Posts Tagged ‘economics’

donkeyWe do not consider ourselves to be either Robinson Crusoe or Nostradamus in predicting a poor day for the Democrats today in the USA. It does not require us to be especially prescient to predict a dark day for the centre left, and a big celebration night for the centre-right. Commentary and polls have been running strongly that way in the last ten days.

Many races will be a lot closer than people have been predicting, but in general we expect the Republicans to do better tonight USA time. We are ambivalent on whether they will take control of the Senate: on balance, we have suspected JUST not until very recently, but as the counting continues it is increasingly possible, undoubtedly, especially if the Democrats are in trouble in a swathe of Southern and Western States where they had hoped to hold off GOP challenges, as in states like Arkansas and Colorado.

Why the Republicans are doing well is perhaps more interesting.

A referendum? Maybe. But on much more than just the Presidency.

Barack ObamaThere is a general assumption that the result will be a “referendum” on President Obama, who has been struggling in the polls for some time now, despite a strong bounceback in the American economy.

There is a pervasive view in America that the economy is not doing well: despite a recovery from the depths of the recent recession, markedly higher employment levels and a soaring stock market, the economy remains the top worry for voters, with an overwhelming majority pessimistic that conditions won’t get better soon, according to Tuesday evening exit polls.

When Bill Clinton won the Presidency he famously had a large sign on his campaign headquarters walls that cried out “It’s the economy, Stupid”, to remind him and all spokespeople to focus on the economy as by far the most important issue for voters. Well today, 78% of Americans said they are worried about the economy, according to CNN reporting on national exit polls. Another 69 percent said that in their view economic conditions are not good. Nearly half of voters said the economy is the most important issue facing the country at 45 percent. Health care, foreign policy and illegal immigration are also top concerns, but ranked well below.

Overall, 65 percent said the country is on the wrong track and 31 percent said it’s headed in the right direction, the exit polls found.

The survey of 11,522 voters nationwide was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results from interviews conducted as voters left a random sample of 281 precincts Tuesday, as well as 3,113 who voted early or absentee and were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Oct. 24 through Nov. 2. This will bias the results against the Democrat incumbent, as pre-poll votes favour the Republicans, and the poll quotes a sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. Nevertheless, the broad thrust of the poll is essentially right.

But Republicans shouldn’t celebrate too hard

The voters have thoroughly had it right up to their yingyang, according to exit polls released Tuesday evening. The national survey of voters showed broad dissatisfaction with both parties, the Obama administration and Congress.

58% of those casting ballots in the midterms were either dissatisfied or angry at the White House, while just 11 percent said they are enthusiastic with the administration and 30 percent said they were satisfied, according to CNN.

Another 54 percent said they disapprove of President Barack Obama’s job while 44 percent said they approve.

But the winners are winners by default. The Republican leadership does not fare well in the eyes of voters either, with 59 percent saying they are not happy with GOP leaders in Congress.

And as for the parties as a whole, 56 percent view the GOP unfavourably, while 53 percent say the same of Democrats. Hardly a crushing endorsement for the Republicans. More like “a plague on both your houses”.

And a whopping 79 percent said had a negative view of Congress, according to CNN. This statistic has hardly changed since the Republican-led shut downs of Government some time back.

Politics as a whole is the loser

Meanwhile, voters are split on how much the federal government be involved in people’s lives, as 41 percent said the government should do more and 53 percent said the government does too much.

The trust level is also staggeringly low. Sixty-one percent said they trust lawmakers in Washington only some of the time. Democracy itself is under question here. Accordingly, we expect to see some solid swings against incumbents of both parties tonight.

voter IDWe also expect to see a bigger turnout from Republican voters than Democrats, favouring the GOP, and that’s before we factor in the ludicrous “Voter ID” push from the right which may have effectively disenfranchised as many as 7 million Americans, almost all of whom would have voted Democrat. If the Republicans take control of the Senate by less than those 7 million votes in the States that have enacted voter ID legislation then what we will have been watching is little more than a legalised coup d’etat. It won’t be the first time, either. Remember the Gore-Bush fiasco in Florida?

Whatever you believe about the ID laws, the other factor is that GOP voters are currently more motivated to vote partly through their visceral hatred of Obama – some of which is undoubted racially-based, sadly, but also through perceived American weakness on the international stage, and other hot buttons – but also through deep concerns about the size of Government debt, especially on the far right with the Tea Party and its fellow travellers. The other significant factor is that voters that identify as Independents can expect to break heavily in favour of the Republicans, reversing recent trends, and again reflective of the generalised malaise with all incumbents and with Democrats in particular.

There is little question that along with a generalised dislike of Government per se in the Western world at the moment, there is a pervasive concern about the size of Government, and the arguments of small government libertarians have gained some traction with those who feel especially disgruntled. Whether this will turn into a broadly-supported consensus for what a small government democratic society would look like is, to our mind, far less likely. Small government is all very well until they start to abolish the bit you happen to like.

Building agreement to substantially reduce the role of Government following sixty years of mixed-economy high-touch post-WW2 consensus politics will be much more difficult than promising to keep expanding spending inexorably. We suspect pork barreling is not about to disappear anytime soon.

Ye will reap what ye sow. So be careful what you sow.

However, what we see in this election is the net result of years and years of relentlessly negative campaigning by the Republicans, in effect “talking down” the economy, talking down the President’s performance, and talking down confidence generally. In our entire adult life of closely following American politics we do not recall ever having seen such a sustained barrage of brutal criticism, virtually entirely unsupported by any serious policy alternatives.

In reality, apart from the race card, this is due to one factor above all others. Let down, in our opinion, by an inability to strike the right note in promoting their successes, the Obama Administration has actually been one of the more successful in recent American history, in a variety of areas, but this news has completely failed to cut through the miasma of rabble-rousing from the Republicans.

wall streetExamining just one of the key areas of Obama’s activity (there are many we could point to) reveals this to be true.

The economic cataclysm of the Global Financial Crisis can be laid squarely at the feet of two very contrasting Presidents, Messrs Clinton and Bush, who both bowed to pressure to de-regulate Wall Street and American banking practices, which led directly to the economic crisis and cost millions of innocent little folk worldwide their savings, and worse, their homes and jobs.

The resulting “austerity” measures didn’t touch those who played fast and loose with the world’s money, none of which was their own.

What the f*** did Obama ever do for us? Well, this lot, for a start.

In response, in terms of Consumer Protection, the Obama government has been one of the most involved and proactive in history. Just consider, he:

Ordered 65 executives who took bailout money to cut their own pay until they paid back all bailout money.  http://huff.to/eAi9Qq

Along with Congressional Democrats, pushed through and got passed Dodd-Frank, one of the largest and most comprehensive Wall Street reforms since the Great Depression.  http://bit.ly/hWCPg0http://bit.ly/geHpcD

By signing Dodd-Frank legislation, created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau http://1.usa.gov/j5onG

Created rules that reduce the influence of speculators in the oil market.  http://bit.ly/MDnA1t

Fashioned rules so that banks can no longer use consumers’ money to invest in high-risk financial instruments that work against their own customers’ interests.  http://bit.ly/fnTayj

Supported the concept of allowing stockholders to vote on executive compensation. http://bit.ly/fnTayj

Endorsed and supported the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2009 that closed offshore tax avoidance loopholes.   http://bit.ly/esOdfBhttp://bit.ly/eG4DPM

Negotiated a deal with Swiss banks that now permits the US government to gain access to the records of criminals and tax evaders.  http://bit.ly/htfDgw

Signed the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act, which closed many of the loopholes that allowed companies to send jobs overseas, and avoid paying US taxes by moving money offshore.http://1.usa.gov/bd1RTq

Established a Consumer Protection Financial Bureau designed to protect consumers from financial sector excesses.  http://bit.ly/fnTayj

Oversaw and then signed a bill constituting the most sweeping food safety legislation since the Great Depression.  http://thedc.com/gxkCtP

Through the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, extended the False Claims Act to combat fraud by companies and individuals using money from the TARP and Stimulus programs.  http://bit.ly/SLTcSa

That’s quite a list. Yet these directly attributable, unarguable and very welcome successes – and this is just one area of government we could look at – have been largely drowned out by the constant cat-calling and nay-saying across the aisle.

No matter how much we support historic measures like Obamacare, the “pivot” towards Asia in foreign policy, and other historic changes, we freely concede as natural supporters of Obama that small revolutions are never without controversy, and even the success of a reform like the new health insurance system in the USA will always be something of a “curate’s egg”. Massive reform always involves partial failure, and results in future trimming of the sails. This is natural, and acceptable.

