Welcome to the Finfacts Blog

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dail Eireann - Overpaid Legislators and an Indifferent Public

Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Irish Parliament has been in session for the past month and there are about six weeks to go before our over-worked parliamentarians will head off for a six-week break.

Apart from the row in early October, that ensued following an Irish Times report that the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern availed of the financial help from some business friends when Minister for Finance in the early 1990's, the Dáil could still be on a recess given the impact it has been having in recent weeks.

Groucho Marx remarked after attending a cricket game in the UK, "if you suffer from insomnia after this, you really need to see your analyst."

Proceedings are often so boring because there simply are so few good parliamentary performers. Beyond, Pat Rabbitte and Joe Higgins, who comes to mind?

The late Fine Gael TD John Kelly was unmatched and it's rare generally to find people like Tony Blair and David Cameron who can speak impressively without notes for more than 15 minutes.

A politician does not have to be a Cicero and anyone worth their salt should only depend on notes in a debate. The only exceptions should be in relation to technical issues.

In the old days, apart from the emphasis on debating in school, politicians were also able to hone their skills on the stump with the help of hecklers.

In the 1950 election, the Republican governor of California Earl Warren began a speech:

I'm very happy to welcome such a dense crowd here tonight...

A heckler interrupted:

You ain't that lucky Governor. We're not all dense.

A T.D. or aspiring one, should be expected to put forward challenging ideas, defying conventional wisdom where appropriate and addressing issues of public policy beyond a forthcoming election. However, it is a rarity to behold such evidence.

The limited talent on the backbenches can also be seen when up to 30 senior and junior ministers are selected.

How many of the current crop would be selected in an open competition to run a significant business?

This is an important issue because when ministers are expected to sign-of on big public sector projects for example, it's pretty blatant that even some of the more obvious questions are not asked.

The typical existing or aspiring T.D. who cannot articulate a challenging idea, finds refuge in an expression of support for party policy but ask what will likely follow the ending of the current CAP system for farmers in 2013 or when the foreign manufacturing sector or construction industry will contract, there is nothing to be said.

Then there are the one-issue independent candidates who are vacuous beyond their pet local hospital or whatever got them elected.

Politicians have a varying mix of self interest and common interest. Self interest is undoubtedly the principal issue and that in itself is not a bad thing. Given that each T.D costs the taxpayer directly about €250,000, we should expect a higher standard from them.


The pay of members of the Australian Federal Parliament - the House of Representatives - is €72,000 per annum compared with our typical backbencher who is on €96,000.

The pay of TDs could even be trebled from the current level, and the quality of representatives would hardly change.

Overpaid Legislators: 30% Special Pay Awards including Sham Benchmarking and Pay up 119% since 1997 - Average Weekly Industrial Earnings up 60%

Ireland has 166 members (TDs) in the lower parliament chamber Dáil Éireann who represent some 4.2 million people. With one TD for every 25,000 persons, the people are over-represented in parliament, and their representatives are, by international comparison, overpaid as national legislators.

However, following the latest census of population, Ireland may even get more.

Joseph O'Malley, Political Correspondent of the Sunday Independent recently wrote that IreIand has far more TDs than Britain has MPs: four times as many in proportional terms. The TD in Leinster House is now better paid than his or her counterpart at Westminster.

The TD also enjoys superior pension benefits, and for a much lower pension contribution: 6 per cent of a TD's salary, while the MP pays 10 per cent.

O'Malley says that for the TD, the transformation from being underpaid to being overpaid represents a remarkable turnaround in a short time. The TDs, however, are not complaining. Within a decade, few sectors of society have done better in pay terms than the political class at Leinster House.

In 1997, the Westminster member was paid a quarter more than the TD, who then earned €44,067. Nine years later the TD/MP pay gap has not just been closed, it has been reversed.

Today, the Dáil deputy earns €96,650 and the MP earns 11 per cent less, at €87,132.

O'Malley writes: Few can seriously dispute that the TD has less onerous national responsibilities than his British counterpart. The Dail sits less often than the Commons, and parliamentary life is much less demanding in Leinster House than at Westminster. Never mind that Britain's population is 15 times larger. And its economy is 11 times the size of the Irish economy. The TD represents fewer people in a much smaller country. Nevertheless, Dail deputies are now paid more than MPs to do a less challenging job.

The key to the current high salary status of TDs has been the conjunction of some remarkable series of developments on the pay front.

First, in 1999 the Buckley pay review awarded TDs a special pay increase of some 18 per cent. Buckley also recommended that Dáil deputies' pay should be linked to that of a principal officer in the civil service. Second, in 2002 the benchmarking review recommended a 12 per cent pay rise for principal officers. And because TDs were linked to principal officers, they also benefited from that award.

Since 1997, the 30 per cent from the special pay awards, when added to the normal partnership pay rises, has meant that the pay of Dail deputies has more than doubled. It is up 119 per cent, or twice as rapidly as the average industrial wage.

Stephen Collins in The Irish Times reported last July that politicians received their fourth pay rise in a year at the beginning of June, bringing the basic salary of a TD to €96,560 before special allowances and expenses are taken into account.For the Taoiseach and his Ministers, it was the sixth pay rise over the past 12 months. Mr Ahern's salary is now €258,730 a year, including his TD's salary, while the Tánaiste earns €222,256 and other members of the Cabinet get €204,020.

Each Government minister has got 2 benchmarking awards, even though everyone knows that the system has been an absolute scam.

A comparable country to Ireland, such as New Zealand, which is similar in population size (4.1m) and economic scale and performance to Ireland, manages with 120 MPs, one chamber, and no upper house. Indeed in 1999, in a non-binding referendum, the New Zealand people voted to reduce the number of MPs to 99: some 84 per cent voted in favour. Even more remarkable: the Kiwi MP is paid just €56,730, under two thirds the Irish rate.

Joseph O'Malley in The Sunday Independent, says that a contribution of only 6 per cent of salary entitles TDs to a full pension after just 20 years, based on half their final salary, and with a lump sum payment of one and a half times that salary. But what the TD pays for his pension bears no relation to the real economic cost of providing his retirement benefits. The taxpayer pays that extra, unquantified, cost.

In a damning indictment of the current wide gap between many of the governed and their legislators, O'Malley writes: Many private sector companies are closing their defined benefit (final salary) schemes to new entrants, while others raise contributions to close the funding deficit, which the law passed by the Oireachtas requires. Remarkably, however, little echo of this great debate on pensions can be heard in the national parliament.

To cap it all, part-time local councillors are seeking public occupational pensions even though most private sector workers beyond the foreign-owned sector and large Irish-owned companies, such as banks and public companies, have none!!

The Sunday Independent has reported that thirteen Government ministers have benefited from tax breaks, averaging almost €5,000 each on second homes in the capital, just weeks after the Taoiseach's brother Noel Ahern, said property speculators should be "taxed out of existence".

The break designed exclusively for members of the Government, allows ministers to claim relief on second homes and for overnight accommodation in Dublin. Latest figures reveal that 13 ministers availed of the perk, claiming €63,477 between them.

Messenger Boys and Girls

In a paper presented at a Central Bank conference last September, Dr. Frank Barry of University College Dublin, highlighted issues such as the "structural flaws that give zoned land an artificial scarcity value and that continue to offer strong incentives for corruption. The failure to tackle these issues seems ascribable, in part at least, to the failure to introduce international best-practice measures with respect to the financing of the political process. The failure to address cost and time overruns in infrastructural provision over the boom period represents a further weakness in Irish governance."

On the latter, Dr. Barry said that Ireland’s single transferable vote (STV) electoral system is usually blamed for the brokerage style of politics practiced in Ireland. Political scientists have accorded it a key role in generating “…the heavy emphasis on constituency casework, faction-fighting between candidates from the same party (and) a focus on constituency and localist matters in election campaigns and parliamentary work”.

"The current system certainly appears frequently to lock Irish politicians, competing against each other within the same constituency, into a type of prisoners’ dilemma," Barry said.

A number of countries, and not just those new to parliamentary democracy, have changed their electoral systems in recent times. Most – including Italy, Japan and New Zealand for example – have switched to “mixed systems” of the German type, which combine national lists (where political parties offer lists of the most capable people willing to serve) alongside constituency representation. This would dilute the stranglehold of localism on the system and allow governments to devote more attention to difficult longer-term issues.

The final report of the Constitution Review Group (1996) chaired by Dr T.K. Whitaker cautioned that the present PR-STV has had popular support and should not be changed without careful advance assessment of the possible effects. If a change were to be made, it went on however, “…the introduction of a PR-list or AMS (the additional member system, referred to above as the mixed system) would satisfy more of the relevant criteria than a move to a non-PR system” such as that of the UK, an option already rejected by the Irish electorate in the referendums of 1959 and 1968.

When will conservative Ireland be ready to embrace change?

Where are the leaders with a vision to set the foundations and structures for an Ireland that has changed radically from the one that existed when our current system of governance evolved?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Actor Michael J. Fox and stem-cell research

Michael J. Fox on YouTube

Jim Nichols in the US The Nation magazine, writes that conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who admitted an addiction to pain killers in 2003, is not just making an issue of Michael J. Fox's campaign ads for Democratic candidates who support stem-cell research. "He is making it the issue of a fall campaign that gets stranger by the day."

For the better part of three hours each day this week, the radio ranter has been "Swift Boating the television and film star for daring to do what Limbaugh -- who freely admits that he is an entertainer -- does every day.

In Limbaugh's warped assessment of the political process, it's fine for him to try and influence the votes of Americans. But woe be it to anyone else who attempts to do so.

Since Fox began speaking up in favor of candidates who support science over superstition, the television and film star who suffers from Parkinson's disease has been accused by Limbaugh of "exaggerating the effects of the disease" in campaign commercials in which he points out that Democratic candidates for the Congress and governorships in the battleground states of Missouri, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin and now Iowa favor a serious approach to stem-cell research while their Republican opponents do not.

Limbaugh was relentless in his assault on Fox. "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act," the conservative commentator says. "This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting." After it was pointed out to Limbaugh be everyone, literally everyone, who knows anything about Parkinson's disease, Limbaugh declared, "Now people are telling me they have seen Michael J. Fox in interviews and he does appear the same way in the interviews as he does in this commercial. All right then, I stand corrected. . . . So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox, if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act."

Nichols writes that that should have been the end of it.

But Limbaugh wasn't backing off. His new theme became: "Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democratic politician."

One problem with that line of attack is that Fox was the one who volunteered to make the ads, with the express purpose of helping voters see beyond the spin and recognize the stark choices that they will be making on November 7. Another problem is that, two years ago, Fox cut an ad supporting a top Republican, Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, who supports embryonic stem-cell research. But the biggest problem is with Limbaugh's emphasis on the Fox's physical appearance, as opposed to what the actor is saying in the ads? Why blather on and on about whether Fox, an actor, might be acting?

Because it is easier to criticize the way that Michael J. Fox looks than it is to criticize the content of his message.

Fox's ads are fact-based. They reference the voting records, public statements and policy initiatives of the Democratic and Republican candidates he is talking about.

That being the case, beating up on the "Back to the Future" actor would not seem like a smart political strategy. And it certainly is not going to help Limbaugh soften his image as a partisan hitman who knows a little too much about what it means to be on or off particular medications.

So why are Limbaugh and other readers of Republican talking points continuing to accuse Fox of "acting" sick, and of lying his own disease and about the role that stem-cell research may play in the search for treatments and a cure? Why devote so much time and energy to attacking one ailing actor and one set of commercials? It has a lot to do with the powerful lobby that is opposing serious stem-cell research.

Unspoken in much of the debate over this issue is the real reason why candidates such as U.S. Senator Jim Talent, the embattled Republican incumbent who is the target of Fox's criticism in Missouri, and U.S. Representative Mark Green (news, bio, voting record), the Republican gubernatorial candidate who is mentioned in Fox's ads in Wisconsin, so vehemently oppose embryonic stem-cell research.

It is not because they think the research is unnecessary -- no one who has heard from top scientists and groups advocating on behalf of the sick and suffering, as both Talent and Green have, would take such a stand. Rather, it is because Talent, Green and other politicians who are campaigning not just against their Democratic opponents but against scientific inquiry want to maintain the support of the groups that oppose serious stem-cell research: the powerful and influential anti-choice political action committees that in each election cycle spend millions of dollars in questionable cash to support candidates who are willing to echo their faith-based opposition to research that could identify treatments and perhaps even cures for for life-threatening illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, Type I or Juvenile Diabetes, Duchenne' Dystrophy, and spinal chord injuries.

Groups that oppose reproductive rights are central players in our politics because they have established networks that serve as some of the most effective hidden conduits for special-interest money that is used to pay for crude attack campaigns against mainstream candidates.

