Monday, April 27, 2009

Sacking of a Weather Man

A further example of what I was referring to in the previous post is the summary dismissal of climate guru Jim Salinger from NIWA, apparently for making a few offhand comments to media on passing weather stories, without gaining prior approval.

Some of the commentary on this has emphasized the suddenness of the dismissal and speculated on the chance of a personal grievance case against NIWA for not following due process. I'm more inclined to ask how come a scientist with 27 years working for public institutions and an established international academic reputation, doesn't get to say pretty much whatever he likes about his area of expertise.

Let's assume the complaint is that Salinger's comments could have been confused with the 'official' stance of NIWA. But shouldn't he be cut some slack for having been a climate scientist for longer than NIWA has existed? The institute was only created in 1992, when in a spate of textbook-crazed 'reforms', the 'weather' bit and the 'climate' bit of the Meteorological Service were carved apart into separate, semi-commercial insitutions.

I'm oddly reminded of David Landes The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, where the author spends considerable time detailing the respective inexorable declines of Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish economic power. A common feature of these empires was that, for different reasons, all three made concerted efforts to restrict the spread of knowledge and expertise.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cults and the Corporation

One of the emerging and, in my opinion, most important roles of popular blogs like The Standard is to allow a wide audience to read about the experiences and struggles of ordinary people that would not be covered by the mainstream media. In particular, they can give insight into interactions within large organisations, which the combined forces of HR and PR normally ensure are airbrushed from public discourse.

This is a particularly valuable post on the industrial dispute between Air New Zealand and sub-contracted Zeal flight attendants who are striking for the same pay and conditions as full Air NZ employees. The comparison of Air New Zealand's corporate style to a religious cult might sound exaggerated, but the internal communique from CEO Rob Fyfe speaks for itself:

I have found this week particularly challenging – I love Air New Zealand, the brand, the people and what we mean to the country. Therefore, I have found it especially difficult to see the Zeal crew go to such lengths to project themselves as unprofessional, denigrate the uniform, our brand, the koru and the professional standards of the airline.

Once again, truth is more terrifying than satire.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

If You Thought We Were Bad

The self-appointed spokespeople in New Zealand's media have a long history of getting offended at any slight on the country or its inhabitants -- false, accurate, or imagined. I'm afraid this piece wasn't really that much of a joke.

It's terribly embarassing, and you want to crawl under a rock every time they do it. But at least now we have some decent competition.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Paul Krugman said that the "worst-case outlok for the world economy" was that "America could turn Irish". Krugman's point was that Ireland had suffered from an extreme case of the financial speculation/housing bubble disease and as a result had been hit earlier and even harder than other countries, to the point where its government is being pushed into fiscal retrenchment, which could further deepen its recession. There, but for the grace of the dollar-as-international-reserve currency, could go the United States, said Krugman.

Somehow interpreting this as an attack on the Irish national character, the editors of the Irish Central website responded with a passionate defense of their nation, citing recovery from the potato famine, Yeats, peace in Northern Ireland, and Bono as examples of "indomitable Irishry" about which those ignorant Americans would know nothing.

Cringe-inducing for Irish people, no doubt, although at least it's not their newspapers of record indulging in this stuff.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

History Will Be Kind

When I lived nearby and used to shop at Thorndon New World, I would occasionally see Michael Cullen, smartly dressed in dark suit and red tie, wandering up and down the aisles with a shopping basket. Dr Cullen seemed to enjoy prowling through the local supermarket as any ordinary person would (though perhaps he was keeping an eye on the price of cheese?).

In my view, Cullen is far and away the best Minister of Finance New Zealand has had in my lifetime. I'm sure history will be kind to his prudent approach of paying down debt, encouraging savings, and finding ways to 'spread the wealth around' in what remains a small and poorly-diversified economy.

I also have quite a bit of sympathy for him as a politician. The public impression is of an intellectual who was content to immerse himself in the technically most difficult jobs, had few aspirations for leadership that would have required excessive ingratiation and politicking, and occasionally lost the ability to suffer fools.

