Saturday, August 10, 2002

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HOT to TROT

One of the things that strikes the unwary visitor to these shores is the virulence with which the government, bureaucracy, public servants are regularly attacked. Back home the same equation exists ie public servant = lazy time-server, but the intensity of the feeling comes nowhere near rivaling what is expressed here.

Another small example of the genre pops up in The Washington Post letters page today:

Saturday, August 10, 2002; Page A18


I laughed out loud when I read the Aug. 3 Metro article about the District's Vehicle Inspection Station closing when the temperature and humidity in the bays were too high.

As a delivery driver for a car parts store in Springfield, I visit garages all over Northern Virginia, most of which have inspection bays next to their regular service bays. Perhaps 5 percent of these bays are air-conditioned. The rest get terribly hot in summer, especially inspection bays, where engines are being revved all day for emission inspections. On Aug. 1 the thermometer in one site I visited hit 116. Did the inspection bay close? Of course not. The inspector simply drank water all day and took regular breaks in the air-conditioned office. If the inspection bay were to close, customers would take their business elsewhere.

And that, in a nutshell, explains why the government should leave such tasks to the private sector. The motivation for a private business is profit, which requires efficiency, hard work and customer service. Government entities lack that motivation, so we likely shall continue to see early closings at the DMV Inspection Station.


Okay, so I can understand some guy who doesn't get to knock off when its gets too hot being a bit miffed that some others do. But surely this is all backwards? Instead of blasting the lazy public employee, shouldn't we be condemning the lax private employer for not providing the same relief, either in the form of air-conditioning or regularly scheduled breaks? Why is that the employee with the better work conditions is the one that is the joke in this story (rhetorical question).

Profit motive has nothing to do with. It's more like the you'll-get-sacked-if-you-take-a-break-or-ask-for-an air-conditioner motive.

And needless to say, the argument doesn't hold up.

I'd reckon that those bloody public servants--the cops and firefighters--who run into burning buildings to protect life and property probably put up with with slightly hotter conditions than the vehicle inspectors, and I don't reckon they're being "inspired" by the profit motive.

You'd think this particular example of public servants working in hot conditions would be fairly prominent in the minds of most Americans at the moment.

Friday, August 09, 2002

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I DID NOT KNOW THIS

It is a requirement of membership of the wet left in the US that you occasionally watch the new Donahue show. So I'm on their update list and they send me an email every day to tell me what's on. Maybe tonight I'll watch:

A Florida law says single mothers must publish a list of their sexual partners in the newspaper prior to giving their child up for adoption. The author of the legislation claims that this is the only fair way to give birth fathers a chance to come forward. But now women are stepping forward to say it's a humiliating violation of their privacy. Tonight, Phil talks to the people affected by the law.

A humiliating violation? Ya think?
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CREDIT WHERE CREDIT is DUE?

I've been wondering lately if the IMF isn't due some credit for an overt change in attitude and rhetoric and maybe even in actual policy prescription. And if it is, just how much credit is it due and who else deserves a pat on the back?

The IMF has been churning out a fair bit of stuff lately arguing that they have learned valuable lessons, especially from the Asian crisis, and that they are a more open and flexible organisation. If this is true, it might be worth considering why.

Clearly the Asian crisis was a big wake up call, not just for activists unconvinced by the rhetoric of transcendent neo-liberalism but also for the pillars of the world financial architecture like the IMF. To some extent the IMF admit this, although it is hardly an overwhelming act of contrition when phrased like this: "While, with the benefit of hindsight, the IMF's policy advice to these countries during the emergency was not flawless, corrections and adjustments to circumstances were made promptly, and the strategies adopted proved successful in restoring financial market confidence and stability, and in achieving a resumption of economic growth, in most cases by late 1998."

They got a little more serious as recently as July this year, when Thomas C. Dawson Director, External Relations Department International Monetary Fund issued a paper that outlined seven reforms that he specifically related to lessons learned from the Asian meltdown. In it he concedes:

That crisis tested the International Monetary Fund as never before. The lessons learnt prompted an overhaul of the international financial architecture and many aspects of IMF operations.

This is obviously a much larger admission of "lessons learned" than the previously quoted one. And it must be said that the seven measures he mentions all seem like pretty solid reforms, though it is more difficult to judge the extent to which IMF practices have actually changed. (And stuff like this doesn't exactly cheer me up.)

But if the Asian crisis was one wake up call for the IMF, it was only part of the story. There is also acknowledgement of "lessons learned" from the crisis in Argentina. Anne Krueger, the First Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund National Bureau Of Economic Research told a conference that:

I would like to focus on some of the lessons that Argentina's recent experience holds for the Fund's efforts at crisis prevention and resolution. Observers of financial crises are fond of recalling Tolstoy's famous remark that "all happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". Argentina is a case in point. It faithfully applied many of the lessons that we thought we had learned from the previous crises of the mid and late 1990s—but a combination of new mistakes and some old ones brought it to grief all the same. Thus, inevitably, we now have a new set of lessons to learn—and some old ones to remember a little better.

This is good PR if that's all it is. And yep, there's nothing like a solid bit of empirical evidence to pull even the biggest zealot of neo-liberalism (or anything else) up in their tracks. As Paul Krugman puts it:

"A decade ago Washington confidently assured Latin American nations that if they opened themselves to foreign goods and capital and privatized their state enterprises they would experience a great surge of economic growth. But it hasn't happened. Argentina is a catastrophe. Both Mexico and Brazil were, a few months ago, regarded as success stories, but in both countries per capita income today is only slightly higher than it was in 1980. And because inequality has increased sharply, most people are probably worse off than they were 20 years ago. Is it any wonder that the public is weary of yet more calls for austerity and market discipline?

"Why hasn't reform worked as promised? That's a difficult and disturbing question. I, too, bought into much though not all of the Washington consensus; but now it's time, as Berkeley's Brad DeLong puts it, to mark my beliefs to market. And my confidence that we've been giving good advice is way down. One has to sympathize with Latin political leaders who want to temper enthusiasm for free markets with more efforts to protect workers and the poor."


