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October 31, 2010

the state of journalism: Crabb's reflections

Australian journalists are not known for their critical reflections upon the practice of journalism, nor for their acknowledgment of the decline of quality in journalism associated with the emergence of the internet and the new media. If they ignore the criticism sit is mostly to shoot the critics. Critical arguments about journalism have been only open to practitioners and journalism academics - a closed circle of gatekeepers.

Annabel Crabb in her The end of journalism as we know it (and other good news) at the ABC's is a text version of Crabb's AN Smith lecture in journalism, delivered on October 27, 2010 at Melbourne University. It is a serious look at the state of journalism, how journalism is adapting to the changing technological environment, and the future of journalism as emerging opportunities. Crabb describes the new media landscape thus:

It's what happens when the damn system is democratised. News journalism as we have known it in the past - a sort of daily feeding-time in which news is distributed to a passive audience at a designated hour and in the order selected by the zookeeper - is over, or well on its way to being so. Audiences are splintered, but demanding. They want new news, and if something complicated has happened, they want instant analysis. Commonly, they want an opportunity to express their own views - not only on the event itself, but on how it has been reported...This loss of control is such a hallmark of the new media. And that's true for everybody it touches...For journalists, the loss of control is about the loss of centrality.

She rightly points out that journalists are just not necessarily, automatically at the core of the media landscape any more.

She adds that journalists:

are - belatedly, and for reasons entirely unassociated with Government-led deregulation or any of the other usual reasons - contestable. The community of news and commentary is getting stronger and more populous. We are just not necessarily, automatically at the core of it any more. And we are open to criticism - some of it savage, some of it worryingly accurate - like never before. Our passive, profitable audience is disappearing. In newspapers, which is where I come from, the panic is about advertising, of course. And how to monetise content online.

That is an accurate description. I agree with her when she points to future opportunities---what lies ahead is not a blasted heath. It's a building site.

Crabb then goes onto talk about information being free and this is where things start to go askew. She says:

And 10 years later, what do we have? Leading news websites, and an audience which has been trained to expect this stuff for free. Which has had the unintended effect, to some extent, of devaluing the actual product - and I use this bald term intentionally. Thanks to the expectation - inculcated by us - in readers that they should enjoy unmetered access to the work of most major newspapers, we journalists are in rather a novel industrial position...Why is my intellectual property suddenly worthless, while the guy who invents hilarious ring-tones is still entitled to the customary presumption that his day's work warrants some kind of commensurate recompense? The answer is that journalists have already ceded the field. We've already given our stuff away....Free information is usually free for a reason. Mostly, it's free because it's a press release, or an ad, or it's been nicked from TMZ.com, or because it's so incredibly banal that even its creator can't bear to look you in the eye and shake you down for cash. Free information, ladies and gentlemen, tends to be crappy information.

This is disingenuous as Crabbe is being paid by The ABC to write commentary on political events and that money comes from the government and public taxation. Unlike
many I support the ABC's innovation around The Drum and Unleashed.

Secondly, it is the old advertising based business model that is on the skids and that causes Fairfax problems. If a newspaper goes behind a pay wall--as Murdoch is doing--- that is fine. I'll subscribe if the content warrants it. The trouble is most journalism is now of such poor quality and of such little use---eg., The Australian's reportage on the national broadband network --that this kind of partisan opinion does not warrant me paying money to read it.

Thirdly, Crabb's criticism of free information is based on the repudiation of free and knowledge. She does not consider the possibility of free as knowledge in a digital world. So much for Wikipedia or Project Gutenberg. Or the body of work propduced by photographers such as David Meisal?

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October 30, 2010

home schooling

Christopher Pearson in his Great education available outside the mainstream in The Australian advocates homeschooling. It is part of the broad criticism of public education from the right, which has traditionally demanded vouchers for education in the clash of ideas around education. This clash is between those who believe that public education is not only a fundamental right but a vital public service, akin to the public provision of police, fire protection, parks, and public libraries, and those who believe that the private sector is always superior to the public sector

Pearson says that the thriving home-schooling movement in Australia is:

born of a warranted mistrust of the ideological baggage of the state system and, increasingly, of the Catholic parochial and independent systems. Parents tend to rely on unfashionable textbooks that teach you how to parse a sentence, to construct a paragraph and to mount an argument in 500 words. They do not pander to the fads for dumbed-down literary studies but offer English as we once knew it. Similarly, the maths and science books are usually at least 20 years old and quaintly insistent on the difference between a right answer and a wrong one. Because the parents learned from similar texts, they find them relatively easy to teach from.

From Pearson's description homeschooling is the province of religious fundamentalists and educational traditionalists rather than the hippies of yesterday or those on the left.

The general argument, from what I can gather, is that public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The hope for the future of our society, is escape from public schools, especially to home schooling and charter schools.

The appeal is to a broad apprehension that the nation is falling behind in global competition. If the economy is a shambles, if poverty persists for significant segments of the population, if Australia kids are not as serious about their studies as their peers in other nations, the schools must be to blame. It is not globalization, poverty or equity, our popular culture or predatory financial practices that bear responsibility: it’s the public schools, their teachers, and their unions. Able teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents, etc.

My problem with this argument is that though teachers are the most important factor within schools for determining student achievement, this ignores that that nonschool factors, such as poverty and family background, matter even more than teachers.

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October 29, 2010

Obama: on the ropes?

Obama's supporters say that he would usher in an era of post-partisan harmony, enabling America to transcend its divisive, partisan political conflicts by commanding support for his policies across the political spectrum. I was always unclear what 'bipartisanship' actually meant in this context, especially when The Republican Party has no interest in it beyond mere lip service. The political payoff for the Republicans came with obstructionism.

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Tariq Ali in Obama hope was all hype in The Guardian says that:

In times of crisis, the incumbent suffers. And the bigger the crisis the greater the punishment inflicted on those in power, unless they do something that makes a change. Obama has not done so. Instead, both at home and abroad, the continuities between Obama's administration and that of Bush-Cheney far outweigh any differences.Whenever vested interests resisted, Obama caved.

Ali says that Obama has done so on the economy, health care, education and Guantánamo. We can add that Obama's Terrorism and war actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, are a powerful continuity with Bush/Cheney.

Ali finishes by saying that:

As a candidate, Obama projected himself as a new Reagan, above narrow party politics. He wanted to please all, but has ended up annoying many. And if the Republicans can find a halfway decent candidate (perhaps a uniformed one) I doubt the incumbent will get a second term.

The Democrats aren't looking too good in the midterm elections. They look like losing their majority in the House, and the Senate might go along with numerous governorships and state legislative chambers.

Obama's legislative victories, which were based on finding common ground, were important and significant. However, he became bogged down in the compromises, narrowness and deal-making of Congressional politics. His first stimulus had been trimmed to accommodate Republican disapproval.

The Tea Party movement of the Republican Party's conservative base is creating a lot of noise recycling old themes as they exploit the Democrats' intense unpopularity and failures. Kevin Drum says:

Ever since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.

Divided government is the norm in the US; a norm underpinned by the under currents on the long-term rightward shift of the Republican Party.

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October 28, 2010

Who cares

Howard and Costello continue to publicly squabble over the leadership of the Liberal Party prior to 2006. Who cares? It's political history. The Liberal Party had done its dash after a decade in Government. Changing leaders at the last minute wasn't going to turn things round. Peter Costello could not have saved the Coalition government.

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Howard is spruiking his book and he's using used his memoirs to settle personal scores with Peter Costello. Costello bites back. Yawn. We've all moved on and we couldn't care less about the Howard/Costello bun fight.

Conservative commentators ---eg., Janet Albrechtsen --- go on and on about the Howard haters lining up to whack the former PM. She seems to be living in some parallel universe.

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October 27, 2010

Murray-Darling Basin reform: its war

The Canberra Press Gallery are saying that the Gillard Government is not managing the reforms to the Murray- Darling Basin well.

We are being informed that the revolt in the streets is due to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority guide supposedly placing all the emphasis on restoring water to the environment and ignoring the social and economic consequences of water reform on regional communities. By not taking into account the devastating impact water reform has on local towns and farmers, the Murray-Darling Basin Report will turn towns into ghost towns.

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Tosh. There is a concerted political campaign being conducted by the irrigators---eg., the National Irrigators Council to prevent water reform to reduce the over allocation of water licences. That campaign is led by the NSW Irrigators Council ----the irrigators have declared war on the Gillard Government, just like the miners did, and they are using similar astroturf tactics. This is a campaign based on deception and fear--from foodbowl to dustbowl.

