Wednesday, December 13, 2006

SStub: The Forest (A Societal Parable)

The forest was almost square, a diamond to the poles. On its north-eastern border, a small gently sweeping stream and the prevailing wind kept its edge tidy. The trees that lined the water's inside edge were old and withering in some branches, various white and bristlecone pines in an uneven set. At the base of the trees, the clumped scrub and some farming debris completed the demarcation. On the southern ends of the forest, an unnatural straightness trimmed the treeline, a monument to industrial revolution efficiencies. The forest had long ago spread deep beyond its current borders, but the value of the land required its curtailment. Each year more seemed to retreat, and only some latent nostalgia perhaps could account for its remaining presence.

There were three farmers at its edge. The land itself was owned, in the modern parlance, by the farmer to the south. Two farmers each owned the north-western and north-eastern edges. The farmer who owned the forest and the land to the south was of wealthy and prosperous stock, and a man of no small importance in the county. On the north eastern fringe, a relatively poor farmer supplemented farm income from a small amount of stream fishing, while on the north west a large farm had over the years been complicated and compromised by its pastors' undue attention to whiskey.

Inside the forest a small badger colony sheltered from the tractors, jeeps and guns of its neighbours. Some protection was afforded by local mythology about the forest. A handful of red squirrels, an assortment of birds, and an interloper gray squirrel called the forest home. There were no great trees left, no towering oaks or shimmering beech. Only the hardy pines could linger in what had become a dangerous place for trees.

The carpet of needles was soft and warm for the animals most of the year. Most of them ventured out on occasion, but endeavoured to remain within the confines of the trees whenever possible. There was limited sustenance, particularly for the badgers, and their number had been reducing over time.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Childe McDowell To The Dark Tower Came...

            My first thought was, he lied in every word
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee that pursed and scored
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.
Ah, Michael McDowell. Doyen of the right, devil of the left, the guy who gives even lawyers a bad name. His ascension draws closer, as one senses does the next general election. Calling him a hoary cripple might be stretching it in our new politically correct times, but political correctness and Michael McDowell are indeed strange bedfellows.

One muses on the outcome. As Mary (one more victim gained thereby, perhaps) Harney recedes into the quiet reflection on a career long run, Michael snipes and weaves, ducks and dives, prognosticates and elucidates on his distinguished career and celebrated cerebrum, to which all others are knee-high. Bertie began fighting his corner early. No tolerance of disunity. Commitent to stable government. No tomfoolery. did he mean no McDowell?

Informed sources close to the government (one has to laugh) tell us that Harney reversed her decision in June to step aside as a result of arm twisting claiming that McDowell's coronation would bring down the government. Whatever Bertie and Dermot Ahern may say publicly, the newly empowered backbenchers within Fianna Fail will have their cabinet colleagues' commitment of the summer severely tested should McDowell take the Tanaiste's post. Perhaps, in a bizarre twist, it shall not be the PD's who withdraw support from the government, but, rather, the backbenchers of Fianna Fail? It is about their seats, after all.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Blair's Exit

Following disastrous headlines for two weeks, a disastrous local election result, and an attempt to reinvigorate politics in his own party with a reshuffle, Tony Blair seems to have used up all of his nine lives. The Times carries a headline poll putting Labour at its lowest point for fourteen years. The Guardian labels the position as delusional. It has a whiff of inevitability about it - finally - and it could get messy before it gets better. Gordon Brown began to put his own type of pressure on the PM before the weekend, talking about the party's need for renewal. He apparently met with the PM over the weekend, having discussions described by Blair as private. Today, he tells the Beeb two things of importance. First, that no timetable was discussed over the weekend, which seems odd. And second, that Blair 'is going to talk to senior colleagues about the details of the "stable and orderly" transfer of power'. Furthermore, Deputy PM John Prescott has warned party members against a war over the future, which presumably means that he at least thinks that war is a possible outcome from the current impasse.

Blair's number is up. Brown is beginning to find the steel necessary to make the position his. Rather than wielding the knife (casting him as the man destined not to wear the crown), rather he is nudging his old mate Tony towards falling on his own sword. That's not going to work, however. It may well be that the old codger Prescott is the man for the job. Loyal to the party before Blair, and just about the best liked New Labourite of the Old Labour faction, his nose has proved most sensitive in the past, and he may well tell the PM it's time to go.

Prescott's real job, in this writer's opinion, is the facilitation of the transition. Prescott the smooth-overer, the pressure manager, the diplomat, the common ground. In essence, the kingmaker. Won't be long now though.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Star Is Made - New York Times

A Star Is Made - New York Times

Steven Levitt with yet another curious but utterly useless snippit. He legitimises trivia as academic, when it is its worst enemy. He lauds the mundane for having characteristics that are similarly mundane (but that we may not have known). Is he a rogue economist? Or simply a a kid with intellectual admirers, he performs, twists, turns, and the polite clapping at the end of his act tell everyone it's time to go home and do some real work. Humbug.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Chavez Watch: What's he up to now?