Perhaps the strongest admission from the IMF came on July 5 this year when Horst Köhler, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, addressed the Central Bank Governors' Symposium at the Bank of England Conference Center. He said:

The Asian crisis sparked a broad, critical debate about the costs and benefits of globalization and the need to reform and strengthen the international financial architecture. We could perhaps have spent our energies defending the IMF against its critics. But in my view it was clearly preferable to consider the problem with an open mind, seeking out different points of view and working hard to identify necessary changes. Nearly five years later, the debate is by no means concluded, but we have used that time productively to set in motion an active process of reform.

You can see a sort of pattern emerging in these mea culpas to the effect of "the Asian crisis taught us valuable lessons" but "we are big enough to learn from our mistakes". It's a great piece of spin in that concedes the obvious (there were crises despite their policy prescriptions and maybe even because of them); it admits things have to change; and it makes it seem like they figured it out all by themselves.

A less kind interpretation is, you fucked up big time; you had no choice but to change; and you wouldn't have changed anyway if there weren't people--from activists to insiders--forcing your hand. A generous person might be willing to accept that reality lies somewhere between the spin version and the harsh version. Wherever you want to place the emphasis, it is as well to consider the influences on the IMF's apparent change of heart.

The other factors that have contributed are the pressure from grass roots activists; the pressure from intelligent NGOs who have taken on the IMF (and others) on their own terms; and the breakaway insiders like Jospeh Stiglitz who have brought a level of credibility to the criticisms that wasn't available to anyone else.

And at this point we might mark a particular problem with the sincerity of the IMF reform: they seem to be in complete denial that they are responding to any outside influence and are especially keen not to give Stiglitz any credit. This unwillingness to admit they are responding to such pressure--to insist that this would have all happened anyway--actually doesn't bode well for their long-term credibility and indicates that they will need to be reminded of their commitments and goaded into further reforms.

But we should be in no doubt - the reform is not purely internally driven and those who marched at different venues around the world, who protested outside meetings and inside buildings and who were vilified in the media, on the blogs, and who were framed by the police and rough-housed by the troops should be given their due. Anybody who thinks these activists haven't had a marked effect are simply in denial.

The NGOs have no doubt been at the IMF for a long time on various matters, but it seems to me that Oxfam's report on the failures of free trade advocates to live up to their own theories has been enormously influential. Although the report came in for a lot of criticism (for example here) it has been widely quoted and provided a steady, credible set of criteria against which to judge the "Washington consensus" rhetoric (and I should add, it doesn't simply target the IMF).

All of these things have worked in a kind of chaotic harmony to bring some pressure to bear, but I think things might not have progressed as far as they have without the Stiglitz factor. Without the World Bank chief economist and Nobel Laureate turning states evidence, I doubt if quite the same pressures would have been felt inside the ivory tower of 19th Street, Washington DC. Once Stiglitz crossed over it became incumbent upon a vulnerable institution to cover its arse (or ass, if you prefer) and show that they were fixing things anyway and they didn't need some turncoat telling them what to do. And this has been their strategy ever since, combined with a rising tide of condemnation aimed at Stiglitz himself. In short, the attacks on Stiglitz show just how vulnerable they felt and made them determined to discount him as an influence on their reform.

And it is worth remembering: they are going after Stiglitz.

For instance, Dawson writes at the end of his piece on the seven reforms instigated post-Asian crisis:

Interestingly enough, these seven areas where reform has been under way for many years are exactly the ones in which former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, in his new book, says reform is needed. Once he's through with his book tour, Stiglitz may want to catch up with news of the reforms actually taking place.

Ouch! Take that Joey.

And this is just part of the ongoing campaign, some of which I've already covered here. More recent forays includes this letter the IMF tried to get published in the Times of London, this attack from Flemming Larsen, Director, IMF Office in Europe, and this speech, again by Dawson. Throughout, the ploy is to run the line that "we were gonna do it anyway", with for example, Dawson's speech ending this way:

On this particular issue, the relevant portions of Stiglitz's book read like passages from speeches by the IMF's Managing Director. Let me end on that note of harmony.

Harmony indeed.

In short, I'm in no position to judge whether the much-trumpeted reforms are all window dressing or actually point to substantive change. Maybe messieurs Quiggin, Sawicky or DeLong might like to pick up on this question (or anyone else who has something to contribute). But it seems to me that despite their disclaimers, the IMF is definitely responding to the pressure provided by grassroots activists who have made it impossible for them to shirk entirely their democratic responsibilities, NGOs like Oxfam who are mounting serious challenges to them on a practical and theoretical level, and to the likes of Joseph Stiglitz and other "insiders" who decided to break ranks and put their own reputations on the line.

The lessons for lefties is that change can happen, but pressure needs to be applied at all levels, to be relentless, and to be well-informed. It would be foolish to suggest that the neo-liberal dominance has come undone and that a progressive agenda is only days away. However, the hubris of those who suggest things like "we are all capitalists now" also needs to be seen for the furphy that it is. As if capitalism is one thing and as if we could all be it.

What seems more likely is that we are all no longer under the spell of hardcore neo-liberalism and if anything--and if we are to believe at all the press releases, papers,letters and speeches of the IMF--it is probably more accurate to say "we are all Keynesians again". But let's not get carried away.
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CAREFUL what YOU WISH FOR

Matthew Bates (via Gareth Parker) has some interesting things to say about the Australian Labor Party which I'd like to get back to some time. What piqued my immediate interest was his revelation that he is applying for a job at the Defence Signals Directorate. Reminded me of the time I applied for a job with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ASIO (hard to beleive, I know). I swear, everything you read from here on is true.

I got through a few preliminary stages (they ascertained that I had two arms and legs, one head, wasn't colour blind, could spell my kname etc) and I got invited to a one-on-one interview. They rang me up to make the appointment, the details of which were that I was to go the ASIO building in Canberra at 1pm on Thursday and then go to the canteen. I said, fine and then asked, 'and what's your name and phone number in case I have any more questions,' to which the voice replied, 'names are not important,' and hung up.

So I arrive at the ASIO building at the specified time, went in through the big main front doors and into the rather bland, featureless neo-stalinist foyer and looked for some sign of where to go. It wasn't immediately apparent where the canteen was, but I did notice a woman with a clipboard at some distance who seemed to be studiously avoiding looking at me. After checking a little longer for signs on doors and waiting to be met, I figured, ah-hah! this is a test of initiative! So I looked around even more carefully, trying to decipher the correct way to go.