The signs in this Mildura meeting say that the (lack of) river flow is caused by drought not farmers. Therefore, no water should be taken from irrigators.

What the authority has been doing is figuring out the environmental requirements of the river system first and then looking at how to minimise the social and economic impacts of having less water for farm use. Returning to the river system at least the minimum amount of water needed for ecological health was supposed to be the point of this long and supposedly independent process.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:59 PM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

October 26, 2010

Liberals call for a financial inquiry

Credit where credit is due.

Joe Hockey is calling for a financial inquiry into our financial system and for banking reform. It's about time we moved away from bashing the banks to policy; moved away from concentrating on the Reserve Bank of Australia to the inherent flaws in the financial system itself. Where is the ALP?

RowsonMfatcats.jpg Martin Rowson

The international context of Hockey's proposal is the high degree of instability of the international financial system and the lack of capacity to both prevent and manage financial crises. There are calls for fundamental reforms in the global financial system, given that the IMF is the principal institution of global economic governance positioned to help deal with the current economic and financial crisis and the Fund’s legitimacy and relevance has been undermined in recent years.

The IMF no longer has a major role to play as a lender, helping to guide the global economy and financial system, and protecting the international financial system.

The global economy and financial system are in the midst of a massive deleveraging process. The increased globalization of the world economy and, more important, of the world financial system in recent decades means that countries can run, but not hide, from this crisis or future crises. European countries are facing sovereign debt crises from bailing their junk financiers.

Secondly, the finance industry has effectively captured our government and its policy prescriptions are consistent: finance unleashed would propel the economy to greater economic growth; and countries need to learn to live within their means after a period of excess—exports must be increased, and imports cut. The global financial crisis indicated that financiers or Wall Street in the case of the U.S. played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse.

The Big banks have only gained political strength after the global financial crisis. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The Obama administration seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them. As in America, the state's velvet-glove approach with the banks in Australia is inadequate to change the behavior of a financial sector accustomed to doing business on its own terms, at a time when that behavior must change.

Hockey backed away from any suggestions that the Coalition advocates the re-regulation of interest rates. He says that the big four banks were now too big to be allowed to fail, that the four major banks have largely become the Australian financial system and that the major banks are using their newfound market power to collusively signal pricing intentions. He also argues for greater competition as the smaller banks are are finding it hard to get funding.

His policy suggestions are:

1. Let’s give the ACCC power to investigate collusive price signalling (that is, oligopolistic behaviour), which is exactly what Graeme Samuel has called for;

2. Let’s encourage APRA to investigate whether the major banks are taking on unnecessary risks in the name of trying to maximise short-term returns that conflict with the preferences of those that backstop the system, namely taxpayers;

3. Let’s formally mandate the RBA to publish regular—rather than irregular—reporting on bank net interest margins, returns on equity, and profitability so that we can all determine whether the major banks are extracting monopolistic profits; that is, whether taxpayers are effectively subsidising supernormal returns;

4. Let’s investigate David Murray’s proposal for Aussie Post to make its 3,800 branches available as distribution channels for smaller lenders. To be clear, the Coalition does not endorse Australia Post assuming balance-sheet risk and getting into the banking business itself;

5. Let’s ask the Treasury and the RBA to investigate ways to further improve the liquidity of the residential and commercial mortgage backed securities markets, which are an alternate source of funding for smaller lenders, including consideration of the Coalition proposal to extend the Government’s credit rating to AAA rated commercial paper in those markets to improve liquidity;

6. Let’s explore further simplification of my beloved Financial Services Reform Act, to make the business of actually getting out and doing business easier and simpler;

7. Let’s direct APRA to explore whether the risk-weightings on business loans secured by residential properties are punitive. Many small businesses tell me that they do not receive sufficient financial benefit from pledging their family home to secure their borrowings;

8. Let’s commission a resolution to the debate about whether the banks should be able to issue “covered bonds”, in the same way other jurisdictions allow their banks to, which provides a more affordable line of credit;

9. And let’s wrap up all of this work into a full review of the financial system—a Son of Wallis, or Grandaughter of Campbell, whatever you will.

Hockey advocates stopping collusion and increasing competition in addressing the core question: How to regulate banks that are regarded as too big to fail. Is this the beginning of a critical look at the the cult of finance that has seeped into the culture at large?

We now have a situation in which in our society, which celebrates the idea of making money, it is inferred that the interests of the financial sector are the same as the interests of the country. The implication is that the winners in the financial sector know better what was good for Australia than did the politicians and public servants in Canberra.

It's time to address the power of the banking oligarchy. The major banks draw much of their power from being too big to fail. It's time to break the oligarchy through anti-trust legislation in greater competition. What will the ALP do?

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:09 AM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

October 25, 2010

Wikileaks + whistle-blowing

The whistleblowing group WikiLeaks has released up to 400,000 US intelligence reports on the Iraq War from the start of 2004 until the end of 2009 leaked from the Pentagon's secret archives on the Iraq war. The disclosure is the biggest leak in US history, far more than the 91,000 Afghanistan war logs WikiLeaks released this summer, and it includes evidence of 15,000 more civilian deaths than initially reported. Adding those deaths to 107,000 others that had been recorded by the group Iraq Body Count, WikiLeaks has estimated the civilian toll since 2003 at more than 120,000.

Iraq appears to have been a bloodbath on every corner. Most civilians, by far, were killed by other Iraqis and these were caused by systematic sectarian cleansing.

The latest leak--the Iraq war logs ---shows that the US-led military knew that Iraqi police, soldiers and national guards, that they were training and equipping, were torturing detainees and in some cases beating them to death. The documents describe scenes of torture by Iraqi forces of Iraqi detainees, involving acid, drills, hosepipes, lit cigarettes, and rape.

WikiLeaks, has redefined whistle-blowing by gathering secrets in bulk, storing them beyond the reach of governments and others determined to retrieve them, then releasing them instantly, and globally. The response from the Obama administration is an aggressive pursuit of whistle-blowers and it is trying to close down WikiLeaks. As Daniel Ellsberg observed, “Secrecy is essential to empire.”

Civilian deaths is what was ignored by those in favour of the war-- officials in the US, UK and Australia consistently downplayed the numbers of civilians they killed – or denied killing any at all. Glenn Greenward at Salon points out that there is now:

a major, coordinated effort underway to smear WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange, and to malign his mental health -- all as a means of distracting attention away from these highly disturbing revelations and to impede the ability of WikiLeaks to further expose government secrets and wrongdoing with its leaks. But now, the smear campaign is led not by Executive Branch officials, but by members of the establishment media.

The strategy in the "establishment media" ---the media that serves the Government's interests, sidies with government and military officials, and attacks government critics--- is that Julian Assange must have his character smeared and his psychiatric health maligned. The whistle-blower is a psychologically ill, America-hating subversive and paranoid narcissist.

Update
The Republican media--- eg., the war cheerleaders on Fox News--just want Julian Assange taken out because he is conducting an act of political warfare against the United States.

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October 24, 2010

the limits of market liberalism

In his Progressive, like the 1980s in the London Review of Books John Gray introduces some ideas that build on the previous posts on the politics of austerity and rolling back the state in a deflationary global economy.

Gray explores what may happen if the consequence of fiscal orthodoxy is to exacerbate the fragility of capitalism. He says that if the coalition is a novelty in British politics, then there is nothing that is remotely new in its ruling ideas, which are those of market liberalism:

[Nick] Clegg’s synthesis of social with market liberalism makes no advance on the position taken by Michael Portillo when he launched his bid for the Conservative leadership nearly a decade ago, while Cameron’s much touted ‘big society’ is a recycled version of the civic conservatism advocated by David Willetts in the early 1990s.

These represent a movement away from Thatcher 's attempts to link the free market with social conservatism --a position that was also espoused by John Howard in Australia from 1996 to 2006.

RowsonMcutbacks.jpg Martin Rowson

Gray continues that the above amalgams:

were attempts to remedy deficiencies in Thatcherite thinking, with Portillo arguing that a free-market economy should be complemented by liberal social values and Willetts maintaining that the corrosive effects of market forces could be overcome by giving greater space to non-governmental institutions – neighbourhoods, churches, charities and the like. The difficulty they faced was reconciling the dynamism of the free market with the need for social stability. This is not a new conflict – it troubled Adam Smith – and in truth it cannot be resolved, but it is all the more acute now that market capitalism is itself in trouble.

The market ideology of the 1980s has been internalised across the British political class, so that it now seems no more than common sense.

