Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ah, Capitalism.

As usual, today’s post is kicked off by a news article. It seems my country is becoming more and more unusual in that we don't habitually tip waiters, cabbies and so on. We figure the person is getting paid already out of the cost of the service. And of course, here, they are. Even the minimum wage for service staff here is a reasonable amount, and those on casual rates generally make half as much again per hour.

In many places, this isn’t the case. Austraian service staff might be on a wage of $15 an hour. Call it $20 if they're casual. In the USA, the usual wage for an equivalent job might be $5 per hour. (The Aussie dollar and the greenback are within 10% of each other’s value these days, but even when our dollar was closer to 60c our service staff had a much better deal.) This is because tipping is simply the done thing over there.

But this means that while on a good day, a waiter might make hundreds in tips, on a bad day he might go home with $25. This uncertainty is very unhealthy, psychologically speaking. Ultimately it’s also bad economically, as if your citizens are unable to plan their finances and have a reasonable guaranteed income, they’re going to be either a lot more cautious with their spending or a lot more likely to go into debt or overdraft.

Now, you might argue that there’s nothing essentially wrong with this. It’s the market at work; if I give you a service, you decide what that service was worth. Should we also put buskers on a fixed wage, and then give all their takings back to the city that pays them that fixed wage? Of course we shouldn’t. But they know what they’re getting into. They’re explicitly relying on generosity; and they’re also working only for themselves. But paying regular service staff fiddling small change on the expectation that customers will voluntarily give them enough to make up a decent wage is not on.

A tip should be a bonus for exceptional service. They’re too volatile — even with the supposed average of 10% or even 20% in some places — and much more sensitive to the whims of the customer than the worker’s actual performance. 14-hour-a-day sweatshops are also “the market at work” — that doesn’t say anything about whether they’re acceptable. It also gives rise to the “customer is always right” attitude that gives Americans their arrogant reputation here. Over there, the customer has the power of withholding a substantial fraction of the service staff’s expected income, with the result that they walk all over them. They come out here and try that — I’ve seen it happen — and are amazed when we tell them where to stick it. This is the biggest argument against a tipping culture: it creates unnecessary inequality, which can be and is often abused.

Now, I’m of course coming from an Australian mindset here, and tipping might not always lead to this sort of inequality — I’ve no idea what the situation is in Europe, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s not just tipping that causes this, but a combination of tipping with tiny minimum wages.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

He Doesn't Get It.

Over the break, I read an article that raises a point seldom mentioned today. Our country’s former Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, was in a bit of hot water for suggesting that sportsmen who get involved in charitable or community work are merely cynically promoting themselves or their sport.

The irony is so thick you’d need a diamond saw to cut it. About the only thing that would be more cynical than such behaviour is Costello’s accusation itself, and the associated implication that it is therefore morally questionable. “There is a big difference between celebrity and philanthropy,” Costello commented, as though reminding all us mere mortals of an obvious fact.

To hell with that. It is hardly obvious, and to my mind the assumption that there is such a necessary difference is itself the very root of the problem. Using even — especially — the broadest meanings of the terms celebrity and philanthropy, we used to have an expression for the relationship that should exist between them. We called it noblesse oblige. I don’t mean to sound like a nostalgic fool who believes that yesterday’s celebrities were somehow better people than today’s; by all accounts they weren’t. Noblesse oblige simply means a situation where those with privilege are considered to have an obligation to be responsible with it.

Now, the very nature of privilege of course makes this situation relatively rare. Yet it appears to be eminently desirable — and the way to bring it about is to make fulfilling such an obligation rewarding, as it is in the case of footballers who represent charities, or run school clinics, and as a bonus improve the brand of the AFL and their club. Costello’s cynical attitude, in this case sadly representative of the prevailing one across most of the political spectrum, is counterproductive at best and completely misses several points.

I have more to say on the topic of noblesse oblige. It says much of our society that I had no idea the expression existed until, by chance, I read an interview with John Armstrong on the subject. I think I’ve said enough to be going on with, though, so I’ll leave it here for now.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

We Have the Numbers.

So Saturday morning’s post inexplicably failed to go up, and I only noticed last night. Bugger. It’s been bumped to Thursday’s slot. For once I had a post written well in advance — in fact, I had it mostly done while I was away in February — and I still managed to fail to have it go up on time.

But for today, I’d like to say a few words about Saturday’s climate rally. As you may have read in my twitter stream, the numbers were thoroughly on our side — at the end of the day, the crowd was estimated at over 8 000 strong. The “people’s revolt” of deniers and libertards was only a few hundred: initial estimates were about 200, and even the rally’s organisers only claimed 400. Andrew Bolt conveniently “misremembered” our figure on Insiders the next day, quoting 800 to 400. Pardon me while I have a coughing fit that doesn’t remotely resemble an accusation of bullshit.