Just one of thousands of examples of the disgraceful tactics employed by the right to rubbish Obama.

Just one of thousands of examples of the disgraceful tactics employed by the right to rubbish Obama. Just pop “Obama is a Socialist” into Google and see for yourself.

What bemuses us is how so much of our politics has descended into complete opposition to the party in power, and viciously so in many cases, whereas previously the role of Opposition was to oppose with principle, to achieve bi-partisanship where possible, and to propose alternatives where the difference of opinion was unbridgeable.

We condemn this drift into mindless yahoo-ery as unhealthy for society.

The fault is by no means all on one side of politics – indeed there will be those who leap to accuse us of the very same failing, and possible sometimes justly, (we are only human) – but in general the verbal (and sometimes physical) thuggery is demonstrably more common on the right, often hiding behind the cowardly anonymity of the Internet – the modern equivalent of scrawling on a wall – to spread their ridiculous and offensive “memes”. And overwhelmingly, the target for these memes has been Obama himself, and his family. No President in history, even George Bush who was viscerally detested by the Left, was subjected to this level of abuse, vindictiveness, and outright falsehood. As my mother would say, “give a dog a bad name” … Well, it’s worked.

Disgusting "humour" like this is freely available all over the internet. Should concepts of "free speech" protect those who produce it from sanction? In our opinion: No.

Disgusting racist “humour” like this is freely available all over the internet. It seeps into the body politic and corrupts it. Deliberately.

Which is why, as they celebrate their likely successes tonight, we urge thinking Republicans to crow less and think hard that this is a very dangerous furrow to plough.

What we are seeing is a wholesale abandonment of decency and consensus as principles worth following, and that is a very dangerous and unwelcome step.

The GOP need to pause and consider that if they achieve some measure of power tonight by winning control of the Senate, then if they are not careful they will - in due course -find themselves hoist by their own cruel and destructive petard.

Is it too much to hope that faced with the reality of power the right will abandon their childish name calling and rediscover a sense of purpose beyond blind obstinacy and negativity? Yes, we rather fear it is.

We will post comment on the individual races in due course.

tuni-MMAP-mdThe so-called “Arab Spring” was hailed at the time in the West as the beginning of a creeping democratisation of the Middle East, belatedly joining most of the rest of the world on the faltering path to democracy, separation of powers, and so on.

What is clear is those expectations were vastly overblown.

What happened in Egypt was one nasty dictatorship was replaced by an even nastier one when “democracy” elected a Government unacceptable to the military, to the capitalists, and to the West. In Libya the West got rid of Gadaffi but a lack of central leadership meant we replaced him with a series of vicious tribal warlords controlling their own little chunk of the country. We fomented an uprising against Assad in Syria and ended up with a brutal civil war and IS. In the deeply conservative Gulf States any change has been entirely negligible. If nothing else, the West has learned that involvement in the Middle East is always a matter of herding cats.

But there is one shining example of success. In the cradle of the revolutions that swept the Arabic-speaking world, the secular party Nidaa Tounes has now won the largest number of seats in Tunisia’s parliamentary election, defeating its main rival, the Islamist party Ennahda, according to two analyses of results across the country. The Islamist party has apparently accepted the result with good grace. “We have accepted this result and congratulate the winner,” Lotfi Zitoun, an Ennahda party official, told Reuters. Zitoun said the party reiterated its call for a unity government, including Ennahda, in the interest of the country.

North Africa expert Michael Willis, a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford University, said the decline in Ennahda’s electoral popularity reflected public discontent with their handling of the economy. “On the doorsteps, the economy was the main issue. Nidaa Tounes is seen as having the expertise to get the economy back on track.” Nidaa Tounes is 10 percentage points ahead of Ennahda. It has won 83 seats, with roughly 38 percent of the popular vote, to Ennahda’s 68 seats, representing about 31 percent of the vote, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported after tabulating its own count of 214 of the 217 parliamentary seats.

A parallel tabulation conducted by a Tunisian election observer organization, Mourakiboun, placed Nidaa Tounes at 37 percent and Ennahda at 28 percent. Those figures were based on a random sample of 1,001 polling centers across the country, with a margin of error of 2 percent and 1 percent on the respective totals.

Young Tunisians, in particular, engaged enthusiastically with the new political process.

Young Tunisians, in particular, engaged enthusiastically with the new democratic political process.

Officials from both parties said that although premature, the counts matched their information.

Official results have not yet been released, and parties are restrained by law from announcing their own count before the election commission does. Provisional results are expected on Monday, but final results will take at least 48 hours.

Early results also showed a surprise gain for the party of the Tunisian tycoon Slim Riahi, who ran a flashy campaign that included handouts and pop concerts. Some of the smaller political parties fared badly under a new voting system, in particular Ettakatol, a coalition partner in the former government.

Nidaa Tounes, led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, is an alliance of former government officials, liberals and secularists that was formed in 2012, largely in reaction to the post-revolutionary chaos under the Ennadha-led government. It was sharply critical of the Islamists’ performance and ran a campaign for a modern, secular society.

The results, if confirmed, would be a blow for Ennahda, which won a large popular vote and 89 seats in 2011 but struggled to manage rising insecurity and a sliding economy.

Tunisians filled polling stations on Sunday to elect a new Parliament, expressing a strong desire and some trepidation that, after months of political turmoil, the country would turn a corner nearly four years after a revolution.

Officials said the provisional turnout was nearly 62 percent, which election observers said demonstrated Tunisians’ support for democracy.

24The elections are the second in Tunisia since the popular uprising that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and set off a wave of change that was later dubbed the Arab Spring. They will bring in a new Parliament and government for a five-year term. Presidential elections are scheduled for next month.

The immediate return for Tunisians in maintaining a lid on tension and achieving a peaceful transition will be, of course, yet more tourism dollars flooding into the country. The country has also maintained close relations with Europe, and with France and Italy in particular, with growing mutual trade.

colloseumAn island of sanity in troubled north Africa, it is also an exceptionally interesting and beautiful country, with a fascinating history of civilisation going back thousands of years, notably being the home of the Carthaginian Empire which was so dominant in the Mediterranean area in centuries before Christ, and it was later occupied by Rome which made good use of its vast fertile soils to produce huge amounts of cereals, plus olive oil, figs, and more. Various waves of conquerors including Ottoman, Arab and French have created a multi-layered and outward-facing culture.

The country lies within a couple of hours flight from the major population centres of Europe. No-one could begrudge them this “peace dividend” and let us hope they continue to provide a beacon for sanity for the whole Arab-speaking world. Indeed, the rest of the region can learn much from Tunisia beyond its peaceful transition of power – it also has a large number of women MPs, a highly progressive code of individual freedom for women, Islamic extremism is rare (although not non-existent), the country enjoys a relatively open low-tariff economy, and it is accepting of Christian and most significantly Jewish minorities.

Today, we salute the Tunisian people for their fortitude and commonsense. When we rail and wail at the inability of much of the region to behave intelligently, let us look to the example of Tunisia, and hope.

The Republican Party in the USA have been at it again this week. Demonstrating they are lurching ever more profoundly into the looney tunes orbit of American politics.

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/arizona-huppenthal-stomp-out-spanish

btobtpcb2s2b4dbkfkceAs you can see in the link above, a frequent GOP blog commentator and schools superintendent in Arizona has owned up to several incendiary anonymous comments.

Among many idiotic remarks, in a late-2010 post on the conservative blog Espresso Pundit, Huppenthal, writing under the pseudonym Falcon9, said that America only has room for English.

“We all need to stomp out balkanization. No spanish radio stations, no spanish billboards, no spanish tv stations, no spanish newspapers,” he wrote roughly a month after he was elected. “This is America, speak English.”

This raises so many issues it’s hardly worth commenting, except to say to the right in America, why be frightened of the growth in Spanish in America? Being a bilingual nation will make it easier for you to trade with South America, where growth will outstrip America this century anyway.

Ann CoulterThis is just typical of the nonsense talked by the right. Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter, because within a few years America will be a majority Spanish speaking nation whatever they think. Languages change over time. In the UK Ancient British was replaced by Latin, then Saxon, Saxon was replaced with Norman French. Norman French was replaced with Germano-English and remnants of old British. For heaven’s sake: why can’t the GOP do something more useful than being a bunch of mindless “antis”? Build a bridge, and get over it already.

