I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilization

The US juror Oliver Wendell Holmes uttered the title of this post.

I’d love to hear it spoken in the next few days in Australia.

But today, when our government announced a new excise on cigarettes, the opposition has immediately labeled it a tax grab. This weekend, when the government releases the first serious attempt at long-term thinking on tax I can recall in my lifetime, expect the same reaction, namely shrill arguments that the government wants to tax us more.

Well …. d’uh. Of course it wants to tax us more. We want our government to do more stuff and someone has to pay for it. We want better roads, schools, hospitals, industry protection, defence, refugee rejection mechanisms and environmental band-aiding. We want it all and we want it to be excellent, because if our kids aren’t adept on PowerPoint when they leave school, or if we ever get stuck in a traffic jam or hospitals can’t do everything right, instantly, we feel ripped off or behind the rest of the world.

I’ve benefited from this attitude thanks to middle-class welfare I frankly did not deserve.

So it’s time for this debate to wise up.

Surely we can all make the intellectual hop to realize that taxes pay for civilization. So why can’t we also rationalise that Australia’s expectations of its government to provide more, better, services means taxes are also likely to rise? And why can’t we also realise that immediate, knee-jerk negative reactions to tax rises are ignoring the bleeding obvious.

If lower taxes are really what is needed, I am happy for the Right to propose a massive disengagement of government from service delivery and more user-pays. But frankly Australia’s Right just has no credibility on this. They’ll prop up their favorites and justify that as necessary while also talking up the wrongs of government interference in the market. Hamstrung by the Nationals, their version of the free market is a horrible compromise.

But instead of falling for the “more tax is bad” shouting that’s about to start, let’s please have a sensible debate about just how we fund the things this country wants , and whether those are the things we really need.


Ten reasons this journalist is not banking on anyPad to save my career

I wrote a few weeks ago about my newspaper holiday.

I haven’t been enjoying it. The Australian feels like an endless stream of admonishments from a schoolmistress. I’m always reading that something is badly handled or could be the harbinger of bad times, or that vested interests are somehow being unreasonable in pursuing their vested interests. And I am more offended by a headline attributing personal responsibility for the arrival of refugee boats to the Prime Minister than I am by the illogical, biased and ridiculously-swayed-by-movies opinions of Miranda Devine.

The thing that really grates is News Ltd’s deification of itself and its values. Of late that has meant endless gushing coverage about the iPad, along with generous hints about the publisher’s commitment to the device.

For the record I am yet to behold the device, although I do not doubt reports that it is lovely to use. Apple products tend to be that way. Apple products also tend to sell in the multi-millions, which means there’ll be an audience for content on the iPad. Everyone expects there’ll be competitors, so there’ll be a decent market for content in this form factor.

I cannot see it “saving” journalism – not for years and years, anyway.

Here’s why.

Firstly, the initial audience will be small. You don’t save anything with early adopters. You make something new, so I expect whatever media these devices spawn will not flourish in the ways people now hope or expect. The street, as William Gibson put it, finds its own uses for things.

Secondly, the price is high. I know – d’uh! – it will come down, but exactly why I need to spend $500 on a device so that I can then subscribe to a newspaper is beyond me. My newspaper sub costs $29 a month and I’m cool with the blend of broadsheet accessibility and the lesser iPhone experience when I’m on the move. When News Ltd is willing to give me a tablet/slate – like it happily doles out set-top boxes – I may become more interested.

Third, the idea that dead tree distribution is broken is wrong. It actually works quite well – as Alan Kohler observed, it take a well-oiled machine to get my newspaper onto my front step every morning. Its non-trivial to arrange that distribution system, and if you want proof is there still a milko or bread delivery person in your neighbourhood? More importantly, the business of spreading pigment on sheaves of cellulose, then delivering it to retailer and/or consumers is something publishers invented, so it formed in ways that suit publishers and was even quite vertically integrated until relatively recently. Sure, publishers eventually outsourced lots of the process, but they had invented it to start with and innovation came in specialist areas like logistics.

The iTunes distribution system was not designed by a publisher. It was designed by Apple to make money for Apple. As Apple constantly enforces conditions that crimp its rivals’ activities to preserve its own preferred modus operandi (think Adobe on iPhone), I expect its distribution system will eventually prove to be less-than-ideal for publishers. Just look at its intransigence on music pricing and the small-but-significant number of artists who get on just fine without iTunes – this system is not for everyone!

Fourth, slates do represent convergence of media, but not convergence of devices just yet. Think about it – do you still wear a watch or has your mobile taken over that function? Do you play music or movies through your PC? When we can get it, we want a swiss army knife of a computing device and the iPad and its immediate, 1st-generation competitors aren’t there because they force us to have one device for media consumption and another for other tasks. This will restrict adoption as many people persist with good-enough laptops and PCs for the stuff that slates do exceptionally well.

