Archive for November, 2008

Non-Wacky Baccy

New Smokeless Tobacco Worries Experts – NYTimes.com

Available in three flavors and packaged in attractive tins, Snus does not have to be spit out and therefore can be used just about anywhere — “at a concert, right in front of security guards,” “on a jet from Miami to L.A.,” or at an “overpriced tapas restaurant,” a promotional brochure suggests.

I have tried this stuff. Last year I took some one night on a late night drive. It didn’t feel much like a nicotine hit at all. It was more like a cross between a Fisherman’s Friend and a strong cup of coffee.

The thing about smoking is that it’s cool. It’s a ritual. It’s about being able to wave the cigarette about purposively. It’s about punctuating your life sentences. And since the smoking ban it’s become even cooler. OK so it gives you cancer, but that doesn’t make it any less cool.

This stuff, by contrast, is boring, specifically designed to please the authorities. The idea of that giving you cancer is not much of a USP.

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A few notes on ILR Towards a New Economic Plan

If I might direct your attention to Michael Taft’s Towards a New Economic Narrative at Irish Left Review.

A superb effort, and each point deserves serious consideration.

I’ll have more to add, I’m sure, but if I might start by observing something about one of the suggested measures in one of the points.

Additional measures to increase demand in the economy would be to:

* Introduce the right to collective bargaining: Study after study shows that those who negotiate through their unions earn more for the same job than those who don’t. IBEC warns the multi-nationals won’t wear this. The fact is nearly two-thirds of multi-nationals deal with the unions. It’s our home-grown enterprises that don’t recognise unions (and they wonder why they’re so unproductive). Organised workforces will strike better deals – again, win-win.

One thing worthy of note here, and scarcely publicised, is that multinationals themselves engage in collective bargaining against their collective workforces, but it tends to be called ‘benchmarking’. That is, the multinationals in a given sector meet up together, find out what each of them is paying workers, and then agree limits on pay.

When, at the level of the individual worker, it comes to the pay review cycle, and the worker gets a sub-inflation rate salary increase for having busted their ass for a whole year, the employer is able to say, well, that’s all we can afford this year, but we will conduct a review for next year to see if our salaries are competitive at market rates.

After colloguing with the other employers, they then come back to the employee and say, well, our salaries are competitive at market rates. This is true: an oligopsonist plays suppliers (in this case, workers) off against one another in order to drive costs down. So there is competitiveness: it’s just that it’s the workers doing the competing. So the very process of further immiserating the worker is thereby presented as the only means through which the worker’s situation can be improved. Which is nice.

A good description of the condition of such a worker can be found here:

His condition leaves him no time to receive the necessary information, and his education and habits are commonly such as to render him unfit to judge even though he was fully informed. In the public deliberations, therefore, his voice is little heard and less regarded, except upon some particular occasions, when his clamour is animated, set on, and supported by his employers, not for his, but their own particular purposes.

Which when you think about it is also a good description of what has been going on in relation to Fás etc. as discussed yesterday. Anyway, in case you didn’t know, it’s from Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.

So collective bargaining makes sense for workers employed by multinationals. The doubt I have for its effectiveness here in Ireland is the extent to which multinationals can use excess capacity in other locations, allied with the threat of outsourcing, as a means of not recognising unions. Perhaps this echoes the claims Michael cites about IBEC above. On IBEC, and sticking with Wealth of Nations:

The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.

But even if these are good principles for listening to what they have to say, it doesn’t mean they are entirely wrong when they say the multi-nationals won’t wear this, though this depends largely on the nature of the work performed and the costs of sending it elsewhere. Simple transaction-based service jobs are ripe for that sort of thing. In theory, jobs of higher complexity should be more difficult to send elsewhere, but this isn’t so much down to the complexity of the tasks the job itself entails but the difficulty and risks involved in finding someone else to do it.

I wouldn’t dispute Michael’s figure of two thirds of multinationals engaging with unions, but I would suggest that the degree of engagement, in terms of the proportion of the overall workforce involved, is quite low, and concentrated in areas where there are either high business risks involved in finding someone else to do the jobs or where there is an outsourcing contract in which union presence is an undesirable legacy.

Couple of related things: it’d be interesting to know how many jobs in multinationals are presently protected by the state. I do know that contracts relating to grants provided to multinationals for locating in Ireland contain clauses on the existence of an agreed number of jobs for an agreed duration, and that breach of the contract would result in a massive penalty. I also know that this of late has had an effect in preventing a greater number of jobs from heading elsewhere – yet. It’s also worth bearing in mind that total labour costs in Ireland are still very low in EU terms, and that non-pay costs are the principal factor in undermining competitiveness.

