Journalist Michael Roddan gives a thorough report on the Banking Royal Commission.
The banking royal commission, long resisted by government and the industry itself, lifted the lid on a snake's pit of scandalous behaviour. There seemed to be no bottom to the wrongdoing. The banks basically had a licence to pick-pocket their customers. A steroid fuelled sales culture took no prisoners when it came to signing up people to useless financial products. Overlooking this feeding frenzy was a rogues' gallery of corporate executives and managers. It's astonishing that such highly paid individuals could be so incompetent, causing so much damage to their respective institutions. Witness the demise of former treasury head and NAB Chairman Ken Henry, singled out in Justice Kenneth Hayne's final report.
Michael Roddan, a finance journalist with The Australian, has written a rollicking page-turner that doesn't shy away from skewering some of the banks' worst offenders. The book employs a sharp, acerbic wit making The People Vs. the Banks an entertainment, almost a lark and a frolic. That doesn't distract from the serious issues at stake. Roddan devotes chapters to some of the cases the royal commission covered, but the media forgot, such as the treatment of indigenous Australians by the finance sector. A worthy document of a sorry history in Australia's corporate culture.
The People Vs. the Banks, by Michael Roddan. Published by Melbourne University Press. RRP: $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
British journalist Oliver Bullough explains how the rich hide their money - from regulators and tax authorities - and why we should care.
Moneyland is the story of how the world’s super rich – whether they derived their wealth by fair means or foul – secretly stash away their money, hiding it from tax authorities and regulators. British journalist Oliver Bullough begins the story with the Bretton Woods Agreement, established in 1944. The whole idea of this agreement was to limit destabilising, speculative money from travelling across borders. The rich and big business would have to keep their loot in the one place. This system lasted for a while, but would soon be subverted by the cleverness of financiers and their even smarter lawyers. With the ingenious use of shell companies, trusts, secret bank accounts, bearer instruments and a whole host of other tricks that bent but not entirely broke the law, the ridiculously wealthy could avoid tax. Not only that, they could remain anonymous, especially handy if you’re a dictator looting your own country.
Money at this scale is powerful enough to make the rules. The complexity of the paper trails hiding so much money, created by an army of extremely well resourced lawyers, means bringing cheats and scammers to book has become increasingly difficult. More worryingly, the pile of this secret money buried in complex trust funds and Byzantine shell company arrangements is now in the trillions. The wealthy – a lot of them corrupt, or dodgy at the very least – are only getting stronger, able to buy their own immunity.
There’s no denying Moneyland can make for disheartening reading. The pointless greed and waste is staggering. We read of corrupt politicians and their specially designed toilets featuring a television set at eye level, so one can defecate and watch a favourite show; or the rich woman who wears a nappy on her plane trips because she can’t be bothered going to the toilet. Nevertheless, Oliver Bullough has done us a service by explaining in a lively and easy to follow manner how this complex global trade is effected, and the deleterious impact it has on democracy and equality. While so much financial sleaze and chicanery is hard to swallow, as citizens it’s better to be informed than in the dark. A lack of public outrage – due to the arcane manner of these transactions – only allows this murky underworld to keep on flourishing.
Moneyland: Why Thieves & Crooks Now Rule the World & How To Take it Back, by Oliver Bullough. Profile Books. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Energy expert Matthew Warren explains the politics, economics and science of our power grid. Non-partisan, accessible and illuminating, Blackout is a breath of fresh air.
Who can make sense of Australia's energy policy over the past decade? It's been a time of time of hot, often over-the-top political debate. In such a noisy atmosphere the average punter has little hope of sorting fact from fiction. Into this breach steps Matthew Warren, an energy insider with fifteen years experience.
As Warren explains in Blackout, his guide for the perplexed, in the past none of us had to pay much attention to how energy was produced, transmitted and marketed. The grid was run (mostly) on coal, and that was that. Then came climate change, a scientific theory we are reminded, not a proven fact, and everything started to change. Insurance companies, who were key stakeholders when it came to climate variation, started to price in climate change. While politicians on the right and left bickered, business started moving, accepting that climate change was most likely real and entering it into their decision making. Soon enough it was no longer viable to invest in new coal generation. As coal plants have continued to close, with more slated to wind down in the coming years, Australia's electricity grid has become more fragile.
On top of this there has been a mammoth uptake of rooftop solar, the result of a shambolic series of government policies giving subsidies to middle-class home owners. Prices for solar have dropped, making it a cheaper source of power generation than coal. The problem now for the grid is to integrate intermittent renewable power with traditional thermal power, such as coal and gas. This is not as easy as it seems, there being many technical problems that need to be overcome. The process is not helped by the ad hoc policy making of politicians, most of whom don't understand energy or climate change.
