Thursday, December 30, 2010

Beating Up on Bureaucrats, US Style

I have to link to this column from Paul Krugman because it's argument is so similar to ones I've made in the past.

Krugman in November 2010, in relation to Obama's announcement of a unilateral freeze on public-sector pay:

The truth is that America’s long-run deficit problem has nothing at all to do with overpaid federal workers. For one thing, those workers aren’t overpaid. Federal salaries are, on average, somewhat less than those of private-sector workers with equivalent qualifications. And, anyway, employee pay is only a small fraction of federal expenses; even cutting the payroll in half would reduce total spending less than 3 percent.

So freezing federal pay is cynical deficit-reduction theater. It’s a (literally) cheap trick that only sounds impressive to people who don’t know anything about budget realities. The actual savings, about $5 billion over two years, are chump change given the scale of the deficit.

Me in January 2008, in response to cheap bureaucrat-bashing in the New Zealand media:

These pundits...give the impression that the salaries of chaps in ties take up a significant chunk of taxpayer dollars. A common anecdote is about the increase in central Wellington office rents over the last couple of years, due to demand from the various ministries. Some even go so far as to blame the country's macroeconomic ills on the hordes of 'pdf pushers' spilling out of offices along Molesworth St and The Terrace, claiming that their high wages are creating inflation and pushing up interest rates.

It may therefore come as a surprise that, as a burden on the country's economy and taxpayers, the cost of the public service almost fails to register...Let's say we entirely eliminate every bureaucrat, every government job, every department, ministry, commission and quango. This would free up the same amount of money as if New Zealand's GDP grew by 3 percent, rather than 2 percent, for just one year.

There are differences between the two countries but also similarities. Krugman points out that a supposed "surge in government employment" under Obama was nothing more than temporary blip in hiring for the Census. In New Zealand, increases in core public sector employment up to 2008 (still tiny as a proportion of the total workforce) were largely driven by those well-known dens of policy wonks, the Inland Revenue and prisons.

But while quibbling on the details is necessary, the main point is that the focus on public servants is ideological and not at all about economics.

More in another post if I have time. In the meantime, other links to digest: Krugman describes the "systematic, even industrial" production of "humbug" by conservative think tanks, while Matthew Yglesias points out the basic perversity in demanding a unilateral decline in public sector employment.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sparing a Thought

A great column in the Independent by Johann Hari on the under-appreciated people of 2010. Number 1 on the list is Private Bradley Manning, the US soldier who leaked the documents publicised by Wiki Leaks that documented complicity of occupation forces in torture of Iraqi civilians. He is currently being held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, denied even a pillow or sheets, despite no substantive concerns about being a danger to himself or others -- and this without even having had a trial. Hari writes:

To prevent the major crime of torturing and murdering innocents, he committed the minor crime of leaking the evidence. He has spent the last seven months in solitary confinement – a punishment that causes many prisoners to go mad, and which the US National Commission on Prisons called "torturous". He is expected to be sentenced to 80 years in jail at least. The people who allowed torture have faced no punishment at all. Manning's decision was no "tantrum" – it was one of the most admirable stands for justice and freedom of 2010.

A traitor? Maybe, but then how many people throughout history now looked on as heroes were traitors to someone?

Friday, December 17, 2010

His Name Will Never Die

I hadn't been aware of it, but yesterday (allowing for time difference) was the anniversary of Stuart Adamson's death and I found myself for the umpteenth time seeking out Big Country songs on You Tube.

If I could do one thing to make the world a better place, it would be to beg and plead anybody who stumbles across this blog and who hasn't listened to Big Country or Stuart Adamson's other work in The Skids and the Raphaels to give a chance to their music.

If you have any appreciation of lilting ballads that become driving epics, crashing anthems filled with existential doubt, melodic reflections on human suffering, soaring guitar lead outs, or just harmony-filled pop choruses, then you should find something there to savour. Y0u might even join the ranks of the converted.

We Have Always Been At War With Eurasia

Yes, it's just Fox News and therefore shouldn't be surprising. But Fox News is hugely influential in the US, and what happens in the US is influential in what happens in the world.

Elsewhere, Paul Krugman has another post and an op-ed column on the growing tendency among tendency among conservative elites to respond to inconvenient facts by just making stuff up.

This strategy is scarily effective, it seems to be increasing, and is by no means limited to the US.

Friday, December 10, 2010

More Wikileaks

Rereading my convoluted little post on the significance of Wikileaks, I'm not sure that I quite managed to convey what I was talking about. Fortunately, Finlay McDonald makes much the same point rather more clearly.

Also, read Glenn Greenwald on the subject.

Death to the Humanities?

It's worth reading about what is happening to the British tertiary education system through Crooked Timber. A sample quote:

If you see universities overwhelmingly through the optic of access to labour-market advantage and you think that social justice is about opportunities for this, then a scheme that loads the costs onto the direct beneficiaries can start to look plausible. In my view, a conception of social justice that confines itself to equalizing opportunties to get a better position in a system of radically unequal outcome is a radically deficient conception. A scheme where higher educatation conferred fewer differential benefits because fewer such benefits existed would be a superior one.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What Would Foucualt Say

For some, the latest Wikileaks release raises complicated issues about confidentiality, secrecy and diplomatic practice. The mainstream media, predictably, chooses to focus on the gossip and celebrity angle. The US State Department would just love to shut the whole thing down. I prefer to see it as something like karma, or some kind of ecological law of equilibrium.

Over the past couple of decades, digitised information has allowed the State and other corporate bureaucracies to capture, retain, share and use ever increasing amounts of personalised information . Smart cards, search records, cell phones, street cameras, and biometric passports are just some of the innovations that turn people's lives into readable data. Meanwhile, the latest security paranoia is a useful excuse to track, surveil and literally strip naked ordinary citizens who have the temerity to do things like travelling.

One way of responding to the latest Wikileaks is to see them as turning the whole process back on itself. The irony is that this time it's the bureaucratic machine itself (with the US diplomatic establishment as its proxy) that is exposed, its embarassing secrets eviscerated, its behaviour held up for scrutiny. We're so used to being the ones who worry about being caught out or having done something wrong, it's somehow shocking, yet liberating, to see the system itself caught with its figurative pants down.

If nothing else convinces you, what about the creepy revelation that diplomats were asked to get hold of personal details including credit card numbers and biometric data of foreign politicians and UN bureaucrats?

So, it's tempting to see some kind of symmetry in all this: maybe there is after all a limit to the power that can be wielded facelessly, before that power ends up being turned against its master.