In praise of corruption

WE VIEW CORRUPTION IN public office as, generally, a bad thing. When a politician or official takes [what looks like] a bribe, we expect them to be punished. On its face, corruption of public processes breaks our norms against fairness, because we expect the State to evaluate things—policies, projects, people—on the basis of equality, and natural justice, not whose brown paper bag was heaviest. But I want to praise corruption, not bury it.


What I'm reading: depression and the CIA's cameras

Ryan Boyd, LARB, This Long Whine:

Since the 1960s, he emphasizes, medical document-keeping has changed. In privatized health-care markets, where cost and risk are transferred to individuals, therapists write less openly and less interestingly, and contra the rich narration and character descriptions that distinguish his earlier records, now a patient’s archive is about “handing you expeditiously on to the next provider, the notes a sort of bill of lading.” There are plenty of kind, skilled, well-meaning individual doctors and therapists, but the system in which they practice turns patients into sources of revenue trailed by miscellaneous records...

A Very Public Sociologist, A Cultural Sociology of Mass Stupidity:

The neoliberal self comes packaged with other consequences: on how the individual sees themselves in the world. While this mode of governance is prescriptive about individuality, choice, and responsibility, excludes collectivism... and reinforces one's powerlessness in the face of the world, it compensates by endowing the neoliberal self with ontological and epistemological sovereignty. Put plainly, I'm all that matters and I know best. If then the cultural accent is on self-responsibility and effort, there is no higher power dictating what is and isn't true apart from your own opinions.

The Phoblographer, In the 1960s, High Resolution Color Photography Pained The CIA:

The US Government’s relationship with Kodak has always been fascinating. Labs and facilities in Rochester, NY, were developed just to deal with Classified photography and clandestine missions. Processes and films born there catered to Uncle Sam’s needs. But one can only imagine the dismay of the Chairman on September 11th, 1963: the date that Colonel Jack D Ledford filed a report saying that they started work on high-resolution Color Photography on behalf of the CIA. When they sent the negatives to Kodak, the company told the CIA that they needed some time. According to a Declassified document, Kodak wasn’t equipped to process the 9-inch materials and wouldn’t have them until the next month. Even by those standards, that’s a long time for anyone to wait to get their film back.


Six Vehicle Ferries

‘THE SEVEN BRIDGES OF Königsberg’, as well-educated readers of this blog will know, is a famously unsolveable problem in mathematics and the basis of graph theory. It’s not possible to design a walk over the seven bridges (as they were in the 18thC) in such a way as to cross each one only once. It’s lucky I’d never heard of the problem before I spent a wonderful Saturday making a round trip of the six vehicle ferries of Greater Sydney, challenging myself to see if I could cross them all without ever retracing my path. Four ferries cross the Hawkesbury River, one crosses Berowra Creek, and the other crosses the Parramatta River.



BOTH THE SCIENCES AND political conservatism tend towards interpreting the world in terms of iron law, and the principle that there is a way things naturally are that can be discovered through inquiry. That's in contrast to the alternative, more humanistic tradition, in which theoretical models have utility for explaining things, until they don't, at which point the honest thinker throws it away and makes a new model. Neither are intrinsically good or bad; the first tends towards stubborn stuffiness, the second towards fashion and cliques, but they're just approaches. Let me propose, in the first tradition, an Iron Natural Law of my own:



IN MY WORK AND in the life I enjoy outside of work, I am constantly and relentlessly confronted with strategies, plans, frameworks, units of competency, planning policies, control plans, standard instruments, codes, validation matrices, key indicator lists, and an infinite variety of other written documents by which people attempt to guarantee particular aspects of human activity. They have a particular language, such as that a document like the Australian Core Skills Framework, for use in vocational training, bears a lot of similarity to NSW strategic planning documents, setting out land use parameters. They're boring and they're annoying and they're all very much the same. It's not what they, on their faces, are for, the sameness is part of what they are: a technology of public and private government. They all share other characteristics: they're all exercises in categorisation ('Domains of Communication'! Zone Objectives!), they all exist as part of an interlocking and linked library of policies, referring to other policies endlessly, and they are all written with the objective of compliance—they try to achieve what ought to be, rather than what is. Neither are they the product of the dull libertarian imagination's concept of bureaucracy ('Red Tape!'), a dead hand of government spending, holding back vigorous Reaganite market activity; the mentality is just as pronounced in the private sector, and its happiest environment are, like adult education and training, and urban planning, the ambiguous sectors which are neither public nor private. On one hand, it serves me right for pursuing white-collar work in a regulatory industry, on the other, all of these are just part of Australia's rigid, rule-bound culture. None of us can expect anything else: this is not a planning policy pity party.

What strikes me is that what these documents—let's call them in general Frameworks—are reaching for, is a sense of fairness that we all know is denied in practice by institutions. We all know that actually, the skills of urban planners, adult trainers, teachers, and every other kind of worker, are developed over time through experience, and we can see that the world that these skills and practices exist in is unjust and unfair. We know that the most skilled workers spend most of their days applying rules-of-thumb, and following processes that constantly change, because they have to, arbitrarily. Enter the urge to build theoretical Frameworks for compliance, an understandable desire that people's work should come from some consistent and comprehensible system. How terrifying it is, to a society that makes a priority of perceived fairness over any actual equity or quality (which is to say: Australia), to acknowledge that in fact, what most people do to work is fit any available theory to the immediate demands of what-needs-doing. No wonder that the economists' joke at their own expense ('ah, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?') works so well as a general observation about how this society works!


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