Fifth: Artefacts matter. I have a room lined with books and 15 years worth of magazines. They look great. People are packrats by nature and artefact hoarding won’t go away in a hurry. Don’t forget the social function of artefact display, either. Your collections say a lot about you and it’s not like someone can come into your house and appreciate your values by seeing your iPad!

Sixth: People are subscription-averse. All the magazines I have ever been associated with get perhaps 20% of their readers from subscribers. Newspapers do better. Quite why we’ll all decide to buy more subs just because they get pumped into a tablet/slate is beyond me.

Seventh: How much value does extra images and video add to news? For me, not much. I’ve almost never opted in for an extended interview online, because for me the news is about getting a concise dump of pre-edited material. I TRUST journalists to bring me the best bits (I know, such naivety!) because I am time-poor and want a quick, digestible content nugget.. Extras slow me down and will need to be bloody good to add value. It takes expensive, collaborative processes to make rich media. Are newspapers really going to invest in the stuff that makes for a satisfying 3-minute video to enhance printed coverage? The small amount of newspaper-created video I’ve seen to date generally does not betray massive mastery of other media – journalists speaking to camera are dull – and I have no information that suggests iPad inspired investments are in the pipeline to change this.

Eighth – The iPad model is terrible for trade publishers, who often rely on “controlled circulation” strategies of sending unsolicited magazines to a desirable audience. How many CIOs are going to give out their iPad Ids to let this happen digitally? SFA, IMHO, ergo the iPad is very unlikely to save trade media, a segment of media that is very large but generally excluded from discussions about the wider media!

Ninth – I just don’t see journalism as having the same susceptibility to iPodisation as music. I’ve long felt that the iPod thrives at the intersection of instant gratification and freedom of choice. Not too long ago, if you wanted to listen to that obscure b-side you last heard sometime last millennium, it was painful to find it and more painful to re-acquire. Now it’s either in your iTunes file or for sale on the iTunes store. Either way, you can access it in less than a minute. Now … name the written product you crave in the same way. I’m betting it takes longer to think up that great article you’d like to experience again than it takes to do the same for a song. I think this is important because the impulse buys and impulse listens that make the iPod so great won’t happen for other media.

Tenth: One of the reasons the mainstream media is in strife is that there are now more outlets in the market. Quite how the iPad or any similar device will stop leakage from MSM to new media is utterly beyond me. As the eyeballs go, the ad rates drop … I see no way out via. an iPad.

All of these reasons mean I am not banking on the iPad to save my career. I’m sure there will be some lovely innovations that emerge, and I hope to be able to participate in some. But I do not expect an immediate – or even short term – uptick in the media’s fortunes as a result of these devices.

Oh and I’m also going to go back to the SMH, even though it means more Miranda …

Stuck in the mud and why AFL will do just fine in Sydney

Last year, my son (aka Mr 8), started to play Auskick, the version of Australian Rules Football for kids.

This year my daughter, Miss 5, has decided to do likewise, for the mighty Newtown Swans.

She’s very much a pink fairy sparkly butterly princess unicorn girl when she’s in the mood, so her decision to play football – boots and all – was odd.

But she decided to do it for two reasons. One is that she’ll probably get schlepped to training with her brother half the time, so might as well make the best of it.

The other is that Auskick makes it fun. The emphasis is all on participation, sharing and learning skills and it is done subtley so the kids have fun, rather than feel they are just doing drills.

The best example of this is the game of Stuck in the Mud at every training session. The kids love it, but as the coach explained to me the other day, the game  simulates an AFL game pretty well. Think about it: you run up and down the field, you dodge opponents, then if you find an obstacle your team-mates come to your aid, all while using your peripheral vision to spot threats and opportunities. That’s AFL in a nutshell!

Winning doesn’t come into it – the games are not even scored until under 10s. Every kid gets given AFL branded stuff – we got socks, a bag, a ball and a hat – to ram home the brand. And there’s a better than 25% chance she’ll be asked to play Auskick as half-time entertainment during a Sydney Swans game, and get the whole gameday experience.

It’s amazingly well organised. The registration form for new players even asks if we wish to be kept informed of the new Greater Western Sydney team and that won’t enter the competition until 2012. This level of support encourages and facilitates greater levels of volunteering, so the whole experience of being a part of the club is about ten times better than the experience we had with the local soccer team.

I suspect Miss 5’s AFL career will be short. But I also suspect that she will have very strong ideas about the code put into her head at a very young age, and that those ideas will stick there. This, I suspect, is how the AFL will grow and why it will do just fine in Sydney. Sure there is not a slavering horde of AFL supporters ready to support the new team. But give it 10,15, 20 years and all those kids who remember even the one or two seasons of Auskick they played will be more disposed to take an interest in the team than would otherwise have been the case.

I wonder if any of them will realise they’re watching grown men playing a complicated version of Stuck in the Mud?