This will mean nothing to anyone reading but I will post anyway that today I am celebrating. The reason is that after 3 1/2 years of endless frustration, my Filipino partner now has an official birth certificate, driver’s licence and passport.
I’m not sure what would happen in Australia if an adult went to the Registrar of Births and applied for a late birth certificate, the birth never having been registered previously. In The Philippines, bureaucrats tend to look at you blankly and tell you to try somewhere else. Complicating my partner’s situation were the facts that his father died when he was a baby; his mother is illiterate and cannot swear even to the year of birth, let alone the place or the date; the attending midwife has long since disappeared; and nobody else can testify to the birth.
How has he managed all these years, you may be wondering? With a set of fake identity papers bought in the local market; you can see their availability advertised in the street in poorer parts of Manila (i.e. most of it). Good enough to satisfy the local schools but not good enough for government offices that issue licences and passports; not even good enough for post-secondary colleges. But even though there are millions of Filipinos in the same situation as my partner, nobody in officialdom showed any inclination to offer a solution. If you can’t register your birth with all the usual evidence from parents and so on that’s just your bad luck, apparently, and you can stay in a twilight zone the rest of your life.
Eventually persistence paid off and we found a way – not one that is found in any laws or regulations, needless to say – and in a surprisingly emotional Skype conversation, my partner said how happy he is that he is no longer an alien in his own country. Such a simple thing, being able to prove your identity with a birth certificate. It’s an overlooked but essential piece of infrastructure for modern societies, but one that is still a work-in-progress in third world countries.
I’m sure plenty of people who know more about ICT than I do have already discussed ad nauseam the reasons why owners of great software seem compelled to keep fiddling with it so it gets ever-slower and more unreliable. The latest example is Skype, which has booted me out of conversations twice in recent weeks. ’Configuration problems’ being encountered by ‘a small number’ of users caused the faults, according to the official version; which to judge by the online conversations translates into ‘another round of stuff-ups for just about everyone caused by our manic need to update the software about 17 times a week to fix bugs in previous updates’.
And Microsoft hasn’t even taken over yet, god help us.
Google to date seems to have avoided this tendency to self-destruct in the race to prove how clever you can be, but sadly it’s probably only a matter of time. No smug comments from Apply owners with more money than sense please.
Whenever I say to my partner “Can I ask you a question?”, his answer is “OK but no math”. His struggle to comprehend the significance of numbers is a running joke between us (although in truth he exaggerates it), linked to his inability to grasp a budget as either an abstract concept or a practical domestic tool.
Economists in developed countries suffer from the opposite affliction: an incapacity to comprehend increases in material wellbeing that are not capable of being measured in dollar terms. Thus we have passages like the following from George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen in the New York Times:
Will the Internet usher in a new economic growth explosion? Quite possibly, but it hasn’t delivered very good macroeconomic performance over the last decade. Many of the Internet’s gains are fun — games, chat rooms, Twitter streams — rather than vast sources of revenue, and when there have been measurable monetary gains, they often have been concentrated among a small number of company founders, as with, say, Facebook. As for users, the Internet has benefited the well-educated and the curious to a disproportionate degree, but apparently not enough to bolster median income.
Cowen’s unstated but obvious premise is that if something is not bought and sold and thus adding to GDP, it has no economic benefit. This is the artificial distinction which for centuries has regarded paid employment as a hugely important component of the economy but discounted domestic labour because it does not attract a wage. This was fine as long as economics was simply the study of social activities that could be measured in money, because it was a limited and specialised discipline akin to biology or psychology. It defined its own scope and core assumptions.
Those days have long since gone and economics is now politics; the two concepts are indistinguishable. The main purpose of politics in developed countries – the main purpose of life, in the view of a good chunk of the population – is economic growth. That is the benchmark by which any initiative or policy is evaluated: the extent to which it will facilitate or impede the relentless growth of GDP.
Cowen’s piece illustrates why this is now such a short-sighted and limiting perspective. It is simply ludicrous to suggest that activities that are ‘fun’ have no economic value. What he means is that they have no economic value unless they are bought and sold in a market, which says nothing about the wellbeing of our societies. It does, however, say a lot about the blinkered approach of conventional economics – and thus of mainstream politics.
