Calculated Risk

Those who’re anti vaccine mandate, or anti public health lockdown provide the best support for broad scale public health measures; they’re privileged enough to be alive to prosecute their case, in spite of their ability to interpret the dangers of a dead possum in the water tank.

We’re now in the second year of endless arguments about the ‘public’ in ‘public health’, defining once and again, both the ‘precise tragedy’ and the exact dimensions of ‘the commons’. Fighting, time and again, about who has the right to swing their fist and who should move their nose.

Those who’re anti lockdown, or anti vaccine are arguing that there is no such thing as the collective, no sum that is greater than its parts. Many historians have argued that the first governments emerged as a direct response to disease – the need to organise people in accordance with a rationale that was not immediately understood by those on the ground. It required a new thing called ‘trust’.

And it’s in short supply, blah blah, we’ve heard it all before.

But the real question for the ‘freedom warriors’ is what is the endgame? What if SarsCov2 was as fatal as MERS, or smallpox? What if it only killed children? How many ‘warriors’ would support vaccine mandates and lockdowns? None? All? How many would go to their righteous graves? How many would be chastened?

This is the real question. If your answer is ‘never’ then you’ve given up on the collective altogether. For you, personal sovereignty looks like those adults in those religious sects in the US who watch their children die from the most excruciating conditions, because the government, other people, can’t intervene.

And let’s be clear, the next MERS is probably within my lifetime. We will face this question again.

Where does ‘the public’ in public health kick in?

Once again….

I haven’t written anything on this blog, or anywhere else, for months. I’m busy I suppose, but also side-lined, bright-lined and maligned by the endless task of interpreting statistics about disease and the lack thereof. Shifting paradigms.

Increasingly I’m drawn to two orthogonal poles. The first we might broadly refer to as ‘science’ – the shambling, iterative, dirty net curtain of rationality and causality. The second is more sociological or cultural – the idea that there are patterns, fashions, if you like, that characterise different intellectual epochs. These are slippery and developed in concert with their constituent technology. The best example of course, is the current one, our kind of technocratic rationalism, running on the fumes of utilitarianism with the inferred certainty of a kind of social Carnot cycle. In this model, we take scientific rationalism and apply it, writ large, to social problems.

As a fashion, we’ve been subject to this model for quite some time. Bureaucrats carefully but assuredly ‘pulling levers’, feebly adjusting the fuel mix of the economy in the vain hope that it will overcome its chaotic wobbliness. I suppose this is neoliberalism – the promise of certainty, stability in the face of an economic rationalism that perpetually threatens to end it all.

The model is anywhere and everywhere, the language of rational management, the bloodless accounting of society’s ups and downs. Consider the enormous and still flourishing network of ‘mental health’. An institution is sanctified and legitimised once it reaches a certain size and begins to upholster its processes with the baubles of ‘wellbeing’. One is ‘at risk’, then ‘assessed’ then, ‘assessed for risk of immediate harm’ then assessed for one’s ability to ‘engage with processes that might engender a meaningful shifts in outlook’ and then, and then and then. Of course, to those experiencing the pointy end of whatever institutional shafting the Random Shafting Generator has selected for them on any given day, this window-dressing is offensive. And that’s the point. It is, as they say, a feature, not a bug. It shifts blame to the victim, while assiduously ossifying the power of those who seek to create a seamless integration of professional and personal. The shiny-bummed carpet baggers.

Your personal is your political, and your political better get the fuck on board.

Examples abound. Just two days ago, the NSW state government declared a massive increase in funding for Headspace. This is a service that ‘deals with’ mental health issues amongst young people. Only, of course, it doesn’t. Being well acquainted with a former manager of Headspace, I can unsurprisingly inform you, Dear Reader, that Headspace does absolutely nothing for the mental health of those who seek its services. Because it provides nothing. That’s the point. It sits there telling young people who are distressed because they feel alienated from their lives, their families, their nature and their culture, that they have mental health problems. Young people who’re expected to find their way in the world, stumbling along on a diet of chicken salt and Fortnite.

Of course, for those who do, in fact, have mental health problems, like schizophrenia, no help exists at all. It was ever thus. The ex Headspace manager mused about the amount of money that could have been spent on young people with schizophrenia, were it not all being soaked up by the dangly-earring set, feeding teenagers a quaintly June Daly Watkins/Margaret Thatcher habitus.

I’ve digressed. Because this, ‘mental health’, was only meant to be an example of the broader style, or fashion, of thinking and talking, in which we are training ourselves. The technocratic rationality. At times is becomes visible for all – the anti vax debate is a particularly current example. On the one hand, the simple, modernist and muscular public health logic dictates the best outcome for the most people. On the other, a supreme adherence to individualism, fostered by what is now 30 years of neoliberalism, and cosseted by the rude good health guaranteed by previous public health measures based on the aggregated self, now illustrates the extent to which people grapple with the invisibility of government and their own (in)significance.

