Friday, May 30, 2008

Trouble in the verb garden

Six months on and Kevin Rudd is finding out about the downside of being Prime Minister. Few of the problems being slated back to Rudd’s leadership are exactly fair, cost of living; fuel and housing were clearly developing under Howard’s watch and have more to do with international dynamics than the domestic economy.

Rudd’s big problem is more likely his communication style. For a start he is more focused on developing effective policy than on explaining, and following the easy run under Howard bureaucrats are far from happy with the long days Rudd is demanding from them.

Well those are the indirect communications issues, his tendency to use language that either makes no sense or few people comprehend doesn’t help much either. Not that the particular fault isn’t common in the political world.

One of the chief criticisms of the Prime Minister is his tendency to turn a verb into a noun, thus forcing him to then find another verb to drive the new noun. For example, rather than say "we will implement the policy next month", Rudd would say "we will be finalising the implementation of the policy next month".

The average reading standard in Australia ranges between that of a year 8 and a year 9 student (13 or 14 years old) and it is this level of readability that most politicians, communicators and, indeed, newspapers, target. The complexity of Rudd’s decreasing public communications is way beyond these levels.

Strange really, when Rudd won hearts and minds originally, with his down to earth style. Obviously he has become enamoured of the linguistic styles of his army of policy advisers. Even so, I wouldn’t to be an advisor who needed waking at 7 am, Kev does have a way with the language of impatience as well.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mucking in the social swamp

Yesterday it was - You don’t have to be nuts, but…. I did more research and became more depressed. The facts, the researched facts, are more horrid than I could have imagined. But then today, courtesy of the Melbourne Age I was set on yet another path: 'Razor gang' calls for ideas

Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner is inviting ideas from the public, saying yesterday that the Government's "razor gang" had started looking for a second round of cuts, targeting the processes and programs of government. He said there were always pressures for new spending, and "we would welcome any suggestions or savings proposals from anybody in the general community".

Oh I had an idea, something that has been annoying me and others for years, so I started on another research trip. Even though unemployment is an economic tool, expanded and contracted according to need, governments still make victims of the unemployed.

Australia has a very low ‘official’ unemployment rate at the moment, approaching the historically acceptable historic unemployable figure of 2%. But at the same time we are paying somewhere around $1 billion to a group of commercial job placement facilitators.

First up it’s worth looking at what unemployment really means:

“Australia adopts the standard international definition of unemployment: people are unemployed if they did not work for at least one (paid) hour in the previous week, were actively seeking work and were able to accept a job in the next week if it were available.” Professor Sue Richardson

But then when we get the billion dollar spent on this ‘problem’:

Research Paper no. 15 2007–08 A review of developments in the Job Network

Australia has enjoyed strong economic growth for over 16 years and the nation’s unemployment rate is at its lowest level in around 30 years. In this context of strong labour market conditions and a buoyant economy, job seekers with minimal barriers to employment tend to find work readily, with little or no assistance from Australia’s main employment service provider, the Job Network. Increasingly, then, the Job Network is being asked to meet the needs of difficult-to-place job seekers and the long-term unemployed. “

Talk about smoke and bloody mirrors! I am working on a submission to the Razor Gang, and even without access to the actual costing of the dubious Job Network program I’m suspecting there is more than just a half billion saving, there is a very real potential for social benefits.

Governments become so tied up in justifying their own agendas they rarely see the problems or the potential remedies for many issues. John Howard, cynically, drove a volunteer program. He called it ‘work for the dole’ (unemployment benefit). Accidentally he created a social program with some real benefits. Between volunteers and the non-profit sector in Australia there is an exciting prospect of actually focusing on the real problems.

Monday, May 26, 2008

You don’t have to be nuts, but…

Many of us would naturally think you would have to be nuts to risk prison, but apparently only half are, according to a study of the prison population in Victoria, Australia. The study has found that at least half the inmates have had some sort of contact with mental health services.

Senior lecturer at the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Monash University Stuart Thomas said that data in the first 18 months of the study had shown a high number of mentally ill people in custody.