However, Gray adds:

As a consequence of the financial crisis, the market-based globalisation of the past couple of decades is giving way to a model in which states are the principal actors... A roll-back of the state of the magnitude that the coalition[in the UK] envisages will leave people more exposed to the turbulence of world markets than they have been for generations. Inevitably, they will seek protection...But it makes little sense to talk about restoring traditional forms of family life while insisting on the necessity of adapting to a highly mobile and continuously changing labour market .... This is not an inconsistency peculiar to the coalition. It is a conflict inherent in capitalism, which none of its defenders has been able to overcome. Most economic liberals have tended to evade the fact that free markets work against traditional values, including commonly accepted ideas of fairness.

Gray argues that the market liberal agenda the coalition in the UK is promoting is a relic from the past that is unlikely to withstand a protracted economic downturn. The determination to scale back debt could itself create the conditions for a U-turn. If the result of the retrenchment projected in the comprehensive spending review is sharply increased unemployment and stubbornly feeble or negative growth, then the government will need to reclaim its role in protecting the population from the insecurity of the market.

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October 23, 2010

'starving the beast'

The global credit crunch and economic downturn continues to work it s way through the national economies of Europe and the Americas. Global financial markets remain unsettled, and the recovery that started so vigorously in 2009 seems to be stalling. There has been swelling the ranks of both the working poor and those seeking out social services for the first time. Inequality is increasing due to the politics of austerity from the moves to roll back public spending programs introduced to help shield their economies from recession.

If slow, protracted recovery with sustained high unemployment is the norm in the aftermath of a deep financial crisis, then the future of the world economy is one of long period of low growth:

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Devaluation is not available to individual countries within the euro monetary union. They have to adjust to bad shocks to their individual economies either through increased unemployment, reduced wages, or migration of some unemployed workers to countries that are doing better. These adjustments are difficult for Greece, Italy, Spain and other weak members of the EU because their labor markets are inflexible, and because many workers in these countries are reluctant to migrate elsewhere, partly because they would give up generous benefits.

Behind the politics of austerity lies the well-known “set of ideas, beliefs and attitudes” of the free market economics: they strongly believe in the virtues of markets because of their efficiency properties but also for moral-ethical reasons; they believe in the self-adjusting or self-correcting economy and therefore abhor government interventions of all sorts. Along with this core set of beliefs there goes a penumbra of vaguer attitudes with respect to private property rights, the legal system, the overarching value of (particularly) economic freedom, etc. The defense of “the market” involves “starving the beast”, which means pressing for reduction in government by creating binding constraints.

Like Southern Europe, the US economy needs to move away from the consumption/housing-led growth model of the last decade. President Obama has encapsulated this challenge by setting the goal of doubling US exports over the next decade. Daniel Gros points out that this is easier said than done:

Post-bubble economies face a fundamental mismatch between the skills available in the existing work force and the requirements of a modern export-oriented manufacturing sector.Unfortunately, there is very little that economic policy can do to create a strong exporting sector in the short run, except alleviate the social pain. Labor-market flexibility is always touted as a panacea, but even the highest degree of it cannot transform unemployed realtors or construction workers into skilled manufacturing specialists.

Long-run economic growth is determined mainly by improving productivity. This is difficult given America's dire debt situation and it being the heart of the world’s financial and monetary system. George Soros observes:
The US economy badly needs investments that enhance productivity but the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide them. US corporations operate very profitably but instead of investing their profits they are building up their liquidity—accumulating money, not investing it.In these circumstances there is a strong case for government intervention. Admittedly, consumption cannot be sustained indefinitely by running up the national debt. But to cut back on government spending at a time of large-scale unemployment would ignore all the lessons learned from the Great Depression.

The Republicans are campaigning against any further stimulus and they seem to have gained the upper hand by stigmatizing big government. The Obama administration is pushed into the wrong policies by political pressures.

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October 22, 2010

The Australian's war on the NBN

Senator Conroy is quite right. The Australian is waging war against both the national broadband network (NBN) and the Gillard Government. On last Wednesdays Lateline Conroy said:

I think it's fair to say that the campaigning that they're doing against the NBN doesn't meet any journalistic balance, it doesn't meet any journalistic accountability, if you were to look at the actual factual substance of the story. And it's very disappointing to see a newspaper losing its way in this way. And they have been maintaining this campaign to try and create uncertainty, to create falsehoods about the NBN and they are knowingly doing it ... You can only come to the conclusion that they are determined to destroy the NBN in the eyes of Australians because it was an important factor in us winning government. And you've seen the tantrum they threw after the election, and this just is part of an ongoing tantrum by The Australian newspaper about the outcome of the election.

The stories on the NBN are largely beatups, designed as weapons in a political campaign.

In today's edition one story says that only about one in 10 of the first Australians to be offered high-speed internet services under the National Broadband Network have taken up the offer. This reference to Tasmania ignores that it is a test site and that the first sites in each mainland state have take-ups that are averaging around 77%.

Another story, which refers back to The Australian's claims that broadband would cost householders $3000 to rewire the house, says that it is $400 per room. Reading the story about an individual in the Adelaide hills indicates that is not the cost of broadband (ie., the optical network terminal) we are talking about. It is the cost of rewiring with Cat 6 cable in order access IPTV services on a set-top box for each television.It cost the individual $4000 to wire up his home.

How many of us want to wire up our homes? Maybe the ones who've spent big on home cinemas already. The rest of us will use a decent router to get better speeds than what ADSL 2+ connections deliver now.

The comments to the various stories indicate the purpose of the beatups.They are designed as meat to its conservative base to continue the campaign to bash the ALP. Neither the conservative base or The Australian have any interest in exploring or debating the policy issues around a national broadband network. The aim is to discredit the network.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:24 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

October 21, 2010

UK: Cameron's politics of austerity

So the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Government in the UK have swung their axe into the welfare state They say that this is in order to prevent the UK from sliding into bankruptcy. There is an £81bn cut to government spending to ensure Britain has a better future of lower interest payments on the national debt.

This politics of austerity is being spun as anchored in "fairness" ---and as supportive of growth, fairness and efficiency.

RowsonMCuts.jpg Martin Rowson

Apparently, the private sector will step into the deflationary vacuum caused by 490,000 jobs going in the public sector during the rest of the parliament, massive cuts in university funding, wholesale reform of public housing and further cuts to the welfare budget. There will be at at least an equivalent number will be lost from private sector firms – in the construction sector, for example – that rely heavily on state contracts.

Now that the nanny state is off the backs of Britishcitizens the efficient and dynamic private sector has the space to provide the boost in economic growth in a national economy that is clearly slowing down, an international economy in slowing down mode, and a banking sector still in a poor state.

It reads like a fairy tale for grown ups doesn't it. Who said economics isn't about myth making?

The political myth is the the "big society" can fill gaps left by cuts to public spending ie., ordinary people will step intot eh vacuum and take on extra roles in the community running public services. Presumably, those who do so will be those who become unemployed. Or maybe it is the charities, the other strand of the voluntary sector that will plug the gaps. Or a disabled or seriously sick person who has a working spouse, however low-paid their job may be, who will lose their personal entitlement to benefits after a year.

And the Liberal Democrats go along with the pre-Keynesian views of the Conservatives---that one should look on the finances of government as if they were those of a household, that monetary policy remains effective and that fiscal deficits do not support economic activity. Or do they see it in terms of the first along a path towards redefining the role of government itself – what the state in a Western society does for its citizens, and what it does not or indeed cannot do?

The British state is stepping back from, or shedding, some responsibilities--eg., welfare and social housing

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October 20, 2010

ALP: a war party

I just couldn't bring myself to listen to the debate on the war in Afghanistan war after listening to Question Time yesterday. Even though the House has cleaned up its act in the way it debates issues, this "debate" was always going to be a less of a debate and more a statement of commitment from both the major parties, it was too little too late, and the arguments given for this foreign occupation were going to be cliched responses that accepted the fiction of the global war on terror.

I would have found it too depressing listening to the current ALP parliamentarians turning their back on their tradition of opposing the Vietnam war, to justify a war similar to what the ALP opposed in the 1970s. The ALP has become a party of little Americans and a war party and operates within the comfortable tropes of the war on terror.

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Gillard had two reasons for Australian troops fighting in Afghanistan:

One: to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists, a place where attacks on us and our allies begin.Two: to stand firmly by our alliance commitment to the US, formally invoked following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

The safe haven argument makes no sense as Al Qaeda are based in Pakistan, which is an ally of NATO fighting an Afghan insurgency against foreign occupation. Secondly, the Karzai government in Afghanistan is now discussing a political settlement with the Taliban.

