Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What Liberal Party?

The reign of John Howard from 1996 was characterised by very conservative social policies. It was also characterised by a revolving parade of spineless ministers and caucus members, who were only too happy to swallow their principles for a bit of longevity, limelight, power or extra pay.

Those same jellyfish are now a parade of revisionists, inflicting on us a range of excuses for not raising voice against the prevailing winds set up by Howard and his triumvirate kitchen cabinet (which included his wife and chief of staff).

The latest is George Brandis, who recently trotted out his excuses for inaction. Apparently, Brandis has a history of writing on tradition in the Liberal Party. He lays claim for the Liberals to be liberal - which allegation happens from time to time. And there are a few small L liberals who make a berth in the Liberal Party.

Yet in fact, the Liberal Party is exactly a repository for conservatives. There is simply no other party of opposition for them to be in - the Australian Labor Party is genuinely on the progressive side of the tweedledum-tweedledee that comprises Australian politics, and so conservatives naturally gravitate to the Liberals.

Granted, in this sense Australian politics is not as straightforward as, say, that in England or New Zealand, where the tories are cleary tories, and Labour clearly more left. So here, there's Labor and the rest, and if some liberals end up in the tory party, they are understandably overwhelmed. Hair-splitting aside, methinks Brandis cries poor mouth.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Dylan part two: how some of us (at least) move on

The second part of Scorsese's film on Bob Dylan (No Direction Home) screened here on Saturday, giving further revelation into the man some called the greatest songwriter of the 20th century.

Those who know his music from later periods tend not to understand the fuss over him, or disparage him purely for his singing.

The accolades usually come from those who experienced his early career in the 1960s, when his lyrics were by turns fiercely literary, obscure and kalaidoscopic. That is pretty much the period Scorsese depicts, when his star was brightening.

In fact, the whole project was apparently instigated by Dylan's manager, who located Scorsese to give it a professional standard. Dylan had no specific interest in it, although he gave interviews that were distilled into insights scattered through the film.

Those latter-day comments never seemed to speak directly to an event, but were more general, and very meaningful for that. They contrasted quite strongly with some clips of early press conferences, where the questions were almost universally inane. His responses clearly reflected that: flippant and lacking insight - not Dylan's fault.

Dylan has been several different people. Joan Baez noted that when they were performing together in the early days, she needed to approach him based on what sort of mood he was in at the time, generally either dark or up and jokey.

Then, by the time I first experienced his music in the 70s, he came across as sullen and uninterested in the public responses to his fame. Hardly surprising in itself, but several factors through the sixties could have contributed to this. Doubtless there are plenty of biographers who have made their own tracings of his changes. They may point to the vociferously negative reactions to his 'going electric', or his motorcycle accident, but I would imagine a central theme would be his journey as an artist. He never regained the lyrical peak of his early energetic youth, but he was demonstrably inclined to move forward artistically, exploring new milieus, all the while affected by the burden of his early meteoric fame. He has expressed distaste for the trappings of fame (naturally), but more, he was constantly confronted by the expectations of others. He wasn't really publicly political (Baez knew he'd never attend political events/protests as she did); he didn't really want to be the spokesman for a generation; he even purported to do dud albums in the early 70s specifically to rid himself of public expectations. Truly a chased man.

Yes, his early work was his best (albeit 1975's Blood On The Tracks still garners special mention). But the spark of youth can't last forever, and he had to travel new roads. The story is not new: many artists peak early; many never regain the heights, but still they have to explore. For instance, do we really want another Ok Computer? Many people would say Yes!, but Radiohead have simply moved on, similarly haunted (and harrowed) by their earlier success.

The story is fascinating; so is the period explored in the film - both the life and the times of Dylan. The film is replete with oblique insights; and again, his fiery performance of Like A Rolling Stone was a joy, one of those moments when all pistons were firing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

an anecdote of bravado

It's not a new story. A bloke in Sydney throws a sickie and is caught out online. But you have to admire his bravado, especially when his trousers are down.

He had insisted on his rights in relation to providing evidence for a sick day. Unfortunately, his Facebook page told the true story including, inter alia, "i'm still trashed. SICKIE WOO!"