It feels clumsy to lump this way of thinking into BN (Before Neoliberalism) and after, but it is easy to delineate some key differences, through the prism of public health. We imagine the state is invisible, imagine our lives as governed by our own hard work and good fortune. Of course, this is sheer folly. The average Filipino works just as hard, if not harder, than the average Australian. Our Australian cards sit on the top of the economic deck because of our position in the ‘first world’, or ‘global north’. These benefits are almost entirely due to our government’s ability to consolidate influence within the global financial markets, either to create wealth from wealth, or to capitalise on wealth we ‘produce’ (commodities). At no point is there a direct linear relationship in which we can compare the output of an Indian, Filipino or Nepalese worker and an Australian in the same position.

I’m not going to get into a long-winded account of global currency markets, but it’s enough to say that our government’s role in our welfare and wellbeing is mostly ‘international’ rather than domestic. And yet it is the domestic politics with which we are the most familiar. This is how our governance is presented to us. Hot Mess Gladys and the endless handwringing over the intergenerational inequities in the housing market.

Public health is also invisible, unless there’s a crisis. Our wellbeing, the security of our nation in terms of ‘burden of disease’ is only relevant in broad terms.

I remember, many years ago, reading about risk and public health, from Nikolas Rose, who, ironically, is a biologist. What occurs (and this is because I can’t recall if it’s his idea, or perhaps my own that was generated through interaction with his work – suspect the former) is that risk helps us to imagine ourselves in the aggregate – it is a tool through which we might be controlled. Talking about our bodies through a prism of risk is something Foucault got hot and bothered about too. We can think of ourselves as entities disseminated through multiple strategies of risk. We’re all familiar with this way of talking and thinking about ourselves.

‘Smokers have a 50% chance of dying from a smoking related illness’

In this way, we might imagine ourselves as a collective, constantly shifting the levels on the risk amplifier we share with everyone else. Certainly, this was an element of neoliberalism – the utilitarian model applied to bodies as a means to control and moderate them, and to perfectly integrate them within a model of ‘productivity’.

And this is where fashion comes in. Because I am now old enough to recognise when this went out of favour, with the rise of identity politics. It happened with fatness. Partly, this was to do with over-reach. The model was overfitted. Risk was attributed everywhere, to everyone. The model got lazy. I remember the first debunking of the ‘Obesity Epidemic‘. Supposedly, obesity was causing high rates of diabetes and other poorly defined problems. The pendulum swung back, people began to question lazy data science. And, most importantly, there was a growing focus on the social consequences of ‘epidemics’. Who is affected and why? Who gets categorised, and what does that mean for them? What are the implications of being labelled fat?

We witnessed a shift in thinking, away from the rational, bio-deterministic models of social control, partly due to sloppy science, and partly due to the rise of the individual. Identity emerged; we began to hear terms like ‘fat shaming’ and the reclamation of physical attributes as identity (reclaiming the term ‘fat’ for instance). This is an interesting shift, a revocation and refusal of the bio medical model that sees humans as barely functioning meat-sacks on the fritz.

And then, we can trace the rise of the ‘victim’ narrative, salvation through identity. The rise of the virtuous disability, as yet another way to claim power.

Underneath it all, to me, these modes of thinking all retain one thing in common; they serve the same power that they always did.

That’s enough crapping on for one morning.

Addendum, By the way, I note that Nikolas Rose has shifted his interests to the ‘psy-disciplines’ and is, unsurprisingly, friendly with Foucault.

Getting real on university funding shortfalls.

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The cost of Humanities/Arts degrees is set to double at Australian universities, while halving for STEM and medical courses.

Apparently, this is due to a huge increase in enrolments following the COVID shutdowns. Dan Tehan has claimed that changes will encourage new students into more ‘work ready’ degrees, in STEM and healthcare, in particular.

The rationale is to curb spiralling enrolments, especially in courses that don’t lead directly to a job. There’s a difference however, between reality and what we might charitably deem bullshit.

Sure, sending a price signal sounds like a good way to contain costs, and price signals are baked in to government policy. It simply assumes that rising the price will curb the demand. What the government is not saying is that the demand also reflects potential students’ opportunity costs of NOT enrolling in a degree.

In the current COVID recession, if you’re a young person with a fairly average high school education, your choices are either university or casual work/dole.

Let’s be clear, despite the focus on school leavers’ choices in the media, the main increase in enrolments will come from young people who’re over 25. These are people who’ve been casually employed, often underemployed, and are now unemployed.

Over 25s are eligible for Austudy, and, compared the alternatives, this looks like a good option. The dole, on the other hand, comes with social stigma and punitive conditions. Yes, students will pay for their degrees with a HECS debt but the repayment threshold is 45k. For many young people, earning this much money, in a casualised underemployment market, is so far away it’s almost irrelevant.

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It’s worth mentioning the silliness of the debate around humanities degrees too: I giggled at Julia Baird stating that most Arts/Humanities student do in fact get a job. That’s nice, but Baird makes no comment as to whether this is related to their degree. Without that, her statement is meaningless. Most Australian adults will get a job, whether they attend university or not. Youth unemployment is high, so perhaps what we should be asking is; do Arts/Humanities students get jobs when they leave university simply because they’re three or four years older than they started? This is a classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Now, back to the COVID recession. If you’re under 35 and newly unemployed, university study looks good. Sure you could go to TAFE, if you can find one that’s open and offers something sensible, but TAFE is now non-existent for many young people – it’s so hollowed out, and many of the courses so irrelevant that only the most essential, regulated and dictatorial courses remain viable (for instance, nursing, which can also be done at university).

