US approach to security is deeply troubling – and it’s not just about Trump



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Is Donald Trump really the one setting the direction of US security policy?
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University

Media coverage of Donald Trump’s presidency has fixated on his outlandish, off-the-cuff tweets, his ill-conceived and inflammatory positions on immigration, race relations and climate change, his “America First” mantra, and his unrelenting attacks on the various inquiries into collusion with Russia.

The image created has been of a man who, though ignorant, vulgar and deeply polarising, struts the political stage. But is Trump really setting the direction of US security policy?

Mounting evidence suggests the theatre around Trump is so mesmerising that we have lost sight of how the US security establishment wields power – and to what end.

The picture is becoming clear

The security establishment is no monolith, nor does it function as a conspiratorial cabal. Personalities and institutional interests compete for attention and resources.

Yet it has a reasonably coherent mindset, which has its origins in the early days of the Cold War. It is a sense of belonging to a club that connects first and foremost the Department of Defence, various arms of the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies, but also significant voices in other key government departments, areas of the judiciary and Congress, and some of America’s most influential think-tanks and corporations – in particular the leading arms manufacturers.

How this security establishment is handling the Trump phenomenon is an intriguing story, highly complex, and still unfolding. However, several pieces of the jigsaw are beginning to fall into place. Three merit special attention:

  • the competition for influence within the Trump administration

  • the Russia investigation

  • the unmistakable shift in US strategic planning.

Taken together these form a picture of a political and military elite intent on maintaining control of US security policy. They feel the need to immunise it from Trump’s erratic behaviour and his supposedly pro-Russian inclinations, and revive a Cold War mindset that views Russia and China as major adversaries.

The battle for influence

Though Trump and the security establishment may be suspicious of one another, there is also common ground. They disagree not about placing “America first”, but about how this should be done.

The security establishment prefers a carefully devised, longer-term strategy and a less confrontational approach toward friends and allies. It sees value in continuing to extol the virtues of free trade and democracy, though it does not necessarily practise what it preaches.

And it is generally suspicious of personal deal-making – especially where this involves Russia – to which Trump is drawn by instinct, and commercial interest and experience.

The security establishment has therefore made it a priority to gain influence within the administration. It took no more than six months for reliable establishment figures to be firmly in the saddle: Jim Mattis as defence secretary, John Kelly as White House chief-of-staff and H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.

Key Trump campaign advisers thought to have cultivated links with Russia or be otherwise unreliable – including Michael Flynn (whom Trump initially appointed as national security adviser), George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Stephen Bannon and even Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner – have been gently or not-so-gently eased out of their previously influential roles.

Trump himself is seen at best as an unknown quantity, and at worst prone to dangerous illusions about the prospects of cultivating a fruitful personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Behind the lurid accusations of Russian meddling in the US presidential election and alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, and more recently behind the claims and counterclaims of obstruction of justice by the Trump administration, we can now discern a far more significant jostling for control of US policy.

The ‘new’ Russian threat

The Russia investigations being conducted by congressional committees and by special counsel Robert Mueller are clearly designed to put Trump on the defensive. Congressional Democrats are doing all they can to prolong these inquiries – in some cases with the support of senior Republican senators close to the intelligence community.

Hundreds of witnesses have already given evidence to these inquiries. Many more are expected to appear. And in public comments and her recently published memoir, Hillary Clinton, well known for her antipathy to Putin and his reassertion of Russian influence, has been at pains to identify Russia’s meddling in the election as a key factor in her defeat.

Yet the hard evidence so far produced to support the charges of Russian interference has been scant to say the least.

Putin and his underlings are no angels. But as journalist Aaron Mate has argued:

In Russiagate, unverified claims are reported with little to no scepticism … developments are cherry-picked and overhyped, while countervailing ones are minimised or ignored. Front-page headlines advertise explosive and incriminating developments, only to often be undermined by the article’s content, or retracted entirely.

Whatever the outcome of these various inquiries, one thing is clear. The security establishment has concluded that a resurgent Russia needs to be contained and that any advocacy of dialogue with it must be nipped in the bud.

Allegations of Russian interference in the politics of the US and other Western countries are part of a larger strategy that aims to magnify the threat Russia poses and to thwart any intention on Trump’s part to reset the relationship.

Donald Trump has been keen to offer a hand of friendship to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Back to the Cold War

The national defence strategy Mattis recently unveiled delivers a stark message. Countering China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence are now at the heart of US policy. The Cold War outlook is back with a vengeance.

To this end, the US military will confront its adversaries across the spectrum of conflicts – mainly in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, but without neglecting the Middle East.

American armed forces will modernise and build its readiness for future conflicts and consolidate military ties with allies and partners around the world. But conspicuously absent is any notion of neo-isolationism or renewed dialogue with Russia – both of which featured prominently during Trump’s presidential campaign.

The national defence strategy should, in any case, be read in conjunction with the national security strategy released in December 2017 and the more recent nuclear posture review released last week.

The shift in US strategic priorities, which is well under way, will affect all aspects of defence budgeting, weapons development and force management. Training is already focused on high-intensity conflict with major adversaries. Heavily armed deployments are stationed continuously in Europe and across East and Central Asia.

The plan is to modernise all three arms of the US nuclear arsenal – land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles – and design low-yield nuclear weapons that make them more readily usable. In other words, the US is boosting its capacity to escalate non-nuclear conflicts into nuclear war, thereby lowering the nuclear threshold.

Trump’s rhetoric of “fire and fury” is at first sight in accord with these developments. Whether he fully understands them is another matter.

The ConversationWe may not much like what Trump says or wants to do. But even more troubling is the US security establishment’s vision of the future. For US allies, not least Australia, it spells danger and much heartache.

Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Labor moves in on the Barnaby Joyce affair


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Labor Party, which started with a hands-off approach to the Barnaby Joyce affair, has now segued into making it a political issue, while trying to still argue that its “personal” aspect should be private.