I’m sure Cowen would happily concede that book publishers, and newspaper magnates, and TV studios, and film makers, and all the other manufacturers and distributors of 20th century ‘fun’, are engaged in economic activity no different from firms making cars or F18 bombers or building airports. What pisses him off, and what pisses capitalists generally off, is that all these fun things are now available virtually for free. But while that might reduce the level of economic activity as measured by conventional dollar metrics, it is actually increasing the supply of many items useful to and valued by ordinary people at a rate unprecedented in history.
- I spent a lifetime collecting books, with a library of thousands of paper volumes costing tens of thousands of dollars. I recently added downloaded 1,000 or so books in the space of a couple of hours … virtually for free. I doubt that I will ever buy another book as long as I live, and I will only buy a newspaper every fortnight or so because it’s the cheapest way to get liner for the dog’s crate. The staggering volume of absurdly cheap or free reading material available on the internet means I now have a bigger library than even the richest person alive could have dreamed of owning even 20 years ago. Yet as far as economists are concerned, my change in buying habits has meant a reduction in economic activity. If everyone followed my example, they would tell us solemnly, GDP would decline by 1.3% or whatever figure their models came up with. This would therefore be a Bad Thing, even though the practical outcome was that most people were immeasurably better off.
- A similar story can be told about music and videos. My Android phones can download more mp3s in a few hours than I can listen to in a year. My partner has something like 2,000 songs on his cell phone; god knows when he thinks he will ever play them. Neither of us has paid one cent(avo) for any of them – a terrible crash in economic activity compared to the money I spent on music for most of my life, but an enormous benefit for actual people as opposed to that abstraction ‘GDP’.
- Despite the increasingly shrill complaints of academics, more and more university students are simply refusing to buy textbooks. They know there are more learning resources available online for nothing than they could possibly absorb in one semester and very sensibly see no point in paying for something they can get for nothing. The more far-sighted academics are adopting an “if you can’t beat them join them” approach and re-designing course delivery so it is based on internet resources (including full-on lecture series posted by prestigious institutions such as MIT), all of which is free. Another victory for actual people who can get things without having to pay for them, another blow to ‘the economy’.
The problem – to the extent there is one – lies not in the huge productivity increases that information and communication technology has generated around the world; it rests in the perception that the only worthwhile human activity is that which can be traded or at least measured in terms of money. ICT means that perception is now fundamentally flawed, despite the best efforts of people like Rupert Murdoch to stuff the genie back in the bottle and transform everyone back into paying customers. It’s far too late for that. Indeed one has only to look at the swelling flood of free applications being generated for the Android operating system to realise we are in a new era: one where vast amounts of use value for billions of people will be generated by people with little effort and for no reward. It’s the digital equivalent of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. When it costs nothing to distribute a file to everyone in the world, what sane social arrangement will for long insist that people pay for it?
It’s an exciting time, and it is improving the lives of the global population in all kinds of ways that we are only just beginning to be aware of, let alone understand. For an economist to observe that ‘the Internet has benefited the well-educated and the curious to a disproportionate degree’ is the hallmark of an incurious and therefore uninformed mind. He ought to visit the Philippines some time to see how the internet has benefited millions of poor people who haven’t even finished high school. And to remark complacently that because it hasn’t generated ‘vast sources of revenue’ the internet ‘hasn’t delivered very good macroeconomic performance over the last decade’ is to demonstrate that macroeconomic performance is not an especially relevant measure of material wellbeing. It’s a very old-fashioned mindset that still equates value with ‘making things’.
Economics (and accounting, at the level of the firm – how can any conventional accounting measures accommodate the value of Facebook or Google for example? $5 or 10 billion for ‘goodwill’? ) has struggled more and more to retain intellectual integrity in recent decades. This would not be a matter of concern if economics was only an academic discipline; after all philosophy (once so closely allied to economics) is also in apparent terminal decline but that is only a worry for those of us who indulge in philosophy. Economics on the other hand is the contemporary secular religion, complete with an elaborate panoply of priests and rituals and sects and sacred texts.