Many young people will, therefore, enrol at university. And without a good high school education, the humanities, nursing or social work are basically the only doors open to them.

Let’s be clear about one thing, there has been a huge increase in university enrolments but it’s not a new thing. In 1989, 7.9% of Australians held an undergraduate degree. By 2018, that proportion had increased to 27.3%.

As you can see though, most of this increase comes from medicine and nursing.

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Enrolment in the humanities has steadily declined, as a proportion of all fields, since 1989. So has everything else, at the ‘expense’ of medicine and nursing (which is in part due to nursing becoming a degree).

So, I would expect that there will, in fact, be an increase in enrolments in the humanities, as it will pick up newly unemployed students who otherwise would not have gone to university and who are not be eligible for other courses. However, the increase will be small, as the popularity of these courses is generally declining.

So, the government’s intimation that university enrolments are spiralling upwards and we’re in danger of being overrun with Gender Studies grads is, therefore, bullshit. The plan to double the cost of humanities degrees is not justified on these grounds. And, as Mr Tehan well knows, doubling the price will will not curb enrolments.

Perhaps the only real economic justification for cracking down on humanities courses is that they’re predominantly taken by women, who take longer to reach the HECS repayment threshold of 45k.

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You can see here though that the difference is not huge.

Which brings us to the real reason they’re knocking the humanities – the culture wars. Tehan and his ilk have simply been watching too much crappy television. They’re convinced we’re on the cusp of a ‘cultural Maxist’ tea party. Or something. I can never really keep up with their paranoid, garbled ramblings about this stuff.

I should say that increasing the number of humanities students is not an intrinsically good or bad thing, in my view.  After all, I’d rather live in a society with degree educated people than not. Many of the civil liberties we enjoy today are the direct result of social and political awareness and advocacy, gleaned from and through a university education. I personally think university should be free. Certainly there’s a good economic case for it, as well as a ‘Australia is a nice place to live’ case.

Obviously, though, no government wants to pay people to ably criticise it.


International education; selling residency

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Why isn’t the government supporting the tertiary sector? It is, after all, our fourth biggest export earner. Except it isn’t. Unless you consider residency a ‘product’.

International students come to Australia because university places are one way of purchasing permanent residency.

In order to get permanent residency you have to meet the 2 year ‘Australian Study Requirement’ – 2 years living in Australia. You then choose a job from the ‘skilled occupation list‘. Often this job does not relate to whatever you obtained your Australian qualification in.

You get points for studying in Australia, for sure. But an undergrad degree takes you three or more years and does not get you many points. A post grad, MA or PhD gets you heaps more points (I think about 20).

And, as a bonus, most MA programs are conveniently 2 years, so you meet the residency requirements.

There is, therefore, pressure on unis to ‘develop’ and provide MA courses that are 2 years in length and targeted at international students. Often these are called ‘international student products’

Below is a course I have chosen from a university at random, the University of Wollongong. There are many courses like this, at many Australian universities (but this one was easy to find because it’s got ‘international’ bunged on the end of it. I like their honest approach).

This course, called the Masters of Nursing International, is, like the name suggests, aimed at international students. Domestic students cannot enrol in it (according to the website).

You might assume that graduates of the  ‘Australian Study Requirement’ (two years at an Australian university) would use their qualification towards their ‘Skilled Occupation’ for permanent residency.

For instance, if you obtained a MA of Nursing International, you would apply for work within the Australian healthcare system that recognises your MA of nursing.

You’d be wrong. I enquired.

The MA of Nursing International is not recognised in the Australian healthcare setting. If you want a Masters of Nursing that’s recognised in the Australian healthcare system, you need to do a different course, called….wait for it…..

Masters of Nursing.

To be clear, there are TWO courses. One is a MA of Nursing for international students that happens to be two years long, and another MA of Nursing for domestic students that is a professional qualification. Only one of these is recognised as a Masters of Nursing in Australia and designed to get graduates a relevant job.

So what qualifications are required to enter the MA of Nursing International?

“International students with a recognised Bachelor degree in Nursing can accelerate their career progression by undertaking the Master of Nursing International at UOW.”

So, you need to be a qualified nurse, and have your qualification recognised in Australia. But, if you’re a qualified nurse looking to move to Australia, why wouldn’t you just apply for a skilled worker visa? After all, nursing is ‘on the list’.

Could it be that the University will recognise your Indian nursing degree as a prerequisite for entering the Masters of Nursing International, but the Australian government won’t recognise your Indian nursing degree to work in a hospital?

So, you want to come to Australia. But, you don’t have a relevant qualification, and you can’t speak English.

You need an agent.

All universities have agents. I have known one for a long time.

Agents work in source countries, selling education ‘products’. Can’t speak English at an IELTS score higher than 5? Don’t worry, for this small fee (paid for by the university) we can ‘help’ you to pass the requirements.

Don’t have a nursing degree? Don’t worry, for a small fee (paid for by the university) we can find an equivalent.

So, you’re all set! All you need now is the 60k to pay the fees. And this is where things get pretty ugly.

Let’s be clear, a two year student visa (which can be extended for one extra year) enables a student and their immediate family to move to Australia for two years. Let’s imagine a young woman moves to Australia, with her husband. One or both of them, or their families, have borrowed 60k for the fees.