While we’re on numbers, I know the Newspoll indicated a loss of 6 percentage points to Labor following the announcement, but the Coalition only recorded a gain of 4 points in the same poll. The other 2 points went to the Greens, and I seriously doubt those would have been from people “revolting” agains the government’s proposal to price carbon emissions — unless they felt disappointed that the government wasn’t going far enough, which seems fairly unlikely if they weren’t voting for the Greens in the first place. Makes you wonder about the other 4%, don’t it.

I’ll conclude with the text of an email Quincy and I sent to our respective representatives in Parliament the other day (we’re both in Labor seats). Feel more than free to copy and/or modify it and send it along to your own member. If you’re in a Liberal-held seat, maybe it’s worth letting them know that the numbers are against them.

Dear [representative],
As an [electorate] voter, I write to inform you of my involvement in yesterday’s rally in support of the proposed carbon pricing scheme. I believe that this is a very important initiative for our future and that the money it raises will be valuable in funding research and development in renewable energy and supporting related industries. I am personally proud that my Government is taking such a positive step in combating climate change. The public support shown at yesterday's rally — an 8000-strong crowd in favour of the carbon tax, compared to a few hundred protesting against it — speaks volumes.
I urge you not to be overly concerned by what is a very small vocal minority. I believe that the doomsayers will be proven wrong when the scheme kicks in and the world keeps turning. After we weathered the GFC so well, I have every confidence in the ALP's competence in economic management. Good luck to you and the rest of the government with putting the carbon price into practice.
Yours sincerely,

[Oolon Colluphid].
PS. Fuck you, Tony Hooper. Your accusation that I and the rest of the crowd at the pro-tax event were “paid activists” and unrepresentative of our own convictions, let alone public opinion, is offensive and not remotely true. Had we the time or the inclination, we’d have grounds for a libel suit; but I, for one, have much better things to do.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The People Are Revolting.

The fear campaign against a price on pollution has become so absurd that talkback radio hosts are claiming that a price on pollution means the end of our economy and life as we know it. Independent MPs are even receiving death threats. The amount of misinformation around the issue is staggering, with reports of people expecting a “carbon tax bill” alongside their tax forms come July.

Now, these same radio hosts have joined with climate deniers and far-right politicians to organise anti-climate action rallies as part of Tony Abbott’s so-called “people’s revolt”. They start on Saturday outside the Prime Minister’s electorate office in Melbourne.

As I tweeted on first hearing of this, the big polluters and corporations who stand to actually pay this carbon tax are big boys now. They don’t need mass indignation on their behalf. People’s revolts belong in tyrannies like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya. Basic freedoms and human rights are worth fighting for. Slightly lower taxes for the sake of big corporations, not so much.

But politicians are spooked. Even with the next election a few years away, the loss of four percentage points in the latest Newspoll is bound to be causing at least a few second thoughts in the Labor caucus. The more intelligent among them might recognise that this was expected; it does mean a short-term sacrifice for probable long-term rewards, which is exactly the sort of thinking that republican democracy discourages; but there will be some who will just see today’s numbers and want to back down. We mustn’t let them.

Implementing the cap-and-trade system is politically courageous, and implementing it early in the Parliament’s term is sensible, because in two or three years when the next election rolls around, they can point to the fact that our economy has not collapsed, that inflation is stable, and hopefully that carbon emissions have slowed, and regain some of the points that the deniers’ fear-mongering has lost them.

I’m proud of the government on this issue. I was beginning to doubt that there was much in the way of guts left in the ALP. But if those of us who aren’t as selfish and short-sighted as Tony Abbott or Alan Jones just sit back feeling smugly superior and let their angry shouting wash over us, it will be easy to overlook the fact that there is any support for climate action at all.

This is why a number of organisations, including the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Environment Victoria and GetUp, have arranged for a peaceful counter-rally this Saturday. We’ll be at Treasury Place this Saturday (12 March) at 11am to remind the government and the people that we support strong, courageous action on climate change.

Don’t let the vocal minority scare the government into backing down on this one. The Little Quince and I will be there. Whose side are you on — your children’s, or The Man’s?

See you there.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Independent Media.

On Saturday, I listed “quality journalism” as something we’d miss under a libertarian regime. Given the independence of the media is supposed to act as something of a foil to keep the government accountable, I felt the irony warranted an extended post on the subject.

An independent media is supposed to be a cornerstone of open government. I’m not saying there aren’t decent private journalistic enterprises — the Huffington Post has got quite a reputation, not to mention WikiLeaks, and the traditional great newspapers were all private enterprises — but there’s certainly no comparison on the television front. The BBC World Service, and more recently our own home-grown ABC News 24, put commercial TV news to shame, and are considerably more impartial than private news channels. Part of this is because both Aunties have a contractual requirement to be impartial, while there’s no such rule preventing corporate channels from being beholden to corporate interests. I read an article the other day which expressed this very succinctly:
“...the fundamental practice of so-called ‘professional’ journalism as a courtier of power”
Compare the Beeb’s news reputation to that of Fox News, whose slogan of “fair and balanced” infamously belies its rabidly conservative, corporate agenda, or MSNBC, which has a similar reputation for supporting the Democrats. Compare the ABC’s news channel to the tabloid current-affairs that passes for “news” on Nine and Seven (or in the Herald Sun), or the Greens-bashing that goes on in the pages of our only national broadsheet. Even The Daily, pioneering electronic newsmagazine, editorialised in its first issue claiming neutrality yet in the same paragraph making it perfectly clear that it would support economic libertarianism — Tea Party politics — which is considered extremist anywhere outside the USA. Is it any wonder that in America, with no significant public journalistic outlet, the most trusted newsman is one whose agenda is comedy?

