property. It seems reasonable to assume that kind people are generally more trustworthy than unkind people.

Are western societies becoming less kind? The answer seems to me to depend on the time frame considered. There seems to have been a secular trend toward greater kindness and less violence in western societies, as Steven Pinker has argued (see an earlier post for relevant comments). Over recent decades, however, there does seem to be increased incivility in many aspects of life including politics and workplaces.
Incivility in politics was very obvious in Australia last week, but I want to focus here on evidence of widespread and increasing incivility in workplaces. In 2011, about half of the workers included in a large US and Canadian study (by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson) claimed to have been treated rudely at work in the past week, whereas in 1998 only a quarter made that claim. Claims have been made that a similar epidemic of incivility is also occurring in Australian workplaces.

I doubt whether the incidence of incivility has actually doubled. It is possible that many people have become more sensitive to criticism of their performance and perhaps more prone to interpret constructive criticism as incivility.

Nevertheless, Porath and Pearson provide impressive evidence that incivility in workplaces is not a trivial matter. Those affected claim that it causes them to reduce their work effort. Managers spend a lot of time dealing with the aftermath of incivility. And customers are turned away when they witness disrespectful behaviour among employees.

Perhaps the most obvious way to reduce incivility is by making rules that will discourage offending behaviours. I suspect, however, that a plethora of rules is an ineffectual way to encourage kindness. The apparent increase in incivility has occurred at a time of increased regulation to prevent extreme acts of incivility (e.g. discrimination on grounds of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability). Workplace bullying could be expected to thrive in environments where staff are unable to achieve expected outcomes without breaching rules of conduct intended to prevent incivility.

Most of the recommendations made by Porath and Pearson to reduce incivility do seem likely to encourage more kindly behaviour in workplaces. They suggest, among other things, that leaders should look to their own behaviour, take more account of civility in hiring staff and reward good behaviour. Interestingly, such remedies would seem fairly obvious to any business leaders concerned to promote the interests of shareholders. Incivility in workplaces will presumably become less of a problem as business leaders become more aware of its effects on the bottom line.

More generally, it seems to me that the best way to encourage kindness is to make people more aware that kindness is good for those who practice it.  

Saturday, June 1, 2013

What has been the most important milestone in replacing tyrannical government?

This question was prompted by a visit to the new Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (MADE) at Ballarat in Victoria. I was impressed by the material presented about the Eureka rebellion of 1854, the culmination of a protest by self-employed gold miners against an oppressive licence fee, levied irrespective of the amount of gold found. Taxation without representation was one of the miners’ grievances, but it is not clear how many miners saw an extension of voting rights to all adults as an objective of their protests. 

The material presented in the display includes the following statement by Peter Lalor, a leader of the rebellion, a couple of years later when he was a member of the Victorian parliament:
‘I would ask these gentlemen what they mean by the term “democracy”. Do they mean Chartism or Republicanism? If so, I never was, I am not now, nor do I ever intend to be a democrat. But if a democrat means opposition to a tyrannical press, a tyrannical people, or a tyrannical government, then I have been, I am still, and will ever remain a democrat'.

Lalor seems to have had in mind a definition of democracy similar to that later adopted by Karl Popper, which emphasizes the importance of being able to dismiss governments that have tyrannical tendencies. Unfortunately, the granting of voting rights to all adults does not always prevent the emergence of governments that act tyrannically with the support of the majority.

The aspect of MADE that I found most confronting was the attempt to put the Eureka rebellion into context in a timeline for the development of democracy. According to the timeline presented, the most significant event following the Magna Carta was the French Revolution. That seemed odd to me because the French Revolution replaced a form of tyranny with something worse – a reign of terror!

Other aspects of timeline presented tend to glorify revolution. For example, the display invites visitors to view Karl Marx as a hero of democracy.
MADE’s problem probably stems from the definition of democracy it adopts:
People + Power = Democracy.
Which people? What power? The definition fails to recognize that different people have different interests and that the success of some groups in obtaining favours from governments must be at the expense of other groups. It fails to distinguish the desirable features of a democratic regime from the tyranny of the mob. It also fails to recognize that tyrants often portray their efforts to exercise unlimited power as being in the interests of ‘the people’ - and often have substantial popular support.

My visit to MADE occurred while I was reading The Oxford History of Britain, edited by Kenneth Morgan. The chapters by John Morrill and Paul Langford, dealing with the Stuarts, the Civil Wars and the eighteenth Century, seem to be particularly relevant in considering the most important milestones in replacing tyrannical government. My reading has given me the impression that prior to the 17th Century, politics in England (and in many other countries) was essentially authoritarian. In England, politics was dominated by the hereditary rights of sovereigns and competition to impose particular religious doctrines in order to make people less sinful. During the 17th Century in England the idea that religion should be viewed as largely a private matter began to gain acceptance and the hereditary rights of sovereigns became less influential.

It seems to me that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 should be viewed as the most important milestone in replacing tyrannical government.  By legitimizing the replacement of James II with William and Mary, the propertied classes represented in parliament were rejecting the idea that ancestry should determine who has the right to exercise political power. The Glorious Revolution was followed by the Toleration Act of 1689 which gave formal recognition to religious pluralism, and was an important step toward giving equal rights to followers of all religions.