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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Thanks for the Job Application and Free Business Plan.... Now take a hike!

In an article this week, a Wall Street Journal writer says that it's painful enough when an employer rejects you. But some add insult to injury by stealing material you prepared to promote your candidacy.

From my experience, public sector employers in Ireland are more likely to request mini-plans than private sector ones.

In the bleak aftermath of the dot.com bust, I applied for a senior position in a public agency. There was a 10 page application and in addition, a candidate had to outline on 2 A4 sheets ideas on what could be done to improve efficiency etc.

It was of course all a charade as the "acting" holder of the position was the person who had been effectively selected before the public advertisement. I protested to the chairperson about the elaborate waste of people's time and I got a response from the "acting" holder of the position.

The Wall Street Journal asks in relation to stealing ideas in a recruitment situation: How should you cope?

The writer says that there's no surefire cure, as Vincent A. Gaglione Jr. learned. While jobless in spring 2004, the Cleveland resident pursued a middle-management position at an Ohio insurer.

The concern asked him to create a marketing strategy focused on its independent field agents.

He spent about 50 hours drafting a 25-page plan, then presented his detailed proposal to 20 officials over two days.

"We shook hands," Gaglione recalls. "There was a lot of backslapping and they said, 'We'll be in touch.' "

He didn't get the job. Gaglione soon found out the insurer was test marketing a key piece of his plan, even using the name he had given it. He left angry messages for two executives there. "I didn't appreciate you guys taking up my time and taking my work," his voicemail said. They never called back.

No one knows how often companies rip off original material from applicants. But job tryouts requiring submission of business plans are increasingly common, reports Gary E. Hayes, a managing partner at Hayes Brunswick & Partners, a New York organizational and management consultancy. He predicts the trend will persist because bosses prefer to pick people who "begin to execute very rapidly."

The Wall Street Journal says that you can take several steps to guard against possible employer theft during the interview process. Offer samples of the outstanding work you have completed rather than craft something new. If the hiring manager insists on fresh samples, show off your brainpower without giving away all the goods. "Exclude necessary details that would then make [a proposal] impossible to implement," says Richard Bayer, chief operating officer of the Five O'Clock Club, a career-counseling network in New York.

If you do submit a plan, take a strong stance to protect your ideas. Whenever you express yourself in writing, "the copyright attaches at that point," notes Alan Weisberg, an intellectual-property attorney for Christopher & Weisberg in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He suggests adding a copyright symbol to the report, plus a confidentiality warning stating: "This information is being provided solely for the purposes of the job interview" and may not be used for other purposes without the author's permission.

The Journal says that a tough nondisclosure statement could alienate a potential boss, who might see you as distrustful. "Don't come off as difficult," says Michael A. Parker, a San Diego marketing consultant. He recommends making your actions speak to your commitment toward your possible employer.

He began using nondisclosure warnings after elements of a marketing plan he devised during a failed job search appeared on the Web site of a California software start-up. When he sought a job as marketing director for a different start-up, he prepared requested marketing schemes -- along with the line, "This is proprietary and confidential."

He justified his stern wording by citing the importance of guarding corporate secrets. "As your marketing person, this is how I will treat the work I do for you and the product we create," he told firm officials.

They hired him.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Tanaka-san the salaryman and Karoshi - Some Japanese work 12 hours daily - too scared to leave the office before the boss

Karoshi - “death from overwork" in Japan - In China, attention has been given to the issue in recent times and the media use a direct translation, guolaosi (过劳死), to describe similar cases.

The image above from Xinhua, China's State news agency, shows that the issue is taken seriously enough to place it in the national news. Xinhua outlines the ten key warning signs of guolaosi: i) early appearance of potbelly; ii) baldness; iii) decrease in sexual performance; iv) frequent toilet visits; v) hypomnesia; vi) cognitive dissonance; vii) lack of attention; viii) insomnia; ix) unexplained migraine, tinnitus, sight impairment; and x) mood swings.

Kyodo News has reported that 28 percent of male employees in the Tokyo and Osaka areas spend an average of more than 12 hours a day on work, according to a survey by a labour union think tank.

The figure reached 33 percent for men in their 30s.

The poll also found that only about half of such workers, both men and women, are paid fully for overtime work, the Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards said Sunday.

The institute, under the Japanese Trade Union Federation (Rengo), conducted the poll in September and October on 772 men and women in their 20s through 50s working for private companies. The respondents live in the Kanto and Kansai metropolitan areas centering on Tokyo and Osaka.

Among female employees, 5 percent said they work more than 12 hours a day on average. The figure for employees fully paid for overtime stood at only 52 percent.

Many respondents said they are discouraged from claiming overtime pay due to the atmosphere of their workplace and the attitude of management.

The FT also reported today that following multiple inspections by Japan's labour standards office, the number of Japanese companies that paid ¥1m ($8,600, €6,600, £4,500) or more in overtime in arrears reached a record 1,524 in fiscal 2005, says the labour ministry.

"In Japan, there is the concept of 'service overtime', which basically means working for free," said Masaaki Kanno, economist at JP Morgan in Tokyo.

"If the boss is in the office, there is enormous social pressure for junior employees to stay until he leaves. Despite the long hours, I doubt the Japanese are more productive."

The fear of being regarded as a slacker by a workaholic or inefficient boss or one who is part of the same syndrome and is scared of his or her own boss, is not uncommon in other countries in white collar professions.

Since the late 1990s, unpaid overtime has risen, driving up working hours.

During Japan's decade of economic malaise, companies responded to flat demand or worse by cutting labour costs and hiring part-time employees, meaning fewer full-time employees were responsible for the same amount of work.

Companies in fiscal 2005 paid Y23.3bn in overtime in arrears - up ¥700m on the year before, according to a survey by the labour ministry. By industry, manufacturers took the largest share at about ¥6.7bn.

Companies that paid ¥10m or more in overtime in arrears totalled 293, while the largest payment for unpaid overtime was by a manufacturing company for ¥2.3bn.

The problem of overwork is particularly severe among men in their 30s. About a quarter work more than 60 hours a week, according to official figures, although the actual number may be higher.

While the economy has recovered in recent years, higher profits have not resulted in better wages and stronger consumer demand.

The labour ministry began to publish its findings in 2003 in response to complaints of employees forced to work overtime and developing health problems.

Karoshi, a word coined during Japan's economic miracle, means "death from overwork". The average worker uses less than half of his or her annual holiday and the rate is falling.

"The idea of a vacance as in France [is] unknown. For many workers, a summer holiday is only a one-week vacation, while for many busy businessmen, it is a [long weekend]," Susumu Noda, professor at Kyushu University, wrote in a recent research paper.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Ireland 2006 - A Banjaxed System of Public Governance where the Buck Stops Nowhere

The sign "The Buck Stops Here" was on President Harry Truman's desk in the White House Oval Office (1945-1953). On the reverse side, i.e. the side that Truman saw, it was inscribed, "I'm from Missouri". That's a short form of "I'm from Missouri. Show me". Natives of that state (a.k.a. the Show Me State), which included Truman, were known for their skeptical nature. As President Truman said, "The President – whoever he is – has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job."

The saying "the buck stops here" derives from the slang expression "pass the buck" which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. The latter expression is said to have originated with the game of poker, in which a marker or counter, frequently in frontier days a knife with a buckhorn handle, was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the "buck," as the counter came to be called, to the next player.

A friend who speaks Mandarin was recently in China and his driver said in relation to the rapid modernisation of the country, that while the hardware has improved a lot, the software has a long way to catch up.

The same could be said about Ireland and its pass-the-buck system of public governance that was developed when the donkey and cart was a symbol of society, rather than the computer.

The buck stops nowhere and there is very limited accountability at best.

A multiplicity of illustrations down to parish-pump level and the length of time that it can take to repair a cracked pavement, have the same overarching factor in common. Nobody takes responsibility. It impacts so much in society and the issue of nursing home abuse is one of the recent examples.

The default option for ministers is to commission a report. The gulf in terms of what is expected of a person of management calibre in the private sector - accountability, responsibility and ability to make decisions - with their public counterparts, is stunningly wide.

Nevertheless, the issue of reform isn't on the agenda and while partisans can battle over laundry lists of self-styled achievements and plans, the parliament sits for only 90 days and it takes years for urgent issues to be tackled.

It for example has required a public tribunal, the involvement of the former Boston police chief and 2 reports on Garda (police) structural reform to come forward with basic management system changes and nobody can honestly say when the changes will be implemented.

In a simple word, the public system is BANJAXED.

The Irish economy has come a long way since the bleak 1980's when Ireland's legendary (I'm usually frugal my superlatives) broadcaster Gay Byrne, said the "country is banjaxed!"

Despite the misnamed "benchmarking" system which gave ministers a double special payment and other public servants a special payment of an average of 10%, there has been no change in the pass-the-blame-system where ministers and well-paid senior civil servants accept no responsibility for the many disasters that are a regular staple of Irish public governance.

Last Wednesday, Dublin's principal motorway, the M50, was turned into a car park for several hours because of a water pipe leak and all it elicits from government, is a shrug of the shoulders.

The following comments were published in Ireland's two principal dailies on Saturday:

Irish Independent:

Transport planners

Five ministers were on hand to reveal plans for a fabulous new Dublin Metro line. On the same day, commuters witnessed the biggest traffic jam in Irish history.

Thanks to a spot of bother with a pipe, motorists were stuck in a snarl-up for up to seven hours. Lots of time to unwind.


Bertie Ahern

The sage of Drumcondra said he hoped some day to spend more time tending to plants.

Doesn't he have enough vegetables in the Cabinet already?