It’s time community leaders – including but not limited to politicians – showed some courage and began to articulate more forcefully the argument that economics takes a somewhat obsessive and seriously misconceived view of what matters in society and how to evaluate it. While it has many valuable insights to offer, economics should not have any more prominent role in determining public policy than any other discipline concerned to study and evaluate ways of fostering the greatest good for the greatest number in our increasingly crowded and stressed world. While unfortunately they don’t have any monasteries we can confiscate, we should at last put economists back into the spartan university offices where they belong and start subjecting the economic pundits of this world to the derision they so often deserve.
Americans have never been exactly self-effacing but as the US Empire totters, their egotism is becoming insufferably, loudly irrational. More and more frequently when I read Americans congratulating themselves yet again for their own extraordinary intelligence, virtue, courage, self-sacrifice etc I find myself shaking my head wondering “Do they really believe this crock of juvenile bullshit? And even if they do, aren’t they even a little bit embarrassed to be so up themselves in public?” The answers, plainly, are “Yes” and “No” respectively.
The latest example of this overweening self-regard comes courtesy of a bloke with the typically American name of Walter Russell Mead (could be worse, at least he doesn’t have a number like the most egregious wannabe hereditary aristocrats in the Great Republic). I read it several times to make sure it’s not some kind of satire but no, it’s intended to be deeply serious:
As the stunning and overwhelming response to Prime Minister Netanyahu in Congress showed, Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America.
Now to be fair to the writer (who by the way is not some lunatic wingnut blogger but a proper academic and author) he doesn’t say whether he personally subscribes to these bizarre beliefs. Maybe he’s just describing what he perceives others to believe. It’s pretty much beside the point; if his summary is an accurate observation of the mood in Washington (and it seems plausible to anyone who watched in stunned amazement as Congress hysterically acclaimed Netanyahu’s banal collection of clichés last week, mixed with calculated insults to the US president) then it means a majority of lawmakers in the world’s greatest military power have taken collective leave of their senses. Which is not a comforting thought.
Daniel Larison maintains that these views are not representative of the majority of ordinary Americans, which if true is testimony to their good sense. However the US government has repeatedly shown that when it comes to foreign policy it couldn’t give a continental about the will of the people.
It was possible until recently to believe that the contempt for the rest of the world displayed during the Bush/Cheney years was some kind of aberration, and that eventually the forces of common sense would reassert themselves in the USA. Barack Obama’s failure to achieve any significant change in ideology and direction have put paid to that idea. One can only watch now with fascination and trepidation as American governance descends ever further into madness, fuelled by resentment that the New American Century lasted barely one decade.
At the level of disinterested observer it’s compelling to watch. But when we see successive Australian prime ministers falling over themselves to swear eternal kinship with a country whose interests diverge increasingly from ours – motivated presumably by little more than horror at the prospect of having to forge an independent national identity and policy – one can only wonder at the apparent blindness and stupidity of our political class.
I use Skype almost every day. Once upon a time I thought it was great; more recently I’ve come to hate it. It’s fallen victim to the Firefox/iTunes “Hey let’s update again cos we haven’t done it for a week at least” trap. Every update seems to add pointless new features and make the whole application more prone to random crashes and conflicts with hardware.
Today I found out the reason why:
Microsoft Corp. is close to a deal to buy Internet phone company Skype Technologies SA for between $7 billion and $8 billion—the most aggressive move yet by Microsoft to play in the increasingly-converged worlds of communication, information and entertainment.
Naturally Skype wants the merger to go smoothly and has therefore been deliberately creating a Microsoft-clone culture.
I guess it’s time to look seriously at Google chat.
The excellent Mahablog makes this observation:
A dead OBL is an achievement; a living one would soon turn into the Mother of All Bones of Political Contention. America is no longer a country that can sensibly discuss anything and come to rational decisions. If OBL were alive and in custody now, any decisions the President might make about what to do with him would be relentlessly attacked by the Right and used against him in the 2012 election.
