Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hollywood glitterati supporting Clinton and Obama but don't expect them to surrender any privileges!

The Hollywood glitterati are lining up to support the two current stars of the Democratic Party, Senatots Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama who have both began campaigning for their Party's 2008 presidential nomination.

The Washington Post says that the entertainment industry has long been a cornerstone of support for Democrats seeking public office, and Hillary Cliinton, like her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has been one of the chief beneficiaries.

But a newcomer to Hollywood's money trail, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, is headed next month to a fund-raiser hosted by three of the most influential moguls in show business -- Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks.

Invitations went out this week to 700 donors and activists asking them to give the allowed annual maximum of $2,300 per person to meet Obama at a Beverly Hills reception on February 20th.


The Post says that many of the well-heeled in Los Angeles will write checks to more than one campaign, especially early in the race, as donors hedge their bets, experts said.

"There will be a lot of donations to multiple candidates," Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said.

During the 2004 election cycle, the movie, television and music industries gave a combined $33.1 million to candidates for federal office, most of that to Democrats, according to the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics.

Spielberg plans to help several candidates and has also volunteered to host a fund-raising event for Clinton, according to his political adviser, Andy Spahn.

Spahn added that Spielberg will settle eventually on a single candidate, as will many donors. While Katzenberg has endorsed Obama, Geffen has not made public his support for any single candidate.

Thomas Frank, the author of What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America wrote an article for the Financial Times on the Democratic Convention in 2004, titled: At the Democratic Dream Factory.

In his book, Frank refers to what he calls the 'thirty-year backlash' -- the populist revolt against a supposedly liberal establishment. The high point of that backlash is the Republican Party's success in building the most unnatural of alliances: between blue-collar Midwesterners and Wall Street business interests, workers and bosses, populists and right-wingers. In asking 'what's the matter with Kansas?' -- how a place famous for its radicalism became one of the most conservative states in the union -- Frank, a native Kansan and onetime Republican, seeks to answer some broader American riddles: Why do so many of Americans vote against their own economic interests? Where's the outrage at corporate manipulators? And whatever happened to middle-American progressivism?

Frank answers them by examining pop conservatism -- the bestsellers, the radio talk shows, the vicious political combat -- and showing how America's long culture wars have left it with an electorate far more concerned with their leaders' 'values' and down-home qualities than with their stands on hard questions of policy.

In his Financial Times article, Frank recounted how as a journalist, he attended a party at Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel that was sponsored by a film industry lobby group. The journalists were not allowed to mingle with the guests because of the presence of celebrities. The party was a transplanted bit of California with its accompanying social hierarchy and the minor Hollywood figures were the ones illuminated by portable spotlights and talking into cameras.

Frank wrote in the FT that there is 'a vision of liberals as a ruling elite, a collection of snobs...that believes it is more sophisticated than average people...When celebrities stump for their candidate of choice, the ones they support are usually Democrats...Somehow, this glitzy world of risqué dresses and velvet ropes has the opposite effect on much of the public. They hate it and hate everything Hollywood has come to stand for.

After all, Hollywood stars are the closest thing America has to aristocracy and being instructed by psuedo-rebellious aristocrats (as they mingle with millionaire lobbyists) cannot help but rub people up the wrong way. What the stars' Democratic allegiance shows to this part of the public is not the glamour of Democratic candidates but their shallowness and insufferable moral superiority; the distance of those candidates from their historical base of average Americans. For them, Hollywood's superficial leftism only validates the Republicans to be the party of the common man.'

Frank recounted how he got rid of his journalist dog tag and joined the great and good. The special guest Senator John Breaux mounted the podium and spoke of cracking down on illegal copying, thereby ensuring that 'creative' people are 'justifiably compensated.' Cameras clicked for a shot of Breaux sporting a boyish grin together with a member of an acting family, known as 'the Baldwin,' who displayed a 'practiced sullenness.' A woman in a headset barked: 'C'mon celebrities' and the exalted ones were ushered towards the elevators.

It could be President Clinton or President Obama at 12 noon on Jan 20, 2009 but either way, the Hollywood glitterati are not supporting anything that will change its status as the overpaid, conspicuous consumers of America.

It must be fun to be on a winning side and easier work for the fading stars as they vie to become Unicef Humanitarian Ambassadors!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

30 years of nutritional science has made Americans and others: sicker, fatter and less well nourished - A plea for a return to plain old food

In a mega-article in the New York Times magazine published on Sunday, Jan 28, 2007, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, wrote: Eat food. Not too much --- Mostly plants - That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

Pollen writes: "I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words. I’ll try to resist but will go ahead and add a couple more details to
flesh out the advice. Like: A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible food like substances in the supermarket. These
novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

Uh-oh. Things are suddenly sounding a little more complicated, aren’t they? Sorry. But that’s how it goes as soon as you try to get to the bottom of the whole vexing question of food and health. Before long, a dense cloud bank of confusion moves in. Sooner or later, everything solid you thought you knew about the links between diet and health gets blown away in the gust of the latest study.

