A history of Australian electricity – Part 2

It occurred to me after writing last week’s post that it’s worth exploring the deregulation of the Australian electricity market in a little more detail as it’s quite indicative of the larger transformation that happened in society in 1990s. It’s that transformation that is unravelling as we speak. These are themes I’ve touched on before but they bear repeating to make sense of what’s happening in the world these days.

To recap, in 1993, Australia had about the lowest electricity prices in the developed world, which made perfect sense when you consider we had enormous coal reserves and a tightly integrated electricity grid designed around baseload power.

The market was then deregulated. The official reason given by the government was that deregulation would drive down prices, a strange claim given that prices were already dirt cheap and electricity generation is a natural monopoly and not amenable to a free market. We could discuss the theory of why this was a bad idea, but the data can do the talking.

Things really started to go off the rails at around the time of the GFC but this was also the period during which solar and wind began to be added to the grid. These two facts are not unrelated because the push for renewables in the last couple of decades is all about the profits of financial interests and, despite what the propaganda will tell you, has nothing to do with “the environment”. We’ll come back to this point later.

To see how absurd the discourse around the Australian electricity market has been, check out this article which is about a report by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO). It was written in 2014. We can see from the above graph that electricity prices had spiked by this time. Nevertheless, the article tells us that the market had an “oversupply” problem. We had too much electricity.

Economics 101 says that, when you have an oversupply, the price will go down. However, the exact opposite happened in the Australian electricity market. The expert from AEMO explained why in the article.

“The prices have been rising because of the other parts of the cost of electricity, which is the cost of getting it from the boundary of the power station through the meters of all the individual consumers,” Mr Sadler said.

And that’s considerably more than half of the total cost of the total electricity that’s supplied to households or small businesses.”

Why was the cost of transmission suddenly going up? Because of all the new renewables being hooked up to the grid that needed new connections. That’s the part that is conveniently left out of the article. This is the point I made last week. Because connection costs make up more than half the price, if you add solar and wind to the mix, even though they are cheaper to generate, the system level price goes up because of the extra cost of transmission. This is why the Australian government just announced a lazy $20bn to build new transmission lines. Where is the $20bn coming from? Debt. We’ll get to that shortly, too.

The system was over-generating in 2014 because companies are paid to generate electricity. Because solar and wind are cheaper to generate (but not to deliver) they “outcompete” fossil fuels leading to things like gas plants being shut down, the exact gas plants our “experts” now tell us need to get built to stabilise the system because apparently we don’t have an oversupply problem anymore. (Note that “oversupply” really means redundancy and redundancy is what you want in a system to keep it stable. Apparently, our “experts” don’t know that).

Let’s go back to 1993 and summarise the sequence of events. The government imposed a “free market” on the natural monopoly of electricity generation. It then proceeded to rig the market against fossil fuels and in favour of renewables encouraging extra generating capacity without the necessary transmission infrastructure. The fact that prices went up while supply increased tells you the market was already broken back in 2008, well before it was officially suspended a few weeks ago.

The only reason this shambles of a system is still running is because of the massive redundancy in the system at the start and the fact that renewables still make up a small fraction of the total energy mix.

Clearly the de-regulation started in 1993 has not achieved its stated objective of reducing prices but that should have been obvious. The truth was those measures were part of a larger historical movement sometimes referred to as “neoliberalism”. It would have been possible to introduce neoliberalism in other areas of the economy while leaving the energy system alone but the neoliberalism of the 1990s was rabidly ideological partly fuelled by the misplaced optimism that came with the collapse of the USSR. The West was the “winner” now and for ever. It was the end of history and all that crap. (The truth was the West was suffering from the same underlying problems as the USSR. We just had a little more fat built into the system.)

Neoliberalism, in part, was about going back to the laissez-faire free market days which held prior to the wars, a strange thing to do given that the free market gave us the economic crises of the 1890s and then The Great Depression. No surprise then that the same system took only about 20 years to give us another economic crisis this time around. We called it the GFC.

All that was forgotten in the 90s, however. In order to go back to the “golden days”, we first had to dismantle the existing paradigm which we can call social democracy. Social democracy was the system that was put in place after the wars and it involved doing things like having government own and run the state utilities. Thus, the de-regulation of the electricity sector can be seen as mostly an ideological move, a strong signal to everybody that the days of social democracy were done.

There are two other important factors to consider in relation to neoliberalism. The new neoliberal free market would include China who were accepted into the WTO in 2000. Then we had the Kyoto Protocol and its former and subsequent manifestations whose stated purpose was to reign in carbon emissions. Those agreements left out China and other “developing” countries meaning those countries were free to emit. And that’s exactly what they proceeded to do, fuelled in large part by Western corporations moving their manufacturing to Asia. This was another nail in the coffin of social democracy whose pesky unions demanded little luxuries like good working conditions and wages for workers (if you want to know why the unions these days are completely useless, it’s cos they sold their soul to the devil back in the 90s).

The combination of these facts meant that the system was perfectly set up to export all carbon emissions to China and the third world and that’s exactly what happened. Thus, we see that almost all growth in carbon emissions since 2000 have come from China and Asia while overall emissions have increased.

