Feb 27, 2012
The whiff of singed martyr is already perceptibly in the air. Mr Rudd and his family have called upon his people to rise up, speak out - lobby their local MP, tweet, sing, design a T-Shirt - to urge his return to office. And the imminent smashing of these humble dreams by the ALP's "faceless men" serves to make his public case all the more strongly: "In destroying me, they thwart you."
It's curious the way political clichés tend to outlive themselves. The "faceless men" riff, for example, happily survives and is employed consistently by Mr Rudd even though the opposition to his return has been powered by a fleet of ministers speaking publicly. How many more faces, one wonders, does he need to see?
In recent days, both Mr Rudd and his opponents have tossed around historical and Biblical figures with whom the Member for Griffith might or might not be feasibly compared. Joan of Arc. Mother Teresa. The Antichrist Incorporated. Grandson of Satan. But they're all wide of the mark. There's one they missed
Come on. It's staring you in the face.
Where have we seen this dynamic before? The public's darling, struggling bravely but hopelessly against a powerful cabal of Palace oppressors? The selfless, wide-eyed courage? The virtuous disappointment at all these vicious tales of private tantrums, dysfunction, and general high-maintenance behaviour? The periodic photo opportunities, sipping tea with the common people, being kissed to death in supermarkets or speaking intently with world leaders? The air of innocence, offset behind the scenes by a gimlet-eyed and relentless talent for media management?
Yep. Of all the historical allegories that might be invoked this morning as The Gillard Government Versus Kevin Rudd enters its critical phase, The House of Windsor Versus The People's Princess is a pretty handy one.
In both instances, the subject was initially embraced by the establishment, and thought enthusiastically to be the hope of the side. In both instances, everybody covered up for a while the extent to which things were falling apart. And in both instances, the public sympathy for the subject - the widespread and unhesitating belief in the subject's version of events among those who have never met the subject - provokes wild and furious frustration in the narrower and rather more powerful ranks of those who have.
Mr Rudd's weekend activities - a brief mobbing in a Brisbane street, the devout acceptance of Anthony Albanese's tearfully-proffered vote and an interview with Laurie Oakes in which he once again expressed his puzzlement as to why his colleagues are so unkind - continued to drive his opponents wild.
Their belief in his fraudulence is now so complete that Mr Rudd needs only to lower an Iced VoVo towards a freshly-made cuppa to send them stampeding towards the nearest electronic media outlet to vouchsafe yet another instance of his past nightmarishness.
The time he went to a pub and was rude about Ms Gillard. The time he sacked a parliamentary secretary without even calling her. The time he turned up at a hospital without even phoning in advance.
To the casual observer, it might seem strange that a simple call from Mr Rudd for more civility in politics, or for the power of factions to be reduced, could incite in his colleagues such white-knuckled rage.
"He's WHAT? Now he's pledged to be kind to kittens? That f&%#€*$'n BASTARD! This time he's gone too far!"
They have their reasons. Complicated, passionate, long pent-up reasons which are persuasive enough for them to decide - after an uncomfortable five-year experiment with populism - to dispense with it entirely.
Today, the Labor caucus plans to banish the People's Princess.
WHY are voters so fond of Kevin Rudd, the man who when PM turned Canberra into a first-world Pyongyang minus the smooth running? Without this popularity, today's vote would not be happening. Yet it has not been explained. Some say the people like Rudd because they've never met him. This is true enough, but it fails to tell us why they like the unmet Rudd, the one they're familiar with from TV.
TV Rudd, I suggest, is a pretty unusual creature when compared with most other politicians we see on the screen. My theory is that, strange as it seems, it is this difference that many people are attracted by. He reminds them of people - or characters - they see often on the telly, and they like that. Such creations are far more warm and interesting, after all, than real politicians. In the context of television, Rudd's artificiality has been his greatest asset.
Rudd's face is a smooth circle with relatively small features. It's almost child-like and can remind you of TV cartoon characters, whose faces are often based on children's.
The exception is the mouth. All politicians have to smile a lot when they don't want to, but few have been less successful in pretending to be sincere than Rudd, whose ghastly smile can look so false it seems to come from another face, creating the effect of something constructed using an old police identikit.
Then there's his voice. I can't recall a prime minister less capable of speaking simple English than Rudd. His attempts at the vernacular - the Vegemite and the sauce bottle - are gruesome. Often his sentences sound like they were constructed in some other language and turned into English by a cheap translation app.
In terms of political character, he represents conveniently little. Changing his mind on climate change symbolised this. He seems to stand for nothing except the sound of his own voice. The general impression all this creates is of a sort of virtual personality, and possibly Rudd knows this. His spooky references to himself in the third person suggest an awareness of himself as a sort of construct, a work in progress.
While these characteristics might not remind us much of John Howard or Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, they do bring to mind other people on the telly.
When Rudd's smooth face is immobile, he looks like a cartoon character. When his relentless perkiness and utter certainty are to the fore, he's like a program presenter. And when his use of language collapses and his depthless self-pity and ambition are given a run, he resembles a participant in a reality or therapeutic program - think Big Brother meets Dr Phil. He is a man for all (ratings) seasons.
There's little doubt Rudd is a creation of television. Spinmeister Bruce Hawker got him onto Sunrise in 2001, and this turned a politician without any base and few friends in the ALP into a celebrity. Ever since, he has been as dependent on his ratings as any other TV star. After he announced his resignation as minister last week, it was Hawker who appeared in the media to present Rudd's cause and to tell backbenchers to vote for him. This was unprecedented and in future might be seen as a turning point in our politics.