The couple move to Australia and try to find work to pay off the loan. Officially, full time students cannot work more than a few hours a week, so they’re forced to work illegally for lower wages.

Again, the universities are aware of and support this model, primarily through the lack of the requirement to actually attend university.  Here’s the Masters of Nursing International, again;

“The course is delivered via weekly online learning activities in each subject over the course of each semester. It also features intensive face-to-face workshops, which are delivered on-campus each semester.” 

The courses are almost entirely delivered online. This means that students can come to Australia, be ‘enrolled’ in an online course, work many, many hours washing dishes, make money to send home and turn up to a ‘workshop’ a couple of times a year. Who completes their work? As with all online course, the work is completed by the student or whomever is paid to complete it. Not surprisingly, for this course there’s no ‘clinical placement’ component. 

It’s not hard to see how women, especially, are placed in an extremely vulnerable position. There’s literally no way out of this scenario. They can’t just ‘go home’ – their family has taken on an enormous debt to pay for the ‘education’. Tragically, this has predictable results, where women are often subjected to abuse or even murder.

The MA of nursing, by the way, looks great on paper – really thorough. And students DO complete a course of study. But it’s pretty basic.

 The real aim of the course is to gain points for a residency application.

Now, let’s be clear about a couple of things. There are international students in Australia who’re here for the education. These are usually STEM students but there are others. However, some at universities up to 40% of their student their student body is comprised of international students. Are they all here because of the ‘prestige education?’

So why does this system exist?

It exists because Australia’s growth is predicated on immigration. This can be easily seen by comparing the GDP to GDP per capita figures. But why not just open the doors?

Well, Australia wants to extract as much money out of incoming immigrants as possible and limit supply. Yes these people are young and healthy, and they smooth out our ageing demographic. But if we can charge them for residency, why not?

Furthermore, the universities themselves have increasingly supplemented their shrinking government revenue with international students’ fees. International students basically pay for domestic students to attend university. Importantly, they pay for an awful lot of young Australians to get a high school education

 Universities are increasing the number of ‘bums on seats’. This is also why the level of education has declined so dramatically in general arts courses – it’s in the universities’ interests. As the value of an undergraduate degree has declined, the only way to distinguish oneself as having a decent education is to get a post grad degree – more bums, more seats.

So, why isn’t the government bailing out universities? Because universities have tipped the balance.

The essential education ‘bit’ will roll on – domestic students will still enrol for engineering, law, science and medical degrees. The rest of it (what Americans might call, liberal arts) is paid for by international students. And they’re not coming.

In other words, the government has currently embargoed the sale of Australian permanent residency and its lack of support for the tertiary sector lays bare the truth of this arrangement.

This is not one of those, ‘in my day, university standards were much higher and young people today should all be fed through the woodchipper’ etc.,. posts. Universities provide excellent teaching and excellent learning opportunities. Staff work exceptionally hard. It’s also in no way suggesting that the non professional faculties (history etc.,.) are pointless. In fact, that’s the second reason they’re left out of funding arrangements – no government wants its citizens to have an excellent critical understanding of how power operates.

That said, we cannot overlook the simple join-the-dots above. Universities are unwillingly complicit in an economic arrangement that creates vulnerable situations, driven by economic factors, and tied into Australia’s economic growth.

Errant rubbish

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Radio National is being gutted, apparently. And frankly, if yesterday’s lunchtime sample is anything to go by, perhaps a filleting might do it the world of good.

Yesterday I heard The World Today’s ‘story’ on Australians who are spending $555 million on ‘useless study’. Apparently many students obtain qualifications they don’t use when they leave university.

We were treated to the damning example of the person with a degree in tourism who then got an entry level tourism job. We were told;

‘The boss is unhappy because the employee lacks everyday customer service skills and the employee is unhappy because their degree, which covered things like management and policy) is unused’.

The interviewer, Linda Mottram responded with the theatrical gravitas of a home shopping presenter,

“How much would you expect to pay for this useless education?” she shrieks. “What’s the cost?” sotto voce – to the taxpayer

Perhaps if Ms Mottram had undertaken a useless degree in journalism, she would have instead asked questions like;

 – What is the time frame on deeming a qualification useless? How many of those with ‘useless’ qualifications go on to use them later?

 – Does the tourism grad expect to start working in the industry at a lower level, and work their way up, therefore using their degree later? 

 – If the tourism graduate is short on customer service training, how does this negate the value of their other tourism qualifications?  One thing does not lead to another, or as we simpering morons without extensive customer service training would say, this is a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy

 – If a student forgoes their tourism degree for a qualification in customer service, and then ends up running the company, do you deem their original qualification useless? 

 – You said that employers were using a bachelor’s degree as a ‘filter’, choosing candidates who had a degree. It seems to me that if a degree makes you more likely to get a job it doesn’t fit well with the definition of ‘useless’. Or are you saying that employers are so stupid they need to be told who to employ?

 – How did you judge useless? If, for instance, the student develops self discipline, or perhaps basic literacy during the course of their degree, is this deemed ‘useless’ to their entry level position? 

