Monday, September 29, 2003

Toxic Canuck Chronic

The case for small government from Mark Steyn:

"One of the reasons I'm in favor of small government is because there's hardly anything the government doesn't do worse than anybody else who wants to give it a go. Usually when I make this observation, I'm thinking of, say, Britain's late unlamented nationalized car industry. But when the government of a G7 nation can't run a small marijuana sideline as well as a college student with a window box, that seems to set an entirely new standard for official underperformance. Big government goes to pot, in every sense."


Contrasting thoughts on Edward Said. Christopher Hitchens pays a gentle tribute to his friend but rather skirts around the central paradox of Said's career which is, as Mark Steyn and Nelson Ascher note, that it could only have been possible in the despised "imperialist" west.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Straight Outta Tha Garden Centre

Genius behind The Portadown News, Newton Emerson defends Northern Ireland's middle class.

"For in the dreary pantomime that is Northern Ireland politics middle class people are always the bad guys.

Although this society is rife with the same tedious and affected reverse-snobbery that afflicts everywhere the English ever landed, we also tolerate several prejudices against the middle class that are quite unique.

Best known is the Eamonn McCann theory of class conflict in which orange-green politics is seen as a distraction manufactured by cunning middle class interests to keep the workers at each other’s throats, leaving them weakened and helpless before their capitalist overlords.

If only the working class would realise this and unite, goes the theory, they could throw off the yoke of their north Down oppressors and build a bigotry-free tomorrow."


Great Stuff: David Carr receives an interesting offer.

"You reap what you sow" - why the BUMs are wrong.

In the Coen brothers' classic film The Big Lebowski, the eponymous millionaire informs his scruffy namesake, better known as The Dude ("or if you are not into that whole brevity thing: El Dudareno"), that "The Bums lost". Crippled in Vietnam, while The Dude dodged the draft and protested, Lebowski inferred from their respective social positions that his side, The Squares, won. The Dude may be a loser, at least in conventionally understood terms, but Lebowski's analysis was incorrect. The "Bums", those who protested, rioted, draft-dodged, won. Hell, one of them even got elected president. Today's conventional wisdom, particularly in Europe is formed by the Bohemian, Urban-centric, Muddled view of the 1968 generation.

One article of faith among Bohemian, Urban, Muddlers is that, appalling as the events of 9/11 might be, there was a sense in which America "had it coming". Playwright Bonnie Greer visited her hometown, Chicago shortly after 9/11 (having already gone thoroughly "native" in London) and produced a documentary all about "chickens coming home to roost". It almost goes without saying for this mindset that, had "American Foreign Policy" been less "Arrogant", "Unilateral" etc. then 9/11 wouldn't have happened. Some even silently cheered that the superpower's nose was bloodied by Osama Bin Laden.

But they are making a serious miscalculation if they think the reason Islamofascism opposes the US is simply because of its "Neo-Colonialism" or its "Globalisation". Al Qaeda's primary characterisation of American culture is, incorrectly, that it is decadent. It is an irony that the evidence for this decadence is probably just about everything this organisation's "explainers" hold dear. Feminism, Tolerance of Homosexuality, Relaxed attitude towards sexuality and soft drug use, "Transgressive Art", Atheism, Gay Pride parades. They don't seem to understand that Al-Qaeda opposes the Bums equally to, if not more so than, the Squares so here's a short list of people Al-Qaeda would gladly kill given the chance.

• Naomi Klein (duh: Jewish)
• Subcommandante Marcos (Infidel)
• Al Sharpton
• Gore Vidal (Homosexual)
• Reverend Farrakhan (Heretic)
• Germaine Greer
• Barbara Streisand
• Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and family
• Ralph Nader
• Maureen Dowd
• Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (doesn't exhibit correct behaviour for Muslim woman and is married to an Infidel)
• Jose Bove (Infidel, unclean)
• Joshka Fisher
• Dominique de Villepin
• Jacques Derrida
• Scott Ritter (need I explain why?)
• Hacks like Bob Fisk and Seumas Milne, They're still infidels and there's not exactly a shortage of "useful idiots" to take their place.

Any others?

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Dead Ear

I noted below that I had occasion to wonder whether an author's political viewpoint could sufficiently intrude as to hamper enjoyment reading their book.

The first time this occurred to me was on reading John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener. This putative thriller follows a Kenya-based British diplomat's investigation into the circumstances of his wife's murder while on "virtue duty". It has been said of Le Carre that he has laboured to find an appropriate milieu for his novels since the end of the cold war and that impression is reinforced by this poorly plotted simplistic tale lacking any kind of narrative tension or ambiguity and which pits plucky agents of virtue against evil "Big Pharma". It is clear that Le Carre craves the approval of the London literary media which still scorns him as a genre novelist. Perhaps he hoped that by making more explicit his left-wing political leanings he would be better appreciated.