"Every second one has had some sort of contact with mental health services in the past," Dr Thomas said.” Mentally ill numbers high among prison population

Out of curiosity I had a poke around to see what was happening in other places, has the trend of closing mental facilities then loading jails with these people normal?

From Britain’s Independent newspaper: “Prison mental health services are struggling to cope as overstretched staff try to deal with rising levels of mental illness among prisoners, a major report will warn next week.” 25 May 2008

The Bonner County Daily Bee: In Idaho, as in Bonner County, the fastest way to land in jail without committing a crime is to suffer from mental illness. May 25, 2008

Mental health facility needed for young offenders CBC Canada. 23 May 2008

I admit I stopped scanning the articles after that, it is just too bloody depressing. I know here in my sub-tropical wonderland the ratio of mentally ill moving in and out of jail is just an accepted fact. In fact I’ve all but given up on a young neighbour – just 14 years old – who gets closer to juvenile detention every day.

Many of the articles I did see were crying out for intervention before jail became the only current option. A bloody pointless option if you ask me, it just takes them off the streets for a while, but does not even pretend to deal with the real issues.

We know mental facilities have rarely had a good rap; but prisons, or worse the streets, are not appropriate alternatives. We know that self inflicted substance abuse is partly responsible for many mental disorders, but so are dysfunctional family environments and consequent abuses.

In short, I’m not convinced being judgmental on the issue is appropriate or helpful. The problem seems to be widely recognised and governments must find better responses to mental illness.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Obama and the irregular verb

I would prefer to ignore the irregular verb rule of life, but it keeps surfacing, obviously part of the human condition:

“I have considered positions; you are prejudiced; he/she is a raging bigot.

It is something we tend to live with, but is a real worry when it shows so strongly in a national election. We might be criticized for being elitist, but when it comes to real bigotry few people want to talk about it.

In my considered opinion analyses of the primaries don’t really show America in a good light, but then the same can be said of most national attitudes. Leaders don’t help, as they tend to run with the lowest common denominator.

Obama has tripped over on some of his comments, but they have been more in the realm of trying to balance supporter’s excess than anything he has personally stated. Australia’s PM Rudd annoyed me far more this week over art censorship, at least Rudd has been decently accepting on racial issues.

Many will recall the pressure Kennedy had to overcome for being Catholic, obviously before my anti-Catholic time. Even so, it would have been the dumbest possible attack on Jack. His father’s criminal past as a bootlegger should have been more relevant, if any outside issue was relevant.

We live with bigotry at all levels of existence, but to even consider it on a major national/international level is taking it almost insane extremes. Barack Obama is viewed around the world as the logical next leader of the US. Despite of, according to one US commentator, having a bad paint job Obama is selling well among the non US bigots, just as Kennedy did.

It is not about a choice between a woman or a dusky bloke, it is about the best possible outcomes!

Friday, May 23, 2008

World more peaceful in 2008

According to the second world peace index the world was more peaceful in 2008. Even so Canada slipped to number 11, partly with an addition of other countries in the second index to be published.

In fact the Group of Eight major economic powers were a mixed bag. Japan ranked fifth, Canada 11th, Germany 14th, Italy 28th, France 36th and Britain 49th. The US comes in at 97th and Russia was near the bottom at 131st, the only one in the group below the United States. Australia slipped a couple of spots to 27th.

But the world did get a bit more peaceful compared to last year, according to a measure of 24 different indicators. The factors include internal ones, such as levels of crime, government corruption, prison population, spending on weapons and the threat of terrorism.

There is some argument that the index supports ‘freeloader’ states which depend on others for defence. The US, for example, plays a world policeman role which calls for a much higher military involvement than many other countries.

Of course the question of the appropriateness of the US assumed role is another issue, and is still subject to justifying an aggressive stance as defending anything. Australia plays a policing role in their region, which for some reason extends to the Middle East. Again, some of that activity is being questioned and troop withdrawals underway in Iraq at least.

Like Canada, Australia claims some justification for a presence in Afghanistan. To be fair this action has not been tainted by trade imperatives. Australian’s are far more accepting of casualties in Afghanistan than Canadians are. But the country is probably more within their sphere of influence than Canada’s.