 –  Let’s talk about the broader context. SkillsIQ is a government research body. The Liberal government actively supports private training organisations which provide ‘skills training’ in areas like customer service (ingratiating servitude), or using a cloth and breathing at the same time. How do you respond to the claim that this is simply another example of the government attempting to undermine the university sector in favour of their well-heeled donors, the private training sector? 

And finally, perhaps the most important question;

 – Given that the university sector is currently under pressure to limit the amount of the everything it currently offers that isn’t Vice Chancellor’s reimbursements, can you tell us how this isn’t just some made-up, bullshit study intended to appeal to Liberal voting Murray and Janice who always knew that young people’s degrees were useless and students would be better off just working hard like they did in the 1970s, and also aren’t young people annoying and full of themselves?

These are just a few of the gaping holes in the four minute interview. How on earth Radio National can be considered a serious broadcaster beggars belief.


Wooly thinking part two

Does autism correlate with high IQ?

Or is this simply a form of reverse stigma?

I’ve mused about the apparent paradoxes in the diagnoses of autism before but I’ve yet to find anything that’s making me think that most people with autism are bloody geniuses.

There is a study which suggests that many of the genes implicated in autism are also those implicated in high IQ, but, as anyone who knows anything about genetics will tell you, it’s very difficult to identify ‘a gene for X’. Basically, this is the equivalent of searching for The Bachelorette gene.

I particularly enjoyed this article that told me that people with ASD are brainy because compared to the general population,

Nearly half of children (46 percent) who have been diagnosed with ASD have an above average intellectual ability, however, it differs from person-to-person.

That’s right, almost fifty percent of those with ASD fall above the average! Which I guess means that 54% fall below the average. Which tells me nothing except that as a population people with ASD are slightly dumber than those without ASD. It depends, I suppose, on how they define ‘average’ – for me, I take a pretty straight up mean/median approach, (the sample was 10 000) but maybe they decided that the top of the curve was actually a table top.

I see you, kurtosis, and I place a plate and some chips on top of you!

How good is science reporting? I mean, really. This shit is top drawer.

Depression and anxiety; The new racism

It’s been a hell of a few weeks. Clearly I am suffering from stress. It could lead to depression, or perhaps anxiety.

Or perhaps I’m just busy and under pressure. Perhaps I’ll just harden the fuck up for a bit and see if that helps.

First; a warning. This is just some out-loud thinking. Sorry if it doesn’t make any sense. I’m stressed etc.,.

Yesterday I heard Frank Furedi speaking about freedom of speech on Radio National. I’ve not heard of Furedi since I was an undergrad student, about 20 years ago. I liked his work then, but have shifted in other (leftward) directions since.

Yesterday, I listened to him argue that Western universities are increasingly self-censorious. This is because, under a neo-liberal consumerist model, they’re competing for students. There are prizes for the least confronting course content, according to him.

Education has become commodified, of course, but it’s happened in weird ways. University is no longer an adult stage, it is a continuation of a cosseted larval form, where endlessly fretting parents shuffle continuously build a fuzzy little ‘happy bubble’ around their children.

Every year the numbers of university students applying for special consideration on the basis of ‘stress’ or ‘depression and anxiety’ increases, as students pathologise the normal pressures of life in the adult world into an ever-expanding rubric of ‘wellness’.

Furedi often writes about this cultural turn. Furedi seems to focus on the personal elements of this; the pedestrian dog-whistle that all young people are feeble minded snowflakes. I’m unmoved by this, as it’s basically just same-old inter generational cruelty. What’s more interesting are the structural dimensions – how did we get to the point where these frailties became such an integral part of identity?

In the period of late capitalism, we are encouraged to focus our attention on ourselves so as to avoid looking at the structural inequities and problems that may affect our ‘wellbeing’. This is one of the key ways that neo-liberalism works – it is the cult of the individual; If you can’t make life work, it’s because you’ve got something wrong with you. You have an illness. I’ve moaned about how this insidious cult of wellness operates before.

There are many orthogonal structural considerations here. For just one example; all capitalist systems require a certain degree of labour market elasticity. This is what the NAIRU (Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) refers to. It is simply the rate of unemployment that can be sustained before inflation rises.

In the old days, the easiest way to secure churn at the bottom of the labour market was simply racism – you brought people in to your country and then stigmatised them so they would remain at the bottom. I’m over simplifying, but we can recognise this pattern in the Australian context, and in other places too. It’s hardly a radical observation. The decline in Empires (something that really only happened with the recession in the second half of the 1970s) has made flat-out racism more unpalatable (but still very much alive make no mistake) and immigration much harder to manage. But the market still needs a bunch of people who will buy things but can’t work all the time. I find it fascinating to see how ‘anxiety’ plays out, the structures around it, and most importantly, the intersection with the labour market. Those with ‘mental health’ (we’ve dropped the ‘problems’) are frequently cycled in and out of the labour market, and enfeebled by a coterie of ‘experts’ who convince them of their lack of self worth. It is unsurprising to me that this predominantly affects women, and has risen in lock step with the expansion of the service sector, with its zero hours contracts and predominantly women’s participation.

There’s another dimension to Furedi’s comments about education and feeble-mindedness, however. The commodification of a university education under a neo-liberal model has seen a dramatic increase in university enrolments. I’ve written about this in the Australian context before. My point is, universities are now accepting students who are completely unprepared for a university education.

