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Forget reality, SA's high on the vibe


Simplistic optimism won’t solve any of South Australia’s economic or social problems, argues Malcolm King.

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South Australia is drifting out of the federation on a rising tide of self-referentialism, delusion and dumb optimism.

When the State Government, its agencies, rent-seekers and the media, say the state has ‘turned the corner’, based entirely on public perception, that is worth closer examination.

Over the last nine months or so, astute news consumers may have noticed that among the storm of prurient click bait ‘news’, cross-promotions and motherhood statements, there have been an increasing number of ‘smiley face’ stories.

Here is a sample of the headlines: ‘SA economy has strong positive momentum,’ ‘It’s economic springtime for SA,’ ‘SA on the rise,’ ‘Now is time to cash in on our optimism,’ and ‘SA defies the doom merchants.’

The articles claim rising state confidence, based on ‘feelings’ (and nothing more than feelings), which are communicated to the media from the public by Ouija board and dodgy polls.

They use agricultural metaphors, just like the simpleton, Chance the gardener, did in the film Being There.

There are rays of ‘economic sunshine’ (heralding a new dawn), ‘green shoots’ (regeneration) or ‘reaping a profit’, suggesting the state is not deep in dung and debt but is harvesting the good seed.

Let us all admit to false optimism at times. Who hasn’t been asked by a friend, “does my bum look big in this?” The truth is always political.

Governments of all persuasions gild the lily, even when there is no lily to gild. It’s a human foible.

Let’s not call it unsubstantiated twaddle. Let’s not call it pandering to vested interests. Let’s call it crap dressed up as candy.

The type of optimism being flogged by some sections of Adelaide’s media does not refer to any economic indicators, indexes, bourses or external measures of well-being.

These boosters are the propagators of the positive psychology movement, an adjunct of the Self Help and Actualisation Movement (SHAM).

Only the well-heeled in the City of Adelaide and the Hills, have a higher level of employment than the rest of Australia.

The relentless promotion of positive thinking reached its zenith in America and, for the last 10 years, has been flogged to the gullible in business seminars across Australia and on LinkedIn.

The grand spin master of all things positive is Tony Robbins, who did a tour of Sydney recently. Ticket sales started at $795 per person, which partly explains why Tony has a net worth of $500 million (US).

There’s an evangelical quality to positive psychology which, for example, lauds the cancer sufferer, who through visual affirmations, chanting mantras and embracing a ‘positive growth mindset’, dies bravely as opposed to the individual who rages against the injustice of it all.

This relentless ‘green shoots’ attitude, is founded on the preposterous notion that your state of mind can overcome the bitter contingencies of life, such as rapidly dividing cancer cells.

I’m not against optimism. I’m against dumb optimism. The Global Financial Crisis was a direct result of unconstrained optimism (and greed). America was so blinded by such colossal profits, that it refused to read the sign. Bubbles always burst.

In organisations, those who question the dumb optimism of the managerial class, are portrayed as non-team players (the ultimate outsiders), who by asking hard questions, have their promotions stymied or are offloaded by HR as ‘excess to requirements’.

If you really want to drop your blood pressure and grow three centimetres in confidence, stop agreeing with the dumbest guys in the room. But you’re going to need a new fulltime job and that’s going to be tough because there aren’t many in SA.

Unfortunately, when I read a ‘smiley face’ story, my reaction is not ‘thank God’ but rather a gnawing scepticism. What aren’t they telling me?

A classic case of dumb optimism, bordering on deceit, are reports that 80 per cent of the 950 retrenched Holden workers in 2017 have found jobs. That’s not including the 8000 workers in the automotive supply chain or the 1000 people who were sacked by Holden in the previous three years. The boosters use ABS surveys, which I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. The state hasn’t got any worse under the Marshall government, although General Custer said he wasn’t expecting many Indians at Little Bighorn.

Those SA Foodbank reports on rising endemic poverty are like sirens screaming in the night, alerting those with open minds to the true state of the economy.

Only the well-heeled in the City of Adelaide and the Hills, have a higher level of employment than the rest of Australia. If it wasn’t for agriculture and healthcare, there would be no doom merchants, because the economy would crumble.

When my niece was five years old, I’d tickle her and give her ‘horse bites’ and Vulcan nerve pinches (calling all Star Trek fans). She’d laugh and scream and say, ‘do it again.’ And I would.

But the media wants you to laugh and be remorselessly upbeat, without the tickling. They want the response without supplying the stimulus. That’s almost Pavlovian and the hallmark of dumb optimism.

Spare a thought and pass the Xanax to some unfortunate sections of the local media, as they battle severe cognitive dissonance.

For example, News Corp must not only run stories based on a contrived and relentless optimism, but also report real news about families imploding due to unemployment or suicide, as petrol prices rise and power bills soar.

When a state has pulled every economic lever it can; when it has sold off everything that’s not bolted down; with an old economy in large part riding on agriculture and livestock (thank you, farmers!), and urban sectional interests demanding more and more in a low tax environment, then you might as well tell the punters to ‘smile and be happy’.

Malcolm King is a professional writer who splits his time between Canberra and Adelaide. He is a regular InDaily columnist.

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