That leaves the insurance argument, which implies dumping the ALP's commitment to an independent foreign policy. Australian troops are in Afghanistan because American troops are there. Depressing. As Bruce Haigh says in Repeating others' mistakes in Afghanistan:

Debate or no debate a supine Australian government is locked into Oruzgan Province until the US withdraws from Afghanistan or until it releases the ADF from its contract. Australia is in Afghanistan to fulfil the terms of what it believes are the terms of its alliance with the US. (Former Prime Minister Howard invoked the ANZUS Treaty when committing troops to the region).It remains a fundamental belief amongst politicians and some influential defence planners that Australia needs to curry favour with the US in order to invoke an immediate and knee jerk response from the US should Australia be threatened or attacked. The fact that this is increasingly unlikely by a financially challenged and politically cautious America has yet to be factored into the political, planning and popular perception pertaining to the United States in Australia.

Even though the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable Australia will stay in order to demonstrate to the US and anyone else who cares about these things that Australia has sticking power and can be relied on to see things through. Even though the Netherlands have withdrawn, Canada and Poland are leaving next year, and the Afghan people did not ask for this war and they are not being consulted now.

Depressing. The Greens, with just one member in the House of Representatives, are the only party who support a withdrawal of all Australian troops.

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October 19, 2010

Water reform: conservatives rise to the occassion

The conservative commentariat is so predictable in their response to the water reform in the basin, as they endeavour to rise above their cartoon understanding of water reform and show their grasp of policy. The basic position is that there does not need to be any change to the current levels of water extraction; or if there is to be change, then it should be others not us) who change business-as-usual.

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For Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald it was simply a case of the culture wars:

the plight of "these people" involved not only farmers in the basin but also that of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. . It was the classic disconnect between the inner-city, well-educated professional with a secure job and guaranteed superannuation and the less-educated small business operator or employee in the regional centres or outer suburbs.

Yawn. For Henderson water reform has nothing to do with the overallocation of water entitlements by state governments or the need to return the basin to ecological health in order to protect its economy.

For Niki Savva in her Lead on reform or lose way in The Australian it was an example of Julia Gillard's bad leadership:

Gillard's inability to lay out a clear agenda for Labor and for the government - the penchant for committees, reviews, round tables, guides and the need to take deep breaths - means she is in danger of being swept along by events either outside her control or initiated by others...Labor's problems run wide and deep. It has a profound identity crisis, the kind political parties usually undergo in opposition and which government often masks. It has yet to work out its policy program, formulate its strategic thinking, prove its administrative capabilities or devise credible media management.

Savva says that Gillard failed miserably to take charge and to shape debate or lead the national conversation on at least two critical issues----pricing carbon or water allocations---confronting the government and the community. It was just a case of the Gillard Government using bureaucrats as human shields in the water debate.

Really? Savva does not mention of the work being done by Tony Burke, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Or the Gillard Government's clear statement that it is determined to push ahead with water reform as it is developed in the forthcoming basin plan. There was no mention of the parliamentary inquiry into the social and economic impact of the cutbacks in water allocations.

What is probably happening here is that Gillard Labor is allowing its opponents to frame the debate on water reform with their talk of "getting the balance right", even though "getting the balance right" is irrigator talk. The irriigators refer to getting the balance right between between social, economic and environmental goals, by which they mean that the reform process has prioritized the environment too much, and "the balance" needs to be swung back to the social and economic big time. It's the environment v the economic for the irrigators, and they use it like a sledgehammer to crack skulls to resist reform.

What the Gillard Government should be saying is that the destruction of the ecology of the basin by taking too much water out for irrigation causes the decline in the economic base of regional towns. This is especially so in the content of climate change which is drying out the basin. That is why the environment has to be given priority and irrigators have to adjust to making do with less water. As Tim Flannery said on Q+A:

Over the last decade the water for agriculture has decreased by about 68 per cent. Value of the produce produced in irrigated agriculture has decreased by about one per cent or less. So and that's because water trading allows you to trade up to the most valuable crop.

In the absence of this kind of reform narrative from Gillard Labor, the tactic of relentless, strident and aggressive negativity cuts though and fill the vacuum. It is being deployed with great effect by the regional populists fighting their never ending war against Canberra.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:21 AM | Comments (25) | TrackBack

October 18, 2010

neo-liberalism + welfare

I've always been troubled by the neo-liberalism's approach to welfare especially in the context of poverty and the working poor resulting from the global financial crisis. The neo-liberal mode of governance is characterized by paternalism, the close supervision of the poor, mutual obligation and viewing people ''doing it tough'' as examples of moral failure. Behind it sits the idea of the minimalist state and the social structure of the free market.

Behind this mode of governance is the idea that welfare, although designed to prevent poverty (by protecting individuals from the vagaries of the market) actually discourages work. Neo-liberalism aims to counter this trend by promising opportunity and success to all those willing to work hard and play by the rules: the deserving poor. This mode of governance is structured around greater marketisation, privatisation, and contracting out of social services; plus seeing welfare recipients as passive, and therefore less worthy, citizens.

Under this mode of governance the unemployed need to prove themselves deserving by acquiring a work ethic that offers them pathways to employment. Economic growth is deemed to be the best means to counter unemployment. It provides limited training and education since it is the personal characteristics of the unemployed, rather than general labour market imbalances, that are held to be the source of the continuing unemployment problem.

My unease with neo-liberalism's central focus on personal responsibility and stigmatising the individual unemployed person as ‘at fault’, is that it detracts from the underlying structural causes of the problem. In the 1980s the underlying structural causes were de-industrialisation and globalisation; since 2009 it is the deflationary consequences of the global financial crisis.

The lack of good skills training to enable the unemployed to find work in structurally changing markets implies that government's fail to uphold their end of mutual obligation. How then are the unemployed to acquire the skills to gain employment in the market?

Neo-liberalism as a mode of governance requires a particular form of subjectivity; one in which self-sufficient or independent individuals are deemed to be the centre of morality, agency, and intentionality. The nonworking poor lack rationality in that they do not not work when there are opportunities to do so; and they suffer from, or are afflicted by, a mentality of defeatism and helplessness. They require norms to be enforced and control in order to reform their subjectivity so they participate in the marketplace. Under this neo-liberal regime of self the unemployed are then deemed to be free, and so have self-respect and independence.

So the problem under a neo-liberal mode of governance is not capitalism, but the way we govern ourselves; and so policies are directed at the reformation of individuals rather than structural relations.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:54 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

October 16, 2010

Conservatism: inequality rules

I'd always thought that Australian political conservatism stood for a defence of inequality, but, despite its revitalization, this position was never made explicit My understanding is that equality in itself never can be or should be a conservative goal, since Conservatism's emphasis is on the hierarchy of society and preservation of the status quo in the name of order and stability. Equality in itself is a goal of the Left. The defence of inequality is usually coded in terms of placing the emphasis on freedom.

However, in his We simply can't give everyone a great education op-ed in The Australian Christoper Pearson makes his inequality position explicit. Referring to Gillard's view that a driving force for her politics is her passion to lessen the inequality in education he says:

On the question of what every child is entitled to, common sense must tell her that no country can afford a great education - as opposed to an adequate one - for all of its children and that it would be wasted on many of them anyway. To pretend otherwise is to pander to people's fantasies about their children's futures and to class envy about how their own lives might have been had they had more equal opportunity in their younger days.It's all of a piece with her policy of bending the rules to push an ever-increasing percentage of people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, into tertiary education.

Pearson adds that most sensible people understand that until relatively recently, degrees were designed for a small percentage of the population who were particularly gifted. The currency of higher education is already debased and the strategies proposed by the Bradley report, which Gillard commissioned, will only make matters worse.

In the conservative view human beings are seen as driven not by reason but by basic emotions, impulses and self-interest, and their activities can be explained more in terms of their individual human frailty than in terms of the social disadvantages of poverty and inequality. individual genetic differences in talent and ability must inevitably result in some economic inequality of outcome unless governments restrict the freedom of the more talented individuals to turn these talents to their own economic advantage. Economic equality of outcome, therefore, is inconsistent with individual freedom. However, inequality be kept within certain bounds to prevent social breakdown, political upheaval and disorder.

Inequality is an issue due to the “new inequality” resulting from the restructuring of Australian capitalism due to its integration into a more competitive world market for production and consumption change not only in the structure of work and income in a postindustrial order but also the deepening of class divisions along the lines of wealth inequality. What we see happening is a change not only in the structure of work and income in a postindustrial order but also the deepening of class divisions along the lines of wealth inequality.