Irish Times:

Stephen Collins on the Register of Electors-

The worrying aspect of the problem is that politicians and civil servants knew about it and did absolutely nothing to sort it out.

It represents another example of the inertia that appears to grip the decision-making process in this country on all sorts of issues, from the country's energy requirements to pensions. It is only when a crisis point is reached that action is taken.

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

Friday, November 24, 2006

Irish Internet "Oscars"...and our Sponsor is....

Awards, related "gala" (defined by Merriam-Webster as: a public entertainment marking a special occasion 2) capitalized : a medium-sized apple with crisp yellowish-white sweet flesh and a red skin or a golden skin with red striping - take your pick) dinners and surveys, are a mixed bag.

Most awards and surveys are designed for commercial promotion by the sponsors and the trick with awards is to have enough lollipops to go around to generate attendance and subsequent media hype - Treasurer of the Year, when you have only two competitors and so on!.

Property service MyHome.ie brags today that its latest Golden Spiders award makes it "the all-time record top winner of the annual awards which have become known as ‘The Internet Oscars’ in Ireland."

MyHome.ie MD Jim Miley was one of the judges of the awards and two of his fellow judges were Brain and Eamonn Fallon, founders of rival property site Daft.ie. It's a small market.

It's also stretching things a little to term the awards, "Internet Oscars".

In 1996 there were approximately 50 entries. In 2006, it was estimated that up to 1,000 companies would pay to apply for the awards.

Maybe the Spiders should get an Oscar for longevity, as a rival "gala" awards ceremony complete with black tie requirements, apparently bankrupted the sponsoring publication, at the height of the dot.com hysteria!!

The State television service RTÉ, which is a sponsor and has the most extensive Irish web service, won 3 prizes.

It is not exactly subject to the same commercial demand and pressures as other Irish sites. So in a small market, is it a big gaisce that it would win an award?

Ireland's biggest bank AIB won the Best Financial Website Award. One of its competitors was shortlisted even though it does not offer internet banking.

During the dot.com period, superlatives and "digerati" were as common as "legends" in sports. The Spiders have their "Internet Hero" and the Irish Internet Association still has its "Net Visionary" awards.

The foregoing does not of course mean that say Clearscape does not merit its Web Design Agency Award.

So you might wonder, what is this w...er ranting on about?

Finfacts last paid for an entry application in 2001 and one of the sites that had been shortlisted in the Best Financial Website category, had been online for 3 months. A cursory query of the principal search engines, could have revealed what a big presence it had on the web.

So much for credible criteria!

As Groucho Marx said : I would never join a club that would have me as a member or alternatively from Duck Soup: I've got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A sense of the times or the Times?

Minister for Finance Brian Cowen said in remarks to reporters today, that he believed the series of interest rate hikes by the European Central Bank were beginning to put the brakes on Irish house prices.

"My information is that there has been a softening of prices in recent months and that's to be welcomed," he said, adding he believed Ireland's property market was "heading for a soft landing".

"Obviously, the interest rate hikes are starting to kick in," he said.

The Minister said that housing output this year would probably hit 85,000 units, with "a similar sort of output" next year.

He said there were very strong fundamentals underpinning the market and that in real terms, interest rates were still historically quite low.

An example of the current slowdown in the housing market is the size of today's Irish Times weekly property supplement - down from an average 60 pages to 18 pages and only 3 full pages of advertising.

Following political debate on abolition and reform of stamp duty on property in recent times, buyers are holding off on purchases ahead of the Budget on December 6th.

However, the fall in advertising income of about €500,00, in the space of a week, is an illustration of the wide economic ripple effect that a property slowdown will have across a wide swathe of business.

Irish Property Boom - It's easy to underestimate how much economic prosperity depends on it

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

BBC's Cash Bonus for Journalists probing Cash for Honours


How stupid can people get??

It has been reported that the UK Labour party has hit out at a move by the BBC to offer its journalists a £100 bonus every time they generated stories on the cash-for-honours inquiry, saying the scheme called into question the broadcaster's impartiality.

In a letter to Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General, Peter Watt, Labour's general secretary, said that such a bonus scheme "cannot do anything other than distort the news judgment of your journalists".

Watt noted that BBC guidelines made clear that the corporation's news judgments must be influenced "neither by political or commercial pressures, nor by any personal interests".

Labour is asking the BBC for full details of when the offer was put out to its staff, whether payments were made and what disciplinary action was taken.

The BBC said it had withdrawn a memo sent to reporters offering an incentive for stories on the cash-for-honours row.

The corporation said that no disciplinary action had been taken against the news editor understood to be working in the BBC's political news division. The corporation said that the offer of a cash bonus was a one-off.

It added: "We recognise that all journalists want to be first with any story.

"However this e-mail with the offer of an incentive was wholly inappropriate which we have unreservedly withdrawn."

After the Hutton inquiry surrounding the death of David Kelly, the UK government's weapon's inspector, the BBC questioned whether its journalists should be trying to break scoops. It has since reverted to competing for stories against its rivals.

Don Foster, the Culture Spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, has said that the BBC was "barking mad to pursue a bounty system", adding that he was "glad that common sense had prevailed".

He added: "It would have been a bung given to journalists to write about potential bungs.

"It would have affected the sense of impartiality of BBC journalists on [the cash-for-honours] issue and would have caused incredulity among licence fee payers" at a time when it was negotiating its funding with the government.

Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens wrote the following earlier this year:

The strongest argument for public service broadcasting lies in its role in nurturing democracy - in acting as an unbiased and informed mediator between elected politicians in all their guises and citizens. Yet in its daily output of news and current affairs, the BBC is at its weakest.

The mission to probe and explain has given way to a breathless superficiality which takes its cue from the tabloid press. What remains of the challenging journalism that once sustained the BBC's reputation has been shunted to the edges of the television schedules.

Respect for, and knowledge of, politics has made way for the early morning sneer. Laziness and arrogance sit side by side. Public policy - as opposed to endless gossip from the febrile world of Westminster - has all but vanished from the television schedules.

Radio 4 is much better than the rest, but even on the best of the BBC the tendency to sensationalise too often overwhelms the duty to analyse.

Perversely, the BBC seems to have convinced itself that it is the victim of the Iraq furore. Never mind all those viewers and listeners misled, or politicians and officials falsely traduced. How dare anyone attack the integrity of the BBC?

Therein lies the problem and the challenge for the corporation's new leaders: a producer mindset that elevates the amour propre of the BBC above the interests of those it serves.

Mr Thompson (Director-General) has a reputation as a strategic thinker. That will be useful in the charter negotiations. Not as important, though, as the less cerebral task of rebuilding BBC journalism.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Fakers and Jigs

US journalist Michael Kinsley, has defined a political gaffe as when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. Others also make faux-pas or are they revealing the truth?

Think of Mel Gibson, for example and his abuse of Jews. I had too much drink........ forgive me Father for all my sins!

In 1968, at the tumultuous Democratic Party presidential convention in Chicago, the then mayor, Richard J. Daley (1902-1976), father of the current mayor who bears the same name, revealed a truth about himself when he was angered by Senator Abraham Ribicoff who was on the platform.

Outside the convention hall, thousands demonstrated against the Vietnam War.

Mayor Daley had earlier explained police action against the protestors by famously saying: "The policeman isn't there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder."

The US Senator from Connecticut, said in reference to Chicago's police who were widely regarded as overreacting with brutal force: "with George McGovern as President of the United States, we wouldn't have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."

There was Bedlam let loose in the convention hall and amidst the din, Daley shook his fist and shouted: "You Jew sonofabitch...you lousy motherfucker...go home."

The Mayor and supporters later claimed that he called Ribicoff a "faker", a term that was used by his fellow Chicago Irish.

In October 1979, Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen of England, visited Chicago.

Time Magazine reported: That sounded like Rude Britannia they were humming in Chicago last week. Princess Margaret, visiting the city, paused at a Gold Coast penthouse party to chitchat with Mayor Jane Byrne. Byrne noted that she had recently been in England for the funeral of Margaret's cousin Lord Mountbatten, who had been killed by Irish terrorists.

"The Irish, they're pigs," snapped Margaret, and then blurted, "Oh, you're Irish."


That version of their talk, reported by Chicago Sun-Times Columnist Irv Kupcinet, created an international furor. Byrne diplomatically recalled the conversation as having had something to do with Irish jigs. London sources insisted that Margaret, if she used pigs at all, was referring only to terrorists.

I'm not a bigot!!

Michael Richards, who played the wacky Cosmo Kramer on the hit TV show "Seinfeld," appeared onstage at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, last weekend. Kyle Doss, an African-American, was with friends in the cheap seats and he was playfully heckling Richards when suddenly, the comedian lost it.

The camera started rolling just as Richards began his attack, screaming at one of the men, "Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass."

Richards continued, "You can talk, you can talk, you're brave now motherfucker. Throw his ass out. He's a nigger! He's a nigger! He's a nigger! A nigger, look, there's a nigger!"

The crowd is reported to have been visibly and audibly confused and upset. Richards responds by saying, "They're going to arrest me for calling a black man a nigger."

One of the men who was the object of Richard's tirade was outraged, shouting back "That's un-fucking called for, ain't necessary."

After the three-minute tirade, it appears the majority of the audience members got up and left in disgust.

The next we will hear is that Richards has checked into rehab like Mel Gibson, only to resurface in some months, with a new publicist and persona!

He has already said that he's not a bigot....not Pygmalion likely!!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Deaths of Milton Friedman & Ireland's Progressive Democrats: PDs become One Issue Party as Pre-1997 Radicalism is Abandoned

Milton Friedman, who ranks with John Maynard Keynes as the most influential economists of the twentieth century, died this week at the age of 94. Friedman began his career as a believer in both Keynesian economics and in the liberals' vision of the world with which it was so compatible.