One of the one hand, it’s predatory lending – inviting students to buy a mediocre education where they barely scrape through a general degree, with the help of multiple concessions to ‘stress’ or ‘depression’, is of questionable benefit. Many emerge with little more than a more finely honed sense of their acute and personal failings. There are graphs around that demonstrate the rise in ‘support services’ within the tertiary sector.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this. I left school very young, with no qualifications, convinced by my family and teachers that I was so hopelessly stupid that if providence smiled upon me I’d end up in a medium security prison. It was through a series of accidents that I found myself at university in my early 20s, entering through a special dispensation – ‘you can have a crack and if you pass everything, you can stay’.

So I’m cautious about Furedi and suggesting that university entry requirements should be tightened as it may exclude those who might genuinely benefit, but it doesn’t prevent a clear eyed discussion of what the actual benefits are, or what role university education might play in a person’s life.

I’ll leave that there. Apologies for lack of coherent thought.

My inner critic.

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Interesting or troubling? This article popped up on my facebook feed.

I’m wary of articles that suggest that caring, loving parents should constantly fret over ‘doing it wrong’.

The article itself even acknowledges this pressure – referencing the ‘Shitty Guilt Fairy’ before racking up a couple of lines of coke for the aforementioned fairy.

I’ve got some issues;

First; the author tells us that we shouldn’t tell our children off in a negative way. Here she is describing her daughter pretending to tell the adults off in a stern way,

I decided she must have picked it up from someone. But who? She spends most of her time with me and I know I don’t shout like that. I certainly don’t use that horrible inflection at the end of my sentences. Who the hell could she have picked it up from?

Then, in the car park of Pak n Save, she did that thing that I’ve asked her not to do a thousand times. That thing where she lets go of my hand and runs off. It scares the shit out of me for obvious reasons. Coupled with my fear is also my anger: she knows better than this. Our subsequent conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey, you know not to run off in car parks. That really scared mummy!

Her: [eyes looking somewhere above the top of my head]

Me: You know you must hold my hand when we’re near cars!

Her: [eyes looking off to the right as she starts humming a little tune to herself.]

Me: What do I say about cars? You must hold my hand, okay?  OKAAAAAAY?!

Ugh. So that’s where she’s been getting it from. That’s one harsh penny dropping right there.

I don’t know about you, but I find hearing my own shitty communication mirrored right back at me through my angelic two year-old’s mouth particularly hard to swallow. I feel not just ashamed but also incredulous at how oblivious I was to it. I literally spent two weeks trying to work out who she’d modelled her behaviour from and I had ruled myself out almost instantly. I’m a conscious parent for God’s sake! I care about this stuff! I read parenting advice on communication! WTF?

The other particularly horrible thing is that I’ve had a successful career as a life coach for the last 12 years; I get paid to help people be happy. And there’s one major thing that makes all the difference to how happy someone is and it’s not about earning the highest income. It is our inner dialogue…

This inner dialogue eventually develops into your Inner Critic. You know, that little voice that beats you up, and says really unhelpful things to you like: Who do you think you are applying for that job? You suck at your job.  You’re a crap parent. You’re a lazy parent. You really screwed up today. It’s your fault your partner left you. I can’t believe you buggered that up again – idiot. Don’t be silly, why would they like you?

In summary, there are two main categories of feedback being played inside your head: Who do you think you are? And: You’re not good enough. If you pay attention to your Inner Critic for a while you will see this for yourself.

You can see how treating yourself this way has an erosive impact on your wellbeing and happiness and holds you back. Our aim in coaching is to transform the Inner Critic to Inner Coach. The Inner Coach is far from Pollyanna positive. We don’t want you going around giving yourself high-fives for making a sandwich, or looking in the mirror saying, “yeah, you shouted at your child – AWESOME!’ We want you to have a reasonable voice in there, a logical one, a kind one. You want to help yourself manage your life, make good decisions, and recover from adversity, be resilient. You want to learn from your mistakes and encourage yourself to grow. You want a reasonable, logical, truth-telling voice that helps you learn. You want to say: ‘Charlotte, that wasn’t your best parenting moment. I know you can make improvements.Why don’t we do it this other way tomorrow…?’

The question that everybody asks is why? Why does it evolve to become your inner critic, rather than your inner coach? Why does it evolve to be negative and not positive?

From my own experience and my work with clients, I subscribe mostly to theory that we model language from those around us and unfortunately some of those people weren’t or aren’t always kind. We learn to talk to ourselves in the same way we are talked to and around.

This last point means that we all do what my daughter did: we talk the way we got talked to. Our brains can’t help it – we have to learn language by modelling as there is no other way to do it. That same language eventually gets used to communicate to ourselves inside our head.

This means that way you talk to and around your children will become their inner dialogue.

So, saying, ‘No! Don’t run into the traffic!’ will give your child an inner critic. An inner critic that screams; ‘Hey, loser! Run into the traffic!’.

You know what? I’m not buying it. Almost everyone I know was brought up with ‘No! Don’t do that!’ usually promptly followed by; ‘Or you’ll get a smack’. As the Dunedin study tells us, almost all children of the 1970s were brought up with physical punishment – almost entirely gentle, but physical none-the-less. And yet, most of the children in the Dunedin study turned out fine.