The opposition is eyeing possible openings to exploit in the liaison between Joyce and his former staffer Vikki Campion – who is expecting his child – by pursuing questions about processes and taxpayers’ money, as well as harbouring the hope of dragging Malcolm Turnbull into the matter.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek walked the fine line on Sunday.

“I don’t think [Joyce] needs to account for his personal behaviour, his relationships, to the public,” she told the ABC.

“The only area in which there is a genuine public interest is in the area of the expenditure of taxpayers’ funds, and there have been questions over the last couple of days about jobs that have been created for Vikki Campion, the expenditure of taxpayer funds on travel.

“I think those are areas where the prime minister and the deputy prime minister ought to be fully transparent,” she said.

Turnbull last week tried to keep away from the Joyce matter by saying it was private.

“These private matters are always very distressing for those involved, I don’t want to add to the public discussion about it. I’m very conscious of the distress this causes to others, in particular Natalie Joyce and her and Barnaby’s daughters. So it’s a private matter, a tough matter. I don’t have any more to say about it,” he said on Friday.

Pressed later, he said he was “not aware of any inappropriate expenditure of public funds”. But the issue of “public funds” is becoming murkier.

When the Joyce-Campion affair was creating problems in Joyce’s office, she was moved to the office of Resources Minister Matt Canavan. Later a place was found for her with Nationals then whip Damian Drum.

Questions are now being asked about the pay and arrangements in relation to these positions. On Friday, Turnbull was being quizzed about whether he’d counselled Joyce to remove Campion.

One can only imagine the Turnbull anger about the situation. He comes at it from a personal position of being very family-oriented and his sympathy is clearly with Natalie Joyce and the daughters. Also, with the government starting the year looking better, the last thing Turnbull wants is to have this becoming another distraction, let alone have any suggestion of a role in it.

Joyce by Saturday had publicly taken sole ownership, with a statement “that he had not discussed Ms Campion’s employment with the prime minister or his office.

“He confirmed that the Nationals were responsible for decisions relating to staffing in the offices of Nationals’ members. The Prime Minister’s Office has an administrative role in informing the Department of Finance.” Labor no doubt will be probing this “administrative role”.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, appearing on Sky on Sunday, was clearly uncomfortable. He maintained that “all of my advice is that everything was absolutely above board”, while also saying: “I am not aware of the specific staffing circumstances of every single one of my colleagues”.

The next few days will reveal whether there is anything to see, in terms of untoward arrangements or costs. Nationals sources point to the obvious implications for Joyce if there were any such revelation.

The big question – assuming there is no public money time bomb – is what this will do to Joyce’s leadership. There are mixed opinions.

He can point to the fact that in terms of retail politics, he has been highly popular, and led the party to a very good result at the election, in contrast to Turnbull’s below-par performance.

His position is protected (even more than Turnbull’s, in the Liberal Party, is protected) by the absence of an alternative leader. But the Nationals are at present an unhappy bunch.

There’s criticism of Joyce’s recent performance, including his handling of the Nationals’ part of the pre-Christmas reshuffle, which saw Victorian MP Darren Chester dumped from cabinet and assistant minister Keith Pitt ending up on the backbench.

There’s ruminating about how his new circumstances will play out in the wider Nationals’ constituency, which tends to be conservative and family-oriented. Will people have long memories or will they just move on when the fuss dies down?

Perhaps most relevant is whether Joyce will lose his political energy as he deals with new personal circumstances and some loss of respect.

With a bitter separation behind him, it won’t be easy.

Tony Windsor, Joyce’s old enemy in the seat of New England, is turning the knife, predicting in a tweet: “The Eagles are circling, don’t be surprised if Joyce resigns “for personal reasons” before the main story claims him … he will know it’s getting close to a one-way street to a job with Gina”.

The ConversationWith unfortunate if exquisite timing, Turnbull held a family fun day for Coalition MPs at the Lodge on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, there was no sign of his deputy prime minister.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Closing the Gap results still lag, as Shorten pledges compensation fund for Stolen Generations


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The tenth Closing the Gap report, to be tabled in parliament by Malcolm Turnbull on Monday, shows only three of the seven targets are on track to be met.

The targets for early childhood education and Year 12 attainment are on track, and the target to halve child mortality is back on track. But the remaining targets are not on track – for school attendance, mortality, employment, and reading and numeracy.

The government will hail this year’s outcome as the most promising result since 2011. Last year, only one target was being met – on improved Year 12 attainment.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will mark a decade on from then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology by announcing Labor would set up a compensation scheme for survivors of the Stolen Generations in Commonwealth jurisdictions.

The scheme would give ex-gratia payments of A$75,000 to living survivors. There would also be a funeral assistance fund with one-off payments of $7,000 to Stolen Generations members to assist with their funerals.

The compensation scheme would be accessible to about 150 surviving members of the Stolen Generations in the Northern Territory and any members in the ACT and Jervis Bay.

Labor would also establish a $10 million national healing fund “to support healing for the Stolen Generations and their families – in recognition of the inter-generational effects of forced removals”.

Shorten will say that recently the number of children removed from their families has rapidly increased.

“In 2017, more than 17,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were living in out-of-home care, compared with about 9,000 a decade ago,” he says in a statement with the shadow assistant minister for Indigenous affairs, Patrick Dodson. In response, Labor would convene a national summit on First Nations Children in its first 100 days in office.

Shorten’s announcements would cost $17.1 million over the forward estimates.

With four of the existing Closing the Gap targets expiring this year – child mortality, school attendance, reading and numeracy, and employment – the Council of Australian Governments is working with Indigenous people to refresh the agenda.

The government will point to progress on a range of health indicators:

  • Child mortality dropped by one-third between 1998 and 2015.

  • Overall mortality fell 15% from 1998 to 2015.