The Keynesians' belief that benign government policy could wisely make trade-offs between rates of inflation and rates of unemployment was epitomized in the Phillips Curve, which appeared to lend empirical support to that belief. However, Friedman who admired Keynes, showed that it was not the rate of inflation which reduced unemployment but the fact that inflation exceeded expectations. In other words, even a high rate of inflation would not reduce unemployment if inflationary policies became so common as to be expected. The "stagflation" of the 1970s -- with simultaneous double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment -- validated what Friedman had said, in a way that no one could ignore.

As Friedman's ideas on monetarism and the reduction of the role of government in western economies, were moving into the mainstream through the force of events, one of my economics lecturers at University College Cork, disclosed to me that he'd given up on economics a long time before. Some of his colleagues were in their element at postgraduate seminars, gas bagging about people like Karl Popper. They were a depressing lot, which chimed with the times.

Before reviewing how the high hopes that the Progressive Democrats once gave to an Ireland without hope, have been replaced with bartering in the souq for retention of the privileges of political office, the following is the conclusion of Milton Friedman's Nobel Prize in Economic Science address to the Nobel Foundation in 1976, the high point of his academic career.

Government policy about inflation and unemployment has been at the center of political controversy. Ideological war has raged over these matters. Yet the drastic change that has occurred in economic theory has not been a result of ideological warfare. It has not resulted from divergent political beliefs or aims. It has responded almost entirely to the force of events: brute experience proved far more potent than the strongest of political or ideological preferences.

The importance for humanity of a correct understanding of positive economic science is vividly brought out by a statement made nearly two hundred years ago by Pierre S. du Pont, a Deputy from Nemours to the French National Assembly, speaking, appropriately enough, on a proposal to issue additional assignats - the fiat money of the French Revolution:

“Gentlemen, it is a disagreeable custom to which one is too easily led by the harshness of the discussions, to assume evil intentions. It is necessary to be gracious as to intentions; one should believe them good, and apparently they are; but we do not have to be gracious at all to inconsistent logic or to absurd reasoning. Bad logicians have committed more involuntary crimes than bad men have done intentionally” (25 September 1790).

Ireland eventually embraces Thatcherism

In the first half of the 1980's, despite turmoil resulting from serious mismanagement of the Irish economy, with the exception of Charlie McCreevy, who is currently European Commissioner for the Internal Market and Services, it was taboo to publicly express admiration for what were viewed as the slash-and-burn economic policies of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Michael McDowell, PD Leader and Minister for Justice once made the bold claim in relation to his party that it's credited with major responsibility for Ireland's economic boom by pioneering tax reform, deregulation and competition to end mass unemployment and emigration. In nine years, the reality is that the record in tax reform deregulation and competition is lamentable and while personal income tax levels have fallen, the overall tax burden is still as high as the UK's.

McDowell claiming credit on his website: "Michael In What Turned Out To Be A Defining Moment Of The Election."


However, the takeoff of the UK privatisation programme, the re-election of President Ronald Reagan, first stirrings of reform in the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Mikhael Gorbachev and continued high emigration of young Irish workers to the US and UK, combined with the formation of the Progressive Democrats Party , gave some Irish people hope after ten years of economic drift.

In the 1987 general election, the Progressive Democrats (PDs) won 15 seats and the new minority Fianna Fáil Government's programme to set the economy on track, were supported by the main Opposition party Fine Gael.

The PDs promoted economic and institutional reform, including lower taxes.

Following a controversy in the 1997 General Election campaign about a PD policy on public sector reform and a trade union backlash about possible job losses, the PDs during its subsequent nine years in government has lost its appetite for reform and is left playing the role of the one-club golfer.

In an Ireland with an illusion of a permanent prosperity but one where over 30% of tax revenues come directly and indirectly from the booming property sector; where venture capital investment at less than €200 million in 2006 - equivalent to 5% of investment in commercial property; One eighth of workforce employed in construction and 1 in 5 of private sector workforce depending on construction, the PDs have NOTHING to say about serious reform to prepare for challenging times.

Reform to the PDs is sham benchmarking and shambolic decentralisation.

So what's left is tax cutting.

Abolition of stamp duty but no reform of the corrupt land rezoning system that makes multimillionaires of farmers on public welfare at the expense of first time house buyers.

The Irish Times reports today that negotiations between the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil on a cut in the top tax rate of 42 per cent are expected to intensify in advance of the Budget on December 6th.

The newspaper says that while Minister for Finance Brian Cowen has firmly signalled that he favours increasing personal tax credits and tax bands rather than tax cuts, the PDs are determined to push for a reduction of 2 per cent in the top rate as outlined in the Programme for Government.

Senior PD sources said yesterday, however, that even a 1 per cent cut in the top tax rate to 41 per cent would be seen as an achievement and may be something they would be prepared to compromise on.

"Any cut in the top tax rate would be clearly identifiable with us. The collective view in the party is that we must get something on tax for our constituency."

(SEE - SEPTEMBER POST: McDowell offers update of Fianna Fáil 1977 manifesto )

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will chair a special pre-Budget Cabinet meeting in Dublin tomorrow during which Ministers will have an opportunity to outline their final Budget "wish list".

Tax changes are not expected to be discussed at tomorrow's meeting, however, but will be thrashed out in the next few weeks between the PD leader, Tánaiste Michael McDowell, Ahern and Cowen.

In recent weeks McDowell and PD deputy leader Liz O'Donnell have publicly stated that they will be looking for a cut in the top tax rate.

McDowell called for "significant middle-class tax cuts" earlier last month, while last Sunday O'Donnell said in a TV3 interview that she was "hopeful" of a cut in the top rate in the Budget.

She pointed out that the Programme for Government contained a commitment to cut the top rate from 42 to 40 per cent.

O'Donnell said tax cuts were "always on the agenda with the Progressive Democrats in government". She said she would "be very hopeful" that there would be tax cuts in this Budget because it is in the Programme for Government.

Progressive Democrats' inevitable Dénouement

The inevitable dénouement of the PDs will take place with the retirements of Michael McDowell and Mary Harney.

The PDs have surrendered to vested interests and the short-term allure of tax cuts is its only hope of survival.

If anyone argues otherwise, ask them, where does the buck stop today in our system of public governance and is it any different to 1997?

Instead of public service reform, the PDs supported sham benchmarking and even its ministers accepted two benchmarking payments.

So a cut in the higher rate of tax would be seen as an achievement....and that is the desperate position of the PDs, running on empty, out of ideas, after almost a decade in office.

Michael McDowell claimed in the past that his party was "credited with major responsibility for Ireland's economic boom by pioneering tax reform, deregulation and competition to end mass unemployment and emigration."

The reality is zero public service reform and little done in the area of deregulation other than what has been mandated by the European Union.

Don't take my word for it!

Take it from the horse's mouth...and as recently as last month.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said change and modernisation in the public service could be achieved only if staff extended their working day.

Ahern said it would not be possible to face challenges in the future if public sector workers wanted to work only six hours a day and take a half-day on a Friday.

Irish politics is generally a radical ideas free zone but the PDs misleadingly still claim that it is a party of reform and change.

This month is the ninth anniversary of the establishment of the corruption planning tribunal.

Why has ZERO been done in the interval to change the system that spawned the corruption?

Are votes still for sale? ABSOLUTELY but PD President Tom Parlon, who is a huge beneficiary of European socialism, views any tampering with the land bonanza system to the "left of Stalin."

Parlon holds a veto on any measures that would impact farmers. Party Chairman Senator John Minihan and Junior Minister Tim O'Malley, who are pharmacists, are members of a sector that is still not open to full competition.

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.


William Prasifka, the chairman of Ireland's Competition Authority, said last June that “in too many areas, Ireland has not willingly embraced competition. European Directives forced the introduction of minimum levels of competition in the telecommunications and energy sectors. In other areas, such as taxis and pharmacies, legal advice or court actions precipitated change.”

Should anyone be surprised that the default issue for the PDs is cutting taxes?

Playing Santa Claus is the easy option when the record on much else is pathetic.

The epitaph can be short:

Party leader Michael McDowell onetime said that the party has to be "radical or redundant."

It's a simple choice: REDUNDANT

If there's space for a byeline:

Flunked the test of Political Leadership at a Time of Unprecedented but Temporary Prosperity

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bad Movies and Trash TV

UK TV service Channel 4's founding chief executive has got involved in the debate about whether the broadcaster has strayed too far from its public service remit, accusing it of having an "obsession" with sex and bad behaviour.

In an article for 'Prospect' magazine, Sir Jeremy Isaacs cites programmes such as 'Designer Vaginas', 'The World's Biggest Penis' and the forthcoming 'Wank Week', as evidence of the channel's decline.

He lambasts the broadcaster for allowing Peaches Geldof to host a show about Islam and argues that 'Big Brother' has declined from an innovative social experiment to the embodiment of "a mildly prurient voyeurism." In its early days, Channel 4 offered "a quiet seriousness that today has mostly disappeared", writes Sir Jeremy.

"Today, commercial ambitions are taking Channel 4 down different paths."

Sir Jeremy's words are seen as an echo of the case put forward in the MacTaggart Lecture at Edinburgh three months ago, when, in a reference to public handouts to the broadcasters, the outgoing ITV chief executive Charles Allen described Channel 4 as "behaving like a 25-year-old still living at home. Dipping into mum's purse, even when it's got a fat pay cheque in its back pocket."