China accounted for 10% of world emissions in 2000. Today it accounts for 30%. Of course, emissions are directly related to energy production which is directly related to economic growth so all of this was perfectly predictable to anybody in the 1990s when all this was being worked out. If we had really wanted to reduce global carbon emissions back in the 1990s, we couldn’t have come up with a worse way to do it. Of course, it was clear to anybody that neoliberalism didn’t give a damn for the environment as could be seen by the complete lack of environmental standards in the various treaties of the time. Rather, neoliberalism was partly about getting around whatever environmental regulations still existed in the West by exporting the problem elsewhere.

Arguably, the social democracy paradigm was already falling apart in the 70s and so the bad decisions of the 90s were the continuation of a failure to address the underlying problem. Thus, another way to think of the 90s was that they were kicking the can down the road; a way to extract a little bit more life out of a moribund system.

It looks like the can can’t be kicked much longer. For starters, all western nations now have unpayable debts.

Spoiler alert: the predictions for 2020-2021 were wildly optimistic.

Meanwhile, the neoliberal reforms created huge inflation in the west. For the last two decades that inflation was mostly hidden but it’s now crawling out of the cupboard like the monster in some cheesy horror film.

We pretended this wasn’t inflation.

It is no small irony that it’s China and Russia who are now forcing these issues to a head. With the fall of the USSR in the 90s, the West believed we could do no wrong. The attitude towards Russia was unbelievably arrogant. Russia could have easily been incorporated into Europe in the 90s. That would have been in everybody’s interests, especially western Europe’s. Instead, Russia was treated like dirt and the completely avoidable war in the Ukraine is the end game for that trend.

I can’t help but finish with a reference to The Devouring Mother archetype.

If the US empire is The Devouring Mother, the Global South are now the geopolitical rebellious children who aren’t gonna take it anymore. Putin looks set to become the Father Figure who will provide them with both a military and economic alternative to the status quo. The Global South can only improve their relative position from here while the West can really only go backwards. The sooner we admit the reasons why, the sooner we can start to think about how we are going to live in the new world that is taking shape. Until then, however, we can expect the West to be exactly what’s it’s been the last two years and more: a madhouse.

It’s now this lot…
versus this lot.

Addendum: in news this week, the company which owns Elon Musk’s big battery in South Australia got fined for not providing power to the grid when it was needed. And the circus rolls on – https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-28/sa-agl-wind-farms-tesla-battery-fined-over-breaches/101190674

A brief history (and possible future) of Australian electricity

To know where you’re going, it helps to know where you’ve been. So what better time to do a quick review of electricity generation in Australia and see what it might tell us about the future.

Electricity first came to Australia in the ultra-optimistic years of the 1880s. This was the time when it was believed Australia would become the next USA with a huge population and thriving economy. It was before the economic crises of the 1890s and the subsequent return to British imperialist fervour that characterised the couple of decades leading into the wars.

At that time, Australia was working towards the federal constitution that came into effect in 1901. But the constitution had no provision for electricity supply. Neither were the State governments on the ball enough to see the potential for electricity. And so the early electricity generation took place at the local municipal level and was mostly privately funded.

One of the earliest power stations was the hydroelectric project in Launceston in 1895. The first large scale deployment of electricity in the form of street lights occurred not in the big cities, however, but in the towns of Tamworth and Young in 1888 and 1889 respectively. More such installations were rolled out in the following decades. The State governments eventually took control of the electricity supply with the rollout of high voltage transmission lines, a task that was overseen by the various state electricity commissions created for the purpose. It was these same commissions which oversaw the much larger build out of the grid in the post war years and all the way into the 1990s.

That build out was based almost exclusively on coal power with the Tasmanian and Snowy hydro schemes also in the mix. Australia had, and still has, enormous coal reserves with NSW and Queensland having predominantly black coal and Victoria having brown. To this day, coal is a huge export earner for the country as well as providing about 75% of our baseload electricity generation (with gas a further 16% on average).

Here in Victoria, the Latrobe Valley coal deposits have an estimated 35 billion (yep, that’s billion with a ‘B’) tonnes of economically retrievable brown coal. At current generation rates, that coal would provide electricity to the state for 500 years. Moreover, the power plants in the valley were built right next to the coal mines and so the transportation of the coal to the power plant is essentially free. It’s hard to imagine a more secure electricity generating system in a geologically, meteorologically and politically stable region. Nevertheless, we’re in the process of shutting it all down.

Dat’s a lotta coal.

The build out of mostly coal and gas fired electricity happened around Australia all the way up until the 1990s . At that time, Australia enjoyed about the lowest electricity generation costs in the developed world coming in at about half the price of German electricity and a third the price of Japanese. We also still had a viable manufacturing industry back then; a not unrelated fact.

Despite having enormous reserves of coal and gas which provided dirt cheap electricity, the federal government’s “competition policy” saw the privatisation of almost all of Australia’s generation and transmission infrastructure in the 1990s all in the name of cutting prices. The result was quite brutal, especially in places like the Latrobe Valley where thousands of workers were sacrificed on the altar of neoliberal economics. Fast forward to today and foreign companies own most of Australia’s electricity grid in one form of another and the country is left open to the whims of international finance and “the free market” who have decided that coal and gas must be phased out in favour of renewables. (Ironically, it’s the same people who think capitalism is evil who are most likely to trust that these bankers have the planet’s best interests at heart and not their own bottom line when they decide to invest in renewables).