It is only the second year for this index, and I expect the researchers will shake a few bugs out of it in coming years. But it is a worthy exercise, giving various nationals some measurable basis for their concerns.

I can only find reports like Global Peace Index 2008 Report and a partial Peace list. I’ll be following this up.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Who is watching the world change?

“It turns out that the most efficient delivery system for capitalism is actually a communist-style police state....” China’s All-Seeing Eye

My old cobber Abi keeps a critical news eye on a range of issues and came up with this gem. This Rolling Stone article seems so un-American in its premise, but with arguments familiar to others around the globe.

“American commentators like CNN’s Jack Cafferty dismiss the Chinese as “the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.” But nobody told the people of Shenzhen, who are busily putting on a 24-hour-a-day show called “America” — a pirated version of the original, only with flashier design, higher profits and less complaining.” China’s All-Seeing Eye

Mind you, I don’t blandly accept the “communist-style police state” statement; it is a dubious proposition to suggest communism has even been tried to any great degree. What I find odd is that we attack China’s form of police state yet accept Singapore and a dozen other police states as good international citizens.

No doubt Singapore and others were quick to drive capitalism, so any deficit in civil liberties could easily be excused, or maybe we are too easily suckered by words and too lazy to look at realities. For the moment, at least, the pot is being stirred in the US.

Meanwhile our Teflon Kev here in Australia is doing a truly remarkable job of ignoring inevitable complaints and driving essential policy. Some of our pensioners here might be tearing their clothes off in symbolic protest, but his support is gaining strength at the same time.

Rudd's Mandarin 'a boon for Aussie business

Who would have thought it:

“PRIME Minister Kevin Rudd's ability to speak Chinese is opening up trade opportunities for Australian businesses…” NEWS LTD

That is the same China, by the way, those communist bastards who are going to kill our babies as we sleep. Well maybe not Aussie babies, we are now there trading partners. But it strikes me that Rudd can be in the process of dismantling the police state Howard was building, can take the complaints and attacks, and still deliver the goods. Well we hope he will deliver the goods.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

About meme it seems

One of my Reds set a challenge here and foolishly perhaps I fell for it. I don’t intend to finger anyone, but the invitation to give it a go is extended.

What was I doing ten years ago? …Scratching a living in the bohemian heart of Sydney while watching a marriage come to its logical end. Oddly enough I enjoyed the process, possibly by virtue of the setting and the general milieu. There were two reasonable streams of income:

#1 freelance writing, including summarizing new legislation from several State parliaments.

#2 by default the assistant manager of a café in coffee heaven. One fine Saturday morning, my first off for weeks, I received an urgent call to take over running the place. My good friend the owner had suffered a stroke. Sadly his son managed to burn the place down while I was having a much needed sleep.

2. Five things on today's To-Do List. One – Avoid getting dragged into another of my neighbour’s drama queen turns. Two - spend some time researching the latest project – a community legal service (early days yet, still gathering the basic needs evidence). Three – get the balance right on my Turkish coffee brew. I’d rather a good espresso, but thick Turkish isn’t a bad substitute. Four – do the daily online news rounds. That generally means finding different sources for stories that grab my interest. Five – stock up on my thrift shop books. Second hand is the only way I buy books, that way I can read greedily and find writers I’d never otherwise look twice at.

3. Things I'd do if I were a Billionaire. This one should probably be What do your friends say is your worst feature? – I am forever criticized for having no real passion for money, per se.

I guess the only thing I would seriously do if I were a billionaire is find someone to manage it while I got on with life. I’m not an enthusiastic consumer and I would prefer to see underlying cultures change, as opposed to pouring money at change. I guess I might write even more.

4. Three bad habits? A) I believe smoking is a bad habit, and when I stop enjoying it I will stop doing it. B) I get lost in ideas and thoughts, or totally focused on a task. C) As a result of the former I tend to get irritated by gratuitous noise – like conversation, TV – well let’s not get into lists.

5. Five places I have lived:
Sydney – well I was born there and really enjoyed my later return.

Tasmania Launceston & Stanley My ancestral and personal family home

Port Macquarie – Don’t ask me why, I really don’t like the place, but keep returning.