Meanwhile, achingly dumb commentator Ann Coulter has sparked attention around the world (which is, of course, all she is really interested in), by criticising football just as the USA garners the admiration of the world by getting out of the qualification round of the World Cup for the first time. No American whose Great-Grandfather was born in America could possibly be interested in this “foreign game”, opined the fast-fading right wing hack.

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/26/ann_coulter_no_american_whose_great_grandfather_was_born_here_is_watching_soccer/

Let us be clear what this is. It would be easy to dismiss both incidents as laughably ridiculous, whereas in reality this is, under the rolled eyes of “they’re at it again”, ugly “dog whistle” politics.

By targeting “differentness”, whether it be a different language or the growth of a sport in popularity, what is being done hear is to “wedge” the population. To turn people against people. To leverage the innate fears of “otherness” that fester in the collective consciousness, and to make only one way the right way, if you’ll forgive the pun. And why? To distract people from looking at and tackling real issues that matter, that’s why.

There is a vast right wing conspiracy operating in America to turn one of the legs of the civic society – the GOP – into a party of antis. Anti equality of treatment for gay, lesbian and transgendered people. Anti affirmative action to provide opportunity for women, the poor, and non-whites. Anti social security safety nets. Anti healthcare. Anti “foreign”. And above all, anti-tax, because essentially, the movement is, at its core, anti the very concept of a democratic government that can raise and spend money based on a universal franchise.

This conspiracy is not necessarily conscious – although it may be – but what is undoubtedly being attempted is to coalesce the conservative white population (much of it now working class) into a coherent coalition than can combat the very obvious fact that America is now a multicultural, multi-faith, multi-sexuality and above all urban modern society that is innately not conservative.

America today has many issues to be sure, but it still demonstrates daily that it is essentially a forward-looking nation – evolving, experimenting, changing – as it always has been. This in turn horrifies those who wish to see an endless perpetuation of the position of an idealised white middle-class, by which they really mean the power of the privileged and uber-wealthy to manipulate the political system to preserve their hold over a majority of supine fellow travellers a few steps below them on the ladder.

Ironically, what means they are doomed to fail is that the middle class in America, which has long been the acquiescent lap dog of the rich and powerful, is now in near-terminal decline, as in many places in the world.

The old days of a quarter-acre block with a neat weatherboard home lived in by a nuclear family with a couple of American made cars in the driveway who live and work in a pleasant mid-size town are now utterly behind us. Nowadays more people than ever live in conurbations, and more people than ever live alone. The nuclear family unit has undergone so much change it is now unrecognisable. In the countryside, traditional industries and agriculture have collapsed with the growth of mega-agricultural companies and the disapora of young people to the cities, with the concomitant collapse of small-town retailing. In the cities, rust-belt industries have collapsed under foreign competition, their wealthy workers which once migrated into the middle class now stuck on benefits or in part time work.

What is growing is a large and vocal disenfranchised white working class, standing shifting its feet nervously and threateningly across the street from a still-disenfranchised black working class which looks just as discomforted.

The right wing dog-whistle politics is designed to drag the white portion of that congregation into the GOP’s camp, where previously they might have been expected to steer naturally to the left. The endless anti-big-government whingeing of the Tea Party gives a modicum of intellectual veneer to the process. But in fact, what is being attempted is nothing more nor less to divide America into two nearly-at-war camps, dragging one to the field of combat with a dream of an America that no longer exists and will never exist again.

On the one side, we have the urban community, the professional whites, the urbanised working class and unemployed, the blacks, the bulk of  latinos, and what remains of the contented middle class. On the other, we have the “loser” middle class with declining income and influence, the marginalised working class and non working whites, the upwardly mobile latinos, the old whites, and the Christian extremists. The right believes it can build a coalition that can win from this grouping, all of whom are feeling very “anti” everything they can think of. So they constantly propound dog-whistle “anti” messages. But they can’t. The hard fact is, there simply isn’t enough of them to build a winning national coalition. All they will achieve in building is an angrier and angrier minority, the consequences of which are horrible to contemplate.

If we backtrack a little, the essential post WWII compact between the Democrat and Republican parties ran something like this. “There are certain inalienable rights we have to take care of. We should have as close to full employment as we can create. We love immigration, because we will always need good people. We shouldn’t have too much funny money circulating but a bit doesn’t matter too much. We should support entrepreneurism, because our society is built on it. We should sell as much as we can overseas – we are a trading nation. But while we do all this, we will always look after the poor and needy, because we never want to return to the 1930s.”

Along with this bipartisanship agreement came an essentially conservative social compact. Pride in country. Pride in steady but unspectacular social change. Pride in calm.

That all pretty much changed forever around the mid-late 1960s. American adventurism overseas alarmed and then horrified the youth of the country, (especially when they were told they had to take part), and the sexual revolution galvanised it. Rapid change in the area of civil rights was agreed on all sides, but not because of any great moral conviction. It was rushed through out of fear of a racially-based conflict: the attitudes that lurked behind the change still rankled. Corruption at the highest levels led to an innate mistrust in Government that has never been overcome. The ridiculous levels of expenditure required to fight the Cold War drained the coffers of money that should have been spent upgrading and modernising American industry.

Basically, America fell apart.

The process wasn’t a straight line, but it was inexorable, and it continues. The latest ludicrous forays into the Middle East have merely exacerbated both the discontent and cost burden to the economy.

Now, America faces decades of rediscovering and reinventing itself. Problems that were created in decades will take decades to fix. And the likelihood is that America will never again be as dominant as it was for most of the 20th century. But the eagle can, and should, soar again. America is above all an inventive nation, stable, highly educated, wealthy, and determined. But to get back to the ideal of an America with a strong place in the world will require new creative thinking, and above all it will require unity of purpose as it charts a new course.

There are some signs America has the determination to make the required changes. But what is tragically also obvious is that right now the Republican Party is failing to see the absolute requirement for it to play a full and meaningful part in the compact that will be required to achieve that.

Mesmerised by the types of idiots displayed above, and a few loudmouths in Congress, the leadership of the Republican Party appears unable or unwilling to advance a coherent set of proposals to address the very real difficulties America faces. Where is the new thinking on tax policy, just as one example? Merely “cutting taxes” is nothing more than a mantra. Any attempt to deal with the sovereign debt crisis in America will need a combination of new taxes and lowering expenditure. America needs to approach the fact that it is essentially bankrupt not with ideology but with ruthless pragmatism: the American tax and fiscal system is badly in need of thoroughgoing renewal and revision. But the GOP does nothing but parrot “lower taxes” as a solution. “Lower taxes” is not an answer, is is just an “anti” dog-whistle. And not one, incidentally, that offers any real hope of relief to those that are currently being conned into supporting the whistling. The problem is much more complex than “lower taxes”. It needs America’s brightest and best to work co-operatively to effect profound and lasting change.

As one American commentator David Hawkins noted, it is interesting that in his recent startling GOP primary victory over the expected Tea Party winner, Thad Cochran reached across the aisle to registered Democrats to back him, aware of the unusual fact that in his state voters from either party can vote in the primaries of the other, provided they have not voted in a primary previously. With this timely move, and resisting millions in spending from the far right to unseat him, instead of being tossed out on his ear as the right cheerfully prophesised, he has instead guaranteed becoming one of the most influential players in the coming Congress.

The senator who looked to become the Tea Party movement’s biggest scalp of 2014 is now in position to be the small government conservatives’ worst nightmare of 2015. Cochran’s upset runoff victory has made him a totally safe bet for a seventh term, and also increased by a small notch the prospect that he and his fellow Republicans could win control of the Senate this fall. We don’t think it will, but if that happens, Cochran has not only the seniority but also the vanquished victor’s clout necessary to claim the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee — where he would surely restore some of the spend-along-to-get-along spirit of bipartisan collegiality that drives insurgents on the right absolutely nuts.

constflagfl2Will the leadership of the GOP take note of the opportunity to resurrect the old bi-party consensus? We are at a tipping point.

If they did, we would see an end to any nonsense about impeaching Obama (who has done nothing impeachable), about any more shut downs of government expenditure, about strangling the Executive of funds, or anything like it. We would see a determination to reform Obamacare so it worked better for a greater number of people, rather than lingering talk of abolishing it. We would see a deal more hard work and effort going into jointly-supported initiatives to create real economic activity, (based on manufacturing, not on paper shuffling), we would see the resolution of currency and trade issues with the fast-growing Indian and Chinese sectors, a deeper engagement with Asia generally, action on developing climate-friendly energy production, innovation in IT and industry, and much more. And we would see a re-working of the American economic system to lift the burden of big government off the backs of those it really hurts most, the very people it is trying to help.