Complaints about Channel 4's proclivity for graphic sexual content date back to 1987 when, after replacing Sir Jeremy as chief executive, Michael Grade earned the soubriquet of "pornographer-in-chief."

Channel 4 is seeking the support of media regulator Ofcom and the UK Government for funding of an expected £100m (€148m) gap it claims will open up in its finances as the UK switches from analogue to digital TV by 2012, the fierce debate about its public service remit has intensified.

Channel 4's prime marketing concept is the appeal to a 16-to 34-year-old audience, says Sir Jeremy, who was chief executive from its launch in 1982 until 1987.

"This has some strange consequences - a series explaining Islam, for example, is entrusted to Peaches Geldof. There's an obsession with adolescent transgression and sex. Gordon Ramsay is hired to make a series called The F Word; Designer Vaginas is followed by The World's Biggest Penis. This autumn, we heard about 'Wank Week'."

Sir Jeremy believes Channel 4's commercial success "sits oddly" with its public service obligations - the channel receives free broadcasting spectrum in return for those obligations.

Both Hollywood movies and the standard of television are a hit-and-miss affair these times and it's mostly a miss with audiences just cheesed off with what's on offer.

Last week, FT film critic Nigel Andrews wrote that years ago the screenwriter William Goldman, whose career was once paved with gold (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men) but who learned like many in the movie biz that cracks appear quickly in paving, penned a proverb about filmmaking that became famous: "Nobody knows anything." It was simple, brisk, brilliant; it was almost impossible to disprove. Industry observers have reached for the proverb again and again. They reached for it more than ever this year. It may become a bumper sticker in LA by Christmas.

What can an entertainment industry do when nearly all the indicators in the latest summer contradict the indicators from the previous one? In 2005, sequels and prequels were peppy at the box office and helped prop up the business. This year they tanked (again excepting Pirates 2 and, to a smaller degree, X-Men 3).

Maybe they have found another hit in the latest flavour of the month Borat, but I think not.

David Ansen in Newsweek wrote that the Three Stooges and Molière. Joan Rivers, who's not exactly a spring chicken, thinks that Sacha Baron Cohen—the invisible man who plays Borat—is "exactly where comedy should be now. Comedy is there to break open the box that holds the untouchable and the unsayable. It's about making you face the things you don't want to face, and the easiest way to face it is through humor. I hate to get serious, but that's why I love this stuff with Borat. Break the next barrier down! That's the joy of comedy."

Baron Cohen's creation, Borat Sagdiyev, takes us to the comic edge. Borat, for the many who have never seen him on HBO's "Da Ali G Show," is a disarmingly enthusiastic, viciously anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic, horny and unhousebroken fiction-al journalist from Kazakhstan. (It's a real country: just ask its government, which has mounted an outraged PR campaign to counteract Borat's slurs on its national honor.)

In the largely unscripted film "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," the faux TV journalist travels to America, accompanied by his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), to make a documentary. As director Larry Charles's camera captures real-life encounters with unsuspecting Americans (making this an almost-documentary comedy about the making of a fake documentary), it soon becomes clear that the ultimate joke is not on Borat, but on us. With its cavalcade of drunken frat boys, well-mannered racists and a gun dealer who doesn't bat an eye when Borat asks him what would be the best gun for shooting a Jew (he recommends a 9mm or a Glock automatic), "Borat" paints a portrait of the American subconscious that would give you nightmares—if you weren't laughing so hard.

Cohen should have stuck to television rather than this faux Michael Moore effort that is funny in parts but maybe an Irishman should have misgivings at a reprise of the scenario where we were sneered at as having "pigs in the parlour" and now it's the turn of the Kazakahs.

I recall seeing a wartime Pathé newsreel, which had a shot of De Valera and the narrator said: Take a hard luck at this man... and then there were some shots of our then "backward" neutral country with one shot showing an old woman herding pigs.

Trash TV

What is striking about television, is how little originality exists.

Any programme maker that comes up with a popular format, is certain that within a short spell, there will be multiple clones.

So, the viewer ends up with a multiplicity of 'me too' property, holiday and cooking programmes.

BBC 2's Dragon's Den where successful business folk listen to pitches for venture capital from a spectrum of inventors and sundry, is compelling viewing and a lesson for wannabes trying to raise funding from bright people with a low boredom threshold.

There's already a clone with some variation and there are bound to be more. Think how many programmes were spawned by Big Brother.

How much the presence of a TV crew has on what is supposed to be real life situation, varies but it is always a factor?

One of the UK channels runs a series with the dubious title: One Year to Pay off Your Mortgage, on UK people who head off to foreign climes to make a killing from property.

One case involved two women who hoped to make £250,000 profit from the restoration of 3 run down properties in a Spanish village.

Such a programme has a familiar format - starting with high hopes, then the difficulties pile up and eventually the boat sails into the harbour.

The viewer is simply treated as a fool.

The producers don't waste time and money on dud projects and the presence of a TV crew helps to iron out some wrinkles big and small.

In this particular Spanish case, a refusal of a mortgage, led to a quest to the provincial capital that was successful. Curiously, the lender was never named nor was there footage of the lender's premises or the process.

And an alluring message from the programme makers for the intrepid and suckers alike: All together their five properties have been valued at a staggering £577,000. Their total outlay for the project was just £329,000, so if they sell them all tomorrow they will make an enormous profit of £248,000 in less than a year. That’s an incredible potential profit and would be enough to pay off their mortgages in the UK.

Incredible it may well be and as a template for people who believe that the Spanish are all plonkers, why not take a punt?

Channel 4 gives Ireland a 14th place in its 20 Best Places to Make Money. It says that surging demand has not abated and, whilst you’ll have to spend more to get your property in the first place (average prices are around £170,000), you could still more than treble your money in 10 years.

Tony Robinson did a programme following EasyJet customers through the airport process and it was easy to see that the airline's staff were very restrained to the provocation of some disgruntled customers who were taking advantage of the cameras.

Telebasura

Trash television can be popular.

Graham Keeley of the London Times writes of a transsexual who had a brief brush with fame as the lover of some D-list celebrities is quizzed about her glory days and her silicon-enhanced bust. At one point, her obviously distressed mother is wheeled on as a surprise guest to recount how they had not spoken for years.

Keeley writes: Welcome to a typical night on Spain’s telebasura, or “tele-rubbish”. The word sum ups a phenomenon whose popularity has become the stuff of television executives’ dreams and an advertising goldmine. In a country where the television or caja tonta (silly box) is on for an average of three hours a day in every home, there are 18 telebasura programmes on weekly, nine with shows every day.

They feature a diet of matadors’ ex-lovers recounting stories about their lurid love-lives, or minor celebrities telling how they fell from grace at the hands of drugs, alcohol or a deceitful lover. Typically, a panel of “journalists” will shout questions along with the audience until it is hard to know who is talking or what they are saying.

Keeley writes: On Crónicas Marcianas (Martian Chronicles), the most famous of these programmes, the show would usually finish with guests stripping off. Today, the most popular programme, Aqui hay tomate, is watched by at least five million people every day of the week — a 26 per cent audience share. It is closely followed by Salsa rosa, whose audience share on Saturday nights is 25 per cent, as three million fans tune in.



For the moguls of Spain’s private television channels who pioneered telebasura, the phenomenon’s success has encouraged them to expand the format with more programmes of a similar ilk.Anxious not to miss out on advertising revenues, the state-owned RTVE channel now has five programmes in this vein, which capture 5.5 million viewers each week. Of the big private channels, Antena 3 produces two programmes and Telecinco five. They can charge advertisers premium rates and advertising breaks can last up to five minutes to ensure that they make the most cash from each programme.

Rosa Villacastín, a journalist who specialises in this form of tabloid television, believes that the secret is simple. “People are sick of politics or the economy and they have had enough of their own problems,” she says.

“With these programmes, they are in charge of how much they watch and can turn off the television whenever they want.”

Rosario Lacalle, whose book The Television Viewer examines the phenomenon, believes that Spaniards love trash TV because it gives them a chance to taste lives very different from their own: “This is a very Spanish phenomenon, unknown in any other country, in which we see the testimony of those who aspire to be famous, who go from programme to programme,” she says.

The background to telebasura lies in the huge burst of competition that started when commercial television, independent of the State, finally hit the screens in Spain in 1989, with Antena 3.

After years of repression and censorship under the dictatorship of General Franco, and no doubt inspired by the popularity of American downmarket talk shows and Italy’s distinctive tabloid TV, the cut-throat competition between channels led producers to look for the obvious lure: sex. Soft porn shows like A Day is a Day — a chat show that ended with a striptease artist — were typical, but when this lost its thrill, audiences turned to other attractions.

The ratings war has been fought mainly by importing low-budget Latin American soap operas and mixing them with locally produced variety shows and sitcoms. Yet it is the talk shows that have proved the most successful.

Politicians have successively promised to improve the standard of television and wean Spaniards off telebasura, but the financial success of these programmes to the television channels has proved difficult to resist.

The channels have important allegiances to both the ruling Socialist Party and the main opposition right-wing Popular Party. José María Aznar, the former Prime Minister — who failed to honour promises to take action — said: “This is about people who you don’t know, or you don’t know where they come from, telling their misery, insulting each other in the worst way and showing every kind of intimacy.”

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Jubilation on Bush woes but how many frankly give a damn about Iraq or Darfur?

President George Bush meeting on Thursday, Nov 09, 2006 with speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Party Whip, Congressman Steny Hoyer .

Anti-Bush folk beyond America's shores feasted happily on schadenfreude last week, following George Bush's "thumpin" in the mid-term elections, that was perceived to be a repudiation of US policy in Iraq.

Delight that the world's only superpower has been contained in Iraq, does not of course mean that many of those anti-Bush people care about the people of Iraq or for that matter, the millions of victims in Darfur, West Sudan. The Chinese Government has replaced Western firms in running Sudan's oil industry and the genocidel killing of hundreds of thousands of African Muslims by their Arab brethren, is a matter of indifference to most of the Western media, those who make loud noises about Iraq and the Arab world.

In Europe, an American angle is usually necessary to fire up interest in foreign issues while China gets a free pass.

It's an ill wind that blows no good and Iraq has been good for the book industry. The latest addition to the genre, is from RTÉ journalist Richard Downes. He spent some weeks in Iraq and I lived 5 years in the region. That of course does not imply that either of our views are any more credible.

Without an invasion in 2003, UN sanctions would not have been removed while Saddam and his family remained in power. The sanctions resulted in many Iraqi deaths and a UN oil-for-food programme that became operational in the 1990's, was manipulated by Saddam and became a honeypot for thieves in many countries.

No US administration of either major party would have supported the removal of the sanctions regime, while Saddam remained in power.

The alternative to an invasion, was far from a pretty scenario either.

The "something-must-be-done brigade"

In The Financial Times in November 2005, John Lloyd wrote that the forward march of the "something-must-be-done brigade" has certainly faltered. The phrase is Douglas Hurd’s, used when he was UK foreign secretary in the early 1990s, about the demands of human rights campaigners, journalists and opposition politicians that western states must intervene to stop the slaughter in Bosnia.

On the opposite side of the fence were advocates of realpolitik who argued that a state requires security and retains interests and that any effort to impose a different politics on states of whose politics one disapproves is, as Henry Kissinger put it, international relations as social work.
Lloyd writes that governments of large states with diverse interests have largely agreed with the Kissinger option: idealism has been confined to smaller states, such as Sweden, the country that has long played the role of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, forever hopeful of the world’s capacity for goodness. Britain has moved towards idealism under Tony Blair who has argued that "acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter".

The intervention of American forces ended the genocide in Bosnia and the murderous campaign against Muslims in the Serbian province of Kosovo ended when NATO, under the leadership of the US and the UK intervened. Lloyd says that the interventions of the 1990s and "noughties" in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and in smaller ways in Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo and Sudan, have rarely been without large bloodshed - and not one has been unambiguously successful...Those who always saw these ventures as sins against realpolitik are grimly confirmed in their views.

Lloyd asks what of the liberals and leftists who were the generals, the officers or even the foot soldiers in the something-must-be-done brigade?

"When push came to shove, most have melted away, without, it seems, a backward glance at the ideals they once espoused. This is most true in the case of Iraq," Lloyd says. "The sheer bloodiness of the country and the revelation to the British in Basra, as well as to the Americans elsewhere, that a large part of the active population hates them, have amplified the calls made to get out, last week at the Labour Party conference, against the leadership, the week before at the Liberal Party conference, by the leadership," Lloyd adds.

Lloyd says that it is a sad spectacle that liberals and leftists who spent decades demanding that something must be done to end all sorts of repressions and foreign horrors, and denouncing theirs and other governments for refusing to end them, now denounce the British and US governments for having removed one of the great monsters of the late 20th century because blood was shed (and is still being shed) in the course of it.

This isn’t debate about the manner of waging war: it is a smug, I-told-you-so (or I didn’t tell you but I am now) blast against apparent failure - usually oblivious to the consequences of that failure, especially on the ideals and practice that liberals and leftists claim to have espoused.

Irish commentator Vincent Browne for example who opposed US intervention in Iraq, in the past lamented the failure to stop genocide in Africa while he has both supported and opposed the American led NATO military action in the Balkans, in the 1990's (Browne supported US military action to stop a war in 1995 that had resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 people; He opposed US led action against Serbs in Kosovo, in 1998).

The late UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, supported NATO action in Kosovo in 1998, which did not have UN approval because of the threat of a Russian veto. Cook opposed intervention in Iraq, because it did not have UN approval.

People who support the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to a state, can be oblivious to the dramatic improvement in the lot of the Kurds of Iraq.

The people of Kurdistan who are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state, have been treated badly for many decades by Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

As media commentators in the West agonise about the impact of Iraq and Palestine on disaffected Muslim youth who have been weaned on a very narrow view of the world, there is seldom a reference to how Muslims have for long mistreated fellow Muslims in Kurdistan. Then there's Darfur, which is hardly on the curricula of the madrasas. The infidels are a more useful target than focusing on ethnically Arab Muslims driving ethnically African Muslims, off their land.

Iraq

Thomas Cushman - "George Orwell once noted in a famous epigraph, “Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist.”
The American writer on human rights Thomas Cushman, in his introduction to a collection of essays titled A Matter of Principle - Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, says that the for most of the authors, the liberal internationalist case for the war was not made strongly enough by the Bush administration or at least as strongly as the argument for anticipatory self-defense, which turned out to be empirically ungrounded. What is striking about these essays is the willingness of each author to voice pointed criticism of the Bush administration and its practices (as Christopher Hitchens wryly notes in his contribution, "I write as one who could not easily name a mistake that the Bush administration has failed to make").

Cushman writes: Yet at the same time the authors also offer pointed critiques of the liberal-left opposition to the war, much of which is contradictory, reductionistic, logically flawed, or excessively emotional, and irrational. Even the most sober and reflective critics of the war occupied a stage that also displayed demonstrators toting placards of Bush with a Hitler mustache, waving Iraqi and Cuban flags, and passing out copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Ironically, many of the authors in the volume point out that the antiwar position was, in fact, something of a conservative one in that it aimed to preserve a regime of intolerable cruelty in order to preserve the deeply flawed system of international law that gives both tyrants and democratically elected leaders equal seats at the table of international justice.

Indeed, as Daniel Kofman notes in his contribution here, it is odd that many leftists, who have built careers on challenging the unrestrained sovereignty of states and state power, would find themselves arguing in favor of the current system that supports and guarantees the power of sovereign despots and the inviolability of their states, even in extreme cases such as Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il, or Saddam Hussein.

Had there been no war, Saddam Hussein would still be in power rather than preparing for his trial for crimes against humanity. He would still be tormenting, torturing, and killing his own subjects, destabilizing the Middle East, and giving succor to international terrorists who are the avowed enemies of liberal democracy.

What is striking about the antiwar movement is the way in which the global left has turned against the United States rather than gross violators of human rights such as Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the war has been the pretext for a global revival of anti-Americanism, much of it well grounded, but much of it a rehearsal of a more fundamental twentieth century proclivity of the left to vent its rage primarily at the "empire" rather than the various despots who have wreaked havoc on the global stage.

Indeed, such tyrants figured out very early on that they could always gain a certain advantage by articulating critiques of the bugbear of American empire (witness, for instance, the enthrallment of the left wing in America with Fidel Castro, who is the personification of resistance to the United States).

Lesson for Darfur

Thomas Cushman writes that it is clearly the case that current practices of international law and international organizations have failed rather glaringly to deal with tyrants. One has only to think of UN indifference to the plight of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo and its current ineptitude with regard to events in Congo and Sudan to see that the current structure of dealing with illiberal despots with liberal principles of law, negotiation, and accommodation is deeply flawed. The flaw consists in allowing illiberal despots the luxury of treatment according to Enlightenment ideals of toleration. If you treat an illiberal tyrant liberally, you can count on rendering him a distinct advantage.

As recently as last Friday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour warned that unless the Sudanese Government curbs and disarms militias in West Darfur there could be more attacks like those around the Jebel Moon area that left over 50 civilians dead and thousands displaced late last month.

The High Commissioner reported that over the past month, West Darfur has witnessed increased movements and consolidation of armed militias, especially in the northern and south-western part of the state. At the same time, there are increased reports of the distribution of weapons to these groups in Geneina and outlying areas."I am deeply concerned that if the Government of Sudan does not take control of the militias, disarm them, and put an end to the proliferation of arms, the militias will continue to launch attacks on civilians, as they did on 29 October in an area south and west of Jebel Moon", Ms. Arbour said.In a 3 November report on the attacks, the High Commissioner called on Sudan's Government of National Unity to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians and implement its commitments to disarm militias. She reiterated that recommendation today.

UN Security Council veto power China is assisting the government of Sudan to develop its oil industry. A December 2004 a report in The Washington Post said: On this parched and dusty African plain, China's largest energy company is pumping crude oil, sending it 1,000 miles upcountry through a Chinese-made pipeline to the Red Sea, where tankers wait to ferry it to China's industrial cities. Chinese laborers based in a camp of prefabricated sheds work the wells and lay highways across the flats to make way for heavy machinery...Sudan is China's largest overseas oil project.

China is Sudan's largest supplier of arms, according to a former Sudan government minister. Chinese-made tanks, fighter planes, bombers, helicopters, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades have intensified Sudan's two-decade-old north-south civil war. A cease-fire is in effect and a peace agreement is expected to be signed by year-end. But the fighting in Sudan's Darfur region rages on, as government-backed Arab militias push African tribes off their land.

In Myanmar (Burma), a country like North Korea, that is stuck in a fifty-year old time warp, China has made an agreement with the military dictators who control the country, to develop its oil and gas industry. A week after hundreds of people were gunned down in Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov was warmly welcomed in Beijing. The access of the US to a military base in Uzbekistan has been withdrawn because of Washington's criticism of Uzbekistan human rights record.

China is extending its alliances without evident criticism from the many who would virulently criticise American missteps.

So the authorities in Khartoum are hardly worried about their campaign in Darfur, given China's veto in the UN Security Council and besides, does the rest of the world give a damn?

Download Professor Cushman's Introductory Chapter in A Matter of Principle - Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq (pdf format).

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reform Irish Style: Take action only in Response to a CRISIS...sorry...a DIRE CRISIS

Reform Irish style follows a familiar pattern and we had a regular reprise on Tuesday when sweeping changes in the structure of An Garda Síochána, involving the employment of civilians at all levels in the force from senior management to clerical grades, were proposed in two expert reports.

On Wednesday, we had a return to business as-usual when it was reported that Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea had given the go-ahead to a multi-million euro publicity campaign that will begin in January to inform people about the Government's emergency plans for disasters.

It of course has nothing got to do with the up-coming election and it may also be incidental that O'Dea himself may feature in the publicity.

We would have a nirvana in this country if publicity campaigns were matched by real action and reform. The upcoming publicity campaign will shovel money into PR but will it be matched by a non-partisan international assessment of the emergency plans?

As to the Garda reports, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, welcomed the recommendations and promised to implement them as quickly as possible.

The reports from the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, headed by former Boston police chief, Kathleen O'Toole, and the Garda Síochána Advisory Group, chaired by Senator Maurice Hayes, were published on Tuesday.

For years, evidence of the need for reform was staring McDowell and predecessors of different parties in the face but nothing was done.

The Morris Tribunal was needed to highlight the need for reform of Garda structures when it was so obvious that such a huge organisation was in dire need of people with credible management competence.

Today, it was reported that taxpayers have paid out up to €7.3m so far to cover the legal costs for the Justice Minister Michael McDowell and Gardaí at the Morris Tribunal.

But the McBrearty family, whose campaign to clear their name led to the setting up of the tribunal in the first place, remain without legal representation because of the State's continued refusal to award their costs on the same basis.

The tribunal was set up four years ago to investigate allegations of corruption in the Donegal Division of An Garda Siochana.

At its centre is a claim by the Raphoe-based nightclub owners, that Gardaí attempted to frame Frank McBrearty junior and his cousin Mark McConnell for the murder of a local cattle dealer Richie Barron, which turned out to be a hit and run.

Billions were shoveled into a health service black hole in recent times and the penny eventually dropped only when Mary Harney took charge of the Department of Health, when it dawned that the existing ramshackle system of health boards and professional vested interests, had to be challenged.

World Reports Record

Mary Harney's predecessor as Health Minister, former school teacher Micheál Martin, must hold the record for the number of consultant reports that any minister in the world has requested in the space of 4 years - at 145, he always had a cure for insomnia, at hand.

Martin spent more on a library of reports and reviews during his tenure than any minister in the history of the State.

The bill for 115 of 145 reports commissioned by the Minister in the Department, where he spent four years, was outlined in a parliamentary answer to Fine Gael TD Seymour Crawford in 2004. It was €30m.

Martin also likely holds the world record for pre-announcing the launch of a website that earned consultants Accenture €3 million but the website was never launched!

Publicity Campaign on the Government's emergency plans for disasters

The Irish Independent reported in March 2002 that long-awaited iodine tablets for every family in the country - to cope with radioactive fallout, and pledged after the September 11 US attacks - would be distributed to every household later that month.

An information leaflet outlining the Government's nuclear emergency plan would also be distributed to all households "over the coming weeks ... but will not include full details of what to do in a nuclear attack."

The Indo said that distribution of the leaflet was the first phase of an information campaign on nuclear safety initially promised in October 2001.

At the time, Junior Minister with responsibility for nuclear safety Joe Jacobs told RTE radio that information booklets would be sent to every home in the country by the beginning of November.

"The Department of Public Enterprise will operate a call centre from Monday until Easter, and a comprehensive booklet detailing the main features of the national plan for nuclear emergencies will also be available by phoning 1890-44-33-22," the newspaper reported.

Five years later, a multi-million euro publicity campaign will begin in January to inform people about the Government's emergency plans for disasters.

The three-year initiative will produce and distribute a DVD or handbook to explain specific responses by relevant Government departments to catastrophes like terrorist attacks or nuclear accidents.

The Defence Department has sought interested bidders for the contract on behalf of the Office of Emergency Planning (OEP).

Defence Minister Willie O'Dea brought the proposals to the weekly Cabinet meeting on October 17th and they were approved. "The contract is to plan and deliver a Public Information and Awareness Campaign on Emergency Planning in Ireland over a three-year period.

"The period will start from when the contract is signed," a spokesman for the OEP said.

Earlier this year, the OEP carried out preliminary research to identify the concerns and questions of the general public regarding potential emergencies, such as a nuclear accident at Sellafield or a major terrorist attack.

Applications from public relations firms from across the EU will also be considered as the tender notice appeared in the EU Journal.

"The task will be to gather information from all the Government departments on emergency plans in place and present this information in an accessible format to inform and reassure householders.

"We basically want to let people know what plans are out there," added the OEP spokesman.

Remember that story about graffiti in a toilet with the question : What to do in a nuclear war??

Picture the Yes Minister scene with a ministerial flunkey proposing a painless form of actionless action.

Bingo! Let's have a publicity campaign!

So much for the Ministry for Disasters...

On Thursday Nov 9th, plans for a Greater Dublin Transportation Board were announced to oversee some form of integration to the transport network in Dublin and sorrounding counties. It was provided for in the 2002 Government programme and as with Michael McDowell's Privacy Bill, it will likely be part of a raft of shambolic legislation that will be shouted through the Oireachtas just before the General Election next summer.

The busy bees will conventiently run out of time.

So much for time management...let's commission another consultants' report!!

Spare a thought in passing, for our overworked, underpaid legislators!

The Government Parties are simply ticking off a list of so-called commitments. Just await the avalanche of announcements and cobbled together Bills in the coming six months.

Implementation, control, management and targets are a different story. Oh sorry...I forgot about benchmarking. So there must be targets. Ministers got 2 benchmarking payments - one as TDs and the other as Minister.

There were no targets, of course.

The joke line was that private sector workers without occupational pensions, were OVERPAID compared with public servants.

It could be used in a comedy routine but it's a serious issue and when the property boom subsides, today's politicians will be in clover on their gold-plated pensions as people will look back and wonder at the opportunities that were foregone during a time of unprecedented prosperity, to put reforms and structures in place for more challenging times.

Property or tulip mania, has never provided a foundation for a permanent prosperity.

Read the section on Sham Benchmarking here. Even public service pensioners were part of the bonanza.

Delay of at least 2 years expected in Response to initial report of Institutional Abuse at Dublin Nursing Home

On Friday Nov. 10th, the report on deaths at the Leas Cross nursing home in north Dublin - which found shocking deficits in the care provided to elderly residents - was published and passed on to the Garda Síochána.

The author of the report, consultant geriatrician Prof Des O'Neill, said in his review that his overall findings "are consistent with a finding of institutional abuse".

Prof O'Neill found staffing levels at the home to be deficient. He also identified failures in the regulatory process, criticised those in management for not taking complaints seriously and said "there is scant evidence that the Department of Health has taken cognisance of the huge concerns internationally over the quality of care provided to older people in long-term care".

"With a few honourable exceptions there has been a systematic failure by Government, health boards and professional bodies to address the issue of appropriate quality of care for older people with the highest levels of health and social needs in Irish society," his report added.

Aidan Browne, director of Primary, Community and Continuing Care with the HSE, said all recommendations in the report would be taken on board. Asked what actions would be taken against staff to ensure they were held accountable, he said: "If you read the report and you read the submissions, there is no evidence that people actually did anything wrong. The evidence is that the combination of factors came together that resulted in a wrong outcome."

Passing the buck is the most glaring characteristic of Irish public governance.

Simply, nobody has to take responsibility and there is more benchmarking payola in the pipeline!

In its submission, the Department of Health said that some criticisms of it by Prof O'Neill were made out of context and were not backed up by any evidence. And a former senior health service executive described parts of the report as "biased and inaccurate".

Minister for Health Mary Harney described the report's findings as "deeply upsetting" and promised legislation to allow for the setting up of an independent inspection regime for all nursing homes.

She said she wanted to see the legislation through the Oireachtas "hopefully before Easter of next year".

Hopefully before Easter 2007?

Before that, Bertie plans a referendum on an amendment to the Constitution to protect children - another example of painless actionless action.

So the busy bee TDs will have a six weeks break in the meantime and there's no embarrassment that it will have taken at least 2 years for the Government to respond to an urgent crisis.

When Ministers simply work part-time on issues of Government, should we be surprised at the glacial speed and the lack of ideas or interest in promoting reform?

Last week, apart from Iraq, an incompetent and corrupt Republican Party, was rejected by Americans after 12 years when it had failed to match promises of reform with results.

Here, much of a comatose electorate, expects results but it eventually gives a collective shrug of the shoulders, when there isn't delivery.

What can happen when the finger is ultimately taken out to tackle urgent issues?

Last week employers' body IBEC, released an analysis of insurance claims and settlements which shows a significant fall in the number of personal injury compensation claims in recent years.

Some of the facts are:

  • The number of employee insurance claims in recent years indicates a downward trend in claims against business by a much as 40% in real terms (from almost 12,000 claims per year in the period to 2002 to around 7,000 per year in the last three years - IIF Factfile)
  • Court writs in personal injury claims on average 33,000 per year up to 2004 were down to 4,000 in 2005
  • Insurance costs also show a significant decline with room for further improvement
  • The Personal Injuries Assessment Board (PIAB) process will handle on average 25,000 cases per annum including motor and public liability cases, and deliver assessments in nine months in respect of over 7,000 cases or an average of 200 per week. Maximum deliver costs are €1,350 per case.
  • Many cases are now being settled up front either directly between the parties or following enquiry to PIAB (6000 cases in the two year period to September 2006) and during the PIAB process ( 9,000 cases in the same period)

IBEC Assistant Director Tony Briscoe said: “The success of the PIAB as an alternative means of resolving compensation cases, together with the measures provided in the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 to deter fraud and exaggerated claims, means the compensation environment has changed significantly in recent years. People need no longer be forced into costly legal battles, but can settle claims directly or have them assessed by the PIAB."