They also mobilize voters on behalf of contenders who cynically embrace the ugliest forms of anti-scientific dogma to make the rounds since the evolution deniers ginned up the 1926 Scopes trial on evolution. For this reason, the antiabortion machine gets what it wants when it wants it.

Nichols say that politicians who align themselves with antichoice groups are willing to attack anyone who challenges them -- and for good reason. In states across the country, so-called "Right-to-Life" and "Pro-Life" groups spend freely on behalf of the candidates they back. And much of that spending goes essentially undetected, as the groups often do not give money directly to candidates but instead run "issue ads" and mount independent-expenditure campaigns.

Republican politicians like Talent and Green fully understand that, without the behind-the-scenes work of antiabortion groups -- most of which flies under the radar of the media and campaign-finance regulators -- they could not possibly win. And Limbaugh, whose stated goal is to maintain Republican hegemony, is perhaps even more aware of the fact than the candidates he is working so feverishly to elect. That's why the radio personality is on a personal crusade against Fox. That's also why Limbaugh has been willing to stick to his outlandish claims about the actor, even while acknowledging that he's gotten the facts wrong.

Jim Nichols writes that like the Republican politicians who are scrambling to smear Fox, Limbaugh is doing the bidding of one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes political forces in America -- a force that is essential to Republican prospects. And he is not going to let a little thing like the truth make him back off.

Politics is a cynical game. But, sometimes, the cynicism becomes so extreme that the word "unconscionable" doesn't quite seem to capture the ugliness of it all.

Rush Limbaugh announced on his radio program in October 2003, that he is addicted to pain medication and that he was checking himself into a treatment center immediately.

"You know I have always tried to be honest with you and open about my life," the conservative commentator said in a statement on his nationally syndicated radio show.

"I need to tell you today that part of what you have heard and read is correct. I am addicted to prescription pain medication."

Law enforcement sources said that Limbaugh's name had come up during an investigation into a black market drug ring in Palm Beach County, Florida. The sources said that authorities were looking into the illegal sale of the prescription drugs OxyContin and hydrocodone.

Limbaugh, who has a residence in Palm Beach County, was named by sources as a possible buyer.

Roger Friedman of Fox News says that since 2001, according to federal records, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has raised an astonishing $80 million for research. Unlike most celebrity charities, the Fox Foundation has a Web site that even links to its most recent federal tax filing, and the filing is current.

This is an amazing achievement, considering how young the foundation is. Fox has turned his illness into something incredibly positive; the group even runs in the black, meaning its income is greater than its expenses. Last year the group finished with $7 million in the bank after giving away $17 million.

Response Ad to Michael J. Fox on YouTube

Patricia Heaton — who won an Emmy for her work on "Everyone Loves Raymond" — is taking sides in the stem-cell research debate.

She’s put herself on the opposite side of Michael J. Fox, the much-beloved actor who’s been battling Parkinson’s disease since 1991 and is a firm supporter of embryonic stem-cell research.

Heaton is now appearing in a commercial intended to persuade Missouri voters to vote against Amendment 2 on their ballot.

Fox, in his own commercial, urges voters to support the measure and Democrat Claire McCaskill, who is running for U.S. Senate against the incumbent, Jim Talent, a Republican who opposes embryonic stem-cell research.

Many scientists believe stem cell research could lead to cures for Parkinson’s and many other illnesses. Amendment 2 would constitutionally protect any embryonic stem cell research in Missouri that falls within federal law.

Michael J. Fox was born Michael Andrew Fox in 1961 to parents William and Phyllis in Edmonton, the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta. (He later adopted the "J" as an homage to legendary character actor Michael J. Pollard.) Fox, a self-described "Army brat," moved several times during his childhood along with his parents, brother, and three sisters. The Foxes finally planted roots in Burnaby, British Columbia (a suburb of Vancouver), when William

Fox retired from the Canadian Armed Forces in 1971.Like most Canadian kids, Fox loved hockey and dreamed of a career in the National Hockey League. In his teens, his interests expanded. He began experimenting with creative writing and art and played guitar in a succession of rock-and-roll garage bands before ultimately realizing his affinity for acting. Fox debuted as a professional actor at 15, co-starring in the sitcom Leo and Me on Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) with future Tony Award-winner Brent Carver.

Over the next three years, he juggled local theater and TV work, and landed a few roles in American TV movies shooting in Canada. When he was 18, Fox moved to Los Angeles. He had a series of bit parts, including one in CBS' short-lived (yet critically acclaimed) Alex Haley/Norman Lear series Palmerstown USA, before winning the role of lovable conservative Alex P. Keaton on NBC's enormously popular Family Ties (1982-89). During Fox's seven years on Ties, he earned three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe, making him one of the country's most prominent young actors.

Though he would not share the news with the public for another seven years, Fox was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease in 1991. Upon disclosing his condition in 1998, he committed himself to the campaign for increased Parkinson's research.The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, which he launched in year 2000, and its efforts to raise much-needed research funding for and awareness about Parkinson's disease.

Fox wholeheartedly believes that if there is a concentrated effort from the Parkinson's community, elected representatives in Washington, DC, and (most importantly) the general public, researchers can pinpoint the cause of Parkinson's and uncover a cure within our lifetime.

Parkinson's disease is a chronic, progressive disorder of the central nervous system that belongs to a group of conditions called motor system disorders. Parkinson's is the direct result of the loss of cells in a section of the brain called the substantia nigra. Those cells produce dopamine, a chemical messenger responsible for transmitting signals within the brain. Loss of dopamine causes critical nerve cells in the brain, or neurons, to fire out of control, leaving patients unable to direct or control their movement in a normal manner.Parkinson's disease has been known since ancient times. An English doctor, James Parkinson, first described it extensively in 1817; the thoroughness of his analysis is such that researchers and clinicians are still urged to read his original notes on the condition.

Artificial land supply restrictions boost house prices in US and Ireland

The average price paid for a house in Dublin and outside Dublin in September 2006 was €419,809 and €266,339 respectively. The equivalent prices at the start of 2006 were €368,576 and €240,201.

The median sales price of new US houses sold in September 2006 was $217,100; the average sales price was $293,200.

Last week, I posted an article on Finfacts, which stated that for the cost of a typical management level house in Dublin, Ireland, one could buy 9 similar houses in Houston, Texas, 3 in Amsterdam, 2 in Sydney and almost two in Tokyo.

I said that in Houston, there's a positive approach to supply where restrictions are at a minimum and competition forces builders' margins down to single digit figures while in contrast, planning intervention and cronyism has prompted the European Environment Agency (EEA) to use Dublin as a "worst-case scenario" of urban planning so that the new EU member states in Eastern Europe avoid making the same mistakes.

The current issue of BusinessWeek magazine (Nov 6, 2006), says that, even though Houston has had a long stretch of healthy economic growth, it's so easy to build homes there, that inflation-adjusted prices are still 19% below their 1983 peak.

Peter Coy asks in BusinessWeek, how common is a boom-bust-boom pattern? He says that over the past three decades about 40% of housing busts in big US metro areas have eventually been followed by strong recoveries. That's according to a BusinessWeek analysis of inflation-adjusted housing prices. In an additional 15% of markets, prices adjusted for inflation barely got back to their previous peaks after 15 years. In the remaining 45% or so of markets, prices adjusted for inflation were still down a decade and a half after their pre-bust peaks.The disparity between winners and losers was striking: Among the winning markets, the average inflation-adjusted gain after 15 years was 43%, while among the losers the average inflation-adjusted loss was 19%.

Coy asks how do you know if your own local market is the kind that will snap back or the kind that will languish indefinitely? One key factor is the ease or difficulty of building new homes. Places where new home construction is a long and expensive process, such as Boston and San Francisco, tend to experience big price movements, both up and down. "Restricted supply leads to more volatility in prices," says Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard University economist who has studied big-city housing markets.

BusinessWeek says that supply considerations can cause markets to diverge from what seem to be the fundamentals for a long time, perhaps permanently. One explanation for this is the "superstar cities" concept developed by economists Joseph E. Gyourko and Todd M. Sinai of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Christopher J. Mayer of Columbia Business School. They argue that certain cities -- Boston and San Francisco, say -- benefit from a winner-take-all phenomenon that separates them from also-rans. People all over the world want to own homes in Boston and San Francisco, and the supply is limited. As worldwide wealth rises, there is a bidding war for homes there. No such luck for, say, St. Louis. In fact, according to the authors, the gap between prices in San Francisco and the national average doubled between 1970 and 2000.

What makes the housing supply inflexible in markets like Boston isn't necessarily a lack of land. Far more often, the cause is regulatory constraints like minimum lot sizes.

"There's a pretty strong correlation between volatility [of housing prices] and regulatory constraint," says Stephen Malpezzi, a housing economist at the University of Wisconsin School of Business.

Glaeser says that because of zoning regulations, the density of housing in many metro Boston communities is actually lower than in growing areas of the supposedly wide-open Southwest.

"In Wellesley [Mass.], they should be building apartment buildings around the train stations, but it's all single-family housing," says Richard K. Green, a finance professor at George Washington University.

Peter Coy writes that at this stage in the slump, restricting the supply of housing may sound like a good thing. It's not. Sure, it can make current owners richer by increasing the scarcity value of their homes. But it's murder on first-time buyers. And in the long run, it's bad for the local economy. As Glaeser notes, companies tend to migrate away from areas with costly housing to avoid paying the higher salaries needed to compensate employees for their home costs. He notes that between 2003 and 2005, high-cost Massachusetts lost 0.3% of its population, more than any other state. "The economy cannot grow unless the population grows, and the population cannot grow without new housing," he wrote in a May paper.

Ireland, a country that is 4% urbanised, is short of land!!

The Irish land rezoning system that has been the subject of a public tribunal investigation of planning corruption for 9 years - with no prospect of any change to the system that spawned it -turns Irish farmers on public welfare from the European Union, who are lucky to be located near Irish towns into multimillionaires, selling at up to €500,000 ($640,000) an acre or more.

Two years ago, the Irish Government paid €29.9 million for a 150-acre site at Thornton Hall in North Dublin, for a prison relocation. Stupidly, Government officials left the cat out of the bag on the identity of the prospective buyer.

The farmer who sold his land to the Department of Justice, moved North-west of County Dublin to the adjacent County Meath and bought a replacement 133 acre farm for €5.3 million. According to journalist Frank Connolly, in March 2005, the 238-acre Grange Farm at Kilbride, just ten miles from the city centre and four kilometres to the west of the Thornton site at Kilsallaghan, was sold at public auction for €6.2m or just over €26,000 an acre as compared with the €200,000 per acre paid for the Thornton Hall lands – almost eight times more.
Once it's known that Irish land is for development, it's like winning the lottery, without even having to buy a ticket.

Global Survey: Cost of typical management level house in Dublin, Ireland, could buy 9 similar houses in Houston, Texas, 3 in Amsterdam, 2 in Sydney and almost two in Tokyo

State of Chassis: Artificial restriction on land supply puts Ireland and UK at bottom of property league in Developed World; Irish urbanisation at 4% is among Europe's lowest

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ireland among top rank in the world for a free press but free is relative

The three-year prison sentence imposed on cyber-dissident Li Jianping today as French President Jacques Chirac arrived on a three-day state visit to China was “slap in the face” for French diplomacy, Reporters Without Borders said, reiterating its call to Chirac to intercede on behalf of the 63 journalists and cyber-dissidents imprisoned in China.

The report from China coincides with the annual worldwide press freedom index.
According to the index, Ireland has the most free press in the world. This year's index was compiled before the Irish Government's planned legislative restrictions on the media are enacted.

Top of the rankings are Finland, Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands. These countries have "no recorded censorship, threats, intimidation or physical reprisals" against the press.

Ireland's ranking does not suggest that there is more transparency here than in other countries; that the Irish media can subject public officials to more in-depth questions and scrutiny than in other jurisdictions.

A current media case underway in Ireland, is against the Irish Times newspaper that has been taken by the 9-year old planning corruption tribunal in respect of the disclosure of confidential information that was supplied by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

In a small establishment, the media in the past has been timid in handling and investigating corruption allegations. On the other side, in the media, a small number of people controlled the agenda and what resulted was a cosy consensus for both politicians and media.

With the Freedom of Information Act, despite its limitations, the principal media organisations are even more opaque than the public sector in some ways.

Finally, the media here is currently subject to some of the harshest libel laws in the world - so how free is that?

Reporters Without Borders: North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea the worst violators of press freedom

France, the United States and Japan slip further Mauritania and Haiti gain much ground

New countries have moved ahead of some Western democracies in the fifth annual Reporters Without Borders Worldwide Press Freedom Index, issued today, while the most repressive countries are still the same ones.

“Unfortunately nothing has changed in the countries that are the worst predators of press freedom,” the organisation said, “and journalists in North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Cuba, Burma and China are still risking their life or imprisonment for trying to keep us informed.

These situations are extremely serious and it is urgent that leaders of these countries accept criticism and stop routinely cracking down on the media so harshly.