Matthew Warren has done us all a service by writing this lucid explainer on how Australia's energy grid works. It's a complex, sometimes messy story where science, technology and politics clash. Despite this, Blackout offers a clear narrative that is often fascinating. Read this non-partisan book and feel better informed.
Blackout: How Is Energy Rich Australia Running out of Electricity, by Mattew Warren. Published by Affirm Press. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
American journalist Anand Giridharadas pulls back the veil on the world's rich and powerful, exposing a class of anti-democratic, self-serving elites and the courtiers that serve them.
In 2011 writer and former business consultant Anand Giridharadas was made a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, a prominent think tank. Giridharadas was a bit mystified, as the Aspen Institute only takes on proven entrepreneurs successful in the business world and he was not an entrepreneur. Nonetheless, you don't knock back invitations to rub shoulders with the rich and powerful at Aspen, and so he went.
Giridharadas would participate in four one-week sessions over two years where prominent business leaders attempted to solve the world's most intractable problems. He found himself making friends with the rich and powerful, enjoying the jet setting lifestyle. But eventually cracks started to appear. Troubling inconsistencies presented themselves. The rich made money by exploiting the poor, harming the environment and many other greedy and selfish actions. The people who were responsible for so many of the world's problems believed only they could fix them.
The result of Giridharadas' conflicted conscience is Winners Take All, an intellectually rigorous critique of powerful elites and the prevailing orthodoxy that business is better at solving problems than grass roots activism and politics. It also presents stunning insights into the psychology of the rich and powerful. They feel themselves to be victims, unfairly under attack from critics, when all they are trying to do is save the world - and get rich in the process. This sensitivity to criticism means anyone lobbying for their support must temper their language: appeals must be framed positively, with no mention of the ill effects their industries produce. The result is a small, elite group living in an intellectual bubble, sealed off from the world. As Giridharadas explains, they are globalists, shifting their money and resources wherever it will make the best returns, while the rest of the population are locals, loyal to place and community. A convincing argument is made for the success of Trump and Brexit: people voted against globalism, sick of being told what to do by freewheeling elites, and in favour of local values.
Winners Takes All is all the more compelling for being an insider's account. The book's main argument is that democratic politics – problem solving by the people, for the people – has been insidiously eroded by the growing power of a rich, distant, technocratic elite. Their power has been so complete that it has also changed our thinking. We now look at the world's problems and how to solve them through the prism of big business. Giridharadas explains this phenomenon – social, economic and political – in a language that is refreshingly direct and devoid of theory and jargon. It's probably the most important book you'll read this year.
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas.
Allen Lane $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber argues that automation has already created mass unemployment, but the economy has filled the gap with dummy jobs.
Have you ever worked a job that didn’t seem necessary at all? In fact, it was a complete mystery as to why the job was created in the first place? Or has your workplace laboured under an immense weight of pointless bureaucracy – box ticking and form filling? Have you ever found it affecting your mental health, driving you positively mad? Then David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs is just for you.
The book had its genesis in an earlier article Graeber wrote, speculating that a high percentage of jobs in the modern economy were essentially dummy jobs made up of useless busywork. The article was published widely and garnered a wealth of interesting responses and testimonials from readers who had done jobs they deemed pointless. Generous portions of the book are made up of frustrated employees explaining their mind numbing jobs that involve, for the most part, pretending to be busy while actually having nothing to do. Ironically, these easygoing “dream” jobs end up being quite stressful and people quit for lower paid, more meaningful work.
To test the hypothesis that a large portion of jobs are fake, a British pollster ran a question from Graeber’s original article, asking respondents if they thought their jobs contributed anything worthwhile to society or had any use. A staggering 37 per cent said they felt their jobs were pointless.
A book about useless jobs sounds like a bit of a dummy spit, but Graeber expands this single theme into an overwhelmingly fascinating thesis. British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in the 1930s that automation would kill off the need to work long hours, and that in the future people would only work 15-20 hours per week. Graeber maintains that this is exactly what has happened. Automation and productivity gains have produced so much wealth we simply don’t need to work long hours. Writes Graeber:
“Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment. We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up.”
Bullshit Jobs discusses many other interesting facets of work, such as the value we give particular kinds of work (why are the useful professions, such as childcare and nursing, underpaid?), the mental health aspects of performing useless tasks and our general attitude to work (we see it as punitive and yet something everyone must be made to endure).
This is a totally liberating book that will make you rethink how the economy works and how it could be re-configured to serve us better. Graeber has a fine, incisive mind; every page offers original ideas and a unique perspective.
I wish everyone would read this book.
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9780241263884 RRP: $49.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books