But it might not. Rudd, with his combination of extreme narcissism and professional incompetence, has had a devastating effect on the Labor Party in recent years. At times - and despite Gillard's assertion to the contrary - we seem to have been governed by a reality TV program rather than a political party. But Rudd's combination of popular approval and party dislike remains highly unusual.
Many politicians, such as Gillard and Abbott, still suffer from the opposite problem, of being respected by people they've actually dealt with but having difficulty reaching the public. One reason for this is the need, on becoming leader, to establish a new persona by recalibrating youthful ideals for a wider audience - something Abbott has been doing with some success. But for someone like Rudd, who has never represented anything but his own ambition, this is not a problem.
He is the ultimate product of the digital age and the 24 - make that four - hour news cycle. All form and no content. But fortunately he seems unique.
For the good not just of the Labor Party but of Australian politics, this malevolent Tin Tin should receive as few votes as possible today. The party should then consider reviving the classical Athenian practice of ostracism, where men whose extreme ambition threatened the efficient running of the state could be expelled for 10 years after a popular vote. They did not need to have committed any crime, and there was no defence. It was just a recognition that some people were hollow men driven by rancour.
Whatever happens in today's vote, the Coalition will be the winner. This column has been a free ad for Tony Abbott, as has much of this newspaper and the entire media for days. It is a gift to the Coalition from TV Kev, and it will keep on giving.
Have you noticed how often Abbott's name has been mentioned by just about every Labor politician, plus Bruce Hawker, in recent days, as someone so threatening - and by implication so popular and powerful - that their actions must be guided by that fact? That can only boost Abbott's standing.
Michael Duffy is a Fairfax writer and a presenter on ABC Radio National.
Feb 25, 2012
So, it's reasonable to assume Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Saturday morning was a shocker. Not one, but four polls in the morning newspapers greeted her. And they all said the same thing: Voters want Kevin, not you. The Herald Sun's Galaxy poll found Mr Rudd would boost Labor's two-party preferred vote from 46 per cent to 49 per cent.
Newspoll put Mr Rudd's lead over Ms Gillard in the preferred prime minister stakes at 53 per cent to 30 per cent. Two Fairfax polls also gave Mr Rudd a significant boost.
Now, these polls also found that voters wanted Tony Abbott even more but, with Mr Rudd as leader there was a hint that Labor could mount a come-from-behind victory at the next federal election. Political insiders estimate caucus is divided 67-30 in favour of Ms Gillard, with six undecided.
But nervous backbenchers will have read yesterday's polls with alarm. The uniformity of the polls can only drive more of the 103 caucus members into the Rudd camp. The question is will enough of them act?
Yesterday, Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd spent the day on the "campaign" trail. He was shaking hands in Brisbane. Ms Gillard spent the day in NSW before flying into Melbourne last night.
But, unfortunately, this is not a campaign in the real sense of the word, rather a bout of Labor indulgence at the expense of the nation. It bookended a week of feuding that started with the leaking of the Rudd video last Saturday.
The Sunday Herald Sun believes a federal election must be called next week - whoever wins tomorrow's caucus ballot. The Labor Party has lost its way, and the nation is suffering at a time of global economic turmoil. Now is not the time for faint-hearted leadership.
Our message to both Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard is simple: Call an election. Now.
Feb 24, 2012
Elegance defined by deco lines
Dalcrombie in Olinda sports deco lines.
The snazzy, streamlined aesthetic from the jazz age is at home in Melbourne.
Rightly in demand among home buyers, Melbourne's art deco architecture ranks among the world's best, according to Art Deco & Modernism Society president Robin Grow.
Reeling off a list of cities noted for their art deco architecture, including Miami Beach, Tel Aviv, Shanghai and Uruguayan capital Montevideo, Mr Grow admits that although he might be biased, ''we've been to most places around the world that claim to have a lot of deco and Melbourne is certainly up in the top group''.
The term ''art deco'' generally relates to changes in design aesthetics that emerged during the interwar period in several disciplines, including architecture.
Kate Gorman's art deco house that has retained many of its original period features. North Balwyn, Victoria. Photo: Rodger Cummins, October 2010.
''Really what it was, was introducing simplification,'' Mr Grow says. ''In architecture … it was generally a reaction to that florid, excessive era from before the First World War.''
Art deco features include decorative brickwork and incision of ''speed lines'' into the building, along with sculptured chimneys, flat roofs, metal-framed windows and the use of fins. The art deco style also brought in materials such as terracotta tiles to give colour.
Along with inner-city buildings such as Alkira House in Queen Street, the McPherson's Building in Collins Street and the Century Building in Swanston Street, Melbourne has a number of standout art deco houses, including Mon Reve in Armadale, Burnham Beeches in Sherbrooke and Dalcrombie in Olinda.
Kate Gorman's art deco house that has retained many of its original period features. North Balwyn, Victoria. Photo: Rodger Cummins, October 2010.
Suburbs such as St Kilda, Elwood and South Yarra are noted for their art deco apartment complexes, while Armadale, Camberwell, Brighton, Toorak, Ivanhoe East and Essendon are among those suburbs noted for art deco housing.
Among the most significant housing estates are the Beauview Estate in Ivanhoe East, the Golf Links Estate in Camberwell, the Riverside Estate in Balwyn North and the Travancore Estate in Travancore.
While art deco remains a key influence in many new buildings - Mr Grow refers to this phenomenon as ''echo deco'' - for those looking to renovate an older art deco property, his advice is to take it slowly, particularly if the residence has been worked on in the past.
''A lot of the problems come about from people trying to renovate things that were previously renovated in the '60s - so they're sort of undoing previous sins,'' he says.