Two things, actually. First, he's increasing the 'rubbing-your-nose-in-it' cut price oil programme to deprived areas of the US, and he's withdrawn Venezuela from the Andean Community of Nations trade bloc. This second development is overtly targeted at those countries within the bloc (Peru and Columbia in particular, it appears) that have strengthened ties with the US. He really doesn't like the USA, this guy. I'm concerned he might push it too far. It's populist, yes, and it is defining. It's also principled, which is admirable. Indeed, it is defensible, given Venezuela's position of strength, particularly with the price of oil at $75 a barrel. But is it perhaps lowering himself to the standards of the White House by pursuing such anti-Americanism with such vigour?

Peruvian Election Update

Lest we take our eyes off Peru, where Ollanta Humala and Alan Garcia are preparing for a run off, it appears that Garcia has taken a lead in the polls, a somewhat surprising turn of events. Sitting on 54% of opinion, this commentator suspects that some of the Humala support remains hidden, much like the Sinn Fein vote here in Ireland - people don't necessarily tell pollsters that they're voting for the anti-establishment guy. We will wait and see. The run-off takes place on May 28th.

Employment Rights? Employment Wrongs...

And so, as mentioned yesterday, the Unions move on to pay. Of course, everyone is concerned with employment rights, which after all are the most important thing. Right? Right? 'No deal can be struck until the the Employment Rights Agenda has been agreed', say all. Here's the thing. Pay is everything in this negotiation. Absolutely and unequivocally everything. Otherwise, agreement on employment rights would have been lodged as a prerequisite for progress in the talks. Here's what's happened. Everyone has agreed on the things that everyone agrees on. The stuff that really matters in terms of employment rights is the controversial rump that requires hard bargaining.

By moving on to pay in the absence of agreement on the more controversial issues, the government has managed to move the talks on so that agreement in pay will be subject to their position on employment rights. By acceding to move on to the pay issue, the Unions have effectively announced to the world that pay is all that they are concerned about, and everything else is for sale.

Socialists are just great, aren't they!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The PD's Vision of Ireland. Again.

It may appear a little easy to have a go at the PD's in order to fill space, but it just never ends, I'm afraid. They appear to represent the bad stuff in Ireland, and we had more of the same at the PD conference at the weekend (Tax Reform 100-40-40: Sharing the Gains). Here are the problems:
1. Health Service problems caused by their own limitations on public service numbers
2. Gardai problems caused by their own limitations on public service numbers
3. An abject and unapologetic allegiance to Smithsonian economic model and the invisible hand as the cure-all
4. A short termism that is devoid of vision, clarity and all too political.

Here's why. Being an economically right-wing party, the PD's are all for free markets and small government. In theory, almost all services provided by the state can be provided more efficiently by the free market. Hence privatisation is a good thing, and small government is a good thing. This translates into a number of trends. First, no new hires in the public sector. Net numbers must fall, and continue to fall. Where additional staff are required, contractors can be brought in, supplied by the private sector - agency nurses, security companies to protect money (and staff prisons), and so forth. When investment is talked about in the public services, it is in infrastructure and buildings, not in new staff. Macro-economic policy is all but ignored, and the enrichment of the private individual is championed, noting that the freedom of the individual will in turn protext the economy as individual rational actors will provide the necessary protection.

Here's why that's wrong. First, the vagaries of market forces mean that staff that are not permanent may not always be available. Second, the minimalist approach to state protection marginalises the disadvantaged and the poor, and exacerbates their position. Third, the existing permanent staff in state services get demoralised by the deterioration of the work environment, and the lack of consistency in the work environment. Fouth, we have yet to test the theory in an underperforming economy. Fifth, the scale of the country is such that the Smithsonian economic model is not necessarily applicable here. Sixth, Ireland is a part of Europe, within which the increasing sovereignty of Europe compromises the State's ability to appropriately manage the Smithsonian model in the face of the European Social model, which is by far the preferred model throughout the EU.

The lack of vision is about where Ireland is going - it is becoming, to use, the tired old cliché, an economy rather than a society.

And before one jumps to conclude that this writer is a left-wing pinko crying out for increased union membership and so forth, let it be known that the Unions are as bad if not worse than the PD's. They are as bad because they ignore the wider interests of society in return for increased pay within the partnership model. You lie down with dogs and you rise with fleas. And it is purely pay that they want. More and more and more pay, and the more leverage that they can get to secure more pay, the better. They talk about social development and servives, but at the end of the day ideology gives way to existential questions - trade unions are becoming (have become) redundant save as collective pay bargaining organisations, and therefore in order to preserve their existence they need to deliver that. This ignores the economic reality that unlimited wages means unlimited inflationary pressures and ultimately compromises the economy. Short termism again. They are of course worse than the PD's because they pretend to be socialist, when they are in fact the most heinous of capitalists.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Progressive Democrats: Lust for Power

The PD's have been talking up the possibility of further lowering income taxes after the next election. This is, of course, their stock in trade, following the American capitalist model of small government, empowering the individual. Critics have denounced such moves as undermining further investment in schools, hospitals and other state services. Politically, it is allegedly aimed at the middle income earners, where the PD's see potential for growth, those specifically have benefited from all the Celtic Tiger years, including, no doubt, your correspondant.