Whereas politics had always taken precedence over economics throughout Australian political and social thought, neoliberal ideas represent the reversal of this tradition. The need to foster “free” markets at the expense of their social and political effects, as well as the optimism that characterizes such institutional forms, is spreading beyond America itself. The embrace of the market by so much of mainstream Australia thought and culture is at odds with the desires of most Australians to have a welfare state that protects their economic interests.

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The Australian's view of the Greens

The caricature has become a parody --a bad one because we don't mistake it for the real thing. The Murray-Darling Basin reform and cuts to irrigation entitlements (25-35%) to return a minimum of 3000 gigalitres to the river system is based on the government buying water from willing sellers.

Farmers can sell out. Water buybacks are voluntary, not forced, and very profitable.

LeakBThe Greens.jpg

The Australia's view, as represented by Leak's cartoon, is that a dictatorial government will take water from irrigators. Democracy has been trashed by the Left. The cartoon represents the national water reform as a contest between the economic viability of farm communities and the ecological health of the environment with the irrigators being sacrificed for the environment.

The reality, of course, is a more sustainable basin through transforming the way water is managed, agriculture practised, and ensure a minimum river flow.

What we have is fear. For instance, there is a lot of fear within the ALP over the guide to Murray-Darling Basin plan because it is a green document. The ALP fears the Greens as it is the Greens who who define the Left. The ALP fears the threat the latter pose to the former in electoral terms. So we Premier Brumby appealing to Liberal voters in the Victorian election to preference Labor over the Greens to ensure re-elected Labor can govern safely without the embarrassment of new Green MPs or, Labor being forced to rely on the Greens to form a government.

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October 15, 2010

Af-Pak

For more on the growing U.S. war in (on) Pakistan, watch this quite good Rachel Maddow monologue from msnbc.com:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The logic of the war on terror is that if the current Pakistani government is not pulling its weight in the war, then regime change is required.

Civilians are clearly bearing the brunt of the conflict in Pakistan-yet their losses go unrecognized. As Chris Rogers points out:

Ignoring civilian casualties in Pakistan repeats a mistake that contributed to the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan. Our research shows that civilian losses breed resentment, undermine the perceived legitimacy of the state, and ease recruitment by extremists. Locals harbor and help insurgents while information and intelligence for those fighting them dries up. Insurgents gain ground and momentum as governance and security break down.

The hostility of the Pakistani public to U.S. actions in the region is obvious given the massive opposition to the CIA-operated drone strikes into the Waziristan region.

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October 14, 2010

The currency wars

The currency wars are here in the form of confrontations over exchange rates. More particularly, it is over China consistently accumulating large amounts of foreign reserves by running a trade surplus and intervening to buy up the dollars that this generated. In practice, this means efforts to prevent their currency from appreciating in value.

In terms of the governance of the global financial system the IMF is meant to pressure countries undervalued exchange rates to let their currencies appreciate. The IMF has no power over China, or any other country with a current-account surplus.

China is unwilling to sharply increase the value of its currency, or let it float on the open market, as more expensive exports would set off a chain reaction of factory closures and layoffs across the interconnected networks that drive China’s export-oriented economy. This in turn undermines economic growth and domestic stability, and by extension, the Communist Party's hold on political power.

However, Beijing simply does not accept that its undervalued exchange rate is a significant cause of global imbalances, and says that US current account and fiscal deficits are self-inflicted. In the US, the common view is that excess savings in Asia created the US current account deficit, and so the solution lies to the east. Hence the China bashing.

Hence the Congress getting up legislation to allow the President to slap tariffs on Chinese imports because China is “artificially” keeping its currency low relative to the dollar.

The currency row is an acceptable way to fight over imbalanced trade patterns. The global trading system we operate under isn’t free trade, it’s managed trade, and most other countries play the game in a way to produce better national outcomes (fewer lost jobs and trade surpluses). Every sovereign nation, the United States included, uses its vast arsenal of policies to pursue its national interest.

The world's only superpower is losing ground in global competition, and is becoming financially dependent on strategic rivals like China. The US a net debtor nation, faces the simultaneous existence of a sizable current account deficit and excessive unemployment with no relief in sight. Its economy is unable to produce the goods its citizens want to consume. The Chinese economy does.

If the US is to reduce it's trade deficit, that really means reducing its imports of manufactured goods. That ultimately also means increasing exports, but that will take a longer time to put into effect, assuming the US multinational vogue for offshoring can be partially reversed and the dollar devalues. Washington looks to be pursuing a weak dollar by the Federal Reserve keeping long-term interest rates so low global investors are heading elsewhere for high returns, which bids the dollar down.

On the other hand, the debt-strapped households of Middle America, or Britain and Spain, can no longer hold up their end of consuming cheap Asian exports. Unemployment remains high in the US. Robert Reich says:

Our jobs crisis is due to the collapse of demand in the U.S. after the housing bubble burst. No longer able to borrow against the rising value of their homes, the vast American middle and working class can no longer spend enough to keep the economy going. If Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) want to blame something, blame America’s record level of inequality – an almost unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top, and a smaller proportion for the vast middle.

Even though high unemployment in America has little or nothing to do with China, the tendency in the US is to blame China. It is part of a backlash against free trade + immigration.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:56 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 13, 2010

Afghanistan: are things getting better?

There is to be a debate on the war in Afghanistan before parliament is due to rise on 25 November----possibly next week. What we won't have is parliamentarians being allowed a free vote, unshackled by party discipline, so they can canvass the full range of issues raised by our continuing participation in an unpopular war.

More than likely we will hear a lot of knee jerk 'you are wrong we are right; you are bad we are good', as each side plays the war for political advantage and bores us silly with the adherence to the clash of civilizations frame, the 9/11 discourse about Islam, and the determination by many to politicize terrorism and make every aspect of it a wedge issue.

MoirAfghanistan.jpg

Maybe the parliamentarians could take time out and reflect on the purpose of this war, which is very vague. Is Australia still fighting al Qaeda? They seem to have slipped into the background. It is to guarantee that Afghanistan will never be used as a base by a small group (ie.,al Qaeda) determined to undertake a terrorist attack. Does that mean we are fighting the Taliban, who want to expel foreign military forces?

That means Australia is fighting an insurgency ie., Australia is involved in a civil war. Do Australian politicians still regard the Taliban as synonymous with al Qaeda? Who, then is the Taliban? Or are there different Talibans? (eg., ones in Pakistan and one in Afghanistan). Are there different Taliban factions in Afghanistan?

Is the deployment of Australian troops to Afghanistan aimed at strengthening the US alliance through a mission to kill terrorists? Both General David Petraeus in Iraq and former Australian Army officer David Kilcullen, the former chief counter-insurgency adviser to Petraeus, have argued that the Americans are involved counter-insurgency operations. That means Australia is fighting an insurgency that is defending its homeland.

So are things getting better? What does better mean?

Is the Australian army prevailing against Afghan insurgents in Uruzgan province? Is NATO securing the population in Afghanistan and defeating the insurgency. But most people acknowledge that decisive victory is not going to be won by force of arms. It's all about nation building. That could take decades given the Pakistani safe havens, bad government in Afghanistan, the poor state of the Afghan security forces and declining international support for the military mission. This is an unwinnable venture from a military perspective.

To win against the Taliban, some Afghans will need to be prepared to risk death to stand up to them; and those that do will not be persuaded by guns and bombs. Has NATO actually become a hindrance to the emergence of the leadership that Afghanistan needs?

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 4:04 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 12, 2010

Judith Sloan on the Murray-Darling basin plan

In her Basin plan forced to put environment above people in The Australian Judith Sloan criticizes the plan without mentioning 'food security' or running a scare campaign on food prices and thereby condemn the Murray-Darling Basin to death by political paralysis. Her concern appears to be the overall exercise of power around water is modeled on the principles of a market economy and the reordering of society to ensure economic growth.

She says that by any measure, the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin plan represents a clear case of overshoot in which the environmental gains may be achieved, but with unnecessarily high social and economic costs. She argues thus:

By any measure, the proposed cuts to water use are extreme. But the recommendations of the MDBA [Murray Darling Basin Authority] confirm, and are derived from, the fundamental weakness of the commonwealth Water Act, a weakness that has been known by the government as well as all other interested parties for quite some time...The objects of the act talk about promoting "the use and management of the basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes.But when it comes to the principles guiding the determination of the SDLs, the environment has primacy, with residual flows available for other uses. In other words, the trade-off framework envisaged in the objects of the act is lost when it comes to the vital task of the MDBA determining the split of water resources between the environment and consumptive uses. Calculated this way, the SDLs over-allocate water to the environment and under-allocate water to irrigators.