"Each year new countries in less-developed parts of the world move up the Index to positions above some European countries or the United States. This is good news and shows once again that, even though very poor, countries can be very observant of freedom of expression. Meanwhile the steady erosion of press freedom in the United States, France and Japan is extremely alarming,” Reporters Without Borders said.

The three worst violators of free expression - North Korea, bottom of the Index at 168th place, Turkmenistan (167th) and Eritrea (166th) - have clamped down further. The torture death of Turkmenistan journalist Ogulsapar Muradova shows that the country’s leader, “President-for-Life” Separmurad Nyazov, is willing to use extreme violence against those who dare to criticise him.

Reporters Without Borders is also extremely concerned about a number of Eritrean journalists who have been imprisoned in secret for more than five years. The all-powerful North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, also continues to totally control the media.

Northern European countries once again come top of the Index, with no recorded censorship, threats, intimidation or physical reprisals in Finland, Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands, which all share first place.

Deterioration in the United States and Japan, with France also slipping

The United States (53rd) has fallen nine places since last year, after being in 17th position in the first year of the Index, in 2002. Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of “national security” to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his “war on terrorism.” The zeal of federal courts which, unlike those in 33 US states, refuse to recognise the media’s right not to reveal its sources, even threatens journalists whose investigations have no connection at all with terrorism.

Freelance journalist and blogger Josh Wolf was imprisoned when he refused to hand over his video archives. Sudanese cameraman Sami al-Haj, who works for the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, has been held without trial since June 2002 at the US military base at Guantanamo, and Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein has been held by US authorities in Iraq since April this year.

France (35th) slipped five places during the past year, to make a loss of 24 places in five years. The increase in searches of media offices and journalists’ homes is very worrying for media organisations and trade unions. Autumn 2005 was an especially bad time for French journalists, several of whom were physically attacked or threatened during a trade union dispute involving privatisation of the Corsican firm SNCM and during violent demonstrations in French city suburbs in November.

Rising nationalism and the system of exclusive press clubs (kishas) threatened democratic gains in Japan, which fell 14 places to 51st. The newspaper Nihon Keizai was firebombed and several journalists phsyically attacked by far-right activists (uyoku).

Fallout from the row over the "Mohammed cartoons”

Denmark (19th) dropped from joint first place because of serious threats against the authors of the Mohammed cartoons published there in autumn 2005. For the first time in recent years in a country that is very observant of civil liberties, journalists had to have police protection due to
threats against them because of their work.

Yemen (149th) slipped four places, mainly because of the arrest of several journalists and closure of newspapers that reprinted the cartoons. Journalists were harassed for the same reason in Algeria (126th), Jordan (109th), Indonesia (103rd) and India (105th).

But except for Yemen and Saudi Arabia (161st), all the Arab peninsula countries considerably improved their rank. Kuwait (73rd) kept its place at the top of the group, just ahead of the United Arab Emirates (77th) and Qatar (80th).

Newcomers to the top ranks

Two countries moved into the Index’s top 20 for the first time. Bolivia (16th) was best-placed among less-developed countries and during the year its journalists enjoyed the same level of freedom as colleagues in Canada or Austria. Bosnia-Herzegovina (19th) continued its gradual rise up the Index since the end of the war in ex-Yugoslavia and is now placed above its European Union member-state neighbours Greece (32nd) and Italy (40th).

Ghana (34th) rose 32 places to become fourth in Africa behind the continent’s three traditional leaders - Benin (23rd), Namibia (26th) and Mauritius (32nd). Economic conditions are still difficult for the Ghanaian media but it is no longer threatened by the authorities.

Panama (39th) is enjoying political peace which has helped the growth of a free and vigorous media and the country moved up 27 places over the year.

War, the destroyer of press freedom

Lebanon has fallen from 56th to 107th place in five years, as the country’s media continues to suffer from the region’s poisonous political atmosphere, with a series of bomb attacks in 2005 and Israeli military attacks this year. The Lebanese media - some of the freest and most experienced in the Arab world - desperately need peace and guarantees of security. The inability of the Palestinian Authority (134th) to maintain stability in its territories and the behaviour of Israel (135th) outside its borders seriously threaten freedom of expression in the Middle East.

Things are much the same in Sri Lanka, which ranked 51st in 2002, when there was peace, but has now sunk to 141st because fighting between government and rebel forces has resumed in earnest. Dozens of Tamil journalists have been physically attacked after being accused by one side or the other of being biased against them.

Press freedom in Nepal (159th) has shifted according to the state of the fighting that has disrupted the country for several years. The “democatic revolution” and the revolt against the monarchy in April this year led immediately to more basic freedoms and the country should gain a lot of ground in next year’s Index.

Welcome changes of regime

Changes of ruler are sometimes good for press freeedom, as in the case of Haiti, which has risen from 125th to 87th place in two years after the flight into exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in early 2004. Several murders of journalists remain unpunished but violence against the media has abated.

Togo (66th) has risen 29 places since the death of President Gnassingbe Eyadema in February 2005, the accession to power of his son and internationally-backed efforts to make peace with the opposition.

A coup in Mauritania in August 2005 ended the heavy censorship of the local media and the country has risen to 77th position after being 138th in 2004, one of the biggest improvements in the Index.

Reporters Without Borders compiled the Index by asking the 14 freedom of expression organisations that are its partners worldwide, its network of 130 correspondents, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, to answer 50 questions about press freedom in their countries. The Index covers 168 nations. Others were not included for lack of data about them.

- Questionnaire for compiling a 2006 world press freedom index
- How the index was compiled

5Czech Republic0,75
19Bosnia and Herzegovina5,00
-Trinidad and Tobago5,00
-United Kingdom6,50
29Costa Rica6,67
31South Korea7,75
41El Salvador10,00
44South Africa11,25
45Cape Verde11,50
-Serbia and Montenegro11,50
52Dominican Republic12,75
-United States of America13,00
62Central African Republic14,50
-Cyprus (North)14,50
70Burkina Faso16,00
-United Arab Emirates17,50
-Côte d’Ivoire25,00
-Sierra Leone26,00
119United States of America (extra-territorial)31,50
134Palestinian Authority46,75
-Israel (extra-territorial)47,00
-Equatorial Guinea48,00
141Sri Lanka50,75
142Democratic Republic of Congo51,00
161Saudi Arabia76,00
168North Korea109,00

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Cullen to produce a new Road Safety Plan sometime

This is another week where the number of deaths of young people on Irish roads has got a lot of media attention and there will inevitably be another week because necessary action will not be taken.

The accident-prone Minister for Transport Martin Cullen has said that the Government wanted to completely overhaul the licensing system because of the large number of young drivers involved in fatal crashes. Has the penny finally dropped?

"It shouldn't be cheap to get a licence, it shouldn't be easy," he said. "There will have to be an element of professional training in it, and the response seems to be if people have to invest more into getting a licence they will treat it with far more respect and greater responsibility."

Cullen has to cobble together some proposals and as with so with many laws, people will just give a shrug of the shoulders unless the penalties really hurt.

Last summer Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy warned people not to drink and drive but the alcohol limit remains unaltered. So most drivers will continue to drink and drive and the minority who will chance one more drink, will continue unabashed.

In rural areas, it is quite an adjustment to accept a situation where even one drink would put a driver over the limit.

We love sprawl in Ireland but there has to be a trade-off.

The Irish Independent has reported that board of the Road Safety Authority has drawn up the range of new measures aimed at slashing the death toll among young drivers. They are certain to include:

  • Learner drivers and those just qualified will be automatically banned from driving if they get six penalty points instead of the normal 12 points. Drivers who pass the test face the six point ban for a further two years.
  • L-drivers will not be permitted to drive above a certain fixed speed, expected to be 80kph. This means they cannot drive at higher permitted speeds such as 100kph on main roads and 120kph on motorways.
  • They will be restricted to low engine size vehicles for a set period. The size has yet to be determined but it is expected L-drivers and new full licence holders will not be able to drive high-powered two-litre cars and will be restricted to entry grade 1000 to 1400 cc.
  • They will have to put 'R' plates on the front and rear of their cars.
  • They will have a zero drink-driving limit.
If measures do not include a zero drink-driving limit on every driver old and new, and confiscation of the vehicle, then it will be just another failed effort.

Migrant workers are unlikely to be too fazed about the risk of disqualification.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Kuala Lumpur - the cheapest city on earth!

Located on the old site of the Royal Turf Club in the heart of the capital city, the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) is truly a spectacular sight. Here, the 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers, the world's tallest twin structures, soars to a dizzying height of 452 metres. Inspired by the Five Pillars of Islam, this gleaming mega-structure was designed by Argentinian-American architect Cesar Pelli. Below lies a beautifully landscaped fountain park designed by prominent Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. KLCC is also home to the world-class Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, Suria Shopping Centre and Petronas Philharmonic Hall. On the left side of the image is the KL Tower, which provides a 360° panoramic view of the city at night from its revolving restaurant.

At the weekend, The Wall Street Journal showcased my favourite Asian city - Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia - commonly termed KL by younger locals.

In August, Swiss bank UBS's Price and Earnings Report for 2006, ranked Kuala Lumpur the cheapest of 71 global cities.

UBS said that Kuala Lumpur and Manila are favourable for a short stay- besides expenses for accommodation and food, a stroll around town also has its price. To get a picture of price differences for a short stay in a large city, UBS put together a basket of ten goods and services comprising an overnight stay for two in a first-class hotel, two dinners with a bottle of the house red wine, one taxi ride, a 100 kilometers in a rental car, two outings to the theatre by public transport, and various small expenditures such as a paperback novel or a phone call.

This package is most expensive in London, where visitors will cough up $1180, and Tokyo, where the basket costs $1090, excluding the money needed to get there and back. A short stay doesn’t come much cheaper in cities like Geneva, New York, Oslo or Zurich, either. The global average price for a quick trip is $ 640.

The cheapest places are Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Buenos Aires and Nairobi. For people with a budget of less than $450, Sofia, Bogotá and Lima are appealing choices. Regionally, the price difference is themost extreme between Africa ($ 425) and Western Europe ($ 800), Africa on the average costing over than 40% less for a short trip. But costs differ widely within Western Europe, too: a short stay in London is more than three times as expensive as one in Sofia ($ 380). At $ 723, a short stay in North America is also disproportionately high.

In the previous UBS survey, in 2003, Kuala Lumpur was also a bargain for tourists, with its overnight city break cost of $230 ranking second-lowest to Karachi's $150 (London was the most expensive at $900, followed by Tokyo at $860). Daniel Kalt, a UBS economist, attributes Kuala Lumpur's relatively consistent performance during the years between the surveys primarily to Malaysia's ability to get a firm grip on inflation. He notes that over the three-year period, Malaysia's cumulative inflation was just 5.6%, compared with 12.6% in India.

The Journal's Ken Sesser says that he paid $107 for a room in the Shangri-La hotel room, bought through Web site AsiaTravel.com, would have gotten him no more than the Salisbury YMCA in Hong Kong. In London, the cheapest hotel room he could find on the Internet cost $140, and that had the bathroom down the hall. The startling price differential doesn't end at hotel rooms. According to the UBS survey, a three-mile taxi ride in Kuala Lumpur would be just $1.60, compared with $11.60 in New York and $20.30 in London.

I have paid $90 myself for a room at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, in the KLCC area, just a short walk from the Petronas Towers.

Sesser says that for most Americans, Kuala Lumpur and the rest of Malaysia remain off the beaten path. Last year, Singapore (the island is connected by a causeway at the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia) attracted more than twice as many American tourists as did all of Malaysia, 371,000 compared with 151,000. Thailand, which borders Malaysia to the north, attracted four times as many Americans, even though Malaysia can match many of Thailand's attractions, such as stretches of uncrowded beaches backed by rain forests and mountains. Mirza Mohamed Paiyab, director general of the government's Tourism Malaysia, says the difference is primarily because Bangkok and Singapore are large air-travel hubs, the first with many connections to Indochina and the second to Bali and Australia.

There are direct flights to KL from many of Europe's capital cities.

Malaysia comprises Malays who are Muslim (65%), ethnic Chinese (25%) who dominate the business sector and Indians.

Experience the variety at a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia, at a great price, and you will feel that a visit to a counterpart in Dublin is very deflating!!

Check out the food guide.

Friday, October 20, 2006

After Decentralisation Shambles, New Blue-Sky Plan to have the €1bn Dublin Port Tunnel to nowhere!

Politicians are much better at verbalising about grand plans than handling or taking responsibility for their implementation.

We had plans for the Bertie Bowl, west of Dublin some years ago until it dawned that a white elephant in the boondocks without an adequate transport network would be in the words of PD leader Michael McDowell: "redolent of Warsaw Pact-era thinking rather than the needs of Ireland in the 21st Century."