I know that Cullen has inspired strong negative feelings in some who adhere to other parts of the political spectrum, but the intensity of those feelings probably says more about those who bear them than the man himself. At worst, perhaps he could be said to suffer from that classic Kiwi ailment of being 'too smart for your own good'.

I therefore was pleased to see Cullen interviewed in reflective mode in the Sunday Star Times this week, on his way to a quieter life with NZ Post and free from the need to follow party lines. A couple of the quotes are worth repeating, not just because they're pretty close to what I think, but because they articulate some core principles with striking brevity and common sense:

"We didn't believe that wealth is best created at the top and then trickles down. We believed that wealth is created by the efforts of everybody that participates in the economy and needed to have some fairness in distribution. In part this was because in a country like ours particularly you can't afford to have a large part of the population unable to contribute effectively because they've fallen out."

Cullen believes "only a tiny group of highly entrepreneurial people will make their way out of any situation, because they've got this enormous gift and it's a lucky gift they've got". Other people[, he said,] needed to have the comfort of a safety net if they were going to chance their arm in the economy.

If a political party could consistently articulate such thoughts, rather than trying to repeat the lines focussed-grouped by their communications advisors, they might be surprised at how well they do.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Fujimori Sentenced to 25 Years In Prison

The breaking news is that former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori has been sentenced to 25 years in prison by a special criminal commission of the Peruvian Supreme Court. Fujimori was found guilty of four charges relating to massacres in La Cantuta and Barrios Altos in 1991 and 1992, as well as the kidnapping and torture of journalist Gustavo Gorritti and businessman Samuel Dyer.

The verdict came after 160 sessions spread over 15 months, following Fujimori's extradition from Chile in September 2007.

This is a momentous event, the first occasion in which a former head of state has been successfully tried in his own country for human rights abuses, by a court internationally recognised as independent and respectful of due process. It is a powerful strike against the concept that anybody can be above the law.

In an interview in La Republica, investigative journalist Ángel Páez, a longstanding critic of Fujimori, says that:

...we can sure, after this case, , with absolute clarity, that nothing justifies the systematic and permanent violation of human rights as part of a government policy.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Imbalances and the Global Crisis

A number of erudite commentators point to 'underlying economic imbalances' as a major factor in the current global crisis. They argue that the situation where some parts of the world produce and save more than they consume, while others live beyond their means, has helped create the conditions for the financial speculation that has led us to the present meltdown. Paul Krugman makes a case something like this here and here.

When boiled down to its bare bones, the argument goes more or less as follows: China keeps selling things to the West and saving the money. It then lends that money back to allow Westerners to continue their spendthrift ways and put it on the tab. But this is unsustainable, and eventually all that debt has to be unwound. A solution would have to involve Western consumers being more prudent and creditors like the Chinese spending more.

The way it's described makes it sound like millions of thrifty Chinese shopkeepers being tight with their cash and refusing to spend on luxuries. Easy for readers to visualize, but surely this isn't the reality? China is an authoritarian state, with the exchange rate controlled centrally, and if the earnings from exports are banked, this is not done by individual workers but by the government and corporate elites. Surely the problem isn't that the Chinese masses prefer holding US Treasury bills to consuming goods and services, but that they are paid much less than the real value of their labour? 'China' might save too much, but it's questionable whether Chinese do.

Meanwhile, the situation of China has a flow-on effect on the rest of the world. Thomas Pogge argues here that by winning the race to the bottom in terms of labour and environmental standards, China has restricted the potential for export-led growth in other developing nations. So those who control China's economy could be denying not only their own citizens, but those of other countries, the possibility to consume in line with their productive ability.

If imbalances in the real economy are behind the bursting financial bubbles, would it be suprising if these were in turn underlaid by imbalances of power and resources that are essentially political?

Friday, April 03, 2009

South Africa 2010: Latest Qualifying Rounds Continued

March 31-- April 1 continued

The stunning result of the round was Bolivia's 6-1 win over Argentina in La Paz. It's a tough place to play: at 3,600 metres, walking a couple of blocks is enough to make you out of breath; I've no idea what playing football at that altitude is like. Yet, at the same venue Chile won and Colombia and Uruguay drew. Questions have to be asked about Argentina's tactics and commitment. I'm not sure about Diego Maradona as coach. Almost without exception, male Argentinians hero-worship him; I wonder whether he manages to have a balanced professional relationship with his players. Of course, a great player does not necessarily make a savvy manager.