  • Fewer Indigenous people are dying from chronic conditions. Deaths from circulatory diseases declined by 45% between 1998 and 2016; respiratory disease deaths fell by 24% between 1998 and 2015; kidney disease death rates decreased by 47% from 2006 to 2015.

  • The proportion of Indigenous adults who smoke fell from 55% in 1994 to 45% in 2014-15.

  • Efforts are on track to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem by 2020. The prevalence of active trachoma in Indigenous children aged between five and nine in at-risk communities declined from 14% in 2009 to 4.7% in 2016.

  • The gap in blindness and vision impairment halved between 2008 and 2016. Indigenous people have three times the rate of blindness and vision impairment compared to the non-Indigenous population. In 2008 the figure was six times.

  • Drinking during pregnancy halved between 2008 and 2014-15, and there was an 8% drop in binge drinking among Indigenous people from 2008 and 2015.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the results demonstrated “the power of a collaborative approach between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Even where we may not be on track, we have achieved solid progress in other target areas compared with a decade ago.”

The ConversationThe government will highlight the success of the Indigenous Procurement Policy. Its target was achieved three years ahead of schedule and it has now passed $1 billion in contracts to Indigenous businesses. Scullion flagged Turnbull would be announcing “new measures to turbo-charge the Indigenous business sector”.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why the Commonwealth should resist meddling in schools


Julie Sonnemann, Grattan Institute and Peter Goss, Grattan Institute

Australia’s education debate is shifting at last, from how much money governments should spend on schools to how best to spend the money for the benefit of students.

After winning parliamentary approval for the Gonski 2.0 schools funding deal (the “how much”), the Turnbull Government has commissioned the “Gonski 2.0 Review” to advise on how to spend the money wisely (the “how best”).

But the extra Commonwealth money going to schools (A$23 billion over the next 10 years compared to previous Coalition policy) is only 3% of all government spending on schools over the decade. It should not be used as an excuse for the Commonwealth to intervene more heavily in school education policy.

The Grattan Institute’s new report, The Commonwealth’s role in improving schools, examines what the Commonwealth should do if it really wants to boost student outcomes.

And the answer is: not very much.




Read more:
The passage of Gonski 2.0 is a victory for children over politics


States are better placed to drive reforms

The states run schools, as well as providing most of the funding. Heavy-handed Commonwealth intervention is likely to be counterproductive, costly and confusing.

Most of the big reforms needed are within the responsibilities of state governments. For example, all the evidence shows effective teaching has the largest impact on student achievement. The biggest advances will be made when teachers know what works in the classroom, and how they can adapt their methods to better target their teaching to the particular needs of their students.

For this to happen, teachers need better support from the “system”: for example, better teacher development and greater standardisation of classroom materials so individual teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

In school education, the states and territories are the “system” managers. Driving reforms such as these from Canberra would be difficult.

Federal funding conditions aren’t the way to go

Australia must learn from its history. Our report shows imposing prescriptive funding conditions on states and territories has been tried before, with little benefit.

Commonwealth interference can destroy policy coherence and simply increase red tape. The Commonwealth has few ways to independently verify if change is actually happening in the classroom, so adding an extra layer of government policies that chop and change only disrupts schools and teachers.

For example, the 2008-2013 National Partnership agreements for school education included a number of prescriptive and input-based conditions. These increased the administrative and compliance burden of states, and created instability in schools when the funding and initiatives stopped abruptly five years later.

Before looking to new reforms, the Commonwealth government should first deliver its existing responsibilities more effectively. These include initial teacher training, the national curriculum and national student testing. All require constant attention, and some require urgent reform.




Read more:
Changes to school funding – your questions answered


Prioritise a few national reforms only

If determined to act, we suggest the Commonwealth focus strategically on a small number of national reforms only. It is far better to focus on a few actions with a high chance of success.

We suggest the Commonwealth only pursue reforms that meet all of three criteria: the evidence shows it’s a good idea, the government can make it happen, and Commonwealth intervention will help. While many Commonwealth ideas are good in theory, many fall down on whether they can be readily implemented by state governments and actually lead to change in practice.

For example, in 2016 the Commonwealth signalled an intention to require all schools to use explicit teaching. While backed by evidence, this type of Commonwealth policy requirement is unlikely to lead to change without a raft of complementary state government policies. These include the right training and school support for teachers to switch to explicit teaching. It would be difficult for the Commonwealth to independently verify, and it also creates confusion by coming in over the top of state policies on effective teaching methods.

Commonwealth intervention must satisfy three criteria


Author provided/Grattan Institute

Four suggestions for new national reforms

We have four suggestions for new national reform areas where there are benefits of scale and coordination. These only to be pursued if state government’s have strong “buy in” and there is close collaboration in design and delivery:

1. Create a new national school education research organisation to investigate what works to drive school improvement and to spread the word across schools, states and sectors. The new body should be charged with lifting the standard of education research in Australia, establishing a long-term research agenda for school education, and promoting key findings across the country. It could link up all research on education for people from birth through to age 18, so policy makers and the community better understand the continuum of learning, from early childhood to school and vocational education.

2. Invest more in measuring new, non-cognitive skills such as teamwork and resilience, in the classroom. At present, Australia focuses much more on old, foundational skills such as literacy and numeracy, which are only one element of what we expect from 21st century schooling.

3. Develop better ways to measure student progress, for national bench-marking and for use in the classroom. NAPLAN seeks to measure students’ learning progress in core literacy and numeracy skills at the national level, but NAPLAN gain scores are not easy to interpret when comparing the progress of different student groups.

4. Invest in high-quality digital assessment tools for the classroom, so teachers know what their students know and how much progress their students have made.




Read more:
Gaps in education data: there are many questions for which we don’t have accurate answers


Resist over-reach

The extra Commonwealth money for schools under Gonski 2.0 is welcome. The shift in the education debate towards how best to use the extra money is still more welcome.