She adds that the hands of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority are essentially tied: the legislation does not permit consideration of issues other than environmental needs when determining the cuts. The only scope to take into account other issues, such as the impact on local communities, is how the cuts are distributed within individual catchments.

Sloan's advice is that:

The government must act quickly to amend the legislation to achieve sensible water recovery targets that will improve the environmental health of the basin as well as underpin irrigation and the prosperity of the communities. Perhaps there is a role for the independents in initiating the required amendments?

Nowhere in the op-ed does Sloan address the ecological implications of an over allocated water system and the failure to address this over the last decade or more when she claims of environmental overshoot in which the environmental gains outweigh unnecessarily high social and economic costs. How does Sloan know this to be so? What is the basis for her cost benefit analysis?

Secondly, Sloan is unclear on what she means by making the Murray-Darling Basin sustainable, what cuts in allocations are required to do this, and how she would address the cost to the regional economies of these cutbacks.

Thirdly, Sloan does not address the costs of that over-allocation to ensure economic development that is borne by the environment and diffused among communities downstream. Those costs are market negative externalities related to the environmental consequences of production and use. Sloan does not mention these consequences at all.

The fixed truth underpinning Sloan's article is that economic growth ensures the prosperity of the greatest number and that it is not the economic system that fails. Failure is attributed to individuals or to the 'rogue state'. Sloan, in other words, does not understand water in the Australian economy and little understanding of water management in Australia.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:32 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

October 11, 2010

on Crikey

I subscribe to Crikey in order to support independent publishing in Australia that is willing to foster quality political debate. I do so because this is difficult to do on a financial basis in a small market such as Australia.

However, I do find Crikey a little too precious these days. In spite of its proclaimed independence it is a part of the Canberra Press Gallery bubble, shows little interest in adding to the public conversation by referring to other independent voices, its commentary is often thin, and it gives the impression that only Crikey really knows what is actually going on beneath the surface appearances of political life.

Crikey publisher Eric Beecher has recently commented on independent publishing to The Australian's Media section. What he said was surprising:

As a huge supporter of the ABC, I have been somewhat shocked at (the ABC's) decision to create a website (The Drum) that sits so blatantly in the territory of sites like Crikey and The Punch... Operating in the commercial space, we expect vigorous competition from other commercial publishers. But to see the ABC tanks roll up on our lawn was bewildering..The Drum seriously and dangerously compromises the ABC's editorial integrity. It is full of personal opinions, mainly from the Left and often wacky, which is something that sits uncomfortably with the notion of a rigorously independent publicly funded national broadcaster. In doing this, it unnecessarily but almost provocatively reinforces the fairly widespread perceptions of where the ABC and its journalists sit in the political spectrum.

Beecher finishes by saying that the can now fully understand why the BBC has limited its online activities, especially in the commentary arena.

Give me a break. "Tanks on the lawn" is how James Murdoch attacks the BBC. Crikey ought to be welcoming the emerging diversity of commentary and its quality in the public sphere instead of using phrases like 'whacky'. What Beecher is doing, by saying that the ABC shouldn’t be running an online opinion site, because it encroaches on commercial media’s turf (keep your tanks of our lawn), is just repeating the Murdoch's.

I can understand that Beecher is peeved because the ABC is pinching his writers for The Drum and paying them a better fee for an op-ed than Crikey can afford. But tanks on the lawn? Where is his own independent analysis? Isn't that independence where Crikey makes its stand?

I notice that Beecher says nothing about the lack of good policy analysis and commentary in the public sphere. Or provide an argument why this is the case; or whether or not this is significant. He says nothing about the alliance between corporate Australia and the mainstream press that shapes and dominates public debate on important issues (eg., the mining tax debate).

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October 10, 2010

Tony Blair: 'digging down' + 'gripping it'

In Preacher on a Tank in the London Review of Books David Runciman reviews Tony Blair's A Journey. Blair had always puzzled but 'preacher on a tank' describes my understanding of Blair. Blair, for me talked like a social liberal, but acted like a Conservative.

RowsonM Blairindock.jpg Martin Rowson

On Blair's account he 'drills down’ when faced with a seemingly intractable problem. He, means by this, being willing to go back to first principles, ‘behind and beneath the conventional’ analysis, and if necessary to look at the problem from a completely new angle to find the key that would unlock a political problem, and make all the pieces fit together. It is joining the dots by going back to first principles.

After drilling down by thinking through the problem Blair then grips it, rather than merely ‘managing’ it, which it is never enough. Gripping it enables you to begin the process of turning things around.

So how did 'digging down' and 'gripping it' function with respect to the war on Iraq? Runciman says that Blair's:

analysis of 9/11 was ... wrong, but Blair is still a long way from being able to admit this. He accepts that it was an act of deliberate provocation, designed to draw the West into war, and he recognises that Western politicians had a real choice: they could have chosen not to be provoked. But going down that route would have meant simply ‘managing’ the problem, instead of confronting it. It would also have meant disaggregating the threat of global terrorism into its component parts, rather than seeing it as part of a greater whole. Blair can’t bring himself to do that.

Drilling down here means grasping the greater whole. Joining up the dots for Blair was 'global terrorism'.

Runciman continues:

Blair’s mistake after 9/11 was to try to grip things that were not grippable, certainly not by him.
First in Afghanistan, then Iraq, he vastly overestimated his ability to control what would happen. There were far too many unknowns, and nothing he or his experts could do to magic them away. Moreover, these weren’t his wars, they were America’s, and they were going to happen with him or without him. In those circumstances, his ability to exert any sort of grip was negligible.

Blair makes a great deal of the closeness of his relationship with Bush, and describes how Bush regularly consulted with him and consistently impressed him with his grasp of the big issues. Yet he supplies no evidence that Bush ever actually listened to what he was saying or followed his advice. Blair was ignored by Bush. Blair ends up grasping illusions.

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October 9, 2010

Gillard's folly?

Christopher Pearson is quite clear on what constitutes the folly of a minority Gillard Labor government after it barely survived a spectacular electoral collapse. Pearson writes in The Australian that it is Gillard Labor's embrace of the Greens.

The ALP is being cannibalised to the point where it may not have a future as a governing party in its own right... The ALP can't afford to be cast in the role of a senior partner in a long-term alliance with the Greens because they are competing for the loyalty of the same voters and Labor will keep bleeding votes. Given that the Greens' Adam Bandt had already repeatedly ruled out supporting the Coalition, no pact needed to be formalised or concessions made last month. Whatever message it sent to the independents is as nothing compared with the one sent to all the voters who veer from election to election between the two main parties: we are prepared to vacate the middle ground and govern from the Left.

And why is this tacit alliance folly, if we reject The Australian's view that Labor should become a right of centre party appealing to "Howard's Battlers"? Pearson answers:
..the Greens' policy on almost everything is utopian, ill-considered and not properly costed. To consolidate their own position as parties for grown-ups, Labor and the Coalition should always speak of the Greens as the infantile party: resolutely irresponsible, innumerate and a threat to the economy.They should also be pointing out that the Greens provide a flag of convenience for former Moscow-liners, Trotskyites and other ultra-leftist ratbags.

'Almost everything is utopian, ill-considered and not properly costed' implies some are not. So which Green policies are not utopian, ill-considered and not properly costed? Pearson neglects to say. Nor is he interested in doing so.

So what we have is just another anti-Green rant launched from The Australian. When are the conservatives who hang out around Murdoch's newspapers going to start doing public policy analysis as opposed to wing nut rants? For instance, how about some public policy analysis on water reform, electricity or urban renewal? Noel Pearson shows how it can be done.

After all, Pearson is based in Adelaide, where these are pressing issues, as are affordable housing and pleasant living environments. Surely Pearson doesn't think that if Adelaide made its urban parks smaller it could fit in more affordable housing and overcome the constant traffic? Or is it more suburban sprawl--more new suburban estates on the urban fringe? My guess is that Pearson (and his conservative cohorts) do not have the skills or knowledge to do public policy analysis.

At the very least though, Pearson needs to explain why Labor's alliance with the Greens in Tasmania and the ACT, which appear to be working well in both cases, is not relevant to Gillard Labor. Why what is success in one is folly in the other?

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:39 PM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

October 8, 2010

a puzzle

I'm not sure what this cartoon by John Spooner about the digital age means. Is it anti-technology? The computer means the decline of reading printed books? Or that the internet rots your brain and makes us stupid?

spoonercomputer.jpg

I'm interpreting it that way---as digital technology causing the waning of literary culture and its dire consequences for society. If this interpretation is plausible, then the cartoon is ironic as the only way that I can see the cartoon in Victor Harbor is by using digital technology: ie., a computer, the internet and broadband.