''We would just advise people not to rush in.
''If you've got a place and you think you want to change it, live with it for a little while if you can and then work out what will suit you and what you want to keep.''
Mr Grow says people tend to be most concerned about bathrooms and kitchens.
''And the trick there is to retain the best elements of it as it was but also make it suitable for modern living … And that's been done really successfully in a number of cases.''
Looking at old photos of the house, if you have them, or at other properties from the same period - either in books or on the internet - is a good place to start.
Mr Grow says someone who is serious about renovation should talk to an architect or designer who has a proven track record in working with the style.
''We get a lot of inquiries about renovations and we're happy to pass on details of people who know what they're talking about,'' he says. Finding suppliers of art deco materials and fittings can be difficult and Mr Grow says wreckers' yards are good places to start.
''The wreckers these days have got very, very smart about recovering stuff from deco homes, so you now can find original taps and … tiles taken out of deco houses, where you couldn't a few years ago,'' he says.
''But one thing they have to be careful about is the differences in sizing. So, for example, if you're putting in some plumbing these days, don't assume that if you find a beautiful set of plumbing fittings from the '30s that they're going to fit.''
- As well as providing a wealth of information on its website (artdeco.org.au), the Art Deco & Modernism Society publishes the Guide to Renovating Art Deco, available to buy through the website.
(I might add Groucho's personal papers in the US Library of Congress are a fascinating expose of a mind far beyond a vaudeville-mustachioed quizmaster and sly slapstick punster.)
One of Gillard's greatest problems as Prime Minister has been that she was seen as treacherous by taking part in the leadership coup of stealth that removed Rudd on the night of June 23, 2010.
That the leadership coup was carried out behind closed doors by factional leaders using internal polling and research, with only limited media coverage, actually worked to Gillard's disadvantage.
The public was surprised and there were Labor ministers and MPs who didn't know it was happening right up to the confrontation in the prime minister's suite. Indeed, they were denying it was happening as it was happening, and there had been no explanation or public justification for Rudd's removal apart from declining personal popularity in the polls.
As far as the public was concerned there were no grounds for removing Rudd and he was decapitated without cause.
If ever there were a leadership campaign by stealth, as Water Minister and senior NSW right-wing figure Tony Burke has complained, the 2010 coup was it.
While the result was that Gillard was delivered the leadership with stunning surgical precision, she was also given the job without expectation or explanation.
The successful Labor leadership challenge of 2010 has haunted Gillard, propped up Rudd's claim to be the people's prime minister and never been settled within the hearts of Labor MPs, even those who detest him.
As a result Gillard has been seen to be an illegitimate prime minister -- a view only reinforced by Labor's loss of a majority at the August election -- a treacherous person and a liar.
The whole idea of betrayal and lying to the public was further entrenched by her breaking the promise on a carbon tax. The issue of competence is also paramount despite a successful legislative program because of Gillard's public political bumbling.
Labor is now revisiting the themes from 2010: betrayal, undermining, lying, disloyalty. The question of who is loyal and who you can trust to run the government is at the heart of the arguments from both Gillard and Rudd as to who should be leader.
Gillard implied yesterday that Rudd as prime minister was chaotic, his government dysfunctional, that he didn't consult and couldn't win an election. She suggested he was flaky, weak and not psychologically up to the job.
The latter points echo the briefings from early 2010 that after the UN Climate Change talks in Copenhagen he had descended into a personal and leadership funk and was not capable of dealing with stress. There was a too-convenient echo in these sentiments with the appearance of the expletive-ridden video of Rudd that appeared on Saturday night showing he was stressed, impatient and angry.
Yesterday Gillard's genteel description of a government that had lost its way went overboard as she said: "The people who knew him best and knew the most about his prime ministership had determined that he no longer had their support. That's what motivated me in 2010, it was about the interests of the nation and providing good government.
"Out of respect to Kevin Rudd at that time, I didn't canvass every detail. I used the terminology that the government had lost its way.
"And clearly, with that level of paralysis the government had lost its way. The 2010 election was sabotaged. We went into that election in very difficult circumstances as a result of the months of paralysis and chaos under Mr Rudd's leadership; the need to sort that out, the fact that huge reform issues like carbon pricing were in a mess, in a very big mess."
Before, in Washington, Rudd said: "I've frankly been shocked and disappointed by the tone and content of the intensely personal attacks which have been lodged against me overnight in Australia.
"Whatever our differences in politics I do not believe that these sorts of vicious personal attacks have a place in our national political life. We all have a responsibility to preserve the fabric of decency in our national political institutions, and that includes within our principal political institutions including our principal political parties. Therefore I've been shocked and disappointed."
This leaves the question of who is loyal and who is competent.
The suggestion that Rudd has been disloyal is always wound in with the excuses for Gillard's unforced errors. It wasn't Rudd who left himself out of her speech to the Labor conference on past Labor prime ministers' achievements. Nor was it Rudd who couldn't answer questions on the ABC's 4 Corners program without looking shifty.
And it was a Gillard supporter, Michael Danby, who decided to put pressure on journalists to break their ethical code and conform with the ABC's views, and the ABC's claims, that somehow journalists should disclose their sources' views in an effort to convict Rudd of disloyalty.
Armed with no more than claims by the ABC Insiders' Barrie Cassidy that there were four journalists who had had a disloyal conversation with Rudd, Danby -- a man of deep faith and ethics -- decided to name three, not four, of the journalists on ABC television without a primary source and before talking to the journalists involved.
It was all about manufacturing evidence of disloyalty and trying to get journalists to break their code of ethics. Gillard's absolution to the Canberra press gallery to disclose her conversations was a similar confected stunt.