The ConversationBut for Australian students to get the most benefit, the Commonwealth must resist the temptation to over-reach by intervening heavily in school education policy.

Julie Sonnemann, Research Fellow, Grattan Institute and Peter Goss, School Education Program Director, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump and Nunes torch tradition of trust between Congress and FBI



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Trump with FBI Director Christopher Wray on Dec. 15, 2017.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Douglas M. Charles, Pennsylvania State University

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the FBI may have reached a climax.

In an apparent attempt to discredit Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, staff of the House Intelligence Committee on behalf of its chair Republican Devin Nunes of California, wrote and on Feb. 2 released a four-page memo based on confidential information made available to them by the FBI. It outlines alleged improprieties in the FBI’s investigation, specifically the monitoring of Trump’s former campaign adviser Carter Page.

Nunes in 2017 was forced to step aside from the committee’s Russia investigation because he was seen as taking direction from the Trump White House.

Page was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign and a person of interest to the FBI beginning in 2013. He became the subject of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, warrant in 2016.

As an FBI historian, I find the congressional effort to discredit the FBI’s investigation startling. Trump’s involvement reminds me of Nixon. Between 1972 and 1973, President Richard Nixon attempted to contain the FBI’s Watergate investigation as it zeroed in on top White House figures.

Congressional committees and the FBI

The behavior of congressional Republicans in this matter is unprecedented.

This view is shared even by GOP senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. The FBI has a long history, going back to the J. Edgar Hoover era, of providing congressional committees with sensitive FBI information and assistance – provided they keep that information and relationship confidential.

For example, the FBI provided information to the House Un-American Activities Committee, singling out suspected communists and anti-communist witnesses – like Ronald Reagan. The FBI cooperated with the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee between 1951 and 1954. And it even provided Sen. Joe McCarthy with information and advice to keep his anti-communist cause alive until he violated Hoover’s rules in 1953 by revealing his relationship with the FBI.

In the years after Hoover, the FBI behaved more properly in sharing sensitive information with Congress. It began restricting itself to sharing information with its congressional oversight committees to keep them abreast of FBI activity and in line with the Justice Department’s investigative guidelines.

In the current Congress, Nunes’ House Intelligence Committee was provided with sensitive FBI information about its Russia probe based on the understanding that the committee would not publicly reveal any of it without first asking the FBI to advise and redact classified information.

The committee didn’t wait for redactions, however, and instead chose to reveal select nuggets of the FBI’s intelligence in its four-page memo. Trump-nominated FBI Director Christopher Wray publicly spoke out against Trump’s wishes about releasing the memo after he failed to convince the White House to block it. Wray is concerned the Nunes memo contains “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

Nixon asks CIA to stop FBI

Nixon and Haldeman at the White House, 1969.
AP Photo/File

While Congress’ behavior in trying to discredit the FBI is unprecedented, President Trump’s interest and efforts in stopping an FBI probe of the White House is not.

In June 1972, Nixon discussed with his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, how to use the CIA to stop the FBI’s Watergate probe. The idea was to have the CIA director and deputy director assert that the FBI’s investigation threatened national security. Though he never explained his reasoning, Nixon thought CIA Director Richard Helms owed him and would comply. He also thought it was embarrassing enough to the agency that some of the Watergate burglars were connected to the CIA for Helms to follow through. In the end, the effort failed.

Nixon had selected L. Patrick Gray as FBI director following the death of J. Edgar Hoover, and also hoped that he could maneuver the FBI away from Watergate. He was Nixon’s man at the FBI. Gray provided Watergate-related documents to White House Counsel John Dean, who monitored the FBI in the cover-up. In 1972, Gray destroyed Watergate-related documents that he had kept concealed for the previous six months.

Nixon’s Oval Office tapes confirm his concerns. In June 1972 Chief of Staff Haldeman told Nixon, “The FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them … their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money.”

After his 1972 re-election and as the Watergate investigation closed in, Nixon then said about Gray, “I don’t believe that we oughta have Gray in that job … he’s too close to us.”

Incredibly, Nixon even pondered the idea (listen at 21 minutes into the tape) of naming Associate FBI Director Mark Felt as FBI director because “he’s a good man” and would be, as Haldeman commented to Nixon, “your guy” who would know how to pull the levers at the FBI.

What Nixon and Haldeman didn’t know was that Felt was busy leaking Watergate information to various reporters, including to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as “Deep Throat.” He hoped to undermine Gray and eventually take the top FBI job for himself. This effort backfired, and Nixon had no idea that he had briefly contemplated making Deep Throat his FBI director.

In Nixon’s day, interfering with the FBI happened out of view and behind the scenes.

Today, Trump’s concerns with the FBI’s investigations are blatantly public. He has allies in Congress who share his concerns about the FBI. Nixon had no such congressional committee backing him.

Where this ends, we do not yet know. Given FBI Director Wray’s pushback, will Trump seek a more compliant FBI director in the mold of Gray?

Will he fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein?

The ConversationCurrent events have the feel of a pending political and Constitutional crisis perhaps not too dissimilar from Watergate in the 1970s.

Douglas M. Charles, Associate Professor of History, Pennsylvania State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Consumers are biggest losers of Trump’s ongoing war on regulations



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Some worry Mick Mulvaney is putting banks before consumers as head of the CFPB.
Reuters/Yuri Gripas

Jeff Sovern, St. John’s University

President Donald Trump has been waging a war on regulation since he got into office on the ground that government red tape costs the economy billions of dollars a year.

Among the victors in this battle have been energy companies, banks and the president himself, who recently promised he’s “just getting started.” Perhaps the biggest losers, however, have been consumers.

The best illustration of this is the neutering of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which began immediately after Mick Mulvaney stepped in as interim director in November.

So how much harm could he do in two short months? As someone who has written about consumer law for more than 30 years, let me count the ways.