I don't like the PD's, I never have. McDowell is an arrogant so and so, and is too right wing in terms of civil liberties for my liking. Harney seems snide, and the rest of them are like the rest of the Fianna Fail muppets. However, one has to hand it to them, they are still here. Also, there have been some good things. The economy, which they claim sole credit for, is undoubtedly booming, and will continue to boom for another while at least. A serendipitous coalescence of policy and market it may have been, but successful nonetheless. There are a number of substantial problems with this.

The PD's are fundamentally anti-social. The whole 'are we living in a society or an economy' thing is targeted at them. Social in respect of this particular argument is about government, and what the government does for us. The PD's simply believe that government should not be overly intrusive, and choice theory requires that the government does not dominate services, including basic social services. This includes health and education. Both schools and now hospitals are being built in public-private partnerships. Nurses are not being hired, agency nurses are being contracted. Even the head of the HSE is on a 5 year contract. Teachers are finding it more and more difficult to secure permanency, more difficult than at any time in the past. Gardai are not being hired - private security firms are being allocated things like money minding, and MMD has even toyed with outsourcing the prison service. Instead of 2,000 new Gardai, we are getting 4,000 unpaid part-timers.

The PD's are fundamentally acultural. They do not believe in culture as a national resource, no more than they believe in the nation as icon, the nation as brand, the nation as identity. It is not something that should be invested in. It is not a part of the economy, no more than the Irish language is a part of the economy. This is disturbing.

Ultimately, if the PD's get their way, we will all be earning loads of money, and have no public services. We will, of course, have money to spend on private services, which will abound. Those who remain at the bottom will be imperilled. A little bit of inequality is no bad thing, MMD said two years ago. Maybe, but some are invariably more unequal than others, and do we as a society have a duty to protect them?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Center for Public Inquiry Shuts Down Quietly

McDowell victorious again! In an inside article in today's Irish Times (subs reqd), Liam Reid notes that the former High Court judge and Chairman of the Center for Public Inquiry has declared that the CPI, pilloried by the so-called Justice Minister, and ultimately compromised by his breach of secrecy in disclosing confidential security data to a foreign citizen, to be at an end. The winding down of the CPI is being completed, and McDowell can laugh smugly in his victory.

His ignorance of the rule of law, due process, the presumption of innocence, and the separation of powers has been astounding. As Minister for Justice, he has sullied government and stained the state. He has rejected what so many of us cherish, he has misrepresented his constituents, and brought great dishonour on us all. Yet we, the apathetic, do nothing. The chattering classes mumble in some slight discomfort, but do nothing. The political classes defer to his leadership of the government (see the Waterford Speech) and rest contented that a potential bastion of the propriety of state has been laid to rest. Well done Michael. We can all sleep easier in our beds knowing that this unscrutinised rabble in Leinster House will be ever less scrutinised with you in charge. Now where's that press council, so I can put the final nail in democracy's coffin.

He should be ashamed of himself. Everything is wrong with this, everything.

Iranian Crisis Continued

Today's New Yorker carries a story that Bush is planning an invasion into Iran, and using tactical nukes if he has to (via The Guardian). Here's the thing. It's daft. It's stupid. It's reckless. 'Bush Accused of 'Messianic' Mission', proclaims The Guardian in the same piece.

There are so many reasons why he shouldn't - the real vs. perceived threat level; the relative threat level (once again, remember Iraq vs. North Korea); the legacy issue - what will George be remembered for?; the logistics - how many troops do you need now?; the International support, or lack of it; the abject failure in Iraq - hello?. But one has got to think that, well, that he might do it anyway. And maybe that's the key. The threat (from the US, as opposed to Iran) needs to be perceived as real if it is to have any impact on the international position.

Which brings me to another question. Why did the New Yorker get this story? Not how, but why? One suspects that following the Valerie Plame stuff, the WH would be furious with an uncontrolled leak like this, unless it was controlled. And therefore the New Yorker is actually acting as a mouthpiece, positioning the WH where is wants to be. Am I cynical, or are things getting really scary?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Iranian Nuclear Crisis

The New York Times carries an opinion piece from Javad Zarif, Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. Zarif argues substantially that there need be no crisis, that things really can be dealt with satisfactorily in a collegiate way, addressing the concerns of the west and the needs of Iran.

I'm leaning towards Iran here. Nuclear proliferation is a dodgy thing, and one to be watched. However, it's difficult to think that Iran poses more of a nuclear threat viz. terrorists sourcing nukes there than, for example, some of the former Soviet satellite states. Iran is a huge, fairly well developed country, that has a lot to show others in the region about how societies can be run. There are pretty bad things going on there as well, but as I blogged yesterday, the USA ranks alongside Burma in the jailing of reporters stakes, so there's no beacon of virtue there.

Many of the Soviet satellite states already have nukes. Many of them are far more repressive than Iran. Many of them are more anti-American than Iran. And many of them are absolutely corrupt. Yet they are not threatened by America - why is this?