This isn't the stuff of reality, and I'm reminded of another Groucho Marx remark that a senator of eight years wanted to leave Washington and return to Hollywood for the "sincerity".
Feb 23, 2012
Studies: Conservatives Are From Mars, Liberals Are From Venus - Thomas Byrne Edsall - Politics - The Atlantic
A wide range of academic scholarship exploring political belief-formation reveals that those who identify themselves as politically conservative, for example, exhibit distinctive values underpinning their world view and their orientation towards political competition.
Conservatives, argues researcher Philip Tetlock of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, are less tolerant of compromise; see the world in "us" versus "them" terms; are more willing to use force to gain an advantage; are "more prone to rely on simple (good vs. bad) evaluative rules in interpreting policy issues;" 1 are "motivated to punish violators of social norms (e.g., deviations from traditional norms of sexuality or responsible behavior) and to deter free riders." 2
Some of these conservative values can be discerned in public opinion data.
In one September 2010 survey question, The Pew Research Center asked voters, "If you had to choose, would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services, or a bigger government providing more services?" White Republican men chose a smaller government by a 92-7 margin and white Republican women made the same choice by an 82-12 margin. Conversely, white Democratic men chose bigger government by a 53-35 margin and white Democratic women by 56-33. This is an ideological gap between Republicans and Democrats of 57 points among white men and 49 points among white women.
Along similar lines, Pew asked voters to choose between "Most people who want to get ahead can make it if they're willing to work hard" and "Hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people." White Republican men and women both picked "hard work" by decisive margins of 78-21 and 73-24, respectively. White Democratic men and women, in contrast, were far more equivocal, supporting hard work by modest margins of 52-44 and 53-43. 4
* * *
The Pew questions are designed to test opinion on public policy issues. The strength of the Pew surveys and other comparable, well-designed polls is that the sample is carefully selected to be representative of either the general public or of all voters. The limitation of such surveys is that they are not designed to reveal more subtle distinctions that can be equally or more significant.
This less easily answered question has been explored by a team of academic researchers collaborating at a website -- "www.YourMorals.org" -- designed to test a variety of theories about the connection between views on morality and politics. Jonathan Haidt and Nicholas Winter of the University of Virginia, and Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California, have collected and systematized very large numbers of responses to questions designed to elicit new information about political values orientation. Haidt et al. have ranked responses to a set of online public opinion surveys to show where self-described liberal/moderates differ most sharply from conservative/moderates. The strength of the YourMorals.org surveys lies in the large number of respondents; the weakness grows out of the fact that the participants are self-selected, and represent well-educated elites on the left, right, and center, with little representation of the poor, working class, or lower-middle class.
The findings published by Haidt et al. powerfully reinforce the paradigm of two roughly equivalent political coalitions: the first, a socially and economically dominant coalition on the right; the second, a coalition on the left composed of relatively disadvantaged (subdominant) voters in alliance with relatively well-educated, well-off, culturally liberal professionals ('information workers,' 'symbol analysts,' 'creatives,' 'knowledge workers,' etc.). 6 The Haidt et. al. data sheds new light on what it means, across a gamut of issues, when someone says he or she is a liberal or a conservative.
What kinds of questions and values statements provoke the sharpest divide between left and right? The team looked at responses to 107 questions and found that the most divisive questions included those in the following areas:
1) WAR, PEACE, VIOLENCE, EMPATHY WITH THE WORLD:
On key questions and statements in this category, liberals scored high, conservatives low: "I believe peace is extremely important"; "Understanding, appreciation, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature"; "One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal"; "How close do you feel to people all over the world?"
On other key questions in this area, conservatives scored high, and liberals low: "War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict"; "There is nothing wrong in getting back at someone who has hurt you."
2) CRIME AND PUNISHMENT; MORAL ELASTICITY; AUTHORITY:
Again, on some questions in this category, liberals scored high, conservatives low: "I believe that offenders should be provided with counseling to aid in their rehabilitation"; "What is ethical varies from one situation and society to another."
On other questions, conservatives scored high and liberals low: "People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed"; "Respect for authority is something all children need to learn"; "I believe that 'an eye for an eye' is the correct philosophy behind punishing offenders"; "The 'old-fashioned ways' and 'old-fashioned values' still show the best way to live"; "It feels wrong when...a person commits a crime and goes unpunished."
3) THE POOR, REDISTRIBUTION, FAIRNESS:
Liberal high, conservative low: "It feels wrong when . . . an employee who needs their job, is fired"; "I think it's morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing"; "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."
Conservative high, liberal low: "[I place a high value on] safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self"; "[It's desirable when] employees [who] contribute more to the success of the company receive a larger share"; "[I value] social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources."
4) MORALS, HEDONISM, SELF-FULFILLMENT, HIERARCHY:
Liberals high, conservatives low: "I see myself as someone who . . . is original, comes up with new ideas"; "Pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself"; "What is ethical varies from one situation and society to another."
Conservative high, liberal low: "If certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems;" "People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong;" "Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs that traditional culture provide"; "[I favor] restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms."
