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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

A lack of interest

Much trumpeting this week from the usual combovers regarding the southward movement of the official cash rate, as if it means something. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t? What is certain is that such movements are swimming against the tide.
Australians hold $51 billion in credit card debt. This seems mighty small when compared with the $1.257 trillion we owe on mortgages - about two thirds of which is for homes to live in, the rest for investment properties - but to put it in context it is something akin to the size of the state budget of Australia’s largest state, New South Wales, is larger than last year’s federal budget deficit and the same as the profits from the mining sector in 2009/10.
So imagine my surprise when I noted on the fine print in my credit card statement last month that the interest charged on purchases had jumped from 12.99 percent to 13.24 percent.
So while the cash rate heads down – the sledgehammer that the Reserve bank uses to open the economic walnut – the interest that Australians are paying on credit cards is heading the other way.
Credit – easy money – is what has atomised community life in Australia. The need to service debt has rendered what were once citizens into little more than villiens and serfs to the coyly named financial services industry. In a more enlightened age they were referred to as usurers.
So what? I hear you cry. Nobody forced people into taking on such toxic levels of debt that a household needs two or even three incomes to stay afloat?
Well, even putting aside the dubious marketing practices of credit providers over the recent deregulated decades, we can look to debt as being the rearguard solution by the working class in Australia to the shrinking proportion of the economy that is the household sector. People have maintained and modestly improved their standard of living by going into hock to the eyeballs to do so; that’s where all these new cars, plasma screen TV’s and too-big-to-have-a-backyard houses have come from.
Debt has ripped out the kneecaps of working people’s ability to take industrial action. No one can afford to. This has led to a collapse in working conditions. So while incomes may nominally keep ahead of inflation (and that is not the case for all industries) it has come at the expense of workplace standards and conditions that were a two hundred year historical project, pissed up against the wall in a generation.
My underlying point in all this is the disconnect between the economics industry – the commentators, spruikers, carpetbaggers and generally useless riff raff that make a living from casting goat entrails like modern day Greek oracles, but with none of the science or accuracy (as the Failed estate pointed out)are there to serve the interests of an ascendant corporatism – and the reality of life for most Australians who are time poor because they are working and commuting to keep the bailiff from the door and never seem to have the time that we knew previous generations enjoyed, simultaneously watching work get harder and longer in complete contradiction to what the technological prophets told us was going to happen – all in the name of the pursuit of “stuff”, primarily provided by, you guessed it, corprations.
It is a bloodless, sociopathic corporatism where you will obey.
The state is merely a facilitator in this process. Governments have simply made it happen in exchange for party political donations used to achieve a hollow power that is beholden not to an electorate, but to those who pay the bills. Hand wringing feeble attempts to withstrain global corporations from completely pillaging the nation have largely failed. When the agenda of communities meets the agenda of corporations, corporations largely win. Coal Seam gas exploration is a case in point. The proposed strata laws in NSW another. Colesworths another still. Open your eyes and you see it every day.
Corporations have friends across the political spectrum – from Eric Abetz to Mar’n Ferguson. They are ubiquitous and exist solely for their own interests. They are not your friend, not even on facebook.
Their wealth is growing faster than the household sector – ordinary people like you and I. They are squeezing the household sector off the economic page. That is the real economic story of our age, and I am yet to find an Australian economic commentator who thinks it is an issue, especially now Quiggin has jumped the shark. Any suggestions would be welcome.
In the meantime, ignore the guff about interest rates going down. Your pound of flesh will be extracted one way or another. Your quality of life compared to even a decade ago is testament to that.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

A certain informality

Twitter is largely a dull space, not dissimilar to being trapped on public transport surrounded by the inanities of others, realising hell is other people. 

One of the few reasons it is in any way useful is in how it parallels the adage that no one is completely useless, they can always be used as a bad example. Every now and again you get something revealing. Something that gives an insight that the perpetrator probably didn't intend.


Damian O'Connor tweeted: “If "informal" ran yesterday, it seems it made quota to be elected (25%) lots of places – huge”.