Let's not mention the war...eh...decentralisation...more grand plans on the back-of-an-envelope with PD President Tom Parlon in what crisis, there is no crisis mode!

One of the inhibiting factors in transforming visionary plans into action - e.g. centralising the public service on the western periphery of Dublin or building a second Dublin Airport between Dublin and Portlaoise, is politicians' fear of contemplating any change in the existing corrupt development land system and PD President is one of the strongest opponents of changing a system that gives farmers on public welfare €500,000 or more an acre for land near Irish towns. For more on this, see here.

Until a public outcry prompted action in October 2005, the control of large budgets for infrastructure and IT projects, was a joke.

"Wise" people can scoff at what is now Europe's most successful airline Ryanair and the airports they use. Perish the thought that we would consider challenging the corrupt land system and be able to build an airport that wouldn't be a rip-off for vested interests.

As to Dublin Airport, it's easy to be witless and accept the conventional situation where a second terminal at Dublin Airport is going to cost €395 million according to the official estimate - 46% above the April 2005 estimate.

It's all market forces in a country that is 4% urbanised!!

Now with the Dublin Port Tunnel years behind deadline and not yet in operation, McDowell has come up with a wheeze to move the port, even before the tunnel has opened! Long-term planning Irish style!!

McDowell told a conference in Dublin today that the Taoiseach supports a plan to gradually move Dublin Port business to North County Dublin.

There actually is nothing really new in this "visionary" plan. Gerry Duggan, an engineer who completed a thesis in which he proposed relocating to Loughshinney, where part of Dublin Port's operations already exist.

An Irish Academy of Engineering Management report noted in 2004:

The expansion of Dublin Port, from 20 million tonnes to 65 million tonnes over the last 50 years, was made possible by relocating Dublin’s 28 hectares oil zone and bulk traffic to Loughshinney (in North County Dublin). This environmentally sensitive relocation was achieved after a hard fought deal. The Port, however, was consequently able to expand and develop to provide longer, deeper berths, necessarily catering for the myriad of differing vessel configurations now operating, with adjacent serviced land and increased storage space for containers.

Blue-sky thinking is fine but there is nothing visionary about selling existing facilities to take advantage of the property boom.

Putting reforms in place for the post-property boom is the challenge that is avoided such as land development reform.

Reasonable question: 20 million passengers are expected to travel this year through Dublin Airport and Ireland's foreign direct investment promotion agency IDA Ireland, says its an embarrassment. Why did it take so long to make a relatively easy decision on providing for forecast growth? Now, months before an election, we have a new grand plan when it will take another four years to end the chaos at Dublin Airport. To economise on space, even the the restaurant/refreshment facilities have been restricted.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Kim Jong-il awaits to hear whether Big Macs and Roasted Donkey are Luxuries

Staff at the United Nations are grappling with how to hit North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, where it hurts.

I have often listened to journalist Colm Rapple talk about "luxuries" on Budget Day and wondered how Spartan life would be without them. So think of poor Kim as his people depend on external food aid to prevent another famine.

The UN staff is tasked with deciding if Big Macs flown in from Beijing, shark fin soup, James Bond films or roasted donkeys, are luxury goods?

Donkey is apparently Kim's favourite dish and the Financial Times reports that in the 1990's, trade figures revealed that Kim was the largest single consumer of Hennessy cognac, importing more than $650,000 worth a year.

The security council resolution on sanctions prohibits the sale or transfer of material that could be used to make weapons of mass destruction and missiles, as well as still-to-be-determined “luxury goods”.

The FT reports that Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official who accompanied Kim on a month-long train journey across Russia in 2001, wrote that live lobsters were flown on to the train, as well as donkey.

Kenji Fujimoto, the pseudonym of the Japanese author of I was Kim Jong-il’s Sushi Chef, told of being sent to Iran and Uzbekistan for caviar, to Denmark for pork and Thailand to buy mangoes for Kim.

Another chef recalls a 10,000- bottle wine cellar and the North Korean leader is said to have a library of 20,000 Hollywood movies. In addition he has been reported to have bought his family expensive imported toys including jet skis, karaoke machines and basketball courts.

The FT says analysts said the sanctions aimed at clamping down on luxury goods would crimp Kim’s ability to pamper those who keep him in power. “This reflects the desire of the Americans to put pressure on Kim Jong-il and his supporters, whom he controls by rewarding them with high-class goods such as caviar and watches,” said Nam Sung-wook, a North Korean specialist at Korea University in Seoul.

Analysts said the outline of the sanctions did not appear sufficient to change North Korea’s behaviour. Scott Snyder, a Korea specialist at the Asia Foundation, said it was premature to say they would have no bite because they have yet to be defined.

“It’s all about defining this vague statement and finding the space between punitive and prudent,” Snyder said. “China is going to be the guiding force.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Stamp Duty Hypocrisy but who pays for Development Land at €500,000 or more an acre

PD President and Junior Minister Tom Parlon (seated) has warned that any change in the restrictive rezoning system of land for development that has a 50+ times multiplier effect on values, would be to the "left of Stalin" even though as a big farmer, he is a significant beneficiary of European socialism

Promoting stamp duty reform to ease pressure on property buyers while ignoring the crazy system that results in land making up to €500,000 an acre in a country that is 4% urbanised, is rank hypocrisy.

The increase in the site cost as a percentage of the total cost of a housing unit in Dublin, from 15% to over 40% in a decade, is bad enough in itself but for the past nine years, a public tribunal has been investigating planning corruption and absolutely nothing has been done to change the system that promoted it. The brown envelope has simply been replaced with a more subtle form of bribery.

The Government collects an average of €100,000 in taxes and levies from every new housing unit built in the State - amounting to about 30% of the cost- and this year, new house completions are up 22% in the nine months to September.

First-time house buyers have to pay VAT to the Government while second-home buyers for investment can get an exemption from paying the VAT as a lump sum.

Research published by Chambers Ireland today has revealed that income from development contributions has risen from €0.11bn to €0.55bn between 2000 and 2005 and now represent 13.6% of local government expenditure.

Chair of the Chambers Ireland Ratepayers’ Council Hilary Haydon explained, “income from development contributions has risen dramatically in recent years, increasing by 62% from 2004 to 2005 alone. Local authorities now rely on this income stream which is unsustainable as it is dependent on continued construction growth which is predicted to fall in the coming years.”

It has been reported that PD Senator John Minihan, said on Saturday that the issue of stamp duty requires immediate action and demanded that the Government deal with it in the Budget, rather than as an election promise.

No call for immediate action in respect of ending the anti-competitive protections on Minihan's own profession, the pharmacy trade - see below.

"The PDs are committed to stamp duty reform, and I would hope that our colleagues in Government will embrace this policy in the forthcoming Budget and introduce the necessary changes," Minihan said. "Recent polls show the public's keen awareness of economic issues. Property prices and the pressure being placed on people buying residential property have to be addressed. It is imperative that the Government act on the issue of stamp duty which will help stabilise a wobbling property market."

Some Irish farmers who are supported by European public welfare via the Common Agricultural Policy, have become immensely wealthy through sale of land, which is effectively a "tax" paid by first time home buyers in particular.

Six years ago, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern asked the Committee on the Constitution to examine the issue of the pricing of development land. In 2004, it concluded that Mr Justice Kenny's recommendation in 1973 that development land should be priced with a 25% mark-up on agricultural land prices, could be introduced by legislation, and without amending the Constitution.

Senator Minihan's colleague PD President Tom Parlon said in 2003, that any change to the current system would be an approach (that) is gift-wrapped in an ideology somewhere left of Stalin, which has no place in a modern dynamic open economy like Ireland. Any measure giving the State the power to control the value of private assets would have major negative ramifications for thousands of property owners and would be a jump back to the dark days of the 19th century.

So the creation of new landlords of property interests in both Ireland and overseas, via a "tax" on the economy and the rest of the community, is different to the 19th century system?

Last August, the Financial Times reported that: there is an...appetite for land in England and Wales from farmers in the Irish Republic, many of them the descendants of tenants of absentee British landlords who were ceded land under the Land Acts of the 1870s.

Bank of Ireland Private Banking has said that Irish investment in commercial property both domestically and overseas, amounted to €30 billion in the period 2001-2005. Ion Equity says that venture capital investment in Irish firms in 2006, is unlikely to exceed €200 million.

Last week, a Davy Stockbrokers report said that tax revenue from the property market - including VAT, stamp duty and capital gains tax - has tripled since 2002 and will account for almost 17% of tax receipts this year. Davy said that the total abolition of stamp duty would be a misguided policy. It may lead to the ex-stamp duty prices re-adjusting relatively quickly to the previous stamp duty-inclusive level. It may amount to an inequitable cash transfer from the government to vendors and developers.

Senator Minihan is of course not going to concern himself with the worries of economists, with election hay to be made and first-time house buyers are not typical PD voters. So exempting them from VAT is not a proposal.

The Senator said in his statement on stamp duty that: It is imperative that the Government act...

Not only has it not been imperative to challenge the vested interest of farmers, there has been no urgency to tackle the vested interests of the pharmacy trade, represented in the Oireachtas by Senator Minihan and his PD colleague Minister of State Tim O'Malley.

While the implementation of an EU Directive has liberalised some aspects of the pharmacy trade, the OECD said the following in its May 2006 Economic Survey of Ireland:

There are several barriers to competition in the pharmacy industry. The worst is the restriction on foreign-trained pharmacists. Even Irish citizens who train abroad are not permitted to open or run a new pharmacy – the best they can do is buy one that has been operating for three years.

This does nothing to promote healthcare; it is purely an anti-competitive restriction that protects incumbents.

While the virtue of competition in aviation is getting a lot of attention, after nine years in Government, the heads of a Bill to remove some barriers to competition in the pharmacy trade, is the only signal of some movement in the glacial pace. Lauding competition is indeed very selective.

The issue of abolishing stamp duty is comparable with the abolition of rates in 1977. It is a good selective wheeze to get the attention of voters, but do not expect any overall reduction in the tax burden and even on property.


State of Chassis: Artificial restriction on land supply puts Ireland and UK at bottom of property league in Developed World; Irish urbanisation at 4% is among Europe's lowest

For more material on how the land development system logjam has give us the shambles at Dublin Airport and the back-of-an-envelope decentralisation plan plus what the OECD said in May 2006 about Senator Minihin's protected pharmacy profession, see here:

Irish Economy 2006 and Future of the Celtic Tiger: Putting a brass knocker on a barn door!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Nimby Syndrome in Mayo as CAP cheques are put in post for Rossport Gas Protesters

We all want to have our cake and eat it. Modern life would come to a standstill if the legions of Nimbies (NIMBY - not in my backyard) got their way.

The problem in recent times is that the cocktail of interests that are usually present in NIMBY cases - self-interest, ignorance and stupidity combined with media interest - has resulted in a situation, where members of the public who are not from the area of focus at a particular time, have great difficulty in developing an informed opinion on a specific case.

Residents in North Dublin don't want a prison and Minister for Justice Michael McDowell who wants it, opposes an incinerator in his constituency in South Dublin. Environment Minister Dick Roche doesn't want a big dump in his Wicklow constituency but it's fine to site it just north of Wicklow in Dublin. In Cork, where there are many pharma operations, people don't want an incinerator but it's OK to ship the waste to India. There's also an issue about electricity wires.

I remember marvelling at the sight of members of the voluntary muttawa - Committee for Preventing Vice and Promoting virtue - in Jeddah, alighting from a large American air-conditioned SUV to hassle women for not covering their heads. I would have had some respect for them if they had dismounted from camels as there would be have been some consistency in their endeavours.

I thought of the muttawa, when mobile phone users protested in County Galway about plans to put a mobile phone mast on a Radio na Gaeltachta transmitter that had been there for several decades. For all they knew, the radio signals from the main mast may have been potentially more damaging.

So what are we to make of the opposition in Mayo to the piping ashore of gas to an onshore terminal?

There is again the political self-interest present, as independent T.D. Dr. Gerry Cowley has seen an opportunity of jumping on a passing bandwagon. Another local T.D. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, has resisted such pressure.

Keeping the issue of the very generous 1989 exploration license terms separate, the issue of safety is present in many situations.

How many encounter full petrol tankers on the roads everyday? I saw somewhere recently that 40% of our electricity generation depends on gas piped from Scotland. Kinsale gas was piped from near Kinsale on the south coast to Dublin but if it had to be put miles from every house, how practical would it have been to build a pipeline?

Safety of course should be paramount in the Corrib project situation, but is delivery of gas into your home any more dangerous than having a pipeline near it?

Some of the farmers were apparently unhappy with the money on offer from Shell for transit through their lands.

Some German and Dutch workers who fund the Common Agricultural Policy that has resulted in cheques being put in the post today for farmers in Rossport and elsewhere, live in cities where there is seldom much choice for the lower-paid as to the proximity to danger such as port terminals and so on.

