Friday, December 29, 2006

World Wide Wait in Malaysia

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

In school I learned of the several efforts to successfully lay a trans-Atlantic cable between Valentia Island, off the coast of Kerry in southwest Ireland, and Newfoundland, Canada, that led to the opening of a permanent communications link between Europe and North America, from July 1866.

News that an earthquake off Taiwan on Tuesday (St. Stephen’s Day) had severed key communications cables may have surprised some people that old-fashioned cable is still an important feature of today’s digital age.

Malaysia-based Internet users including myself, woke on Wednesday morning to a crawl on the so-called information superhighway. Local access to Internet services and websites hosted overseas came to a practical standstill after international links were disrupted by the earthquake that struck southern Taiwan on Tuesday night.

The earthquake damaged submarine cables that form part of the region-wide Asia Pacific Cable Network 2 (APCN 2), disrupting voice and Internet communications over much of Asia.

APCN 2 is a 19,000km-long fibre-optic cable network linking Japan, South Korea, China, Malaysia, Singapore, the United States, Europe and Australia. The network has been up since October 2002 and is jointly operated by 26 Asian telecommunications carriers.

Malaysia's The Star newspaper, reported that one group that had been badly hit by the disruption of Internet access was the blogger community.

Blogger Joyce Wong said she only managed to upload a few sentences onto her blog. "It is really getting to me because I have all my information and contacts online and I cannot get my work done,” said Wong, who is known as KinkyBlueFairy online.

For radio deejay cum music producer Johan Farid Khairuddin, the inability to post his blog meant that he has been disconnected from his fans.

“I blog very frequently – every five minutes if I may say so – and this breakdown has affected me emotionally as I am unable to interact with others,” said the 26-year-old.

Student Adrian Teh, 22, who blogs and reads his friends' posts regularly, said he felt hopeless.
Tech and gadgets blogger Albert Ng said he was not affected by the disruption because his weblog was in a local server.

However, the newspaper reported that he has had difficulties going to his friends' blogs as well as international e-mail sites.

Noor Faridah Zulkiflie was planning to revert to paper and pen since she was unable to post her blogs online.

“I feel wretched now because I have lots of pent-up feelings but unfortunately cannot write about them,” said the 22-year-old student.

Life can be tough and the rerouting of traffic has eased the frustration for Malaysians. So we have access to the safety valve again to release all those pent-up feelings!!

Happy New Year!!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Bertie Ahern's " patriot to his fingertips" and the legacy of a kleptocracy


In June 2006, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern gave a ringing peroration at the graveside of Charles Haughey and he indeed owed his deceased predecessor a great deal and knew more than most that his fellow Dublin northsider had been on the make, on a gigantic scale.

Political courage is a rare commodity and not to put a tooth in it, Ahern backed the right horse and won hugely.

"If the definition of a patriot is someone who devotes all their energy to the betterment of their country," Ahern said: "Charles Haughey was a patriot to his fingertips."

"Despite the controversy, even political opponents acknowledge that he had indeed done the State some service," he said. "The ultimate judgement of history will be positive."

Ahern spoke of how he remembered as a teenager canvassing for "Charlie" at election. "He was one of us, he was larger than life," he said.

The Taoiseach compared Haughey to the poet WB Yeats whom he said was a great but complex man, "impatient for the progress of our country".

When Yeats wrote "I am of Ireland", Ahern said he could not have penned a better description of Haughey.

He described the former leader as a "consummate politician, who exhibited grace under pressure, incisive mind and superb parliamentary skills proud identity with all of Ireland and a profound respect in victory and defeat for our democratic institutions."

In his report, Mr. Justice Michael Moriarty said that Haughey "lived a lifestyle and incurred expenditure vastly beyond the scale" of his income and it concludes that Haughey "devalued the quality of a modern democracy".

"As one of Mr Haughey's successors I want to acknowledge that he left a huge legacy of lasting achievement that this generation has based its own progress upon," Ahern said.

There were undoubtedly achievements as there were in the case of Richard Nixon.

Bertie Ahern was a bookkeeper in the Mater Hospital before entering politics and presumably it wasn't a place where blank cheques were floating about.

Bertie Ahern certainly knew aspects of Haughey that were unknown by many others including what Justice Moriarity termed the "elements of fear and domination engendered by him in individuals in both the private and public sectors."