Yes, here will always be differences in emphasis between the Democrat and Republican tribes. But the current split is toxic, and dangerous.

Being “anti” everything is, basically, anti-American, and doomed to fail. It’s called the UNITED States of America, remember?

Someone tell them.

 

 

I would not want you to worry, Dear Reader, that your country-hopping correspondent had fallen foul of some mishap or tropical nasty, so I felt it appropriate to send you a small missive to assure you that all goes well with the Wellthisiswhatithink clan and to give you a brief and impressionistic report on Vietnam in 2014.

Not that, of course, one really has the faintest idea what the “real” Vietnam is like by swanning around from one five star resort to another, plunging into cool, soothing swimming pools and the occasional sweaty hour or two wandering from one bespoke tailor to the next to listen to their tales of woe about how if they reduce the price by just one more Dong for you Dear Sir then their twenty four children will not eat that night.

Nevertheless, your eagle-eyed reporter can share a few insights with you about this most recent Asian country to open up to the West and our holiday dollars.

 

They start young, and just seem to never stop.

They start young, and just seem to never stop.

 

It would be reprehensible if the first observation was not how exquisitely kindly and charming the Vietnamese are, and seemingly universally, too. They smile instantly your gaze alights on them, and the smiles are perfectly unforced and genuine. It hardly seems to matter whether one is begging for a free bottle of ice cold water (the tap stuff being somewhat dodgy by all accounts) or opening a conversation about buying their hotel for 10 bazillion trillion Dong or so. The smiles are immediate and delighted. Approximately 20% of the population is Buddhist, and to our eyes their karma is looking pretty good, right now.

Flying into Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, and still so, bizarrely, in its airport moniker of Sgn and in the masthead of the daily English language sheet The Saigon News) and thence into Da Nang on the east coast, a few glances out of the window reveal a nation rapidly becoming industrialised, but apparently not with the same levels of attendant smog, thank the Good Lord, as one finds everywhere in China.

Vast new manufacturing facilities sit cheek-by-jowl with fields of rice and other vegetables that look, presumably, much as they have for centuries. One delicious local crop is called “Morning Glory”, and is definitely an addition to next year’s veggie patch at home. Huge rivers snake lazily by, curiously absent the leisure craft that would fill them back home, and presumably will here in years to come, when the miracles of free market economics married to strict central government combine to create yet one more Asian tiger with the baying of its attendant and hungrily consumerist middle-class.

The newspaper proudly proclaims that a local satrap has reassured a visiting dignitary from Byelorussia or somesuch that Vietnam is now a totally free economy. This is instantly contradicted by the fact that the casino in our hotel is for the use of foreign passport holders only, but this seems a quibbling observation compared to the wild-east boom clearly going on down every street and around every corner. No pair of hands appear to lie idle, anywhere. Everyone is hammering, stitching, painting, building, driving, selling, hawking, writing, or phoning.

 

Walk. Don't walk. Er ... yes.

Walk. Don’t walk. Er … yes.

 

Crossing the road is a famously risky experience as one navigates an unbroken horde of scooters and mopeds hurtling towards you, seemingly unrestrained by anything resembling road rules, and all blowing their horns in a pneumatic symphony of breathtaking and ear-pounding proportions that seems to go on unbroken by night and day. There is simply no break in the traffic, so one has to consign oneself to staying permanently rooted and tooted to the spot on the tatty pavement outside the tiny cafe with the enchanting old couple and the wonderful iced coffee unless one is prepared to wager life and limb and simply start strolling slowly but with steely determination across the road, as the locals do. In the end, inspiration strikes, and one starts walking across about half a pace behind a pair of Vietnamese ladies burdened by their shopping and two children each. This is a stroke of genius, and one can now just see, from the centre of the road, how the onrushing traffic adjusts slightly if almost imperceptibly to flow around one like a stream around a rock. We reach the other side, accompanied by the giggles of our guides, and more smiles. It is, nevertheless, not a game for the faint of heart.

 

"Balancing baskets" are still seen everywhere in Vietnam. The effect is somewhat ruined, though, when the woman balacing the baskets comes up and asks "Happy photograph? Very cheap!"

“Balancing baskets” are still seen everywhere in Vietnam. The effect is somewhat ruined, though, when the woman balancing the baskets comes up and asks “Happy photograph? Very cheap!”

 

Many years ago, deep in the last Millennium, when first arriving in Australia to the then sleepy fishing village of Cairns, a newspaper article we penned described how, hopping onto a local skipper’s catamaran for a lazy sail around the islands, it was obvious that the brand new Hilton then being constructed on the waterfront was but the first harbinger of what was to come. The phrase we wrote then, “You cannot disguise a boom when it has decided to happen,” was a lament for the inevitable colonisation and commercialisation of beautiful places. The same crie de coeur could surely be applied to Vietnam today.

The first phase of resort building is done, and the local tourism industry is in about as full a swing as it would be possible to imagine a swinging thing to be. The drinks are becoming more expensive, and tiny, authentic local eateries are gradually being replaced by businesses priced to make the most of the many tourists. My favourite t-shirt thus far simply reads “Good morning, Vietnam!” accompanied by the ubiquitous yellow star, but when you see the same shirt on fifty or so pot-bellied Australian males the joke starts to pall and one feels a tinge of regret that the most popular shirt design sold to eager holidaymakers is a reflection of an American comedy drama and not something more authentically Viet. But such mutterings should not lead you to believe, Dear Reader, that holidaying in Vietnam is just Bognor Regis-by-the-China Sea. The place is still very affordable, the architecture is often unique and charming, (especially the homes and buildings that weren’t flattened by RPGs or B-52s, or which have been re-built in their original style), and we are yet to see the type of crass invasion of McDonald’s and Burger Kings and Starbucks and so on that now make other Asian cities look increasingly like nothing more than more humid versions of Chicago or Berlin.

Something has to pay for all those scooters, I guess. One can only hope the boom is managed a little more gracefully than elsewhere. If so, we will have much to thank what remains of Vietnamese communism for keeping matters held by some sort of rein.

 

Kham Thien street, in Hanoi, which was levelled at 10:45 pm on December 26 1972 in what became known as "the Christmas raids", otherwise known as Operation Linebacker.

Kham Thien street, in Hanoi, which was leveled at 10:45 pm on December 26 1972 in what became known as “the Christmas raids”, otherwise known as Operation Linebacker. In just one night, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed around Kham Thien, a busy shopping street. About 280 people were killed and at least as many again injured. At least 1600 North Vietnamese civilians died during this one campaign by the Americans.

 

I read somewhere that the Americans dropped more tonnage of bombs on Hanoi than the Allies and Axis forces managed to lob at each other in the whole of World War II. These uncomfortable factoids pop into one’s head when one notices that there are very few middle-aged people around. Some old people, plenty of young people, and surprisingly few in between.

The instinctive conviction that the West wiped out a generation of Vietnamese is hard to shake. For them now to greet us back with such obvious pleasure – sheer, unadulterated courtesy – is quite a miracle.

 

Victims of Operation Linebacker are tended to. Today, the faces you see in this photo are indistinguishable from those cheerily serving Mai Tais and Whiskey Sours to the very people who were dropping bombs on them within living memory. What were we thinking?

Victims of Operation Linebacker are tended to. Today, the faces you see in this photo are indistinguishable from those cheerily serving Mai Tais and Whiskey Sours to the very people who were dropping bombs on them within living memory. What were we thinking?

 

It starkly reveals what an insanity the anti-Communist (read, anti-nationalist) wars of the 50s, 60s and 70s really were, and Vietnam in particular. It is clear these people wanted nothing more nor less than the right to benefit from the wealth of their own land, and to be allowed to make their own decisions.

Once that was established, they have reintegrated with the family of nations at an astonishing rate, and with a good grace – sheer good-naturedness – that should put us to shame. They have embraced our way of doing things, and with a willpower and determination that needs to give us pause for thought. This is a people – a nation – that is busy making something, trying things, innovating and bargaining for all it is worth, and not just people rearranging the deck chairs on a ship of state that looks increasingly like the Titanic, which is what Western capitalism more and more resembles.

 

"You try spending all day up to your shoulders in muddy water for a while and see which job you'd prefer."

“You try spending all day up to your shoulders in muddy water for a while and see which job you’d prefer.”

 

We have seen just one massive, majestic water buffalo.

It was not pulling a plough in a paddy field: it was tethered outside a new 6-star gated community of villas, peacefully mowing the lawn while its owners sold river trips to passing visitors.

Somehow, it seemed the perfect symbol of Vietnam today. As we rattled past in our bus, I could have sworn it winked at me.