I don’t think any serious observer could argue with that key sentence: ‘America is no longer a country that can sensibly discuss anything and come to rational decisions’. For all the talk of bipartisanship, US politics seem to be bogged down in a quagmire of bitter antagonism where effective governance is all but impossible.
I never know how to take The American Spectator. It’s tempting to think it’s a kind of conservatively-slanted version of The Onion … you know, satire written so cleverly that unless you know it’s meant to be satire, you couldn’t really be sure if it was serious or not.
Then other things hit you and you realise these people aren’t writing with a sly giggle at all … they mean every word. Which is decidedly troubling.
Latest exhibit: assassinating Osama bin Laden is exactly the same situation for President Obama as killing Hitler was for Churchill in 1945. Now this is so barmy that nobody could possibly take it seriously, except obviously the Spectator crowd think it’s the height of sophisticated political analysis. With lots of pointless references to the royal wedding thrown in to boot.
Anyway let’s look at the comparisons:
|Osama bin Laden||Adolf Hitler|
|Homeless terrorist, power derived from private family wealth||Chancellor of Germany|
|Gained influence helping guerrillas in Afghanistan resist Russian occupation||Gained influence as leader of a mainstream political party contesting elections|
|May or may not have been able to tell a few hundred ragtag terrorists what to do||Commander-in-chief of the armed forces of one of the most powerful nations of his era|
|Got lucky in 2011 with one terrorist attack committed by 19 members of his small covert organisation; immediately went into hiding and has done nothing of note since||Directed the build-up to a military campaign of conventional warfare aimed at conquering Europe; at the peak of his power oversaw an empire extending from the English Channel to Egypt, Norway and the Caucasus|
|Assassinated by American soldiers; body dumped at sea||Committed suicide when faced with inevitable defeat; body never recovered|
Apart from those minor discrepancies, the similarities are plain spooky.
The main point of the Spectator’s idiotic piece, needless to say, is that nothing that happened this week will interfere with the irresistible conservative march to retake the White House from that Kenyan clown in 2012.
What really pisses me off is that I don’t know how to get work writing for these pissant right wing publications. There seems to be an endless number of them, the work requires minimal talent, presumably it pays a living wage, and I can’t get a piece of the action. Bugger.
Guys this is just to confirm this week’s talking points:
- The US economy is in an appalling crisis. This is nothing to do with President George W Bush, who after all left office years ago. It is solely the doing of the incompetent buffoon Obama.
- The assassination of Osama bin Laden by our Heroic Navy Seals is a great triumph for the Global War on Terror waged by President George W Bush, who only left office a few short months ago. It had nothing to do with the incompetent buffoon Obama, who actually tried to stop it.
There is no inconsistency between these positions and suggestions there is come from the liberal media, probably ghost-written by Bill Ayres. Keep up the great work! Victory in ’12!!
Whose side is the pope on anyway?
While the Holy See pointed out the role Bin Laden had played in the “[promotion of] division and hatred between people,” they also pointed out that “a Christian never rejoices” in the death of a man.
“Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace,” the statement read.
Catholic losers. USA! USA!!
Please understand that the following quotes have been written by what passes for a public intellectual in the contemporary mainstream media. They are not, as you might expect, from an obscure blogger, or even by an undergraduate doing work experience on the Lismore Northern Star. They are from a column in the New York Times by David Brooks, ‘a Canadian-born political and cultural commentator employed to represent conservative views by the New York Times‘.
David Brooks has written books that got published and reviewed in proper newspapers. He’s a very serious voice in US public discourse. Every column he writes spawns a hundred responses and now he’s even got me doing it.
This particular column is headed ‘What Drives History’. No question mark – this is Brooks telling us, not thinking aloud. It’s a biggish issue one would think, maybe deserving more than 1,000 words written after dinner, but I guess he can do it justice because he’s such an extraordinary intellectual. Let’s have a look at some of his penetrating insights.
Like many people who go on to alter history, for good and evil, Bin Laden lost his father when he was about 9.