A key feature of our electricity grid is that it was designed to have 99.9% uptime. In other words, the power should always be on. Without knowing any of the details, we can deduce from this fact that the grid had enormous redundancy built into it. That’s the only way you can get 99.9% uptime. This redundancy was easy to achieve with coal as the baseload power because the system was simple and the storage and transport costs minimal. What we have proceeded to do, starting in the 90s all the way up to til today, was make the system more complex and less redundant.

Firstly, the privatisation of the system increased its complexity in terms of ownership and governance. Some of the new owners took advantage of ambiguity in the system to start gold plating their transmission network. Basically, they were building power lines that didn’t need to be built because the rules allowed them to pass more than the cost price onto the consumer thereby making a profit by spending on unnecessary infrastructure. A charming example of the free market at work.

But the real complexity started to come into the system with the renewables push. There are two primary problems with renewables. Firstly, they are not baseload power, meaning they cannot be relied upon to provide electricity 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Secondly, the power they generate cannot be economically stored for use when the sun is not shining and the wind not blowing. The best we can do is battery but that is very expensive. If you swap out let’s say 5k MW of coal generation for solar generation, the maximum generation capacity of the system is the same. But it’s the minimum generation of the system that is more important because that is a proxy for redundancy. When the sun doesn’t shine, your minimum capacity has fallen by 5k MW. Swapping coal for solar reduces the redundancy in the system directly and also by adding complexity.

It’s only because our electricity grid already had such a huge amount of redundancy built-in that we have been able to get away with adding solar and wind and shutting down coal plants while pretending that everything is fine. But, just like in a trading market, the crunch always comes at the margins. The system breaks at its weakest link: at night in the middle of winter when a couple of baseload generators go down. Essentially, what we saw a couple of weeks ago on the eastern seaboard of Australia.

Now that the problems of the new system are starting to bite, one of the chief designers of it, Alan Finkel, was in the media this week assuring us that the transition to renewables was never meant to be easy but we can still do it. His statements are very revealing.

Finkel acknowledges that the system breaks at the weakest link and the weakest link in relation to renewables is storage. More interesting is Finkel’s admission that the current market provides no payment for storage, only for generation. His solution is to have the system pay for storage but he admits there currently are no viable storage options for renewables. The only “storage” options, he says, are coal and gas. He rules coal out as a matter of course and suggests we should do gas only because we will later be able to transition the gas-fired plants to hydrogen (his big assumption is that hydrogen will one day become technically and financially viable, something that seems to me very unlikely).

One of the things which made coal and gas so attractive for electricity generation in the first place is that you get the storage for free. Coal will happily sit there in the ground forever and wait for you to come and get it. Same with gas. With renewables, you have to spin up whole new sub-systems to create the storage. This makes an already more complex system even more complex and that has a cost in terms of energy and money.

If you have two energy systems and one is twice as complex as the other, the more complex system will need to generate more gross power to match the less complex system assuming the levels of redundancy are the same. It’s in this way that even if wind and solar are cheaper per kilowatt to generate, they may end up being more expensive than coal because of the system-level complexity costs.

This is pretty obvious when you consider that here in Victoria the plan is to swap a simple system of a few coal plants running on locally-mined coal for Finkel’s new system that is a mix of solar, wind and hydrogen. The solar panels and wind turbines must get shipped in from China as presumably would all the transmission lines. The generating capacity would likely be off in the desert somewhere meaning you’ll need heaps of extra transmission lines to bring it back to the cities. You’ll need a facility to convert the solar to hydrogen. That facility will need its own infrastructure and maintenance spending. It will have its own inputs including the chemicals used to convert the electricity to hydrogen. Then you’d have to transport the hydrogen back to the re-jigged gas generation plants. That’s just the start of the extra complexity, and therefore fragility, in the system that Mr Finkel wants us to move towards.

Note that all this complexity now has an extra geopolitical risk factor built in. Can we actually rely on China to provide the solar panels and other things needed to even run such a complex system? What happens if covid part 2 happens? What happens if a war breaks out over Taiwan? We’d be up hydrogen creek without a turbine.

Are our leaders dumb or reckless enough to take us down that path? Maybe. But reading between the lines of Finkel’s argument, I think I can see another way things may go from here. Without any viable storage options, we will simply label gas and maybe even coal as “storage” in our brand new “net zero” market. We’ll be promised that these “storage” options will be swapped out for hydrogen or nuclear just as soon as that’s possible. That will allow the political charade to continue while having a technically viable system.

But here’s the kicker: the costs of that “storage” have not been factored into the current market. That means the current price does not reflect the actual price once “storage” is included. In other words, we can expect the price of electricity to go up in the years ahead as we must pay for storage in the system. How much it will go up depends entirely on what the “complexity surcharge” for our new super complex electricity system is. Whatever it is, it’s going to be painful.

But there will be another bitter pill to swallow.

We have run down the redundancy of the system over the last two decades while making the system far more complex. Nobody is going to want to pay the price to put that redundancy back into the system. Thus, we can expect the 99.9% uptime figure to start falling. Where it ends up is anybody’s guess. The good news is that the cost curve is exponential and thus dropping back even to something like 99% would be a big saving. But even at that figure, blackouts will become a regular thing.

In short, we’re going to be paying more for a lower quality service. That’s the price of complexity.

Finally, there’s the business of all that coal in the Latrobe Valley and other places around Australia. Will things get bad enough that we build another coal plant? Will we have the money to do so even if we wanted to? It may be that that coal stays in the ground. Depending on what happens with sea levels, it might be there for a million years just waiting for some future civilisation to fire up a power plant and party like it’s 1993.

