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Satyajit Das on the ‘financialisation’ of our society

Read Friday, 25 Mar 2022

We sat down with finance expert Satyajit Das to discuss the ‘gigification’ of our economy and what Douglas Adams would have thought about the pandemic. 

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What do you mean when you say: ‘We don’t have a society anymore, we have an economy’?

We have ‘financialised’ everything – in effect, we try to place a value on all aspects of life. We make decisions according to a monetary calculus excluding other elements. So, our choices are increasingly narrowly based and our decisions are poorer.

Senator Robert Kennedy provided the most eloquent criticism of this:

‘Our gross national product … counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts … the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts … the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armoured cars for police who fight riots in our streets…Yet [it]… does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or … the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials … it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’

The E.W. Cole Lecture you’re delivering is named for legendary Melbourne bookseller E.W. Cole, whose Book Arcade on Bourke Street in Melbourne reached across three floors and featured a live band, an art gallery and a fernery. Cole was also a champion for literacy and education. What do you think you would have talked about if you’d had dinner together?

I think we would have a lot in common. We both love books and matters of the mind. He was an anarchist and iconoclast. He didn’t suffer fools kindly. And he called a spade a spade or something more colorful. We would have had a hoot about the fact that a white, Anglo-centric Australia would have of all people me – an Indian immigrant – giving the inaugural lecture honoring him.

How has the pandemic entrenched the divide between what you call the ‘two Australias’?

It has shown our reliance on a casualised, gig economy workforce who are basically piece workers to keep the economy going. Unfortunately, as we have found, that creates problems for public health.

It has entrenched this divide. Wealthier groups have benefitted from low interest rates by way of higher house prices and rising share values. Low-income groups have used up a lot of their savings (some have dipped into their saving like superannuation – withdrawing an estimated A$30-40 billion). It is also inter-generational – children of lower income groups have suffered more from loss of schooling due to the digital divide.

Your upcoming talk at the Wheeler Centre is called ‘A Hitchhikers Guide to our Crises’. What would Douglas Adams have made of the COVID-19 pandemic?

I don’t think Adams would have been surprised. After all, the earth was being demolished to make way for a galactic super-highway. He thought Dolphins and most forms of life were smarter than us. Remember what they say as they abandon humans to their fate: ‘So long and thanks for all the fish!’

What shape do you think the Australian economy will be in 12 months from now?

Not much will, unfortunately, change. We will continue to bumble along waiting like Mr. Micawber for ‘something (probably some technological placebo cure) to turn up’. It’s a world of ‘extend-and-pretend’, ‘kick-the-can-down-the road’.

Large systems don’t collapse quickly. They slowly decay. ‘This is the way the world ends’, T. S. Eliot tells us at the end of his 1925 poem, ‘The Hollow Men’: ‘not with a bang but a whimper.’

 


 

On Thursday, 31 March, Satyajit Das will deliver the inaugural E.W Cole Lecture at the Wheeler Centre. This is a new series which features Australia’s brightest thinkers speaking on optimistic, progressive and future-thinking ideas for our society and our world. Find out more.  His latest book Fortune’s Fool: Australia’s Choices is out now.

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