So there is a role for the state here, but in terms of stop-gap measures. There should really be a drive, I think, toward ending direct dependence on multinationals rather than making life easier for them. That underlines the importance of points 9 and 10 of Michael’s plan, which I should take a look at another day.

The National Interest

The Irish Times – Letters

Madam, – When Aer Lingus moved its Heathrow service from Shannon to Belfast, objectors were told it was done because costs were lower in the North. We were informed by various politicians and commentators that this was the free market, that we were all on one island, etc, etc.

However when ordinary people head north to shop for the same economic reasons they are branded as “unpatriotic”.

A fair point there.

Though I see no point in heading north specifically to shop (I see no point in ‘shopping’ either, but that’s beside the point). The money saved would not pay me the to sit in a miles-long queue waiting to get into to Newry. I don’t have much against Newry: I just think it’s absurd and tortuous to have to queue to get into it. We spent nearly an hour on the M1 last weekend, waiting to get onto the Cloghogue roundabout during which time I turned into a quivering wreck. Toward the end of the line there was a series of small signs for some gambling facility, depicting a leprechaun mooning. At that point I was nearly hallucinating in desperation, and I began to wonder if the leprechaun knew precisely what was going on, and if he was mooning at me in particular.

Fair Dues and Hairdos

Let’s say Mary Harney spent $1,000 on three wash and blow dries (it was probably far less) during July 2004 during her stays at the Cocoa beach hotel. That was about €820 in total, or €275 per go. If people are to be concerned with efficiency and effectiveness of public services, then one would have to consider what the cost to the Irish public would be if she had attended her functions looking as though she had been dragged through a hedge backwards. So I think the first questions should be:

How proficient is Mary Harney at washing and drying her hair?

Is she proficient enough to ensure that her attendance at whatever functions she was required to attend does not militate against the objectives of her attendance, resulting in an opportunity foregone by the Irish public that can be expressed in cost terms as of greater value than €820?

Was she required to attend to other duties during her stay  there? Given her degree of proficiency at washing and drying her hair to an acceptable standard for the purpose of her visit, would the time she spent doing this have been in excess of the time spent getting the service done privately, and, if so, would this excess time have been better employed attending to other duties on behalf of the Irish public in her then capacity as Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment?

Perhaps with the establishment of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes and the revelation that ‘the performance of all staff in all sectors of the Public Service is to be assessed, including teachers, nurses and gardai’, a key attribute in performance reviews ought to be ‘displays a capacity to know when and how to outsource personal grooming requirements to the private sector in order to deliver maximum efficiency on behalf of the taxpayer’.

Let’s be serious for a moment. The fact is that Harney was off representing the public in functions where it would not have been appropriate for her to turn up in, say, olive-green combat fatigues , because it would send out the wrong message. She was there to (I hate the word) network.

And part of networking in these circumstances, regrettably, means that you should demonstrate you share the values of your fellow networkers, because you are out to use each other in your mutual interest (I don’t believe it is ever truly in one’s own interest to use someone else, but I am, as Martin Amis might put it, adumbrating things here). Part of this probably entails being a bit lavish: a bit bling. Just enough to grease the wheels and get what you need out of things.

Mary Harney would not have achieved anything by turning up and revealing her plans for an end to wage slavery . But it is reasonable to imagine that she might have achieved something by looking a bit more the part than usual, since top executives can be surprisingly superficial.

This was revealed to me the time I conducted a surveys of hundreds of senior executives asking them what they think would make them enjoy their work more. The pettiness of their replies was astounding. Hardly any said ‘more money’. Most of them were things like ‘a fast track concierge service for when I come into the office’ (which would save about 10 seconds per day), and ‘a note from [the CEO’s first name] every now and again telling us how much we are appreciated’. There were also calls for extra perks to differentiate between the Senior Executives and the really Senior Executives, like a shiny pen.

It is clear that this matter is being tied in to a wider narrative being established of a ‘privileged and protected’ public service by contrast with the ‘private sector workers…facing into unemployment or a wage freeze’. But the sort of thing Mary Harney got up to is, at the very worst, a reflection of precisely the type of values that prevail at the top of that private sector so lauded for its efficiency. It is part and parcel of the corporate form: perks and privileges for those at the top.