Damian O'Connor is no idle spectator. His Twitter account proffers “political history & analysis, economics and the environment” and he speaks with the authority of being a former Assistant State Secretary (for the left) of the NSW ALP, as a lobbyist for Government Relations Australia, as a staffer for a senator, as an industrial officer for the old Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen's Association (a union now swallowed up into the CFMEU); and way back he was in the middle of the shitfight that was the collapse of the Australian Union of Students in the early eighties (which threw Gillard, Shorten, Conroy, Albanese, Abbott, Hockey, Michael O'Connor (no relation) and a host of other political apparatchiks that have also never had a real job into the political mill).

O'Connor's tweet got a response from the anonymous Political Tragic, who offered as an excuse the inability of people to follow simple instructions. Political Tragic, whose twitter account reveals them to be little more than a snob disconnected from their community and dripping with noblesse oblige, is annoyed that the little people won't take instruction from their betters. 

They are typical of the conservative who thinks they are a lefty, but is is too stupid to realise that they, like fat in an artery, are clogging up the party that should be the political home of Australia's working class. They really should fuck off and join the Liberal Party - who will better represent their economic interests - if the ALP is to have any chance of rebuilding the lives of Australia's debt bound multitudes stuck on something south of median weekly earnings - but there are two chances of that happening.

The two tweeters infer that this informal vote is hurting the ALP, as if the ALP base should blindly continue to follow it despite federal and state ALP governments spending the last three decades pursuing neoliberal policies that have ripped the guts out of economic security and replaced it with back breaking debt, insecure work and angry, disconnected communities. Quality of life in suburban Australia, for all the flim flam of credit-fueled “stuff”, has gone down the toilet. Escapism has become the most viable ideology of our age.

It seems foreign to the two tweeters that the informal vote is deliberate – a rejection of all of the middle class parties. People know that the ALP is not about to challenge the superb indifference the powerful have for the powerless in this society. The powerless, even if they seldom articulate it, are aware of it. The working poor know that they are on their own, despite the rhetoric of the hopelessly ALP conflicted ACTU, as I pointed out last week over at the Blunt Shovels blog.

People have given up; not just on the ALP, but on liberal democracy as an institution that can solve their social problems. This is unsurprising given that liberal democracy is a sideshow beauty contest while the ASX200 wield more real power than executive government.

Significant chunks of the populace can see that politicians of all persuasions are simply delivering for the big end of town. The Greens really don't have anything to offer working stiffs as they too have bought into the mantra of the market as a salve to social ills, when the reality is that the market – from housing to pollution – is the problem, not the solution.

People have simply decamped from a process that offers them no reprieve from the swingeing enforcement of the corporate totalitarianism that defines our age, where debt is the new serfdom and rights exist solely in the abstract; where private security guards ignore civil protections and those who pursue justice are dismissed as cranks while those who stoically suffer their oppression in silence are hailed as models of rectitude.

The large informal vote expands on a trend that first emerged in the 2010 Federal election when it jumped 1.7 percent nationally and reached the low to mid teens in a swathe of formerly safe ALP seats in south-western Sydney.

O'Connor is right that this trend is huge. Expect to see it repeated in October in the ACT when voters are offered a further tawdry choice between the three flavours of bland in what is really a one-party state.

In that environment voting for anyone is an obscenity, like having to fuck the least ugly person in a leper colony. It is a patronising insult for Labor people to complain that we aren't buying their mouldy bread.

Maybe. Just maybe, if the ALP delivered something that wasn't just voucher based crumbs from the table, like NDIS; or reversed the slide in household share of national wealth; or made housing a social good instead of an investment strategy; or made education an investment in the citizenry rather than a commodity to be flogged offshore, like the rocks that are keeping the plates spinning at the circus; maybe if they challenged that then we could give a shit.

Until then the only way for working stiffs to stay sane is to vote informal. Anything else is enabling our own destruction.

With the collapse of the liberal democratic West this will probably happen anyway, but there's no obligation on our part to help others profit from making it happen.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

China syndrome


In the seventies in the main street of my hometown there was a factory. It made clothes for David Jones  (from memory; it may have been some other big store, but it was a big store). The factory provided local employment for many women, but was closed after a concerted campaign buy local worthies who considered it an eyesore in our faux art-deco idyll.

