Saturday, November 25, 2006

Being sold for scrap

With the Victorian state election a plain-vanilla contest between Boomer-dum and Boomer-dee, a bit of colour and movement hit the news a few days ago, about copper thieves dismantling Melbourne’s railway infrastructure, to sell it as scrap for $7-$8 a kilogram.

TV news reports of this activity played it rather jocularly, with their main “serious” message being how dangerous such dismantling can be – live powerlines, etc.

Segueing into these mixed sentiments, washed-up Labor hack Peter Batchelor (who holds the bizarre job title “Transport Minister”; a non-sequitur because public transport was gutted and privatised long ago) opined:

“It's wrong to call [the dismantling] vandalism, it's down-and-out theft . . . ”

That is, it’s really not that funny, even if it seems that way at first. But let’s not go overboard about it, either.

Let’s not then, goes the message, tot-up the economic cost of this dismantling of core infrastructure. The latest incident – one of 20 recent ones – led to ~30 peak-hour services along the Epping and Hurstbridge train lines being cancelled. Now I’m guessing that alone adds up to a six or seven figure total loss of income, etc. Meanwhile, the thieves have got themselves a two, or maybe three figure prize booty.

Anyone else struck by the asymmetry here? Hell, it’s just as well the thieves are so careful about their own lives and limbs when working around live wires – if they fried on the job, they could be labelled “terrorists” (subject also to their religion/politics being demonisable so as to outweigh all material gain considerations, of course).

That such thoughts don’t seem to cross the mainstream media, or the mouths of pollie hacks, says much. Thus, to call the activity something worse than theft – eg “dismantling Melbourne’s railway infrastructure” – is to sound uncomfortably close to a Macquarie Bank (et al) routine sales pitch. Ditto for labeling the thieves more specifically as “entrepreneur-psychopaths”. Such types are widely lauded, and invariably at the top of the food-chain, when it comes to any type of dismantling of infrastructure, other than that done with manually with bolt-cutters.

On a slight tangent, white-collar entrepreneur-psychopaths have also found rich pickings in the Commonwealth government’s privatised Job Network. No surprises there admittedly, but the Age, as usual sees (almost) no evil:

Perverse incentives mean job-seeker services are rorting the system rather than finding long-term jobs for people, according to a scathing analysis of the Government's Job Network.

The way the Job Network is set up means providers are paid more if they delay getting someone into a job or get them into a short-term job so that they have to come back to be placed again, the report says.

Left unexplained and unexplored is how the former “perverse incentive” - not getting someone a job – actually works (the latter one is quite obvious: with a bonus for placing someone in a job, the incentive is for such placements to be artificially manufactured/replicated).

Having been on various Job Network agencies’ books for many years, all with them making nary a single phone call on my behalf, it is charming to hear alluded to what I had previously dismissed as just their general slackness/incompetence.

How wrong I was, evidently. Instead, they were all along quietly beavering and snipping away at my infrastructure, making a few dozen dollars here and there.

I now know how the railway lines feel – being sold for scrap, in a grubby and obscene transaction whose negative externalities outweigh someone’s cash receipts thousands of times over.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Punk music, and the continuing longest long decade

“Long” is the in-phrase of the moment. For commodified creative content sold on the net, the “long tail” backlist supposedly gives bestsellers/frontlists a run for their money. And one of the handful of commentariat writers I find genuinely stimulating (his savaging of 1980s-to-present boomer-ocracy, including the supposed culture wars, is without peer), Michael Lind, refers to the 1990s zeitgeist as only ending about now (September 11 was thus not a particular watershed).

For long decades, though, I’d like to trump Lind, and suggest that popular culture is still much stuck in the 1970s – now that’s a long decade.

Warwick McFadyen gets things upside down here:

Which isn't to say the Sex Pistols did not make an impact a generation ago. They did . . . Does that make them heroes? Actually, some may say it does, given the banal radio fodder of the time (Journey, Kansas, Reo Speedway [sic], Toto, etc).