From a different vantage point -- taking data from American National Election Studies (ANES) surveys conducted between 1972 and 2004, the University of Virginia's Nicholas Winter analyzed the words respondents used to describe the two political parties. In "Masculine Republicans and Feminine Democrats: Gender and Americans' Explicit and Implicit Images of the Political Parties," Winter categorized words respondents volunteered as stereotypically "male" or "female:"
[M]asculine men are thought to be active, independent, and decisive; feminine women are thought to be compassionate, devoted to others, emotional, and kind. These core traits are linked with a range of other features, including other traits (masculine men are aggressive, practical, tough, hardworking, and hierarchical; feminine women are gentle, submissive, soft, ladylike, and egalitarian); physical characteristics (masculine men are big, strong, and muscular; feminine women are small, weak, and soft spoken)
The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
By Thomas Byrne Edsall
(Doubleday, 256 pages, $24.95)
Thomas Edsall's new book on the coming "age of austerity" is an example of why it will not be a moment too soon for the Boomers and their MSM mandarins to leave the scene.
The book purports to explain what is happening in American politics in a time of narrowed expectations and reduced resources. The economic dislocations of the past four years have impacted both the abilities of government and the expectations of the governed. This has caused our political life to begin fracturing along class-based lines rarely seen in American politics.
Edsall, who was long at the Washington Post and who now has a column at the New York Times online, believes he has discovered the key to the political dimension of this global economic and financial meltdown. According to Edsall, these stresses have caused polarization in the electorate we are told, and the rupturing of the "broad, tacit compromise" that "required a growing economy to fund an array of social programs while keeping taxes relatively low in order to moderate hostilities in a politically charged resource war."
The future in this new age will be "brutish," but when Edsall gets down to details, it seems the Republicans have all the brutishness and the liberals, not so much. The financial crisis is an opportunity for both parties to use "fear," for Edsall, but the left is at a disadvantage because its "natural spirit of generosity" -- presumably, with other people's money -- is hampered, while the Republicans' bottomless greed can proceed unabated. Even the Democrats' moderation is turned against them, for their "willingness to compromise" has made the Republican even more grasping in their demands.
But we have heard all this before. Substitute Reagan for current Republican leadership, say, or evangelicals for the Tea Party, and we could be back in the 1980s. The story, for people of Edsall's age and background, must always be the same. In a time of scarcity and economic stress, the Democrats try to preserve the safety net, and even (prudently, of course) to expand it, while various right-wingers want to hold onto their money a little longer (as well as, presumably, their guns and religion, an emendation to the old formula by the current President). What Edsall does not address is whether the Republicans have a point. If the economy is shrinking and social services must be cut, why is it extremism to say so and tolerance to ignore it? Insofar as there was a social compact in the nation that supported the welfare state at the national level - and there are good argument why there should be -- for many Americans, the policies of the last three decades have eroded the trust needed to sustain such a compact.
Edsall recognizes the threat but then mostly fails to address its causes, preferring to condemn its symptoms, such as large-scale distrust by middle-class Americans who want the government to look out for them as citizens rather than seeing them as alternatively taxpayers or consumers. There is even a chapter on busing in a North Carolina school district, which Edsall uses as a commentary on the alleged racism of the Tea Party, the high costs and problems of the program notwithstanding. (The false accusations of racist epithets made by the Tea Party here go unmentioned.) Nor does Edsall acknowledge the rift between what different minority groups want, and how this might affect the notion of a social consensus or the requirements of a welfare state.
Edsall's story arc, for most Americans, does not work anymore. At most, his book is a sign of how far politics has changed such that even long-term observers miss the clear signs of change; at worst, Edsall offers little more than an in-tribe call to arms for his fellow members of the elite media. Nelson Rockefeller (!) gets a mention in book's index but Angelo Mozilo, the head of Countrywide mortgage whose lackadaisical lending policies brought down the company, does not. Nor do Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, the "GSEs" whose insatiable demand for mortgages played a major role in the crisis. And although the Tea Party comes in for a drubbing, the candidacy of and movement around Ron Paul gets no mention.
Edsall states flatly that the economic problems are not caused by public policy or "market failure," but by global competition. This is, largely, nonsense. The financial industry is highly regulated in every modern nation, and those regulations reflect policy choices with real world effects. And Edsall completely ignores the public policies of easy credit and freely available mortgages, which went hand in hand with lavish government spending at all levels that can no longer be sustained.
The country is indeed passing through a time of transition, which will include greater austerity measures. Edsall does corral some useful statistics and notes that austerity is being taken by both parties as a club to punish the other side and as a call for their own solutions, and he does provide another example of the dysfunction in Washington. What is needed is new thinking about politics and our national political future, but on this score, The Age of Austerity is just more of the same.
Feb 22, 2012
It's tough work keeping the growth in government spending to no more than 2 per cent plus inflation, so no wonder they roll their eyes at claims by opposition Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey of his avowed task of finding $70 billion in cuts over four years.
With a rhetorical flourish, Julia Gillard dismisses the claim as equivalent to the abolition of Medicare or the suspension of aged pension payments for two years. Clearly, the Prime Minister, implies, the target is preposterous.
But if, instead of taking this year's spending as a given, the government were to start with a clean slate and ask what public spending was really required, vast tracts of waste would be laid bare.
You have to wind the clock back 16 years to reach the last time the commonwealth government's approach to its duties was subject to an independent review.
Since then, there has been a fabulous proliferation of programs, grants, benefits and bodies. Each has its own justification. But put them together, and there are overlaps with similar goals pursued by different departments, functions that would be better conducted by state governments or the private sector, and straight inefficiency. Departments have grown without anyone asking if the public is better served. Do we need a health department with 6000 staff and an education department with 5000 when neither is involved in service delivery?
As Productivity Commission chairman Gary Banks has asked, why do we have a $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a $3.2bn Renewable Energy Agency and a $200 million Clean Technology Innovation Program? Each is intended to fund alternative energy development and is run by a different agency.
The Business Council of Australia wants the government to establish an independent commission of audit to draw up principles against which government spending might be assessed.