“From the information available it is clear more and more claims are being settled earlier and in greater volumes than before (claims took on average three to four years under the old system).Of the enquiries to PIAB, one in six is resolved without the need for assessment process and a further one in four prior to the PIAB making an award.

In many instances claims are settled without any recourse to PIAB, which is the intention of the Civil Liability and Courts Act whereby any claimant is required to notify the other party of their intention to purse compensation within two months of the incident. To get the full picture we need more details on the stages at which claims are resolved. It is most likely that the existence of the PIAB, while not directly involved in all cases, contributed towards having genuine claims settled quicker, with huge savings to the parties involved,” he said.

Briscoe nevertheless said that there is concern amongst employers that the measures provided in the Civil Liability and Courts Act of 2004, which deal with fraudulent and exaggerated claims are not being applied as intended in some cases. “There are cases where evidence of exaggerated claims is not taken into account by the courts as we would have expected. This could encourage exaggerated and fraudulent claims. The courts have vital role in ensuring that when a person exaggerates a claim, the full penalties set out in legislation are applied,” he concluded.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Nimby Syndrome in Ballsbridge, South Dublin?

On Tuesday evening, property developer Seán Dunne, who in 2005 spent €380m acquiring seven acres of land in Ballsbridge, South Dublin, from the Jurys Doyle hotel group, presented plans to construct a 32-storey building on the sites of the Berkley Court and Jurys hotels.

Dunne outlined to a private meeting, including local politicians, the plans for a mixed use scheme which would incorporate residential, retail and office use. He hopes to construct 600 apartments in the development.

Dunne can only build a residential development on the site under its current zoning.

Dunne who built his current home in 2002 on Shrewbury Road, Ballsbridge, just a half mile away from the hotel sites, was reported last month by The Sunday Business Post to have bought Walford on the road for €58 million - the most expensive house in the country.

The newspaper said that a planning application erected outside the Edwardian mansion at 24 Shrewsbury Road in Dublin 4 last month, sought permission to demolish the house and replace it with a new house, with a swimming pool and staff quarters.

The Carlow-born developer is reported to want to build a private road at the rear of the house and two three-storey four-bedroom houses at the back of the seven-bedroom Edwardian house, which stands on 1.8 acres.

However, the Sunday Times reported that Dunne denied that he is the so-called "mystery" owner.

On Tuesday morning at the High Court, Shrewsbury Road resident Seán Dunne and a neighbour who is a solicitor, sought to overturn the granting of planning permission for a development of seven apartments adjoining their homes. The proposed development is on the former site of the Chester Beatty library at 20 Shrewsbury Road.

Among the objections reported to have been raised to the proposed development is that the developer, O'Malley Construction Co Ltd, has not specified how it will conform with the requirements of the planning acts for social and affordable housing, Mr Justice Brian McGovern was told.

The social and affordable housing scheme is a joke of a system.

Under Part V of the Planning and Development Act, 2002, up to 20% of a development must be given over to social and affordable housing. If not, under changes introduced in 2002, land or cash must be handed over in lieu. Journalist Jane Suiter says that in reality, this is a moving target. Different councils have varying targets and policies. According to Hubert Fitzpatrick of the Irish Homebuilders Association, far more flexibility needs to be delivered.

It's basically another tax on the first time house buyer as developers generally pay cash in lieu to the local councils. As with the land development bonanza, the plonkers are the ones who have to pay at the end of the line.

Outlining the case before the High Court, Hugh O'Neill SC, for Dunne and solicitor Stephen MacKenzie, said the planned development is for seven apartments in a two/three-storey building over basement on the site at Shrewsbury Road of the former Chester Beatty library, which relocated to Dublin Castle in 1999.

O'Neill was contending the decisions of An Bord Pleanála in 2004 and 2005 upholding the decision of Dublin City Council to grant permission for the development breached a number of planning regulations, including requirements relating to posting site notices for proposed development.

The nature and extent of the proposed development was not properly described, counsel argued. The initial application failed to state that the proposed development involved the demolition of two habitable houses on the site, which had been used by curators of the library.

Shrewsbury Road is in a residential conservation area and special consideration had to be taken when assessing any proposed developments in the area, O'Neill said.

An Bord Pleanála has denied the claims.

Seán Dunne likely knows more than most people how beset the Irish planning system is with Nimbyism (NIMBY - Not In My Back Yard)*. The newspaper reports today on the case may not cover all the objections of substance in the case. However, on the day that Dunne presented his more than €1 billion development plans for the hotel sites, just more than a stone's throw away, the objection to the development doesn't progress Irish planning that is already a "worst case scenario" case study being used by the European Environment Agency.

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

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Minister for Good News

Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Employment
We had another example today of Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Employment Micheál Martin TD in the business of good news with the announcement that Merck Sharp & Dohme (Ireland) Ltd, US drugs firm Merck & Co., planned to establish a Formulation R&D and Manufacturing Facility at its plant in Ballydine with the support of IDA Ireland, and create 120 jobs over three years.

The Minister's Department made another announcement that he officially opened software company QUMAS’s new Research and Development Centre at Cleve Business Park, Cork, in his constituency and announced a further major R&D investment of €4.4m by the company, with support from Enterprise Ireland. The investment will allow for the expansion of the R&D department and will lead to the creation of 40 new high-value jobs, 26 of which are dedicated R&D roles, over the next two years at the company’s Cork headquarters.

In the constituency of East Cork, which Martin's Junior Minister Michael Ahern represents, the current operators of the former Youghal Carpets plant, announced 86 job cuts today.

Neither minister made an official comment on the news.

Last week, there was no press release from the Department on the 2,000 job redundancies in October, bringing the total to 19,533 in the year to date.

Junior Minister Michael Ahern who is known as Minister for Trade and Commerce is not averse to issuing press statements and usually tries to spin the export figures, which have fallen since 2001 and in the current year, are just keeping track with inflation.

It was reported last month that exports in the 12 months to July 2006 were up 3%.

“Irish exporters are continuing to perform well in a difficult trading environment caused by the global economic slowdown and rising oil prices,“ Minister said in a press statement.

However, there was no global economic slowdown in the first seven months of the year.

The International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook expects an important increase in global Gross Domestic Product this year.

The twice-yearly report predicts global economic growth of 5.1 percent in 2006—an upward revision of 30 basis points from the April 2006 projections –and 4.9 percent next year. If the predictions are accurate, “this would be the strongest four-year period of global expansion since the early 1970s,” the report notes.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Aer Lingus and one board member with anything of worth to win or lose

Politicians are not the only practitioners of the art of spin and while the well-paid advisers to Aer Lingus would be expected to view the opening bid price from Ryanair as inadequate, the choice of the adjective "derisory" for the offer is quite bizarre.

Derisory - meaning: incongruous; inviting ridicule - absurd, cockeyed, idiotic, laughable, ludicrous, nonsensical, preposterous, ridiculous - for an offer price of €2.80 that was 27.3% above the recommended IPO price made by the same folk, two weeks before!

It's no surprise that there would have been a discount in the IPO price to reduce risk and ensure success given what US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might term known unknowns.

So presumably to get beyond the zone of the laughable or ridiculous, the bid price two weeks after the IPO should have been say 100% on the IPO price of €2.20 i.e €4.40 rather than a jump of 27.3%.

In truth, the guns-for-hire would laugh up their sleeves if they were on the other side of the fence.

It's all part of the game and nobody really has to seriously defend the issue.

John Sharman, Chairman of Aer Lingus said today: Our product offering is differentiated from our peers. It is superior to Ryanair’s and passengers prefer to fly with Aer Lingus.

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary said last August: This year Ryanair will carry 42 million passengers across its network. This is five times more than the annual, 8m traffic of Aer Lingus. Ryanair also carries 50% more passengers than Aer Lingus to/from Ireland. The Irish people have voted with their feet and made Ryanair Ireland’s number one airline. In the process Aer Lingus has been displaced as Ireland’s national airline and now survives as just a distant number 2.

In 2007, Ryanair will deliver 9m passengers through Dublin airport, sustaining 9,000 jobs in Dublin and generating a tourist spend of €2.5bn.

Both cannot be right. Maybe Sharman means if the price is right but that challenge lies ahead.

Aer Lingus Chief Executive Dermot Mannion's remark that it would be inconceivable that the board of Aer Lingus would approve any offer from Ryanair is also bizarre in more ways than one.

Mannion is the one potential big loser from a successful bid. He would be out of a job after 15 months.

The rest of the board would potentially lose some travel freebies and fees. Unlike most boards, there is no member of the board who has the prospect of a big killing from the Ryanair bid.

There simply is no real ownership interest on the board but there are strong voices of vested interest, including the political interest in the North Dublin area .

Aer Lingus now calls itself “Low Fares, Way Better” while Ryanair terms itself "Ireland's national airline."

Aer Lingus said today that since 2001, unit costs have fallen by 47% and the total operating cost base has fallen by 40%. In the same period, staff productivity has more than doubled. Aer Lingus is committed to driving more unit cost efficiencies out of the business.

There was no mention of Willie Walsh former Aer Lingus Chief Executive who is now Chief Executive of British Airways.