It's reported that local businesses in the Rossport area, are getting visits from protest organisers with requests to refuse to provide goods or services to the project. The intimidation could not be compared with what existed in the North but anyone from rural Ireland and in particular Mayo where the infamous Captain Boycott had lived, knows that the business folk haven't exactly a democratic choice.

The campaign of ostracisation of Boycott in 1880 is said to have become a cause célèbre in the British press, with newspapers sending correspondents to the West of Ireland to highlight what they viewed as the victimisation of a servant of a peer of the realm by Irish peasants.

The peasants are no more thanks to the European Union and US investment. It's not clear what the exact cocktail of motives are, that are feeding the present campaign. The issue of safety has been addressed following the acceptance by the Government of the advice of international experts.

The protesters no longer have to worry about emigration, the CAP cheque is in the post and meantime, who takes risks to supply them with electricity, even gas from Scotland and other modern contraptions such as mobile phones?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Worthy Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2006

Bangladesh’s microcredit pioneer, Muhammad Yunus, and his Grameen Bank on Friday won the Nobel Peace Prize for “their efforts to create economic and social development from below”.

Yunus said he would donate his $1.4m prize money to causes such as an eye hospital and a drinking water project.

The Nobel Committee said: “Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Microcredit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.”

Yunus said on Friday that eradicating poverty “can give you real peace. There is no self-respect and status when you are burdened with poverty.”

From modest beginnings three decades ago, Yunus (born 1940) has, first and foremost through Grameen Bank, developed micro-credit into an ever more important instrument in the struggle against poverty. Grameen Bank has been a source of ideas and models for the many institutions in the field of micro-credit that have sprung up around the world.

The Nobel Committee said said that every single individual on earth has both the potential and the right to live a decent life. Across cultures and civilizations, Yunus and Grameen Bank have shown that even the poorest of the poor can work to bring about their own development.

In 1974, Professor Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist from Chittagong University, led his students on a field trip to a poor village. They interviewed a woman who made bamboo stools, and learnt that she had to borrow the equivalent of 15p to buy raw bamboo for each stool made. After repaying the middleman, sometimes at rates as high as 10% a week, she was left with a penny profit margin. Had she been able to borrow at more advantageous rates, she would have been able to amass an economic cushion and raise herself above subsistence level.

Realizing that there must be something terribly wrong with the economics he was teaching, Yunus took matters into his own hands, and from his own pocket lent the equivalent of £ 17 to 42 basket-weavers. He found that it was possible with this tiny amount not only to help them survive, but also to create the spark of personal initiative and enterprise necessary to pull themselves out of poverty.

Against the advice of banks and government, Yunus carried on giving out 'micro-loans', and in 1983 formed the Grameen Bank, meaning 'village bank' founded on principles of trust and solidarity.

In Bangladesh today, Grameen has 1,084 branches, with 12,500 staff serving 2.1 million borrowers in 37,000 villages. On any working day Grameen collects an average of $1.5 million in weekly installments. Of the 6.5 million borrowers, 94% are women and over 98% of the loans are paid back, a recovery rate higher than any other banking system. Grameen methods are applied in projects in 58 countries, including the US, Canada, France, The Netherlands and Norway.

Unlike most banks, Grameen has a policy that its loan agreements contain no provisions for legal recovery in the event of default. It gives highest priority to women in rural areas and has inspired many imitators.

Christine Wallich, country director of the World Bank in Bangladesh, has said that microfinance had bettered the lives of about 70m Bangladeshis, especially women.

While many microfinance organisations have struggled to attain scale and profitability, Grameen’s business model is in good financial health.

The Financial Times says that its loan portfolio exceeds that of the entire microfinance sector in India by a factor of two and its return on equity last year reached 21 per cent, up from 9 per cent in 2004.

Your most obedient servant

I was reminded recently of a letter that I had received in a previous incarnation requesting a staff loan. My colleague had signed it: Your most obedient servant.

The 'Matrimonials' classified supplement in an Indian Sunday newspaper provides many examples of the use of archaic language.

With classifications by caste and profession such as 'Doctor! and 'MBA/Professional,' terms such as 'high status,' 'well renowned,' 'respected family,' 'reputed,' 'cultured,' and 'fair,' are common.

Some ads read as if a CV should be submitted: Inviting proposals for smart attractive Punjabi...Proposals solicited by reasonable affluent and sophisticated clean shaven Sikh parents, living upmarket area....

Article from New York Magazine:

Is Arranged Marriage Really Any Worse Than Craigslist?

Recently, i was cc’d on an e-mail addressed to my father. It read, “We liked the girl’s profile. The boy is in good state job in Mississippi and cannot come to New York. The girl must relocate to Mississippi.” The message was signed by Mr. Ramesh Gupta, “the boy’s father.”

That wasn’t as bad as the time I logged on to my computer at home in Fort Greene and got a message that asked, forgoing any preamble, what the date, time, and location of my birth were. Presumably sent to determine how astrologically harmonious a match with a Hindu suitor I’d be, the e-mail was dismayingly abrupt. But I did take heart in the fact that it was addressed only to me.

I’ve been fielding such messages—or, rather, my father has—more and more these days, having crossed the unmarriageable threshold for an Indian woman, 30, two years ago. My parents, in a very earnest bid to secure my eternal happiness, have been trying to marry me off to, well, just about anyone lately. In my childhood home near Sacramento, my father is up at night on arranged-marriage Websites. And the result—strange e-mails from boys’ fathers and stranger dates with those boys themselves—has become so much a part of my dating life that I’ve lost sight of how bizarre it once seemed. More....

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Link between money and happiness greatly exaggerated and mostly an illusion

While most people believe that having more income would make them happier, Princeton University researchers have found that the link is greatly exaggerated and mostly an illusion.

People surveyed about their own happiness and that of others with varying incomes tended to overstate the impact of income on well-being, according to a new study. Although income is widely assumed to be a good measure of well-being, the researchers found that its role is less significant than predicted and that people with higher incomes do not necessarily spend more time in more enjoyable ways.

Two Princeton professors, economist Alan B. Krueger and psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, collaborated with colleagues from three other universities on the study, that was published in a recent issue of Science. The new findings build on their efforts to develop alternative methods of gauging the well-being of individuals and of society. The new measures are based on people's ratings of their actual experiences, instead of a judgment of their lives as a whole.

"The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory," the researchers wrote. "People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities."

The Princeton researchers collaborated with psychologists David Schkade of the University of California-San Diego, Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan and Arthur Stone of the State University of New York-Stony Brook.

The researchers have developed a tool to measure people's quality of daily life known as the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM), which creates an "enjoyment scale" by requiring people to record the previous day's activities in a short diary form and describe their feelings about the experiences. Their 2004 study using this method, which surveyed 909 employed women in Texas, provided evidence that higher income played a relatively small role in people's daily happiness.

For the new study, the researchers examined data from the 2004 survey to illustrate misperceptions that more money buys more happiness. Their experiment extended previous studies in which people have exhibited a "focusing illusion" when asked about certain factors contributing to their happiness -- attributing a greater importance to that factor once it has been brought to mind.

For example, when people were asked to describe their general happiness and then asked how many dates they had in the past month, their answers showed little correlation. But when the order of the questions was reversed for another group, the link between their love lives and general happiness became much greater.

To test whether this illusion applied to income, Krueger, Kahneman and their colleagues studied the responses given by the women in the 2004 DRM survey. After they were asked to report the percentage of time they spent in a bad mood the previous day, they were asked to predict how much time people with certain income levels spend in a bad mood.

Survey respondents expected women who earned less than $20,000 a year to spend 32 percent more of their time in a bad mood than they expected people who earned more than $100,000 a year to spend in a bad mood. In actuality, respondents who earned less than $20,000 a year reported spending only 12 percent more of their time in a bad mood than those who earned more than $100,000. So the effect of income on mood was vastly exaggerated.

To provide further evidence on the role that income plays in people's lives, the researchers conducted an additional DRM survey of 810 women in Ohio in May 2005. In this survey, respondents reported their experiences from moment to moment as well as their annual household income and overall life satisfaction. The new survey found that income was more weakly correlated with individuals' happiness from moment to moment than it was with their overall life satisfaction.

"If people have high income, they think they should be satisfied and reflect that in their answers," Krueger said. "Income, however, matters very little for moment-to-moment experience."

Finally, the researchers examined data from a nationwide Bureau of Labor Statistics survey on how people with varying household income levels spend their time. These data show that people with higher incomes devote relatively more of their time to work, shopping, childcare and other "obligatory" activities. Women surveyed by the researchers in Ohio associated those activities with "higher tension and stress." People with higher incomes spend less time on "passive leisure" activities such as socializing or watching television, which the respondents viewed as more enjoyable.

According to the government statistics, men making more than $100,000 per year spend 19.9 percent of their time on passive leisure, compared to 34.7 percent for men making less than $20,000. Women making more than $100,000 spend 19.6 percent of their time on passive leisure, compared with 33.5 percent of those making less than $20,000.

"Despite the weak relationship between income and global life satisfaction or experienced happiness, many people are highly motivated to increase their income," the study said. "In some cases, this focusing illusion may lead to a misallocation of time, from accepting lengthy commutes (which are among the worst moments of the day) to sacrificing time spent socializing (which are among the best moments of the day)."

The researchers noted that the two DRM surveys focused on women because the method was in developmental stages and they wanted to study a homogeneous group. They are in the process of collecting data on men as well as women for a national sample to use in further studies.

Jonathan Clements in The Wall Street Journal says that academic studies suggest that simply amassing more stuff won't bring a permanent increase in your happiness and he came up with nine tips that may help:

  • 1 Make time for friends: According to a 2006 report by the Pew Research Center in Washington, 43% of married people say they are "very happy," versus 24% for those who aren't.

    "Married people spend less time alone," notes David Schkade, a management professor at the University of California at San Diego. "There are parts of your brain that are stimulated by the presence of other people. You're more active and energetic and engaged."

    For the same reason, seeing good friends on a regular basis can also bolster happiness.

    "The data is coming in thick and fast on the value of friendships," says Andrew Oswald, an economics professor at Warwick University in England.

    "The data suggest that making your friends a priority will have more bang for your buck than making your next promotion a priority," he notes.

  • 2 Forget the pay raise: While regularly hitting the town with friends will likely increase your happiness, you probably won't get the same boost from spending hours at the mall.

    True, you are initially thrilled when you buy that new dress or that flat-screen television. But the thrill quickly fades and you start hankering after something else.

    The same thing happens when you get a pay raise. Soon enough, you are taking the extra money for granted and you're feeling dissatisfied again. Experts refer to this as "hedonic adaptation" or the "hedonic treadmill."

  • 3 Don't trade up: Research indicates that, once folks achieve a fairly basic standard of living, it takes a lot of additional money to bring about even a small increase in reported happiness.

    Yet your income and wealth could still loom large -- if you start comparing yourself with those around you. For instance, if you moved to a neighborhood you can barely afford, you would likely be disgruntled.

    The reason: You will be surrounded by wealthy families, and that will be a constant reminder of your relative financial standing.

    "If you can look out your window and see neighbors with lower incomes, you'll be happier," Prof. Oswald says. "People are very keen to move into the elite neighborhoods. They don't realize that they won't be as happy as they expect. That's the curse of being human."

  • 4 Keep your commute short: Moving into a ritzy neighborhood would be even more harmful to your happiness if it means a longer commute.

    It turns out that commuting is one of life's least pleasurable activities. While we're usually pretty good at adapting to hardships, it's hard to adjust to commuting because it is so unpredictable. One day, you will breeze into work. The next day, you will sit steaming in traffic for 45 minutes.

    To make matters worse, a longer commute means less time for leisure. And the research says we enjoy leisure more than work.

  • 5 Count your blessings: Your pleasure from your new house and your latest pay raise may subside. But you may be able to revive some of the good feelings by taking a few minutes to count your blessings.

    Remember how wealthy neighbors can make you feel poor? What matters is what you focus on. Instead of obsessing over your neighbors' riches, try focusing on the riches you have -- and that will likely make you feel happier.

  • 6 Enjoy a good meal: In surveys, eating ranks as one of our favorite pastimes.

    "It's a relatively pleasant activity and it satisfies a basic need," Prof. Schkade notes. "But if you aren't focused on it, you won't enjoy it as much. This is why the French enjoy their food more. They are less likely to eat alone and they are less likely to be doing something else at the same time."

  • 7 Challenge yourself: Leisure is more pleasurable than work. But you should also think about how you spend your leisure time.

    After a long day at the office, you might be inclined to stagger home and collapse in front of your new flat-screen television. But in fact, the research suggests you'll be happier if you are more active.

    Suppose you start a new exercise program. The key: Set goals that are challenging yet achievable, because you will enjoy the sense of progress.

    Also look to change your exercise program occasionally, so the pleasure you receive doesn't start to fade.