And smiled, of course.

Obama state of the union

All the rhetorical flourish is still there, but has Obama, in reality, run out of puff?

The BBC commentator on Obama’s annual address to America mentioned him having had the idealism beaten out of him.

At the Wellthisiswhatithink outpost we find that perceptively accurate, and as a corollary  think that the speech was a lost opportunity to appeal over the heads of the Republican leadership and make a general appeal for genuine national unity and bi-partisanship.

Yes, any President has a perfect right to point to falling unemployment and so on, but Obama often tends to the triumphal in his commentary on current events and the performance of his administration, and in our opinion it’s always the wrong note to strike, and right now, especially so.

Despite having supported him in general since before the primaries, and still doing so, we think it’s fair to say that he has generally been a disappointment as a president, with some good marks for attempting things that matter (whatever one thinks of Obamacare seeking to extend health cover in the USA is laudable and productive – a healthier nation is not only morally correct it’s also good sense economically) but then again the expectations on him at the start were ludicrous, born of both his soaring rhetoric and the excitement of the country actually electing someone who was half black.

It is too early to write his political obituaries, and we think (others will disagree) that he will ultimately win praise for co-ordinating an effective response to the financial/Wall Street collapse. (The alternative, after all, was unthinkable.) But he has squandered his political capital, and a new style and approach would recover some of it and leave the refuseniks on the right blind-sided.

The problems America faces are very substantial, so it is questionable whether anyone would do a really “good” job at the moment – the weaknesses are structural and ingrained, not at surface level. We are not sure the American people are ready for the pain of a root-and-branch reform of the Government, though unquestionably the size of their Government, at all levels and under both parties, is vastly over-bloated. If the pain of restructuring was accompanied by less overt politicking, more transparency and more obvious progress towards recovery it might be welcomed. But we are not holding our breath.

In general, whilst a recovery is underway, it is weak, patchy, and it will do nothing to address the overall problem of Government (and private) debt. Congressional sabre-rattling cannot obscure the fact that besides cutting social programs there are no real solutions being offered. There seems no appetite at all on the right for increased taxes – an inevitable component of any long-term effort to solve the debt crisis that needs to accompany reducing expenditure – nor for cutting back the ludicrously large military budget. As always, political posturing wins out over simple commonsense.

As the website “Science Progress” pointed out three years ago, “As the debate in Washington pivots this week from deficit reduction to job creation, progressives and conservatives will be vying to convince the American people that they have the best plan to get America working again. But any jobs plan will fall flat if it doesn’t lay out a strategy for investing in innovation. Conservative proposals largely echo now-defunct Reagan-era thinking that tax cuts alone can spur the private sector to create jobs. Yet effective corporate tax rates are lower today than they were under President Reagan and are certainly much lower than many of our competitor nations. The same is true of the effective tax rate for top-, middle-, and low-income families. Tax cuts neither created the jobs of the past nor will they create the jobs of the future. Investing in innovation will.

Innovation is what has created the bulk of American jobs today and it will most certainly be the force that creates the jobs of tomorrow. America is home to the world’s best jobs and most prosperous economy quite simply because we’ve invented and made the things that the world wants to buy. And then we’ve invented ways to make those things better, faster, and cheaper.

The cotton gin, the trans-continental railroad, interchangeable parts, assembly line manufacturing, the automobile, the airplane, the personal computer, the photovoltaic solar cell, GPS technology, the Internet, the mapping of the human genome, the iPhone—these inventions and the companies that produce them have directly or indirectly supported millions of American jobs.”

President Barack Obama delivers a speech on innovation at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y. But America needs to move beyond fine words and onto a national effort.

President Barack Obama delivers a speech on innovation at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y. But America needs to move beyond fine words and onto a national effort.

Indeed, as President Barack Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address, “In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It is how we make our living.” Yet progress is painfully slow.

This goes neatly to the real issue behind everything, which is that whilst America will continue to be a vast and powerful player in world markets, it has really not wrestled with the growth of Asia and what it means, and it shows no real signs of doing so. As the middle class in Asia grows and provides adequate markets for its rulers to sell to, their desire/need to sell their goods cheaply to the West will fall, as will their appetite for bailing out the West with their profits to keep the overseas markets liquid. At that point, all economic hell breaks loose.

That’s why long-term solution for America has to be innovation. The country cannot compete with a vast Asian population producing run-of-the-mill goods more cheaply. Creating and manufacturing products that reflect the finest pinnacle of American ingenuity and forceful determination is really the only option available. Goods that the rest of the world want to buy, and are willing to pay a premium for. To his credit Obama did mention the need for new hi-tech industry hubs. But those remarks already seem to have disappeared without trace in the commentariat. Yet public investment in the human genome project, for example, had a return on investment of more than 14,000 percent in terms of economic output per federal dollar invested since 1988, and has led to the creation of millions of biotech jobs that could not have existed without it. Similarly, a seemingly tiny investment of the Defense Advanced Research Agency, or DARPA, spawned the Internet, giving rise to trillions of dollars in worldwide economic activity, new businesses, and, more importantly, new ways of doing business.

It seems so obvious, yet the political elite seem unable to bend their mind to the opportunity. Fort example, the response to the speech from Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers was timid, one might almost say “vapid”. One tweeted review of it read “We have a plan. The plan is to come up with a plan.” Quite.

In our view there is little doubt that the entrepreneurial flair for which the country is famous is flagging: running a business now seems as much about rapidly merging your firm with someone else’s, taking a big payoff and bonus tranche of shares, and heading off to enjoy your new found wealth – aided and abetted by so-called rain-maker brokers who exist merely to grease the wheels of deals that make little or no economic sense, as often as not, beyond enriching the participants – as it is about dreaming new dreams, innovating, creating markets, and selling to them.

One of the reasons is that many American businesspeople have spent their entire careers wallowing around managing businesses cautiously to avoid a loss rather than to create a profit – and doing so for so long that they have actually never experienced the sort of drive and courage needed to create real new wealth. They are risk-averse managers, not passionately-driven owners. There are honourable exceptions, of course, but not many, and their numbers decline.

All that stuff? That’s not capitalism. That’s corporate laziness. And the Republicans are as much to blame as anyone else, for markedly failing to use their cosy relationship with corporate barons to urge them to do something useful with their economic power instead of just lining their own pockets, for fear of the endless flow of donations into their re-election coffers drying up.

A President who dared to tackle all that nonsense? Who put the country’s problems squarely in front of the population, and dared Americans to recapture their brighter past?

Yes, we’d like to see that. No, we don’t expect it. Especially from a man who seems to have lost much of his appetite.

Incidentally, one curiosity. The speech is a constitutional tradition given in front of a joint session of all the members Congress each year. The exception is one “designated survivor” who remains separate in a secure location in case the Congress and President are wiped out in an attack on the Capitol. This year, it was Obama’s Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz, who also happens to be an expert on nuclear weapons. Cheerful thought.

failbook

Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

The age-old aphorism wasn’t originally meant to describe teenagers, but it could. This article from Yahoo neatly captures a problem the granddaddy of all social networks — Facebook — seems to have. Facebook has turned in impressive financial numbers lately, and its stock has soared by more than 80% so far this year, to around $48. But company execs alarmed some analysts recently by acknowledging that teenagers are falling out of like with the site that seemed like a phenomenon when teens first discovered it. (Maybe that’s why two key FB execs unloaded hundreds of millions of dollars of stock in the last couple of days? Ed.)

This is not the age group for a new technology company to piss off.

This is not the age group for a new technology company to piss off.

In a way, that’s a good problem to have. Many companies covet the cachet (and potential future customers) that come with a high proportion of teenage users. But old folks, no matter how uncool, tend to be the ones with money to spend today. For a while, Facebook had the best of both worlds:  A robust teenage audience that kept the vibe young, plus enough oldsters to justify high ad rates and juice profits.

There’s now a lot of competition, however, and Facebook is apparently losing teenage users to trendier networks such as Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram (which Facebook owns), Tumblr (owned by Yahoo, which published this story), and lesser-known online hideouts.

To figure out why, I asked my two teenage kids (who in turn asked a few of their friends), plus a few test subjects recruited through Twitter. Here are the five biggest problems they have with Facebook:

Parents. Apparently they’re ruining everything on Facebook. “If you want to comment on something funny, and you see that somebody’s Mom already commented on it, you don’t want their mom to yell at you,” my 15-year-old son told me. Yeah, that’s a bummer, I consoled him. Many parents, of course, fear their kids will be stalked, bullied or somehow abused via Facebook, so looking over their kids’ digital shoulder is just another way of protecting them. I’m willing to go out on a limb, however, and bet that some parents simply think they’re cooler than they are, and would be crushed to know their teenage kids don’t consider them the best companions, even online.