Last winter came the news that a low-fat diet, long believed to protect against breast cancer, may do no such thing — this from the monumental, federally financed Women’s Health Initiative, which has also found no link between a low-fat diet and rates of coronary disease. The year before we learned that dietary fiber might not, as we had been confidently told, help prevent colon cancer. Just last fall two prestigious studies on omega-3 fats published at the same time presented us with strikingly different conclusions. While the Institute of Medicine stated that “it is uncertain how much these omega-3s contribute to improving health” (and they might do the opposite if you get them from mercury-contaminated fish), a Harvard study declared that simply by eating a couple of servings of fish each week (or by downing enough fish oil), you could cut your risk of dying from a heart attack by more than a third — a stunningly hopeful piece of news. It’s no wonder that omega-3 fatty acids are poised to become the oat bran of 2007, as food scientists micro-encapsulate fish oil and algae oil and blast them into such
formerly all-terrestrial foods as bread and tortillas, milk and yogurt and cheese, all of which will soon, you can be sure, sprout fishy new health claims. (Remember the rule?)"


Skipping to the conclusion, Pollen says that to medicalize the diet problem is of course perfectly consistent with nutritionism.

He asks what might a more ecological or cultural approach to the problem recommend? How might we plot our escape from nutritionism and, in turn, from the deleterious effects of the modern diet?

"In theory nothing could be simpler — stop thinking and eating that way — but this is somewhat harder to do in practice, given the food environment we now inhabit and the loss of sharp cultural tools to guide us through it. Still, I do think escape is possible, to which end I can now revisit — and elaborate on, but just a little — the simple principles of healthy eating I proposed at the beginning of this essay, several thousand words ago," Professor Pollen writes and recommends trying these few (flagrantly unscientific) rules of thumb, collected in the course of his nutritional odyssey, and see if they don’t at least point us in the right direction.

  • Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

  • Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellogg’s can boast about its
    Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.) Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

  • Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

  • Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown. - - - "Eat less” is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. “Calorie restriction” has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation. Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants — the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? — but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less “energy dense” than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.
  • Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits:
    small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

  • Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it. So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.

  • Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of “health.” Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn’t bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Dublin's Burlington Hotel is to be razed: The Merrion Centre, Merrion Inn and adjacent service station next?

The Merrion Inn - see Dublin Pubs

The closure of the Irish sugar industry has given food group Greencore the opportunity to become a property developer. Fruit importer Fyffes has become a big property investor. The top two banks have sold off their key properties to developers to enable them to extend further mortgage credit.

Ireland's biggest hotel group JurysDoyle has already sold the sites of its two principal hotels in Dublin to a developer who plans to raze tem later this year. Today the hotel group effectively said that the opportunity to cash in on a prime site had prompted it to announce that it will sell its landmark Burlington Hotel. There were crocodile tears about the loyal staff but wouldn't it be foolish not to jump on the property bandwagon while the going is good?

We lose some big hotels - so what! Motor service stations have been the focus of developers as well. Motorists just have to be more careful to watch the gauge given the scarcity of stations!

The former Statoil service station on the Merrion Road, in South Dublin, has apparently been sold and it's rumoured that the adjacent Merrion Inn, is the target of the same individual. It has even been suggested that the Merrion Centre, which has Tesco as a tenant and offices including insurance group AIG, at the same junction, opposite the hospital, may also be on the block.

The Merrion Inn has been a longtime amenity in the area and is popular with hospital staff, visitors and nearby office workers for lunch.

We've a corrupt planning system that has been the subject of a tribunal that has been sitting since 1997. Bizarrely, there has been no change in the system that spawned the planning corruption.

Developers often take a punt when buying a site that may not be zoned for their planned type of development.

Councillors are often pliable to developer demands and while the day of the brown envelope is in the past, anyone who believes that other inducements are not deployed, is a fool.

There should simply be no planning permissions given for change of use of both the Merrion Inn and the adjacent service station.

Irish investors put €8 billion into overseas commercial property in 2006 and €3 billion into domestic commercial property.

It is expected that when figures will the published, it will be shown that less than €200 million in venture capital investment, went into Irish business in 2006 - 0.025% of what went into commercial property.

World Economic Forum: Searingly blunt advice from Davos

Sever Plocker is chief economics editor and deputy editor-in chief of Yedioth Abaronot, Israel's largest Hebrew daily newspaper and he gives searingly blunt advice to his compatriots.

"My advice to those planning to attend the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at the prestigious Swiss ski resort of Davos is, I beg you, to stay away if you haven't yet boarded the plane. Please don't come, because it's no great honor being an Israeli this year at Davos. In fact, it’s humiliating," Plocker writes.

Plocker says Israel is no longer viewed as a thriving, high tech superpower or even as a brutal occupation power. It is viewed in a completely different light:

It's seen as a declining and dysfunctional country whose president is about to face charges of rape, whose prime minister will be interrogated on suspicion of advancing his associates' interests, whose finance minister will be ousted from his post due to an affair involving finances and non-profit organizations, whose army chief already resigned due to the failures of the war, and whose defense minister will soon be forced to follow suit.

This is the state of affairs in Israel in the winter of 2007 as seen by the world's surprised economic, political and academic elites, arriving in Davos for four days of sessions focusing on the fate of humanity.

A dark shadow has fallen on Israel's image worldwide. Until we remove it, these honorable people will hesitate to shake our hands, identify with us and invest in Israel. They are already hesitating.

Plocker says our long term friends, veterans of the Davos conferences, are pulling me aside and asking me in an embarrassing whisper: "What's happened to you Israelis? How did you get this way? Are you a country full of rapists and corrupt people?"

"The bitter and embarrassing truth of the matter is that Israel's image in Davos – a prism of the world's elite – has reached its nadir.

It's very unpleasant being an Israeli at Davos 2007; it's unpleasant but we deserve it," Sever Plocker concludes.

There is no spin or gloss when it comes to Plocker. He delivers tough medicine indeed.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Parish-pump politics without attending to the pump

Parish-pump politics have their place as long as the pump is actually attended to when required.

Some years ago, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown council in South Dublin carried out a botched refurbishment of the main street in Blackrock village.

It was just finished when some holes were dug by the PermanentTsb office and a few shovels of tarmacadam were "temporarily" put on the handiwork.

For the two subsequent years, councillors, council officials and the public traipsed over the rickety pavement.

Shur why would there be accountability at such a mundane level, when there's none all the way up the ladder??

Last Saturday, the Irish Independent reported that Dublin's local authorities have paid out over €15m in compensation to people who injured themselves walking on dangerous footpaths.

And Dublin City Council spent more compensating injured parties than it did repairing pavements between 2001 and 2005.

Figures compiled by Fine Gael show that Dublin City spent €8.7m in compensation but just €7.3m repairing footpaths during the same period.

Dun Laoghaire Rathdown paid out almost €1.9m for injuries, while spending €4m on repairs; South Dublin paid out €1.4m in compensation and €3.6m on maintenance; and Fingal County Council spent €2.9m on compensation and €4.1m on repairs. In all, €14.9m was spent on compensation and €19.2m on repairs.

Fine Gael senator Brian Hayes accused the government parties of failing to ensure that public funds were spent effectively.

"The underfunding of local government often means that paths in need of repair are left in a poor state, resulting in falls and other injuries. Claims for injuries such as this have amounted to a staggering €15m in Dublin alone."

But the Department of the Environment denied Senator Hayes's claims, saying that local authorities were free to spend money from their own funds on repairing footpaths.

Where there's no system of accountability and responsibility, it's a recurring theme: The Buck Stop Nowhere!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The penny drops for the National Roads Authority - Rest areas on motorways are needed after all

N11 motorway near Arklow, County Wicklow Photo credit:

Transport Minister Martin Cullen on Tuesday announced details of the Government’s €1.53 billion investment of funds in the 2007 National Roads Programme. This investment in the country’s roads, represents the largest single annual investment in road infrastructure in the history of the State.

On Wednesday, the National Roads Authority announced that it has begun seeking sites to build rest areas on motorways, which have already been opened.

The penny has dropped that the dismissal of rest areas as unnecessary was bizarre, stupid and simply beyond belief.

The argument was that a driver in need of petrol, a pee or a rest could find a village off the motorway.

The stupidity of the argument, is as my mother would have said, enough to make a dog strike his father.

Last December, it was reported that up to €4.6bn of the €18.5bn of taxpayers' money that will be spent on new main roads over the next decade will go into the pockets of landowners. Fred Barry, chief executive of the National Roads Authority is reported as saying that the increases in the cost of land for major roads projects as "disturbing".

Land acquisition accounts for 23% of the cost of roads projects in Ireland, but just 12% in England, 10% in Denmark, 9.4% in Greece and 1% in Iceland. A further 2% of the €18.5bn provided in the Government's Transport 21 for road building over the next decade will go to archaeologists.

Before Tom Parlon joined the self-styled party of enterprise, the Progressive Democrats, he led a successful campaign as leader of the Irish Farmer's Association (IFA), to force the Government to compensate farmers at development land prices.

The IFA, the representatives of farmers who are huge beneficiaries of European taxpayer largesse (rich Ireland is still in the money, having German and Dutch taxpayers fund the bonanza) in 2001, had the cheek to claim that the State had no right to appropriate land for roadbuilding via a Compulsory Purchase Order.

Now, the geniuses at the NRA and their political master Martin Cullen will have to go cap-in-hand to farmers again for land for service areas.

I'm an optimistic person but this type of carry-on without anyone taking responsibility for it, would depress a saint.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The China Effect on European Import Prices is Waning

In October 2006, the world's biggest container ship, the Emma Maersk, owned by A.P. Moeller Maersk of Denamrk, docked for the first time in the UK port of Felixtowe loaded with nearly 45,000 tons of Chinese-made goods including MP3 players, computers, Christmas trees and crackers.

The Emma Maersk, which is 400 metres long (1,300 ft), 56 metres wide and 60 metres tall, and dubbed the SS Santa, unloaded more than 3,000 containers for supermarkets and stores before heading to mainland Europe.

To day, the UK Office of National Statistics reported that annual UK consumer prices rose 3% in December. The all items retail prices index (RPI), including mortgage payments, rose by 4.4 per cent, up from 3.9 per cent in November.

As in Ireland, many UK consumer goods have actually fallen over the past decade because of imports from China counterbalancing high rises in service inflation..

While transport costs, were a big factor in the rise of UK consumer prices, it is also thought a waning in the Chinese impact of falling manufactured goods prices, is having an impact.

Last autumn, Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King said in a speech:

Over the past decade the integration of China, India and other emerging markets in Asia into the world trading system has lowered the prices of clothes, electrical goods and other items that we import from them. The terms on which we trade with the rest of the world improved. That provided a boost to real disposable incomes and so to consumer spending. But the rapid growth of China and India also meant sharp increases in the prices of many commodities, such as copper, aluminium, iron ore and, particularly important, oil. In that sense the rises in oil prices over the past two years are very different from the oil price “shocks” of the 1970s. They reflect rapid growth in the demand for oil – faster than the growth of capacity – rather than an OPEC-inspired contraction of supply. What we have seen is not so much an “oil shock” but a consequence of the rise of China.

The lower prices for many consumer goods and the higher cost of oil are both the result of globalisation. Having benefited from the former we are now experiencing the latter. As a result, our import prices are no longer falling as rapidly as they were, and, indeed, over the past year even the prices of non-oil imports have risen. With the additional impact of higher oil prices, real disposable incomes are rising more slowly, and the long awaited rebalancing of the economy away from consumer spending to business investment and net exports is underway.

In the US, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's biggest retailer, imports about $18 billion annually. The imports are evidence of how China effectively exports deflation to the rest of the world.

The Wall Street Journal reported in early January that the Chinese currency's rising value has started to pinch an increasing number of businesses here, eroding already thin profit margins, forcing them to reduce expenses and sometimes costing them business.

The Journal said that tightly controlled Chinese yuan has crept up 6% since July 2005, when the government loosened its link to the US dollar. Its gains against the dollar are modest compared with the sharper run-ups of other currencies, such as the euro. But the pace of the upswing has been unusually fast for China, where until recently companies had almost no experience with currency fluctuations against the dollar.

The stronger yuan is reducing the profit Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. earns on its big shipping-container cranes when they are sold in dollars. To cushion the blow, Zhenhua is raising prices, changing sales terms and looking for efficiencies in its manufacturing processes. The yuan "revaluation obviously hit us," says Wang Jue, board secretary of the Shanghai company.

Zhejiang Dongyang Haisen Trading Co., a maker of beverage containers in eastern China, says the yuan move has entirely erased its 2% or 3% profit margin on basic products. For now, the company is offering a newer, pricier line of products for export orders, says sales manager Zhang Shengquan. "What we hope is that the appreciation [of the yuan] could slow down a bit," Mr. Zhang says.

As the yuan continues to edge up, so will China's export prices, says Edward Leung, chief economist of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, a government-funded industry group. Manufacturing costs in China already face rising labor and materials expenses, he says. Further gains by the yuan will leave exporters with little choice but to charge more.

The Journal reports that US companies that have extensive operations in China are also feeling the effects. In a regulatory filing, Measurement Specialties Inc., an instrument maker based in Hampton, Va., said in November that the yuan's rise has "resulted in lower margins since a large portion of our products is manufactured in our China facility."

In neighbouring Asian countries, competition between Japanese and South Korean flat TV manufacturers is also benefiting western consumers.

The message is that interest rates may have to be increased to a higher rate for a more sustained period, if the positive impact of falling prices of imports from Asia wanes.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Tackling financial illiteracy

Ed Balls, former Financial Times journalist, is tipped to be appointed Chancellor when Gordon Brown succeeds Tony Blair as Prime Minister - - that is the game plan anyway!

Given that almost every adult has some exposure to the tax system, it seems bizarre that one can pass through the educational system and not have a clue about its basic essentials.

Payroll departments have the unenviable task of answering questions: why was my pay cut this week ? and similar questions.

The UK has today proposed a plan to address financial illiteracy and it's likely to be adopted in Ireland in coming years.

Every adult is to be offered free basic advice about financial products in a nationwide scheme to be set up within five years.

Ministers have appointed Otto Thoresen, chief executive of Aegon UK, British arm of the Dutch insurer, to lead a task force to design it by the year's end.

The service will provide advice about transactions from mortgages and pensions to investing in the UK government's Child Trust Fund, or baby bond.

The Treasury reckons inability of millions of adults to get to grips with basic financial information hampers economic efficiency and entrenches poverty.

Today Ed Balls, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, launched the Government's long-term approach to financial capability, with James Purnell, Pensions Reform Minister, at the Anne Taylor Children's Centre in Hackney.

Speaking at the Centre, Ed Balls announced that a new taskforce has been asked to research and design a national generic financial advice service - ensuring that every person, including those on the lowest incomes, can get quick, easy and simple access to good quality financial advice. A cross-departmental Ministerial group will co-ordinate the Government's work plan to enhance financial capability ensure Government programmes link effectively to the new advice service.
The Government believes that everyone in society has the right to get advice they can understand and trust on the financial options available to them, from getting out of debt through to choosing a home and saving for a pension.

Otto Thoresen will report to Ministers by the end of the year. The Government will publish an action plan by the end of 2007 setting out how financial capability will be integrated into existing services, particularly for those most vulnerable to the consequences of poor financial skills and taking forward plans for a national approach to generic financial advice.

The Financial Times says that the scheme is likely to comprise a national helpline and website and network of new and existing local advice centres. It will link to independent financial advisers or product providers.

The service will cost about £50m a year, to be shared by the taxpayer and the financial services industry. The service will be open to all. Efforts will be made to encourage low-income groups to use it. It will be in place by 2012, in time for introduction of Personal Accounts: a pension savings scheme into which up to 10m employees will be enrolled.

Today's announcement coincides with the Office for National Statistics publication of its personal inflation calculator to let people work out their personal inflation rate. The new ONS website will allow users to see how their spending patterns deviate from the national average.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

David Quinn and the Institute of the Pieties

David Quinn speaking at an ecumenical lecture on the topic "the Churches and the Media"

According to Wikipedia, David Quinn is one of Ireland's best known religious and social affairs commentators. For over six years he was editor of The Irish Catholic, Ireland's main Catholic weekly newspaper.

Quinn may well have written the foregoing hagiography himself, but there is no doubt that this cocktail of careerism, egotism and sense of mission to return Ireland to an idealistic sense of simplicity without the blatant hypocrisies of the past, must be challenged in a direct manner.

In the United States, the likes of Quinn are spearheading right-wing organizations allied to President George Bush's Republican Party.

Quinn, whose main source of income is as a columnist for the Irish Independent daily newspaper and the weekly The Irish Catholic, recently established the pompously named Iona Institute, with its allusion to the seventh century Irish monk St Colmcille, who may or not have been a whited sepulchre .

Iona says that society will not recognise the importance of marriage and religion unless a convincing, evidence-based case, is made for them. The Iona Institute is dedicated to making this case thereby adding an important voice to Irish public debate.

It aims to do so through the commissioning of relevant position papers by experts in their fields including social scientists, lawyers and psychiatrists, through the formulation of workable policies, especially in the area of marriage and the family, through sponsoring research and opinion polling, and through organising seminars on relevant topics.

The Director of the Iona Institute is David Quinn, who is one of Ireland's best known religious and social affairs commentators.

Among the patrons of Quinn's adventure is Breda O'Brien, a teacher who has a column in The Irish Times, published on a Saturday and James Sheehan, a founder of the Blackrock, Galway Clinics and Hermitage Clinics - "private medical facilities which operate according to a Catholic ethos."

Merriam-Webster defines "ethos" as the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution.

From my experience, it's a word that is generally used by pompous moralisers.

In the context of the Blackrock Clinic, which is a business that provides a good standard of service for those who can afford to buy it, I'm baffled as to where the issue of ethos is relevant compared with other health service facilities.

O'Brien comments in The Irish Times today on the role of marriage that "as the recent opinion poll commissioned by the Iona Institute shows, a majority of Irish people still support, and want the State to support, the two-parent family and marriage. Most people would support removing disincentives to marry from our tax and welfare code, for example."

What a surprise! The majority of adults marry and if Irish farmers were polled on the need for the Common Agricultural Policy, what would the result be!!

In Ireland, the in-your-face-approach of American counterparts of the Iona Institute wouldn't work but Quinn, like the American religious right, is seeking a political mouthpiece for his organisation.

This is what the US Family Research Council says about itself:

The Family Research Council (FRC) champions marriage and family as the foundation of civilization, the seedbed of virtue, and the wellspring of society. FRC shapes public debate and formulates public policy that values human life and upholds the institutions of marriage and the family. Believing that God is the author of life, liberty, and the family, FRC promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free, and stable society.

Core Principles

  • God exists and is sovereign over all creation. He created human beings in His image. Human life is, therefore, sacred and the right to life is the most fundamental of political rights.
  • Life and love are inextricably linked and find their natural expression in the institutions of marriage and the family.
  • Government has a duty to promote and protect marriage and family in law and public policy.
  • The American system of law and justice was founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic.
  • American democracy depends upon a vibrant civil society composed of families, churches, schools, and voluntary associations.

In the Irish Independent on Friday, Quinn made a pitch for Fine Gael to return to its traditional role as conservative lapdog for the Catholic Church.

Quinn wrote that in the 1980s Garret (FitzGerald, former party leader and Taoiseach) began to rewrite the DNA of Fine Gael. He set out to transform it from a Christian Democrat party into a Social Democrat/liberal one.

Back in the 1980s, when the liberal agenda was still very much a live issue, that made a lot of electoral sense. There was a big liberal vote out there for the taking and it was going to go to either Fine Gael or Labour. Thanks to Garret it went to Fine Gael, but at a huge long-term cost. Once the liberal agenda was more or less delivered (and that happened with the divorce referendum of 1995), that vote began to evaporate.

Fine Gael began to boil down again to its core vote, only this had become smaller because Garret had managed to alienate many of the Christian Democrats who once voted for it.

Quinn is careful not to be specific about his Christian Democrat agenda. All we know is that in the past - it meant anti-divorce, anti-gay, anti-single parent, while turning a blind-eye to abuses by the powerful in society.

There were aspects to that agenda, which were the antithesis of values that Christianity claims to represent.

We may have to wait for the research from the Institute of the Pieties and no doubt, some of it will be funded by taxpayers' money.

Isn't debate great - middle class gasbags ladling each other with rich rhetoric - and new opportunities for the survey industry!

Just this week, we had an excellent example of actionless action from the Minister for Children Brian Lenihan. A proposed referendum on the constitutional rights of children has been dropped as rights to schooling and other issues could be quite a headache for politicians. So in a style befitting of the Yes Minister television series, why not spend €24 million on surveying thousands of children over a seven-year period to help policymakers??

It will truly provide great gas and fodder for radio and television chat shows in years to come, with the do-gooders from the Institute of the Pieties, the nanny-knows-best pop-psychologists and other spoofers.

Why Garret the Good was bad for Fine Gael

Friday January 12th 2007

WHEN Fianna Fail first entered coalition government in 1989, it was hailed as a huge step forward by all who claim to love and cherish democracy. Gone were the days when Fianna Fail could enter single-party government. Gone were the days of its pre-eminence. It was a sign of this once mighty party's perhaps terminal decline.

Or at least that's how it seemed 18 years ago when Fianna Fail entered power with the Progressive Democrats. But it isn't how things turned out. In fact, the day Fianna Fail, led by Charles Haughey, entered coalition government was not good for democracy, as some believed - it was very bad because it was now obscenely difficult to remove Fianna Fail from power. But if it was bad for democracy, it was an absolute calamity for Fine Gael.

Fine Gael might have imagined back in those halcyon days that the only way for it was up. Where would those lost Fianna Fail votes go? Surely some of them at least would go to Fine Gael.

No. Instead those lost Fianna Fail voters became floating voters.

But much worse for Fine Gael was the fact that by becoming a willing coalition partner, it became vastly easier than ever before for Fianna Fail to remain in power, and vastly more difficult for Fine Gael to get into power.

The hard, brutal reality is that since Fianna Fail first went into coalition government it has been out of power for just three years, and that wasn't because it lost an election - it was because Labour in mid-term swapped Fianna Fail for Fine Gael as its preferred coalition partner.

To put it another way, since the first Fianna Fail coalition government, Fine Gael hasn't been on the winning side in a single election, and it doesn't look as if that's going to change anytime soon.

It is bad enough for Fine Gael that Fianna Fail no longer insists on single-party government, but what compounds the problem is the fact that, aside from 1992, it can never seem to win enough seats to make it a viable coalition partner for Labour.

In other words, it has been hit by a double-whammy. The first is Fianna Fail's willingness to enter coalition government; the second is its inability to win enough votes for itself.

What's the cause of this second problem? One answer, the main answer, is a man by the name of Garret FitzGerald. In the 1980s Garret began to rewrite the DNA of Fine Gael. He set out to transform it from a Christian Democrat party into a Social Democrat/liberal one.

Back in the 1980s, when the liberal agenda was still very much a live issue, that made a lot of electoral sense. There was a big liberal vote out there for the taking and it was going to go to either Fine Gael or Labour. Thanks to Garret it went to Fine Gael, but at a huge long-term cost. Once the liberal agenda was more or less delivered (and that happened with the divorce referendum of 1995), that vote began to evaporate.

Fine Gael began to boil down again to its core vote, only this had become smaller because Garret had managed to alienate many of the Christian Democrats who once voted for it.

Gay Mitchell and Mairead McGuinness are probably in a broad sense the two best exemplars of that tradition within Fine Gael, but they aren't dominant enough in the party to change its DNA back to its original state.

The upshot is that Fine Gael is now a party lost in the wilderness. No one is entirely sure what it stands for, including itself. It doesn't know whether to appeal to the now mostly vanished followers of Garret, or to its old Christian Democrat base. Instead it offers voters a question mark, and, as a wise person once observed, people will be attracted to a decisive exclamation mark, but they will never be attracted to a doubtful question mark. Fine Gael! should not be Fine Gael?

So what will Fine Gael voters now do come the next general election? Many will stick loyally to their party despite the fact that it has so little chance of attaining power. But others might calculate that, since Fianna Fail is bound to be returned to government no matter what, it might be best to vote for one of its two most likely coalition partners - that is, either Labour or the PDs.

In that way they can produce a government that is either left-of-centre or right-of-centre and their vote will not be wasted. But if this is what Fine Gael voters are reduced to, it is bad for Fine Gael and it is also bad for democracy. We need a genuine choice at election time and Fine Gael's continuing identity crisis means we don't have it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Eco-extremism and climate change

Climate change is getting a lot of attention and rightly so. However, there has to be a balance in how much sacrifice people living today should make for future generations as it's usually the less well-off that are lumped with the greatest burden.

The European Commission says that global emissions need to be cut by around 50% by the middle of this century if we are to have a chance of keeping climate change within tolerable limits – that is, if we are to hold the global average temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That is some challenge.

Technology will be one factor. Japanese car manufacturer Toyota for example has reduced energy use in manufacturing 30% since 2000. The US uses about the same amount of energy today as it did 30 years ago.

The EU has pioneered the emission trading system that results in a cost for those who do not pay attention to carbon.

In a blistering attack that echoes Europe's budget airline's CEO Michael O'Leary's dismissal of advocates of restrictions on air travel as "nutbags," car firm Daimler-Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has attacked "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their "Chicken Little" attitudes to global warming.

Tony Blair told a press conference on Tuesday: "This country leads the world both in terms of the issue of climate change and also meeting our Kyoto targets on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. But I am not going to be in the situation of saying I'm not going to take holidays abroad or use air travel. It's just not practical."

Earlier he sparked fierce criticism from green groups and opposition parties by giving a Sky News interview in which he refused to take breaks closer to home and said no politician would end cheap flights.

One of Blair's advisers, environmental activist Sir Jonathon Porritt acknowledged that Blair had done more than any other world leader to raise awareness about climate change but said there was "a complete failure" to show leadership on the issue in Britain.

He told BBC Radio 4 it was "completely wrong" for the Prime Minister to suggest scientists could be relied on to find a painless solution to global warming and to think that voters were unwilling to change their own behaviour. "I am not saying Mr Blair should never take another foreign holiday, but I am saying that he should be looking carefully at the impacts of those holidays," he said.

Sir Jonathon accused Blair of having "a policy of complete fatalistic despair" by arguing that Britain accounted for only 2 per cent of global carbon emissions. "If we are going to advise and influence other countries to reduce emissions, we have got to take the lead ourselves - in our own lives and as a nation through the economy," he said.

To advocate extreme action while competitors for jobs are doing otherwise is a luxury for people on a payroll who have no fear of unenemployment.

John Gummer, a former secretary of state for the environment , said Blair's defence of his "shaming" long-haul trips was "a great dereliction of duty".

Chris Huhne, environment spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said Blair's remarks showed he was "delusional" on climate change and that his environmentalism was only "skin deep".

Just wonder how many holidays they will take in Bournemouth until it becomes the new Riveria?

It's a fair bet that most of the eco-extremists want to have their cake and eat it too and nothing will please some of them.

In 1994, Dr. Patrick Moore a founder of Greenpeace who's cenrist approach has been rejected by some of his former colleagues, wrote in 1994:

For me, Greenpeace is about ringing an ecological fire alarm, waking mass consciousness to the true dimensions of our global predicament, pointing out the problems and defining their nature. Greenpeace doesn't necessarily have the solutions to those problems and certainly isn't equipped to put them into practice. That requires the combined efforts of governments, corporations, public institutions and environmentalists. This demands a high degree of cooperation and collaboration. The politics of blame and shame must be replaced with the politics of working together and win-win.

Ireland and Northern European countries to benefit from global warming if Gulf Stream doesn't slow; Ryanair's Michael O'Leary wins war of words with UK minister

Monday, January 08, 2007

Xenophobia off Menu for more than 200,000 people who are Homeless or living in temporary shelter in Paris

The Tuileries Gardens in central Paris © Musée du Louvre / A. Dequier
The Financial Times reports today that volunteers who ladled it out to the homeless of Paris called it "pig soup". Now it has been taken off the menu following accusations that the dominant aroma wafting up from the bowl was xenophobia, not pork.

The Conseil d'Etat, France's highest authority on administrative law, has banned an organisation called Solidarité des Français from distributing its soup containing pig ears, feet and tails to the capital's rough sleepers.

On Friday night, the court announced that it had upheld an earlier decision by the Paris police chief to shut down the soup kitchen, which has been accused of discriminating against Muslims and Jews, whose religions forbid the consumption of pork.

This decision had been suspended on appeal, prompting the interior ministry, led by presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, to demand that the Conseil d'Etat intervene. Bertrand Delanoë, Paris's mayor, also pushed for a ban, claiming that the handouts stank of xenophobia.

The volunteer group claimed the recipe was a hearty expression of traditional rural French cooking. However, Solidarité des Français has a clear political agenda. Its website criticises the use of government funds to teach French to immigrant women, while also attacking aid to Morocco, Senegal and Algeria.

Last February, the New York Times reported that more than 200 political activists defied a police ban to demonstrate in Paris, scurrying across the Boulevard Saint Germain and under the plane trees of Place Maubert to engage in their forbidden action: eating "pig soup" in public.

With steaming bowls of the fragrant broth soon passing through the crowd, Odile Bonnivard, a secretary turned far-right firebrand, climbed atop a car with a megaphone in hand and led the crowd in a raucous chant: "We are all pig eaters! We are all pig eaters!""Identity soup," as the broth has come to be called, is one of the stranger manifestations of a grass-roots backlash against the multiculturalism that has spread through Europe over the past 20 years.

People are challenging the care taken in Nazi-chastened Europe, and in France in particular, to avoid racial or religious insults of the sort that led to protests in the Islamic world a year ago after the publication of cartoons that most Muslims considered offensive to the Prophet Muhammad.

The movement began in the winter of 2003 when Bonnivard, a member of a small far-right nationalist movement called the "Identity Bloc," began serving hot soup to the homeless.At first, she said, the group used pork simply because it was an inexpensive traditional ingredient for hearty French soup. But as the political significance of serving pork dawned on them and others, it quickly became the focus of their work.

In France there is little tolerance for anything that challenges the republic's egalitarian ideals. But the authorities initially left the pork soup kitchen alone, shutting it down only once to avoid an altercation with a group of indignant French leftists.

That was before the riots that swept France in November 2005, forcing the government to face up to the deep alienation felt by the country's Muslim youth. As winter closed in and other pork-soup kitchens run by similar-minded groups popped up in Strasbourg and Nice - as well as Brussels, Antwerp and Charleroi in Belgium - the authorities worried that they might be witnessing the start of a dangerous racist trend.

The New York Times reports that in December 2005, Bonnivard said, a van of plainclothes police chased her soup- bearing car through the streets, and several busloads of police officers arrived to stop her group from setting up at their usual spot near the Montparnasse train station, citing "the discriminatory nature of the soup." She and her band filed an appeal.

Finfacts report from June 2006:

More than half the world’s population will live in a city by 2007; More than 200,000 people are homeless or living in temporary shelter in Paris

Friday, January 05, 2007

Asia-Europe budget airline

When I was in Kuala Lumpur last week, the plans of Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes to launch a long-haul service to Europe were getting a lot of attention.

Fernandes is the founder of AirAsia, the top budget carrier in South-East Asia and plans to begin his long-haul budget service on the Kuala Lumpur-London route. Direct flying time is about 13 hours.

Last year we carried a story on the very attractive cost of living in Kuala Lumpur. The country is also a very attractive tourist location.

I had the pleasure of staying in the 5-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel in KL, at a rate comparable with Jurys Inn budget rates in Dublin. A visit to the dentist for teeth-cleaning cost €11 - and it was a dentist who did the task. A filling can cost as low as €15.

Analysts suggest that the requirement to provide food on long-haul flights, creates a difficulty in applying the low-cost airline model.

However, what strikes me is that the quality of food and service for economy passengers on legacy carriers, has set a very low threshold.

On a Kuala Lumpur-Doha flight last week, the tantalizing selection for breakfast was scrambled eggs and cheese and omelette and cheese. I hate eggs.

After a 90 minute layover at Doha, it was still breakfast (which for an airline is convenient) and Hobson's Choice was again on the menu again.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Irish Travellers should avoid Heathrow Airport like the Plague if getting Connecting Flights to non-UK destinations

London Heathrow Airport is the world’s busiest international airport. It is the UK’s largest airport and handles 64 million passengers every year. Photo: .

Terminal 4 was an oasis of calm in the early 1990's but now more resembles the chaotic Dublin Airport. British Airways will move into Terminal 5 in 2008. On its own Terminal 5 will be the third largest airport in Europe after Frankfurt and the rest of Heathrow.The move will "transform the flying experience for the 30 million British Airways passengers" who pass through Heathrow airport each year. The whole experience will be faster, smoother and simpler." However, that is little consolation for Irish travellers arriving at Terminal 1 who have to enter the UK to move to remaining terminals.

British Airways (BA) has today apologised to passengers who have lost their luggage during the fog-disrupted holiday season and said that it would reunite thousands of missing bags with their owners.

About 10,000 bags did not make it to their intended destination over the Christmas period and Channel 4 News reported this evening that more than 7,000 luggage pieces remain undelivered at London's Heathrow Airport.

It also reported that Nigerians had made death threats in Lagos against BA staff because of undelivered luggage.

The airline was severely affected by the thick fog which enveloped much of the country before Christmas and also experienced a "fault with a baggage belt" at Terminal Four at Heathrow Airport.

Passengers are reported to have complained that they have seen piles of bags near the baggage carousels at Heathrow and questions have been raised about how secure the bags are in storage and the length of time it has taken to contact their owners.

Irish travellers who plan long-haul flights via European airports should avoid Heathrow like the plague. Schipol Airport in Amsterdam is generally my choice as Aer Lingus has a code-sharing arrangement with KLM and it's not necessary to re-enter a terminal to board a connecting flight. Frankfurt Airport is also a good choice for travelling eastward.

Getting a boarding card for the connecting flight is a big advantage but Aer Lingus' decision to withdraw from the One World alliance limits that facility.

I unfortunately ended up having to get to Heathrow's Terminal 3 and Terminal 4 on two recent occasions. Even though my bags were booked through to their final destinations, I had to join long queues to get boarding cards.

On Sunday evening, after 27 hours from the time I set out for Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I arrived into a grim Dublin Airport and one bag had been left back in Heathrow. Aer Lingus did a good job in tracing it and delivering it on Monday.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Irish Public Transport and the Soviet-style Bureaucracy that runs Córas Iompair Éireann

Last November a survey bought/commissioned by the Dublin Transportation Office (DTO) had a startling revelation for people who need surveys to tell them what should be self-evident.

One-half of Dublin drivers would never use bus services, even if services were improved. Unreliability, long waiting times and poor connections were cited as the main reasons for not taking the bus. As many as four out of five people expressed dissatisfaction with traffic congestion and access to the Luas. Just over 35 per cent of those surveyed were satisfied with the quality and upkeep of roads, and with facilities for cycling.

It often occurs to me when passing through the Pearse Street train station in Dublin at rush hour, that anyone who wants an example of the result of a Soviet-style bureaucracy should visit it.

Our hapless Minister for Transport Martin Cullen and John Lynch, the head of the politburu that runs the State transport company Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ), most likely only use public transport when participating in photo opportunities.

Cullen has launched a multi-billion euro plan termed Transport 21 but the existing software leaves a lot to be desired.

At Pearse Street, as a train rumbles over the bridge traversing Westland Row during rush-hour, passengers stampede through a small nineteenth century crowded foyer as arriving passengers fight their way down gangways as other passengers elbow their way up to the platforms.

For a majority of the passengers, walking towards the left seems natural while possibly 30% who are foreign nationals may choose the right.

At Pearse, there is a stone stairway and a gangway with a steel divider but there are no arrow signalling that would simply improve the flow of passenger traffic.

What can be expected of a management that required travellers to Dublin who arrived at its headquarters at Hueston Station to have the correct change for a ride on the No. 90 bus into the city centre but nobody bothered to put up a display notice at the waiting area (most arriving passengers now take the Luas tram)?

Arriving from Cork on one occassion, I witnessed the bus driver telling a baffled young Italian, to collect change at an office on O'Connell Street.

As to taking the bus, standing at a bustop is an experience that been fixed in time. There is no electronic indication as to when a bus will arrive or if a service has been cancelled because of the illness of a driver.

Car drivers prefer the comfort of their cars and gridlock to another aspect of public transportation that is often ignored.

For the many plonkers who place their feet on seats, there is an innocuous request to refrain from it instead of a large notice indicating the such individuals are ignoramuses.

Manners are also in scarce supply as the general practice is to push onto a carriage as passengers are alighting. Then there are the people who would sneeze into your face and mobile phones! It's enough to make a dog strike his father!

When we can't get the small things right in a system where the Buck Stops Nowhere, just wonder how much will be wasted on Cullen's Transport 21 plan:

ESRI Report: Transport 21 slammed as seriously flawed