Archive for September, 2011

We’ve probably all had that uncanny experience, while roaming and pillaging through this over-stuffed media landscape, of reading an article, essay, opinion piece which expresses almost exactly what we have to say on that subject. A satisfying frisson of solidarity sparks those lonely synpases.

Such a moment happened to me recently with a column by Jessica Irvine (in SMH), which described simply and clearly how the proposed carbon, or more accurately pollution, tax will work and why it should:

‘Weasel words polluting clarity of scheme’ – by Jessica Irvine (SMH)

More power to her pen & keyboard – one of a handful of local ‘economics’ writers worthy of following.

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Italian men may have invented the fashion of wearing coats on their shoulders without putting their arms in the sleeves, but Silvio has taken bravura into new dimensions. Embattled French ex-President Jacques Chirac must be green with envy as he tries to avoid court over corruption charges, while Il Cavailere sails on through multiple court defences over the years. Currently they include bribing his own lawyer to make false testimony (expired 10 yr time limit may stop Berlusconi going down, but the lawyer is guilty so bribery proved); massive tax evasion by his media company Mediaset; and a case involving under-aged prostitutes and abuse of power over police. See previous KC coverage in June 2009 of Silvio’s antics…..plus ca change!

Long-suffering Libyans had no choice about their embarrassing dictator, but Italians have continued to vote Slimey Silvio back in, even while he made a mockery of the Italian parliament (passing laws to protect him from prosecution) and used his media empire to mold public opinion and attack opponents. Italian TV is very trashy and a reflection of Berlusconi’s vulgar taste in Bunga Bunga raunch. Sociologists can decide if tolerance of his outrageous predatory sexual behaviour is a source of national pride, but from outside the country it’s hard to believe he still gets away with openly using ‘call girls’, with the perks of office to faciltate. Our Queen was clearly not impressed by his rambunctious behaviour at a recent G20 gathering.

Phone-tapping transcripts of his conversations are corkers, but one wonders whether he was playing to his audience. Apparently fed up with criticism, Berlusconi was recorded saying that he was over Italy: “I couldn’t give a fuck. In a few months I’m going to go away and mind my own fucking business. I’m going to leave this shitty country that makes me feel liking puking”. Maybe he’s heading for some Libyan desert oasis to join his old pal Muammar.

Big Jacques was known as a ‘ladies’ man’, but Silvio’s in a league of his own (both aged 74). In the latest phone taps he laments only having 8 women in one night, despite a queue of eleven waiting. Possibly a ruse to impress the macho Italian electorate, if Berlusconi knew of the recordings, but Machiavelli (compulsory mention) would approve.

The final irony is Standard & Poor’s downgrade of Italian sovereign debt to A/A-1. Did they find Silvio’s virility claims incredible, or suddenly wake up to the other massive ‘overhang’ – Italian public debt – or both. It’s equal to that of all PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) put together: another Silvio legacy. Maybe he really is taking revenge on thankless countrymen. Vergognati Italia! Shame!

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Banana Bending

As elsewhere Down Under, denizens of Kookynie are inveterate banana munchers, or were, until Cyclone Yasi wiped out crops and sent prices stratospheric at $15+ per kg – making fresh meat cheaper. Our national favourite snack became an unaffordable habit. However hardcore banana-addicts have resorted to high-strength substitutes for their fix: packaged banana chips. But they are a mixed blessing, like methadone for heroin users.

At $3.68 for 400g packs at Coles that works out to $9.20 per kg, but of course they are skinless. Now this is where it gets tricky, as banana chips are made of 68% banana, plus coconut oil, sugar, honey and natural flavour (which contains maize-based maltodextrin), according to the label. So lots of added value and sweetness (health effects ignored), and long-lasting!

The real kicker is that chips are ‘packed in Australia from imported ingredients’. Yeah, they are actually produced overseas (Philippines, Pacific islands, Africa or Caribbean?).  Add shipping and packaging to costs of production and local high-price benders are hard to justify. Apparently last month’s cold weather in QLD and rains in NSW hindered banana cropping, but post-Yasi plantings will be ready for harvesting soon.