It’s not just parents. My 17-year-old daughter told me about a friend with an aunt who routinely lurks around her niece’s Facebook account. “Every single photo that [my friend] is tagged in, she’ll write a paragraph about how beautiful [my friend] is. I’m just like, ‘okaaaaay….’” my daughter told me.

Too much pointless stuff. If you ‘re a forty- or fifty-something Facebook user and you’re wondering what all that clutter on the site is about, you’re not as out of touch as you think. “Facebook has 100 things on the newsfeed we just don’t care about,” one of my daughter’s high-school friends explained. Examples: ceaseless invites to play Farmville or other games you may not be interested in, or prompts to answer “questions about me.” Renaud, a 19-year-old Facebook user at McGill University in Montreal, finds that other networks, with far less clutter, are now better at what Facebook used to be good at. “I feel that instantaneous reactions (or what used to be Facebook status) are now more compelling on Twitter, pictures are more fun on Instagram, funny pictures and videos are more tailored for your interests on Tumblr or Vine, and messages on the wall of a friend have been replaced by Snapchat,” he wrote.

Too many ads. Teenagers, not surprisingly, are hip to corporate exploitation. “The biggest problem is the ads,” one of my son’s friends emailed. “Yes, they are needed to make money, but Facebook no longer seems like a social networking site first. It seems like a gold mine for companies to place ads and is straying from its actual purpose.” Particular gripes: Ads that pop up in notifications, and others that scroll down the page right along with the cursor when scanning the newsfeed, as if there’s no escaping them.

It’s vapid. “Everything on Facebook is to gain likes,” another of my daughter’s friends complained. “It’s like a popularity contest. It requires a lot to maintain, like having a good profile picture that will get a lot of likes.” My son said one of his biggest aggravations, after parents, is people — OK, girls — continually asking him to like their status as part of “truth is” requests, whatever those are. “It just fills up your timeline with really stupid stuff,” he said.

Fake friends. In case you’re wondering, adults aren’t the only ones who find it weird to be “friends” with people you’ve never met. A teenager at my son’s school said one of his biggest issues with Facebook is that “it’s normal to be friends with people you don’t know.” One of my daughter’s friends agreed: “I’m friends with people I don’t even know on Facebook, so my newsfeed to me is sometimes just pointless,” she said. “I explore the lives of strangers, and it is a complete waste of my time.” Maybe teenagers and their parents aren’t so different after all.

Meanwhile, we are not expecting anyone at the Wellthisiswhatithink ranch to be cured of their FB addiction anytime soon, but we are also quite convinced that it’s time for The Next Big Thing. Overdue, in fact. And when Facebook dies, as it will, we trust they realise it was because of their own idiocy – filling a social network with ads, push-posting endless amounts of what people don’t want to see, and worst of all, banning people for spamming when they weren’t – by computer, with no human appeal. Zero customer service. it is a matter of time.
"That's not an economy, Son. This is an economy."

“That’s not an economy, Son. This is an economy.”

We are constantly reminding our fellow Australians that we should be more generous with those in need in our own society, and with overseas aid (the growth in which has just been shamefully scaled back by the incoming government), and with those who seek asylum on our shores. And the most recent data confirms our view, and we will continue to make it.

But sometimes it does the soul good to revel in what’s going right. Which is why we note with interest that Australians are again judged to be the richest people in the world, by one measure at least. What’s more, we share it about more.

The median wealth of adult Australians now stands at $US219,505 ($A233,504) – the highest level in the world, according to the Credit Suisse 2013 Global Wealth Report, released on Wednesday.

Median wealth is the midpoint between richest and poorest.

By the measure of average wealth, Australians fall back to second with $US402,578 per person, ranking behind the Swiss who were the world’s richest on $US513,000.

Credit Suisse chief investment strategist, Australia, David McDonald said the nation’s household wealth per adult grew by 2.6 per cent in the past year. That was slower than the global average of 4.9 per cent, but Australia still had the best distribution of wealth among developed nations.

There's a reasonable chance he or she is a millionaire, too.

Irritatingly for, well, just about everyone else in the world, there’s a reasonable chance he or she is a millionaire, too.

“Although we are up there at a high level of wealth per adult we’ve also got a better spread than a lot of the other developed countries including, obviously, the Swiss, but also places like the US,” Mr McDonald said.

The number of Australian millionaires increased by 38,000 to 1.123 million people.

The millionaire calculation includes the value of real estate and other assets less household debt.

If you get bored making money or playing on the beach, you can always go for a walk out back ...

If you get bored making money or playing on the beach, you can always go for a walk out back …

Australians were shown to have a much higher level of wealth held in property and non-financial assets – 58.5 per cent compared to the world average of 45 per cent and just 38 per cent in the US.

The US remains the millionaire capital of the world, with 13.2 million people topping the seven-figure mark and nearly 46,000 people in the ultra-high net worth $US50 million-plus category.

Australia has 2,059 ultra-high net worth individuals, 2.1 per cent of the global total.

While the Land Down Under has maintained its place at the top in median terms for three years running now, Credit Suisse reported that North America has regained its title as the wealthiest region in the world.

Rising house prices and stock markets fuelled a 12 per cent rise in North American wealth to $US78.9 trillion from mid-2012 to mid-2013, putting the region ahead of the Asia Pacific and Europe for the first time since before the global financial crisis.

Credit Suisse global head of research for private banking, Giles Keating, said Japan’s economic slump had dragged down the Asia-Pacific region.

“The fourth annual Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report shows an $US11 trillion rise in (global) wealth to $US241 trillion, with the US as the clear winner, overtaking Europe, while Asia Pacific fell back due to sharp depreciation of the yen,” Mr Keating said.

What do we think? Well, we think Australia has some marvellous natural advantages, not least, a tiny population by world standards, dotted around a massive continent, supported by staggering mineral and agricultural wealth.

All well and good. But it’s what Aussies have created with that money that impresses us. It is in the distribution of and the use made of that wealth that Australians really lead the world. You do not see the extremes of wealth in Australia the way you do in, say, Russia, America, or the UK.

Along the way, Aussies have created probably the world’s best and fairest healthcare system (even though we still complain about it volubly), a decent social safety net for most people (though some still fall through the cracks), the taxation system is reasonable and mostly progressive (even if it is held up in the air by an essentially regressive broad-based consumption tax, but that is now basically unavoidable if one wishes to combat the ‘black economy’), and entrepreneurial flair is encouraged and applauded.

Industrial disputation is at an all time low, inflation non-existent, unemployment persistently virtually non-existent, and at the root of all this is the obvious fact that the concept of a “fair go” – that calm, decency and fairness should still and always form the core of social planning – is seen in no way to contest the headspace devoted to entrepreneurship.

Aussie cities are essentially functional, safe and enticing, and culturally and sports-wise the country punches way above its weight, revelling in a rich and diverse contest of attractions, just as it also makes the most of the fragile natural beauty that sees it firmly ensconced as one of the eco-playgrounds of the world.

THE right to a "fair go" is the thing almost all Australians put at the top of their list when it comes to values. A survey in 2006 showed 91 per cent of people believe a fair go is important, with most listing the need for rights to welfare, housing and indigenous reconciliation to make the country fairer.

THE right to a “fair go” is the thing almost all Australians put at the top of their list when it comes to values.
A survey in 2006 showed 91 per cent of people believe a fair go is important, with most listing the need for rights to welfare, housing and indigenous reconciliation to make the country fairer.

Most of all, though, and despite all the financial success, Australia is truly a society where the value of one’s character is considered more important than the content of one’s property portfolio.

At the end of the day, the richest in society will sit down with the poorest and enjoy a glass of something cooling, and woe betide any fat cat who tries to pull rank.

And yet somehow, this affection for egalitarianism also somewhat miraculously translates into a society where plenty of people make pots of money, and enjoy spending it, too.

Australians have done something very right, for a very long time.

And whatever the political complexion of the Government, they essentially continue to do so.

When one views the chaos in Europe, and the stagnation of American civil discourse, it is very hard to resist crowing. Just a little.

Every country has its own demons, and no one solution fits all, or is necessarily easily transferable. And needless to say, self-congratulation can go too far – not everything in the Great Southern Land is perfect.

But in all seriousness, some countries could do a lot worse than take a close look at Australia’s modus operandi.

