Weekend reflections

This regular feature is back again. The idea is that, over the weekend, you should post your thoughts in a more leisurely fashion than in ordinary comments or the Monday Message Board.

Please post your thoughts on any topic, at whatever length seems appropriate to you. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Schapelle Corby, the Bali 9 and the war on drugs

Like lots of others, I’m not too happy about the Corby case. But I think most of the complaints from Australia have been misdirected. The problem is not with the trial which, while not as procedurally tight as the Australian equivalent, seemed basically fair[1] to me. The real problem is with Corby’s twenty year sentence. The likely imposition of the death penalty on the Bali heroin smugglers is even worse.

The reason that attention hasn’t been focused on this issue is that, as a society, we’re fairly hypocritical about the war on drugs. At one level, we recognise that it’s essentially pointless and unwinnable, like a lot of wars. So we’ve gradually backed away from lengthy prison sentences for bit players, and even abandoned the idea that the capture of a few “Mr Big Enoughs” would make any real difference. But it’s still convenient for us that our neighbours should have draconian laws, the burden of which falls mainly on their own citizens. It’s only when a sympathetic figure like Corby gets 20 years for an offence that might have drawn a good behavior bond in Australia, or when some stupid young people end up facing a firing squad that the contradictions are exposed.

fn1. That is, as fair as other drugs trials. The nature of the war on drugs is that normal legal principles have to be suspended if the law is going to be made to work at all. The routine use of procedures bordering on entrapment, and the effective reversal of the onus of proof, once possession is established, are examples of this, in Australia just as much as in Indonesia.

What’s happening in the labour market ?

With the Howard government focusing on industrial relations reform, it’s important to be well-informed about what’s going on in the labour market. Last time I posted on this topic, a number of commentators suggested that I had missed some important recent developments. In particular, regular commenter Derrida Derider supplied me with some useful stats that support this, so I need to begin with a revised assessment.

During the 1990s, I argued consistently, and I think correctly, that measured gains in productivity were being driven by increased intensity in the pace of work, longer working hours and a labour market that marginalised those unwilling or unable to put in long and intense hours, notably including older workers.

It now seems clear that most of these trends levelled out in the late 1990s, and went into reverse after 2000
Read More »

Good(?) News from Iraq

Australian blogger Arthur Chrenkoff has attracted a lot of attention for his “Good news from Iraq” posts. Not only has he had a piece in the New York Times, but he’s been at the centre of a lengthy debate between Media Watch and the Australian (covered here by Tim Dunlop)

One problem with good news, though, is that it tends to be announced, reannounced and then re-reannounced for good measure. During the Boer War, Lloyd George caused a stir in Parliament when he did the sums and found that, according to the body counts announced by the British Government, they had killed more Boers than the entire Boer nation contained. According to Orwell, Arthur Balfour rose to his feet and shouted “Cad!”

Tim Lambert applies the same metric to electricity, finding that, despite nearly continuous good news, electricity generation is lower now than in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, and far below the level prevailing in 1991.

That’s the time-series approach. I thought I’d take a different tack, and look at the bits of bad news that can’t be concealed, even when, like Chrenkoff, you are looking exclusively for good news. That is, I’m doing what Chrenkoff does, but in reverse, using his news stories as the source.

Here’s a selection from Chrenkoff’s April 25 edition. Remember this is all supposed to be “good news”:

“The State Department has ordered a major reevaluation of the troubled $18.4 billion Iraqi reconstruction effort, blaming problems on early decisions to hire US companies for major infrastructure projects.”

“In a report to Congress last week, the State Department said reconstruction officials will cancel several planned water and electricity plants”

“The three-story hospital in downtown Fallujah sits empty and abandoned”

“Most of Iraq’s schools are still run down and out of date. According to the Ministry of Education, 5,000 additional schools are needed, and repairs are required at 80 percent of existing ones.”

” The Baghdad Police College says it has no shortage of recruits. In a country with unemployment well over 50 percent, a police paycheck — about $200 a month — is simply too tempting.”

“The stock exchange may be one of post-war Iraq’s few success stories”

” Production from the southern oil fields has recently reached 1.1 million barrels … The rate is close to what the company produced before the war …”

Why bother hammering the bad news? The obvious reason is that, until the failure of existing policies is recognised, there’s no chance of any better policies being adopted. The whole history of the occupation has seen the US persisting with policies long after they were obviously doomed, from radical economic reform, to the “regional caucuses” plan, from Chalabhi to Allawi, from Najaf to Fallujah and beyond.