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.

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