Sadly Kookynie’s attempt at banana cultivation failed – a test plot behind the pub only produced more dust. Maybe the seeds needed watering? Meantime the KSIRO is trying to harvest desert peas for sale….mmm!

Alert for any price falls of fresh bananas, we keep a vigilant eye on them as we cruise past in the supermarket. Contrary to claims for the Banana Index, the economy hasn’t gone into recession on the back of higher banana prices. Meantime Working Families soldier on with other fruits and b-chips – that’s the Anzac spirit!

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Not gorgeous! Reporting of our erstwhile Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stephens is often deferential, maybe because he pulls the big lever on interest rates. Executive salary feeding troughs are smaller for public servants, but there’s still plenty of room for serious porkish behaviour. Actually ‘gouges’ could also describe the Guv’s new improved salary – paid out of the public purse, rather than shareholders’ dividends in the case of corporate mega-porkers. At the risk of repetition KC will continue to report such excesses, as it’s a subject dear to our collective wallets.

SMH revealed details of a $239,000 salary hike accorded by the RBA board in 2008, at the onset of the Global Financial Chicken, to reach $1.05m. Naturally it was done at arm’s length of the innocent beneficiary through the Remuneration Committee, composed of three non-executive directors. No doubt they are practiced in the usual dark arts of salary evaluation (mentioned before in news of Qantas CEO’s salary). As a yardstick, our PM earns $366,000, the Treasurer $289,000, and the head of the US Federal Reserve less again.

The Guv (why not Governor-General, much more elevated!) showed unashamed chutzpah: ‘I take what I am given like anyone else in the country’. That’s what makes our econocrat class so useful: they know about maximising utilities, in their pseudo-scientific jargon (not so au fait with notions of propriety though). In simple language, homo economicus looks after number one, full stop.

Actually ‘propriety’ appears in RBA’s own governance (for governors?) standards, and along with ‘integrity’ they define the required behaviour of Reserve’s board members. Treasurer Swan was ‘furious’ that the salary increase wasn’t notified to him for a year, but apart from a feeble letter, no knuckle-rapping or corrective action was taken – except flicking future salary evaluations to the Remuneration Tribunal. Meantime Glenn keeps his increase for another two years till retirement. Board accountability: zero!

As for performance, the Reserve’s objectives are motherhood intangibles of stability, efficiency, prosperity, etc. And don’t mention the serious corruption by its money-making (of other countries’ bank notes) subsidiary – the RBA Board knew nothing about authorised bribes paid to overseas agents. As always, the managerial class just pigs out (see J Ralston Saul’s ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’). So keep those troughs topped up, and stand aside!

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Luke Davies’ book was published in 2008, but often the slow mail to Kookynie means that KC’s book reviewer has to make up for lost time. God of Speed is a debauched take on the life of Howard Hughes. It’s a wild ride, as we share the old man’s delirious (‘stream-of-consciousness’ is an understatement) telling of his own incredible story. Hunter S Thompson would’ve approved.

Hughes’ life was also used in Scorsese’s film ‘The Aviator’ with Dicaprio, but this book explores it with such gusto, as it vibrates with Hughes’ imagined recall of his erotic adventures and other conquests. Inheritor of a fabulous fortune in the 1920s, his boyhood fascination with speed and flying leads him to build new record-breaking aircrafts and circle the globe; and a thirst for women and moviemaking bulks up a very manic life. Money was no object, as the cliché would have it, and Hughes seriously indulged himself with big boy’s toys, including mega-yachts as tools of seduction. Speed of course also refers to drugs, which became indispensable to him going ever faster with the flow.

One big advantage of having your own movie studio is the ability to vet scores of beautiful women on the famous casting couch, and here Hughes was an exemplary launcher of starlet’s careers and a regal procession of affairs with them. From Billie Dove, Carole Lombard & Jean Harlow, they all overlapped in an ongoing orgy of monkey-barring affairs, to Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, her sister Joan Fontaine, Ginger Rogers, Ava Gardner, Jane Greer, Jean Peters et al. All were greedily fucked (Davies’ oft-used word and probably Hughes too) and a couple married.