Which brings me to the author, a ‘life coach’ whose experience is wrestling people’s ‘inner critics’ into submission. Let’s talk about selection bias. Life coaches do not deal with people who think they can solve their own problems.

When you’re dealing with losers, improvement is a relative function. It does not prove the author’s ‘theories’ as useful for the rest of us.

Let’s be clear. It’s bloody great to have an inner critic. No, not an ‘inner coach’. An inner critic. Sure this critic can get out of hand. But it can also tell you things you don’t want to hear, but really, really fucking need to. Your inner critic gives you guilt, shame, fear and heartbreak, all of which are far more motivating than anything your lame-o “Inner Coach” could come up with.

Your inner critic will enable you to work harder towards your goals. It might enable you to be more considerate of the other people in your life. Tenacity is the result of a robust debate with your inner critic.

We have turned to a world of wooly booly psycho-babble that places the individual at the very core in every facet of life. Personally I think this is an effective way of depoliticising young people, as we turn critical thinking inwards like a perverse 1980s board game;

Hey, young people, make sure your identity matches your sexual preferences AND your gender! Come up with your own acronym to win the game! 

In this way young people internalise the message that they can control themselves, but nothing else. It is designed to replace political activism with faux activism – to wit, endless comment threads about who is more disempowered/outraged/wronged than who vis a vis gender/identity/personhood.

So, there’s that. But then there’s something more worrying about this article.

The author tells her toddler that her actions ’caused Mummy to be scared’.

Two year olds have enough trouble dealing with the concept that they have their own thoughts, feelings and sense of self. This is a completely non-controversial stage of child development. (It’s also the cause of much toddler angst and trantrumming).

The toddler struggle is working out when and how to be responsible for their own actions (as opposed to being simply part of someone else). Telling a toddler that they’re also responsible for Mummy’s feelings too is cruel.

Apparently, during these ‘telling offs’ the author’s daughter looks above her head, and then off to one side, and then starts humming to herself. This is completely consistent with a kid who is too young for the cognitive pressure of being responsible for an adult’s feelings.

Mummy is very, very important. And now I’m making her scared. I need to modify my behaviour so she isn’t scared. But it’s really hard to modify my behaviour. I’m working on it, but man, IT’S HARD. Cos I’m TWO.

Hey toddler, it’s your fault if Mum goes tits up. No pressure, kiddo.


This article is aimed at middle class mothers, who’re already at the pointy crescendo of Mummy-guilt. Hey, Mums, forget everything you know about mothering (that your learned from your own mother…..FIRST THE GINGER CRUNCH, NOW THIS!), you must change how you speak to your child. Every single utterance must be monitored, lest your comments become potting mix for the devastating inner critic. But hey no pressure!

The author also tells us that telling your kid off is bad, but gives no alternatives. I mean really, aside from telling her toddler she’s scaring her, I thought her admonishment was completely fine; DO NOT BUGGER OFF IN THE CARPARK is pretty straightforward.

So I’m wondering if the author is an adherent of the new fashion for ‘no negative talk’ parenting, where children are never told no. Bad behaviour is addressed by distraction,

Darling, I can see you really love the plasma cutter (validate their experience), but look at this! It’s tickle me Elmo! (distract child from imminent emasculation).

Of course, the no-negative-talk parents are middle class working parents, so they’re probably not the child’s primary caregiver anyway.

“Here’s his organic snack box and filtered water. Now, we don’t tell Oliver ‘No’, as we’re nurturing his inner coach, not his inner critic”.  

Good luck with that. Kids learn ‘negative talk’ pretty smartly in a maxxed out daycare centre.






When the ABC does it too….

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 8.55.39 AM.pngEvery year or so Life Matters *discusses* preschool education for Australians. Yesterday we were treated to the wisdom of two experts, one of whom runs a preschool in Newcastle, and the other, an early childhood education researcher at Victoria University.

Australia sits near the bottom of relevant countries when it comes to GDP spending on pre-primary school aged children.

Industry experts say the number of years spent in early childhood education and care is a strong predictor of the level of performance reached at later stages, both in and out of school.

Naturally we were treated to frightening statistics. Well, one anyway. Did you know that children who attended preschool did twice as well in high school science? And did you also know that there’s almost no point in sending kids to preschool for just one day a week, they need to attend much more than that!

Let’s start with the claim that kids who go do preschool turn out better human beings. Here’s the thing, preschool costs money. Poor kids are less likely to go to preschool. Poor kids also do worse in high school generally. This obvious confounder was not even mentioned. Same goes for women in the workforce. Kids with working Mums tend to grow up and work themselves. Mum-key see, mum-key do.

Certainly, some studies show that children from highly disadvantaged backgrounds who attend preschool do better at school than their peers who don’t, but this is probably because they’re getting access to an enriching environment instead of sitting front of the TV. Spending the day in jail in an underground Nepalese coal mine would most likely improve their performance, compared to staying at home.

No matter, though, that’s just research. BORING! We all know that preschool education is awesome for all kids! In fact, some countries have now decided to do away with parenting altogether and turn the whole thing into a profession that the state pays for. It worked with dentistry!

The message from Life Matters was unashamedly biased – Australia should provide access to preschool for all three and four year olds. It helps them with their literacy and numeracy when they reach school, and teaches them how to cope in a large group.

I could go on about the multiple ways this is bullshit, but I won’t. It is, after all, a shameless puff piece engaging in the worst kind of cherry-picking to appeal to its demographic – working, predominantly middle class women who want free, full time childcare. It’s telling that for all the talk of ‘preschool as education’, the head of the Newcastle centre still referred to it as ‘childcare’.

So here’s the other side of the story; children with an enriching home environment can and do thrive when they hit school. Moreover, many children find the noise, chaos and violence of a preschool setting troubling and exhausting. Have you ever been to a preschool? It’s like someone airdropped a shipping container of methamphetamine into the meercat enclosure. However, as with daycare, stressing the shit out of small children isn’t destined to get a whole lot of government sympathy and attention.

And this is because it’s the economy, stupid. There is no longer an option for anyone to stay at home with the kids, unless you’re part of the minuscule elite. Mum or Dad must now work. Grandparents who are well enough to look after children are actually in Tuscany/Rome/Portugal at the moment. And who can afford to rent a place in the same neighbourhood as a baby boomer anyway? What everyone could do with is a spot of free childcare. And so this is the line Life Matters is pushing.

I’m not anti-preschool. My kid went to preschool, for two years, before (public) school. In the first year (at age three) my kid attended one day a week. This was all we could afford. The following year we were a little better off financially, and started going two days a week. The kid did not cope at all and was a complete wreck. We quickly pulled it back to one day a week. Of course, I’m not suggesting our experience is generalisable – unlike the radio program that entreated listeners to call in with ‘their experiences’. Did you go to preschool? How has it worked out for you? Very scientific.

But seeing as you ask….I went to preschool – it was a community run playgroup thing. We didn’t have ‘early childhood educators’ – we had a bunch of Mums in track-pants not contributing to the tax base while we tried hard to set one another on fire. It was excellent. My later high school performance can be best summed up as abominable.

Perhaps I wasn’t ‘ready’ for the classroom – didn’t have my literacy and numeracy nailed, compared to my peers. Well, this is just a comparative measure – pretty meaningless. Who cares if you can’t read when you’re six? Steiner kids don’t even start to read until someone really needs to know what’s in a packet of Cheezels. Doesn’t seem to do them much harm. Or those home-school weirdos. They seem to do rather well, actually. In fact, there are heaps of kids who do rather well outside the mainstream, homogenising school system.

Again, we’re in the mainstream school system, and it’s bloody great – our experience with the public school education system is that it’s creative, engaging and bloody good fun. It does not need to start any earlier than five though.


500 words; Risk, autism and wooly thinking

None of this makes much sense, it’s really just me mapping out questions rather than answers.

Recently a friend claimed that everyone at MIT (where she studied) was on the spectrum. The assumption that intelligence corresponds with autism is well known – here’s a primer on the idea that certain alleles crossover for both.

Basically, the argument runs that autism is like a concentrator – some bits of the brain get gooderer, while others get badderer. The article I’ve cited talks about this from an evolutionary perspective, including ‘assortative mating’ – like mates like.

Here’s my question – everything I’ve read about the ‘stratospheric rise’ in autism suggests that it has something to do with rapid changes in the environment (in an evolutionary sense), especially pre and immediately post-natally. In other words, the food we eat and behaviours we engage in, especially stressful ones, positively correlate with a diagnosis of autism.

I don’t know if I believe in a ‘rise’ in autism – seems like the diagnostic criteria is tremendously malleable, you can see this in the discrepancies across social categories too.

I guess I’m musing on an apparent paradox;

The rise in autism is supposedly caused by poor environment – high maternal sugar intake, high post natal stress/cortisol etc.,. and yet autism would seem to correspond with high ‘innate’ IQ – that is, ability to think about difficult topics logically (expressing this is a different story).

Does this lead to the conclusion that the rise in Lifestyles of the Poor and Ignominious have resulted in higher levels of IQ – albeit alongside autism?

Doesn’t stack up for me.

I’m wary of labelling everyone smart with being ‘on the spectrum’. As a child I was diagnosed as 100% NutBar – with many troubling behavioural and learning issues (I’m NOT labelling being on the spectrum with being a nutbar – I am claiming my own experience not speaking for anyone else’s here).

My life was very stressful but we lived in an affluent area where social problems are far more likely to be pathologised as medical ones.  Then at 13 I moved schools and started living in a hostel. Suddenly (almost) every problem I’d ever had with learning and behaviour magically evaporated. I’m not suggesting that I am completely ‘not nutbar’ – I am a bit odd, and that’s good. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with being on the spectrum – as long as the consequences are good rather than negative (stigma etc.,.) but that’s another set of issues. But, I am suggesting we should be realistic about the range of human variability, and realistic about what that means. Diagnosing epidemics of this and that makes me uncomfortable.

I’m not suggesting autism doesn’t exist, or making claims about causality or anything else, I’m just very interested in what appears to be a paradox described above.

I guess another way of saying this would be – if we define IQ as the type of stuff people with autism are good at (the type of thinking defined in the article I cited above) then is there now more of it? And is this due to shitty western lifestyles?