Walsh was earlier airbrushed out of the Aer Lingus story when Taoiseach Bertie Ahern pandered to the trade unions when he accused Walsh and two other former senior managers at the airline of having tried to "steal the assets" of Aer Lingus.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny compared the "perverse" attack on Walsh with Ahern's "fawning and facilitating" attitude towards Gerry Adams.

He called on Ahern to withdraw his remarks immediately, saying they were a "gross abuse" of parliamentary privilege, while Labour's Pat Rabbitte called them "extraordinary, outrageous and defamatory".

"The perverse nature of the Taoiseach's astonishing approach to two high-profile individuals in Irish public life is astonishing," said Kenny.

"It is worth considering the contrast between the Taoiseach's attitude to a man that is generally regarded to have saved the national airline from extinction, and his attitude to the leader of a political party with continuing links with organised crime and a history of paramilitary violence. Willie Walsh gets accused of attempting to steal a national asset. Gerry Adams gets a spare set of keys for St Luke's (the Taoiseach's constituency office) despite events like the Robert McCartney murder and the robbery of the Northern Bank.

One turns a loss-making company around, and is defamed; the other leads a movement that stole €32m and is embraced by the Taoiseach," said Kenny.

He added: "Of course, the real problem is Willie Walsh totally outclassed this Government with his ability, leadership and vision."

"Willie Walsh's remarkable instinct for solving problems and getting things done showed the Government up. In terms of Irish business, Willie Walsh is not just one of our best exports, he is one of our worst losses."

It's a funny world. Everyone now sees the virtue of aviation competition but without EU airline deregulation and Ryanair, what arguments would the same people use to defend a vested interest?

It shouldn't be too hard to guess, because we've still plenty of vested interests left.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Noel Dempsey - a rare Irish politician who challenges vested interests

A complete ban on drift-netting for salmon, as well as angling curbs on more than 30 rivers, will be put in place within weeks, following the Irish Cabinet's decision on Thursday to accept recommendations to save stocks.

Ministers accepted proposals from Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources Noel Dempsey with little disagreement, at yesterday morning's Cabinet meeting.

However, Minister for Rural, Community and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív and Minister for Agriculture and Food Mary Coughlan favoured a voluntary buyout of the 800 drift-net licences, over a compulsory ban.

Minister Noel Dempsey is a rare Irish politician because he is willing to stand up to vested interests. He deserves praise because the default option of the typical Irish politician, is to sail with the wind.

Noel Dempsey has stood his ground against the Nimbies in Rossport. His latest decision to put general interest above vested interest shows that he is a rare politician of courage and consequence.

While the depletion of salmon stocks in Irish coastal waters is a European issue, it is part of a bigger threat to fish species on a global scale.

A report in the New York Times says that if fishing around the world continues at its present pace, more and more species will vanish, marine ecosystems will unravel and there will be “global collapse” of all species currently fished, possibly as soon as midcentury, fisheries experts and ecologists are predicting.

The scientists, who are to report their findings on Friday in the journal Science, say it is not too late to turn the situation around. As long as marine ecosystems are still biologically diverse, they can recover quickly once overfishing and other threats are reduced, the researchers say.

But they add that there must be quick, large-scale action to protect remaining diversity, including establishment of marine reserves and “no take” zones, along with restrictions on particularly destructive fishing practices.

The researchers drew their conclusion after analyzing dozens of studies and fishing data collected by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and other sources. They acknowledge that much of what they are reporting amounts to correlation, rather than proven cause and effect.

And the data from the Fishing and Agricultural Organization have come under criticism from researchers who doubt the reliability of some nations’ reporting practices, said Boris Worm, a fisheries expert at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who led the work.
Still, he said in an interview, “there is not a piece of evidence” that contradicts the dire conclusions.

Jane Lubchenco, a fisheries expert at Oregon State University who had no connection with the work, called the report “compelling.”

“It’s a meta analysis and there are challenges in interpreting those,” she said in an interview, referring to the technique of analyzing a host of previous studies. “But when you get the same patterns over and over and over, that tells you something.”

Twelve scientists from the United States, Canada, Sweden and Panama contributed to the work.
“We extracted all data on fish and invertebrate catches from 1950 to 2003 within all 64 large marine ecosystems worldwide,” they wrote. “Collectively, these areas produced 83 percent of global fisheries yields over the past 50 years.”

In an interview, Dr. Worm said, “We looked at absolutely everything — all the fish, shellfish, invertebrates, everything that people consume that comes from the ocean, all of it, globally.”

According to the New York Times, the researchers found that 29 percent of species had already been fished so heavily or were so affected by pollution or habitat loss that they were down to 10 percent of previous levels, a situation the scientists called collapse.

This loss of biodiversity seems to restrict the ability of marine ecosystems as a whole to recover from overfishing, Dr. Worm said. That results in an acceleration of environmental decay and further loss of fish, with potentially serious consequences to people and economies dependant on them.

Dr. Worm said he analyzed the data for the first time on his laptop while he was overseeing a roomful of students taking an exam. What he saw, he said, was “just a smooth line going down.” And when he extrapolated the data into the future “to see where it ends at 100 percent collapse, you arrive at 2048.”

“The hair stood up on the back of my neck and I said, ‘This cannot be true,’ ” he recalled. So he ran the data through his computer again. And then he did calculations by hand. The results were the same.

“I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know what the future will bring, but this is a clear trend,” he said. “There is an end in sight, and it is within our lifetimes.”

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine and CEOs


People who view success by how much money they accumulate, may sometimes even use other yardsticks of achievement and a viewing of the current popular indie movie Little Miss Sunshine, could even bring some down to earth.

In the Financial Times on Tuesday, columnist Stefan Stern focused on a modern totem of success- the CEO's mouth watering heist (this should of course be distinguished from the returns made by successful entrepreneurs. There is often a blurring of the distinction but there is a huge difference between a person who may have risked all and an individual who has climbed the greasy pole in a company that was established by someone else, maybe decades ago).


Stern says that something has happened as far as attitudes to immense wealth are concerned. In 1987 Oliver Stone caricatured the “greed is good” instincts of notorious Wall Street figures in the shape of the corporate raider, Gordon Gekko. Perhaps Fox should consider re-releasing the film – except that now it might be seen not so much as satire but as an instructional video.

The triumphant march of capitalism, which began stutteringly with the fall of communism in 1989, is now reaching top speed in spite of corporate scandals and the volatility of equity and commodity markets. Its victory was saluted enthusiastically by Lester Thurow, a professor at the Sloan school of management at MIT, in his 1999 book, Building Wealth.

Stern says that here he accurately described the underlying ethos that has made possible the monster pay packages of today. “Wealth ultimately is the way the score is kept in capitalism,” he wrote. “Wealth has always been important in the personal pecking order but it has become increasingly the only dimension by which personal worth is measured. It is the only game to play if you want to prove your mettle. It is the big leagues. If you do not play there, by definition you are second rate.”

Are vast CEO salaries simply a question of supply and demand? Boards and shareholders want the best available person to lead the organisation and, perhaps, hardly anyone will be up to the job. Those who are can command a high price.

In a fascinating recent podcast, Wayne Guay, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, explains why CEO pay has reached such extraordinary levels. He is unimpressed by the data that reveal the gap between CEO pay and that of ordinary employees – like comparing “a carpenter to a computer programmer”, he says. (Remind me, what did that nice young carpenter from Nazareth say about the rich and the Kingdom of Heaven?)

Supercharged salaries seem to be the product of a self-perpetuating system. Pay consultants advise their clients on the latest schemes to reward performance, headhunters push up the asking price for “talent” while non-executive directors sit on each other’s pay review boards. It all looks a bit cosy. But this is merely the logical outcome of a world where, as Prof Thurow explains, anyone with any sense is trying to earn as much as possible as quickly as possible.

Income inequality is beginning to worry people on all points of the political spectrum. Pay for ordinary workers in the developed world seems to be standing still while their leaders continue to make hay. But can one executive really claim so much credit, and be so disproportionately rewarded, for the results achieved by a huge multinational corporation? That is doubtful at best.
Stern says that we should ask the super-rich CEO the same searing question that was put to Senator Joe McCarthy by special counsel Joseph Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Little Miss Sunshine

The Hoover family is a dysfunctional one that lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The grandfather Edwin Hoover (Alan Arkin) has been ejected from a nursing home because of his taste for heroin and his anti-social attitude including a lot of swearing. His son Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a deluded motivational speaker who divides the world into two groups - winners and losers. He doesn't realise which group he belongs in, but his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette) does. She's supporting him while he tries to get a book published about the nine steps to success and it's driving her demented.

Their 15-year-old son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is pissed off with life and is a fan of the nineteenth century German philospher Friedrich Nietzsche; he hasn't spoken in nine months. When Sheryl brings her brother Frank (Steve Carell) home from the hospital to recuperate after an attempted suicide, the brooding brother, has to share a room with Dwayne who writes on his notepad: "Welcome to hell."

Seven-year old Olive (Abigail Breslin), wants to be a winner to please her Dad and that means winning a beauty contest. When Olive discovers that due to a disqualified finalist who was caught with diet pills, she has got a place in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California, she rocks the house with her joy. This spurs the Hoover family to pile into their rundown VW bus and make the 700-mile trek from Albuquerque, weathering a series of increasingly complicated hindrances along the way.

Plain looking Olive, amidst the sculpted daughters of pushy parents, creates a sensation with a routine that she picked up from her grandfather and the family's experience may not be the ideal path to the American dream, but there is the moral that failure to be number one at your goal doesn't make you a failure. That finding the joy in what you do and who you are is what makes you a winner.