Davies’ rapid-fire storytelling from inside this drug-addled mind is tight, melding together the signature events of Hughes’ life, including his plane crash, political shenanigans in financing Nixon’s presidency and much more, with graphic trills on his sexual episodes. Highly recommended!

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The story of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime is conceivably the most shocking of the post-WWII era, given the scale of organised horror. Cruel zealots lead by Pol Pot attempted to re-model society. Phnom Penh residents were forced into the countryside to become labourers in a new communistic, agrarian revolution; educated and professional people were simply killed en masse, often identified by their wearing of glasses; and much worse. It lasted three years, eight months and twenty days, 1975-78, until invading Vietnamese forces freed the country from its persecution. Death toll 1.7 million.

In Phnom Penh prisoners were starved, tortured for false confessions and then killed in an old school called S-21 or Tuol Sleng. When numbers grew too large they were sent to the outskirts of the city and brutally slain, often with an axe blow to the head, including children – this became the notorious killing fields. Both sites can be visited today and feature in tourist guide books. Gruesome remains at Tuol Sleng have been cleaned up in recent years, but it’s still a harrowing experience to go through old classrooms used as torture cells, hanging posts, etc.

Photos & documents are on display along with explicit paintings of torture by Vann Nath, one of the few survivors from 14-17,000 prisoners killed. Spared because of his painting skills, he was put to work by the cruel Duch, in charge of Tuol Sleng. Traumatised Vann Nath kept painting after his release, and he and his paintings became symbols of survival in that blighted country. Sadly he died recently at age 66, from illness caused by his imprisonment. Pol Pot is dead but other Khmer Rouge leaders have escaped justice to date. Four are presently on trial in a special UN-sponsored tribunal grinding on in Phnom Penh, which the current government has tried to obstruct, as some of its members share guilt as Khmer Rouge cadres. Vann Nath testified to the tribunal in 2009 against Duch, and saw him sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The complicit role of Western powers in recognising the Khmer Rouge government is a monumental scandal of Cold War politics, as is the land mine legacy from US bombing during the Vietnam war covering vast tracts today. Cambodia is a deeply troubled country with resilience tested to its limits.

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It seems that Jacques Chirac, ex-President of France, has been inspired by ‘WA entrepreneur’ Alan Bond’s memory loss (see KC’s 2009 report on other Aussie executive memory lapses) during his court hearings. Big Jacques has taken it a step further, with a preemptive strike before his long-awaited trial on multiple corruption charges, by having his lawyer submit a doctor’s report claiming his patient suffers ‘anosognosia’. Apparently this is a brain condition, maybe related to alzheimer’s, and described ‘being unaware of one’s disabilities, so that one forgets to forget’ or some such. In any case, the 78 year old cannot of course answer questions about his time as mayor of Paris in the 80-90s, when fictitious jobs were created at the town hall to channel (i.e.embezzle) funds into the coffers of his Gaullist RPR political party. The judges have been coming for him ever since, but Presidential immunity kept them at bay and then the glacial speed of justice finally caught up with him.

Even though he cannot, unfortunately, take part in court proceedings, JC has encouraged the court to start without him anyway, and it looks like it will. Anecdotally he is reported as being quite compos mentis only a few weeks ago, so obviously this condition is virulent and onset rapid. French satirists are having a field day, as we say in rural Orstralia, and my favourite is the cult evening TV program ‘Les Guignols de L’Info’, meaning literally ‘The News Puppets’.  Chirac has been one of its most regular guest characters from right throughout his presidency, portrayed as a bumbling, beer-drinking ingénue. Media pundits even reckoned that his presidential re-election was boosted by sympathy for his guignol character after all that piss-taking over the years. Obviously a passing knowledge of the language of Moliere is required to really appreciate the caricature, but even without you can get a rough gist of the set-up. Check a couple of last week’s offerings when the news broke: Monday & Tuesday. Whatever happened to Australian political satire on TV here (no, the lame ‘Julia at Home’ didn’t do it for me)?

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