Here's a conspiracy theory - maybe the really really corrupt states are 'buy-offable', and the enrichment of leaders can make them pliable and controllable. Iran, being less corrupt and more ideological (or simply ideological) cannot be bought. Maybe that is the problem. Maybe this is all about control, and those who cannot be controlled (irrespective of their human rights records, their political ideology if any, or their crimes) are designated enemies - axis of evil types, like Iran and North Korea. Larger countries, like European countries and China, are controllable through the financial markets. Rogue states are those that simply do not agree, and as they cannot be dealt with through bribes disguised as aid, or financial market powers, they are dealt with through the international theatre, generating international concern for their inherent threats.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Iraq court drops charges against CBS cameraman - Yahoo! News

The US is now the sixth worst jailor of journalists in the world, alongside Burma. Burma.


One of these days we're going to wake up, and realise that our collective apathy has allowed a once great nation to destroy itself, and what it stands for, and in so doing corrupt the ideals for which we stand. The poor guy in this case was denied all due process, and even when the court said (after a year in prison) that there was no case to answer, the guy was thrown back in jail anyway.

I don't honestly believe that these guys, the US guys, I mean, have actually stood away from the battlefield and looked at what they have done to themselves, to what it means to be an American. Such greatness, such wisdom, such intelligence, squandered. Shame.

Iraq court drops charges against CBS cameraman - Yahoo! News

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Peruvian Elections

The BBC did a very interesting Newsnight last night (and will do so for the rest of the week) from Lima in Peru, looking at the Peruvian elections, (possibly trying to trump John Snow's Channel 4 News Series from Tehran) with a good interview with Ollanta Humala. A good blog on the elections seems to be Peru Election 2006, run out of the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Ollanta is smart, articulate, handsome, and has lot's of good catchphrases like 'the globalised versus the globaliser', and is generally peddling an anti-American line, though he is loathe to admit as much. The comparison with Chavez is made (he even tried his own coup before resorting to more conventional methods, as did Chavez), but Ollanta rejects the extremeties of Chavez. He is against, he says, being globalised by neo-liberal economic policies of the likes of America, and is for the redistribution of the country's admittedly vast natural resources.

On the same show, Greg Palast explores the implications of Venezuela becoming the largest source of oil in the world (alongside Canada) in a permanently high oil price landscape. The Canadians and the Venezuelans sound much more appealing than the Saudi's and the Iranians, dontcha think...what price a hispanic president of the US in the next twenty years?

John Reid and the Geneva Conventions

Oh dear. Just when we were beginning to think that the Labour Party in the UK hadn't gone all NeoCon, John Reid decides to attack the Geneva Conventions as outdated and irrelevant.

While that may be true - sovereignty has long been a contentious issue, this is not a recent debate - the thrust of his argument is that, basically, it should be made easier for the strong to dominate the weak. This is naive and stupid. As I said, it may be that the GC's need reform, but surely not so that the West can annihilate the East? Dumb dumb dumb. Perhaps he's just figuring out that what he could get away with in the North he can't get away with Internationally.

Investing in Protestant Northern Ireland

Sinn Fein complains that the £30m announced for investment in the Protestant community is disciminatory and panders to DUP whinging about underprivilege in Protestant areas. Pity. Sinn Fein should be big enough to accept that this is a necessary move, that all areas need investment, and that politically this is ultimately a good thing. One has to second guess the Shinner's these days as to whether they're talking generally and telling everyone what they really think, or whether they're saying these things for a particular constituency, but on the face of it you've got to say that anything that truly helps the disadvantaged in the North must be welcomed with open arms, and anything that can be pointed to as proof that protestant's aren't in fact, second class citizens, will be politically useful.

And while we're on the trade union buzz...

The French really know how to strike. Chiraq has already relented on the two year thing for firing people under 26, bringing it down to one year, but the strikers are enjoying themselves. Being rowdy is en vogue in France right now, and it is dangerous. There's much to be angry about, and the problem is that every little problem seems to become a huge one really quickly. Remember the Moslem kids running away from cops who were electrocuted? Night after night of rioting. More riots at the weekend about this under 26 issue, strikes continuing.

One suspects that this is not about merely the under 26 thing, or about the Moslem kids for that matter. It is about a deeper rooted malaise that is affecting France, a search for something a little more engaging in the corridors of power perhaps? For Chiraq to go from the populist stratosphere after the contretemps with the US over Iraq, this is a surprising place for him to be. We will watch with interest.

Trade Unions - Addendum on SIPTU and Aer Lingus

Today's Irish Times (sub reqd) reports that SIPTU are threatening strike action if assurances on job security are not received in advance of the floatation of Aer Lingus. Tosh and piffle, again. The Trade Unions are holding the country to ransom again, arguing, in effect, that the labour laws are insufficient to protect the workers in Aer Lingus from the vagaries of the market. Let's extrapolate on this - if the market pushes Aer Lingus to operate in a particular way, in the interests of its shareholders (which it is obliged to do whether a semi-state or not), SIPTU want a guarantee that none of its workers will be affected. They want a guarantee of jobs for life for those that want them, and similarly argue that privatisation is a risk to the future of the soon-to-be-former state airline.

Try this. Given that the market is as the market is, the future of the state airline is threatened ONLY by the insistence of its staff that their jobs are irrevokable in any circumstances. The only way to avoid this is to guarantee state subvention as and when the airline requires it. Therefore, they are asking the tax payer to guarantee their jobs.