You know I really had to check that piece of stupendous drivel four or five times to convince myself I had not misread it. Needless to say Brooks does not bother to mention even one other bloke who ‘went on to alter history’ who lost his father when he was about 9. He just states it as a profound truth that only he is privy to. No wonder he feels qualified to lecture us on what drives history; I was not even aware of the existence of this ‘pop dead at 9′ theme in historical determinism. Maybe we should start asking MPs how their dad is. If they answer “He’s great thanks, still doing triathlons with Tony” it’s off to the back bench with him forever. But a response of “Poor bugger dropped dead when I was 9″ means they are obviously leadership material.
Girls and their mothers, you will notice, don’t rate a mention in this fairy tale. Maybe the relationship between losing one’s mom at a certain age and the capacity to alter history is still being studied and Brooks will let us know the results at a future date.
Indeed the whole family tragedy/history changer relationship offers a fertile field for research. I can foresee whole theses being written about themes such as ‘Like many people who go on to alter history, for good and evil, she moved home when she was about 7″ or “Like many people who go on to alter history, for good and evil, his older sister used to make fun of his pimples when he was about 13″. The possibilities are endless.
Brooks’ illumination does not stop there of course. He tells us that:
Osama revered the father he rarely got to see and adored his mother. As a teenager, he “would lie at her feet and caress her,” a family friend told Steve Coll …
Ummm isn’t that kind of normal? Maybe Brooks’ family and friends are all too uptight to permit teenagers to show outward affection to their mothers but I don’t think it’s especially uncommon. Why anyone would think it worth mentioning in an analysis of ‘what drives history’ escapes me entirely.
Brooks goes on to summarise what he read in a biography of Osama. Why? Because
… we have a tendency to see history as driven by deep historical forces. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it is driven by completely inexplicable individuals, who combine qualities you would think could never go together, who lead in ways that violate every rule of leadership, who are able to perpetrate enormous evils even though they themselves seem completely pathetic.
Shit, talk about deep! Meaningless, also. It reads like the kind of tripe an undergraduate writes in an exam when they haven’t got a clue what the question means. ‘Every rule of leadership’? WTF does that mean? Has Brooks ever studied leadership or even read a book about it? There are no ‘rules of leadership’, dipshit. Leadership exists in a relationship between leader and follower. It is poorly understood, but one thing that is known is that there are no rules about it.
Brooks proceeds to project his own weird misconceptions onto everyone else, in that annoying style pundits have of assuming everybody else must think the way they do. Thus:
We think of terrorism leaders as hard and intimidating …
We think of terrorists as trying to build cells and organizations …
We think of war fighters as using violence to seize property and power …
Actually David ‘we’ don’t, mainly because one of us (obviously not you) has been paying attention to events in the real world and not getting lost in the fantasies of US television shows and conservative blogs. Therefore I’m afraid we don’t agree with your stunningly awful conclusion:
In short, Osama Bin Laden seemed to live in an ethereal, postmodern world of symbols and signifiers and also a cruel murderous world of rage and humiliation. Even the most brilliant intelligence analyst could not anticipate such an odd premodern and postglobalized creature, or could imagine that such a creature would gain such power.
Jeez, that’s an impressive collection of bullshit. It’s more than word salad, it’s word vomit like after a huge Chinese meal with lots of carrot and cabbage and those little corn cobs.
But I bet you’re impatient to quit this faffing around about a dead terrorist and find out what drives history. So without further ado, here is the answer:
I just wish there were a democratic Bin Laden, that amid all the Arab hunger for dignity and freedom there was another inexplicable person with the ability to frame narratives and propel action — for good, not evil.
So far, there doesn’t seem to be, which is tragic because individuals matter.
There you have it. ‘Individuals matter’. Somehow I doubt that will get a high mark in the HSC history exam as an answer to a question about what drives history.
Brooks’ main complaint seems to be that he can’t pigeonhole Osama in a nice neat box that fits his simplistic conservative mental model of how the world works. He whines plaintively ‘The whole episode makes you despair about making predictions’, although I am sure that will not stop him trying.
Brooks gets paid big money to write this trash. What’s more, the New York Times is trying to charge people an absurd amount to get access to their stuff online. If members of the MSM are sincerely puzzled about the reasons for the decline of their institutions, they need look no further than this piece of pretentious juvenilia masquerading as serious commentary to find the explanation.