    As an added bonus, regular exercise will leave you healthier, and that should further increase your happiness. According to the Pew Research Center report, a mere 6% of those who describe their health as excellent also say they are "not too happy." By contrast, among those who say their health is poor, 55% report that they are "not too happy."

  • 8 Volunteer: If you want to help yourself, try helping others -- by engaging in charitable activities.

    "Not only does it make you feel valuable, but also you see other people doing good deeds, and that makes you feel better," Prof. Schkade says. "It makes you realize the world can be a good place."

  • 9 Give it time: Surveys have found that reported happiness tends to be U-shaped through life, with folks becoming increasingly grumpy as they approach their 40s and then recovering from there.

    Maybe our happiness gradually declines as we fail to fulfill our youthful ambitions, only to revive once we accept our lot in life. Alternatively, maybe this midlife unhappiness reflects the time pressures faced by those in their 40s, as they juggle work and family.

    But whatever the reason, you are likely to grow happier as you grow older. Not sure any of the first eight tips will do the trick? Maybe you just need to give it time.

Princeton University: Actors, scholars, playwrights highlight schedule of Irish theater symposium, Oct. 13-15

Distinguished Irish actors, theater directors and other luminaries well known for their award-winning roles on stage and screen will gather at Princeton University Oct. 13-15 for discussions, readings and performances highlighting the Players & Painted Stage Symposium.

Among the many features of the event, Irish actor Stephen Rea, popularly known for his Oscar-nominated performance in the movie "The Crying Game," will join Ireland's leading cultural critic Luke Gibbons in a conversation about theater's role in art and politics, and Irish director Garry Hynes, the first woman to win a Tony Award for theater direction, will give a separate talk sharing her experiences. Running concurrently with the symposium will be the performance of playwright Brian Friel's "Translations" at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.

The symposium is free and open to the public and is being held to celebrate the donation of an expansive collection of Irish theater announced by the University last month. Class of 1953 alumnus Leonard L. Milberg donated to Princeton more than 1,000 plays, photographs, playbills and other works documenting the history of Irish theater dating back 160 years. The symposium will reflect on the long theatrical legacy.

"Irish drama is marked by the peaks and the valleys of its remarkable theatrical landscape, and what better way to reflect that than with an investigation of the full range of dramatic work produced by Irish playwrights over the last 100-plus years?" said Michael Cadden, the director of Princeton's Program in Theater and Dance and one of the principal organizers of the symposium.

"The Players & Painted Stage Symposium brings together a distinguished group of Irish theater practitioners, and a few Princeton-based artists and faculty members, to discuss the past, present and future of Irish theater," Cadden said.

The weekend of events will begin at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, with a keynote address delivered by Joe Dowling, former director of Ireland's national theater, the Abbey Theatre, and current artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. In a conversation at the Stewart Film Theater at 185 Nassau St., Dowling will discuss his coming of age in Irish theater and the differences between Irish and American theater practices.

The exhibition showcasing the Leonard L. Milberg Irish Theater Collection will then have its official opening at 6 p.m. Friday in Firestone Library, featuring the gem of the collection, the unpublished manuscript "The Cooing of Doves" by renowned playwright Sean O'Casey.

Most events will take place on Saturday, Oct. 14, including a discussion with Hynes, the artistic director of Galway’s Druid Theatre. She will talk about her work on a range of Irish plays, as well as her direction of McCarter Theatre's production of "Translations," which will have its opening Oct. 13. Many in the cast are Irish, and two are making their American stage debut.

"'Translations' is widely acknowledged as playwright Brian Friel's masterpiece, and it directly asks the question of what it means to be Irish and takes head-on the questions about Irish language and how language defines Irish culture," said Emily Mann, McCarter's artistic director. "It's so much about now -- looking at the present and the past, as all great history plays are -- so it was a perfect choice on all levels and most particularly for the symposium that's being celebrated at the University."

Mann will join Hynes and Fiach Mac Conghail, the current director of the Abbey Theatre, in the Saturday discussion. Mann and Hynes will also give a special post-performance discussion after a Sunday matinee of "Translations." Ticket purchases through the McCarter box office are necessary for the general public to attend all performances of "Translations," which will run through Oct. 29.

A full schedule for the symposium is available online. Other symposium highlights include the conversation "Theater at the Crossroad of Art and Politics" with actor Rea and theater critic Gibbons; renowned Irish actress Fiona Shaw, of "Harry Potter" fame, reading from the work of Irish playwright Marina Carr; a reading of O'Casey's long-lost "The Cooing of Doves" directed by Princeton Lecturer in Theater and Dance Timothy Vasen; and a roundtable discussion in which Rea, Gibbons, Hynes and Shaw will join Irish playwrights Mark O'Rowe and Vincent Woods to discuss the history of Irish theater.

Cadden will moderate the roundtable with Pulitzer Prize-winning professor Paul Muldoon, Princeton's Howard G.B. Clark '21 University Professor in the Humanities and founding chair of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. The Milberg collection of Irish theater being celebrated by the symposium was donated to the University in Muldoon's honor.
"The role I played has been, quite simply, as a channel for Leonard's enthusiasm," Muldoon said of Milberg's donation. "A lot is often said flippantly about the role of the university in lifelong learning, but Leonard Milberg is the embodiment of the true lifelong learner."

Milberg's Irish theater donation was his fourth literary gift to Princeton, as he donated a collection of modern American poetry to the University in 1988, a collection of Irish poetry in 1994 and a collection of Jewish American writers in 2001.

"To further scholarship is an integral part of what motivates me, and what I derive the most gratification from is when I learn that the University has used the material and that students have used the material," Milberg said.

Students in Princeton's Program in Theater and Dance will mount a 99th anniversary production of John Millington Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World" in November in recognition of the Milberg donation.

Also, two publications focusing on the Milberg Irish Theater Collection will accompany the celebrations in October. The first is a catalog of the collection, including biographical sketches of the more than 80 playwrights represented in the collection. The second is a special Irish theater issue of the Princeton University Library Chronicle, including 40 essays on the history of Irish theater by leading playwrights and scholars, such as Muldoon, Friel, Rea, and Edward Albee, as well as the first publication of "The Cooing of Doves."

The symposium is being presented in cooperation with the Program in Theater and Dance, the Friends of the Princeton University Library, the library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, the Fund for Irish Studies, the Council of the Humanities and the McCarter Theatre Center.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

As many as 654,965 Iraqis may have died since hostilities began in Iraq in March 2003

April 8, 2003 - - -An Iraqi boy holds a humanitarian food ration given to him by U.S. Army soldiers during an effort to distribute food and water to Iraqi citizens in need.
(U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Arlo K. Abrahamson)

As many as 654,965 more Iraqis may have died since hostilities began in Iraq in March 2003 than would have been expected under pre-war conditions, according to a survey conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. The deaths from all causes—violent and non-violent—are over and above the estimated 143,000 deaths per year that occurred from all causes prior to the March 2003 invasion.

The estimates were derived from a nationwide household survey of 1,849 households throughout Iraq conducted between May and July 2006. The results are consistent with the findings of an October 2004 study of Iraq mortality conducted by the Hopkins researchers. Also, the findings closely reflect the increased mortality trends reported by other organizations that utilized passive methods of counting mortality, such as counting bodies in morgues or deaths reported by the news media. The study is published in the October 14, 2006, edition of the peer-reviewed scientific journal, The Lancet.

“As we found with our previous survey, the majority of deaths in Iraq are due to violence—although we also saw a small increase in deaths from non-violent causes, such as heart disease, cancer and chronic illness. Gunshots were the primary cause of violent deaths. To put these numbers in context, deaths are occurring in Iraq now at a rate more than three times that from before the invasion of March 2003,” said Gilbert Burnham, MD, PhD, lead author of the study and co-director of the Bloomberg School’s Center for Refugee and Disaster Response. “Our total estimate is much higher than other mortality estimates because we used a population-based, active method for collecting mortality information rather than passive methods that depend on counting bodies or tabulated media reports of violent deaths. Though the numbers differ, the trend in increasing numbers of deaths closely follows that measured by the U.S. Defense Department and the Iraq Body Count group.”

Key points of the study include:

  • Estimated 654,965 additional deaths in Iraq between March 2003 and July 2006
  • Majority of the additional deaths (91.8 percent) caused by violence
  • Males aged 15-44 years accounted for 59 percent of post-invasion violent deaths
  • About half of the households surveyed were uncertain who was responsible for the death of a household member
  • The proportion of deaths attributed to coalition forces diminished in 2006 to 26 percent. Between March 2003 and July 2006, households attributed 31 percent of deaths to the coalition
  • Mortality data from the 2006 study reaffirms 2004 estimates by Hopkins researchers and mirrors upward trends measured by other organizations
  • Researchers recommend establishment of an international body to calculate mortality and monitor health of people living in all regions affected by conflict
The mortality survey used well-established and scientifically proven methods for measuring mortality and disease in populations. These same survey methods were used to measure mortality during conflicts in the Congo, Kosovo, Sudan and other regions. For the Iraq study, data were collected from 47 randomly selected clusters of 40 households each. At each household selected, trained Iraqi surveyors collected data on the number of births and deaths that occurred in the household between January 1, 2002, and June 30, 2006.

To be considered a household member, the deceased had to have lived in the home at least three months prior to death. When interviewers asked to see a death certificate at households reporting a death, it was presented in 92 percent of instances. The survey recorded 1,474 births and 629 deaths among 12,801 people surveyed. The data were then applied to the 26.1 million Iraqis living in the survey area.

While the survey collected information on the manner of death, the study did not examine the circumstances of the death, such as whether the deceased was actively involved in armed combat, terrorism, criminal activity or caught in the middle of the conflict.

The study outlines other limitations of the survey method, including the hazards of collecting data during a conflict. The results from the new study closely match the finding of the group’s October 2004 mortality survey. The earlier study, also published in The Lancet, estimated over 100,000 additional deaths from all causes had occurred in Iraq from March 2003 to August 2004. When data from the new study were examined, it estimated 112,000 deaths for the same time period of the 2004 study.

The new survey also found that the number of deaths attributed to coalition forces had declined in 2006, though overall households attributed 31 percent of deaths to the coalition. Responsibility could not be attributed in 45 percent of the violent deaths.

According to the researchers, the overall rate of mortality in Iraq since March 2003 is 13.3 deaths per 1,000 persons per year compared to 5.5 deaths per 1,000 persons per year prior to March 2003. This amounts to about 2.5 percent of Iraqi’s population having died as a consequence of the war.

To put the 654,000 deaths in context with other conflicts, the authors note that during the Vietnam War an estimated 3 million civilians died overall; the Congo conflict was responsible for 3.8 million deaths; and recent estimates are that 200,000 have died in Darfur over the past 31 months.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Stupid academics and boycott of Israel

Burned shops in an abandoned village in West Sudan: Government of Sudan military forces and its Arab militias known as Jingaweit, have systematically burned and looted towns/ villages of tribal groups who Sudan's government claims are supporting opposition forces.

Last month, 61 academics in Ireland published a letter in a newspaper calling for funding for Israeli universities from Dublin and the European Union to be withdrawn.

In the letter to the Irish Times, they said the boycott was a response to Israel's "violent repression" of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and "aggression against the people of Lebanon".

When living in Saudi Arabia, some of the nicest people I met were Palestinian Arabs. However, I'm not going to get into the complexities of Israeli-Palestinian issues here. However, what strikes me in relation to this boycott is how both so-called educated people as well as others appear to only react to issues when they receive prominent attention in the media.

The Financial Times reports that academics in the UK have caused acute concern to Israel since activists in higher education unions began agitating for boycotts.

In May, members of the Natfhe union passed a motion to boycott Israeli lecturers and academic institutions that did not disassociate themselves publicly from Israel's policies.

The move was widely condemned, with Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, saying it was anti-Semitic for singling out Israel.

Last year, the Association of University Teachers also voted to boycott two institutions, one of which was accused of building illegally on Palestinian land.

The motion was overruled but is expected to be debated again by the University and College Union created after the merger of Natfhe and the AUT.

Steven Rose, a neurobiologist at the Open University and a leading boycott advocate, said it was "absolutely certain" the debate would be reopened when the UCU has its first conference in June.

The FT also says that academics in Canada are also beginning to organise themselves.

The FT reports Professor Rose as saying that a boycott was an effective tactic because it hurt Israel's financial interests and its self-image as part of the Europe's "academic community".

He said: "Boycotts are a moral act and one way that academics can take positive action that gives support to Palestinians and expresses their repugnance at the behaviour of Israel."