The end result of the latest two rounds is that, with Paraguay only picking up one of four possible points, qualifying spots are still wide open with six games left. Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia are only three to five points off fifth place, and an Andean team could yet make it to South Africa. Not Peru, though -- they were trounced again, this time 3-0 by Brazil, and are now last by five points.

In the North American zone, the US beat Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica dampened El Salvador's hopes with a 1-0 home win, and Honduras upset Mexico 3-1. The US and Costa Rica are looking good, but all teams still have a chance to qualify.

In Europe, both Denmark and Hungary won soundly, leaving Portugal six points back in third spot and facing an uphill struggle just to get a playoff spot. Spain completed home and away wins over nearest rivals Turkey to all but seal their spot at the World Cup, while Holland has maximum points are six games as well and has effectively qualified. England maintained a perfect record by beating the Ukraine 2-1, while Germany and Italy are both comfortable at the top of their groups, though Italy was held 1-1 at home to Ireland after playing most of the game with ten men.

Scotland beat Iceland 2-1 to retain second spot in Holland's group, while Israel lost 1-2 away to Greece to slip to third behind Greece and Switzerland. Home and away wins over Lithuania have resurrected France's position, now just two points behind leaders Serbia, whom they have already beaten. But the fairy story continued to be Northern Ireland, who beat Slovenia 1-0 to hold top spot in the most intriguing group. The dark horses there are Slovakia, who are only a point behind with two games in hand.

Hmm, and I suppose I should mention Australia, who with their 2-0 home win in Uzbekistan, have one foot in Capetown. The other Asian group is more interesting, with South Korea winning 1-0 over their estranged North Korean neighbours to hold top spot. In the ongoing race to be New Zealand's playoff opponent, it's now looking like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, but Iran, Uzbekistan, and Qatar are still in the hunt. The odds are on the All Whites going somewhere hot and sandy.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

South Africa 2010: Latest Qualifying Rounds

28--29 March

Once again, not great news for the teams I follow. Peru lost 1-3 at home to arch-rivals Chile and sink deeper into the bottom of the table. Colombia beat second-bottom Bolivia 2-0, but with Uruguay's 2-0 win over leaders Paraguay, the Southern Cone further strengthened its hold on the qualifying positions.

In Europe, Portugal had another 0-0 draw, this time at home to Sweden, apparently squandering numerous chances and confirming once again that you never make it without a decent striker. They're four points behind Hungary and leaders Denmark (who have a game in hand), and only one point ahead of Sweden, also with a game in hand. It's really not looking good for the Portuguese.

On a more positive note, Spain and the Netherlands are in pretty impregnable positions in their groups, although the way the Dutch play nowadays I can't really call myself a supporter any more. Despite a number of talented players, the current outfitis nothing like the attractive sides of 1998 and 2000, let alone that of 1974. Scotland still lost 0-3 to them, and will need to battle it out with Iceland and Norway for a playoff spot. Italy's 2-0 win over Montenegro put them clear at the top, with Ireland being held to 1-1 against Bulgaria. Israel has slipped to third, one point behind Greece and Switzerland, but that group is still wide open.

Most interesting is probably group 3, where Northern Ireland beat Poland 3-2 to go top. Five teams (Northern Ireland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia) are separated by just three points, and with two of them never having qualified before, there is lots to play for.

What could compensate for most of my favoured teams facing elimination? The United States being defeated by El Salvador would be a heart warming story. And that looked like being on the cards, when the Central American team went 2-0 up after 72 minutes. But the US fought back, Germany-like, to score in the 77th and 88th minutes to draw 2-2.

31 March--1 April

A bad start, with Colombia being defeated 2-0 in Venezuela in the earliest game of the round. Yes, that's right. A loss to the baseball-playing 'vinotintos'. It looks like Colombia's hopes of a qualifying spot are also slipping away.