The main reason I'm reading less books these days is that I find them too expensive and I cannot afford to buy them. It is the economics that is forcing me to read books online.

The problem with the standard kind of arguments by a conservative literary culture is that they're fundamentally rehashing the technological opposition of the television age, the kind of opposition that McLuhan wrote about so powerfully back in the 1960s: word versus image, text versus screen. That was about the long-term decline towards a pure society of image.

Honestly, I would have thought we are better off in front of our computers and not zoning out in front of the TV--especially when are presented with junk such as Dangerous Ideas by Matt Frei. Frei can talk about the Enlightenment and modern Germany without once mentioning the German Enlightenment or Kant and Hegel.

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October 7, 2010

Murray-Darling Basin: basin plan

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is due to be released late tomorrow afternoon by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. What will be released is the first instalment of its plan for the basin. The first instalment is a guide to the proposed plan. It will be followed by a draft plan, then the final plan. The bureaucratic wheels turn slowly.

TandbergRRiverMurray.jpg

Though the drought has broken in the Basin with the winter rains and water is now flowing though the system down through the lower lakes in South Australia, the political reality is that it is necessary to ensure that economic activity in the basin is aligned with ecologically sustainability. It is widely accepted that there had been an overallocation of water rights across every river catchment in the basin. So the plan must cut back the amount of water currently diverted for irrigation and to factor in the effects of climate change.

The background notes to the basin plan state:

At the heart of the Basin Plan will be limits on the quantities of surface water and groundwater that can be taken from the Basin water resources. These are known as ‘sustainable diversion limits’ (SDLs). The SDLs will take into account the best available science, and the ‘precautionary principle’....SDLs will limit the quantity of surface water and groundwater that may be taken from the Basin water resources as a whole. There will also be SDLs to limit the quantity of surface water and groundwater that can be taken from individual water resource plan areas and particular parts of water resource plan areas within the Basin. These areas will be defined in the Basin Plan and will draw upon current state water resource plan areas.

The mechanism to achieve this is the government spending billions of dollars ($5.4billion?) over the coming decade buying back permanent water rights from irrigators; and possibly redirecting government spending away from irrigation subsidies to the buyback of water rights "to achieve greater environmental benefits at lower cost.

This raises the question of where will the buybacks be targeted?

Rumors have it that the proposed cuts to irrigators' entitlements, are in a target range of between 27 and 37 per and the goal is to take 3000 and 4000 gigalitres litres from irrigators entitlements to add to water already quarantined for environmental flows.

That means that many irrigators would exit agriculture altogether because the plan will fail to deliver the water necessary to continue farming under the current over-allocated system. The targeted regions are the irrigation along the Murray and the Murrumbidgee. It is expected that the guide to the Murray-Darling Plan will recommend uneven cuts across the basin, with the Murray, the Murrumbidgee, the Goulburn Valley and Condamine-Balonne among the regions to face the greatest cuts.

The irrigators and the Nationals will oppose the cuts in the name of protecting the economics of regional communities and the social costs of the cutbacks. They assume that the drought is over, the rains will continue for several years, and that climate change will not impact on the Murray-Darling Basin. They will call for balance meaning that the policy goal of sustainable use in the Basin has shifted too far to the environment.

Update
The guide to the basin plan is here. Finally we have a step in water reform that is based on the Water Act 2007. This requires the Murray-Darling basin Authority to:

• give effect to relevant international agreements
• protect, restore and provide for the ecological values and ecosystems services of the Basin
• promote the use and management of Basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes
• ensure the return to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction for water resources that are overallocated or overused
• maximise net economic returns to the Australian community from the use and management of Basin water resources while protecting, restoring and providing for the ecological values and ecosystems services of the Basin.

Though the Authority proposes to cut allocations by around 3000-4000 gigalitres the report said that this would not yield enough water to satisfy all environmental objectives, and consequently environmental ''tradeoffs'' would be required.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:40 AM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

October 6, 2010

Albrechtson: Tea Party dreaming

In her Thirsting for a sip of the amazing American brew in The Australian Janet Albrechtsen says that Australia could do with a sip of the imported American tea party brew.

teaparty.jpg Albrechtsen understands the Tea Party to be a genuinely grassroots movement committed to simple ideas about smaller government and personal freedom.

On her account this Tea Party anger in Australia means fuelling a return to commonsense ideas (ie libertarian) about cutting spending and reducing the size of government.

She adds that if the Liberals had finessed their message along similar lines before the August election, they may have picked up seats they should have won to take government.

Should have won? Really? Who is kidding who? There was a swing to the left-of-centre parties.

Albrechtson is dreaming about the Tea Party. The on-the-ground reality political reality of the Tea Party movement is that the Tea party events were organized and financed by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which was quietly working to co-opt the new movement and deploy it to the GOP's advantage.

We can see this on-the-ground reality political reality from Matt Taibbi's Tea & Crackers in Rolling Stone. He says that beneath the surface, the Tea Party is little more than a weird and disorderly mob, a federation of distinct and often competing strains of conservatism that have been unable to coalesce around a leader of their own choosing. Its rallies include not only hardcore libertarians left over from the original Ron Paul "Tea Parties," but gun-rights advocates, fundamentalist Christians, pseudomilitia types like the Oath Keepers (a group of law- enforcement and military professionals who have vowed to disobey "unconstitutional" orders) and mainstream Republicans who have simply lost faith in their party.

Taibbi describes a Sarah Palin rally thus:

Scanning the thousands of hopped-up faces in the crowd, I am immediately struck by two things. One is that there isn't a single black person here. The other is the truly awesome quantity of medical hardware: Seemingly every third person in the place is sucking oxygen from a tank or propping their giant atrophied glutes on motorized wheelchair-scooters...A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it.

In the Tea Party narrative, victory at the polls means a new American revolution, one that will "take our country back" from everyone they disapprove of. Everyone who disagrees with them is a radical leftist who hates America. Taibbi adds:
At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them. In fact, their lack of embarrassment when it comes to collecting government largesse is key to understanding what this movement is all about

A loose definition of the Tea Party might be millions of pissed-off white people sent chasing after Mexicans on Medicaid by the handful of banks and investment firms who advertise on Fox and CNBC.

So Albrechtson's understanding of the Tea Party movement is highly selective.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:22 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

October 5, 2010

a retreat from politics?

This editorial in The Australian states that the Royal Society's new short guide to the science of climate change is an honest account of where climate change science is clear and where it is less certain, such as the impact of energy emitted by the sun, and that the society's previous position was too strident and implied a greater degree of certainty than was justified.

The editorial states that the Royal Society's report also sets out a strong case for pursuing the cautionary, responsible approach long advocated by the Weekend Australian. The Australian's understanding of science is that whilst politics demands certainty to make a convincing case for co-ordinated action, science is driven by skepticism. Each hypothesis formulated from empirical evidence needs to be challenged and tested to within an inch of its life before its veracity can be assumed. From this understanding it infers that:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's reports should have been seen for what they were, political documents. They were designed, quite reasonably, as a basis on which to build a political solution. The mistake was to elevate them to the status of divine prophecy. When the IPCC recommended in 2007 that nations reduce global emissions by 50 to 85 per cent by 2050 to have a reasonable chance of averting warming beyond 2C and "catastrophic" consequences, it was clear to those with a sophisticated view of science that the targets were based on assumptions fed into computer models. As the debate unfolded, those who exaggerated the evidence or presented only worst-case projections did much more to set back the cause of carbon restraint than the commentators they derided as deniers. Scare tactics have not worked, and will not work.

The Australian's editorial implies that its war on science has respectable credentials--those of the cautious, responsible Royal Society which are contrasted to the UN's 2007 IPCC report that has been engulfed in scandal.

This is made explicit in this article which claimed that though the Society's new guide does not dismiss climate change or the need for co-ordinated global action to combat it, it undercuts many of the claims of looming ecological disaster that have been made in a bid to gain public support for political action.

The Australian position is well known, "rejects doomsday scenarios pedalled by alarmists, whose proposals would wreak economic devastation". It's voice, along with the Institute of Public Affairs, is one of denialism, and it has conducted a war on science.

However, the problem for The Australian is that the Society's short guide to climate change states that there is strong evidence that changes in greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity are the dominant cause of the global warming that has taken place over the last half century; that there is strong evidence that the warming of the Earth over the last half-century has been caused largely by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use, including agriculture and deforestation; and that this warming trend is expected to continue as are changes in precipitation over the long term in many regions.