I was reminded of The Constant Gardener, reading Iain Banks' Dead Air while on holiday. Neither novels resemble each other and I have no reason to believe Banks gives a damn what the London media thinks of him. I enjoyed Banks' 2001 novel The Business and Dead Air doesn't suffer in terms of pace or plotting in the same way as Le Carre's novel. It does, however, have two major problems. The first is the many ill-considered political views espoused by the protagonist which one can only assume, given how he is depicted, to be coterminous with Banks'. The second problem is one of tone: the "dead ear" demonstrated by Banks in the depiction of a number of characters and events. There are just so many "bum notes"

To deal with the bum notes first: The protagonist is meant to be a "shock jock" along the lines of Howard Stern and there are also similarities to Chris Evans and Chris Moyles. The catch is that one of his heroes is Noam Chomsky. It appears to be an unintentional irony that his supposedly contrarian views coincide with those of the contemporary British New Labour establishment. I'll get to some of those views later but it is clear that Banks intend this character to "say the things you really want to say" (that is if "you" are a middle class urban leftie). This punchy Scot leftie has a Moyles-like lager lad lifestyle and is drawn as a loveable rogue. It cannot be a coincidence that in terms of location, nationality, class, age and, presumably, political views he resembles the author. It is hard to know where to start with the jarring notes but a lot of them revolve around the character of "Ed". In introducing his characters Banks scrupulously uses secondary devices to describe their race. So when "Ed" first appears it is by an oblique and unnecessary reference to his skin that we learn he is black. This fastidiousness is remarkable given the crude racial stereotyping which later appears.

Banks reveals more about himself than anything else in his depiction of this "cool" club DJ and South Londoner. This cipher, speaking cloth-eared (and intrusively phonetical) dialogue, seems to represent for me Banks' fantasy cool black buddy - this friendship no less ridiculous than one between So Solid Crew's Megaman and Chis Tarrant - and is involved in the most cringeworthy of exchanges. Ed apparently wants to convert this chat show DJ - one sufficiently unenamored of dance music as to scorn the "n-chih n-chih" music which, we are informed, regularly spills from cars driven by "brothers"- to a proper Club DJ. Ed lives in two South London terrace houses knocked together with his extended family because "he hasn't lost touch with his roots". Ed explains to our hero how the words "wicked" and "bad" have been inverted by black people. 20 years after Michael Jackson's hit album, single and Michael Scorsese-directed video it is still apparently novel to a writer of Banks' stature that "bad" can mean good. As for "wicked", it is a long time since the playground replaced the "hood" as the most likely place to hear this word used to denote something desirable. The protagonist's toe-curling "teasingly flirtatious" conversation with Ed's mother suggests that Banks' knowledge about West-Indian women of a certain age is primarily gleaned from Lilt ads. At an outing to the London Eye with Ed's family the supposedly colourblind narrator notes the unremarkable fact that he is "the only white person" in the carriage.

As for the politics: the arguments are just powerpoint-simplistic.

• 9/11 = "you reap what you sow"
• Political correctness is just plain politeness (perhaps, given this shock jock's profession, the only contrarian view he expresses)
• Companies should look after the interests of their workers and consumers, not their shareholders (the economic illiteracy here - aaargh!!!!)
• Shareholding is immoral (ditto)
• Won't visit the US until "democracy is restored"
• Bush is evil and stupid
• Sharon is evil
• Israel oppresses the Palestinians and this leads directly to suicide bombing (in Banks' favour at least one character argues against all this "anti-zionist" posturing)
• Jews and Scots rule the world (this is a kind of "some of my best friends are.." type of argument)

In fact it is veritable litany of idiotarian thinking. Conor is reading Dead Air at the moment, I'd be interested to hear what he thinks.


Just a thought on MSN closing down their Chat rooms: It is, of course, disingenuous of Microsoft to claim that the primary motivation here is, as reported by the media, to ensure the safety of kids from preying paedophiles. It is clear that hosting a free chat service costs a lot of money and brings no significant benefit or income. However, those, such as Today FM's continually unimpressive Matt Cooper, who complain about this action as if it were an assault on free speech are missing the point: Microsoft is a private company and is under no obligation to continue to provide any service free or paid. If Cooper is so concerned about chatters' freedom of speech there's nothing too stop him starting up his own free chat service.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Ok, I'm back but - after a long over-night flight spent mostly in a cramped seat better equipped to deliver a DVT than a good night's sleep - I'm not exactly in the fittest state to blog. So instead I thought I'd list some of my unpublished thoughts over the last fortnight and perhaps I will expand on each later:

1) Walt Disney World's successful implementation of some aspects of socialism.

2) A related point: The key difference between government funded healthcare and government funded transport.

3) Ireland's Housing "Crisis" and Florida's Real Estate market.

4) The extent to enjoyment of a book can be marred by the political view made explicit by the author - and by this I don't necessarily mean left or right but just badly thought-out stuff - or why I did not like Dead Air by Iain Banks but very much enjoyed And Then You Die and Medusa by Michael Dibdin, Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux and Politics by Adam Thirlwell

Monday, September 22, 2003

Jon at Back Seat Drivers comments on The Dunphy Show and Lara Marlowe's irrelevant (and apparantly incorrect) assertion that only 8% of Americans hold passports. Jon links to a US State department site showing the actual number of passports issued in each of the past 20 years. Although this doesn't tell me exactly what proportion of Americans hold passports, it does raise the issue of comparisons between the EU and the US.

Although it could be argued that the EU, as 15 sovereign states, is not comparable to the US, I have wondered what percentage of EU citizens use their passports in a given year to travel outside of the EU? I have no hard evidence, but I would presume that this figure would not be much in excess of 8% or 10%. Look at the 32 pages of the majority of Irish passports and I am sure you will not find too many customs stamps for extra-EU travel.

Although a small proportion of EU citizens are globetrotters, the vast majority only leave their country to lie on a beach in the Mediterranean or ski in the Pyrenees or the Alps.
Globalisation is Good

Johann Norberg's documentary, aired on Channel 4 last night, had one essential message: that free trade between democratic nations has been, and remains, the key to eradicting poverty and improving the economic lot of all.

I thought it was an excellent synopsis of the argument in favour of liberalism-globalisation, and of how anti-globalists are myopic fools in this regard. (my words, not his) The anti-globalist raggle-taggle are, however, only minor irritants in comparison to the actions of the EU. The Common Agricultural Policy (and similar agricultural tariff and subsidisation programmes in the US and Japan) are one half of the cause of African poverty. They exclude African farmers from EU markets and subsidise the dumping of EU produce. The other half is completed by corrupt African rulers who do not establish or uphold private property rights for citizens, therefore removing the rationale for and means of investing in a farm, shop, factory or business.

This programme was good, but it was shocking and unoriginal. I mean that as a sincere compliment to Norberg. It was shocking because it is rarely you find this line of argument given substantial airtime in the media. It was unoriginal in the sense that Norberg re-presented simple ideas about economic development and trade that have existed for decades, if not centuries. However, he did this in a clear, interesting and compelling fashion.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Kenny slams benchmarking

I stand corrected! FG leader Indakinny has raised the hackles of the unions and his inevitable coalition partners, the Labour Party, by stating that (the next phase of) benchmarking should not be paid and needs to be renegotiated.

Is this the start of a move to the right for FG? Hard to see where this will lead. Alienation from the Labour Party and the Greens as coalition partners? Alienation of their traditional support amongst civil servants and teachers?

Maybe their aim is to replace the PD's as the tail wagging Fianna Fail's dog!

Friday, September 12, 2003

Fine Gael's Enda Kenny today outlined his party's
New Agenda for Irish Business

"Fine Gael's proposals to business are aimed at streamlining the way the State engages with the private sector and ensuring that the manner in which the State manages its finances doesn't undermine the viability of private enterprise"

The key elements of the New Agenda include;

1. Raise the audit level for small business in line with our EU partners to 3 million euro in turnover so as to ease an unnecessary burden on small business,
2. Raise the threshold level at which VAT is collected to 100,000 euro, again relieving an unnecessary burden from smaller businesses,

Can't quibble with either of these suggestions, but they are hardly revolutionary, nor does raising cut-off levels constitute a "New Agenda"

3. Government should be working to freeze charges by profitable monopolistic State utilities so as to ensure that Government is part of the inflation solution, not part of the problem,

The reason price increases were required in VHI, ESB, Bord Gais, An Post is becasue they are monopolistic State utilities. Why not propose competition initiatives and/or privatisation?