It would not be so much a savings exercise -- although there is little doubt massive savings would be realised -- as an effort to ensure that government spending delivers value for money.
The last such exercise at a commonwealth level was undertaken by the Howard government in March 1996. Its audit commission was modelled on an earlier inquiry headed by economist Saul Eslake for the Kennett government in Victoria, which paved the way for spending cuts, privatisations and rationalisation of service delivery.
Similar inquiries have been undertaken by the new Coalition governments in NSW and Victoria, but they are not exclusively the preserve of either incoming or conservative governments.
Independent budget reviews, leading to tough budgets, have been conducted by the Labor governments of Mike Rann in South Australia and also by Jon Stanhope in the ACT.
However, amidst the plethora of inquiries and reviews commissioned during the first year of the Rudd government, there was no benchmark examination of the efficiency of government, although much was made of the supposed excesses of the latter years of the Howard government.
Perhaps it was because the idea was too deeply associated with the Coalition, or else there was a reluctance to allow independent scrutiny of the budget, which is the source of a treasurer's power.
There is no doubt the exercise is politically challenging. The Victorian review, headed by its former Treasury secretary Mike Vertigan, which has just been handed to the government, is expected to show twice as many possible savings as those required to stabilise the state's finances. It will include unpopular measures such as restricting access to public dental care and privatising aged-care homes and the stock of public housing. And the Melbourne Cricket Club and Flemington Race Course might be required to pay commercial rent and land tax.
A commonwealth review would do well to adopt the three categories of saving pursued in Victoria. The first is a simple review of the spending base, looking for programs that can be scrapped or means-tested, and assets that can be sold.
The task would look at whether functions would be better carried out by the private sector or state governments. In principle, the commonwealth ought not be involved in service delivery.
The second is to find ways to constrain the growth in spending programs that are running ahead of inflation. Aged care and pensions, for example, confront rising numbers and generous indexation, lifting the cost per person.
While the government is considering demands for large new commitments to schools, education costs have already been rising at an average of more than 6 per cent a year for the past decade -- enough to more than double their share of the commonwealth budget.
Defence has been promised spending increases of 3 per cent a year plus inflation for the next five years, with growth then continuing at an additional 2.2 per cent a year until 2030.
The final challenge is to lift poorly measured public sector productivity. If productivity is going backwards in the private sector, where there are profit incentives and clear measurement, it is a fair bet it is also in retreat in the public sector. Are five public servants really required to attend every external meeting, and are four levels of sign-off needed to place a job advertisement?
The commonwealth accounts for about 25 per cent of GDP, which is enough for the efficiency of its outlays to make a significant difference to national prosperity.
The senior officials in both Treasury and the Department of Finance believe an independent review is long overdue.
It takes courage. Touch a dollar of government spending, and you can expect furious lobbying by the independents and opposition parliamentarians.
There are constituencies for the National Paint Approval Scheme, the Wine and Brandy Corporation and the No Leave No Life website.
But if the government seriously wants to return the budget to a sustainable surplus, it should run with the Business Council's suggestion.
The savings might even surpass $70 billion.
Feb 21, 2012
The world’s first test-tube hamburger, created in a Dutch laboratory by growing muscle fibres from bovine stem cells, will be ready to grill in October, scientists believe.
“I am planning to ask Heston Blumenthal [the celebrity chef] to cook it,” Mark Post, leader of the artificial meat project at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Vancouver.
On this story
- Biotech crops area increases 8%
- Bananas become ripe GM target
- Food security Dampened prospects
- In depth Climate change
On this topic
- Comment Feeding the 9bn
- Orange juice hits all-time high
- Orange juice prices squeezed higher
- Drought hits Latin American crops
Researchers believe that meat grown in factories, rather than on farms, will be a more sustainable and less environmentally harmful source of food. Live cattle and pigs are only 15 per cent efficient at converting vegetable proteins to meat from the grass and cereals they eat.
“If we can raise the efficiency from 15 to 50 per cent by growing meat in the lab, that would be a tremendous leap forward,” Professor Post said.
Starting with bovine stem cells, the Dutch researchers have grown muscle fibres up to 3cm long and 0.5mm thick. The fibres are tethered and exercised as they grow, like real muscles, by bending and stretching in the culture dishes. They feed on a broth of vegetable proteins and other nutrients, equivalent to the grass or grain diet of cattle.
At present the fibres are a pallid yellowish-pink colour, rather than the red of raw ground beef, because they do not contain blood, but Prof Post plans to improve their appearance.
Patrick Brown, biochemistry professor at Stanford University in California, told the AAAS that global meat consumption was expected to double by 2050, yet livestock farming already accounted for 18 per cent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and threatened biodiversity worldwide.
To provide fat, an essential element in real burgers, bovine fat cells are also being grown in the lab. They will be minced in with the muscle fibres.
“We started this project about six years ago, and I expect it will be another 10 to 20 years before we can mass-produce our meat,” Prof Post said.
An anonymous individual has financed the Maastricht project with a €250,000 grant. He is expected to contribute further funds after the planned production of a “proof of concept” burger from the lab-grown muscle in October.
Everything you know about dieting is wrong, say US scientists who have devised a new formula for calculating calories and weight loss that they hope will change the way people tackle obesity.
Obesity rates have doubled worldwide in the past 30 years, coinciding with a growing food surplus.
The ensuing epidemic has sparked a multibillion-dollar weight-loss industry that has largely failed to curb the problem.
Current standards advise people that cutting calories by a certain amount will result in a slow and steady weight loss over time.
But that advice fails to account for how the body changes as it slims down, burning less energy and acquiring a slower metabolism, researchers told an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver.