The building housing this anachronism was pulled down in the eighties and became a yawning gape in the streetscape for a several decades; a living testament to the worthies ability to project their values onto living space. They got the eyesore they warned us about.

Then a developer turned up during the boom years of the 2000's and built a two story glass and pastel thing that houses some doctors, with a gym upstairs. For a while it also was tenanted by the local Member of the House of Representatives, before he wisely retired when a redistribution rendered his seat uninhabitable by politicians of his persuasion. Eyesores come in all shapes and sizes and exist in all eras.

But the women's semi-skilled manufacturing jobs are gone, replaced by casualised service jobs in retail. Managing the kids when your work was all over the place has become a barbecue stopper.

Even if the local worthies hadn't visited their wrath upon this house of humble industry, changes to Australia's trade policies from the seventies onwards would have knocked it down anyway.

For what is globalisation but the opportunity to swap economic security for cheap t-shirts?

Being an historical accident of the West we, as a society, largely shared in its colonial bounty – unless your skin was a different colour than that of the worthy northern European stock that composed Britain during its age of empire.

This colonial bounty morphed into the post-war boom through a series of pork barrel trade arrangements where the Country Party used its pivotal role in propping up the conservative Liberal establishment to inject some hard-headed socialism into the free-enterprise sophistry of the Menzies era. An extensive set of protective trade barriers and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to administrate them grew like Hobbes Leviathan to become an article of faith that transcended party politics.

Until the lone voices in the wilderness began to grow; first from outsider Liberal backbenchers such as Charles Robert 'Bert' Kelly, stillborn under Gough but later reaching a roar under Hawke (Forget Fraser, he had Doug Anthony and Ian Sinclair to deal with, and there as no way they were going to ruin the Polo match by forcing graziers to work for a living).  The arguments of economists - influenced by Milton Friedman -  consisted of chanting the mantra of free trade and a minimalist role for government. It swept state policy in  the West like a crazed cult. Out of the laboratory of Pinochet's Chile sprang words like  Thatcherite, Reaganomics and, across the ditch, Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, to explain the phenomenon.

Trade barriers were relaxed (but strangely, never quite torn down despite the rhetoric from many international “leaders”), Financial markets were deregulated and the role of creating money shifted from central reserve banks to credit providers. Government owned enterprises were privatised or corporatised. Public owned assets were transferred (sold is too generous a word) to the private sector. Public debt became an immutable evil while private debt became a righteous necessity.

The end result was a series of stock market crashes culminating in the happy events of September 2009, which are still playing out.

One of the great themes for Australia in all of this tumult has been the evaporation of this country's manufacturing base. Whether this is good or bad depends on where you stand and what you do for a living, but we can be certain that it is never coming back.

If you're a consumer (and, ironically, aren't we all?), superficially, its a good thing. Heaps of cheap stuff at Bunnings and in the department stores.

But if your livelihood depends upon making stuff then the retreat from Australia making stuff is resoundingly bad, especially if it is your livelihood that has retreated. Your future lies in retraining or a low paid and probably casual service industry job. Training, now Gillard has shifted TAFE to the private sector, is expensive.

Following the trend of the States rather than Europe, Australian jobs are largely in the services sector, not the stable Middle Class manufacturing jobs (now gone) that defined both the post-war Western boom and rising global consumer demand. As an official with the storemen's union, the National Union of Workers, told me recently “...the economy of southeastern Australia is turning into a warehouse”.

There has been much angst since our manufacturing sector went a-roving across Asia. The closure of many textile factories brought to the surface that latent fear of inscrutable orientals descending from the north to slit our throats in the night. It was a tangible appellation that Asia was not us, and not our friend, which is awkward considering where we are geographically. It is an opinion that has wide currency amongst workers in the looser parts of the labour market occasioned by semi-skilled and unskilled workers.

The ACTU, who claim to represent those semi-skilled and unskilled workers, shamefully lent their name to the report by the non-government members to the Prime Minister's manufacturing task force.

Columns of weasel words hemming and hawing with ideas like  turning Australia into Asia's Cannery Row by propping up the Food Industry. Given the ownership of the Food Industry (thank you Ms Emily) where would the profits of that little exercise flow?