4. Revisit the benchmarking process and secure real service improvements before any additional monies are paid out,

I'd like to see you try Enda! Who knows if Fine Gael would have had the required level of fecklessness to introduce something similar to benchmarking had they been in government over the last number of years? Although I would guess that their social democratic pedigree and Labour party coalition partners would have produced a "partnership" agreement at least as serving of the public sector unions interests as that which has been negotiated. Enough of the ex-post ante speculation! Whatever about the required level of Fianna Fail fecklessness, I doubt they would have the political cahones to stand up to the unions and the Labour Party and refuse to pay benchmarking awards.

5. Introducing a system of business "proofing" new legislation to ensure it does not unnecessarily negatively impact on business, and importantly, letting business see the analysis and have their say,

From my knowledge of legislation that affects my area of employment, industry bodies already have the opportunity to respond and consult on drafts of future legislation. Not too sure what the substance of business "proofing" would amount to.

6. Railroad reform in three key areas of the economy: Insurance, Banking and the Professions,

The responsibilities businesses will have to live up to will embrace some or all of the following;

1. Refraining from opportunistic pricing strategies that impact adversely on the consumer,
2. Pursue an open and transparent pricing strategy for your products and services that gives the public all the information they need in a easily understood format,
3. Operating your business to meet all EU and EPA environmental legislation. Failure to dos so shall be met with severe penalties,
4. Ensuring that your workers and your workplace are safe at all times.
5. Investing proactively in the people and communities that your businesses are located in.

Again, this does not appear to be a New Agenda. It is a combination of "best practice" statements and truisms, with a dollop of what sounds like more regulation.

"I recognise the rights that business have to trade and pursue opportunities for commerce without the heavy hand of the State undermining those efforts. Business too must reflect on its responsibilities to the people it employs, the public that they service and the communities that they are rooted in. Fine Gael will play its part if you agree to meet us half way."

Fine Gael's New Agenda consists of "meeting half-way". To my mind, that has been and remains their political problem.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Distributive Justice!

Tom at Crooked Timber links to this site which provides an assessment of attitudes to the political economy of distribution via several tests in the form of questionnaires.

In "creating" my perfect society, I came out as Meritocrat, but with some Left-Libertarian attitudes to distribution.

As with most of these things, it is entertaining, but the structure and style of questions can potentially reflect the bias of the designer.

UPDATE: these links now work! Previously, I had confused my inverted commas and quotation marks.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Ok: I'm going on holiday tomorrow so there won't be any posts from me until about Tue 23 September. See you then!
Blog Irish take down Trocaire and do a great service by compiling a complete chronology of this appalling, yet lavishly government-funded, organisation's politicking and posturing from 9/11 on.

Friday, September 05, 2003

No to the fart tax!

New Zealand's farmers are protesting against the planned greenhouse tax levy on cattle farmers. Whatever your views on the sense of the Kyoto Accord, this proposal would at least seem to be in line with the "Polluter Pays" principle. Methane from cattle are estimated to contribute approximately a third of all "greenhouse" gases produced in Ireland. Will the Irish government consider implementing a similar proposal? I wouldn't hold my breath. (Or maybe I should, given the smell)
Interesting thought by David Carr: The BNP are not, as they are frequently described, "Far-Right". It is more accurate to refer to them as "Nationalist Left" - their policies combining Old style Labourism with racism.
Sinn Fein's Barbara de Bruin is certainly a woman of contradictions. As NI Health minister, her anti-smoking campaign was certainly a striking initiative given the revenue provided by legitimate cigarette taxes to the exchequer which funds her health service and the revenue provided by smu.., well you know what I mean.

Now she must be chagrined to see that she has achieved a 7% reduction in hospital waiting not turning up to work. As Belfast Gonzo notes, the credit for this should go to UK Health Minister Angela Smith.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Andrew Sullivan draws our attention to possibly the most inane sentence ever written and published in a major newspaper:

"If all those yuppies can climb Mount Everest, at 29,000 feet, can't we pay some locals to nab Osama at 14,000 feet?"

Who else but Maureen Dowd.
Jon links to an interesting article by Adam Garfinkle about the tendency to view historical foreign policy decisions as if those who made them possessed perfect awareness of every consequence. Regrettably Jon's fellow backseat driver Dick immediately reaffirms this tendency. I have to say: Dick's rebuttal is particularly weak.