The Society also says that the report draws upon recent evidence and builds on the Fourth Assessment Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2007, which is the most comprehensive source of climate science and its uncertainties. The guide reaffirms that:

*Warming of 0.8° has occurred since 1850, mostly since 1975
*The planet is still warming, the 2000s were hotter than the 1990s and warming will continue
*Warming is mostly due to human influence
*A doubling of CO2 concentrations is most likely associated with warming of 3°
*The effects include a long-term decline in the extent of Arctic summer sea ice
*Further and more rapid rises in sea-level are likely, which will have profound implications for coastal communities and ecosystems.

The guide concludes by saying that climate science – including the substantial body of knowledge that is already well established, and the results of future research – is the essential basis for future climate projections and planning, and must be a vital component of public reasoning in making important decisions.

We have another beat-up by the spinning Australian defending business as usual in which prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice is the deemed to be the foundation for a civilized society. For them the role of government is framed narrowly by economic growth as increases in GDP and hollowed out by a misguided vision of unbounded consumer freedoms.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:52 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

October 4, 2010

Labor's free trade hypocrisy

I see that the Craig Emerson, the Minister for Trade, is banging the anti-protection free trade drum and he is manning the barricades to oppose inserting environmental and labour standards into trade deals. Emerson structures Labor's hard edged free trade position in opposition to the Green's fair trade position.

I presume that by free trade Emerson means something like we won't put quotas or tariffs on your products if you won't put quotas or tariffs on our products. The major premise is that by removing trade barriers, consumers will benefit from the comparative advantages that different nations have in producing goods. Those nations that have a resource, technological, labor, or other type of advantage will be able to produce a better product at a lower cost to the consumer if artificial barriers protecting domestic producers are removed.

Emerson says that:

the [Gillard] government would fight European threats to erect trade barriers around countries not imposing carbon pricing, dismissing them as "old protectionism". We won't cop governments cloaking protectionism in this sort of green cloak of respectability, where it's just old protectionism. Of course we are committed to putting a price on carbon, but let's not believe that this is all about climate change. There is a very clear European old protectionist instinct under this green cloak of respectability and we won't cop it.

His stance of fighting environmental protectionism is at odds with Labor's subsidies of the car companies in the form of a green car innovation fund (hybrid Camry); and its subsidies for farmers in the form of water infrastructure, drought relief ad import restrictions.

So much for comparative advantage as understood by
Ludwig von Mises thusly:

There are countries with relatively favorable and others with relatively unfavorable natural conditions of production. In the absence of interference on the part of governments, the international division of labor will, of itself, result in every country’s finding its place in the world economy, no matter how its conditions of production compare with those of other countries. Of course, the countries with comparatively favorable conditions of production will be richer than the others, but this is a fact that cannot be altered by political measures in any case. It is simply the consequence of a difference in the natural factors of production.

The political reality is that free trade agreements typically involve some sectors are protected under the agreement and the agreement sets up an uneven playing field between countries and between industries. The Gillard government is seeking to protect jobs in Australia.

Secondly, GATT/WTO dispute-resolution panels have consistently held that various domestic environmental laws impermissibly interfered with free trade obligations.That is why segments of the environmental community have called for reforms to free trade agreements to make them more responsive to legitimate environmental concerns and objectives.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:52 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 2, 2010

ABC: Judith Sloan's attack

I see that Judith Sloan has taken to recycling James Murdoch's attack on public broadcasting in Australia. Where Murdoch directed his canons at the BBC Sloan attacks the ABC, where she was deputy chairwoman from 1999 to 2005.

Her primary argument is that the ABC gets bigger all the time, but it should stick to areas overlooked by the private media. She advocates altering the charter of the ABC to narrow the focus of its operation and reduce the organisation's funding accordingly. She says:

Since I left the board, one of the most significant developments has been the sheer growth of the ABC's activities.There have been two new digital TV channels put to air, making four in total, new digital radio stations and an extensive expansion in the ABC's online presence, particularly the new The Drum website.Whereas the BBC is pulling in its horns and reducing its presence, particularly online, the operations of our ABC are becoming more expansive and intensive. Clearly, none of the senior management in the ABC is keen to acknowledge the market failure argument for public broadcasting: that the ABC should concentrate its activities on areas of the media where there is clearly insufficient or deficient private provision. The attitude within the ABC seems to be that there is no media nook or cranny that should not be filled by the public broadcaster.

The ABC should plug the gaps left by private media due to market failure. What, then are the areas of market failure--the media nooks or crannies that the ABC should plug? Sloan doesn't say. All she says is that 'there are some gaps that probably would not be filled by the private media.'

That is pretty vague. However, we cannot eliminate the areas where there is no market failure. It cannot be a 24 hour News channel because that is provided by Sky. It cannot be online commentary because that is provided by The Australian. It cannot be television because that is provided by the free-to-air commercial channels. It cannot be radio because that is also provided by private media. So we have a real slimmed down ABC. It cannot be Australian drama because the commercial channels are the ones showing original Australian dramas, not the ABC.

Maybe the media nook or cranny is media quality in all its forms because that is definitely not provided by the partisan media owned by News Ltd. An example from a recent editorial:

We believe he (Brown) and his Green colleagues are hypocrites; that they are bad for the nation and that they should be destroyed at the ballot box. The Greens voted against Mr Rudd's emissions trading scheme because they wanted a tougher regime, then used the lack of action on climate change to damage Labor at the election. Their flaky economics should have no place in the national debate. We are particularly tired of the Greens senator Christine Milne arguing that 'green jobs need a real green economy to grow in'. What on earth can she mean? Ms Gillard's embrace of the Greens underlines the vacuity of her party.

The bottom line of the Australian is defending the commercial interests of News Ltd. The best way to do that, in their judgement, is become the Coalition's noise machine.

Keeping the explicit areas of media market failure vague and avoiding what is meant by market failure is the point. The strategy is to kneecap the ABC-- privatizing the ABC is out of the question--- so that Murdoch's competition is much reduced and his spay wall strategy would work. Murdoch loves media dominance and detests competition: it must be eliminated, even if it is independent bloggers such as Grogs Gamut. The justification is the public interest, of course.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:45 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

October 1, 2010

NBN: cost benefit analysis

This debate on Lateline between Senator Conroy and Malcolm Turnbull over the National Broadband Network (NBN) got nowhere. It's a pity because Turnbull posed the right question:

Now if the question is: how do we ensure that everybody in Australia gets the same speed of broadband as the best broadband in our cities? If that's the question, and I think that is the fair question, then what a cost/benefit analysis would do is say: how can we most cost effectively achieve that goal? And then you would weigh up the option of improving and remediating our existing network, which would cost a fraction of $43 billion; or you could go down the route that Stephen is proposing of trashing our existing network, trashing that investment and building a new one. But that cost/benefit analysis is what any rational government would do and yet that is what he has chosen not to do, because he does not care about taxpayers' dollars.

But Turnbull remains fixated on the $43 billion, cost/benefit analysis, government waste and government debt. His is an anti-government criticism from the perspective of the market.

What he conveniently forgets is that the best broadband in our cities is not the degraded copper wires or the HFC cable for television. As Conroy points out with the current infrastructure you cannot have high-definition video conference, you can't do remote diagnosis, and you can't send big files. The best is fiber-to-the-premises.

Secondly, Turnbull does not say what kind of cost benefit analysis he thinks should be done: an exercise in measuring private net benefit for a commercial entity or one that measures the net benefit to human welfare. Most people think in terms of the former (the business case) when it is the latter that is require a and Turnbull doesn't both to enlighten them.

He won't because, as Possum Pollytics points out:

A CBA on the NBN would effectively tell us less than nothing.No amount of monte carlo simulation jiggery pokery to estimate risk distributions using the most innovative pricing mechanisms the world has ever seen, can overcome that simple fact – as it is uncertainty, not risk, that dominates the benefits. It is the unquantifiable things we don’t know, rather than the quantifiable things we can pretend to think we know, that dominates the entire benefit side of the equation.

Turnbull won't spell this out because his brief is to destroy the NBN. Those in the business community, such as Michael G. Porter the director of research and policy at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, are little better. They introduce the opportunity cost argument:
And does it make sense to rural and regional communities to have so much public investment swallowed by hard-wired broadband, when there are compelling demands for better education, health and roads? Is it appropriate for all taxpayers, city or country, some of whom may never wish to subscribe to faster broadband speeds, to shoulder the substantial capital investment involved?

The proper answer to this rhetorical question is that we assess the benefits that could be derived from spending the NBN money on alternative investments MINUS the cost of replacing the copper network with some other functional alternative. Porter makes no attempt to do so. Nor is he interested because his brief is one of negativity, demolishing and wrecking.


Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:08 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack