Sunday, April 5, 2009

What makes a good leader?

"I carry twenty-three great wounds, all got in battle. Seventy-five men have I killed with my own hands in battle. I scatter, I burn my enemies tents. I take away their flocks and herds. The Turks pay me a golden treasure. Yet, I am poor, because I am a river to my people!"

Audar Abu Tayi as played by Anthony Quinn from David Lean's film, Lawrence of Arabia.

As they wing their way home from the G20 meeting, the world's leaders are no doubt thinking "How can I keep this going? How can I continue to be a river to my people?" In our modern, progressive world their people can be a tiny group of insiders like those presently pillaging the USA's financial system, while those millions who think they are their Dear Leader's people are a great mass of suckers sitting with their jaws hanging slackly in front of the TV, which is telling them what the insiders want them to believe.

When the pie is expanding any half-competent leader can be a river to their people, but the cruel truth is that when the pie starts to shrink the leader must make a choice. Like a loving parent, do I share among the family equally? Or do I make sure those who put me where I am are kept mind-bogglingly rich and the rest go hang (one in ten Americans are receiving food stamps)? It's an easy choice if the masses can be kept lobotomised by the idiot box and when that stops being effective you can always bring the troops home. A tip from the Chinese: never use troops to maintain order in their home province. Avoid conflicts of loyalty! You want them to shoot into the crowd, not over their heads.

Our own Dear Leader, one K Rudd, doesn't have such a brazen group of blood-sucking insiders to protect, but he has to look after his constituency, which is the scared lower-middle-class and working class mortgage belt. The fact that the living arrangement which all these people depend upon has now passed its use-by date must never be mentioned. At all costs growth must be restarted so that builders laborers keep buying V-8 utes with lots of hot accessories: along with fleet buyers they are the only hope for the local car industry. Even Paul Keating was on TV the other night repeating the mantra of growth. Paul is definitely starting to lose it. I can forgive the unmistakable signs of aging, the loss of mental speed and acuity which happens to us all. But how can he be so moronic as to believe that growth can go on forever in a finite world? This is a moral and intellectual failure which discredits all he stands for and all who stand with him. It is understandable that an incumbent politician might skirt around the issues we face, but someone who has little current stake in the power structure and considerable public standing should tell it like it is.

Our present crop of leaders see the equation of growth=more pie=happy followers as the only possible paradigm worth planning for and worth talking about. While some of them acknowledge, at least privately, the possibility that growth may not continue, they simply can't bring themselves to consider what that may mean. Part of it is an understandable squeamishness. Leadership in a time of decline is not nearly as much fun. It involves acknowledgment of limits to one's own power and of the patronage one can dispense. It means saying uncomfortable truths to a public many of whom will be in deep denial and who will be very angry and looking for scapegoats. It's the sort of environment that will attract a toxic type of leadership, ready to play on irrational fear and anger. It's much easier to keep repeating the growth mantra and let others cop the flack if they want to be the bearers of bad news.

Why do we need growth? Well actually we the people don't, but our financial system does, built as it is around fractional reserve banking and credit. It literally cannot exist without growth. That is why it's going to collapse now that we are up against our resource limits (oil principally, but others are not far behind). And our dependence on the financial system as it's now structured means our heads are all in the noose. Can a system exist without growth? Absolutely. Most natural systems are like that. It's what sustainability is supposed to mean. We are creatures like any other: we can live in a sustainable system. What about sustainable growth, the new hybrid which I've heard various bubble-heads spouting on about? It is impossible nonsense, in the same league logically as perpetual motion machines. It is usually a cover phrase for some sinister and far from sustainable development of some kind.

So why cant we have good leaders who say it like it is and point things in the right direction? Why cant we change to a financial system which doesn't depend on perpetual growth? Well theoretically we can have both. In practice we will have the second anyway because if we don't impose it on ourselves reality will do it for us, most likely in a very uncomfortable fashion. But discomfort will be there even if it's voluntary. And realistically do many people impose hardship and discomfort on themselves voluntarily? And if it is imposed by a kind but stern leadership, how many would buck against it?

So the reality is that our leadership is only going to be as good as we are willing to accept. If we cant accept reality, no leader getting real with us will be effective. In fact such a leader runs considerable personal risk. Thus in the end we will get the leadership we deserve.

1 comment:

Tim said...

The optimist in me likes to hope that all this talk of "returning to growth" and "kick-starting the credit markets" is just rhetoric from leaders who understand the reality but also realise the political implications of telling it straight.

Stimulus packages and bail-outs of non-viable businesses will only delay the inevitable, but that might not be such a bad thing. By letting the system down slowly, there's a chance for some transition.

Sudden changes are never good in any dynamic system - whether it's mechanical or economic. To stop a speeding truck in its own length won't leave much of the truck (or whatever you crashed it in to), and to suddenly shift an economy from expansion to contraction will also make a mess.

I hope that injecting a few billion dollars here and there will cushion the reversal, and give time to adjust to the inevitable changes. It won't "return us to growth" as they claim. Market confidence feeds off itself, so I guess it's important to talk the market up, keep the players playing, while those of us who are paying attention prepare for the swing.

Likewise with the bail-outs of the doomed automotive industry in the USA. I hope everybody concerned at the senior level see these for what they are: a wind-down fund. For GM to order an end of production and lay off all staff in one time would be a social disaster, and the government knows it. For the modest price of a few billion bucks, they are buying the time it takes to lay the carcases of the Big Three down gently. It's still going to be messy and will turn countless lives upside down, but a slow wind-up will cause less upheaval than a sudden (albeit predictable) collapse.

I like to hope there's a whole lot of benevolent secrecy going on at the highest levels, and we're only being told what we need to know.

The other option is that those in powerhave no idea what's really going on, believe their own spin, and truly believe things will get back to "normal" soon.

Either we're being stage-managed, or we're going to live in very interesting times.