Garfinkle: "When the initial decision was made... to establish links with the mujahedeen, the preeminent concern of American decision makers was not the future of Afghanistan, but the future of the Soviet Union and its position in Southwest Asia. ..the consolidation of Soviet control in Afghanistan would have given future Soviet leaders options they would not otherwise have had. In light of the strategic realities of the day, the American concern was entirely reasonable: Any group of U.S. decision makers would have thought and done more or less the same thing, even if they could have foreseen the risks to which they might expose the country on other scores...But, of course, such foresight was impossible. Who in 1980 or 1982 or 1985 could have foreseen the confluence of events that would bring al Qaeda into being, with a haven in Afghanistan? The Saudi policies that led to bin Laden’s exile and the Kuwait crisis that led to the placement of U.S. forces on Saudi soil had not yet happened — and neither could have been reasonably anticipated. The civil strife that followed the exit of the Red Army from Afghanistan, and which established the preconditions for the rise of the Taliban government, had not yet happened either. Of course, despite the policy’s overall success in undermining the Soviet position in Afghanistan, entrusting Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate to manage aid to the mujahedeen turned out to be problematic, but who of the immaculate conception set knows whether there were better alternatives available at the time? There weren’t; a tradeoff was involved, and it was a tradeoff known to carry certain risks. "

Dick: "Of course Iran never fell to the Soviets, something the Garfinkle is giving the Shah credit for. Afghanistan did, which leads to the other issue, the politics of expedience.. In the case of Afghanistan it seems that no consideration was given to the people they were arming. As I said before, it appeared that anyone willing to shoot at the Soviets seemed to get aid. If any thought went into the matter and if people actually took a closer look at what many of the mujahedeen actually stood for, it may have dawned on them that there was the distinct possibility of replacing one autocracy with another."

This seems a perfect summary of the immaculate conception thinking which Garfinkle criticises. Nobody could, as Garfinkle eloquently demonstrates, have foreseen how the mujahedeen could have morphed into Taleban and provided Bin Laden with a home. Dick is using the benefit of hindsight to suggest that with a "closer look" into the eyes of the brave Pashtun warrior one could have detected the glimmer of the future wahaabist demagogue. It is foolish to believe that such powers of prediction are available to anyone.

Garfinkle: "The particular claim is almost endlessly made that it was a terrible mistake for the cia to have overthrown Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 to restore the shah to his Peacock throne, for that, it is averred, is what brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power and sired the disaster of 1978-79 (and, one could reasonably add, the disaster of 1979 to present)...American interests in Iran in the early 1950s (the broader Western interest, too; the British had as much to do with the fall of Mossadegh as did the United States) had to do with Cold War geopolitics. Mossadegh was anti-Western by rhetoric and policy disposition. When he came to power in 1951, the Truman administration worried, particularly in light of Soviet behavior in northern Iran after World War ii, that a populist regime of that sort would end up being allied with or suborned by the Soviet Union. "

Dick: "In the case of Iran you have to ask what did they think would happen in 1953? While it may have been impossible to predict the Islamic revolution, it's also hard to predict any positive consequences of imposing an autocracy"

The point is not to argue the merits of the coup which brought the Shah to power but the extent to which that action can have been reasonably assumed to have led to Khomeini's reign. Dick continues to argue in a vacuum, as if there were a range of realistic options from which to choose and the US and Britain were incompetent in not foreseeing the sequence of events which would lead to the Islamic revolution and choosing the "wrong option".

This is germane considering the amended argument of those, such as Dick, who opposed the action against Saddam and maintain their position that there was some "magic formula" by which Saddam could have been removed from power without military action (You know the sort of thing: "I'm not in favour of Saddam, I'd love to see him deposed but not this way") which formula of course we'll never know now that he has been deposed by military action. This stance, they hope, affords a "moral high ground" from which to criticise current efforts to administer Iraq. Unfortunately this moral high ground is a mirage: One may claim to be A) "against" Saddam and B) "against" Military action but if there is no realistic alternative proposed to achieve the implicit aim of "A" without resorting to military action then "B" renders "A" null.
Look out Tom de Paor!: Architect (and regular commenter here) Adam Richards is mentioned in Saturday's Guardian (archives down at present) for his collaboration with Tom Ellis for this exhibition
Great post by Nelson Ascher on European attitudes. He draws a somewhat different conclusion to that drawn by The Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune using the same data and notes that ordinary European public opinion seems to be a good bit ahead of the "elite"

"The survey showed Americans and Europeans sharing as their top five concerns: international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, the Arab-Israeli conflict and weapons of mass destruction in North Korea and Iran.

That's much better than should be expected. It means that common Europeans have not lost it in the way their governments, journalists and intellectuals did. They're still in touch with pure and simple empirical reality. In spite of everything.