The reason why manufacturing jobs have headed to Asia is a no brainer: Heather Ridout from the bosses union puts it succinctly: "It costs $A45,000 to employ a process worker in Australia; it costs $A4,500 to employ the same worker in China."

Ah, we're back to China. The argument goes that the working stiff has to cop it in the neck if we are to compete with the yellow peril to our north in the making of things.

But the argument also runs that; no worry, as one door closes another shall open and opportunities lost in making stuff will be replaced by our ability to do other things – like design stuff, and then sell the designs to other countries where our designs are easier to manufacture.

Well, according to the China Daily, the Chinese are planning the same way forward.

When Adidas announces it is to quit China for the low wages of Bangladesh and Cambodia the soothing voice of the Chinese Communist Party assures us that: This change means China should gradually transform itself from a manufacturer to a designer. It also means China’s competitiveness in the world trade is no longer based on its cheap labor, but on its innovation and product quality.”

Does that sound familiar? 

If China joins the mantra chanted by collapsing Western manufactories and becomes a designer and innovator of products then does the price of labour for innovative ideas also sink like a stone? Are we are left with an economy where everyone does everyone else's laundry for a living?

Seems like a race to the bottom for the price of labour to me.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Wayne's World

Number One Bag has been cleaning out my closet, Eminem style, and stumbled across the following gem in my collection of trivial newspaper clippings:
"The financial markets are populated by a lot of immature, younger-type people who play with their computers and drive home in their Porsches, and who have no understanding of the of the human or economic dimensions of unemployment."
Who is this wild-eyed Trotskyite? None other than Wayne Swan, now Federal Treasurer, but quoted in 1994 when he was chairman of the ALP Caucus Economics Committee and not yet in the grip of his current delusion that the market must rule us all. 

Vale sense and sensibility.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Procedures to follow if arse is on fire

PROCEDURES TO FOLLOW IF ARSE IS ON FIRE

1. As an Australia Post employee, it is a high probability that you may not be aware that your arse is on fire.

2. If someone draws your attention to the fact that your arse is on fire, sigh volubly and say, yes, that always happens. Mutter darkly to yourself and then continue with your prescribed task.

3. If you are a supervisor you will certainly not be aware that your arse is on fire.

3a. If a Mail Officer, PDO1 or contractor draws your attention to the fact that your arse is on fire shrug, and walk slowly away and make a cup of coffee before returning to reading the morning paper.

4. If you are an Australia Post manager, file a report with your state manager that significant improvements are being noticed in your initiative for increased thermal energy production in the spine base region amongst staff, consistent with Australia Post's FutureReady plan and four cultural pillars, going forward.

5. At no time should emergency equipment be used to extinguish an arse that is on fire. This equipment is very expensive and using it would add costs to Australia Post's bottom line, and this will, in turn, impact on profitability.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Where power lies


An excellent post over at Andrew Elder’s Politically Homeless on Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s contribution to the energy debate this week.

It provides a link to the evcricket blog, which provides some very interesting facts about electricity generation - facts that seemed to elude Mr Abbott this week.

Energy policy, specifically electricity policy, is an interest of mine as it strikes me that much of what we view as civilisation is heavily dependent upon the ubiquitous 240 volt three pinned wall socket, yet few Australians are aware of how their energy is generated - apart from vague idea of power stations - let alone where the power for their house actually comes from. 

I became acutely aware of this issue when I became involved in the electricity privatisation "debate" in NSW from late 2007 onwards. Much of the verbiage in this process was absolute garbage peddled by discredited hucksters such as ratings agencies (Standard and Poors being a serial offender, scripting NSW Treasury and that political zygote Michael Costa) and other intellectual pygmies, such as Federal Energy Minister Mar'n Ferguson (whose claim to his position in public life is solely based on the fact that he is the son of former NSW Deputy Premier Jack Ferguson).

Electricity infrastructure was rolled out in this country largely by local government, aggregated by state governments in the latter part of the post-war boom and then corporatised through the eighties to become a ripe plum for the usual suspects looking for easy pickings in this neoliberal age.

The assumptions of the market - and even the idea of a market as the best instrument to allocate energy resources in Australia - are seriously flawed when one gets to grasp the fallibility of base load power generation.

A good example of this is Transgrid in NSW; a State Owned Corporation who have been pushing for high voltage power lines from baseload power stations to all parts of the state based on demand management scenarios where they simply got a ruler and drew a line that looked like the North Face of Everest and called it 'projected demand'

Efficiencies in consumption mean that demand is flatlining or falling in south-east Australia.

And this isn't even getting close to the ridiculous subsidies that taxpayers fork out to Alcoa and other aluminium smelters giving them electricity at absurdly low prices so they can produce what is little more than bottled electricity. If we had an informed populace most state and federal energy ministers would be swinging from their largely redundant lamp posts.

An example: The Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission recommended a major overhaul of the 'poles and wires' network that was fingered as partly culpable in the disaster that swept parts of Victoria in 2009. This network is owned by SP AusNet after the State Electricity Commission of Victoria  was privatised by the Kennett government. Surprisingly, the private company put commercial considerations ahead of the public good and allowed this infrastructure to run down. Now that they have to do something about that little oversight they are seeking permission from the Australian Energy Regulator to pass the costs through to the privately owned retailers (the people who send you your electricity bill), who will no doubt show the same consideration of the public good as SP AusNet, given that the electricity pricing market in Victoria is totally deregulated. That's why your electricity prices are going up - nothing to do with Carbon Price there, Tony. 

It's a fascinating example of how privatisation allows corporations to socialise costs while pocketing profits. Singapore Power is owned by the Singaporean government through a company called Temasek Holdings. So apparently it's bad for Australian governments to own infrastructure, but totally OK for foreign governments to own Australian infrastructure. Gotta love the pygmy logic of neoliberalism.

So if you're a Victorian you could do worse than toddle off to the Australian Energy Regulator's website and put in your two cents about this shakedown by the Singaporean Government. I doubt it will make too much difference in the ultimate outcome, but at least you might learn something of how decisions are made in this country and how little it has to do with elected politicians. Bring your own lubricant.

Similar story in NSW where the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (which is none of those four things) green lighted passing on a $17 billion spend on poles and wires to household power bills, which is where half the increase in regulated electricity prices is coming from

So while our parents generation paid for our electricity infrastructure once, through taxes, we are now paying for it again, through power bills. It's what Arthur Daley referred to as 'a nice little earner'.

It is not far removed from government underwriting the installation of horse watering facilities on every street corner ten years after the arrival of the Model T Ford, and charging the cost back to households. 

Wonks talk sonorously about 'not pickling winners' , but what is gold plating baseload power and charging the bill back to households who have no choice but to cough up the difference?

So a fixation by a failed politicians on hanging on grimly to baseload power generation is going to see Gen X pick up the tab, and that's why power prices are increasing. Who benefits? The private corporations who have snatched public infrastructure from the Australian people courtesy of culpable politicians from both major parties.

I wouldn't be surprised if in my lifetime we re-invent the wheel and see local government becoming the driver for community owned power generation from a range of sources distributed on a cost basis to ratepayers. It's cheaper, works for the public good, is a local employment generator and cuts out the carpetbagging middlemen fleecing us at the moment. 

Maybe that's why we did it that way to start with.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

A long engagement

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.' - George Orwell

When it comes to butchering the English language Australia Post's internal communications take some beating.

Post's version of The Pyongyang Times, Post Journal, arrived in the PO Box at Rabbit Flat last week with the usual colourful and didactic array of exhausting hagiography. Along with the usual celebration of Post as some bizarre corporate cult there was an A5 insert containing the results of the 2012 employee survey.

It wouldn't be good enough for Aussie Post's internal communications team  to refer to this survey as, say, an internal staff survey. No, that's just so active and accurate, so instead the survey has been 'branded' as say2action.

Calling the survey Say2action does several things; it creates the illusion that Australia Post management are listening; it creates the illusion that some tangible change will result from the survey; and it creates work for graphic designers who would otherwise be doing something else.

Like a lot of agitprop, Australia Post's internal communications are an irony-free zone. When the A5 insert uses the phrase “an incredible increase of 4.6% since last year” it does so without any acknowledgement that the word 'incredible' includes the meaning 'hard to believe'*, which undermines the veracity of the survey figures furnished.