Mick Mulvaney is governing the CFPB very differently than his predecessor.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

‘Pushing the envelope’

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau may be best known for levying a US$100 million fine against Wells Fargo in 2016 after the bank opened millions of unauthorized accounts.

But the bureau, originally conceived by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has done so much more since Congress created the independent agency in 2010. Under Mulvaney’s predecessor, Richard Cordray, the bureau moved forcefully when it concluded companies had cheated consumers.

Through last summer, the bureau recovered nearly $12 billion for more than 29 million consumer victims of everything from illegal credit card fees to auto lenders that discriminated against people of color. In 2016 alone, the bureau announced 42 new enforcement actions, or nearly four new cases a month.

Mulvaney, who is also Trump’s budget director, argued his predecessor’s governing philosophy was to “push the envelope” in pursuing the bureau’s mission. Mulvaney, Trump and other Republicans argue that the CFPB director – who can’t be easily removed by the president – has too much power, making the bureau a prime target in their goal to eliminate regulation they believe puts a strain on the economy and small businesses.

While Cordray had previously never used the “push the envelope” language in describing his mission, he reacted to Mulvaney’s charge by embracing it, tweeting that he did “push hard to see that people are treated fairly by big banks, debt collectors and payday lenders.”

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It seems unlikely that the bureau would take on a bank like Wells Fargo for similar fraudulent conduct or pursue many of Cordray’s other actions now that Mulvaney is in charge. His boss has even praised a bill passed by the House that would strip the CFPB of the authority to go after banks for doing what Wells Fargo did, while Mulvaney himself has co-sponsored legislation aimed at killing the bureau.

Former CFPB Director Richard Cordray, center, embraced the idea that he ‘pushed the envelope’ to protect consumers.
AP Photo/Steve Helber

A new governing mission

While Mulvaney agrees that the bureau’s job includes protecting consumers such as credit card users, he says it also works for credit card issuers – despite the fact that its very name states that it exists to protect consumers, not banks.

One reason Congress wanted an agency to protect consumers was because existing bank regulators in the run-up to the Great Recession had not only failed to prevent predatory lenders from taking advantage of consumers, thus contributing to the subprime fiasco, but at least one even protected them. I believe the U.S. already has enough bank protection agencies, from the Federal Reserve to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, without adding the bureau to the list.

In January, Mulvaney told his staff that the bureau’s actions should be guided by how many complaints it receives on a particular matter.

By that measure, the CFPB wouldn’t have gone after Wells Fargo because few consumers seem to have complained to the bureau about the unauthorized Wells accounts. That may be because consumers often don’t bother to complain when they have suffered only a small loss. And yet collectively the Wells customers had much at stake, as demonstrated by the fact that Wells has agreed to settle the case for $142 million, a number that may yet grow.

Sally Greenberg, with the National Consumers League, is among the groups that have voiced strong opposition to Mulvaney taking over the bureau.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Enforcement – or lack thereof

So what has Mulvaney actually done since taking over?

While he pledged to be vigorous and consistent in enforcement of federal consumer financial law, he has also said that the bureau should bring cases reluctantly. As such, you might wonder how many he is actually filing.

The answer would be none.

The bureau has instead dropped a case, without explanation, against a group of payday lenders that charged consumers as much as 950 percent interest a year.

It also terminated at least one investigation, though we can’t know for sure how many it has ended because the bureau usually doesn’t publicly announce such actions.

That investigation was against a company that had made several campaign donations to Mulvaney. A ProPublica investigation previously reported that the installment lender, World Acceptance Corp., trapped consumers in a cycle of debt with deceptively expensive loans.

We can’t know whether Cordray himself would have eventually ended that investigation anyway and thus determine if its termination was the result of a lack of evidence. But we can be fairly certain that he wouldn’t have done what Mulvaney did around the same time: say, he may reconsider a rule intended to keep payday customers from falling into endless debt traps. That rule took the unremarkable step of requiring lenders, before extending some loans, to verify that borrowers can repay the debt.

Another noteworthy move by Mulvaney concerns the CFPB’s Fair Lending Office. The law that originally set up the bureau tasked this office with enforcing laws prohibiting discriminatory lending. He has revoked that power, suggesting that preventing discrimination on the basis of race and gender will now be less important at the bureau.

For the next five months – or until the Senate confirms a permanent director – the CFPB is led by someone who once called it a “sad, sick” joke.

The ConversationWhat is sad and sick, in my view, is that an agency established to protect consumers may be more eager to protect predatory lenders than consumers. And that is no joke.

Jeff Sovern, Professor of Law, St. John’s University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Trump’s infrastructure ambitions are likely to stall



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The White House favors public-private partnerships for widening congested roads and getting other pricey projects done.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Caroline Nowacki, Stanford University and Kate Gasparro, Stanford University

President Donald Trump recently raised the ante with his promise to unleash a wave of new infrastructure spending. During his first State of Union address, he conjured up images of “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land” without getting into the details.

The White House will soon unveil
Trump’s “Infrastructure Incentives Initiative,” which Trump now says will usher in at least US$1.5 trillion in spending. That’s a 50 percent jump from the $1 trillion he had previously pledged and nearly triple the money he talked up on the campaign trail.

With only $200 billion in federal funding apparently on the table, and ample questions
from the lawmakers who need to approve that money about where even that sum will come from, will the plan deliver?

A draft of his plan indicates it would rely on states, local governments and, most importantly, private investors to contribute the rest of the $1.5 trillion pie. As researchers studying ways to boost private infrastructure spending, we believe that it will fall short because it does not address private investors’ key concerns, and it would not work for many kinds of high-priority projects.

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Matching and mismatching

During his address, Trump repeated a message he’s made many times before: that private investment should help pay the nation’s infrastructure bill. “Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private-sector investment – to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit,” he said.