Miles (Queensland) Everyone should have an outback experience.

Chilliwack (Canada) The only place I’ve ever felt homesick for.

6. Five Jobs: Began in the Manchester, furnishing trade, it was a start and I was mainly cashier and bookkeeping (something that goes right against the grain.) Second was the motor trade. I was trying things, but was never really into cars. Theoretically I could strip and rebuild an engine, naming all the parts. (You can feel my thrill…)

The third effort was much more satisfactory; I landed in the timber (lumber) industry and eventually became some sort of threat to the large company employing me. Part of the problem was in seeing the tree and the wood as a continuum, but not recognising my view had nothing to do with just making money,

But it did lead me to number four – writing. I found the whole wood and forest thing so fascinating I began selling newspaper feature stories then drifted into journalism. So freelance writing featured ever since.

Now it is not something I’d do for a living, running a café/restaurant (what am I talking about?) Financially it is the hardest business I’ve come across, but the rest of it I always enjoy.

I’m supposed to pass this quest on, but I think it probably enough that I actually did it….

Retribution or reconstruction?

The temptation for paybacks for a new government must be enormous, but is generally counterbalance by other considerations. The concept has been on my mind with various calls to prosecute Bush and key members of his administration. We are actually watching the same dynamic working out in Australia.

My local member and former Deputy Prime Minister, Mark Vaile, is exposed on a number of fronts, notably the AWB scandal and the Regional Partnerships rorts. But the Rudd government, despite some election posturing, has steered clear of any frontal attack on the hapless Vaile; perhaps just watching him suffer deep depression as an opposition backbencher has its own rewards.

But Rudd’s government has generally taken a forward looking position, restructuring the countries economy following the Howard years. There is another reason new governments tend to gloss over sins of the past, it doesn’t do to encourage a convention of which hunts which would most likely come back to haunt them.

Even so, with the final axing of the Regional Partner Program in last weeks budget the government is copping a fair bit of flack; most of it unwarranted, and as politically charged as the former program itself. Despite the merits of many community project submissions axed the program was seriously flawed.

Regional Partner Program

I first came familiar with the program during the heady days leading up to last year’s election. I had just started in a position researching and developing local funding proposals. My first task was to source funding for a small but valuable program originally set up under a one off grant. It was relative peanuts, about $30,000.

So I dived into the various grant programs available and quickly recognised Regional Partnerships is the ideal target. But I delivered my recommendation with a rider; this is a very political program, it is pork barreling at its most flagrant and it is run by our local member – get the submission in quickly, before the election is called.

Sadly my agency is so used to the standard submission process the need for haste wasn’t recognised. It’s a good project and shouldn’t need to be subject to the pork barrel. The submission was sent just after the election was called and a few days before the Auditor General delivered a damning report of the regional grant program.

After the election the submission was returned with instructions for new submission requirements, and then the program was suspended. Finally it was axed in the budget. Call me cynical, but if a small slice of the dubious pie was available for a worthy project I was all for it.

An inquiry

An inquiry has now been launched into the program which funded numerous commercial projects which never actually eventuated. The money was paid out for nothing. Still many good projects have suffered, though I find it hard to believe many of those complaining now did not understand what was happening.

Many claim that their projects had been approved and so they had spent money undertaking various works. I suspect those ‘approvals’ were little more than the reassurance of the various National Party local members involved. One partly completed program even has a commonwealth government sign on it, even though there is no clear suggestion of a written approval.

The inquiry will search for evidence that the coalition continued to misuse the program after the period covered by the Audit Office's review. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government will conduct the inquiry, which will make recommendations on how future regional development funds should be administered.

So far the Rudd government has refused to openly attack Vaile and his colleagues on this one, and the inquiry doesn’t look like it will go down that road either. But given the bleating from some highly political, jilted ‘partners’ the dumping might need to happen just for self protection.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Lobbying and corruption

Australian Greens senator Bob Brown has said he was offered a $1 million bribe by a large media company eight years ago. He has used the incident as an illustration of why he believes the Federal Government's attempts to regulate lobbyists' activities do not go far enough. SMH

Unfortunately Brown’s illustration has overshadowed his call for tougher lobbying regulations; though it is already doubtful that the Rudd government will go any further than rolling back the excesses of the Howard administration.

Brown wants an independent corruption commission, similar the one operating in NSW; his point being that politicians then have somewhere to take these claims with some confidentiality. Brown was advised at the time that he risked defamation charges if he named the organisation attempting to bribe him.

Of course Brown, like all members of parliament, does have a little device called parliamentary privilege, not to mention the existing potential to work through these concerns in confidentiality. I guess, in the end, those means depend on a members own concept of integrity and the integrity of the parliament.

On top of that there is still the Electoral Commission (AEC), which should, but rarely monitors and prosecutes electoral irregularities. To be fair, neither the AEC or a new Corruption Commission can prosecute unethical behaviour unless it is also illegal. However parliament does have some power to deal with ethics.

Keeping the tally

The other issue with the type of bribe Brown was offered is; how do the parties involved monitor it? He was allegedly offered $1 million in advertising and promotion. For a start there are legal restrictions on political advertising and promotion does not exactly carry a price tag, regardless of potential dollar value.

No doubt John Howard’s regulators would have turned a blind eye on a sudden jump in apparent Green media spending, but the then opposition Labor machine would have been all over it like stink on a monkey. But the fact remains, who would trust a crooked media outfit to deliver such a dodgy bribe?

Anti-corruption charter

I have already delivered my proposal, the new Charter. I repeat it here:

· The banning of all political donations, replaced by taxpayer funding

· All candidates, not parties, allocated an equal time/space in appropriate media

· All 3rd party advertising would be banned

· Ex members would be barred from holding any commercial position which relates to former elected responsibilities for two years. Ex members would be compensated with their elected entitlements for the duration of their gardening holiday.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Food parcels in the thoughts

The US Congress has just passed the final version of the $US307 billion Farm Bill, a signal to the rest of the world of the real meaning of ‘Free Trade’. Seems to be, “we are free to screw anyone we like, including our own consumers…”

This bill is guarantees to piss off the rest of the world while it apparently throws a lifeline to US agribusiness. At the same time it drops the rest of you into the shit pit! Just look at the sort of provisions and keep an eye on your grocery bills:

Continued subsidies on cotton, barley and rice for five years.

Extension of a dairy levy on imported dairy products - until now foreign dairy has not had to pay a marketing levy to promote US dairy products within the US by region of origin, such as Wisconsin cheese.

A new rule that requires 85 per cent of sugar used in the US to come from US sources. Any extra US sugar will be turned into ethanol. This is on top of sugar quotas already limiting Australian imports.

Labelling of country of origin for meat.

So who is going to subsidize this Democrat inspired Farm Bill? I guess the American consumer. It is a big world out there and countries like Australia will find other markets for their produce, but be careful in future negotiating trade deals with the US.

The US drove the concept of global markets, of swapping the production strengths of various countries and regions. Ok, the concept was always problematic, but it made the rest of us get off our butts and find markets. Lose one we find another.

In the meantime US consumers will start paying more for ant product with sugar or other domestically mandated ingredients. Much of Australia's meat ends up in hamburgers and will be mixed with other sources of meat. Australian beef producers say the bill will increase the cost of US ground.

Eat well friends, if need be I will start organizing food parcels, though I’m not sure if there are tariffs on them yet. Free trade is increasingly proving to be a crock of shit.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Farcical system or just dumb reporting

I am an advocate of variants on the Westminster system of government, particularly as opposed to the hybrid US system. But it does leave the door open for some really dumb reporting. This, from the Aussie opposition leader’s reply to the budget:

“Brendan Nelson tonight promised a 5-cent-a-litre petrol tax cut…” SMH

How in the name of anything remotely sane can the current leader promise any relevant economic implementation? Why would the media even bother to report on such a farcical pronouncement?

First up Brendan Nelson was a minister in an administration which refused to even acknowledge a government responsibility in prevailing fuel prices and refused to discuss the possibility of reduction of various pre-purchase taxes on fuel.

The Howard government had years you come to terms with that argument and Nelson will never be in a position to implement such a plan. Blind Freddy can see that, so why waste ink, broadband or credulity even talking about it?