The Politics of Emergency

Ever noticed how everything is an “emergency” now? Last week on the east coast of Australia there were threats of electricity blackouts for a few days due to a couple of coal-fired power stations going offline in conjunction with some cold weather. By the way media responded, you’d think the world was coming to an end. It was, we were told, an “energy crisis”. The crisis, of course, was mostly a political one, heightened by the prominence of the climate/renewables issue in the recent federal election. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to differentiate between political emergencies and real emergencies. The two have become ever more conflated in recent decades and, as we are likely to have a lot more of both in the years ahead, it’s worth understanding the differences.

The political emergency that hit Australia last week was no surprise to anybody with some understanding of our recent political history around energy generation. The Australian electricity market is the kind of clusterf**k that can only be created by decades of bad ideas, failed policy and political grandstanding.

It all began back in the 80s and 90s where the ideology of de-regulation and privatisation was all the rage. Governments sold off what were then public assets in order to let the wonders of the free market work its magic in the utilities sector. In relation to electricity, there was a split into a wholesale market where, in theory, providers compete to supply electricity to the grid and a retail market which handles customer connections. I have seen the inside of the latter as I’ve worked on a couple of IT projects trying to get a slice of the juicy connection fee that is claimable when you hook a consumer up to the system.

To get a feel for what the retail electricity market is like in Australia, imagine a physical market full of sellers who are all selling the exact same type of shoe for which the wholesale price is the same. Imagine 10 stalls lined up next to each other with an identical white sneaker selling for $50 RRP. How would the stall holders attract customers given they are selling the same product? One way to do it is to try and hide the real price. You could offer the shoe at $40 with a $1 a month rental price. That might attract a few suckers. Maybe you could dress up in bright clothing, play loud music and do some interpretive dance about the sneaker. Maybe you could bribe customers with a gift if they buy the shoe or package the shoe together with a pair of socks for a special price.

Whatever you and the other sellers would do, the result would look less like a well-ordered market for selling goods and more like a circus. And that’s exactly what the Australian electricity market is: a circus.

Live footage of the Australian electricity market

Well, the circus broke down last week in what economists like to call a “market failure”. The government had to suspend the wholesale market in order to keep the power on. In the grand scheme of things, this wasn’t a real emergency. In a real emergency, the public is required to do something. For example, if there’s a bushfire bearing down on your house, you either get out or stay and defend. Hopefully, you are prepared for such an eventuality and the local emergency services may also lend a hand. In a political emergency, there is no need for the public to do anything but there is the need to appear to do something and that’s where politicians come into their element.

Non-essential electricity usage

For last week’s blackout risk, the NSW energy minister advised the public to switch off electrical appliances and try not to use multiple appliances at the same time. He singled out dishwashers for some reason, telling people to put the dishwasher on when they went to bed instead of during peak energy usage.

Some rational-minded people pointed out that while the politicians were advising citizens to limit their electricity usage, the city of Sydney was holding its annual Vivid Festival where numerous installations are sprinkled throughout the city showcasing artistic light displays. Lighting uses electricity, reasoned the rationalists, and therefore the NSW government was being hypocritical by telling citizens to turn off electricity while holding a festival entirely premised on using electricity.

Essential electricity usage

The irrationality of the guidance given by politicians is a key part of a political emergency. It is a feature, not a bug. Who can forget the early days of corona when we were all told to wash our hands for 30 seconds after the slightest exposure to the outside world. How about people in the US who were spraying and scrubbing groceries. All this for a virus transmitted through the air. Later we were told to wear masks which made slightly more sense but only if you ignored the fact that not a single study has shown them to be of any use in protecting against respiratory viruses. Finally, we got to the vaccine, an injectable “solution” which immunologists were fully aware could never protect from infection (the interested reader can check out Australian immunologist, Robert Clancy, explaining why the corona vaccines were never going to work).

If a nuke goes off in your area, you know what to do.

Probably the ultimate example of the uselessness of the advice given during a political emergency is the famous “duck and cover” method devised during the height of the cold war where nuclear Armageddon seemed a real possibility.

The primary purpose of the guidance given to the public during a political emergency is to give people the illusion of control. If a politician were to tell everybody to hop on one leg for 5 minutes a day, we can be quite sure a large number of people would follow along and we’d see thousands of TikTok videos suddenly appear featuring the coolest way to do it. The psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, outlined the reasons for this behaviour in a debate with Nassim Taleb where he pointed out that people will comply even if they know the advice is not of any practical benefit. There is a need, it seems, for people to do something, anything, in a time of uncertainty.

In addition to the personal psychological drivers, there is also an important socio-political element to the public advice given during a political emergency. It creates a moral-normative framework that invokes herd psychology. Immediately, an in-group and an out-group are formed. The former believes the advice given, the latter does not. The former is, by definition, aligned with the government giving the advice, the latter is not. In this way, the advice does beautifully to turn the public against itself and prevent it from uniting against the government. This is why it helps the government if the advice is really dumb, because that means some people are going to reject it and become part of the out-group.

Thus, if you point out that duck-and-cover is a dumb idea that won’t make a jot of difference in the event of a nuclear bomb going off in the vicinity, you must be a pinko-commie traitor. Don’t wanna wash your hands or wear a mask when there’s no evidence that these will work? You’re an anti-science conspiracy theorist. Don’t wanna take a vaccine that was never going to work according to the first principles of immunology? You’re an anti-vaxxer. The labels change, the pattern is the same.