But alas, I couldn't figure it out. Eventually I approached the women with the clipboard and said, "I have a job interview, can you tell me where the canteen is," to which she replied, "I'm the canteen' and directed me into a room where I was to wait for the interviewer.

Um....

Anyway, as you might have guessed, I didn't get the job, but I did write a story about it and it was the first freelance piece of non-fiction I ever had published (thanks Jack Waterford at The Canberra Times) so it was definitely worth it.
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CHICKENbLOGGERS

Can I just recommend to the weblog generals of the Australian right a blog by the name of Counterspin Central that is as unimpressed with your "arguments" as I am. Read through the material. Answer back.

Thursday, August 08, 2002

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OTHER PEOPLE'S PROBLEMS

One of the odd things about moving to a new country is that you have to get used to a lot of things that locals take for granted. I've got a long list of adjustments--like the lack of automatic doors in shops around Washington, the high level of the water in the toilet bowel, the fact that asking "where's the toilet" is considered impolite, the fact that there are people called Mary-Lou and Tucker.

Perhaps oddest thing of all is getting used to another country's media personalities. Why is it that another country's newsreaders always seem like such dickheads? I mean, Australia can hardly boast (my sister-in-law not withstanding) but you kind of get used to your own. Then it is such a shock to see unfamiliar people in the role: they look so fakely earnest, so sincerely insincere. It's like, when you know them, you accept the role, but when you don't, you see the act. And I swear, one the local Washington newsreaders was a Q-tip in a previous life.

Anyway, I was half-prepared for the shock-jocks, particularly Limbaugh, whom I had seen on 60 minutes and who I knew something about. But I was completely unprepared for Sean Hannity. I heard him on the radio and then realised he has TV show, and I watched him with that Colmes guy--who just has to be there as a bit of moving scenery or something--and I couldn't believe it. This was fake indignation raised to the power of ten. (Bit like what I'm doing now.)

I was prompted to all this by the fact that Sean has a new book out, described thusly on the Conservative Bookshop website:

In his blockbuster new book Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism, he comes out swinging, declaring that if the Left prevails in America, the well-being of future generations will be in peril.

Sounds spooky: can't wait to read it, which actually, I probably will. Because what I like in my political commentary is that it is cutting edge and up-to-date. Some the issues covered in the book are these (again from Con book site):

Why issues like gays in the military and global warming were more important to the Clinton administration than protecting America from terrorist attack

Horrifying, but true: how Clinton and his gang refused five chances to obtain important information on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda between 1996 and 2000

Clinton and Reagan: what each did -- and did not do -- to protect the United States

Six troubling questions that expose just how badly the Clinton administration bungled its illegal immigration policy -- leaving us vulnerable to all kinds of attacks

The shocking details of how Bill Clinton spent eight years gutting the military -- with devastating consequences for our national security

Clinton's moral confusion: Slick Willie's outrageous speech blaming Islamic terrorism on the Crusades and American slavery

Clinton, Gore, Gephardt and Jesse Jackson: pro-life? How each actually opposed abortion until political expediency got the better of them

How misguided environmentalism keeps us from reducing our reliance on oil from the Islamic world (and how Bill Clinton actually increased our dependence on foreign oil)


If you've noticed a bit of a theme here then you have discovered one of the great truths about conservatism in the US: it is still running against Bill Clinton. It is truly stupendous how the right can't get over the fact that Clinton was a two-term President and that he wasn't impeached and that his 'numbers' stayed pretty solid throughout. Such a thing can really knock your populism around.

So there I was thinking, have people noticed what a tool this Hannity is, when I stumbled upon Testify, a blog with the irresistible subtitle/motto of "Time to kick some right-wing ass." There I found this understandable over-reaction to the Hannity factor, and a man apparently willing to put his money where his mouth is. Now, this isn't the approach I would take, but I was a little bit pleased to find that somebody else who wasn't a Sean fan.

My approach, as I say, is more to buy Hannity book and say some mean things about him on my blog. That'll fix him.
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FOLLOW-UP on the LEGAL CASE against the UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA

Michael Sells, the guy who wrote the book that prompted the law suit against the University has a piece in today's Washington Post. He gets a nice line in:

Some equate understanding an Islamic text with softness on terrorism.....Behind the lawsuit is an old missionary claim that Islam is a religion of violence in contrast to Christianity, a religion of peace. In effect the plaintiffs are suing the Koran on behalf of the Bible.


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MORE MATERIEL FOR THE WEBLOG GENERALS of AUSTRALIA

This is one I just picked up via Level Gaze. It refers to an article in the Times of London, which covers comments by Anthony Cordesman, late of the Pentagon and State Department, and now the Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As Level Gaze says:

Just so we know he's not a left-wing loony, hell-bent on the destruction of America, the board of CSIS includes Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and, wait for it...Henry Kissenger. If this is what they think, then what in the bloody blue blazes are Bush & Co. doing?

In fact, it's worth reading the other material available at the CSIS site, which includes a transcript of Cordesman's full testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
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AUSTRALIA'S WEBLOG GENERALS MUSTER the TROOPS

The arguments about whether to go to war with Iraq, and whether Australia should follow America there, are complex.

Well, not really, as Tim Blair explains. Apparently oTherTim went to a talk in Sydney by American Daniel Pipes and found out that it is all very straightforward:

"A smear of Leftists was present. One asked Pipes why Australia should join the US in attacking Iraq. Pipes answered (I'm summarising) that Iraq was armed, dangerous, and shaping to move against the West. He concluded (to applause): "You want to be a freeloader? There are plenty of freeloaders around. You can join them."

Very insightful. And of course, we'd have to commit troops now otherwise Mr Pipes will think we're freeloaders - how could we live with ourselves? (Remember that Simpson's episode where Homer is thinking of buying a truck? He says (roughly), "I'll have to check with my wife," and the salesman rolls his eyes, flicks his arm and makes a whip-cracking noise - ker-rack!. Homer says, "you don't think I'm going to spend all that money just because you made that noise, do you?" At which point the salesman makes the noise again and Homer hands over the money.)

Seems Mr Pipes has learned the technique.