Think about the following: they do not seem to be worried about Kyoto, the ICC (International Criminal Court), Global Warming, Genetically Modified Food, the absence (for the time being) of WMDs in Iraq, the hegemony of Hollywood, Pop Music and the English language, Arabophobia or Islamophobia, the Jewish/Zionist takeover or world media and finances. In short, not one of the fashionable causes preached by their own establishments has changed the fact that, when it comes to identify real existential dangers, they're still able to see through the ideological fog."
Interesting discussion yesterday evening on Dublin’s NewsTalk106. George Hook had Pat Rabbitte, Labour party leader and Dan McLaughlin, Bank of Ireland Chief Economist as his guests.

They were debating the current state of the Irish economy and assessing what Charlie McCreevy’s options are for the forthcoming December budget.

Rabbitte made the point that the government was making increased use of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) to finance infrastructural projects. This, he argued, was irrational, given that the government can raise investment finance at keener rates than a private sector entity. This is a perfectly true and irrefutable point. The Government of Ireland has a AAA credit rating, which is better than any private sector company (as best AA, more likely A). Credit ratings are the primary driver of debt costs.

However, McLaughlin exposed the real reason why PPP’s are being employed. It is not as a financing mechanism but rather as a delivery vehicle that PPP is increasingly used. The fact is that the public sector has failed in delivering quality services to the Irish public. The government is outsourcing the delivery of infrastructure services to the private sector, as this ensures a more efficient provision. A premium is to be paid for this in terms of increased financing costs for future years. (the Drogheda by-pass is a good example of this).

If the traditional role of the public sector is to deliver services and some of these have now been outsourced, we would expect to see a resulting benefit in terms of a public service contraction. This we have not seen. The opposite has resulted. McLaughlin posits that this is due to the traditional function of the Irish public service as a Keynesian employment creator, rather than as a provider of quality public services. The public sector became an end in itself, rather than a tool for achieving policy objectives. Rabbitte chose not to respond to McLaughlin’s argument, which turned Rabbitte’s initial point about how PPP resulted in higher financing costs than government borrowing into an indictment of the public service.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

It is interesting to see two apparently unconnected op-eds in the pages of The Irish Times today: John Bruton warns that the country is facing a "crisis" because of its ageing population. Meanwhile Vincent Browne rails against Michael McDowell for functionally deporting Irish Citizens.

Bruton, I have to say, baffles me. When in government or prominent in the opposition, his gaffe-prone, Homer-Simpson-esque manner made him uniquely ill-equipped for the modern era and he was regularly crucified by the media. Yet it always seemed to me that he was a smart thinker. In the light of his recent credulous anti-war stance (quoting Scott "Pigtails" Ritter for crying out loud!) I have had to adjust my opinion.

This article provides more evidence of muddle. He is at least correct in identifying a demographic problem: As Ireland ages and the birth rate falls below replacement there will not be enough taxpayers to pay for the current level of entitlements. This is not as acute a problem here as it is in the big European economies (where it is likely to lead to the break up of the welfare state) but is still a problem. He is also correct to note that a number of government decisions have contributed disincentives to procreate, although mistaken if he thinks he can attribute a declining birth rate solely to adjustments in tax allowances or child benefit.

Where Bruton comes unstuck is in his remedies which are

1)" Substantially increase child benefit: Beveridge, the author of the Welfare State, said that child benefit should cover the "subsistence needs of the child" which he estimated to be one quarter of average disposable income. That would mean an annual child benefit of €6,488, almost four times its present level. That would, of course, need an increase in the relative tax burden of those without children, but they could consider it to be a contribution towards those who would eventually be paying their pensions."

This is just crazy stuff. Even if you accept the premise that you should subsidise raising of children to "subsistence level" - and in the vast majority of cases this will mean taking money from their parents by way of tax, filtering it through a generously paid bureaucracy and handing it back to them minus the significant transaction cost - does it make any kind of sense to determine that an appropriate estimate of that level be based on a hunch of some guy over 50 years ago? Take a look at that hunch: a quarter of average disposable income. This is meant to be subsistence which means that any family bigger than four (or four where the parents are significantly hungrier than their children) on the average wage is living below subsistence level. I doubt that that was the case, even back in the immediate post-war era and it certainly isn't the case today. As for the suggestion that the childless could guarantee their future pension by subsidising the raising of a future workforce whose taxes will pay for it: the politest thing to say is that this would be a massively inefficient way of funding your pension and there is no mechanism to enforce the gratitude of the grown-up tikes for this assistance.

2)"Promote fixed-rate two generational (60-year) mortgages to meet today's one-off housing demand. Housing demand is very high at the moment, but it will ease off over the next 15 years...The houses now being built will last two or three generations. One generation, the generation between 20 and 39, which is the only one that can have children, is being asked to bear the entire cost of paying for housing for the next three generations."