The moral-normative framework creates scapegoats and every politician needs a good scapegoat in a time of emergency because, if there are no scapegoats, then the politician will become the scapegoat.

One of the many ScoMo in Hawaii memes

We saw a prime example of this during the 2019 Australian bushfires. The Prime Minister at the time, Scott Morrison, was on holiday in Hawaii when the fires broke out and was a little too slow in deciding to return home. He became the scapegoat.

There is, of course, no practical need for a Prime Minister to take an active role in a bushfire emergency. If the emergency services are well funded and properly organised, they will take care of it. That’s the whole reason why they exist. Nevertheless, politicians are expected to be there to show moral support. If they don’t, they will suffer politically and one of the ways that happens is that they get blamed for the whole thing. It’s unfair, but that’s herd psychology for you. That’s what happened to Morrison. It was an exact replica of what happened to George W Bush who was on holiday when Hurricane Katrina hit and took too long (politically-speaking) to act.

How to make up for it.
How not to make up for it.

It is because every large-scale real emergency always also becomes a political emergency that the two are conflated. The problem with hurricanes and bushfires is that it’s all but impossible to know in advance when one will become an issue of national importance. That makes the political calculus difficult and it’s easy to understand why politicians would prefer not to break a holiday until it’s absolutely (politically) necessary.

With the advent of instantaneous communication and the 24 hour news cycle, politicians are now required to show up to every emergency and look like they are in charge. This gives the viewer of the 6 o’clock news the impression that nothing happens in the world unless a politician says so which creates a positive feedback loop where politicians have to pretend even harder that they are doing something because that’s how people think the world works. This makes political emergencies more common and that is a big part of the reason why everything is an “emergency” these days.

Fact is, in a real emergency, no politician is going to save you. They couldn’t even if they wanted to. You’ll have to save yourself and the best way to do that is to be prepared and know how things work in the real world. By contrast, political emergencies aren’t to be taken seriously, which is to say, literally. Rather, you should look for the underlying reasons why the problem appeared in the first place.

In recent times, the pattern of most political emergencies is the same. The public demands things that cannot be delivered, politicians promise the impossible, and private enterprises happily accept enormous sums of public money to feed the illusion. Want to transition a power grid designed for burning fossil fuels to renewables without any loss of service or increase in price? Sure thing. We’ll just have to transfer billions to these renewable energy conglomerates while reducing the amount of redundancy in the system (leading inevitably to blackouts). Want a vaccine that stops you catching a respiratory virus? No worries. Just a sec while we throw money at Big Pharma while removing their legal liability and quality standards. What could go wrong?

That dynamic is going to give us a whole lot more political emergencies in the years ahead and, eventually, some real ones too.

Learning to Learn

All kinds of chickens are coming home to roost in western societies these days. We’re seeing systemic failure in a number of different domains, one of which is the education system. The average person on the street no doubt still believes that this is all just the result of corona or the Ukraine war and everything will eventually settle back down to normal soon enough. I doubt it. But, then again, I wouldn’t mourn the loss of the school system in its current form. Like most institutions in modern society, schools primarily serve their internal purposes and the purposes of the state. The needs of the student are a secondary concern. This raises the question of what learning might look like if it was student focused. To get an understanding of this we need simply look at how we learn when we do it for ourselves rather than for others. Let me give an example of self-education from my own life.

I started learning music in my late teens. I’m not sure why I didn’t start sooner as a I had been a major music nerd from about twelve years of age and had an extensive music collection by that time. In any case, I decided to learn electric bass guitar as I had always found myself listening to the bass in music and seemed to have a penchant for styles of music with interesting bass parts. I went out and picked up a cheap bass, a small amplifier and a beginner’s bass instruction book and got to work.

One of the advantages of self-learning is that you tend to take a practical approach where you are throwing yourself in the deep end and trying to “solve problems” from day one. For a music learner, one of the problems to be solved is how to play some of your favourite songs. Another problem might be how to turn a song idea into a reality. The achievement of these goals is the standard by which you judge your progress. They also provide built-in motivation. The day you learn to play one of your favourite songs is the day you realise that you too might be able to become as good as one of your favourite players.

When you approach learning in this holistic, throw-yourself-in-the-deep-end manner, you quickly learn where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, I was already really good at rhythm when I started playing music, which was presumably why I was drawn to the bass; a rhythmic instrument. I was always able to work out new time signatures, accents and feels based on intuition alone. I got that for free.

On the other hand, I was woeful at pitch recognition and particularly melody. It was here that I had to spend the most amount of time developing my skills. The drawback of self-learning is that you often are only somewhat conscious of your weaknesses and you don’t know what’s the best way to address them. In hindsight, what I needed to do was use either a piano or guitar for pitch and melody training as trying to translate a melody down two octaves to the bass range is itself a more difficult task that only exacerbated my difficulties. I eventually figured this all out but wasted quite a lot of time before I did.

If you go to music school, they break down these kinds of skills into classes. There will be a unit on rhythm, a unit on pitch recognition, a unit on composition and so on. One of the problems with this is that your inherent strengths and weaknesses are not factored in. If you happen to be good at rhythm already, you’ll have to sit through that class bored out of your brain. Meanwhile, pitch recognition class might go too fast for you and you’ll fall behind and get demoralised. Wouldn’t it be better if you could just skip rhythm class and devote the time to pitch recognition?