As a tax payer, I for one say no. I will not pay the wages of staff in an industry that is underperforming, that is not geared to handle market changes. I will not subvent the baggage handler who refuses to work overtime, the check-in clerk who consistently and dishonestly collects her wages despite chronic underperformance, in the full knowledge that her job can never be taken away.

People, staff, and companies need incentives upon which to operate. Indeed, countries need incentives too. Take away the incentives, or, more accurately, impose disincentives, and you destroy productivity, you destroy motivation to do better, and you fundamentally compromise what should be a key pillar of Irish industry. No, no, and no.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Are Trade Unions Relevant or Counter-Productive? Part 1

I'm beginning some research into the economics of trade unions, and whether they make sense in a mature market. My concern is derived from two recent events - first, the decision by Irish Ferries to replace its domestic workforce with cheaper East European contractors, and second, the Health Service problems which appear at least in part to stem from trade union politics.

The Irish Ferries dispute was one of a number of incidents where, generally, expensive Irish labour was being replaced by cheaper free-moving, newly-acceded European labour, generally from the former Soviet Bloc, in the Baltic states and Poland. The Gama dispute in 2005 also had similar problems, where imported Turkish labour was not afforded the same rights that Irish workers were entitled to. The whole series of events were symptomatic of what was termed a 'race to the bottom', where Irish industry (and indeed the state itself, through sub-contracting and semi-state structures) was seeking to minimise costs by employing cheaper labout from overseas. The immediate thought struck me that there were three facets to this debate. First, Irish unskilled workers were annoyed that their inflated wage demands were suddenly unacceptable in the face of others who were willing to do the same work for much less. Second, Irish trade unions were annoyed that workers rights were being ignored, which was de facto illegal, when foreign workers were employed. Third, that the unions themselves were being frozen out by the recriutment of non-unionised labour, and often contract non-permanent labour.

The Irish Corporations who were directly or indirectly seeking to recruit cheaper labour were de facto acting properly in trying to minimise costs and maximise shareholder return, which is what they are set-up to do, and indeed under company law this is what they are obliged to do. The corporation would technically be acting in breach of company law if an opportunity to secure reduced costs and increased shareholder return were ignored. I think there is a need here to separate out workers rights from the 'cheaper option' argument.

The 'cheaper option' argument is the most divisive, and emotionally charged aspect of all this. Workers are basically concerned that they are no longer competitive, that their way of life is being eroded by European enlargement, and by a general levelling of the playing field for unskilled labour in particular. The answer to this problem, however, is that these workers need to skill up, to increase their usefulness through training and education. This is of course difficult for the older members of the labour force who find it more difficult to change.

The workers rights argument is more complex. First off, laws are laws and all employees in Ireland are entitled to the protection of those laws. Where those laws are not upheld, this is not right. However, as arguments over the European Services Directive have shown, there are structures within which employees can be employed in one country, and therefore under one legal regime, and physically work in another country with a different, though non-applicable regime. My career has involved considerable consulting, for example, very little of it based in Ireland, but my employer has always been an Irish company. My work has taken me all over Europe, but never did I seek the protection of the laws of that country, I was always under the impression that the terms of my contract of employment, under Irish company and employment law, would be protected by the courts of Ireland. Now that's OK for me, as the standards in Ireland are pretty strict, and I am a skilled worker. However, let's invert that. A Polish worker working for a Polish company but labouring on a building site in Tullamore remains subject to Polish law, and is out of sight and out of mind of the Polish authorities, let alone subject to standards that may or may now fall below those expected in Ireland.

In a completely hypothetical example, this may mean that while the Irish minimum wage is €7, and the Polish do not operate a minimum wage, the worker may only receive €2. The worker may be fired after a single written warning as opposed to the complex employment law in this country that requires a complex series of choreographed events before anyone can be dismissed, and even then the possibility of losing an unfair dismissal claim is significant. The worker may be required to work more than 39 hours a week, and not get paid for overtime, which may be legal in Poland but not in Ireland. I do not at this stage know what specific differences there are between Ireland and any other European country, but there are differences to be sure, some of which will be either more or less favourable to the worker in each jurisdiction.

What we have therefore is an opportunity for European companies to trade on the imbalance in labour laws across the EU, and indeed beyond. The free-movement of workers in an enlarged EU makes Europe more susceptible to this. This is like globalisation, generally. People complain about people working for one dollar a day in China or Bangladesh to make products for 'the West', which is simply another example of corporations exploiting global imbalances in wage expectation and cost of living.

Ultimately, the globalisation process, and the European enlargement process, will rise all boats, and, to mix my metaphors, ultimately level the playing field. What happens in the interim, however, is that raw materials and labour will no longer be acquired in the richer countries where the cost of production is so high (think also the demise of the Irish and European sugar industry). The cost of products in the West will not rise so dramatically as a result, and may well decline. Therefore jeans that would cost well over €100, possibly €200 to make in the west can retail for as little as €20. This would not be possible without globalisation. Government building contracts would be far more expensive were companies like Gama not able to offer such low prices on labour costs.