That makes it sound like he favors “public-private partnerships,” or P3s, the most common way governments attract and leverage private investment.

Here’s how they work. A public sponsor – either the federal government agency or a state or local government agency – contracts out part or all of the financing, construction, maintenance and operation of a project to a group of private companies following a competitive bidding process.

The amount of infrastructure money in new U.S. P3s has waned in recent years. It fell to $710 million between 2011 and 2014 from higher levels seen a few years earlier, the most recent period for which data is available. And P3s only facilitated about 1.5 percent of the $4 trillion all levels of government spent on highways between 1989 and 2013, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

However, the number of pension funds and other institutional investors putting money into infrastructure has doubled.

What’s holding things up?

Investors do not say that a lack of federal subsidies, like the $200 billion Trump reportedly seeks, is a big bottleneck. Instead, to draw much more private investment, the U.S. needs clear, consistent regulations that will help make projects more likely to withstand any shifts in political power – such as when the majority party changes at any level of government.

Establishing a more successful track record for these partnerships, which have often faltered, will also help.

One step the U.S. could take now is to follow the examples set by Australia and Canada, where more infrastructure is being built through these partnerships. Specialized P3 teams in those countries have developed uniform competitive bidding processes, standardized contracts and project pipelines all based on lessons learned from prior partnerships.

Californian precedents

The spotty track record for some U.S. efforts to establish P3s underscores the importance of that kind of coordination.

California, for example, sought in 1989 to harness four of these partnerships as “demonstration” projects. It only completed two of those four.

First, California’s transportation department created a P3 to build express lanes for its busy SR-91 highway to ease Orange County congestion near Los Angeles.

Because the department agreed to not build free roads running parallel to the tolled ones, a public outcry ensued after the 10-mile-long road opened to traffic in 1995.

Orange County then bought out the private-sector partner stake in this project eight years later, cutting its long-term contract short.

Expanding the South Bay Expressway, the other P3 California announced in 1989 that got done, took until 2007 to complete. Three years later, the project’s private partner declared bankruptcy, largely because of years of litigation that delayed the onset of tolls – which then generated less revenue than expected.

These planning errors, which were due to lack of experience, undercut confidence in the partnership approach for investors and the public alike.

But the Trump plan’s leaked preliminary details, such as an “interagency selection committee” administered by the Commerce Department and “federal technical assistance” with “no funding provided,” sound like they will fall short of what’s required.

We believe that unless the Trump administration – despite his disdain for bureaucracy – establishes new government offices to oversee federally backed P3s, it is likely to repeat the errors that hampered California’s pioneering projects.

If they build it

With infrastructure, investors are looking for relatively stable returns and less risk, more akin to bonds than stocks. This makes financing these partnerships attractive for pension funds and other institutional investors.

At the same time, it makes investors more eager to back projects that already exist and are generating revenue through user fees, such as toll roads, airports, ports and some transit projects with nearby land that can be sold or leased.

In the U.S., however, the government mainly needs the private sector’s help meeting other less profitable priorities, such as improving water quality, expanding public transit and building levees.

Although those projects may not be attractive to investors, they can stoke economic growth and productivity while fostering a higher quality of life.

Dwayne Boudreaux Jr., owner of a Circle Food Store in New Orleans, shown dumping dirty water that was vacuumed up after a flood. His city needs more than $11 billion to update key parts of its infrastructure but has only about $2 billion in hand.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

India’s mixed results

Interestingly, Trump’s infrastructure plan may resemble India’s approach, which has had mixed results since its 2004 inception. There, the national government foots about 20 percent of the bill when it enters into public-private partnerships, just as the White House proposes to do.

The Indian policy was intended for toll roads and airports for which the government fixed the user fees. The subsidy closed the gap between this regulated revenue stream and investors’ expectations.

However, India has failed to spend most of the money it budgeted for this initiative, suggesting that it will take more than subsidies to entice private investment.

Between India’s track record and signals about insufficient federal guidance and support for public-private partnerships, we doubt that Trump’s plan, as drafted, would catalyze the $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending he envisions.

The ConversationWhat’s more, we’re concerned that Trump’s proposed plan would primarily aid the kinds of projects that already attract private dollars, leaving many big priorities without a federal assist.

Caroline Nowacki, PhD Candidate, Global Projects Center, Stanford University and Kate Gasparro, Graduate Research Fellow of Sustainable Design and Construction, Stanford University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Is Barnaby’s baby a matter of ‘public interest’ or just of interest to the public?


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A few decades ago, then deputy prime minister Jim Cairns’ affair with staffer Junie Morosi rocked an already embattled Whitlam government.

Debate occurred about the reporting of that relationship – which Cairns at the time refused to admit was sexual – but the case for airing was pretty clear given Morosi’s role. She was a political player, through her enormous influence on her boss.

Now we have a controversy over whether it’s been in the public interest for the Daily Telegraph this week to out deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s liaison with his now-former staffer, Vikki Campion, who is expecting his child in April.

There’s one very significant difference between the Joyce-Campion and Cairns-Morosi affairs. No-one suggests Campion, who was deliberately transferred out of Joyce’s office nearly a year ago, was a political mover-and-shaker.

Has the upheaval in his personal life affected Joyce’s performance? No doubt to some extent. He’s reportedly been more distracted and difficult, though his citizenship imbroglio was a factor too.

Government and Labor MPs have backed Joyce’s claim that his personal life should be private. They’re driven partly by collective self-interest. Other MPs have had, or are having, affairs. But many MPs also feel, with some reason, that they have enough intrusion into their lives.

Those defending the publication advance a range of arguments, including that public figures must expect public lives. They say that if Joyce’s circumstances had been exposed earlier, voters in the New England byelection might have been harsher in their judgement. They accuse him of hypocrisy, on the grounds that his personal circumstances were at odds with his stand against same-sex marriage.