Ahern said last June that Haughey would ruefully acknowledge to him that he enjoyed the proverbial nine lives.

"Charlie, Boss the last of those lives has now been extinguished. Today the most agile and instinctive of our political leaders is still," the current Taoiseach concluded.

Boss, indeed.

The Taoiseach says Haughey had a profound respect for our democracy while Justice Moriarty said that he devalued it.

RELATED:

Comment: All the King's Men - The Ireland that made Charles Haughey

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cúpla focail and more hypocrisy on the Irish language

Beautiful Gougane Barra in the Cork Gaeltacht, near the source of the River Lee (Photo: www.gouganebarra.com )

The Government today set out 13 key objectives in respect of the Irish language as it is due to become the 21st official working language of the European Union on January 1st.

It is unfortunate that the revival of the language since independence has been a failed effort by both leaders and people.

Apart from former teachers such as Opposition leader Enda Kenny, most members of our national parliament cannot speak the language and it is rarely used by members.

So what the Government served up today is a another cúpla focail and lots more hypocrisy.

The 13 objectives include;

  • Full implementation of the Official Languages Act and facilitation of the public's right to use Irish in dealings with the State.
  • Provision of a wide range of services to parents who wish to raise their children through Irish.
  • Continuous development of high-quality broadcast services through Irish, especially on TG4, RTÉ and Raidió na Gaeltachta.
  • Special support for the Gaeltacht as an Irish-speaking area.
  • Continuation of teaching of Irish as an obligatory subject from primary to Leaving Cert level while fostering oral and written competence.
  • Enhanced investment in professional development and ongoing support for teachers as well as in provision of textbooks and resources and in support for innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
  • Further development of all-Irish secondary education.
Speaking today, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that the statement marks "a major evolution" in national policy on the Irish language.

A major evolution - yes if more lip service will serve any purpose.

"The aim of 20th-century Government policies was to reinstate Irish as the main language spoken by the people, but the Government now plan to focus firmly on the practical development of a bilingual society where as many people as possible use both Irish and English with equal ease," Ahern said.

Decades of lip-service and payments of grants has left the language in a parlous state.

It is simply laughable that the Irish language would be used at EU ministerial level when most Irish politicians rarely speak the language apart from a few sentences if at all, at the start of a speech.

Irish language content is also rare in the main Irish daily newspapers and it has never been a requirement to use Irish when communicating with public officials.

So while this EU measure could be recognised as a belated recognition of an important part of Irish culture, it is sadly another example of what is wrong with the EU.

Ahern may not even be able to speak Irish at an EU meeting, never mind one in Dublin but he welcomes a measure that at least until Ireland becomes a net payer to the EU Budget, will be paid in full by German, Dutch and British taxpayers.

Cynicism comes cheap, so here are views other than mine - the words of an official report that was presented to the Irish Government in 2002:

The establishment of this Commission by the Government in the Spring of 2000 was a ray of hope to the people and friends of the Gaeltacht, people who for years have been concerned about the obvious decline and gradual extinction of the Gaeltacht. This Gaeltacht is all that remains of the large Irish-speaking community which was dominant in this country for hundreds of years, but has declined continuously in recent centuries.

While the first major action taken by the Free State Government on behalf of the Gaeltacht was the establishment of the first Gaeltacht Commission in 1925, the proposals made by the Commission were not acted upon however, nor were the appropriate resources made available which would have been required in order to do so.

Seventy-Seven Years Later...

Taking into account the historical erosion of the Gaeltacht and the further decline in our own lifetime, the Commission is of the view that it will not be possible to maintain the Gaeltacht as an area in which Irish remains a community language unless a fundamental change occurs in the way Irish is treated and in the status of Irish in the rest of the country. Despite the progress made by individuals and language organisations it is not evident that any Government has the strategy or understanding to advance efforts on behalf of the language.

Although the Gaeltacht is the primary concern of this Commission, the issue of the Gaeltacht cannot be separated from the issue of the Irish language in the rest of the country. The Commission is not aware of any Government policy in which the Government’s view of the Irish language in contemporary society is articulated, nor of any vision that demonstrates that the Government has discussed the role of the Irish language in the life of the country. Neither does there exist any action plan containing measurable targets.

The Commission is not aware of any such Government policy or plan. The Commission is of the view that the State is out of step with emerging world views on the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity. It is now recognised that every spoken language is a valuable resource which provides us with a particular world view – a view which is shaped by the past, which is precious and which stimulates creativity.