Guy Beiner was formerly at UCD and TCD and is currently a lecturer of modern history in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel wrote in the Irish Times:

I honestly fail to see how boycotting Israeli universities could meaningfully contribute to achieving the professed goal of ending the occupation of Palestinian territories. Nonetheless, if boycotting academic institutions is to be introduced as a tactic to address international violations of human rights, then following this path to its logical conclusion should lead to a boycott of all US and UK universities and colleges until we see an end to the devastating occupation of Iraq; a boycott of all Russian universities until the cessation of the brutal repression of Chechnya; a boycott of China until the long-standing occupation and repopulation of Tibet is reversed; and the list would go on and on.

Irish academics would then soon find that they are in fact boycotting themselves into isolation.

I assume that some react because of the American connection. China gets an easy pass despite its running of the Sudanese oil industry while black African Muslims are being massacred in their thousands in Darfur. It's of course a non-issue also for Arab Muslims who prefer to promote the image of brotherhood. China is also promoting its interests in another forgotten country called Burma or Myanmar and the list goes on...What happened all those people whose houses were destroyed by Mr. Bob in Zimbabwe...Maybe a little pressure on South Africa may help or is "constructive engagement" working?

Just back to Darfur and I'm not talking about history after about 250,000 deaths:

The Financial Times carried the following report today:-

The United Nations human rights office yesterday called for an independent inquiry into a series of attacks in late August by armed militia supported by the Sudanese government that may have left hundreds dead in southern Darfur.

The call followed a report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights putting the death toll far higher than the 38 it originally estimated.

"The attacks appear to have been conducted with the knowledge and material support of government authorities, and the death toll is estimated to be as many as several hundred civilians," the office said.

The report, based partly on interviews with survivors, said 300-1,000 Arab militia mounted assaults on about 45 villages near Buram in south Darfur in late August and early September. Villages were burnt and looted, forcing the 10,000 population, mainly of African origin, to flee their homes.

So Irish academics, get real and lets have a more intelligent response rather than reacting to current headlines primarily generated by tourist journalists. The world is a more complicated place than you appear to understand.


Madam - There is widespread international condemnation of Israel's policy of violent repression against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and its aggression against the people of Lebanon.

The Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders and to longstanding United Nations resolutions. We feel it is time to heed the Palestinian call to take practical action to pressure Israel to comply with international law and basic human rights norms.

Many national and European cultural and research institutions, including those funded by the EU regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts.

We call for a moratorium on any further such support to Israeli academic institutions, at both national and European levels. We urge our fellow academics to support this moratorium by refraining, where possible, from further joint collaborations with Israeli academic institutions.

Such a moratorium should continue until Israel abides by UN resolutions and ends the occupation of Palestinian territories.

  • Hounaida Abi Haidar, Department of Geography, TCD
  • Dr Kieran Allen, School of Sociology, UCD
  • Professor James Anderson, School of Geography, Queen's University Belfast
  • Professor Ivana Bacik, School of Law, TCD
  • Ken Bond, Department of Zoology, Ecology & Plant Science, UCC
  • Professor James Bowen, Department of Computer Science, UCC
  • Dr Barbara Bradby, Department of Sociology, TCD
  • Harry Browne, School of Media, DIT
  • Noreen Byrne, Department of Food Business & Development, UCC
  • Dr Joseph Cleary, Department of English, NUI Maynooth
  • Professor John Coakley, School of Politics and International Relations, UCD
  • Dr. Steve Coleman, Department of Anthropology, NUI Maynooth
  • Denis Condon, Centre for Media Studies, NUI Maynooth
  • Dr Laurence Cox, Department of Sociology, NUI Maynooth
  • Dr Colin Coulter, Department of Sociology, NUI Maynooth
  • Professor Seamus Deane, Institute for Irish Studies, University of Notre Dame
  • Mary Eldin, WERRC, School of Social Justice, UCD
  • Dr Nazih Eldin, Head of Health Promotion, Dublin North East
  • Dr Adel Farrag, Department of Electronic Engineering, Institute of Technology Tallaght
  • Professor Tadhg Foley, Department of English & Chair of the Board, Centre for Irish Studies, NUI Galway
  • Catherine Forde, Department of Applied Social Studies, UCC.
  • Dr Kathy Glavanis, Department of Sociology, UCC
  • Professor Luke Gibbons, Department of English, University of Notre Dame
  • Dr Brian Hanley, Department of Modern History, TCD
  • Dr Deanna Heath, Department of Modern History, TCD
  • Conn Holohan, School of Media Studies, University of Ulster
  • Marnie Holborow, School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies, DCU
  • Dr Kevin Hourihan, Department of Geography, UCC
  • Dr Carole Jones, Department of English, TCD
  • Sinead Kennedy, Department of English, Mater Dei Institute of Education
  • Dr Heather Laird Department of English UCC
  • David Landy, Department of Sociology, TCD
  • Dr Steve Loyal, School of Sociology, UCD
  • An Dr. Seosamh Mac Muiri, Rannog na Gaeilge, Roinn na dTeangacha agus an Leinn Chultuir, Ollscoil Luimnigh.
  • Dr. Breandan Mac Suibhne, Institute for Irish Studies, University of Notre Dame
  • Professor Brian Maguire, Faculty of Fine Art, NCAD
  • Professor John Maguire, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, UCC
  • Dr Sandra McAvoy, Women's Studies, UCC
  • Piaras Mac Einri, Department of Geography, UCC
  • Dr Conor McCarthy, Department of English, NUI Maynooth
  • Dr Cathal McCall, School of Politics, International Studies & Philosophy, Queen's University Belfast
  • Caroline McHugh, Department of Geography, NUI Galway
  • Dr Des McGuinness, School of Communications, DCU
  • Dr Bill McSweeney, Irish School of Ecumenics, TCD
  • Montserrat Fargas Malet, School of Social Work, Queens University Belfast
  • Dr John Nash, Department. of English, TCD
  • Dr Emer Nolan, Department of English, NUI Maynooth
  • Dr Feilim O hAdhmaill, Department of Applied Social Studies, UCC
  • Garrett O'Boyle, Political Scientist
  • Dr. Eamon O Ciardha, School of Languages and Literature, University of Ulster
  • Gearoid O Cuin. Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway
  • Dr Ruan O'Donnell, Historian
  • Professor Patrick 0'Flanagan, Department of Geography, UCC
  • Professor Denis O'Hearn, School of Sociology, Queens University Belfast
  • Dr Lionel Pilkington, Department of English, NUI Galway
  • Jim Roche, Department of Architecture, DIT
  • Dr. Ailbhe Smyth, WERRC, School of Social Justice, UCD
  • Dr Andy Storey, Centre for Development Studies, UCD
  • Dr Gavan Titley, Centre for Media Studies, NUI Maynooth
  • Dr Hilary Tovey, Department of Sociology, TCD
  • Dr Theresa Urbainczyk, School of Classics, UCD

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bertie Ahern's Permanent Campaign Trail

Political and business leaders ideally should be adept at multitasking given the demands of such jobs. Some inevitably are; others just muddle through.

One can only wonder how much time Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has for strategic thinking, monitoring the performance of cabinet colleagues and for example to prepare policies for dealing with a property downturn that could have a devastating impact on public finances - 20% of annual spending is currently funded from property.

Bertie Ahern certainly works more than 40 hours each week but should a Taoiseach spend so much time doing what a President who has no policy or executive role, is tailormade to do?

The Taoiseach for example undertook 15 engagements in the southwest last Friday, including the launch at Shannon airport of Atlantic Way, a group established to maximise the development potential of the west.

His itinerary in the Limerick and Shannon areas included a visit to the Enterprise Centre in Moyross, Meelick National School, Castleconnell Community Hall, Garryowen sports club in Limerick city and the nearby Geraldines soccer club.

He also visited a newly opened secondary Gaelscoláiste in Limerick city centre as well as the Model School on O'Connell Street.

Ahern also viewed the new facilities at Na Piarsaigh GAA Club and as well as launching the rebranding of the Shannon District Chambers of Commerce.

The Taoiseach also did a small walkabout around Shannon town centre where he opened an art exhibition and he visited Clarecastle day care centre to visit a building project there.

His final engagement was at a family resource centre in Newmarket-on-Fergus.

Later, he flew back to Dublin for the Gonzaga Past Pupils dinner which was also attended by the Tánaiste Michael McDowell.

On Saturday he met McDowell to get the latter back from a semi-detached mode to the governing coalition and then that evening, the Taoiseach was guest-of-honour at the Star/Waterford Crystal Annual GAA Awards in Croke Park, where he gave a speech.

On Sunday, he was down south again, unveiling a memorial to World War I soldiers in Fermoy. He gave a speech and went on to the Amberley Home and Retirement Cottages, where he gave another speech.

That was just 3 days including the weekend.

This week, apart from more meetings and event openings, together with further discussions with Michael McDowell, he is due to head to Scotland to co-chair Northern Ireland talks with UK PM Tony Blair.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

McDowell terms Tánaiste "Morally Brain Dead"

In last Thursday's Irish Times, Stephen Collins provided a vivid illustration of Bertiespeak and Tánaiste Michael McDowell's communication problems with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, as they struggle to patch up what Labour Party Leader Pat Rabbitte has termed the "Sulk Coalition."

Getting to grips with what the Taoiseach is really saying is often a problem for his Coalition colleagues and the Opposition parties alike. The very reason the Opposition finds it hard to land a blow on the Taoiseach is the same one that regularly confuses his Coalition partners about what he is actually saying.

What, for instance was McDowell to make of this section of the Taoiseach's speech to the Dáil yesterday?

"I didn't tell the present Tánaiste about Michael Wall and I didn't see what, I didn't see, he didn't want to know that either of who I bought my house from. In so far as it's painted a connection now that Michael Wall was somebody who was at the Manchester function. Well he wasn't at the Manchester function. Yes, yes but he was not a donor, he was not, and that's the fact."

It is impossible to know from that passage whether the Taoiseach was purposely trying to confuse the issue or simply got tied in a knot trying to explain how it was that he did not tell the Dáil two days earlier that Wall was at the Manchester event. Either way, McDowell was the one left looking foolish when it emerged that Ahern not only knows Wall well but actually bought his house from him.

In Saturday's Irish Examiner, Ryle Dwyer writes on how Michael McDowell reacted with moral outrage to questionable ethics from the Opposition benches:

Some deputies recognise that McDowell adopted one standard in opposition and another in government. They ask how he would have behaved if he were in opposition at the moment.

There was an incident that gives some insight into his likely behaviour. It was a question of an indirect loan involving then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who was backed by Tánaiste Dick Spring.

“Two non-residents, through an intermediary, made a largely gratuitous non-commercial loan of more than £1 million to a company in which the Taoiseach was the major shareholder and were granted Irish citizenship in a process which completely departed from the purpose and criteria laid down in the business migration scheme”, Michael McDowell told the Dáil on July 1, 1994.

“The Tánaiste has claimed that an examination of the files has shown that there was nothing improper as if the files would contain something which would prove the obvious impropriety of what happened”, McDowell continued. “He cannot seriously survey the facts I mentioned and say that what happened was proper. If he reflected on the matter he would see there has been a highly improper abuse of public office to financially benefit a member of the Government.

The Tánaiste’s critical faculties are not normally so defective as to prevent him seeing the obvious truth of the situation.

If the Tánaiste takes the view that there was nothing untoward in what happened it follows that it is his view that this transaction could be repeated to enrich members of the Government and nothing should be said against it. If the Tánaiste can see nothing untoward in all of this he is fairly, and not abusively, described as morally brain dead”.

Pray tell us, Michael, how you think you should fairly describe your own behaviour this week? Of course, his real problem may not be his current conduct so much as his past behaviour coming back to haunt him. As Bertie says, nobody is perfect.

Friday, October 06, 2006

VAT Fraud: Shoplifting easier to prove than most white-collar crime

Poor people are often sent to prison for shoplifting but it's a different kettle of fish when it comes to white-collar crime.

In April 2005, Irish businessman Dylan Creaven, then aged 31, wept after a jury unanimously acquitted him of a £14m (€20m) UK VAT fraud.

Creaven had been originally charged with fraud amounting to £162 million.The founder of computer components distributor Silicon Technologies Europe, which had a turnover of €416 million in 2001, had been accused of teaming up with a “ramshackle” array of off-the-shelf UK companies that “existed only to defraud” the tax man.

David Cocks QC, prosecuting, charged that Creaven upplied them with “vast consignments” of VAT-free computer chips that were then resold, this time with the tax added.However, instead of passing 17.5% to Customs and Excise, it was allegedly sent “on instructions” to Creaven.

The defendant, of Woodstock, Ennis, Co Clare, who pleaded not guilty to two counts of conspiracy to cheat the public revenue between December 29, 2000 and October 13 the following year, denied any wrongdoing.The former director of Silicon Technologies Limited told London’s Blackfriars Crown Court he had traded with the British companies in good faith.

He never once suspected anything amiss, and was “distraught” to now find himself in the dock.The seven woman, five man jury trying the month-long case took eight hours over two days to clear him of both charges. As the second verdict was returned, he buried his head in his hands and wept.