(Reporting from AAP and others)

Fox News

I get so irritated with the smug, self-satisfied, careless commentary I see on this so-called News channel. And for Fox News, you could read the entire current field of Republican Party Presidential candidates, and a whole heap of commentators who should know better, too, who have all replaced incisive analysis and creative ideas with thoughtless dog-whistle popularism.

Former Republican heroes like Dwight D Eisenhower, who left Roosevelt’s New Deal pretty much intact, remember, must be turning in their graves at the current state of the American right.

For the record, and we should say it long and loud, poverty is not the fault of the Government, or of the poor. It is the fault of a system which is fundamentally unwieldy, that lurches from over-spending to under-spending, driven by fear and not rationalism, and also veers between mindless, greed-fuelled private credit expansion to a capital strike. (Oh yes, business and investors strike too, not just unions and workers.)

One thing and one thing alone will rescue America’s economic standing in the world, and that is innovation – like the innovation that led to the mass production of motor vehicles, or flight, or telecommunications, or advanced mining techniques, or the micro-chip, or intuitive computing – leading to enhanced trade in terms favourable to the US.

America needs to stop echoing past glories and knuckle down. And blaming the weakest in their society for the laziness and ineptitude of the strongest is not only cruel and unfair, it is pointless.

Innovation. Everything else – everything – is moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic.

Bring. It. On.

Bring. It. On.

So let’s just get this straight.

This apparently disastrous “fiscal cliff” will raise US taxes to a more normal level by worldwide advanced economy standards, slash the bloated US budget and dramatically reduce their deficit, and thus their need to go cap in hand to the Chinese for money all the time.

The whole of the rest of the world is taking a haircut thanks to the chaos a greedy Wall Street foisted on us all by selling houses to people who couldn’t afford them, thanks to ludicrous under-regulation cheerfully supported by most Americans under Carter and Bush. Tell me again why they shouldn’t now share the pain?

Someone tell me again why jumping off the cliff a bad idea? How come Americans aren’t running towards the cliff like a bunch of lemmings on crack cocaine?

At the very least, if it forces them to make some real changes, then this much-chattered-about cloud will have had a very silver lining. Not that this will stop the media from declaring it a disaster, and getting people yet more worried.

But don’t worry, everyone, they’ll cobble together some sort of looking-good doing-little nonsense to put off having to make any really innovative, hard or difficult decisions to deal with their structural economic problems.*

I see I am not alone in this assumption cum criticism of American lawmakers on all sides: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/dec/30/obama-tax-reform-balance-books

Interestingly, getting along for one in five Americans actually think the cliff dive will have a positive effect for them and the economy, too, as you can see on this chart which I found on http://scinvestlink.wordpress.com/

Washington Post survey shows some Americans aren't too worried.

Washington Post survey shows some Americans aren’t too worried.

OK, so how’s this for innovative thinking? A new $200 levy for each gun in a household set against a new $100 payment for each unwanted gun handed in might be a start: I reckon it’d be revenue positive for the Feds and reduce the current population of guns from it’s current ludicrous level of approximately one per member of the population.

Oh and while we’re about it, can anyone whisper “cut the ludicrously high level of American defence spending” without ending up in Guantanamo Bay, as this excellent article points out.

Bah, humbug. Happy New Year, Dear Reader.

*UPDATE – er, yup. Expect to hear “Kick The Can” a few thousand times in the next couple of days. Happy reading.

YAHOO FINANCE http://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/fiscal-cliff-deal-just-patch-225254454.html

FORBES http://www.forbes.com/sites/beltway/2013/01/01/with-lame-fiscal-cliff-deal-congress-cant-even-kick-the-can-right/

RADIOVICEONLINE (quotes various right wing commentaries) http://radioviceonline.com/over-the-cliff-senate-kicks-the-can-down-the-road/?utm_campaign=twitter&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=twitter

HUFFINGTON POST BLOW BY BLOW ACCOUNT http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/01/fiscal-cliff-news_n_2393443.html

What is the answer to America's economic woes?

What is the answer to America's economic woes?

It would be fair to say, ahead of the crucial speech by the head of the Fed today/tonight, (depending where you are in the world), that all sorts of people have ideas as to what the American establishment should do to fix up the current economic mess, but most everyday folks don’t understand any of the prescriptions on offer.

The following collection of opinions by four leading economists interviewed by the BBC may help to cast some light on the topic, which is surely of great interest to all of us.

It includes an easy-to-read “ready reckoner” explaining all of the Fed’s available actions.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-14644823

I cannot help but feel, however, that right now the answer to America’s woes lies in the hands of its people and communities, not its rulers. Perhaps it was ever thus. Looking at the very restricted room for manoeuvre that the Fed currently has, it is certainly true at the moment.

Somehow, the brow-beaten and frightened people of this great country, which used to literally throb with the rhythm and pulse of a citizenry who believed anyone could “make it big” given enough effort and application, have to be encouraged to take advantage – right now – of how cheap money is to borrow, dragged kicking and screaming from their cocoons to invest in their own futures, to start or expand businesses, to invent valuable new products and services, to take business trips and engage the world in what they have to offer … bluntly, Americans need to grab themselves by their own bootstraps and lift themselves up.

But Americans, like many in the world, seem utterly mesmerised by the current economic woes of their country, and others.

Unaccustomed to times anything like as hard as this, mis-led for a generation as to the health of their economy and their genuine standing in the world, and fed a relentless diet of depressing economic news and the prognostiocations of doom-saying public commentators – not to mention watching the antics of politicians who have eschewed principled leadership and rely instead on name-calling and jingoism to get themselves re-elected – well, these people are just simply very confused, and very scared.

Like millions of rabbits trapped in the twin headlights of a media-led misery fest and weak, self-serving leadership, they hunker down with cable TV and pay down their mortgages, reduce their credit card debt, and hope like hell that the economic Angel of Death doesn’t visit their front door.

Well never mind what the economists say, or the politicians, and least of all the TV and radio shock-jocks.

Someone yell it from the rooftops: Americans need to do it for themselves.

After all, there could hardly be a better time to try and make a go of it. Money is so cheap, a business simply needs to cover its actual operating costs to be in profit.

So stop waiting for someone else to fix this situation. Come on, Americans. You can do it.

PS This article makes almost as much sense if you Find and Replace “America” with Britain, France, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Australia …

Biden and Obama

When is someone going to lead America out of its near-terminal decline?

Quote of the day: “The United States is hard-wired for innovation. Openness, free exchange of ideas, free enterprise, and liberty are among the reasons why the United States, in my view, is at this moment the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.” – Vice President Biden in China, speaking about America’s ability to compete in international markets.

I agree with Biden entirely, and from this distance he seems like a thoroughly likeable and decent bloke, with considerable intelligence, but the key phrase must surely be “at this moment”.

Because as sure as night follows day, if the American decline is not arrested, and fast, then – and I refer here to the generalised loss of confidence, the loss of will power, the loss of genuine self belief, and the loss of communal will, not just its current economic difficulties – this great country, this great and wonderful experiment in democracy, if you will – is going to end up as an also ran behind Asia, with who-knows-what knock on effect for the world, and for its own people.

Let’s shine a flashlight on the situation. At the moment America’s economy is supported almost entirely by lending from an economy which is command based, using often brutal techniques (and also many subtle ones) to suppress dissent, which is riddled with corruption, and despite its spectacular growth is entirely based on Confucian ideals of obedience to authority and lack of personal empoerment and individuality. That’s right, China.

If it wasn’t for China gobbling up American bonds (to keep their biggest market for cheaply produced goods open) America would, quite simply, be stony broke. One assumes Biden’s hosts were chuckling somewhere deep inside their inscrutable exteriors.

Long story short: America needs to re-discover its entrepreneurism, passion, unity and commitment, or it will simply be left behind by its less principled and more aggressive competitors. And if that’s the case, then liberal democracy will have failed, and we can all look forward to centuries of forelock tugging, with bread and circuses to keep the drones quiet.

At the moment, only the educated elite in America realise this – the chattering chardonnay classes, the policy wonks on all sides – the mass of ordinary people are wandering the streets with patriotic jingoism ringing in their ears, wondering wide-eyed with shock and distress how the hell they suddenly have locked-in 9.2% unemployment and a political establishment that is seems to be irretrievably mired in petty sniping, partisanship, and self-service. Even the spasmodic jerking of the Tea Party and others reveals no general understanding of the depth of the problem, but rather just a blind, angry and bitter communal shaking of the head, because it has, as its target, the wrong problem.