The part of the story that gave me the biggest laugh was his reaction when caught: "HAHAHA LMAO [laughing my ass off] epic fail. No worries man."

Apparently a call centre worker, so I guess he figured such jobs are a dime a dozen, which they are. The full story - here - is quite funny.

Levi Stubbs leaves a legacy

A short time after one of his contributing songwriters (Norman Whitfield) died, the time came for Levi Stubbs, whose rich vocal presence led the Four Tops.

In a mark of my persistence, to get my favourite songs I had to buy three separate compilations. Early Classics has Baby I Need Your Loving (see an early video here). Motown's Greatest Hits has Walk Away Renee (heard here), a much stronger cover of a Left Banke original. By the early 70s, the Four Tops - like a lot of their stablemates - had left Motown, for ABC/Dunhill. From that period comes Keeper Of The Castle (heard here), from an eponymous compilation (not to be confused with the original eponymous album!).

An interesting rarity is a single they released in 1971, a version of MacArthur Park, which didn't make it onto the mid-period compilation. Stubbs' performance of itself is an inevitable improvement on Richard Harris'; it can be heard here, or seen in a later-period live performance.

It's notable that the Tops were together in an unchanging lineup for their entire history (since high school); a longevity feat matched by few.

And finally, here's Billy Bragg, evoking Stubbs' pleading delivery in a for a bit of comfort in tragedy in Levi Stubbs' Tears. When the world falls apart, some things stay in place...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

In praise of Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese

Off the top of my head, I would have said my favourite Bob Dylan work was Blood On The Tracks, although I'd always had a fondness for individual songs like Positively 4th Street and Like A Rolling Stone. But the opening sequence of Martin Scorsese's film No Direction Home: Bob Dylan is stunning. Dylan gives a thrilling performance of Like A Rolling Stone, which showcases all that is fundamentally attractive about him.

The Scorsese film cuts the song half way through, then splices in (with Dylan qoutes) a musical sweep through the music that had early influenced Dylan. So many marvellous performances, including Muddy Waters' I Got My Mojo Working. Then there was a cheesy looking hillbilly band from some regional tv's Saturday night hoedown. The voice and rhythm were captivating for a cheesy band... then the caption came on: Hank Williams. This great performance was not my first introduction to Williams (from memory), but the point is that Scorcese has delivered a film with a big punch up front. A music sampling returns us to complete the Rolling Stone song.

Scorsese was privileged to some insights from a contemporary interview with Dylan. One of his quotes up front was roughly that he was born somewhere, and had ever since been finding his way home. A profound muse on the human journey.

And an informative and enjoyable film from Scorsese, with a tight arrangement of music, interviews and archival footage.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On financial crisis and collaboration

A New Scientist article (The blunders that led to the catastrophe) made yet another attempt to ascribe cause to the global financial crisis.

This analysis focused on risk modellers within the financial industry, and the extent to which they:
- did not attempt to capture sufficient historical data in their models;
- did not model the interaction of disparate risk factors;
- did not successfully model problematic or new products, which have short histories.
Of course, the current situation is the confluence of quite a number of causes besides this.

A point late in the article caught my eye:
"Capturing the degree to which bank fortunes are interconnected, and how this feeds market prices and liquidity, has become much more important as banks and other financial institutions have come to rely on loans from each other and from large investors rather than on customer deposits."

The transaction relationships between banks drive liquidity, and also supercharged the crisis. The closer they work together, the greater the rewards, but also the greater the risks at times like this.

At the government level, there may also be moves afoot. Bretton Woods in 1947 was a meeting in the aftermath of crisis (the war) of a group of like-minded nations, the Alliesthat formulated many fundaments of the international financial system we have today. (Inter alia, it set the US dollar as the internal trade currency, and thereby allowed the US to export its inflation whenever it printed money.) There have been recent calls for a modern-day equivalent of this conference, to realign - if not 'reform' - the global financial system.