Blair also comments:

"Interestingly, Pipes said that although he is constantly denounced as a racist in the US, this criticism hasn't gained any traction at all. In Australia, by contrast, an accusation of racism is a debate-stopper."

The accusation of freeloader seems to have the same effect - at least on the right.

oTherTim also claims that Pipes thought "that most in the US don't realise how grave the threat is." Well, I don't know what parts of America Pipes has been hanging out in, but this isn't my impression at all. This story is dominating news here at the moment and the pros and cons are being surprisingly well canvassed.

Although it doesn't suit the warmongering rhetoric of the weblog generals, opposition to a war with Iraq is not just coming from the looney left, but from across the board, including the likes of Colin Powell and George Tenet (I reported a whole lot of such people in this post).

None of this will have any force with the those who think like Pipes and Blair. Like I say, there are arguments for a war with Iraq, but let's hear them instead this childish, unfactual attempt to label any opposition as being anti-American leftism. But I'm not holding my breath: theirs is a one-note argument, as Blair quotes Mr Pipes saying:

I asked Pipes later if all the arguments he'd heard from the Left in Australia had been as weak as those aimed at him after his Sydney talk. Absolutely, he said: "They don't have any smart people on their side any more. They're on the run."

So we can add "the left is stupid" to the accusation of freeloading as show-stopper comments that only have to be uttered to get a standing ovation from the right, no further thought necessary. Say it after me:

Only the anti-American left oppose war with Iraq
Anyone who doesn't commit troops along with the US is a freeloader
The left is stupid


Yep, it's hard to argue with that.

At least Jason Soon, who likes to label me anti-American (I love that), has the sense to realise that "It isn't that simple, goddamnit!"

Maybe oTherTim can have a read of what he has to say. Or maybe he could try and keep up with debates here in the US, rather than rely on the self-serving interpretation supplied by visiting Americans who have books to sell. He could start with this recent article which includes this quote from well-know lefty idiot, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel : "You can't just drop the 82nd Airborne into Baghdad and it will all be over," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a Foreign Relations Committee member who has reservations about a military assault.

Reservations? Well, if he's not a lefty, guess he must be a freeloader. Ker-rack!

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

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BLOgKEEPINg

Having been at this blogging for about a month now, I'd thought I'd try and clean the site up a bit.

I've divided up the links a bit more logically and hopefully it makes it a bit more navigable. Please check out the various sites I've linked to.

I added the check box so you can make all links open in a new window, something I always prefer them do. Of course, with a PC you can just hold shift as you click and you get the same result (can you do that with a Mac, Professor Quiggin??).

In a vain attempt to stem the disposability of the blog post, I've added a link section called Remembrance of blogthings pastwhich has links to some older posts that I thought were okay or worth another look or something. It sort of goes against the grain of fast-paced blogging, but check em out if you want.

I've also added a comments facility on each post so people can interact a bit more directly than email or counter-blogging. Scott warned me this could be trouble, but I basically like the idea. Still, too many more alien encounters and I might think again.

I put on a search engine, though I don't think it's much good. Still, might come in handy.

Stealing an idea from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, I've put a link sub-section called Midnight Special, which will feature a link to a good piece that people might want to check out. I'll change it every week or so.

Without spending more money or time that's about as much as I can think to do, though maybe some other stuff will occur to me later.

Other than that, I just wanted to thank everyone who has linked to this site or run links to various posts. An unlinked blog is one hand clapping, so I appreciate all the reciprocation. In the short time I've been at this, the hits have grown steadily which is a great, if a little bewildering.

Now back to keeping the hegemon du jour under surveillance.
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GET that BOOK OUT of HERE

The Washington Post reports today of another attempt to do a bit of book banning in the name of democratic freedom. This time it is various "Christian evangelists and other conservatives" trying to stop the University of North Carolina teaching from the book Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations,by Michael A. Sells, a professor of comparative religion at Haverford College.

Apparently the conservatives don't want us to even approach the Qur'an.

The excitement was stirred by Fox TV talkshow host Bill O'Reilly who 'compared the assignment to teaching Mein Kampf in 1941 and questioned the purpose of making freshmen study "our enemy's religion."'

Mein Kampf, you might recall, was a book by a right wing zealot who wanted ban his enemy's religion and burn books. (Please note: I am making it compulsory for you to click the link in the previous sentence.)

Anyway, in the great US tradition, the University has been taken to court:

The lawsuit against UNC was filed July 22 in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C., by the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, which calls itself a socially conservative Christian educational organization.

The suit contends that it is unconstitutional for a publicly funded university to require students to study a specific religion.


(Mmm. Wonder what they thought about the "under God" ruling on the pledge of allegiance?)

What's interesting is how they mount the case and the argument: they don't just try to ban the book as there is no way they could get away with that. Instead they focus on the fact that the book is a required text for the course. It is this that allows them make a constitutional argument, though you'd have to think it's pretty flimsy grounds?

But it's already had an effect, even before the case is heard:

In response to the uproar, the university last month amended the assignment. Instead of writing a one-page paper about the book, students who object to the reading can skip it and bring a one-page paper explaining their objections to campus on Aug. 19, when groups of 20 to 25 freshmen are to discuss the book in two-hour, non-credit seminars.

Surely this would cancel out the claim that there is coercion involved in the assigning of the book? Apparently not because "that concession has not halted the denunciations on talk radio or the deluge of angry e-mails to UNC officials, mostly from people who have no association with the university, Provost Robert N. Shelton said."

What a surprise. Will follow this one with interest.
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DON ARTHUR DON WATSON

I notice Don Arthur has also commented on the Don Watson piece. Has a different take to me, but still sounds perplexed:

Watson fears that Labor is so busy engineering majorities through focus groups that it no longer stands for anything. One view is that Labor used to stand for things like White Australia, tariff protection, women at home with the kids and a living wage for the male-breadwinner. Since none of make sense in the new millennium Labor has no choice but to ditch the whole package and morph into a pragmatic vote seeking machine like the American Democrats. Watson's response is to identify the ALP, not with Labourism, but with something he calls liberalism. This, he says, is what Paul Keating really stood for and by rejecting Keating, the party is turning its back on its principles.