The result is a plateau effect that ends up discouraging dieters and sending them back into harmful patterns of overeating.
As an example, researcher Kevin Hall offered up his large vanilla latte, purchased at a popular coffee shop. When he asked, the barista told him it contained about 240 calories.
"The notion was if I drank one of these every day and then I replaced it with just black coffee no sugar, then over the course of a year I should lose about 25 pounds (11.5kg), and that should just keep going," Hall told reporters.
"People have used this sort of rule of thumb to predict how much people should lose for decades now, and it turns out to be completely wrong."
Hall, a scientist with the US National Institutes of Health, said: "If I want to lose 10 pounds of weight eventually, I have to cut 100 calories per day out of my diet.
"You'll get halfway there in about a year, and then you will eventually plateau, (reaching the goal) after about three years.
"The contrast is the old rule of thumb predicts twice as much weight loss after a year, and it gets worse after that."
The new model gives dieters one calorie goal for short-term weight loss and another for permanent weight loss. Exercise is also calculated in to help set realistic goals.
Tests on small numbers of adults who were fed strictly controlled diets showed the model was accurate, though real-life situations are harder to predict.
Study co-author Carson Chow said the daily calorie cut needed for weight loss was actually smaller than researchers anticipated.
"It is essentially one cookie different a day, so a 150 calorie cookie leads to a seven kilogram difference in weight. That is huge in my opinion," Chow said.
Their model was first published in The Lancet in August 2011. A link is available at http://bwsimulator.niddk.nih.gov
"People can plug in some information about their initial age, their height, their weight, some estimate of their physical activity level," Hall said.
Add in a goal weight and the "model will simulate what changes of diet or exercise that person would have to do to achieve that goal weight, and then even more importantly what they need to do to permanently maintain that weight loss."
Since The Lancet article appeared, the notion has not exactly taken the world by storm, in part because it is not primed for public use, but is mainly aimed at doctors and researchers with adult patients for now.
Also, if a dieter enters an extreme weight goal, the number of calories the model returns may be much too low to be realistic or healthy, so it needs an expert's interpretation.
"It's not particularly user friendly ... but it is still relatively informative," said Hall, who maintains hope that some day his message will be heard.
"There is a lot of inertia behind these old rules of thumb," he said, adding that he was heartened by an editorial in December in the journal of the American Dietetic Association that commented on the idea of a weight loss plateau and mentioned the new simulator.
"It's going to take some time to get the public and the professional community aware that there is a new way of doing things, and we actually have some tools that weren't available before."
Feb 20, 2012
Claims about higher funding costs by Australia’s big four have met with scepticism from an unlikely source - a large French bank, Societe Generale.
Tokyo-based Societe Generale Asia Pacific head of interest rate strategy Christian Carrillo said it was "almost mathematically impossible" that total funding costs for Australian banks were rising, as the sector argued this month, using it as a motive to lift mortgage rates independently of a Reserve Bank.
"The claim that the recent increase in mortgage rates is due to higher funding costs is very dubious," he said in a research note. "The mortgage hikes seem aimed at protecting their high profit margins."
Australia's major banks have lifted mortgage customers by between 6 and 10 basis point after the RBA shocked the market earlier this month by keeping the cash rate at 4.25 per cent. The banks have insisted that the cost of funds needed to keep lending into the economy were rising, driven in part by the volatility associated with the European debt crisis. The unpopular out-of-cycle rate rises followed announcements of job cuts by ANZ Bank and Westpac, further inflaming opinion about the banks.
Mr Carrillo said that an analysis of Australian Prudential Regulation Authority monthly banking statistics and RBA data on debt securities outstanding show that the source of most bank funding is onshore, where costs have actually been falling.
Australian banks' reliance on domestic funding has increased to an all-time high of 66 per cent at the beginning of this year, pushing long-term overseas funding to its lowest level since April 2009.
"Our calculations suggest that almost all sources of funding of Australian banks, except long-term overseas, are cheaper than their post-GFC highs and have kept falling since the second half of 2011 in absolute terms," he said.
Australian banks began to reduce their reliance on overseas markets for wholesale funding since the financial crisis.
“Australian banks are essentially an oligopoly," said Mr Carrillo. "They control most of the market anyway. They can effectively set rates where they want to."
"You have four big banks. They want to protect their profit margin. They can do it, so they do it.”
Feb 14, 2012
Does this not capture the essence of Greece?
When the Socialists were swept into power in late 2009, the dire condition of state finances were observed and thereby triggering a debt crisis that remains unresolved at this late date. That said, reports suggest that some European officials knew or should have known the state of Greek finances prior to the election. Perhaps, like Schrodinger’s thought experiment, it matters who is observing the cat.
In any event, the probability wave has collapsed and Greece is on the precipice of failure. The economy is entering its fifth year of contraction. Its economy now is back to the size of five or six years ago, while its debt is significantly higher.
Unemployment stood at nearly 21% in November (most recent data available) and near 50% for young people. Despite the collapse of domestic demand, Greece ran a current account deficit of 8.6% of GDP in 2011.
The market has long been pricing in a Greek default. The probability is now certain, while the size of the loss to investors continues to rise. Last week, a large Dutch bank reported that it is writing off 80% of its sovereign Greek exposure.
However, like the two states of Schrodinger’s cat before observation, Greece is not going to make good on its financial obligations, but it still may not default. This indeterminate state is a product of seeking to avoid the triggering of insurance (credit default swaps) while getting private sector investors (though apparently Greek pension funds as well) to participate in the burden sharing.