I know nothing of the first two mentioned "banal radio fodder" bands – other than a single morbid encounter with “Kansas” at my Year 10 formal – but McFadyen is being grossly unfair to Toto, at least. Toto’s best years – from “Hold the Line” (1978) to “Africa” (1982) – postdate the Sex Pistols’ last ever gig, in mid-January 1978. (Yes Virginia, the Pistols really were only a one year (or so) wonder). Plus, for a middle-of-the-road, or prog rock, band of the time, Toto at least seem absent from Patrick Bateman’s record collection, which prominently features two excrescences of the early 1980s: Genesis (/Phil Collins) and Huey Lewis & the News.

Here’s an edit of Bateman’s seminal Phil Collins monologue:

Do you like Phil Collins? I've been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that, I really didn't understand any of their work. Too artsy, too intellectual. It was on Duke where, uh, Phil Collins' presence became more apparent. I think “Invisible Touch” was the group's undisputed masterpiece . . . “In Too Deep” is the most moving pop song of the 1980s, about monogamy and commitment . . . Phil Collins' solo career seems to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying, in a narrower way. Especially songs like “In the Air Tonight” and, uh, “Against All Odds” . . . But I also think Phil Collins works best within the confines of the group, than as a solo artist, and I stress the word artist. This is “Sussudio”, a great, great song, a personal favorite.

Patrick Bateman is, of course, a baby boomer – albeit a late, late one (born October 1962; penultimate URL). Equally inevitably, Patrick Bateman’s genius creator, Brett Easton Ellis is an Xer, born chronologically close to Bateman (in 1964, like me), but a lifetime apart in most other ways.

Coming back to the longest decade, and the persistence of 1970s popular culture, my point is that Patrick Bateman was decidedly untroubled by punk (1976-77) and post-punk (1978 -) music. To achieve this, he not only needed to follow middle-of-the-road music down its most stagnant backwaters well into the 1980s, he also needed an originating cusp, a time before which his current tastes need not look back over in too much detail – Bateman’s “Year Zero” here is 1980.

Meanwhile real baby boomers, unlike Patrick Bateman’s subversive caricature, are yet to admit to a Year Zero, as a marker of the end of punk and post-punk music and a resetter for a replacement regime. Warwick McFadyen says that the Sex Pistols were of “a generation ago”. I only wish this were so. "Banal radio fodder" vs punk is in 2006, a dichotomy manque - as illusory and pointless as the present-day culture wars, between boomer-Left Tweedledum and boomer-Right Tweedledee. The 1970s are over, boomers. In the words of Toto: It's gonna take a lot to drag [them] away from you . . . Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

US studies give[n] the nod

Higher education in Australia reached a new low point over the last 18 months, with the spectacle of our leading universities jostling among themselves for the dubious privilege of hosting an endowed US Studies Centre (or should that be "Center"?).

Basic ethics should have prevented all but nothing-left-to-lose cowboy institutions (you know who you are) from putting up their hands in the first place. The funding comes with onerous ties/strings, but what’s particularly disgraceful about these is that it’s the government’s pony that’s the most whim-driven.

So congratulations, University of Sydney, for deliberately procuring the equivalent of a creationist school chaplain to dwell in your midst. I suggest that your geography department now start teaching flat-earth theory, to better fit in with their new colleagues.

As usual in these things, the clearest indictment comes from the mouths of the boosters themselves. According to Michael Baume, a lead (freelance) progenitor of the Centre, the new US Studies Centre is a mere catch-up gesture, given that Asian region/country Centres already proliferate in Oz universities:

The centre extends to our main ally (and investment partner) the principle of establishing studies centres that cover many of Australia's neighbours in the region.

Most every pissweak university in the land has several titular XYZ Centres, of course, all desperate attempts to project some intellectual substance or specialty into the ether. Baume’s positioning of the new US Studies Centre as yet another such grandiosely-titled delusion, all on a crowded bottom-shelf, is choice. Welcome to Pissweak “America” World.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Cheats prosper?

Emma Tom’s “Wry side” column in the Oz is usually a pretty good read. She’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but her consistent contrarianism warms the cockles of my Xer heart. In fact, sometimes I reckon she could be a (relentlessly) optimistic GenX bloke in drag – but to achieve the requisite optimism from a male DNA base, she would need to medicated to a level I don’t believe a single Xer male has yet reached and lived to tell the tale. An idea of the stratospheric level of meds an Emma Tom gender-cross would require can be glimpsed in the back cover shot of Olivia Newton-John’s 1975 album Have You Never Been Mellow. There’s no mistaking the young Olivia’s pure and unadulterated Mellowness (not to be confused with mere emotions like happiness) – she seems ‘luuded sheer through to her LA-canyon-vortex cortex.