I wasn't expecting nostalgia for the 1990s to arrive so early.


Tuesday, August 06, 2002

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PLANET EARTH CALLING TRUE BELIEVERS

Don Watson was a speech writer for former Labor PM Paul Keating. He also wrote a book about the experiences. Some of the speeches were good. I haven't read the book yet. But I did just read this stupid article by him and wonder yet again why our great national newspapers continue to publish tripe like this just because it's written by "insiders". Mark Davis nailed the problem of "baby boomer" commentators in Gangland. And even where "younger" writers have broken through, they tend to be novelty acts in the vein of Rikki Lake and Jerry Springer.

Anyway, the article purports to "analyse" problems with the current Labor Party, though it tends to blame the electorate in the time-honoured left-intellectual tradition. He begins by quoting American journalist Joan Didion, and while this is fine, he fails to realise that the point of her book was the "disconnect" between "insiders" and "outsiders"; that is, between new class political functionaries and yer regular citizen. In other words, he is not just quoting Didion; he is living proof of her thesis, as the rest of the article demonstrates. Don Watson was an insider and he just can't see the problem with outsider eyes.

While he makes a good point about the ridiculousness of the label "aspirational voter" which was all the rage (particularly in Lathamsville) after the last election, he misses the more important point that the concept has just about dropped from view in the last 10 months, debunked and discredited by people like, well, me, amongst others. Still, maybe it doesn't hurt to remind people about the self-serving nature of the categorisation, and Watson does that reasonably well:

At first glance it is difficult for the untrained eye to recognise an aspirational. I've met people who say they are, but they all want Labor to "stand for something" and somehow this seems to disqualify them. Aspirationals want better lives for themselves and their children, we are told. I've not met anyone, outside an asylum or perhaps a monastery, who wanted a worse life.

And he also does reasonably well in recognising a version of the shift away from social goals towards individual goals:

So how are the aspirations of the aspirationals different? I can only think it is because they are also entitlements. They are not, as they were in the liberal consensus of the past century, things earned by, and relative to, the pursuit of the general good. The good society is assumed and now a class emerges that reckons it has a right to the spoils. And for want of any alternative zeitgeist in the land - anything of the nation or community building kind for instance, anything reminiscent of enlightenment or liberal aspirations - why wouldn't they? They've had two decades of the free market economy, six years of a neo-liberal government. No wonder, I suppose, that the spirit of entitlement is registering big on the party screens and the parties are running with it. Both of them.

But even this is deeply problematic and reeks of the holier-than-thou leftism that is going to keep Labor out of power forever if they don't get over it. Actually, his approach is confusing, or inadequate is probably a better word. He offers the, um, value-laden expression "pathetic, brain dead, nouveau wannabes" as a synonym for "aspirational" but does at least seem to recongnise that the this "me-ism" is a reaction to policies that have encouraged it. Still, there is a sense here that somehow people shouldn't want personal material rewards, or that they don't deserve them, or that they're unworthy. A left that thinks ordinary people should not seek material comfort is one that has well and truly forgotten what the left is supposed to represent.

And what is he getting at with this? He says: "They've had two decades of the free market economy, six years of a neo-liberal government."

First, "they" is an interesting choice of pronoun. But more importantly, he's making an odd distinction. He seems to be saying that the Hawke/Keating Labor governments weren't neo-liberal, though they presided over a "free market economy". It's a distinction that fails to appreciate that the "outsiders" (the "they") would not draw such a finely grained separation between Labor and Liberal over that time period. It's a distinction that is meaningless - how can Hawke/Keating not be considered--however broadly--neo-liberal? Privatisation, deregulation, flexible workplaces, WTOs, FTAs...stop me when I get to the non-neoliberal bit.

Then the hands really start to get a good wringing:

Is this what happens at the end of history - the end of liberalism in all its varieties and all those good intentions that Oscar Wilde defined as useless attempts to meddle with the laws of nature? And where does this leave a party of reform? The party of good intentions, still harbouring a belief, almost despite itself, that society needs changing. What is it to do?

Oh, geez. The party of good intentions?? They couldn't wait (still can't) to line themselves up with nearly every lame-brain 'border protection' scheme Howard could dream up during the last election. Crean's even imbibed it all so much, he's accidentally started saying the stuff out loud. Watson criticises Howard for his pragmatism, but who flew under the colours of pragmatism more than the Hawke/Keating governments, successively abandoning Labor "principles" as the market and the electorate demanded? It was this very "pragmatism" that saw both Hawke and Keating come to hold the Labor Party itself in a kind of amused contempt and saw them progressively ignore the National Conference, preferring their own counsel, all of which is arguably the source of the very weaknesses that now ail the party.

But it gets more surreal and ahistorical. Instead of criticising Keating for his failure as a Labor leader, someone who could translate his (to my mind worthwhile) vision of a good society into one that ordinary people could relate to, Watson invents this pretend figure that he describes as "the last liberal":

If that sounds a little weird, he was also the last hope for the "Australian settlement", as Paul Kelly calls it. Not the one that came asunder under Labor in the '80s, but a new one to replace it.

A LITTLE weird? How about completely stupid. For a start, he makes it sound like Kelly was endorsing the "settlement" he (rather reductively) identified, when in fact Kelly was glad to see the back of it. And given that two of the pillars of the settlement were "White Australia" and "British imperial benevolence", I would suggest "came asunder" is rather the wrong phrase. But besides these idiocies, just whose watch does Watson think it "came asunder" on? The other pillars as described by Kelly were industry protection, wage arbitration and state paternalism, and everyone of them (no matter what you think of their merits) "came asunder" under the stewardship (as treasurer and prime minister) of the very Paul Keating whom Watson now wants to come to our rescue:

...if the Labor Party wants to look less like a creature looking under rocks to find itself, and more like a party people want to join and vote for as they always have whenever it was more or less united, they could do worse than look back to their last government - not to imitate it, but because they can't purge Paul Keating without also purging the core of their beliefs.

I'm almost incredulous at this. What a fantasy. Although we shouldn't dump all the blame on Keating, it is worse than nonsense to equate his agenda with the "core beliefs" of the Labor Party. For a start, I don't think they can truly be said to have any. And the way Watson describes it here, "core belief" has the same ring to it as "core promise" as used by John Howard - a semantic sidestep. So let's hear what they are before decide that they are somehow embodied in the figure of Paul Keating.