As mentioned, I believe this is due to the fact that public news outlets, by virtue of being state-owned, are regulated specifically to avoid partisanship; and by virtue of being state-owned, nor are they beholden to corporate interests. If you owned a private newspaper, and would benefit from an economically libertarian government, wouldn’t it make sense (from a selfish point of view) to advocate such policies and agitate for the party that would give you them in its pages?

I don’t mean to advocate for the end of private journalism — far from it. My own blog carries ads, although they’ve not put a cent in my pocket yet and I’m not writing here to make money. But I believe that a strong tradition of public journalism, such as we see here and especially in Britain, is necessary — and maybe some official definitions and standards of what can be legally called “news” would be nice.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

10 Things Atomists Should Go Without.

Time for a list-y post. All the things in this list are things that have been created by governments, which (as earlier discussed) libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism and other atomist ideologies would like to see dismantled and replaced with an entirely free market. If you find yourself tempted by these ideologies, think of this as a reminder of what you’d have missed out on.

  • Stephen Hawking. Infamously held up as an example by American conservatives of the sort of person who’d have been killed by “death panels” under a public health system, Hawking in fact owes his life, and the technology that enables him to work and communicate, to the British National Health Service; science today would be far poorer without him.
  • The Internet. Grew out of a US defence project.
  • Doctor Who. For that matter, the majority of decent British telly.
  • Related, a lot of quality journalism. I’ll go into this one more next time, as the irony involved deserves its own post.
  • Daylight savings time — for that matter, any form of time coördination.
  • Highways. All roads for that matter, which is why the first question to ask a libertarian is always whether he owns a car. Or a bike. Or a bus ticket.
  • Competent employees. Sure, the wealthy send their kids to private schools, but even they’re government-subsidised; and their companies benefit from a publicly-educated workforce.
  • Your telephone number.
  • Courts. It always amuses me that libertarians love to stand on their individual rights even as they tear down the institutions expressly designed to guarantee them those same rights.
  • Public transport. You hear people bitching about Metro, the private train operator, and Connex before it, a lot more than you heard them bitching about the government-run Met.
Sorry this one went up a bit late — and sorry for missing Thursday. Got a new Flash-blocker that’s been messing with my Web browser and stopping me from posting. Uninstalled it now and it’s working fine. If anyone can recommend a decent Flash-blocker for Safari that isn’t ClickToFlash, please let me know.

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    On Conscience.

    I read a while ago about a case of a pharmacist refusing to fill a prescription on the basis that the drug prescribed is sometimes used in post-abortion care. He didn’t know whether the patient had actually had an abortion or not — there are, after all, rules about patient confidentiality, and it was a nurse rather than the patient herself who made the request — but he exempted himself from the requirement to do his job nonetheless, because the law allows health professionals for whom abortion is against their beliefs to refuse to provide services.

    I’m sorry, what? Isn’t America (where this incident occurred) supposedly a free country, where people are entitled to not experience discrimination in the provision of services? Where the right to be served is so ingrained in the culture that when they come to our country they are seen as presumptuous and demanding?

    I respect the right of everyone to act in accordance with their conscience, or at least to refuse to act against it — if someone’s conscience called for revenge killing, we aren’t OK with that, but I agree that a person shouldn’t be forced to do something that goes against his conscience.

    BUT, when you sign up for a job you take on the responsibilities involved. If you are unable to take on those responsibilities, you shouldn’t be signing the contract; if you take the job and then refuse some of its requirements on grounds of conscience, you are violating your contract. Ordinarily, if something like that happened, you’d be fired. Now, I’m aware that some people will have been in the business since before abortion was legal in their area. But I don’t think that changes anything, as that change would have resulted in a functional, if not a written, addition to their contract. (I’m using “contract” more in its moral sense than its legal one here, so the idea of an unwritten one is not as counterintuitive as it might seem.)

    In a free society, people have the right not to provide abortion services; but if they don’t want to do that, then they shouldn’t be in a job that might require them to. A free society in turn has the duty to say to an anti-choice doctor “you’re not doing your job” and replace them with somebody who will. If being a pharmacist means sometimes filling prescriptions for abortion patients, then someone who isn’t OK with this shouldn’t be qualified to be a pharmacist, because they are unable to actually do the job.