Here's a great idea from Japan: The grandparent mortgage! It is certainly a bold assertion from Bruton that housing demand will "ease off" but even if that was the case this would mean that every one of these 60 year mortgages would represent negative equity. In long term mortgages it is a long time before any significant capital is paid off, if housing demand eases off it is axiomatic that prices will come down. Thus it is likely that the amount borrowed will exceed the value of the house. Negative equity is not an insignificant problem, for one it discourages labour mobility. If you are "tied" to your house you will not be disposed to move to a different part of the country to seek work. This, it hardly needs saying, would have a major impact on the economy. But would housing demand actually "ease off"? Maybe in the long run but you can be sure of one thing: if housing supply remains restricted and you make it easier to borrow larger sums of money house prices will only go one way: up.

Meanwhile Browne vents his indignation at the fact that Irish citizens are to be deported: children of foreign nationals born here are not in a position to remain here if their parents are deported. It is clear that immigration, if managed correctly, can help to offset the demographic timebomb which frightens Bruton. My preference is that the "managing" be done by the market and not the government. As I noted before, an open door policy combined with no state benefits available would deter those seeking a subsidised way of life and encourage the enterprising. This would have a positive social effect. It is no coincidence that the most "unassimilated" of immigrants into the EU are disconnected from civil society as a result of public housing and welfare policy.
Blog Irish enter the productivity discussion and to show the "perennial" nature of this issue and the related ones of alcohol consumption, immigration and personal freedom print a letter dated Jan 1905 arguing the importation of "indentured" workers into South Africa.

Incidentally, Bran notes:

"The International Labour Organisation" may be more "American" and less "European" than Frank thinks"

I am not surprised to learn that the ILO arose from the American "Progressive" movement of the early 20th century. It may well be American in origin but it is the European Labour model to which it explicitly aspires and would presumably prefer the US to resemble Europe in this regard.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Perry's back from Slovakia and has some more interesting pictures of the city interspersed with the Bratislavan babes with whom he has become besotted. Of course we all wanted to know how his shaggy dog story turned out. Its particular McGuffin: a mahogany and glass dragon-themed table is pictured chez de Havilland at the end of the post and is, I'm sorry to say, hideous!
Dick links approvingly to a post by Karlin Lillington which teases his fellow Backseat Driver Jon for daring to suggest that European productivity lagged behind the US. Au Contaire replies Ms Lillington, just look at this article in the Irish Times, based on this report.

So I did.

The report was compiled by "The International Labour Organisation". This sounded suspiciously like an advocacy organisation as opposed to a body concerned with objective measurement so I checked out their "about" page.

"The International Labour Organization is the UN specialized agency which seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights......The ILO formulates international labour standards in the form of Conventions and Recommendations setting minimum standards of basic labour rights: freedom of association, the right to organize, collective bargaining, abolition of forced labour, equality of opportunity and treatment, and other standards regulating conditions across the entire spectrum of work related issues.....It promotes the development of independent employers' and workers' organizations and provides training and advisory services to those organizations." [emphasis added]

It is clear from this mandate that their purpose is to promote the European social democratic, corporatist model which relies on "partnership" between Unions and employers and implicitly oppose the American, flexible, entrepreneurial model. Seems plausible to me that the figures are massaged to reflect this agenda.

Karlin suggests:

"So the world turns. I'd take more vacation, more life, less productivity, slightly lower salary any day"

And this option is available to those in the US who wish to take it up. Most don't. The problem is, as Irwin Stelzer notes, the reverse option: to trade vacation time and low working hours against better salary, is not available to the typical European worker.

UPDATE: More on this from John at Irish Eagle 2/9/03 4:09PM

When I read these words (from the ILO report) "European and other industrialized countries - while achieving slightly lower productivity growth rates on average than the US" and then read that the difference is that the US experienced 2.2% productivity growth over 7 years compared with 1.2% in the EU I have reason to suspect the rest of this press release. Considering the size of these two economies (US & EU) and that we're talking about a 7 year period, the difference between 2.2% and 1.2% sounds massive to me.

That's true, 2.2% growth over 7 years equals 16.45% while 1.2% comes to only 8.7% over the same period. I guess that means my VW Passat is "slightly" less expensive than a Porsche!


Dick challenges me to "prove" my assertion that the figures may be massaged to suit an explicit agenda to promote European style "social partnership" model. I'm no economist and I'm not in a position to provide a forensic dissection of the figures but on further examination of the report it seems to me that it is Karlin Lillington who is doing the most massaging. The ILO - which is quite happy to describe itself as "promoting social justice" - states that:

"The report says output per person employed in the US reached a level of USD60,728 in 2002, up from USD59,081 in 2001. In major EU countries last year, average labour productivity growth in per person terms was 1.1 per cent, yielding an output per person employed of USD43,034."