Maybe what he really meant to say has been lost in the editing process, as this article is a cut-down version of a speech he gave at Gerard Henderson's drink tank. If, however, this accurately reflects what Watson thinks, then it's no wonder Keating ended up losing touch with the electorate. Rumour has it, Watson was a key advisor and confidante as well as speech writer, and if this is at all indicative of what he whispered in his master's ear, then Labor were on a hiding to nothing. For those like me who detest the government we currently have in place, it is well to remember that it was only made possible by the sort of delusional "disconnect" evident in this article.

What is that Jack Robertson says: true believers must grow up or die? Which kind of reminds me of that line from Annie Hall: "a relationship is like a shark; it has to constantly move forward or die. And what we have on our hands here is a dead shark."
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The POLICY that DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME

In an interesting article considering levels of foreign investment in Australia, John Quiggin makes the following observation:

It is also necessary to re-examine the debate over public ownership and privatisation. Many recent privatisations have been accompanied by restrictions designed to ensure continued Australian ownership of the privatised firms. It is becoming increasingly evident that such restrictions are untenable in the long term. Hence, if an enterprise is too important to be allowed into foreign ownership, it is probably too important to be privatised in the first place.

Quiggin has always been ahead of the pack--largely by not be swept along by it--and has also discussed the prospect of renationalising Australia's telecommunication giant, Telstra.

The idea of unprivatising or not privatising government enterprises has been one of the big no-nos of the last twenty years, so perhaps it is a measure of the shift that is occurring in political thinking that such plans can now be mentioned in polite company (well, we'll see how polite the responses are).

People might also be interested in this British book which considers renationalising some of Britain's utilities: A Future for Public Ownership by Kathy O'Donnell and Malcolm Sawyer. There's a review of it here.
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...CAN'T...QUITE...SAY...IT.......

PM John Howard, the man who single handedly made Australia safe from children arriving on rafts (Operation Desert Playground) gave a speech yesterday, as Gareth mentioned. It's about corporate governance, yadda, yadda, but it includes this lovely attempt at big-heartedness:

We do have a strongly performing economy. It's not perfect, it's not without challenge and it's not without
its weaknesses. But it is and has performed better than any economy virtually in the developed world. And that is principally the result of
about 15 years of successive economic challenges and reforms, coupled with a
capacity on the part of the Australian business community to change and
adapt and to reach outwards. We wouldn't have achieved our current economic
strength without the reforms and the initiatives of Governments, and I say
deliberately Governments
, because I've never been reluctant to give credit
to earlier Governments for some of the things they did in earlier years to
improve the competitiveness of the Australian economy.


I think the word he's looking for is Labor Government. Can't quite get it out.

But while kicking the Prime Miniature, let me at least acknowledge that he tipped water on Tony Abbott's latest attempts at conservative social engineering.
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FROM LEFT FIELD

How could an Australian expat blogger such as myself have gone so long without acknowledging another lefty blog with the particular name of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo? More intriguingly, why is a US lefty blog called Skippy the Bush Kangaroo? What's that you say, Skip? It sounded better than calling it Lassie?

Did the immortal Skippy get a run on television here, I wonder? Seems a reasonable payback for the bloody Mickey Mouse Club Show.
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WRIGHT OF REPLY

I pointed out some problems with Paul Wright's objections to the UN writing reports about Australian detention centres. He replied thusly:

The point, Tim, is that as the UN concentrates their efforts on us, they are not spending their limited time alleviating the very real, very serious suffering of children who are dying around the world. I probably feel the same as you would if you saw the Immigration Department installing a swing set at Woomera.

And one of the reasons dictators, despots and dickheads who run these countries get away with it is because they can always trot in to the UN, look up a report like Baghwarti delivered, and successfully undermine our ability to highlight what these murdering swine do.

Do you think and Australian politician is suited to go to India and tell them what to do? The why the hell should we listen to an Indian when he could be assisting his own people stop exploiting, raping and burning children IN THE THOUSANDS.


So this is just a reiteration of his original "argument" - things are worse in Malawi or India or somewhere, so Australia should be down the list of the concerns for the UN.

This is less than an argument because it it ignores the problem at hand - the fact that we lock children up in desert prisons. All Paul is doing is deflecting attention form this fact and attacking someone else for doing something else, namely, a UN reporter for not concentrating on more heinous problems elsewhere. Do you see, Paul? On this logic, when your friend is robbed, you should not be calling the police because the bloke across town has been murdered and that is a worse crime. If a police officer shows up at your friend's place, with the thief in hand, you should be saying, 'look, there are more important crimes. You shouldn't be chasing after small-time crooks like this.' You should be on your blog pointing out the inequities of police chasing thieves when there are murderers to catch.

Why do I doubt you would do this? Sure there is a question of resource allocation, but there is no logical reason why the authorities shouldn't be investigating both crimes.

I can maybe even agree that there are worse problems elsewhere and that the UN should report on them (as if they don't, BTW) - but that says nothing abut the fact that we in Australia are doing something unacceptable, regardless of the fact that people elsewhere might be doing worse things. Part of the reason it is helpful to have an outside person point out the problem is because people like you (and you are not alone, not even in blogworld) seem to be in denial about it, content to think that worse actions elsewhere somehow exempt us from consideration.

In fact, to even suggest that there are worse abuses elsewhere is to concede, despite yourself, that the detention centres are themselves wrong on some level.

When you've got an actual argument as to why we shouldn't do anything about the kids in detention centres (the actual problem) then let me know.

Monday, August 05, 2002

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MOMENTS of TRUTH

Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley is churning out some interesting if disturbing economic reporting. None of this should be music to the Australian government's ears. Roach warns of much more than a 'double-dip' recession, but also of already-existing deflation, a popping of consumer spending and housing bubbles, and "fundamentals" that are anything but sound:

This is obviously a tough message. And there’s a part of me that truly wishes it was wrong. We’ve all been taught that business cycle downturns clear the decks for the coming recovery, the next bull market. Now that we finally know America has had a real recession, most are leaning in that direction. Not me. This business cycle has little in common with those of the recent past. Unfortunately, it does have a lot in common with the pre-World War II boom-bust cycles triggered by speculative bubbles in financial markets. History tells us that the 19 peacetime cycles from 1854 to 1945 had recessions with an average duration of 21 months -- essentially double the 11-month duration of post-1945 recessions. Post-bubble shakeouts are long and painful. Why should this one, following on the heels of the mother of all bubbles, be any different?