Of course Nelson is really playing to his own party, fighting to retain his leadership position. Part of that is a hard line against the budget, a promise to block a range provisions in the Senate.

That boast is also problematic, even though the opposition still have the numbers in the upper house. The opposition have blustered, but invariably rolled on every issue so far. Bluster aside the conservatives are acutely aware of the dangers of being labeled spoilers.

So I’ve just joined the media and wasted even more resources on what is essentially a non story.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The mother of all litigation?

I try to avoid health and pharmaceutical stories, but the breaking story on Thiomersal and autism has been tugging at my sleeve. Yesterday I was twice assaulted with harangues over autism and immunization.

The first was on the general autism spectrum and particularly aspergers at the lower end – I think. The haranguer is an adult sufferer who is generally astute, but I wasn’t engaged and didn’t tie the pieces together.

That was early in the day, late in the afternoon was the second assault, following a news report. A neighbour’s son with a raft of social difficulties was the focus; his mother had the new information that his problem was triggered by immunisation, or some element of the immunisation.

That element is Thiomersal, “a preservative in vaccines, immunoglobulin preparations, skin test antigens, antivenins, ophthalmic and nasal products, and tattoo inks.” See Wiki

Thiomersal was developed in 1928 and developed and marketed by Eli Lily. The compound contains 49.6% ethylmercury

It seems every major pharmaceutical company has used Thiomersal as a preservative in various products, well beyond vaccines. There have been thousands of lawsuits in the US just targeting the vaccines, I think we can predict some major class actions now across the board. Every pharmaceutical corp must be exposed to litigation now as facts start to surface.

Depending on the scope nearly everyone of will be able to put up our hand on this one; even I had al the childhood immunisations. But it is the obvious increase in a range of maladies, from allergies through to mental disabilities, where the bite will really come. It’s early days, but I think it is fair to predict some major litigation.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Budget time

It is now one more sleep before the first Rudd government budget is bought down. Of course budgets, however momentous are not magic wands but they do tend to have a miraculous instant effect, if only because of expectations. This one is momentous because it marks the economic watershed between the Howard and Rudd administrations.

As opposed as I am to the neo-liberal globalization we have endured I still tend to see Australia’s economy in a global context. It would be plain dumb to ignore realities. So I intend to bounce a bit here off some of my international blogging friends and their marvelous insights.

First up, is Kvatch who recently pointed out that at least one Scandinavian country, I think Norway, actually has a well-being index. So I was also taken by this quote:

Apparently Norway and Australia are the two nations that have experienced the biggest boost to their terms of trade since the start of the decade. The prices that Australians receive relative to those that they pay to the rest of the world have climbed 40 per cent since 2004. Taken from Peter Martin (Canberra Times)

My Aussie compatriot, Lindsay's Lobes, does a wonderful job of informing me on economic realities, and never canes my knuckles no matter how far I stray from the path. He took on comments by D K Read in my previous post where Red referred to housing as an economic indicator. Charmer that he is Lindsay seems to support Red’s view.

Today in Australia statistics just released indicate the total value of housing finance approvals (excluding refinancing)fell for the second consecutive month in March - down 5.8% to $15.59bn, representing the lowest level in 18 months, whilst owner occupier approvals fell by 6.1% in the month.
Approvals for refinancing fell by 6.0% in the month, to indicate an unwinding of the late 2007 surge when customers moved loans from the relatively more expensive non-bank sector back to the big banks. The comments here

Quoting from News Limited:

HOUSE prices in some parts of Sydney have almost halved [$500,000] as battling borrowers struggle to keep up with increasing interest rates.

I tend to agree with Abi:

“"People are hurting" - that's it in a nutshell!” I’m also watching the supermarket food pricing; it is obscene at the moment. One item alone I noticed last week was a packet pasta dinner that had been on the shelves for weeks at .99c. Then I saw it was suddenly SAVE! BUY 3 FOR $3.00. Looking closer it showed the regular price as $2.30. That is a hell of a jump to justify holding the price and duping people already under pricing pressure.