But in terms of the massive exploitation of workers through the tyrannical hierarchies of corporate capitalism, where workers must compete relentlessly with co-workers in order to win a greater share of the rewards that trickle from above, where CEOs who earn many multiples the salary of the average employee can openly send out e-mails talking about increased profits but how tough challenges ahead mean wage freezes, this sort of thing really is, to quote the head of Fás, chickenfeed.

It’s superficial stuff, presented to distract from the fact that it is corporate capitalism and its relations of production that have left us where we are. Recall the Zizek quote from the other day:

the main task of the ruling ideology is to impose a narrative that will not put the blame for the meltdown onto the global capitalist system as such, but on, say, lax legal regulations and the corruption of big financial institutions.

To which we can add here the corruption of state institutions.

The insecurity, discontent and powerlessness people experience in their jobs is redirected against those state institutions over which they are supposed to exercise some real degree of control.

Even though the state may be my only protection, however meagre, against the powers of voracious corporate capitalism, I am incited to believe that, when it comes to the state, I can really be the boss and threaten everyone employed by it with the sack. I can re-enact my own relations with my boss with the hapless civil servant or the privileged politician, only this time, I‘m the one who has the power. And it is true that I have power: if I focus all my anger and outrage on the inefficiency and laxity of government, I have the power to deliver the state to my bosses.

And maybe then I‘ll get to fly business class.

And a shiny pen.

Catastrophe

On the subject of catastrophes, I watched Catastrophe, presented by Tony Robinson the other night. Despite the literally earth-shattering subject matter (a giant asteroid that hit the earth, resulting in the moon and life on earth) and the impressively vivid graphics there is something exceedingly boring about these programmes.

The presenters were full of gushing descriptions of the scale of what happened: one patch of fossilized something or other was (IIRC) four billion years old! Tidal waves eight miles high! (Maybe it was less than that, I dunno) And – if it wasn’t for all this, there would never have been life on earth!! OMFG!!!

Big deal. They were also talking about how generally violent the earth was way back then. But how could you have violence if there were no humans about? A wind is violent only in so far as it violates something that relates to human experience. But if there are no humans about, nothing is violent. The same applies to catastrophes. They only exist in human terms. If there are no humans around to apply the terms, there are no catastrophes.

And then they were talking about the mile high tides (or maybe mile long amino acid chains, I was falling asleep at this stage). But miles didn’t exist back then, because humans didn’t exist. I know you could argue that if humans had been there, then they would have recognised the tides as being miles high. But my point is that it is simply inconceivable for humans to have been there, because all this turbulence was a precondition for the generation of human life and by extension the concept of miles. Yeah, so maybe you can develop some sort of time machine that permits you to go back and say ‘verily, them tidal waves were miles high’. But why bother? The fact that they were miles high was of no consequence whatsoever to the people there at the time because there were no people there at the time.

I know that I’m engaging in some rather sloppy argumentation here. I guess it’s just a symptom of the fact that I find inquiry into the origins of the world so boring. So there was a load of matter around, a few million years of crash bang wallop, and then stone the crows, here comes homo sapiens. Then at some stage in the future, crash bang wallop, bye bye moustaches and angle grinders.

Part of it, I guess, is a bitterness at how many people engage in talk about the ‘sheer wonder’ of the universe and its infinite complexity. This is the sort of crack Dawkins gets up to in substitution of religion. For me, the fact that it is infinitely complex renders it uniformly boring.

Suppose the human species ends, as it probably will. No doubt worlds will continue to collide, and there will be plenty of big tidal waves about the place. Do people think about this and say ‘imagine the massive catastrophes there’s gonna be when we’re not around any more’? Of course not. The same principle of classification should apply to whatever happened before we were around.

Of Bicycles and Treachery

A curious article in today’s Irish Times by Sarah Carey, the gist of it is that women should be grateful to the European Union for it was through the EEC that, among other beneficial measures, the marriage bar was lifted. As a consequence, women should vote Yes when (it does seem to be fast becoming a matter of when, doesn’t it?) the next referendum comes around.

Note to women: you owe the EU more than you think – The Irish Times – Wed, Nov 26, 2008

What astonishes me is not only that women have forgotten how recently they were liberated from these draconian laws, but also that they’ve blotted out the identity of their liberators.