Get ready to wag the dog.
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ONE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AUSTRALIA and the USA

Okay, so there are heaps of differences - like in Washington at least, children have to evacuate public swimming pools for fifteen minutes in every hour so the adults can have a play by themselves. This is true, my Australian army of readers (I can hear you all going, yeah, right.) The kids sit around the edge of the pool for a quarter of an hour and watch the adults swim solo.

Another difference is that leading politicians are MUCH more accountable/available to the press than they are here. The SFGate (via dissociatedpress) reports that it has been 77 days since VP Cheney answered questions from the media:

He has not agreed to a newspaper interview since his trip to the Middle East in March. Besides fund-raisers, his recent public appearances have been so routine that the White House last posted one on its Web page June 6.

The Atlantic Monthly let's slip that President Bush has given only 3 press conferences since September 11 (not on web yet, but p.21 of current issue).

There's also the not insignificant fact that the Prez never has to front up in the House and be grilled. Okay, so I know question time at home can be really lame, but it's better than nothing. 3 press conferences in a nearly year! C'mon!

Imagine any senior government minister avoiding the media for that long in Oz? Imagine them wanting to?
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a BUNYIP VOLUNTEERS TO FIGHT SADDAM

oTherTim is well impressed with Prof Bunyip, which is the highest praise the right of blogworld can receive. He cites this piece of ingenious argumentation as the latest evidence of Buyip's keen insights:

The next time you come across one of those well-meaning souls who tell you in voices quavering with faith and earnestness that war solves nothing and we all have to give peace a chance, roll the current edition of The Economist -- the one that contains this editorial -- into a tight, hard tube and jam it with as much force as you can muster into your interlocutor's eye.

Well yes, we see what oTherTim means. Not just funny, but insightful. No wonder the left has been beaten into supine surrender when we have to compete with this level of cleverness.

Next time Bunyip is in these here United States, perhaps on his way to Iraq to joyfully join the war he is urging on others, armed with his rolled-up Economist, some of the eyes he might hilariously like to "jam" could include the following "well-meaning souls [with] quavering voices":

General Brent Scowcroft, chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, who, according to the WAPO was "strongly urging constraint". Pansie.

Joseph P. Hoar, a retired Marine Corps general who was commander of American forces in the Persian Gulf after the 1991 war, was particularly skeptical of an invasion, calling it "risky" and perhaps unnecessary. Clearly a wimp, not like the brave Bunyip.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a former Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow and Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said (while hiding behind a desk, no doubt) "I think it is incredibly dangerous to be dismissive" of the Iraqi military...and "To be careless about this war, to me, would be a disaster."

Then there was Field Marshal Lord Bramall, Britain's former chief of defense staff, who according to reports, urged Blair to proceed very cautiously and warned that without United Nations backing, both Blair and Bush could be on shaky legal and moral ground. ``This is a potentially very dangerous situation, in which this country might be swept into a very, very messy and long-lasting Middle East war,'' he told the BBC Sunday. Bam! I poke his eye with a rolled Economist. European wimp.

Bunyip might while he's here also want to follow up on the huge number of leaks coming from the Pentagon itself urging caution, at the very least. No doubt there will be many eyes to gouge in the corridors of that particular institution well noted for its "voices quavering with faith and earnestness that war solves nothing."

Then there's the small matter that "Much of the senior uniformed military, with the notable exception of some top Air Force and Marine generals, opposes going to war anytime soon." What? But Bunyip will think they're wimps. Don't they know?

High on the list of those with eyes to be poked are Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and CIA Director George J. Tenet who "are asking skeptical questions about a military campaign, especially about the aftermath of what most in the administration assume would be a fairly swift victory, according to those taking part in the deliberations."

Or Bunyip might want to consider the lilly-livered members of Congress who are politely suggesting that W. consider consulting the Congress itself (as per the constitition) before sending the troops in. Ha! Who needs the constitution when we're fighting for what we believe in?

The Washington Post rather chickenly reckons that "a campaign against Saddam Hussein will never succeed unless the Bush administration can enlist support from the American public, Congress and key allies abroad." Well, they can rest assured, the Bunyip is on-side, rolled up magazines in hand, ready to gouge anyone who even thinks about not levelling Bagdhad. Want more could they want?

Sometimes war is necessary, and no doubt many of those quoted here will fall into line if one happens, but spare me from weblog generals urging others of the need to die because they think it's a good idea.
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TRACKING PUBLIC OPINION

One of the things those people who I tend to characterise amorphously as "the right" seem to overlook when arguing for "smaller government" and the privatisation of all government business is that people actually want many of the services provided by the public purse, including, it seems, a railway service.

The Washington Post reports this morning that a survey shows strong support for continued public money being spent on Amtrak, even amongst respondents who identified as Republicans:

A total of 1,012 randomly selected adults were interviewed in a national survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Respondents first were asked:

"The passenger train service Amtrak lost over a billion dollars last year and relies on loans and subsidies from the federal government to keep running. Which of these three options would you favor? 1. End all federal aid to Amtrak, even if it means that passenger train service in some parts of the country will be shut down? 2. Increase federal aid to Amtrak so it can add more trains and routes, even if it means Amtrak might lose even more money? 3. Keep federal aid to Amtrak at current levels."

Fifty-one percent said keep funding at current levels, 20 percent said increase aid, 17 percent said end all aid, and 13 percent answered "don't know."
Those who said keep funding at current levels were then asked another question:

"If you had to choose, are you more inclined to end all federal aid to Amtrak or to increase federal aid to Amtrak?"

Of that group, 58 percent said they leaned toward increased funding, 29 percent said they leaned toward cutting all funding, and 13 percent answered, "don't know."

When the two questions are combined, 49 percent are leaning toward or favoring increased Amtrak funding, 31 percent favor or lean toward cutting Amtrak, 7 percent would leave funding as is, and 13 percent don't know.