They also make the point that in time Joyce’s situation would have been obvious. Or as Daily Telegraph editor Chris Dore colourfully put it, “What would [journalists] have done when he started pushing a pram around Lake Burley Griffin or Parliament House?”

Personally, I think media publicity about the affair wouldn’t have made much difference in New England, which Joyce retained handsomely. His critics ensured the gossip was widely circulated locally, and most votes are driven by more directly political factors.

On the hypocrisy charge: Joyce acknowledged in his same sex-marriage speech that his marriage had collapsed. And in terms of logic, what you say about marriage equality is separate from what you do in your own heterosexual marriage. While Joyce has been a promoter of family values, it’s not been as a hardline crusader.

As for the story inevitably emerging in the fullness of time – that’s rather different from how it did emerge, with a front-page picture of the pregnant Campion.

The Joyce affair comes against a background of the public hating politicians and deeply distrusting the media, and as increasing scrutiny is on the personal behaviour of those, particularly men, in senior positions – in business, politics and, most dramatically, the entertainment world.

The story taps into a resentment among some in the community towards Canberra “insiders”, including journalists, who are thought to be keeping things from the “outsiders” – that is, the public.

The reality is exaggerated, in this age of blanket communications. The bones of the Joyce story were on the internet well before it hit the mainstream media.

Rob Stott, managing editor of Junkee, said on Crikey this week: “As news spreads more and more on social media, the time has long passed since the press gallery was able to hold back information that was being widely circulated in the community.”

But being taken up by the mainstream media gives a story much more impact and cache.

In this context, some journalists have felt the need to justify why they did not write the Joyce story, which had been swirling around Canberra for months. They’ve said it was a rumour that couldn’t readily be stood up in face of an unco-operative Joyce office – although that sounds like an excuse rather than an explanation.

But excuses are not required if you don’t believe the public interest demanded the front page expose.

Consider precisely what we are looking at here. A re-partnering, after an affair that started in a ministerial office, that has involved a painful family breakdown. This week’s coverage has made things even more difficult for Joyce’s wife and four daughters. The family’s anguish has been obvious in Natalie Joyce’s bitter public comments.

Gay Alcorn in Guardian Australia points out that Malcolm Turnbull could never have got away with the privacy Joyce sought to claim. Of course that’s true. But lines are drawn all the time. If it had been Joyce’s predecessor, the dour Warren Truss, in similar circumstances, would the treatment have been the same?

It should be stressed that although the 33-year-old Campion is much younger than the 50-year-old Joyce, there is no suggestion she’s a victim of a powerful boss. And they are now a couple – she won’t be a single mother.

The start of the affair while Campion was on Joyce’s staff has raised the question of whether there should be some prohibition on relationships between politicians and staffers.

This week the United States House of Representatives passed legislation banning sexual relationships between members of the house and staff who report to them. The measure has yet to go to the Senate.

The congressional action follows a raft of scandals in the US involving harassment, and the #MeToo movement.

In Canberra, crossbencher Cathy McGowan has seized on the Joyce affair to call for a conversation within the parliament “about a process to address personal relationships within the workplace”.

“There is a belief the parliament is behind community expectations and corporate practices,” said McGowan, known for her ear to the local ground. “The parliament is a place of work and good workplace practice includes clear expectations about behaviour.”

She pointed to the Congress example and what’s happened in the Australian corporate sector, including the AFL. McGowan said she was happy to begin a conversation ahead of potentially tabling a motion in parliament.

This is not a conversation the major parties want to have. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, asked about the US move, said: “Government has no business interfering in people’s personal lives and we wouldn’t want to cross the line so that the moral police were able to dictate what happens between consenting adults.”

The ConversationBut McGowan says the Joyce matter has highlighted “the need to talk about MPs as employers, our responsibilities to our staffs and how, if you make a mistake in the public arena, it can be managed in a respectful and effective way. There’s clearly an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed.”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/6jqa7-8776fa?from=yiiadmin

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

George Brandis warns Liberals against rise of populist right


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Former attorney-general George Brandis has warned of the challenge that right-wing populism poses to the Liberal Party, in his valedictory speech to the Senate ahead of taking up the post of high commissioner in London.

Brandis, a Liberal moderate, also strongly cautioned the Coalition against listening to those who said it should use national security as a political weapon against Labor, and criticised attacks on the judiciary from his own side.

With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull looking on, Brandis told the Senate that classical liberal values were under “greater challenge than at any time in my memory”.

“Increasingly, in recent years, powerful elements of right-wing politics have abandoned both liberalism’s concern for the rights of the individual and conservatism’s respect for institutions, in favour of a belligerent, intolerant populism which shows no respect for either the rights of individual citizens or the traditional institutions which protect them.”

Brandis was attorney-general throughout the Abbott and Turnbull governments, leaving the ministry in the December reshuffle.

He became increasingly outspoken as a voice of the moderate strand of the Liberal Party toward the end of his time in parliament. Within the government, he was critical of the hardline conservative Peter Dutton, now the home affairs minister.

In his speech Brandis targeted “right-wing postmodernism”. “A set of attitudes which had its origin in the authoritarian mind of the left has been translated right across the political spectrum,” he said.

“This presents a threat both to liberalism and conservatism, and a profound challenge to the Liberal Party as the custodian of these philosophic traditions.”

Brandis – who once set off a political storm by declaring that people had the right to be bigots – said being a liberal wasn’t easy.

“It means respecting the right of people to make choices which we ourselves would not make and of which may disapprove.

“It means respecting the right of people to express their opinions, even though others may find those opinions offensive.

“It means respecting the right of people to practice their religion, even though others may find the tenets of that religion irrational.

“It means, in a nation of many cultures, respecting the right of people to live according to their culture, even though, to others, that culture may seem alien.

“It means respecting the right of everyone to marry the person they love, even though others may find their understanding of marriage confronting.”