These are the issues Rudd’s mob need to deal with now, runaway costs for basic essentials; food and housing. Lindsay’s tip for Tuesday budget - expect a surplus of $18 billion with about $4 billion in savings and several large scale new spending initiatives on climate change.

I agree with the surplus, though I would have expected higher to mop up the current growth spurt and dampen inflation. More worrying to me is just how can Rudd, or any other leader, turn around the mess world economics is in quickly enough to allow ordinary people to simply survive the crisis; to have a roof and to eat?

Friday, May 09, 2008

It seems like depression to me

“A recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales. A recession begins just after the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends as the economy reaches its trough.” Wiki

Depression is now reserved for an extended period of recession, or avoided entirely, such negative terms for market driven economies. But the definitions are starting to look precious given realities around the world.

I’ve noted, over the past few days, almost a sense of relief that the Myanmar regime is making aid donations following the Burma disaster next to impossible. Not that people are any less concerned, but it is getting harder to forgo the few pleasures left and still give away precious resources.

Nearly everyone I personally know, regardless of income status, is in the process of serious belt trimming or giving up any non-essential expenditure; often the latter involuntarily, through payment defaults. The great communications/entertainment revolution looks like the first brick to fall.

More seriously across the globe there is concern over growing food shortages, rising fuel costs and a strange sort of credit squeeze. Insanely, credit still seems to be most available to those who can least afford it. That, perhaps, is the sign that the greedy, destructive markets are simply not willing to forgo their dreams.

George W might be denying that we are in recession, just as other leaders are simply ignoring the reality and commentators cringe from putting the question. Given the mindset of many people I am speaking to, I would call this a straight out depression, as that is its major presenting symptom.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Ending the Iraq bleeding

"A Rand Corporation report has revealed that 300,000 US veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A further 320,000 have brain damage of a physical kind." SMH

The cost of the Iraq conflict continues to grow in both life and economics. I’m sure others will be familiar with the attacks on critics of the invasion back in 2003. I personally had the gall to predict another Vietnam, which was probably an optimist assessment as history unfolds.

Just US military deaths are now up to 4071, the Iraqi casualty figures are rubbery, with a median estimate around 500,000. The economics are equally alarming, with economists now estimating that $1 trillion of the $2.5 trillion in U.S. debt outstanding is related to the Iraq war.

“The rising price of oil, the growing national debt, the declining value of the dollar, the deteriorating infrastructure and the weakening economy have all been exacerbated by our "war of choice…” Financing Iraq war is taking toll on economy

Lives also hang in the balance of those domestic US figures, with the most vulnerable becoming even more vulnerable. Katrina might also simply just be a shadow the potential social disaster facing the country. Starting out with a generally low regard for welfare increased economic pressure will further isolate those most in need.

The Vietnam factor

Obviously the numbers suggest that Iraq is more costly in every aspect than Vietnam. To make it worse, the main justification (albeit generally denied), cheap oil never eventuated. But the politics is exactly the same:

Presidents throughout the Vietnam conflict were caught in a cleft stick; they could not justify continuing a lost cause, but equally could not afford to admit defeat and pull out. Raising the Vietnam spectre in 2003 has resulted in years of approbation, as the story began to unfold that original prediction was turned into accusations of willing defeat.

For other countries initially engaged the invasion withdrawing does not carry the same level of national pathos as it does in the US. Governments in Canada, Australia and Britain, for example, went into Iraq despite the clear opposition of a majority of citizens.

It should also be noted, opposition or not, the conflict never featured as a key election issue in these countries. That is contrasted with the Vietnam conflict which did feature in election losses in Australia and Canada. Iraq has not really impacted politically outside the US. Obviously there are vastly different social dynamics in play.

For me the question is; will it be a brave US president or a wise US electorate which brings an end to the Iraq obscenity?

Obama alone, among the key candidates, has promised to withdraw troops. Doubtless he will take the same approach as withdrawing countries and maintain some presence as reconstruction support, certainly acceptable to the most trenchant critics of the conflict.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Unlawful default fees

I seem to be called on regularly to help friends or neighbours to negotiate problems with their banking and bills. Not, I should add that I am the slightest bit interested in accounting practices, but I have a sort of reputation dealing with call centre agents and understanding some of underlying legal issues.