That still seems to me to a significant gap. I'd guess that US productivity figures are underplayed here too. Figures are based on output per person employed and GDP is based on PPP (Purchasing Power Parities) and not a strict Dollar equivalent. PPPs may offer wiggle room for a subjective judgement. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that there is a far higher standard of living in the US than Europe across the board. Irwin Stelzer, in his article, listed just a few areas where this is true and this is obvious to anyone who has been to America. This would suggest to me that the PPP "basket" is adjusted to ignore areas where most Americans' spending goes a lot further, for example housing, or motor fuel.

EVEN MORE: 2/9/03 8:11PM

Jon chips in and notes that even taking the figures at face value the US outperforms the EU's top economy (Belgium, if we are to believe the ILO) by a factor of 10%. Further he suggests that "Presenteeism" may be a factor in the US - Career prospects depend on your jacket being over the chair even if there is no work to do - and it is possible that Americans overreport their working hours while Europeans may underreport theirs. This would imply an even bigger productivity gap. I'm sceptical on the last point - While Jon's wife, like many Irish (and British) people, may be prepared to do business outside working hours, I doubt if that is the case for the German factory worker - but it is certainly plausible.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Following from a piece by Paul Murphy on the contrasting cultural impacts of Nationalism and Unionism, Slugger O'Toole's Mick Fealty wonders if Unionism's resistance to cultural unification hampers its political progress.

"It has certainly been important to Northern Irish nationalists; increasingly so within a state that until very recently rarely reflected the cultural markings of their own internal and communal lives. But, there does not seem to be the same demand for a unifying cultural revival within the Unionist community. If anything there is a continuing demand to simply be allowed to dissent.

Earlier this year, I asked a focus group of Unionists whether any of them consider jumping ship and joining a nationalist party - the SDLP for instance. 'I might' said one 'But if you went to meetings, you'd find everybody else went to the same church, and had many more things in common than politics. Whereas in the Unionist parties you find people from lots of churches and no church.'

It is this diversity that seems to me to lie at the very heart of unionism's protestant/dissenter identity and which is deeply averse to being unified or codified in the way nationalism has perhaps had to be in order to achieve its goals."

I have to say that there are a number of premises here that I cannot share, not least of which is the idea that Unionism represents "cultural diversity". The second is that a pre-requisite for "success" is cultural unification. In many ways what hampers political parties on all sides in Northern Ireland from breaking out of narrow ethnic advocacy is the precisely exclusive culture Mick applauds. It may well be the fault of the SDLP, and not those individuals interviewed, in being so culturally specific that it cannot embrace those of a potentially similar political view but of a different cultural background.

There is an important point about how difficult it is to present a political message which is all about a negative to a wider constituency. In the same way that Republicans depicted in TV series The West Wing shooting down all sorts of well-meaning (but possibly disastrous) initiatives cannot come across as favourable neither have those outside NI warmed to Unionism which necessarily doesn't have a bold rhetorical vision for the future of Northern Ireland. This, however, is not the same as assuming that Nationalism has achieved its goals through a cultivation of cultural unity or even that it has achieved its goals at all.
More on Charity and Overseas aid: Tony calls for a boycott of Irish NGOs (and apologists for brutal and corrupt dictatorships) Concern and Trocaire. If you want to contribute, he suggests, try Goal instead.
A bit more from John on emigrants' voting rights. He amends his argument slightly and dangles a carrot in front of me:

"Frank's feelings and my instinct are no real measure of how emigrants might vote. Where those emigrants chose to go to may provide some indication as to how they would vote if they could. I would be surprised if the emigrants who went to the US would vote for greater government intrusion in peoples' lives and/or further European integration, but that's just my own instinct."

I guess this is designed to appeal to my cynical side. If the franchise is extended I might get the type of government I'd prefer. Unfortunately this particular "end" doesn't justify the "means". A more American style government would be a definite improvement on our social democratic consensus but, if it arose as a result of votes from non-residents, it would still be anti-democratic. It is true that I used the example of my own personal nightmare: big "gesture" government to conjure up the type of government which might be elected with significant support from non-residents who get their vote "free" (i.e. they don't have to pay the "cost" of living with it) but one could just as well use this argument about a rhetorical right wing government even though I think the prospect would be a lot less likely.
Samizdata's Pervy Perry de Havilland reports from Bratislava (part 2 here) and, in between salivating over all the sleek Slovakiennes, describes a fascinating city.