It would be quite simple (although politically unfeasible) to adapt the current education system to account for this fact. One way to do it would be that you sit the final exam at the start of the semester. If you get above a certain grade, you get a credit for that class without having to show up to the lessons. If you get below a certain grade, you have to go to class and improve. Such a system would not only be better for students, it would also provide feedback on the quality of teaching. If students got an average 60% grade at the start of the semester but only a 63% at the end, it’s pretty clear the teacher isn’t doing a very good job.

But who cares about grades? These are another relic that serves the system and not the student. When you’re learning something for its own sake, you care about results, not about grades. I was learning music to be able to play music. Success was measured in terms of how well I could do that and learning abstract concepts was only helpful to the extent that it got me to that result faster.

In the real world, nobody cares about your grades either. The other members of the band don’t give a damn that you were top of your Pitch Recognition 101 class. They care that you can easily pick up a new piece of music by ear so that band rehearsals don’t take forever. In a society that cared about producing actual goods and services or just having educated people, we also wouldn’t care about grades. Clearly we are not that society.

Instead, we are a very well educated society; the most educated society ever. And while correlation is not causation, the correlation between education and societal outcomes looks to be inverse. We’re barely able to keep the power on these days, to touch on just one of the many problems confronting us. As circumstances in the world change, the highly educated are far less likely to be able to adjust their mental models to adapt. That seems to be another side effect of our education system. By contrast, if your learning was based on problem-solving from the beginning, you are by definition going to be better at solving problems and more able to adapt.

This is true even in the more abstract realms of mathematics and computer programming. You teach the student a basic conceptual framework and then give them a problem to solve within that framework. The student will have to solve it “the hard way”. Then, in the next lesson, you give them another concept which directly relates to the problem they have just solved. The student should realise that this concept lets them solve the problem quicker but now they understand the underlying conceptual domain much better because they have spent time working in it. What happens in most maths and computer programming education is that students are taught the high-level abstract concepts without any grounding in the underlying domain. When that higher level concept fails them for some reason, they cannot debug the error because they don’t have the foundation in doing it the hard way.

The other good thing about the problem-solving approach to learning is that it introduces the student to the idea of isomorphism or, to put it colloquially, the understanding that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Good engineers don’t talk about right and wrong ways to do something, only better or worse ways given a context. Bob Dylan’s pitch recognition abilities, at least in relation to his singing, are lacking but in the context of his music that’s not a problem because it’s the poetic nature of his lyrics that sets Dylan apart. Similarly, Mick Jagger is not a pitch perfect singer. But what would sound dreadful in a barbershop quartet can be chalked up to “personality” and “flair” in a loud rock band. There’s more than one way to strangle a cat (and make millions of dollars doing so).

When you take a pragmatic, practical approach to learning, you are focused on outcomes and not abstractions. Every abstraction is valuable or not to the extent that it helps you to an outcome or expands the scope of your work. This fosters an experimental approach where you tend to try something first to see if it works rather than deduce your way to the right answer. Fail fast is the mantra for this way of approaching things. You’re more likely to come up with some novel way of solving a problem where you have inadvertently relaxed some constraint that people who have learned all the rules would never try.

You also don’t lose track of the qualitative nature of the pursuit. To return to the musical example, if your goal is to make beautiful music, any new abstraction you learn on the way is evaluated according to whether it helps fulfil that goal. By contrast, our education system sets up a series of proximate goals which are only tangentially related to the thing anybody cares about. According to the concept of Goal Displacement, we would predict that those proximate goals become ends in themselves and that is exactly what happens. Everybody obsesses about grades even though in the “real world” grades are completely irrelevant. If a pilot crashes a plane, it’s no consolation to anybody that he came first in pilot class.

Thus, we get the hamster wheel of modern education. In one of my first year university classes, the professor sternly admonished several students for putting their own ideas into their essays. Your job is to learn the literature, he instructed. You can come up with your own ideas if you make it to a PhD. That’s our education system in a nutshell. For 15 years you learn nothing more than how to regurgitate abstractions. Then we tell you you’re now free to be creative and come up with your own ideas. Unsurprisingly, the creativity almost never comes.

The truth is that almost everybody that makes it through such a system has had the creativity sucked out of them by that time. That’s a big part of the reason why our society no longer produces any genuine innovations. The time the average person spends in education has been steadily advancing for decades while the levels of innovation have been steadily declining. This makes perfect sense when you look at how the system works.

To paraphrase an old Chinese saying, the best time to dismantle the education system was 50 years ago. The second best time is today.

It’s more than 50 years since Ivan Illich wrote Deschooling Society. Like many of the best ideas of the 70s, it would have been nice to put those ideas into practice in a conscious and thoughtful way. Instead, it looks like we’ll get to the same result in a more disorderly fashion. The education system is falling apart all by itself. People are going to have to go back to real learning again because we’re going to start needing to get actual results again. Those results are not going to come from the overeducated people running the show these days. They’re going to come from people who can adapt their mental models to a rapidly changing world. In other words, people who know how to learn.

The Devouring Mother update

It’s just over a year now since my initial post on The Devouring Mother. Since then I’ve been observing the various goings on in the world with an eye to the archetype. So, I thought it might be fun to go through some of the more poignant examples to see what mommy dearest has been up to lately.