The simple fact, at least here in Australia, many of the excessive charges on accounts are unlawful. As household budgets become tighter more people are being hit by a raft of default penalties. In this country both court findings and the Trade Practices Act are clear on this issue.

There is a form letter (Choice) I urge people to use which details the legal provisions for a vendor, which asserts: particularly because of my lack of bargaining power relative to you and the fact that the terms imposing these fees are not reasonably necessary for the protection of your legitimate interests.

The bottom line is that the sorts of penalties being challenged are essentially fines. At least in this country fines can only be levied by government agencies regulate to do so and the courts. Private business cannot charge more than the cost of processing any default, unless an extra fee is levied by the court.

What fascinates and annoys me is that people continually fail to take these simple steps to protect their already overstretched financial resources; it seems to be too bloody hard to fill some details on a form letter. In the meantime businesses are raking in money without challenge because it isn’t being challenged.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Power plays going crazy

My home state of NSW has witnessed some incredibly blatant attempts at corruption over the recent past; an incredibly arrogant Premier rejecting the overwhelming feelings of his party; and the same Premier being openly rejected.

The game is still in play, the party per se has no power over the Premier within the parliamentary wing; that is down to caucus. There is a longer term power and I assume elected members are being pressured as I write, with threats against future pre-selection. No worries for Premier Morris Iemma or his bulldog treasurer Costa.

This is power politics at it highest level. The Premier and the treasurer cannot survive this for long, so why are they so determined to push on regardless. To my mind we only need to look at one of the ploys to get union delegates on side with the sell off. This powerful block was offered share packages in any final sale deal.

Think about that one, vote for this deal, we’ll sell the state’s resources and give you a free share of the result. I expect regulators and the High Court might have some objection to a deal like that, but it failed anyway. The Premier was rolled on the floor of the State party conference by around 700 votes to 100 votes.

Back to the desperation, for our state and federal political leaders the game is increasingly about life after parliament, getting those gold stars on the CV. In this case the promises of job futures must be compelling for these guys to put their not so little pink arses on the line so dramatically.

The one thing I still can’t understand is just why the highly effective ICAC (Independent Commission against Corruption). This body is an international best practice model. But then NSW is still one of the most corrupt jurisdictions in this country, so perhaps the ICAC can simply cherry pick the most winnable cases.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Controlling power

There are many stories, as I write, about how governments strive to control power. Some of course know they are done, others believe they can hang in and win. Three I refer to here are in various stages of ruin, and I leave the US to their own dynamic.

So let’s look at:

  • Zimbabwe and the leader who has brutalized that country for decades – Mugabe
  • My own home state of New South Wales and the pathetic administration of Morris Iemma
  • Britain’s Blair/Brown regime reaching an end

These stories are all about doing what it takes to control, and the inevitable end of the process. So a step at a time:


I was only a young teen when Nkomo’s and Mugabe’s mob threw out the Ian Smith, white government of Rhodesia. It was a dramatic move back then, but understandable.

As things moved on it became clearly a poor move, as the remedy proved far worse than the disease. Zimbabwe/Rhodesia is a basket case and Mugabe has legitimately lost power. But we will wait and see.


Well we were created and exist in a state of corruption, but our latest Premier is taking that to new heights. The labor Party leader is so intent on taking corruption to its extremes he is willing to put his job on the line for his post parliamentary career.

The aptly named ‘Morris’ Iemma works on a full 850cc, four cylinders, but he still wants a full V8 result. Morris is determined to privitise power that is the states utilities, but particularly electricity. Ok, some countries might not care that they are required to buy back their own investments. We have traditionally owned our utilities.


Well what do you use to replace a traditional socialist party who out conservatives the conservatives? According to Britain’s in the latest equivalent to the US mid terms (local elections in Old Blighty) the answer seems to be the conservatives.

I was sorry to see Red Ken Livingstone be dumped as London Mayor, but mainly because that particular campaign was managed by John Howard version of Rove.

Can’t say life excites me at times. I just wish these cycles were a little faster. Life just ain’t long enough.