And:

Though Ireland possessed a small band of vocal feminists, deliverance did not come from domestic forces but from the so-called bureaucrats in Brussels. Yet here we are, celebrating Nell McCafferty’s nakedness in the RHA, but treacherously turning on the political institution to whom we owe much of our freedom. Nell’s consciousness-raising was always important – but it was European law that gave us equal pay for equal work. Indulging Nell with a chuckle while giving Europe the two fingers does our sex no service.

The view expressed here seems to be that Irish women in general owe the greater degree of freedom they now enjoy to the entity that formally delivered it, and the word ‘owe’ in this context implies some form of obligation: to vote No to Lisbon is a form of treachery.

The logic underpinning these statements is that if the state, in this case in the form of the European Union, provides you with something to which you are entitled anyway because it is your right as a human being, then you should be grateful to it, and not do things that might displease it.

By the same logic, African Americans should refrain from displeasing the office of the President of the United States, since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation contributed to the abolition of slavery. And, it follows, perhaps Irish people should also show a degree of deferential gratitude and compliance to Britain for its legacy of institutions and infrastructure.

But whilst it’s certainly true that the European Union has been and may continue to be a useful instrument for enforcing certain basic protections and guarantees, it is still only an instrument. No-one owes their freedom to an instrument. Bicycles played a significant role in the emancipation of women, but no-one would propose, even half-heartedly, that women should show gratitude to bicycles and not act treacherously toward them.

In fact, no-one owes their freedom to anything. And the interesting thing about instruments is who controls them and how they are used.

The article continues:

If you think 1973 is ancient history, peruse the list of other European laws that lifted women out of their dependency status: maternity leave, maternity pay, parental leave, anti-sexual discrimination laws and health and safety directives for pregnant and breastfeeding workers. Do you think one item on that list would have been offered up graciously by our penny-pinching, socially conservative governments? Even today, other issues that women fret about, like food safety, consumer rights or the rights of part-time workers – of whom women constitute a considerable number – are driven by the EU.

There are echoes here of Colm Tóibín’s Guardian article in the aftermath of the Treaty defeat:

I support the European project as a way of protecting me from Irish politicians. I voted for Lisbon, not because I wanted to follow the Irish political establishment but because I despise it and need protection from it.

For me, this is probably the most compelling argument for an Irish citizen to have voted Yes in the Lisbon Treaty referendum: that greater European integration delivers greater freedom, in that it might provide formal protection against the depredations of a socially conservative and rapacious Irish ruling elite. It is certainly hard to argue that the developments outlined above would have happened as a matter of course had Ireland not joined the EEC.

Somewhat tragically, however, voting Yes on these grounds would appear to involve a pragmatic acceptance that one form of domination is preferable to another.

That is the case for me at least, since I was and remain largely unconvinced that on the whole the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty delivered greater control over the state and one’s productive life to each individual. The matter under consideration here, given the fact that there’s always a possibility of expanding your freedom by wresting greater influence over the machinery of the Irish state through struggle and organising, is whether you should surrender some of your autonomy in order to save yourself from yourself.

That is the line Sarah Carey appears to take:

Funny, but reducing our ability to stop EU decisions sounds like a plus
to me. What if O’Leary had had the power to stop equal pay? Slagging off Brussels is a cheap shot, especially when that’s exactly where everyone from women to environmentalists to homosexuals rush when they want to stop Irish decisions which are not in their interest. The ability of Brussels to override our laws is exactly what Irish people, particularly women, gain most from membership of the EU.

The nature of national institutions is so dreadful, then, that although there might be some potential for changing it from below, it’s more effective to opt in favour a set of supra-national institutions which, even though you may exercise less control over them, can keep the national institutions in line and change them from above.

As I said, it’s a compelling argument, but to my mind, not a convincing one. It depends largely on faith and intuition that the character of the institutions is both essentially benign and unchanging.

But as mentioned earlier, what matters is who controls the institutions and how they are used. Will they function democratically, or will they function primarily in the interests of privileged elites? If you concede autonomy, giving people the power to make decisions on your behalf with scant consultation, how much will it cost to get it back when you need it?

The conclusion is quite sanguine, and cheerily ignores such considerations:

Does gratitude to Europe for victories on equality issues create an obligation for future loyalty? I say the past is a good guide to the future. Who do you trust to vindicate your rights: the Irish State or the Brussels bureaucrats? Based on the track record, Brussels is the sound winner.

It’s not at all axiomatic that the past is a good guide to the future, especially when it comes to thinking about states and their institutions, since their character is always determined by whoever exercises control over them, and in whose interests they act. At the risk of appearing Godwin-tastic, the Weimar Republic is a good example of how the future is not necessarily a repetition of the past.