The question therefore is this: do we go on and allow globalisation and the markets to take their natural course, causing some pain in some sectors in the interim (both in the rich countries where jobs flow east, and in the poor countries where labour standards are poor) or do we intervene to artificially manage the market so as to minimise the pain of transition, and implicitly therefore delay that transition (to the level playing field that I spoke of earlier)? Can the invisible hand of the market actually manage these things well, or does it need support? And the answer to that question is in two parts - social and political.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Condi in the UK

So Condi Rice is in the UK. Couple of points on this. First, who is organising the protests? According to the BBC, the protestors were shouting 'Condoleeza Rice Go Home'. Now fair play to them, they went out in their coats and scarves and protested in the weather that she complained to schoolkids about, but you guys need some work on your slogans. First off, brevity is good. 'Rice Go Home', or something like that. Something rhyming is always good, vis 'Rice ain't Nice'. Allliteration is also good 'Condi Conned-Us!', the chant treating the second piece as if it were one word - 'Con-Di Con-Dus' and so forth. If, however, you're fed up with rhyming, brevity and alliteration, you could always try 'Go Home You War Mongering Facist And Stop Lying And Breaking International Law And Bombing And Torturing Innocent People.' Or something like that.

On the second point, why is she attending Liverpool Philharmonic's Celebration as European City of Culture 2008 on Friday night (tonight, in fact). This is a little ridiculous. It's only 2006, and March for goodness sake. Last Sunday in the Liverpool Everton football match, both number 8's became '08's to highlight the thing. Now the venerable city of Cork didn't engage in any of this tomfoolery. No, no. As European City of Culture 2005, they were nice and orderly, had a big party on New Year's Eve, and kicked things off from there. And by the way, since you asked, Patras in Greece is the European City of Culture 2006. Next year it's Luxembourg, which apparently has to share the honor with Sibiu in Romania. Following that, Liverpool apparently has to share with the Stavanger region in Norway. Cork? It didn't have to share with anyone. Doutcha boy!

Testing Identity: Define it First!

Germany is toying with a new citizenship test, which, if passed, will allow immigrants to become citizens. There are a number of debates around this - does knowing the answers really make you eligible when many blonde haired, blue-eyed German university graduates would have difficulty passing it? Is knowing about the German physicist who revolutionized medical diagnosis in 1895 necessary to join the German identity? Is there a moral, ethical or cultural standard for national belonging? Because, if there is, then it's back to facism. Democracy is about accommodating divergent views, not weeding them out.

There is significant difficulty around the muslim thing. Arguments are being made that the Dutch test in particular, which incorporates a video of gay men kissing and a nudist beach, are intended to target Muslims, but that's not where I'm interested. I'm interested in the veiled faces who sat down and defined for their own purposes what it means to be Dutch, or German. Because, if either defines itself as a democracy, then part of that definition is that all comers are accepted. We support minorities. We protect minorities. We are open, free, tolerant. Really? Come on.

Now, that's not to say that a free-for-all in terms of immigration is right either. People economics, or whatever ugly term you want to put on it, demands controlled movement, so that the rest of us can have sustainable structures for our society. Basically, there's no point in taking everyone in if the influx that results compromises the very reasons they wanted to come here in the first place. But similarly one has to acknowlegde that being democratic and tolerant, we need to allow immigration to some degree, and we need then to acknowlegde that any immigration will by definition impose an additional strain on all infrastructure - roads, hospitals, education.

I wonder what the test would be for Northern Ireland...must refer that one to Slugger!

Laughing in the face of Tyranny

Joe Conason's excellent piece in ("Saddam chose to deny inspectors" | again, laboriously, ridiculously, highlights the lies of the Bush administration. One can always spin, fudge, and obfuscate, but this is crazy stuff.

Repeatedly, unrepentantly, and blatantly, the White House has continued to lie about Iraq. Now here's the question - why? It is clear that there is a massive rump of support that will believe anything that comes out of the mouth of the president. They will trust him - and that is key - to do what he feels is in the best interests of the country. On top of that, his poll ratings couldn't be much lower. So why doesn't he just come out with it? 'We need to secure our oil interests, and we may be acting selfishly, but it is in our national economic self-defence.' A la Michael McDowell, he may be loathed by a section of the community, but they're democrats anyway. So why doesn't he just come out and say it? Here's a theory - he's more concerned with international opinion than with doestic opinion. Being perceived as a dumb ass might actually help him, and America, retain some level of standing. If I had a Euro for each of my European acquaintances who have said 'I love America, it's just your president that sucks...'

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Gotta love the French...

So, this debate is raging across Europe and North America about whether the likes of Google and Yahoo! should have to pay the broadband providers for access to their customer base. A little desperate, one would think. And not really the subject of this blog, either. However, the kicker in this FT article ( / By industry / Media & internet - Move to levy new online charges) is pretty sweet - last line: 'France Telecom, meanwhile, rejected “net neutrality” as “an American debate”'. That's it. No elaboration. Don't want to even consider it. American trash. Jeeze.

Podcasting the Guardian, Newsnight

Good stuff y'all...the Guardian is beginning to publish some serious podcasts as is Newsnight
so we media junkies can all keep up to date on the move...

Gotcha Chucky!

Charles Taylor was nabbed trying to slip into Cameroon from Nigeria, in a Range Rover with an unidentified woman, his son, and lots of greenbacks. (Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Liberia's ex-leader handed over for war crimes trial) Brought to Sierra Leone, he now supplants the late Slobodan Milosevic as the big cheese in the International Criminal Court. Pressure from the US is said to have been the major factor in securing Nigeria's decision to give him up, which as I complained yesterday is laden with irony given the lack of US support for the institution.