The death of a language is recognised as an act of negligence which represents a world tragedy. If Irish is allowed to die, one of oldest languages in Europe and Ireland’s native language will be lost. The revitalization of Irish and all that goes with it is the sole responsibility of this country.

If its just the intention to keep the language as a national monument, for use on ceremonial occasions and with the ‘cúpla focal’ being spoken from time to time, it is unlikely that Gaeltacht people will have much interest in retaining the language. It is as part of a national policy for the revival of Irish as a national language that the Commission feels that progress can best be achieved. The Commission also believes that a unique opportunity now exists to undertake this work in view of the Good Friday Agreement.

The aspirations that were served up today could only inspire a fool to believe that they will have any impact on the slow death of the Irish language.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Whited sepulchres of hypocritical moralism

De Wallen, also known as Walletjes or Rosse Buurt, is the largest and best-known red-light district in Amsterdam, a major tourist attraction. It is a network of alleys containing several hundred tiny one-room apartments rented by female prostitutes who offer their services from behind a window.

Many of us Irish like to believe that we're open minded and progressive but whether it's prostitution, illegal drugs or same-sex partnerships, there is little fear that we would make any progressive moves until the rest of Europe has travelled far ahead of us.

This week in Ireland and the UK , all three issues received extensive attention.

In 2004, the Economist wrote in an impressive editorial on prostitution, that the puritans have the whip hand not because they can prove that tough laws will make life better for women, but because they have convinced governments that prostitution is intolerable by its very nature. What has tipped the balance is the globalisation of the sex business.

Today, the Financial Times writes that morality is choosing to live one's life by a code of behaviour. Moralism is inflicting a puritanical code upon others.

Moralism kills. It leads to making prostitution and the use of drugs illegal. That brings ghastly results. Now, when the murders of five prostitutes in Suffolk are gripping the attention of the UK, all must see just how ghastly these results can occasionally be.

Finding prostitution abhorrent is quite understandable. It is equally understandable that people find the sale of dangerous drugs abhorrent. But policy should focus on consequences, not such emotions. Prohibition merely drives these practices further underground, thereby making bad worse.

In the UK, prostitution is not illegal. The position is far worse in the US, where it is illegal in all states, except Nevada. But even in the UK, soliciting and advertising by prostitutes, as well as "kerb-crawling" and, most important, living off the earnings of prostitutes are all illegal.

A brief glimmer of sanity broke out, with the publication of a thoroughly sensible review, Paying the Price, by the often unjustly condemned Home Office in July 2004. It did not take long for the UK's tabloid press, that whited sepulchre of hypocritical moralism, to douse the light once more.

Nothing will now be done to make the business safer for those engaged in it. That can only happen if it is possible to establish businesses, with secure premises, with proper security and medical checks. In other words, it can only happen with the legalisation of brothels. Instead, action against kerb-crawling is being intensified and the idea of establishing legal red-light areas has been abandoned.

This will merely drive the business yet further underground, where it will remain intertwined with another business driven into the darkness: drugs. Paying the Price estimated there were 80,000 people working in the sex industry in Britain, with 95 per cent of the women involved dependent on drugs. A close link exists between illegal drugs and prostitution, with pimps often suppliers of both.

Unable to work within properly regulated businesses, prostitutes are far more vulnerable to violent customers. Nobody can now try to ensure the safety of prostitutes even, as we can see, from the deranged attacks of a serial killer. Public indifference to the fate of these women explains, but cannot excuse, this immoral policy.

We will never eliminate either prostitution or the demand for drugs. But we can minimise the damage done by these twin evils: prostitutes must have the opportunity to work in safe and secure environments; addicts must be allowed safe and secure access, through the health service, to the drugs they crave. This is not to condone vice. It is to recognise the limits imposed by human frailty. Those who persist in peddling moralism instead have blood on their hands.

The Economist wrote two years ago that it is not surprising that many of the rich world's prostitutes are foreigners. Immigrants have a particularly hard time finding jobs that pay well; local language skills are not prized in the sex trade; prostitutes often prefer to work outside their home town. But the free movement of labour is as controversial in the sex trade as in any other business. Wherever they work, foreign prostitutes are accused of driving down prices, touting “extra” services and consorting with organised criminal pimps who are often foreigners, too. The fact that a very small proportion of women are trafficked—forced into prostitution against their will—has been used to discredit all foreigners in the trade, and by extension (since many sellers of sex are indeed foreign) all prostitutes.

Abolitionists make three arguments. From the right comes the argument that the sex trade is plain wrong, and that, by condoning it, society demeans itself. Liberals (such as this newspaper) who believe that what consenting adults do in private is their own business reject that line.

From the left comes the argument that all prostitutes are victims. Its proponents cite studies that show high rates of sexual abuse and drug taking among employees. To which there are two answers. First, those studies are biased: they tend to be carried out by staff at drop-in centres and by the police, who tend to see the most troubled streetwalkers. Taking their clients as representative of all prostitutes is like assessing the state of marriage by sampling shelters for battered women. Second, the association between prostitution and drug addiction does not mean that one causes the other: drug addicts, like others, may go into prostitution just because it's a good way of making a decent living if you can't think too clearly.

A third, more plausible, argument focuses on the association between prostitution and all sorts of other nastinesses, such as drug addiction, organised crime, trafficking and underage sex. To encourage prostitution, goes the line, is to encourage those other undesirables; to crack down on prostitution is to discourage them.

Brothels with brands

Plausible, but wrong. Criminalisation forces prostitution into the underworld. Legalisation would bring it into the open, where abuses such as trafficking and under-age prostitution can be more easily tackled. Brothels would develop reputations worth protecting. Access to health care would improve—an urgent need, given that so many prostitutes come from diseased parts of the world. Abuses such as child or forced prostitution should be treated as the crimes they are, and not discussed as though they were simply extreme forms of the sex trade, which is how opponents of prostitution and, recently, the governments of Britain and America have described them.

Puritans argue that where laws have been liberalised—in, for instance, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia—the new regimes have not lived up to claims that they would wipe out pimping and sever the links between prostitution and organised crime. Certainly, those links persist; but that's because, thanks to concessions to the opponents of liberalisation, the changes did not go far enough. Prostitutes were made to register, which many understandably didn't want to do. Not surprisingly, illicit brothels continued to thrive.

If those quasi-liberal experiments have not lived up to their proponents' expectations, they have also failed to fulfil their detractors' greatest fears. They do not seem to have led to outbreaks of disease or under-age sex, nor to a proliferation of street prostitution, nor to a wider collapse in local morals.

Which brings us back to that discreet transaction between two people in private. If there's no evidence that it harms others, then the state should let them get on with it. People should be allowed to buy and sell whatever they like, including their own bodies. Prostitution may be a grubby business, but it's not the government's.

...back to Ireland

This week, the High Court declared that same-sex marriage is incompatible with the Constitution but there is no rush to strengthen partnership rights such as in relation to inheritance, which would surely provide the rights that gay people demand.

As to illegal drugs and prostitution, there is no public debate on moving on from the status quo.

That would surely require political courage and vision - two very scarce commodities.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Fair Deal, Irish Nursing Homes and Harry Truman

There is surely an irony in the Government’s use of the term Fair Deal - President Harry Truman’s name for his political programme – for its new nursing home proposals.

President Truman had a sign on his desk that read – The Buck Stops Here. It would surely merit a cross on the mantlepiece if the Government adopted that principle too.

When has a Government Minister or senior civil servant last taken responsibility for incompetence or negligence in delivering public services and contracts?

There are about 1.7 million subscribers to health insurance to cover private health care because of the lack of confidence/trust in the public health service.

On the other hand, there is a greater trust in public nursing homes than private nursing homes that are largely viewed as giving primacy to moneymaking.

As the role of the religious withdrew from nursing home services, the Government response was to provide tax incentives similar to one available for car parks and holiday homes, to encourage the building of nursing homes.

So people with significant income to shield from tax who never had any professional involvement in a health service, got their accountants to produce business plans and hired a matron to run the nursing home.

Should we then be surprised that many of these nursing homes have been poorly run?

Compounding the issue, was the typical lack of "software" in the system i.e. no credible inspectorate.

As to the proposals to claw back up to 15% from the sale of a house on death, with 900,000 Irish workers without a pension, the equity in a house is an important cushion that wil now be reduced in potential for a significant segment of the population.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Asians opt for global phone brands to show-off about how well they're doing even if their earnings are relatively low

Being reasonably familiar with life in the Philippines and Malaysia for family and other reasons, the results of a survey on the importance of brands in Asia is no surprise. At least some of us Irish tend to be more subtle by comparison.

In Asia, it's not uncommon to see people with their mobile phones suspended from their necks to show others that thay can afford Nokia handsets. Borrowing more for a car than a house is also not unusual.

I recall seeing a cringe-inducing Seiko watch advertisement in the Singapore Metro earlier this year, with the slogan: It's Your Watch That Says Most About Who You Are.

On Thursday, US tech research IDC published a multiclient study and survey of mobile phone and smartphone subscribers across five countries, which reveals that top global brands are in demand not only in developed countries, such as the U.S., U.K., and Germany, but also in emerging countries such as India and China. The relative influence of brand on product choice (especially in China and India) suggests that many people seek out global brands and the prestige that they carry.

Logic dictates that one would expect to find the proliferation of relatively inexpensive devices and brands in developing countries, but IDC's survey reveals quite the opposite phenomena. Chinese subscribers look more at the brand and style (top two purchase criteria) rather than being concerned with the underlying technology and product features.

In India high-end products like the Nokia Communicator 9500 do well precisely because they show off how wealthy and successful an individual is, and users tend to be loyal to the smartphone brands they carry. IDC's survey revealed that 69% of respondents in India were likely to recommend their smartphone brand to others, higher than other countries surveyed, except for the U.S.

"When you look around the world there is a growing prevalence of premium brands in emerging markets among populations with substantially lower income levels," said Randy Giusto, group vice president for IDC's Mobility, Computing and Consumer Markets research. "Brands such as Nokia, for example, dominate the Indian and Chinese markets from a market share perspective and are much sought after because of the image that they project."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

PM calls Finance Minister "a perfect ass" for leaking Budget

Bertie Ahern (right) with Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg

In 1947 British Chancellor Hugh Dalton was forced to resign after leaking details of his Budget to a reporter. Details of his Budget appeared in the London Evening Star before he had finished addressing the Commons and he resigned the following day.

The Prime Minister Clement Attlee said Dalton had been "a perfect ass".

Times have indeed changed and last weekend, one or more Irish Ministers leaked themselves or authorised leaks to journalists of key aspects of the Budget that was presented on Wednesday.

In today's age of spin and media manipulation, there is no gaisce in it.

The reason why I comment on it is because when Governments are on the other end of leaks, the normal response is synthetic indignation and posturing.

Just two months ago when the Irish Times published leaked confidential information that had been provided by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to a corruption planning tribunal, in respect of financial support that had been provided to him when he was Minister for Finance in 1993, related to a 1987 marital separation, Ahern himself and colleagues fulminated against the leaker as if it he had done something that was so reprehensible, in contrast with how they would behave.

PD leader Michael McDowell even justified his decision to support Ahern partly on the basis that to do otherwise would be to reward the leaker.

Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, writes in today's FT: all of a sudden, the Bush White House is leaking like, well, every other White House. Aides are gabbing to reporters and passing along classified documents for the same reasons aides always do – to build themselves up, to show they are not to blame for mistakes and to get the president’s attention. Though the leaks are anonymous, it is clear that various officials are trying to extricate themselves from the train wreck and advance their post-Bush careers.

For the press, an administration without leaks has been like a very long Christmas party without alcohol. Covering an administration where people do not gab leaves little operational space between stenography and commentary. After six dry years, White House reporters feel giddy, vindicated and perhaps a bit vindictive.

Weisberg writes that: some level of indiscretion is also essential to healthy relations between the presidency and the press. In reality, the interchange between reporters and “sources” is more a two-way street than what is often depicted. Officials talk to journalists to get as well as give information, including about how major news organisations think and operate. And over time, if you do not feed journalists, journalists are sure to feed on you – see under Rumsfeld, Donald.

So, great Irish ministers on high, spare us the manufactured outrage from your white chargers, when the leak traffic is on a contraflow.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A story like Xerox can spoil the Budget Party

Irish tax revenues are expected to rise by 16% in 2006 and the Exchequer is awash with cash as confirmed by the detail on the public finances that was published on Tuesday.

The reliance on a property boom that provides 17% of annual tax revenues, up from 4% a decade ago plus tax revenues from sectors benefiting from property related spending that may well put the revenue reliance in the range 25%-30%, is a clear vulnerability.

The other pillar of our prosperity is US investment and today, one of our big US employers Xerox, confirmed that it is reviewing the future of its 1,300 person workforce at Ballycoolin, near Blanchardsown, Dublin.

So as some marvel at the unprecedented flows of funds into the Exchequer, there is no urgency to undertake reforms in governance structures and removing the privileges of vested interests. It's a depressing situation and there cannot be much hope of change.

The following is from a 2006 OECD paper:

A combination of entry restrictions and price regulations has resulted in an uncompetitive, distorted and expensive retail pharmacy sector. Ireland is the fourth most expensive country in the euro area for medicines (Department of Health, 2003). Pharmaceutical prices at all levels of the distribution chain are set by government-industry agreement. Wholesale prices are set by comparing UK prices and an average of five other countries, taking the lower of the two.

The retail margin depends on who is paying. For medical card holders, the government fully reimburses the patient and pays a fixed disbursement fee of around 3 per item to the retailer; other prescriptions and non-prescription medicines have a 50% markup. Overall, the retail margin is around 33%, which is one of the highest in the European Union (Purcell, 2004).

Moreover, unlike in many other countries, pharmacists are not permitted to reduce costs to the consumer and insurer by substituting a cheaper generic equivalent.

The two pharmacists in the Oireachtas - Junior Minister Tim O'Malley and Senator John Minihan are members of the Progressive Democrats.

Remember in October, when competition in aviation became an issue of admiration or lip-service by politicians and trade unionists?

Why would politicians take on vested interests when they are part of the system themselves?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Who cleans up at Goldman Sachs?

Henry "Hank" Paulson responds to President George W. Bush Tuesday, May 30, 2006, after the President announced his nomination of the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Goldman Sachs Group to succeed Treasury Secretary John Snow, who announced his resignation. White House photo by Shealah Craighead

Who cleans up

  • Lowest-paid City cleaners: £5.35 an hour, £11,128 a year
  • Average ISS cleaner: £6 an hour, £12,530 a year
  • London living wage £7.05 an hour- rate approved by unions/London Mayor, £14,664 a year
  • Average Goldman Sachs pay in London £134,875; average bonus £205,332 - - Source T&G and Bloomberg

Earlier this week, 30 cleaners who are members of  the U.K.'s Transport & General Workers Union (T&G) occupied the lobby area of Goldman Sachs Group's London headquarters on Fleet Street, seeking improved employment conditions at a company part-owned by the top US investment bank.

The cleaners were reported to have chanted “Goldman sucks” and waved placards as police sealed off the area and stopped anyone leaving for about two hours.

The cleaners who are employed by Copenhagen-based ISS and earn between £5.35 and £7.20 pounds an hour according to the  T&G, don't get sick pay or pensions. Goldman itself, isn't among the companies in London serviced by ISS cleaners.

Bloomberg News reports that Goldman and the Swedish Wallenberg family's EQT Partners, bought ISS in April 2005 for about $3.8 billion. The purchase more than doubled ISS's debt load to $3.9 billion, dropping its credit ratings to junk status. The company said in August that first- half profit fell 9.7 percent to 430 million Danish kroner ($76 million) on higher interest expenses.

Goldman set aside $13.9 billion for salaries, bonuses and benefits for its own 25,647 employees through the first three quarters of the year, or about $542,000 per person on a global basis.

That already tops last year's full-year record.

The New York-based firm, which is scheduled to report fiscal full-year profit on Dec. 12, is expected to say it earned $8.8 billion on revenue exceeding $36 billion, according to the average estimate of 18 analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial.

Last month Finfacts reported that tensions are running high in London, amid the rainmakers and shooting stars of the City as bosses at some of the world's biggest investment banks decide who should pocket multi-million dollar bonuses. More than 4,000 workers are likely to receive bonuses of at least £1m, according to some predictions.

The most profitable investment bank in Wall Street history

One of the world's top moneymakers hasn't got such general media attention in London, since a fraud trial was told in 2004, how a personal assistant at the Fleet Street HQ was able to steal up to £4 million from the bank accounts of Goldman bankers Scott Mead, Jennifer Moses and her husband Ron Beller.

Mead had made about around £50m when Goldman Sachs floated in 1999 and masterminded the infamous £100 billion takeover of German company Mannesmann by Vodafone in 2000.

The bankers were so busy and rich that the PA was able to pilfer from their accounts for several years.

``We're saying to Goldman that they can't wash their hands of the way the company treats its cleaners,'' a T&G spokesperson said, adding that the group staged the sit-in after picketing and talks with ISS didn't resolve the workers' concerns.

``We take our responsibilities as a shareholder of any company very seriously, and we support responsible union representation and the right for people to earn a living wage,'' said Lucas van Praag, a Goldman spokesman. ``The management of companies that we're involved with know this, but it is of course their responsibility to negotiate issues such as pay.''

Power Relations and Modern Marie Antoinettes

The huge gulf in earnings between those termed Masters of the Universe in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities cannot be simply rationalised as a working of the market.

While the renowned advocate of markets Adam Smith, emphasised the motivating force of self-interest and gains from free trade, he also viewed freedom in a broader sense than economic freedom and championed the disadvantaged.

Smith was concerned about the encroachment of government on economic activity, but he was sometimes tolerant of government intervention, "especially when the object is to reduce poverty." Smith argued, "When the regulation, therefore, is in support of the workman, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters." He saw a conspiracy on the part of employers "always and everywhere" to keep
wages as low as possible.


US economist Robert Gordon estimates that real median earnings per hour in the US have hardly increased since 1966.

He says that the top 10% have captured 50% of the income gains in the past forty years. The top 1% gained more than all the bottom 50%.

This week, the New York Times gave attention to the Living Wage Action Coalition, a collective of students and recent grads from campuses across the US that share experiences from their living wage and student-worker solidarity campaigns with new and existing campus campaigns.

The NYT wrote that when Mary Hampton landed a housekeeping job at Vanderbilt University in 2004, she looked forward to the boost that the steady, full-time work and benefits would give her and her two young daughters.

Instead, she says she now makes $7.92 an hour and brings home less than she did in factory and warehouse jobs. She moved to a shelter for the homeless about seven months ago when her daughters’ father stopped paying child support.

The fragile economic state of some of Vanderbilt’s union employees like
Hampton and the contrast with university spending elsewhere, like the $6 million renovation of the chancellor’s 20,000-square-foot house, has become a point of contention between the administration and a loose coalition of labor, students and community members.


A “living wage” campaign, which is picking up steam alongside contract negotiations between Hampton’s union and the university, is hardly unusual. There are more than 35 campus-based living-wage campaigns in progress nationwide, according to the Living Wage Action Coalition in Washington.

The newspaper says that what makes Vanderbilt’s situation unusual is that Vanderbilt’s chancellor, E. Gordon Gee, is one of the highest-paid university executives in the nation, giving the union and its supporters added leverage in their bid for higher pay, said Paul F. Clark, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Penn State.

“It gives them a significant opportunity to generate community support, to get attention to embarrass the university,” Professor Clark said. “I would be surprised if they didn’t take advantage of that.”

The coalition calculates that a living wage for unskilled workers in the area would be $10.18 an hour.

A spokesman for Vanderbilt, Michael J. Schoenfeld, said it paid market wages, as well as generous benefits.

“Vanderbilt is committed to and does pay market-competitive wages for all of our job positions,” Schoenfeld said. “In addition, the university offers what we believe is the most comprehensive package of benefits to all employees, regardless of their job classification.”

In the past six years, Gee has labored to burnish Vanderbilt’s reputation and reshape the university into a prestigious research institution of national stature.

Chancellor Gee earns almost $1.2 million a year, according to recently
released figures on executive pay at universities, making him the third highest paid university president in the nation and like the fabled Queen of France Marie Antoinette, if the low ranks of his staff have no bread, they can find cake!


The NYT says that the campaign for Vanderbilt workers occurs at an awkward time for the university. Gee has had to respond to what some board members saw as runaway spending. He has said spending on the chancellor’s house, for example, was necessary, but he nonetheless agreed to tighter scrutiny of future spending.

Cliff Buntin, 44, who has worked as a Vanderbilt housekeeper for five years, said some of that money should be spent on employees.

“How can you be a leader if you let workers live in poverty?” Buntin said.

Schoenfeld said it was simplistic to argue that university spending could be shifted to pay higher wages.

“Any large, complex university, any large institution, any large company,” he said, “is going to have to make an almost infinite number of decisions about how to expend resources and what is consistent with the mission.”

The issue of the huge earnings gap is not solely of relevance to those at the bottom of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt termed the "economic pyramid."

Princeton university professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, wrote in a column titled Graduates and Oligarchs in February 2006:

Ben Bernanke's maiden Congressional testimony as chairman of the Federal Reserve was, everyone agrees, superb. He didn't put a foot wrong on monetary or fiscal policy.

But Mr. Bernanke did stumble at one point. Responding to a question from Representative Barney Frank about income inequality, he declared that "the most important factor" in rising inequality "is the rising skill premium, the increased return to education."

That's a fundamental misreading of what's happening to American society. What we're seeing isn't the rise of a fairly broad class of knowledge workers. Instead, we're seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite.

I think of Mr. Bernanke's position, which one hears all the time, as the 80-20 fallacy. It's the notion that the winners in our increasingly unequal society are a fairly large group - that the 20 percent or so of American workers who have the skills to take advantage of new technology and globalization are pulling away from the 80 percent who don't have these skills.

The truth is quite different. Highly educated workers have done better than those with less education, but a college degree has hardly been a ticket to big income gains. The 2006 Economic Report of the President tells us that the real earnings of college graduates actually fell more than 5 percent between 2000 and 2004. Over the longer stretch from 1975 to 2004 the average earnings of college graduates rose, but by less than 1 percent per year.

Krugman asks why would someone as smart and well informed as Bernanke get the nature of growing inequality wrong?

Because the fallacy he fell into tends to dominate polite discussion about income trends, not because it's true, but because it's comforting. The notion that it's all about returns to education suggests that nobody is to blame for rising inequality, that it's just a case of supply and demand at work. And it also suggests that the way to mitigate inequality is to improve our educational system - and better education is a value to which just about every politician in America pays at least lip service.

The idea that we have a rising oligarchy is much more disturbing. It suggests that the growth of inequality may have as much to do with power relations as it does with market forces. Unfortunately, that's the real story.

Should we be worried about the increasingly oligarchic nature of American society? Yes, and not just because a rising economic tide has failed to lift most boats. Both history and modern experience tell us that highly unequal societies also tend to be highly corrupt. There's an arrow of causation that runs from diverging income trends to Jack Abramoff and the K Street project.

And I'm with Alan Greenspan, who - surprisingly, given his libertarian roots - has repeatedly warned that growing inequality poses a threat to "democratic society."

It may take some time before we muster the political will to counter that threat. But the first step toward doing something about inequality is to abandon the 80-20 fallacy. It's time to face up to the fact that rising inequality is driven by the giant income gains of a tiny elite, not the modest gains of college graduates.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Irish Venture Capital Investment in 2006 will amount to 4% of Investment in Commercial Property


Battersea Power Station was operational from 1937 until 1982

The acquisition of the iconic Battersea Power Station in London, by Treasury Holdings controlled REO, is just another high profile Irish property acquisition in the UK.

The largest brick building in the world has been sold for 40 times what its last owner paid for it, even though it lies derelict and undeveloped.

Victor Hwang's Oriental Property company sold the London site for £400m to Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett, two Irish developers.

The Taiwanese Hwang family, which bought it for £10m 13 years ago, had been frustrated in its development efforts despite spending millions on advisers and consultants.

Best of luck to Treasury but beyond property, there is little of consequence happening in the Irish investment area.

CRH, the largest building materials group in the US and Ryanair, an airline of global consequence, are the only two Irish companies of international significance that the Celtic Tiger period has produced.

In the first seven months of 2006, the Dublin-based Cosgrave development family, spent more than three times on two UK shopping centres than the total of venture capital that will be invested in Irish business in 2006.

It is forecast that less than €200 million in venture capital will be invested in Irish business in 2006 - a derisory (more objective than its use by Aer Lingus) 4% of the total of €5 billion that will be invested in commercial property - principally overseas - in 2006.

Today US company Magna announced the planned closure of its plant in Kildare with the loss of 280 jobs.

Property and US investment is what underpins Irish prosperity but it is hardly a recipe for a permanent prosperity.

On Tuesday last, Micheál Martin T.D., Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment announced a major investment of €11m by Cavan-based Foamalite Ltd, with support from Enterprise Ireland.

Martin said that the investment will lead to the development of a purpose-built R&D facility at Foamalite’s Lough Gowna site and will lead to the creation of twenty six new jobs, including five high-value R&D roles, over the next three years.

Martin made no public comment on the loss of "high-value" jobs in Kildare.

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.”