Anyhow, the principle that you should be loyal to an institution on account of how it has served you in the past is a recipe for tyranny. It would be wiser to look at current developments, and draw your conclusions from that.

To give an example of how the European Union may not be consonant with freedom, consider the analysis in this El País article on the prospects for the European social model (translation mine):

The directive consecrates the freedom of choice for the
worker, as an individual, to negotiate his working hours. But it is a
theoretical freedom, because by doing away with collective bargaining
in that decisive aspect, it breaks an essential balance in the (social)
model, and in practice forces workers to assent to whatever the demands
of their employers are. On the matter of working hours, the directive moves
towards the demolition of labour law which underpinned the social
stability recorded for decades in Europe.

It is true that the norm only permits, and does not impose
a working week of 60-65 hours, such that in countries such as ours, it
will not be put in place. But its application in other member states
will not be inocuous, because this disharmonization will artificially
modify unit labour costs, and will automatically become a powerful
lever in industrial offshoring.

Funny, but reducing our ability to stop such EU decisions does not sound like a plus to me.

If anyone had argued convincingly that the Lisbon Treaty in itself delivered greater freedom for citizens, in terms of (say) each individual exercising greater control over her own productive life, the referendum would have passed with ease. But no-one did, because a) it’s probably not true; b) many of the people doing the promotion had no interest in arguing such a thing anyway.

What we had instead was a presentation of the treaty in terms of a set of minor adjustments to make the institutions run more smoothly: a more effective and efficient Europe and so on. Yet the consequences of not making these supposed minor adjustments were and are presented as catastrophic for Ireland.

If I’m wrong, and in fact, the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty will deliver everyone more freedom, then surely -given the huge support given to the referendum campaign by the majority of political parties, business groups and media outlets- this could be easily demonstrated, and a large majority of people would vote for it.

But if this can’t be easily demonstrated, it’s not because European Union institutions have an obscurely exquisite charm to them that prevents ordinary people from easily grasping what they do.

The point is that unless ordinary people can easily grasp what they do, and know how to exercise sufficient control and influence over them, EU institutions are not sufficiently democratic in function.

Most people, on both sides of the debate, are well aware of what’s frequently termed the democratic deficit. Attend any EU-funded course on EU law and you’ll be taught about it. Yet despite the claims being made for the EU in this IT article, there was no real talk, in pro-treaty advocacy, of greater freedom arising from a Yes vote, even though there were some provisions in the treaty for improving democratic oversight.

Honest advocacy for a Yes vote was performed, at best, in terms of tragic pragmatism (yes, these are real problems, but nothing’s perfect, let’s get it out of the way, and let’s get down to the real business), or at worst, in terms of the horrendous consequences of not voting Yes (if we don’t vote Yes, we will lose our freedoms, we will be outcasts living in financial ruin).

The former requires a temporary suspension of democracy in order to have more of it in future: a risky business at best. The latter pretty much accepts that the vote has nothing to do with democracy.

Neither casts the European Union in a very good light. But coercion by fear and moral blackmail can be effective, if only temporarily so, so it may well turn out that a second referendum gets passed.

Yet one could hardly say, if this happens, that ‘the Brussels bureaucrats’ in whom both gratitude and faith should be placed, will have derived their just powers from the consent of the governed, which would be a fairly modest condition for halfway decent government.

Then what would happen? Would it become common practice to denounce any opposition to undemocratic institutions and their actions as (anti-European) ‘treachery’?

If so, prospects for democracy within the European Union would be dim, however rosy its past might appear.

In Tongues

I’m Not One Of Those ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Christians | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

My faith in the Lord is about the pure, simple values: raising children right, saying grace at the table, strictly forbidding those who are Methodists or Presbyterians from receiving communion because their beliefs are heresies, and curing homosexuals. That’s all. Just the core beliefs. You won’t see me going on some frothy-mouthed tirade about being a comfort to the downtrodden.

I’m a normal Midwestern housewife. I believe in the basic teachings of the Bible and the church. Divorce is forbidden. A woman is to be an obedient subordinate to the male head of the household. If a man lieth down with another man, they shall be taken out and killed. Things everybody can agree on, like the miracle of glossolalia that occurred during Pentecost, when the Apostles were visited by the Holy Spirit, who took the form of cloven tongues of fire hovering just above their heads. You know, basic common sense stuff.

Well I laughed.


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