Now the whole thing enters another phase. The ICC is troubled by a lack of jurisprudence. It is a young court, the laws are underdeveloped, and the international legal community was disappointed by the death of Milosevic not only because a decision was never arrived at, but because the completion of the case would mark a milestone in the development of international criminal law. The case of Tadic, a relatively low-level war criminal from the former Yugoslavia resulted in the late 1990's in reams and reams of documents, not because the case was complex, but because the lack of an international criminal jurisprudence meant that all sorts of standards were being set in his prosecution. This trend continued in Milosevic, and will undoubtedly resume with Taylor. It is a dangerous phase for the fledgling court, and they need to be prudent, patient, and careful in their prosectution.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

American Management of Iraq

Today's New York Times reports that the President has taken a view regarding the incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister that undoubtedly the PM does not share (Bush Opposes Iraq's Premier, Shiites Report - New York Times). There are no rules anymore, it seems. Simply tell the public one thing (free, democratic Iraq and so forth) and do whatever you like. Actions and PR are separate. Law and PR are separate. Here's the difficulty. If you disregard all accepted structures within which actions are carried out, and simply say that they guys on the ground can do or say whatever they want in order to get the job done, then you have absolutely nowhere to go if you fail. Not only are international laws (Geneva Conventions), norms (non-intervention, preeminence of sovereignty) and structures (The UN) ignored in the conduct of American forces in Iraq, but they are proactively dismissed. To compound the problem, where the proponents of these laws, norms and structures proactively attempt to assist, they are actively rebuffed as irrelevant. Abject failure is then met with cries of 'I told you so' and 'what did you expect' and 'who's sorry now?', and, occasionally, 'dumb-ass!'

Time to wake up. People, and nations, are too impatient. Results are demanded instantly where history has taught us that the results we seek can only be secured when given enough time. Europe should watch out too - its integration project has hurtled along at a rate of knots (fifty years since the Coal & Steel Pact this year, if memory serves) which defies convention, and its enlargement needs time to be bedded down. The accession of Romania, Bulgaria, and possibly Turkey and the Ukraine won't help this bedding down process - time, patience, and time, gentlemen, please.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Charlie does a bunk...US is annoyed?

BBC NEWS | Africa | Taylor missing from Nigerian home
So Charles Taylor has disappeared. No real surprise there then. However, the call from the US to have him tried at a UN backed court smacks of double standards doesn't it? Doesn't it? Am I the only one noticing here? Specifically to the International Court, that the US doesn't support? Except, of course, when it is used as a tool against one's enemies...

Obits - Milan Mirror-Exchange

I occasionally wander the pages of obscure newspapers searching for - I'm not sure - images that capture the imagination, perhaps. The Milan-Mirror Exchange obits section (Obits - Milan Mirror-Exchange) notes the passing of Ms. Hattie Delmer Eddings, a woman of 100 years and great, great, grandmother to three kids. I don't know why this is important, or relevant, but I'm sure the good people of Mirror, Tennessee, must have some memories and stories. The web gives us so much trivia, and sometimes we must fill in the blanks. I wonder if Ms. Delmer-Eddings in her time baked apple pie, or was she sent up the river for participating in a fraud. Perhaps she masterminded some great scheme to bring water to a famine stricken part of Africa, or founded the local newspaper within which this final comment was printed. Or maybe she just lived for her family, kids, and their lives - an achievement in itself.

South American News

Two stories caught the eye this morning. The BBC reports that Argentina is debating whether or not to allow school kids to watch the World Cup games involving the national side during school hours, and in Brazil, the finance minister has resigned in the wake of corruption claims.

South America has always retained a special place in its heart for football. Strong leagues, and very strong international sides have offered a way out for impoverished people, and hold aloft a dream of a better life. Maradona was spotted kicking a ball of rags around, and instantly recruited (or so the story goes). This author used on occasion play football in the garden wondering if the kind old lady walking past the garden wall was in fact a talent scout on a seaside holiday in the south of Ireland. The dream of it all coming together, the dream of being picked in the most unlikely of circumstances, offered a chance of fame, fortune and global adulation.

Aspiration is an important thing. It gives a child sustenance, it fosters the imagination, and every kid will tell you that it is all about the chance that it might happen, not necessarily that it will. Kids should enjoy their childhood, they should have fun, they should dream, and shout and imagine what it might be like one day. Almost all of them will never make it, but they retain that shared consciousness of ambition that will one day translate itself into a national consciousness defined by the kids that watched those players. There is no disappointment in being one of millions that didn't make it. But there is disappointment in not being allowed to participate in the zeitgeist. Let them watch football, let them cheer and cry and laugh and play together for a few hours a few days during the month of June. And then let them delve into their studies once more, in a better established and more cohesive union than had been the case a few short weeks before.