The state of Greece’s sovereignty is also akin to Schrodinger’s cat. It is sovereign, but it isn’t. Some have advocated Greece leave the monetary union and reclaim its monetary sovereignty to devalue. To the contrary and ironically, Greece’s sovereignty would likely be less outside than inside.
It is not clear that Greece could “re-drachmatize” the economy even if it wanted to. Who would accept as payment a currency whose sole purpose for being is to depreciate as tender? The risk is the economy remains heavily euro-ized.
Greece manufactures practically no goods for the international market. It produces no machines, electronics or chemicals to speak of, according to Harvard Professor Ricardo Haussmann. His work finds that of every $10 in worldwide trade in information technology, Greece accounts for one cent. Simply if crudely put, Greece appears to lack the industrial infrastructure and capacity to benefit from a devalued currency.
Among the Troika demands in exchange for a second aid package, is a more than a 20% cut in the private sector minimum wage from the current 750 euros per month and the immediate cut of 1500 civil servants (as part of a larger plan to reduce government payrolls by 150k by 2015). If Greece were to reassert its sovereignty, these would still take place in some form and fashion. The state, not just the government, would collapse.
Inside the euro zone, the Greek economy is projected to contract by 5% and this may be conservative. It is reasonable to believe that if Greece were to leave, the economic contraction would be deeper and more prolonged.
Recently, Germany proposed an EU Commissioner be put in charge of Greece’s fiscal policy. This went over like a lead-zeppelin (pardon the pun). However, the events in recent days indicate how close this has been achieved, but rather than an EU Commissioner, the Eurogroup of finance ministers, are directing Greece. Greek officials appeared to agree to all of the Troika’s demands only to have the euro zone finance ministers seemed to come up with new demands.
The brinkmanship tactics have brought both sides to the point of breaking. A number of European officials appear to be more willing to contemplate a hard default and possible exit of the Greece from the euro zone.
The sharp recover of the European sovereign bond market and the ability of Spanish and Italian banks to issue bonds in recent weeks has boosted confidence in (some) official circles that the 3-year LTRO has rebuilt a firewall around Greece. The moat of liquidity will be further enhanced by the second 3-year LTRO in a couple of weeks and the new more liberal collateral rules, which conservative (Draghi) estimates could boost borrowing by another 200 bln euros.
Greece has been brought to the breaking point. The technocrat government led by Papademos (previously the vice president of the European Central Bank) has collapsed as the small nationalist party (LAOS) has withdrawn. A cabinet reshuffle is necessary. Social unrest has intensified.
Judging from the coverage of the demonstrations, many Greek people realize what few international observers do—the lion’s share—some 80% of the funds Greece is to receive is essentially earmarked for servicing its debt directly or recapitalizing Greek banks so they can service their debt. It too is like Schrodinger’s cat---the loan package is aid for Greece and not aid for Greece, dependent on the observer.
The debate in the Greek parliament is taking place in the run-up to the opening of the Asian markets on February 13th. Despite the large scale protests and a many members of parliament from the New Democracy and PASOK (Socialist) parties have indicated they will not vote in favor of agreement, it looks as if the agreement will be approved.
There are several next steps. In Greece, a new cabinet needs to be named and pressure will build for a date certain for elections. Recent polls suggest is slackening for the major parties, with the Socialists polling less than 10%.
The European finance ministers will likely meet Wednesday February 15th and may give their approval. Yet privately they must know that this is still not closure. The goal of 120% debt/GDP in 2020 is a farce. It is twice the Growth and Stability Pact requirements. It is does not meet any meaningful definition of sustainable. Like Schrodinger’s cat, Greece is indeterminate.
February 15th is also when the EU is expected to report the flash estimate for Q4 GDP, which the market expects will show a contraction. While the debt crisis will be blamed for the economic weakness, it seems that the policy response to that crisis also bears some responsibility.
The same day the Troika will begin its third review of the implementation of Portugal’s aid package. While Portugal’s bond market has recovered in the past two weeks and officials continue to praise the government’s commitment, it is still not clear that it will be prepared to return to the capital markets in 18 months. If Greece can lower its debt burden by transferring some of it to its creditors, is it not in Portugal’s interest to explore the scope for forgiveness?
Assuming that the Greek parliament does approve the agreement, the euro can recover some of the ground lost before the weekend. Given the hard stance taken by the European finance ministers, their approval on Wednesday may be needed to sustain the euro’s recovery. The new collateral rules and anticipation of the next LTRO may see the euro bought on dips more aggressively than sold on rallies. Technically there is potential back into the $1.3400-$1.3600 area, provided that $1.2980 support holds.
Feb 11, 2012
Cracks were first discovered in December last year, in a Qantas-owned Airbus A380 that was being repaired after an engine explosion in Singapore.
On January 20, the EASA issued an Airworthiness Directive (AD) grounding 20 A380 for visual inspections.
The 20 affected aircraft were early-delivery airframes (aircraft bodies without engines) – ten with Singapore Airlines, seven with Emirates, one with Air France and two Airbus test A380.
This initial directive allowed up to six weeks for a detailed visual inspection to be carried out on A380 that had completed between 1,300 and 1,799 flights. A380 that had completed more than 1,800 flights had to be inspected within four days.
According to EASA spokesperson Dominique Fouda, the initial round of checks “found cracks in almost all of the planes inspected”.
As a result, the EASA revised their AD, requiring the inspection of all 68 Airbus A380 in operation worldwide, and the use of high-frequency eddy current equipment for crack detection. This is a commonly-used non-destructive evaluation technique used to detect small surface cracks.
But just how much do we know about these cracks? And do the cracks have the potential to make the A380 unsafe to fly?