Earlier this week, The UK Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) announced that "Dylan Creaven, acquitted of missing trader VAT fraud last year, has agreed to pay £18.5m to the Assets Recovery Agency and the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) in the Republic of Ireland in respect of property which resulted from the VAT fraud."

The ARA said that the agreement was reached after a mediation process and means "that Mr Creaven will pay over to the two bodies a total sum of £18m, 176,000 euros, and will also transfer the ownership of a luxury villa in Marbella and four racehorses, one of which was the winner of the 2005 Galway Hurdle."

"Having been presented with the evidence compiled by ARA and CAB, Mr Creaven agreed to pay £18m, 176,000 euros, and to transfer the ownership of his Spanish luxury villa and his four racehorses," the ARA said.

Jane Earl, Director of the Assets Recovery Agency, said “This case is our largest result so far. It demonstrates the power of civil recovery legislation in taking away the fruits of unlawful activity. This case means that a proportion of the money stolen from the taxpayer through VAT fraud will be returned to the public purse, and it represents a significant achievement in the fight against VAT fraud which is not a victimless crime. Working with our colleagues in the Republic of Ireland, we have been able to ensure that there are no hiding places for assets at home or abroad. This is the first time that the Agency has used the mediation route and it has brought this case to a successful conclusion.”

VAT fraud - known in the official jargon as Missing Trader Intra Community (MTIC) Fraud - is the single biggest threat to the taxation system of the European Union.

It has already cost the UK government at least £8.5bn since 2001.

It typically involves the repeated import and export of small but valuable goods, such as mobile phones and computer chips, between EU countries, hence its other common name of carousel fraud.
From the late 1990s, UK revenue losses from what is termed Missing Trader VAT fraud was growing by up to three quarters of a billion pounds each year.
By 2001/2002, it was costing the UK taxpayer up to £2.75 billion and it has made some Irish people very rich. In the first half of 2002, the category "Electrical Machinery (apparatus, appliances and parts)" in Irish trade statistics was inflated by more than €8 billion in respect of both import and export trade with the UK.

UK Revenue & Excise detected carousel consignments of computer chips shipped to Ireland in the first half of 2002 large enough in aggregate to have supplied the entire market for that chip in Europe, Asia and Africa put together.

Creaven is unlikely to end up on the breadline.

A BBC report on the settlement began: A computer chip billionaire has agreed to pay £18m to the UK's Assets Recovery Agency and the Republic of Ireland's Criminal Assets Bureau.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Planning Corruption Tribunal: Shooting the Messengers

Geraldine Kennedy and Colm Keena outside the Mahon tribunal last week (Photo credit: Irish Times)

The planning corruption tribunal has decided to apply to the High Court to compel The Irish Times to divulge the source of the leak of confidential papers detailing payments to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

In the nine years that the planning corruption tribunal has sat,
ABSOLUTELY NOTHING has been done to address the causes of the corruption - the system which results in a jump in land values by 50 times or more when rezoned from agricultural use. It's not that we're short of land in a country that's 4% urbanised.

The recent Ryder Cup freebies on offer from developers, shows that there are more ways to bribe than via brown envelopes.

The media have been criticised for its docility in the past in pre-tribunal times, when anyone with a clue, knew that corruption was rampant.

It would be a supreme irony if the messengers were now to be "shot" by the Establishment.

Editor Geraldine Kennedy and public affairs correspondent Colm Keena last week refused to provide the tribunal with any information about the source of the leak. Both cited the need to protect journalistic sources.

Speaking outside the tribunal today, Kennedy said she stood by her decision to publish the article, saying she believed it was in the public interest to do so.

During the proceedings, tribunal chairman Judge Alan Mahon expressed his "enormous concern" about the destruction of the tribunal documents on which the article by Keena was based.

The tribunal heard that Kennedy had destroyed the documents after the tribunal had ordered her to produce them to the inquiry.

Judge Mahon said the tribunal deeply regretted that Kennedy and Keena, notwithstanding their "principled stance", had failed to help the inquiry trace the leak.

"Whatever about a stance that she might take and might be expected to take to hold the document pending possibly a further airing of the issue in the High Court, to destroy it after an order was made by the tribunal is something we have to take very seriously."

Judge Mahon warned both journalists before they gave evidence of the possible consequences of failing to co-operate with the inquiry, which include a fine of up to €300,000 and/or up to two years in jail.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Google CEO forecast within 5 years voters will check politicians for lying with "truth predictor" software

Google CEO Eric Schmidt flew his Gulfstream jet into Britain on Tuesday and had a chilling message for politicians on the day that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was trying to shore up his credibility in Dublin following revelations that he accepted large gifts of money for his personal use while Minister for Finance.

Politicians have yet to wake up to the effect of the internet, which will soon expose them to online "truth" tests, the head of Google said.

Eric Schmidt, the group's chairman and chief executive, told the Financial Times that his speech to the Conservative party conference - and an earlier visit to Prime Minister Tony Blair - was part of a mission to educate political leaders. "Many of the politicians don't actually understand the phenomenon of the internet very well," Schmidt said.

The current "TV generation" of leaders was mostly aware of the web's importance, he said. However, he argued that they had yet to grasp the technology's implications, not least in terms of the power it handed to voters.

Schmidt forecast that, within five years, "truth predictor" software would allow voters to check the probability that apparently factual statements by politicians were correct, using software that compared claims with historical data, he said. "One of my messages to them is to think about having every one of your voters online all the time, inputting 'is this true or false?' "

Irish politicians of course are neither evaders or liars!!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

US dominates Nobel Prizes in Science

Americans Andrew Fire and Craig Mello won the 2006 Nobel Prize for Medicine last night for their discovery of how to "silence" genes, which has opened potential new paths for treating disease.

The discoveries of Professor Fire and Professor Mello offered "exciting possibilities" for use in gene technology, said the Nobel Assembly of Stockholm's Karolinska Institute.

Professor Fire, 47, and Professor Mello, 45, showed through experiments with nematode worms that a form of ribonucleic acid, or RNA - the cellular material that transmits genetic information - can switch off targeted genes in a process known as RNA interference (RNAi). They published their findings in 1998.

This technology has become a key area of research for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, which view it as a promising new way to tackle a range of conditions.

Today, Americans John C. Mather and George F. Smoot won the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics for work that helped shed light on the beginning of the universe and the origin of galaxies and stars.

The scientists were awarded the prize "for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm said.

Their work was based on measurements that were done with the help of the NASA-launched COBE satellite in 1989. The information from the satellite helped provide increased support for the Big Bang theory of the beginning of the universe.

Europe floundering

In a recent report THE FUTURE OF EUROPEAN UNIVERSITIES: Renaissance or decay? from the London-based think-tank, the Centre for European Reform notes: "Between 1901 and 1950, 73 per cent of Nobel Prize winners were based in what is now the EU. Between 1951 and 2000, the share dropped to 33 per cent, while in the period from 1995 to 2004, the figure was down to just 19 per cent."

The report's authors Richard Lambert, head of the Confederation of British Industry and formerly editor of the Financial Times and Nick Butler, BP Group Vice President.say that the important difference between Europe and just about every other developed economy is that private finance plays a very modest role in its university funding. Thus public funding for higher education represents about 1 per cent of GDP for the 25 EU countries; roughly the same proportion as in the US. But private funding in the US amounts to a further 1.4 per cent of GDP and the average in countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is 0.8 per cent, compared with only 0.1 per cent for Europe.

Given their fiscal constraints, all the big countries in Europe will sooner or later have to introduce tuition fees. The UK has started the process and Germany is moving in the same direction. The political challenge in France will be enormous.

Third, European countries are going to have to become much more selective in the way they allocate resources. There are nearly 2,000 universities in the EU, most of which aspire to conduct research and offer postgraduate degrees. By contrast, fewer than 250 US universities award postgraduate degrees and fewer than 100 are recognised as research intensive. No wonder the US dominates the league tables of the world's best research universities, given this concentration of resources.

In a review of the report, the Wall Street Journal says that from Plato's school of philosophy to the medieval universities of Paris and Bologna to the unrivalled German research institutions of the early 20th century, European higher education has an illustrious history. But in the here and now the Continent is sliding into educational obscurity.

Only two European universities, Cambridge and Oxford, make the top 10 in Shanghai Jiao Tong University's global rating system; the rest are in the US Of the top 50, nine are in Europe. The US isn't the only competition. A list of undergraduate schools attended by the world's top computer scientists includes the Indian Institute of Technology, National Taiwan University and Seoul National University.

According to the CER report, there are twice as many European students in the US as there are Americans studying in Europe. And while Americans tend to take a semester abroad of undergraduate art or history (with a minor in clubbing), European students go to America for full-degree programs, at higher levels, and with a greater emphasis on science and technology.
Their diagnosis of the problem is straightforward. With private universities still unusual, and private funding in the form of either donations or tuition payments uncommon, most European schools are almost entirely dependent on the state.

One result is micromanagement. In Italy, for example, cabinet-level approval can be required to appoint a professor. In some German regions, meanwhile, trivial expenses must be approved by state bureaucrats.

Many European universities can't select their students but have to accept anyone who meets standard criteria, usually minimum exam scores. As education is free, students -- particularly in countries, like France, with high youth unemployment -- tend to take their sweet time to graduate, if they do at all.

Drop-out rates are about 40% across the EU, compared with one-third among OECD members.

Universities are also starved of cash. Public funding for higher education, in the EU as in the U.S., represents about 1% of GDP. In the U.S., though, private financing adds another 1.4% of GDP, while in the EU it adds only 0.1%.

Fixing the problem is the tough part. Messrs. Lambert and Butler suggest more independence for universities, as well as better incentives to private giving. Tuition payments would also be a boon, they point out, not least because they would transform students from wards of the state into customers -- and thus make them far less likely to tolerate substandard teaching.

The Wall Street Journal says that addressing the shortcomings will take a change in mindsets as much as anything concrete. Last month, 10,000 Greek students marched in protest, a few hurling gasoline bombs at police. Their grievance? Legislation that would impose a fixed time period to earn a degree, ending the widespread Greek phenomenon of the "eternal student." They also objected to a proposed constitutional amendment (yes, that's what it would take) to allow private universities.

In the meantime, Greece has the largest net outflow of students among all 25 EU members, with some 9% leaving every year. Without change, the Journal says that Greece can probably say good-bye to more of its brightest young people every year. The same can be said for European universities as a whole.

More than 50% of European students who get their doctoral degrees in the US, remain there.

Monday, October 02, 2006

No need for public spending worries with permanent Irish property boom!

The news that aides/handlers or spinmeisters of Bertie Ahern and Michael McDowell were working together over the weekend, on an agreed 5 minute act of contrition in the form of a statement to Dáil Éireann on Tuesday on nixers earned by the Taoiseach when he was Minister for Finance, has coincided with a report on overtime bonanzas garnered by public servants in 2005. So don't fret for those 'selfless' individuals burning the midnight oil! While some were on overtime, others on top salaries, were protecting their own jobs as well as Ahern's and McDowell's.

Possibly 25 man-days have been spent working on the five minute act of contrition/statement!

There are of course few if any areas of life without self-interest.

The story that one public servant earned €150,000 in overtime and others earned more than €40,000 in overtime, may evoke a shrug of the shoulders at a time when the property boom is funding up to 20% of annual public spending in the State. The Health Service Executive, meanwhile, paid out €585.6m in overtime in 2005.

Irish public service salaries have risen by 59% in the past five years and the payroll has expanded by 38,000 extra staff.

Increases in public sector over the period due to general rounds total €2,479m (or 24.3%), “special” pay increases (primarily Benchmarking) total €1,328m (or 13%), and other factors (such as extra numbers) total €2,193m (or 21.6%).

The increase in the average industrial wage for a male worker in the period 2001-2005, was 19%.

The Exchequer’s annual wages and pensions bill increased sharply from €10.2 billion in 2001 to €16.2bn last year, with what has been termed "benchmarking" accounting for up to €1.32bn of the rise. The number of public servants grew by 38,760, or 18%, since 2001 to 257,013 last January. The education sector saw the biggest increase with pay costs rising by 65%. Health sector pay surged by 63% in the period, civil service salaries rose 48% and in the security sector they rose by 34.8%.

Public sector pay rose by 8% in 2005 and pensions now account for 10% of the total pay bill, up from 8.6% in 2001. The pensions bill has increased from €876m in 2001 to €1,588m in 2006 representing an 81.3% increase over the period. The increase in the health sector has been 104%. Pensioners also received the special benchmarking increase of an average of 9%.
With the Government collecting an average of €100,000 from the cost of every new housing unit built in the State, prudently managing public funds is not surprisingly a pressing issue with civil servants.

Won't it all be grand if the housing boom lasts forever and if not, guess which areas civil servants tasked with coming up with public spending cutbacks, will focus on??