Intelligence Squared: Panglossian politics and the housing crisis

27 08 2008

Intelligence Squared is a series of debates, broadcast live on the Sydney Morning Herald website and the ABC, on a range of social, political and public policy issues. I just caught a truncated version of the July debate, “By 2020 only the rich will be at home in Australia.” Those arguing for the affirmative included ACTU president Sharan Burrow, ANU economics professor Bob Gregory and UNSW sociologist Michael Pusey. The speakers for the negative were Fairfax economics columnist Ross Gittins, company director Elizabeth Proust and John Roskam, executive director of the Institute for Public Affairs. You can view the debate in its entirety on the IQ2 website, or you can listen to an abridged version at ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas site.

The debate was “won,” insofar as these things are able to be decided by popular vote, by the negative side. It is not difficult to see why, given that their arguments—particularly those advanced by Roskam and Gittins—traded so heavily on equivocation about the meaning of the term “rich.” In common parlance the definition of “rich” (in the financial sense) is difficult to pin down—I guess it’s one of those things we can’t define, but we “know it when we see it.” But as I gather from Gittins’ presentation there is actually a narrower, technical definition of “rich” in economic circles, which is something like the top two percent of income earners. It then became very easy—though by no means was this a very honest move—to paint the opposition as defending the proposition that “by 2020 only the top two percent of income earners will be at home in Australia,” which was clearly not what the affirmative team was defending, and therefore can be classified as a strawman.

Roskam’s strawmanning was even more egregious. Pusey opened the affirmative case with a demonstration (by way of statistics) that whereas it was once feasible to service a mortgage and raise a family on a single income, today at least two incomes are required to achieve the same goal, and even that is becoming increasingly difficult. Roskam’s response was to claim that the affirmative team “really” wanted to take Australia back to the 1950s, when it was unthinkable for women like Burrow to head the ACTU, or women like Proust to be company directors. Strawman. Pusey was not arguing for a return to the days when there was only one (male) breadwinner in the household. Nor was he arguing against double-income households. He was simply pointing out the fact that if it now takes two incomes to service a mortgage whereas it once took one, housing affordability has worsened by definition. 

Roskam formerly headed the Liberal Party think-tank The Menzies Institute, and his presentation gave an insight, I think, into why the Howard government lost the 2007 election. Roskam’s mantra was “You’ve never had it so good,” and his position was that if the rich get richer, we’re all—on average—better off. So if you’re struggling to service a mortgage with two incomes, in an economy in which job security is largely a thing of the past and in which a certain degree of job security is required for securing a bank loan, and you’re deep in personal debt, and you have little disposable income, here’s what you should do. Stop playing the “politics of envy” and turn that frown upside down.

As Roskam’s teammate Gittins was to imply in his speech, we live in a democracy, and any politician who adopts the position advocated by Roskam is committing political suicide. If you tell people who are struggling, or who perceive they are struggling, that they have never had it so good, they will most likely laugh at you. And then vote against you. To the extent that Roskam’s gospel was the gospel of the Howard government, I think this is what happened.

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