The size of government is not the issue, it is the inability of the economy to support the size of Government. If America was still belting down the outer lane of the freeway at a hundred miles an hour no one would care less about the size of Government, as its expenditure would be self-supporting from increased corporate and personal tax revenues, and an inevitable reduction in welfare spending.

What no-one in authority dares to say is that the true problem in America is the failure of private capital – bluntly, the American Emperor (for which you can read “free market capitalism”, unfettered by any focused direction whatsoever) has no clothes, and really hasn’t had for a generation. Because no one dares to say this for fear of sounding unpatriotic or an unbeliever, the blame for the current mess is being sheeted home to an easier to spot target in the Government, and its even easier to do that when “Government” is represented by a cerebral and gentle coloured man who seems, on walking into the White House, to have lost his ability or will to reach over the heads of the disfunctional political class and reach ordinary people any more.

As I have said many times in recent years, having visited both America and the Far East for both business and leisure, the solution is clear.

America needs to use its knowledge-base to make things that other people cannot make: and not only that, but make them better, faster, and to higher quality than other people can copy, and then it needs to sell that stuff hard to a world which is no longer just a bunch of easily-influenced barely civilised semi-rural economies, medieval kleptocracies, or war-wearied, worn out old democracies.

The world is a much more competitive and capable place now, and America cannot rest on its laurels for a day longer.

America may still be the greatest country in the world in some respects, but mindlessly repeating that mantra is holding it back from resuming any meaningful world leadership. Sadly, I see no one in America, despite my respect for Obama, who seems up to the challenge of first of all “telling it like it is”, and then yoking the whole country to the effort needed to turn things around.

America needs an internal crusade akin to that evidenced during the Second World War, or perhaps the New Deal response to the Depression, to break the cycle and get back to where it was. From whom, or where, will such an effort be initiated?

Discuss.

Elsewhere on the worldwide web I am engaged in a fascinating debate on the recent riots in the UK, why they occured, and what to do about them. This series of comments from Paul Manzotti bears repeating, I think.

London riots

The recent British rioting - symptom of a deeper malaise than mere greed?

Seriously, people, the riots cost us £200 million. The bank bailout (cost) £1.5 trillion, a significant amount of which seems to have been used to line their own pockets, and they haven’t had to change one iota.

As a result we’re about to have another financial disaster, only this time we can’t do anything about it, because the governments have no money left to bail themselves out, because we gave it all to the banks. Meanwhile, there is an estimated £11.5 trillion squirrelled away in tax havens by a group of people who don’t seem to have the moral fibre to ask themselves the questions “How much more money do I need? Maybe I should try contributing to society a bit?”. And yet the nation is getting its knickers in a twist about the section of society that has tried to join in with getting money for nothing. Get a sense of perspective. Yes, we have a rotten society, but maybe, instead of looking at the bottom tiers of it and try to work out what’s gone wrong, maybe we should look at the upper echelons first? You know, the ones with the money and power to actually *do* something about it.

I have a lot of sympathy with Paul’s point, without in the least seeking to excuse the disgraceful behaviour of the British rioters. (And neither does he, incidentally.) It is easy to rant and rage against the criminality of what went on – right up to allegations of senseless manslaughter and murder – but we need, urgently, to understand and explain the rioting, so that we can learn the lessons.

(It’s the same problem with extremist Islamic violence against the west. Condemning it just isn’t enough. Sloganeering – “these people are evil” – may be emotionally satisfying, but it’s ultimately unhelpful. We need to look at the causes of the hatred, or it will be never ending.)

It has seemed to me for a long time that increasingly much of America and Europe in particular have become hard, brutalised societies, where old-fashioned concepts such as mutual inter-dependence and civic duty have become little more than amusing and slightly embarrassing cliches in a world dumbed down to the consumption of seemingly perpetual reality TV elimination shows, the goings on of uber-rich sports “stars” or other celebs and their charmless entourages, and grasping business owners paid obscene sums of money, largely regardless of their company’s actual performance.

The powerful in today’s society are the inheritors of the selfish, nihilistic nonsense talked by people like Margaret Thatcher (not that she was uniquely stupid, just more successfully so) when she opined “There is no such thing as society”, and we are all now reaping the whirlwind which that type of thinking inevitably leads us to.

It is hardly surprising, is it, that with no stake in this brave new world, and no apparent way to get a leg up to participate, some people resort to mindless thuggery and larceny? But the problem surely runs deeper.

For decades we have avoided imposing any moral expectations on people’s behaviour, mesmerised by the “Turn on, and tune out” principles of the 1960s. But those principles – which I embraced as enthusiastically as anyone else – grew up as a spontaneous revolution against a boring and stultifying conformity, and they have proven inadequate as a blueprint for mankind’s future.

But instead of embracing the best of the what was proposed by the flower power generation – nothing wrong with a bit more love in the world, just watch Woodstock and weep for the lost innocence – the Friendmanites, neo-cons and assorted political nasties reacted too far the other way, demolishing as quaint and outdated widely cherished and long-held principles of social inclusion and communal responsibility, (once shared by all sides of politics), and replacing them with a dog-eat-dog version of capitalism that harks back not to the intellectual traditions of Adam Smith and Disraeli – as claimed – but to a lawless free for all of medieval robber barons and cowed populations.

Concepts of corporate responsibility were swept away and replaced with a hunger for profit at any price. And internationally, it became morally acceptable to wage wars of dubious legality with apparent disregard for the human suffering inflicted on those unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of the West’s sophisticated armory of weaponry.

After all, if it’s OK for those in charge of us to write off the slaughter of 200,000 Iraqi civilians as merely unfortunate “collateral damage”, then what does nicking a pair of Nikes really matter? You know, like really? It’s all the same, innit?

As a result of this loss of focus, the West looks more and more like a construct that has lost its way, and it is rapidly being supplanted by the economic aggression of the command economies of the East. As a TV commentator remarked the other day, we may be the generation that witnesses the “end of the West”.

A long bow to draw from a week of soon-quelled and essentially avariciuous rioting? Well, perhaps. And humankind is yet to work out the perfect balance of any society.Perhaps it’s nothing more than a little local difficulty.

But I think not.

And I also think the future will be dark, indeed, if we end up losing, through inattention or lack of willpower, all the things the West successfully exported to the world for four hundred years or more – yes, patchily, it is true – things like innovation, industry, exploration, the rule of law, the concept of civil service, proportionate international behaviour, domestic democratic freedoms, and not to mentionpersonal civility and responsibility – and replace them with societies made up of obedient worker drones, kept in check by the doling out of material wealth in tightly-controlled countries run by ever more powerful elites.

As Paul said, if we’re going to fix this, we have to shine a bright and unblinking light on the whole of Western society, and, we probably need to start from scratch to get back to what we once took for granted.

Sadly, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for our leaders to show the intestinal fortitude to begin, let alone sustain, the process.

That’s just what I think. Comments?

An old friend of mine from the UK emails me with a rant against the idiocies of the European Union. Unusually, I find myself agreeing with much of what he writes, and sympathising with his rage at paying extra taxes to support Greek taxi drivers who, well, er … don’t.

Civilian casualties in WWII

Since 1939, civilian dead have outnumbered combatant dead in conflicts by more than 10-to-one

As a liberal of some forty years conviction, friends will not be in the least surprised to discover that I am “pro” European integration. However, I have always been a sceptical pro-European, because I don’t think the pro-Europe cause is helped by blinding ourselves to the EU’s obvious failings.

The bureacracy IS bloated, expensive, top heavy, and petty. The compliance regime IS ludicrous. The Euro DOES distort markets – I mean, after all, it’s supposed to.

However, I am old enough to remember the effects of World War Two. My Dad, having served for six years, died of too much stress, two many fags and two many drinks at 47. He was a cheerful man, but broken. And he got off lightly.

For many of us, European Union is the best (and most successful) solution to the eternal problem of too many competing powers crammed into a very small space.

The murderous collapse in the former Yugoslavia revealed the result of NOT enforcing political union. And the United States is built on the same principle, even though they fought a nasty civil war to bed it down.

That’s why political union has always been a goal of mine, and it inevitably leads to some sort of economic union, messy, unwieldly and occasionally downright chaotic as it is. In my opinion, the pro-Europe lobby has for far too long been afraid of admitting it is wholeheartedly in favour of political integration – gutless lack of leadership – and the core of the argument has got lost in the mists of time because of it.

Well, I stand with my head proudly above the parapet, knowing that most Brits would gladly shoot it off right now. A disfunctional European Union is a better option that a disfunctional Europe. Just ask my Dad.