Governments around the world propping up financial institutions, absorbing them, part-nationalising them... what could this could this new era of international collaboration bring? Not quite Marx's transformation of capitalism into socialism (apart from all else, aggregate capital has not yet run out of lebensraum). Not quite a mechanism for addressing global warming (money talks, environment sucks). But ideologies have taken quite a battering in recent times. If one locates modern-day class struggle in the nexus between capital and government, then labour is set to flex its muscle anew.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Global financial crisis - a context

Iceland, with a population smaller than Canberra, is suffering a banking collapse that is affecting local councils in England. Australia's Reserve Bank lowered interest rates a full percentage point (rather than the usual one quarter). The UK government invested 50 billion pounds in its major banks - characterised as a 'partial nationalisation'. Central banks in Europe and America simultaneously lowered interest rates half a percentage point.

What could it be but a global financial crisis?

Malcolm Turnbull, as the new Opposition Leader, took the populist line: that Treasurer Wayne Swan should have "put in a good word for borrowers" to get the banks to pass on the full interest rate cut. And when the Commonwealth Bank bought BankWest for a "bargain" price, he complained about reduced competition.

Yes, it did reduce competition, but for governments of the moment, that is not the point: the key issue is stability. Capitalist production is dependent on financial markets are inherently unstable, rising and falling on sentiment - that is, each person's perception of how the other person is feeling. For most commodities in a market, value lies purely in what someone else is willing to pay, and if there are few buyers, value vanishes in the ether. Governments around the world are desperate to restore confidence.

Periodic downturn is normal, but this one is different. Of course, the origins of the current crisis lie in the under-regulated US market, when the mass of bad housing loans was bundled up in poorly-understood securities, then onsold globally like a toxic virus. Lending slows, capital circulation slows, and the resultant liquidity crisis leads to financial institutions faltering.

The extraordinary actions of governments recently show lessons had been learnt from the 1929 crash. A similar pattern of liquidity and financial instability emerged then, but governments didn't intervene, banks collapsed and history ran its inevitable course.

So this time around, governments took action. Thus far, each action has been insufficient to turn confidence around, so governments around the world keep raising the stakes. These actions are counter to current orthodoxy, proving governments are acting on advice from people who have studied history, and yield ideology to practicality when pushed hard enough.

The perception has been that Australia is in better shape than most to weather the storm, due to three factors: one of the world's highest collective credit ranking of its banks; the financial "reforms" conducted in the 80s and 90s, and an extended resources boom due to China's productive forces. But immunity does not exist, and today Chinese purchasers of iron ore are talking of scaling back demand, due to expected dampening of markets. Swan didn't put in a good word for borrowers because bank stability is his crisis priority.

It will be interesting to see how far governments are prepared to go if further challenged - because surely there is more to come.

In the flurry, a major narrative could be missed: governments around the world have demonstrated their ability to respond to crisis remarkably quickly - and collaboratively. And intervention, nationalisation, and re-regulation [talk] shows they can drop ideology for pragmatism in an instant. The rapid reaction (bar the US Congress), and willingness to collaborate and intervene, should be a portent of the possibilities where global action is required. Unfortunately, global warming has engendered the opposite reaction - inaction. We have elected governments that only understand financial crisis, and not environmental crisis - which however less immediate is vastly deeper and longer-lasting. This demonstrates that we are poor at responding to longer-term issues, and that we have subverted too much of what we value as humans to the purely financial. In this capitalist world, environment is just one of many factors that has by default been treated as an ignorable 'externality'.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Halcyon days for South Africa

In amongst one of the historically turbulent times of this global society, South Africa's ruling party has opted for a brief period of lull. Kgalema Motlanthe, as president, is the calm between the surrounding storms of Thabo Mbeki's departure and Jacob Zuma's ascension.

Motlanthe, who will only retain presidency until the 2009 election, recalled his time in Robben Island's community of ANC prisoners as "the most productive years" of his life.

Most importantly, he is not an AIDS denier, and he removed the government's AIDS denier away from the Health portfolio. This alone will help alleviate mass suffering.

There is no report on the reasons for Motlanthe's installation in the role, but he has been officially endorsed as the actual, not "interim" president. As Zuma's erstwhile deputy, there is no expectation he will run for president next year.