Brandis was a prominent figure pushing for same-sex marriage, which was legislated late last year.

In a pointed reference including some (unnamed) ministers who have criticised the judiciary, Brandis said he had not disguised his concerns at attacks on the institutions of the law – the courts and those who practised in them.

“To attack those institutions is to attack the rule of law itself. And it is for the attorney-general always to defend the rule of law – sometimes from political colleagues who fail to understand it, or are impatient of the limitations it may impose upon executive power – because although the attorney-general is a political official, as the first law officer he has a higher duty – a duty to the law itself.

“It is a duty which, as my cabinet colleagues know, on several robust occasions, I have always placed above political advantage.”

Brandis also was blunt in his rejection of those who want to see the government seek to inject more partisanship into national security.

He observed that eight tranches of national security legislation he had overseen were passed with opposition support after parliamentary committee scrutiny.

“It was a fine example of government and parliament working hand-in-hand to protect the national interest.

“I have heard some powerful voices argue that the Coalition should open a political front against the Labor Party on the issue of domestic national security.

“I could not disagree more strongly.

“One of the main reasons why the government has earned the confidence of the public on national security policy is that there has never been a credible suggestion that political motives have intruded.

“Were it to do so, confidence not just in the government’s handling of national security, but in the agencies themselves, would be damaged and their capacity to do their work compromised.

The Conversation“Nothing could be more irresponsible than to hazard the safety of the public by creating a confected dispute for political advantage. To his credit, the prime minister has always resisted such entreaties.”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/99z29-862eb3?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A sports car and a glitter ball are now in space – what does that say about us as humans?


Alice Gorman, Flinders University

Two controversial objects have recently been launched in space, and their messages couldn’t be more different.

One is Elon Musk’s red sports car, a symbol of elite wealth and masculinity, hurtling towards Mars.

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The other is a glittering geodesic sphere in Earth orbit, designed to give humans a shared experience and a sense of our place in the universe: the Humanity Star.

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Read more:
Trash or treasure? A lot of space debris is junk, but some is precious heritage


A red car for a red planet

On February 6 2018, Musk’s private space company SpaceX launched the much-vaunted Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Centre – from the same launch pad as Apollo 11 in 1969.

It’s a test launch carrying a dummy payload: Musk’s own personal midnight cherry Roadster, a sports car made by his Tesla company. The driver, dubbed Starman, is a mannequin in a SpaceX spacesuit.




Read more:
Elon Musk is launching a Tesla into space – here’s how SpaceX will do it


For the ultimate road trip soundtrack, the car is playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

The car will enter an elliptical solar orbit, its furthest point from the Sun around the distance of Mars.

Musk thinks of it as future space archaeology.

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Reactions include waxing lyrical about the speed the car will reach, lamenting the lost opportunity for a scientific experiment, and celebrating it as an inspirational act of whimsy.

Fear of flying

The Tesla Roadster might be an expendable dummy payload, but it’s primary purpose is symbolic communication. There’s a lot going on here.

There’s an element of performing excessive wealth by wasting it. Giving up such an expensive car (a new model costs US$200,000) could be seen as a sacrifice for space, but it’s also like burning $100 notes to show how how little they mean.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Victor Turner argued that symbols can encompass two contradictory meanings at the same time. Thus, the sports car in orbit symbolises both life and death. Through the body of the car, Musk is immortalised in the vacuum of space. The car is also an armour against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality.

The spacesuit is also about death. It’s the essence of the uncanny: the human simulacrum, something familiar that causes uneasiness, or even a sense of horror. The Starman was never alive, but now he’s haunting space.

In a similar vein, the red sports car symbolises masculinity – power, wealth and speed – but also how fragile masculinity is. Stereotypically, the red sports car is the accessory of choice in the male mid-life crisis, which men use to rebel against perceived domestication.

A related cultural meme holds that owning a sports car is over-compensation. Have we just sent the equivalent of a dick pic into space?

Space graffiti

The brainchild of Peter Beck (founder of the New Zealand-based Rocket Lab), the Humanity Star was launched on 21 January 2018, but kept a secret until after it had successfully reached orbit.

In contrast to the lean and slightly aggressive lines of the sports car, the Humanity Star is a geodesic sphere of silver triangular panels. It’s a beach ball, a moon, a BB8, a space age sculpture. Its round shape is friendly and reassuring.

Similar satellites – with reflective surfaces designed for bouncing lasers – are orbiting Earth right now. But this satellite doesn’t have a scientific purpose. It’s only function is to be seen from Earth as its bright faces tumble to catch the light.

Astronomers weren’t happy, saying that it would confuse astronomical observations. It was even called “space graffiti”, implying that its visual qualities marred the “natural” night sky. Some lambasted Rocket Lab for contributing to the orbital debris problem. Instead of inspiration, they saw pollution.

Through the looking glass

Beck wants people to engage with the Humanity Star. In his words,

My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important.

Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with.




Read more:
Looking up a century ago, a vision of the future of space exploration


This is the “Overview Effect” in reverse. We can’t all go to space and see the whole blue marble of the Earth from outside, inspiring a new consciousness of how much we are all together in the same boat. Beck has tried to create a similar feeling of a united Earth by looking outwards instead.

In nine months or so, the Humanity Star will tumble back into the atmosphere to be consumed. It will leave no trace of its passage through orbit.

The medium is the message

Ultimately, these orbiting objects are messages about human relationships with space. Both objects were launched by private corporations, inviting Earthbound people to share the journey. However, one reinforces existing inequalities, while the other promotes a hopeful vision of unity.

Beck and Musk’s intentions are irrelevant to how the symbols are interpreted by diverse audiences. Symbols can be multivalent, contradictory, and fluid – their meanings can change over time, and in different social contexts.

The ConversationEvery object humans have launched into the solar system is a statement: each tells the story of our attitudes to space at a particular point in time.

Alice Gorman, Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.