Munchausen by Proxy

Munchausen by Proxy is the subset of behaviours of The Devouring Mother where she either seeks unnecessary medical attention for her child or actively harms the child in order to elicit that attention. Perhaps the biggest news in this category that’s happened in the last year was the releasing of Pfizer’s documentation around the trials it conducted to determine the safety and efficacy of the “vaccine”. This was information that was originally planned to be kept secret for 75 years until a judge ordered it to be released. We now know why they wanted to hide it.

Although it’s been obvious from the real world data, the documents show that the company, and by extension the government authorities who were charged with reviewing the documents, knew full well that the “vaccine” was, to put it politely, of limited benefit while there was plenty of evidence of harmful side effects. Any other medication with such a cost-benefit profile would have been pulled from the shelves immediately but the vaccination program rolls on with the plan to sell apparently endless boosters despite the fact that even the official line is that any benefit is measured in months if not weeks.

It’s the rolling out of such a medication to children and young people where the Munchausen by Proxy symbolism becomes clearest. It was clear from the earliest data out of China and is now borne out by more than two years’ of data from around the whole world that sars-cov-2 is of less risk to children than other respiratory viruses. There was never any need to give young people an experimental treatment and plenty of reasons not to and there is less reason now that the virus is endemic.

The consequences are now becoming clear. Witness the regular occurrence of professional sports people (all young) clutching their chests and falling to the ground. The increase in deaths among professional sportspeople is crystal clear as is the increase in death among young people in general. We even have a “new disease” called SADS as a blanket term to cover the people under 40 who die of heart attack despite having no clinical symptoms prior. This was, of course, perfectly predictable and was in fact predicted by dissenting experts right from the start (Professor Bhakdi being the most eloquent of them).

There are plenty of other examples of Munchausen by Proxy in action. How about all the photos of politicians or other celebrities posing with masked up schoolchildren even as it’s been clear that wearing masks hinders childhood development. How about New York City having a law that 2-4 year olds must be masked (only just dropped this week). Here in the state of Victoria, the “science” was different. It was determined that grades 3-6 must wear a mask at school while apparently everybody else did not. Let’s not even get started on the idea of puberty blockers and other medical interventions for confused teenagers trying to come to terms with their sexuality.

It’s all Munchausen by Proxy; harmful and unnecessary interventions which have the effect of making the “child” dependent on the “mother” in one form or another.

Gaslighting and Hypocrisy

Gaslighting is the stating of what is patently false, contradictory or absurd as if it were self-evidently true. The effect is to make the “child” question their own sanity while being tacitly encouraged to acquiesce no matter how ridiculous the thing being acquiesced to. Gaslighting is a common tactic among abusers of all kinds of which The Devouring Mother is a subtype. And, of course, it’s also the perfect description of the modern public discourse in every western nation. There is no longer any attempt to make things make sense, to make them rationally follow from each other, to ensure at least the semblance of logical coherence.

I’ll just give some of the examples that come to my mind most easily. How about the then Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, addressing the UN by telling them we helped write the charter of human rights and, more than that, we practice what we preach on the subject. At the time he spoke, Australian citizens were not free to enter or leave the country, just one of several obvious human rights violations Morrison’s government was perpetrating.

Then there was Canadian Prime Minister, Trudeau, lecturing the EU parliament about the dangers of authoritarianism just weeks after he called an obviously invalid state of emergency and forcibly prevented peaceful and law abiding Canadian citizens from exercising their right to protest their government.

More recently we’ve had the usual spectacle of WEF delegates blabbering on about reducing carbon emissions after having flown into Davos on private jets from around the world. Meanwhile, FIFA had a good strong crack at taking the gold medal in hypocrisy by announcing it was celebrating pride month in the same year in which it elected to host the World Cup soccer tournament in a country where the punishment for being gay is the death penalty.

Sometimes, though, among all the nonsensical drivel that constitutes the public discourse in the west these days, the clouds seems to part and it’s as if we are being addressed from on high by The Devouring Mother herself. Usually this comes through some political speech or other. Joe Biden’s “my patience is coming to an end” is one such example as was his speech where he proclaimed that unvaccinated Americans were going to have a winter of death and destruction (way to unify the country, dude).

But I think perhaps Boris Johnson’s speech late last year on the subject of climate change takes the cake for being the most Devouring Mother-esque. In hectoring tones befitting a parent addressing a child, Mr Johnson stated it was time for all of humanity, no less, to “grow up” and deal with climate change. Apparently, our “adolescence” is coming to an end and it’s time to clean up our bedroom or something. Johnson said we must listen to the scientists who had, after all, got it right on corona.

Which scientists was Johnson referring to that got it right on corona? Surely not his fearmonger-in-chief, Neil Ferguson, whose doomsday predictions have been consistently orders of magnitude wrong. Of course, Mr Ferguson was so worried about the virus that he broke the rules of the first lockdown to go and shag his mistress, a married woman. But he was not alone in the British government in disregarding “the science”. Johnson himself did so in order to hold a birthday celebration. His health minister, Matt Hancock, broke them to cavort with the woman he was having an extramarital affair with (is fornication a requirement for holding high office in Britain?) And that was all before Partygate hit the headlines.

It’s fair to say that the Johnson government took hypocrisy to previously unattained levels but that did not prevent him from lecturing the rest of us on climate. The message is clear. If you disagree with “the science” whether of climate change, corona or whatever other apocalyptic fever dream comes down the pipe next, you are nothing more than a selfish teenager. What you have to do is fall into line, do what you’re told and not notice the obviously hypocritical behaviour of your elders. That’s what’s called being a grown-up.