Respondents identifying themselves as Democrats expressed far stronger sentiments than those identifying themselves as Republicans, although more Republicans supported Amtrak than favored cutting federal subsidies.


Although Joseph Vranich makes a good point in saying that "There's a blurring of the issue of having good rail passenger service and keeping Amtrak going...The public has the feeling that to have passenger trains they have to have Amtrak," the survey results still presents small-government neo-lib types with the dilemma of balancing their fiscal inclinations with their populist rhetoric. Still, that hasn't stopped them keeping the US a public health-care free zone.
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AND SPEAKING OF BEING ROONED

How do we ever expect to stay competitive in the global market place if our unions are going to insist on stopping foreign companies from sacking Australian workers and replacing them with much more poorly remunerated overseas workers?

(BTW It was no doubt Tony Abbott's support for stable families that led him to back the company that sacked the local workers and encourage them to use the Work Place Relations Act against the union.)

Sunday, August 04, 2002

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TONY ABBOTT STILL CAMPAIGNING AGAINST THE SIXTIES

Tony Abbott, a government minister and one of Australia's best known reluctant fathers--he gave up for adoption a child born out of wedlock--made quite a splash a while back complaining that Australian public debate was infected with what he called roonism, a reference to an Australian poem where the main character reflexively suggests "we'll all be rooned."

He's in the paper today with a timely reminder that all our problems relate to abortion, divorce, single parent families, marital infidelity and decline in respect for the ten commandments.

Apart from the fact that it doesn't seem to occur to him that many of these things are symptoms of social ills rather than simply ills in themselves, careful readers will also be able to discern that this isn't roonism, merely plain talking. For our less indoctrinated readers, let me explain: when those of the left complain about things they don't like, that's roonism and deserves nothing but contempt. When the right complains about things that is much needed straight-talking.

The man who got his girlfriend pregnant and, thankfully, had the baby adopted out, suggests that ours is a society with an "aversion to making commitments". He suggests that "Governments can't legislate for virtue but they shouldn't be indifferent to it either."

No indeedy they shouldn't, so I guess we can look forward to a lot of public policy aimed at remaking society in the image of this arch-conservative ex-trainee priest (did he get that far?) who, in the best conservative tradition will deny the small-l liberal traditions that some think still inhere in the party he represents. This won't be easy, because as he says: "Without big changes in public opinion, the Family Law Act is a no-go zone for legislators..." But, as he adds "that shouldn't necessarily make it off limits for commentators." So we can take this as his first kite-flying foray into bringing US-style religious rightism to an Australian polity that has been mercifully free of such cant.

To paraphrase a line from that lefty show, The West Wing, Tony Abbott wants to shrink government to make it just small enough to fit into people's bedrooms.
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NEW TOY

I finally figured out how to put a 'comments box' on my blog posts (bit thick, me, being of the left). It's there to be used, folks!

SELL TESTRA; SAVE A STOCKBROKER

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SELL TESTRA; SAVE A STOCKBROKER

Another piece by Ken Davidson pointing out the idiocy of privatising Telstra. Amongst other things he includes this:

And yet the government gets away with the big lie: the budget papers show the sale of Telstra (and Medicare Private and DHA) will reduce net debt from $39 billion to a positive of $19 billion in 2005-06 - a turnaround of $58 billion.

How are we better off, according to the budget papers? The answer is simple. The community equity built up in Telstra over the past 100 years is simply not included in the measurement of net debt in the budget until Telstra is sold.

If your ageing father told your mother that he was selling the family home with a market value of $500,000 and a mortgage of $100,000, for no better reason than the family had net debt of $100,000 and this would allow the family to be $400,000 better off, it is likely that family would insist dad see a dementia specialist.


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FULL MARX FOR HONESTY

The blog-world is full of bluffers--as opposed to honestly amateur pundits--so it was genuinely nice to see economist Jason Soon admit that he hadn't read any Marx except the Manifesto, even as he concluded that, "Marx may have been wrong in many respects..." As Jason notes, both Hayek and Schumpeter admired Marx, so I hope a few more neo-Austrians take Jason's lead and find a moment to peruse old Karl's stuff, most of which is available here.
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WHY DID THEY BOTHER?

Did my browser just not download the stories properly or did The Age actually print these two "articles" on the free trade agreement with the US as is? One is 160 words and the other 142 words.

More evidence of mainstream journalism turning into a form of blogging?
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THE SELECTIVE OUTRAGE OF THE BORDER-PROTECTION RIGHT

As one who has never subscribed to the "we are all racists" claptrap of the santimonious left, I'm also not blind to abuses when I see them. So while it's all very well for the righties to get up in arms about UN reports that could be better directed at other targets--no doubt some truth in this--it doesn't excuse us for the wrongs enacted on our behalf. Thus Paul Wright just misses the point when he argues thusly:

Instead, Bhagwati thought his time was better spent here, telling a democratic country what it can and can’t do in pursuit of its border protection. A country with an acknowledged leadership in human rights, where race or religious crime is a virtual unknown, despite over one quarter of the population being born overseas....A month’s work in South Africa might have been appreciated, where a combination of ignorance and cultural misogyny has led to over 21,000 child rapes per year, as HIV-infected men attempt to cure themselves (that’s 210 times … you get the picture). Head north a few hundred miles, he might have dropped in on Malawi, where corruption has exacerbated the famine, and caused donor countries to cut aid. With a bit of help from his staff, I’m sure Justice Bhagwati would have been able to find some children there who could have been helped.

If the best we can say is that, well, at least we're better than Malawi, then we have a long way to go before we can also claim that we are a "world leader" in support of human rights.

We've got kids locked up in desert prisons. Just how bad does it have to be before the right will concede that this isn't just an issue of national sovereignty? "Border protection" is a lame excuse for mandatorily locking up children. Instead of directing your moral outrage at some international public servant, why not admit that the system we have is far from perfect and make some efforts to fix it?
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ANOTHER WAY OF DOING IT

Like the way Kevin Hayes at dis-content is doing his blog: nice clean combo of blog and essay formats.

Others I've linked recently and that deserve your attention are AintNoBadDude, tedbarlow, Eschaton and A Level Gaze.