The increase concerns 'engagement', although what this means is not entirely clear. The insert describes employee engagement as “what you think and feel about working at Australia Post and the extent to which employees go the extra mile”. No, I don't have any idea what that means either, unless they are referring to those employees that will have to move further out in the suburbs because with falling real wages under Post's Fair Work Agreement they will no longer be able to live closer to inner-metropolitan Post facilities, but I digress.

“Australia Post has higher levels of engagement than other companies going through change” according to the survey, although the source for this is somewhat obscured, in fact non-existent, and how you measure something as unclear as 'engagement' has got me beat.

I certainly hope this 'engagement' is not important as, based on the figures supplied, one in four employees at Australia Post are not engaged, which constitutes about 10,000 people, or something approximating a fair sized regional town.

Your humble blogger wrote to the say2action 'team' to for further clarification: “The 'Four Enterprise Focus Areas' figures similarly remain clouded in mystery due to the absence of any verbs. Verbs are doing words and are useful in communication to qualify nouns and create context. Without context attaching numbers to nouns is meaningless. For example, to say that Leadership and Supervision is 54 percent means nothing. I realise that this is qualified on the reverse of the A5 by saying that, in this example, "our leaders are more decisive and responsive to changes in the market". But this begs the question 'What decisions?' and 'what is their response? Is it to run away? Curl up in a ball? To dress in yellow and sing Korean pop songs? These are all responses and thus involve being "responsive to changes in the market", but are they useful or appropriate? Are their decisions to have two sugars instead of one? To demand the sacrifice of every third child? Once again, these are decisions and, by definition inherently decisive, but not necessarily useful.

Without context this language means nothing, so I am curious as to the detailed results contained in the survey.

I remember the scene in the Tennessee Williams' movie Cat On A Hot Tin Roof when Burl Ives, in one of his few big screen roles as Big Daddy (and what a belter it is!), confronts Paul Newman, playing his alcoholic son, and tells him that “...every man I knew who drinks has a reason! What's yours?'

Newman's answer?

Mendacity

“You got to live with it. There's nothing to live with but mendacity”

Mendacity - the appearance of seeming truth; which is to say, using the vernacular, bullshit - seems to be a central cultural pillar of senior Australia Post management.

They say they are 'for zero' when it comes to accidents, but their lack of investment in capital equipment exposes thousands of postal workers every day to illness and injury while they harass, intimidate and belittle those employees that are injured.

They say they value their staff, so much that they are cutting postal workers' wages in real terms by over eight percent in the life of the current agreement.

They say they want to serve their customers better but all they have succeeded in doing is turning post offices into bargain stores, or closing them, while creating an army of underpaid contractors to trash Post's 'brand' across the nation by doing slipshod service in order to survive on the piece work rates Post pays them.


They say a lot of things, but much of it is mendacity. I'm not a religious Mail Officer, but there is much wisdom in the biblical quote 'by their fruits so shall these trees be known'. In the meantime frontline service delivery staff at Australia Post continue to be treated as second class citizens in their own organisation.

* - From Dictionary.com

Sunday, 5 August 2012

An introduction of sorts

Well, here we go again. Back in the blogosphere.

Your correspondent is a slightly humble Mail Officer with Australia Post who wishes to provide an insight into the lives of the working stiffs that do the actual work of this planet. You know, the stuff that actually has to be done, as opposed to the frippery that entire civilisations could happily progress onwards and upwards without, such as marketing and financial speculation.

So it's a window (or a mirror for the rest of us) on that world that the mainstream media largely deems invisible, irrelevant or unimportant yet fills up most waking hours for the majority of us. So there will be no commentary on MasterChef or Australia's Got Talent here, sadly. Nor will there be any unctious barracking for tribal politics, the internet is already rife with that detritus.

The intention is to keep it vaguely intelligent and provide some form of light relief from the prolix and fulsome enthusiasm we are pummelled with on a daily basis by marketers, consultants, change management hucksters and other carpetbaggers whose zeal is only matched by their worthlessness.

As my Authorised Union Rep (AUR) at work said to me the other week, 'Some people get their ambition and their ability mixed up'.