Enabling Behaviour

The USA is still the spiritual heartland of The Devouring Mother, if I can put it that way, and it’s there that we see enabling behaviour in its clearest form. Enabling is when somebody in a position of power encourages a person in a subordinate position to engage in harmful behaviour. If a teenager is getting involved in drugs and crime, we expect the parent to step in and put a stop to it. Mostly, such behaviour continues through neglect on the part of the parent. But in a small number of cases the parent, or perhaps an aunt or uncle, will actively promote the behaviour, usually because they themselves are drug addicts or criminals. That’s what’s called enabling and it fits the pattern of The Devouring Mother by ensuring the child does not grow to independence but remains dependent, perhaps literally addicted, to a lifestyle in which the “mother” holds power.

One of the enabling behaviours we see in the US is, if I’m not mistaken, specific to the state of California where laws were changed so that shoplifting became a lesser charge than it once was. This has led to the seemingly endless videos online of people casually walking into stores with bags, emptying the shelves and then walking out unimpeded. Interestingly, it seems that what is being stolen is mostly high end merchandise such as clothing and sunglasses. Presumably this is because such items are easy to sell on the street.

We can usefully contrast this phenomenon with Britain a couple of hundred years ago. As most people are aware, Australia was originally a prison colony populated largely by criminals sent from Britain. There wasn’t a lot of high end merchandise to steal back in those days. People were more concerned with the basics such as having enough food in their stomach. Thus, a number of the convicts sent to Australia had committed no greater crime than stealing a loaf of bread to feed themselves. This was crime born out of desperation and it was treated in the harshest possible terms. The sea voyage to Australia at that time was no picnic and carried with it a significant chance of dying on the way. Needless to say, people who were stealing loaves of bread were doing so as a last resort. The stakes were too high to do it for any other reason.

That doesn’t appear to be true in California where permissiveness rules the day. But this permissiveness is enabling behaviour that has the effect of encouraging people into crime. If you steal a bag of sunglasses, you’ll need to sell them. That will almost certainly bring you into contact with the people who sell stolen goods for a living and now you are part of a criminal network. Having been rewarded for your behaviour once, you might be tempted to do it again. It’s in this sense that such laws are enabling. Assuming that the insurance covers the store for their loss, the whole system now actively perpetuates theft and encourages people who might not have otherwise taken the step to take up a life of crime.

But it’s a second kind of enabling behaviour that is more relevant to corona and that is the subject of drug use, abuse and addiction. In this connection, this particular image, an advertisement from the New York City subway, struck me as being symbolically ideal.

The ad purports to be about “safety”, specifically the risk of having fentanyl mixed in with your daily drug hit. It is true that fentanyl is a real problem in the US. It’s also true that the way to be sure that you don’t accidentally take fentanyl is to not buy drugs from shady characters in back alleys. If you want to be even more sure, don’t take drugs at all. But that’s not what the ad says. In fact, the ad says you can be “empowered” by following our five easy steps to “safe” drug addiction. By doing so, you won’t just keep yourself “safe”, but your community too (are fentanyl overdoses infectious?)

All of this is complete BS, of course. Taking drugs is not safe. That’s half the fun. Part of what makes chronic drug use so pathetic is that all the fun is gone. You now need the drug just to feel normal. There is no more “upside risk”. The risks are all on the downside and if you use for long enough the risk will turn into a certainty. To pretend that this state of affairs is “empowering” is absurd. Being a chronic drug user is the opposite of empowering. You become enmeshed in multiple layers of dependence. Not just dependent on the drug, but dependent on the “system” which now includes the state which will provide your naloxone and your fentanyl test strips; all for your safety, of course.

Having your drug laced with fentanyl is only one of the many risks associated with chronic drug use and so this advertisement fits the wider pattern of The Devouring Mother of focusing on one of the risks and pretending that “safety” is achieved by addressing it alone while perpetuating the wider context which is itself the problem. That wider context, in this case drug addiction, is dependence and that is how The Devouring Mother wants her children: dependent.


These are just the more poignant examples that have stood out to me over the last year. They come against the backdrop of the economic chickens coming home to roost in a big way via inflation, energy shortages, “supply chain issues” etc. Giant problems, we are told, which require giant solutions. There’s nothing for you, the lowly citizen, to do except sit back and leave it to the experts. That’s what Boris Johnson meant when he said we have to “grow up”. The time of adolescence is over. We’ve all been naughty boys and girls and it’s time to do what we’re told.

This leaves the question of where the Rebellious Children have turned to now that Trump is gone, Jordan Peterson is looking shaky and other lesser names from the same camp got duped by the corona hysteria. Thus far I don’t see much sign of any alternative movements although we may see a fresh wave of populism now that the standard of living of many people is noticeably declining.

It’s also possible that the Rebellious Children will simply drop out. That is what seems implied by the labour shortages in seemingly every western nation. Of particular interest are the medical, teaching and other professions where those who refused to take the mandatory medical procedure simply quit. What are those people doing now? That would be an interesting question to know because it’s clear at this point that “the system” is not going to return to “normal” and the people running it have no intention of doing that even if they could. You can either accept the increasingly crappier deal on offer or go and create your own. It’s the latter group that might produce something interesting in the years ahead although it might have to happen out of sight where mommy dearest can’t see.