Anyway, yesterday Emma was semi-seriously defending cheating:

The uncomfortable truth is that a certain amount of selling out is necessary for survival and sanity.

Matthew Slaughter is the brooding electronic repair-dude from the 1990 Hal Hartley movie "Trust". Slaughter's hotted-up sense of morality (he won't touch dodgy components or television sets) means: (a) he's unemployable and (b) he feels the need to carry around a live grenade in case society's moral squalor gets too much and he suddenly needs to blow himself up.

It's hardly a practical approach.

I haven’t seen the movie Trust, but there’s an intriguing, escalating extremism between Emma’s two motherhood-statement bookends. If one doesn’t embrace at least a degree of cheating, she seems to be saying, one is presumptively unemployable, a state from which being a suicidal nutso is but one small step.

Perhaps. But taking baby-steps only in cheating is patently ridiculous. As with queue-jumping – whose ultimate sanction is the jumper getting jumped, ad infinitum – cheating necessarily invites an arms race, one that involves ever nastier and more organised-criminal participants.

It's hardly a practical approach. Yet it is all around us. Me, I’m just trying the Sisyphean task of achieving even momentary Mellowness, as an Xer male, like it’s never been Australia in 2006.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Economists vs lawyers – and the death of the umpire

With appropriately lawyerly tardiness, I’m using the Fair Pay Commission decision from a couple of weeks ago to segue into something broader – just how de-lawyered, and so conversely, economisted, the West has become in recent decades.

The Fair Pay Commission is a convenient example of this: it replaced something familiar to almost any adult – an adversarial contest resolved by a (more or less) impartial and expert umpire – with something opaque and gimcrack. The neutral umpire is conspicuously absent in the new regime of course, but also important is the loss of adversarial oomph in the process. Thus, the ACTU had only asked for a minimum wage increase slightly above the inflation rate. Notoriously, they ended up getting almost all they asked for – and then cried “rigged” because of this. Which would be all very amusingly ironic, if the unions hadn’t so willingly embraced the mickey-mouse spirit of the whole thing from the beginning.

Admittedly, the Fair Pay Commission’s directly replacing lawyers with court jesters doesn’t (yet) seem to be part of a sweeping trend among institutions in the West. But indirectly there does seem to be a general retreat from the open and understood, towards special pleading behind closed doors. The “court” of George W Bush is an example here – the concept of separation of powers is redundant and quaint as a criticism of the overreach of executive power under the Bush presidency. The goalposts haven’t simply been moved; the oval’s been trashed and the grandstands boarded up – all while ostensibly operating as business-as-usual.

Favour-currying whores in broad brush, economists do at least have one positive attribute when looked at close-up – intellectual consistency in a vacuum, taken to heroic proportions, if necessary. Thus, take this snippet from an Economist book review:

Sadly, in the climate of [1950s England], which treated homosexuality as an abhorrent mixture of sickness and weakmindedness, rather as paedophilia is regarded now, it was not [exceptional].

Yep, just a casual plug for paedophilia there, folks – apropos of what, your guess is as good as mine. But that’s the difference between economists and lawyers: lawyers think in terms of absolutes, like consent, while for economists there’s only a continuum of pricing.

I imagine that economists’ defence of paedophilia presumes it as just another form of child labour – and what is wrong with that? Nothing, seems to be the orthodoxy at the Economist magazine, at least. In the same issue (6 July 2006) as the above book review snippet is a detailed country review of Pakistan, which notes (i) that the country’s only real export industry is textiles, and (ii) its high (50%) illiteracy rate. Now call me a crusading lawyer, but I would have thought that, juxtaposing these two facts, would mean noting that child-labour was endemic in Pakistan’s textile industry – but child-labour is nowhere even hinted at.

But hey, that’s the joy of globalisation. Slavery – sexual and otherwise – has never been so endemic and yet so silent and opaque.

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