Brazil has more pressing difficulties in the news. Lula's government has been under pressure for a considerable period of time now, and rumblings of corruption have plagued his tenure. However, he appears to be strengthening his hand of late. A working class hero, his role in dragging his nation from penury to prosperity not been insignificant, and while there is a long way to go, much of his time will have been spent drawing preconceived notions of acceptable behaviour from the minds of his contemporaries, such that they can set an example for the next generation to follow. This is the lot of those that would drive corruption from government, and it is often a lonely road. It is wonderful to see that the hum of corruption is now difficult to shake off, and the finance minister's resignation comes in the midst of furious denials. This one hopes means that corruption is finally and totally unacceptable, even by implication. There may be innocent political victims along this rocky road to integrity, but it seems that in one of the most populous nations on earth, they're on the road at last!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Interesting Stories of the day...

40 people killed in Iraqi blast near Mosul. Ukranian Leaders battling for power. Tony Blair making one headline statement after another. Oh, and the New York Times reports that apparently George W. Bush planned to go into Iraq all along.

Blair is planning to go only after he fixes the Health Service problems - I presume that's the health service in Britain, not Iraq. And he admits to it being a mistake saying he wouldn't be PM for the next election. Anti-American is madness, Blair trumpets in a major speech to the Australian parliament. Gotta love the reporter who asked whether he had any advice for the English sprint relay team on how to pass on the baton (English sprint relay team in Commonwealth Games dropped the aforementioned...)

Pity about Yuschenko and the problems in Ukraine. Seems that the wily old Soviets managed to queeze in between the divided liberals. Still, should Mr. Yuschenko manage to swallow some pride and accept his erstwhile Liberal nemesis Ms. Tymoshenko back in as PM, maybe a focus on a 'not-gone-away-yet' Soviet conservative bloc might help them to concentrate on strategic imperatives for the long term future of an important, potentially EU, country. This kick in the proverbials should serve as a timely reminder that success in the Orange Revolution thing was only the beginning, and not an end in itself.

And finally, to George. I don't understand it. The liberal press in America simply have to understand that George broke international law, knowingly, and everyone knows he did, but also that he got away with it. Let it go, Louis, as the Budweiser frog said. Focus on the here and now. Beating this drum is tired, and we need new stuff. We need to understand more about the Enron trial, and where Mr. Cheney really fits in. We need to know about who authorised the side-letter concession on the Patriot Act. This thing is simply appalling. Basically, Bush said that he'd accede to the checks and balances stuff contained within the new version of the controversial act, but would not be so obligated where he considered it important enough. Reminds me of constitutions of places like China (everyone can have Human Rights, all the rights they want, except when the government thinks that they shouldn't have them) or Bangaldesh (human rights for all save where human rights contradict the Sharia Law).

So I'm hereby guaranteeing everyone in the whole world that I'm giving each of you a million dollars (or Euros), save where I feel, subjectively, that such an act may compromise National Security. Just apply to this blog, and I'll get back to you. Trust me.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Video on Demand...Home Truths?

First off, download technologies / streaming technologies are a little off the mark (at present) when it comes to understanding consumer patterns in video and in Internet usage generally. It goes against the grain to have expiration dates set on video downloads (sky’s seven day limit for example) or indeed to have them delivered in any format other than moveable, transferable, ‘copiable’ MP4’s or some such format. As networks get faster, as downloads speeds increase, and as hard drives increase in capacity, it will become easier to share content. We are not far from the Terabyte standard issue home computer; PVR’s and HD Recorders are beginning to proliferate. The capability for storage, high quality reproduction and fast transfer is just about upon us. Just as MP3’s needed broadband access speeds to facilitate mass ‘piracy’, so too the networking, storage and playback technologies as they progress will facilitate similar levels of access to ‘video’. At a very simple level, the flow of audio visual packets to a monitor or display device can be intercepted at several points along the lines of current technologies. My TV aerial goes into my VCR, as does my Sky Box, the VCR goes into the HD Recorder, and that goes into the TV. This ecosystem cannot be radically disturbed by the introduction of online video on demand (the hardware manufacturers would go crazy!) and therefore the potential for copying is exacerbated. The technologies deployed to avoid this are like pushing rope – it won’t work. The history of the record industry is exactly the same, and will be followed by the movie industry.

Second, it is not necessary to provide video on demand exactly ‘on demand’, with all the network load issues that that represents. The night that Brokeback Mountain is released, no doubt many many users will all want to watch it at 8pm. However, no-one does this right now, and it’s not a burden. You pick a DVD up on your way home from work – at 6 or 7 – and settle in after making the popcorn, having the dinner, whatever. Similarly, if you’re ordering an online video, you can take your time to browse the titles on offer, order it while sitting at your desk in the office, and know that it will be available for you later on when you get home. If the process of watching the movie also involves the purchase of the movie (i.e. you need to have the popcorn ready before the purchasing point) then the dynamic shifts, and if the Simpsons is on TV then you may as well watch that. On demand may find itself in a different competitive category if it shifts the purchasing dynamic too aggressively. Therefore the delay is actually a good thing, not just for network economists, but for the behavioural analysts too!

The guys in Hollywood, and in the big telcos need to understand net economics, technology economics, and a little bit of behavioural science while they think this one through. Is this merely a reaction to potential piracy, or a legitimate strategy that the studios need to make? It should be the latter, but perhaps the former is a little ahead.