Friday, November 21, 2003

BLOGGER's Official Advice on what to do if your Mother finds your blog.

Some days, commuting stinks.

High Praise for Dubya

John Ray lavishes the highest possible praise on President Bush:

The point the letter makes about GWB’s relative inarticulateness reminds me of a similar phenomenon here in my home State of Queensland. Queensland was run for nearly 20 years by the very conservative Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen. I was one of his party members. “Sir Joh”, as he was known, was universally condemned by the intelligentsia for his inarticulateness. He spoke like the ill-educated farmer he was. The media regularly said he made no sense at all. But he made plenty of sense to the ordinary Queenslanders who voted for him and in one State election (1974) his government actually got 59% of the popular vote -- a majority so large as to be almost unheard of in a Westminster democracy.


So I think that is a pretty good augury for GWB next time he faces the voters. I suspect that his “inarticulateness” is an asset to him with his voters too ...

So the Australian politician most resembling George W Bush is a notoriously corrupt State Premier who retained office for the best part of twenty years with the help of a rigged electoral system? I'm not going to complain that it's an inapt comparison. And if George Bush's post-Presidential career resembles Joh's in any way, I won't lose any sleep over it.

Afterword: summary results for Queensland State Elections throughout the Bjelke-Petersen years (1968 - 1987) can be found here (PDF File).

How Could I Have Missed This?

From The Economist:

OF COURSE, it is good to be polite. And, as a result, in most places these days it is impossible to know what someone is actually thinking when he meets or works with someone of another race. Politeness makes it unacceptable to express prejudice, even if those attitudes are actually there. How hard do people work to overcome a prejudice that they feel but are not allowed to express? That is the question Jennifer Richeson, of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, attempts to answer in this month's Nature Neuroscience.

Another report of the research also appears in The Sydney Morning Herald (plus the Taipei Times and the Glasgow Daily Record.

Of all the reports, The Economist is the least sensational, describing the actual experiment in some detail. Leaving aside the slightly sensational headlines elsewhere, which raise the spectre of using brain-scans to detect socially unacceptable attitudes, what Richeson found is that putting a lot of work into keeping up a polite conversation with someone whom you might detest for no good reason is so taxing to the brain that it impairs performance on subsequent tests of cognitive performance.

The finding hasn't gone uncontested but, if future experiments in this area produce similar results, it would bear out the common-sense belief that generally, bigots are pretty stupid. The only question remaining to be answered is whether people are bigots because they are stupid, or vice versa; Dr Richeson's results seem to indicate the latter.

Random Thought

A sissy-boy holding a Colt .45 is still a sissy-boy, but you'd be a damn fool to tell him that.

Curious Non-Event of the Week

When a Government holds back an independent report which more or less damns one of its major policies as a failure, you'd expect a bit of a ruckus, wouldn't you? Especially if were in the politically sensitive area of unemployment policy. So I'm at a bit of a loss to understand why the Melbourne Institute's report on Work for the Dole hasn't created more of a stir than it has.

Although it's usually described as a Liberal Party initiative, my admittedly unreliable memory insists that Work for the Dole was actually spawned by Channel Nine's Sixty Minutes. Sometime in the early 1990s (when the then ALP Government was once again in electoral shtook over unemployment) Sixty Minutes, in keeping with the fine Australian tradition of dole-bludger bashing, aired an item on the welfare system in the US, highlighting such desirable features of the US welfare system as fixed time limits on unemployment benefits and various "workfare" schemes introduced by forward thinking state governments. They may have done one of those studio debates on it too, a week or so later (but that may just be a confabulation).

Whether or not Work for the Dole was Coalition policy before Sixty Minutes ran this item, it was definitely a goer afterwards. At the time I was working as a contract programmer with one of those multi-national companies, on a project which involved a lot of contact with middle-managers. I remember being stunned by the spluttering indignation with which people on $50,000 a year plus fringe benefits and incentives would declare that of course people should work for the dole; they should have to earn their keep like the rest of us who have to pay taxes so that they can sun themselves on the Gold Coast. The only way to calm them down was to ask if you should pick Carlton or Collingwood in the footy-tipping this week.

How has Work for the Dole failed? Jeff Borland of the Melbourne Institute explained it on ABC's AM this way:

Probably we think the most likely explanation is that these type of programs have what are called lock-in effects. That is, while people are participating in these type of schemes they actually reduce the extent of their job search activity, put together with the fact that these type of programs tend to be fairly sort of minimal interventions in the sense of providing extra skills to enhance job finding prospects.

This is an interesting finding if you take the life-cycle view of poverty; i.e. that at some times in our lives we are all going to be relatively poor, but this usually ony a temporary setback between periods of relative affluence. If the Melbourne Institute report is correct, the effect of the Work for the Dole scheme is to interrupt the normal cycle from affluence to poverty and back again in the worst way possible; by trapping Work for the Dole participants in extended periods of welfare dependency.

The problem for the Government is that Work for the Dole has proven electoral appeal; Australians love to grumble about how the taxes they go out of their way to avoid paying are (or would be) wasted by the Government, particularly on welfare. Whether Work for the Dole scheme does anything for the unemployed, is beside the point; the point is to let the tax-paying voter in John Howard's rapidly shrinking Mainstream Australia know that their taxes, if not exactly at work, are at least being worked for. So it's no surprise that the Government is downplaying the report as outdated and prefers to play up another report by John and Ann Neville of Sydney's Centre for Applied Economic Research, which finds that Work for the Dole compares favourably with simialr programs overseas. The Nevilles made a number of reccommendations for changes to the scheme:

The report recommends the name of the program be changed to 'Work for the Community' and participants be paid more in training credits.

The report also recommends rural and regional participants be paid more to cover transport costs.

The Minister for Employment, Kevin Andrews, says the Government will consider all of the report's recommendations.

"I'll have a look at all of the recommendations but we would have to be convinced that a change from 'Work for the Dole', which has become well known, would be warranted in the circumstances," Mr Andrews said.

That's one reccommendation that won't be taken up; I wonder how the other thirteen will go.

Postscript: while I was writing this post, Meika got in first, with a reminder of how he got signed up for Work for the Dole.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Gloat of the Week

Christopher Pearson was a happy little vegemite on Saturday, and was all too willing to share his happiness with readers of the Weekend Oz. Recent events in the world of Oz Lit have brought him the sort of unalloyed happiness that demands to be shared with the whole world. After a brief historical survey of joyful literary events of the past, like the Ern Malley affair, Christopher starts his main story by introducing critic Peter Craven:

The most celebrated examples of the review as theatre-of-cruelty have come from Peter Craven. Craven is a former editor of Scripsi, a long standing rival of mine as a dispenser of literary patronage also a publisher/entrepreneur and a reviewer of distinction. He's feared and cultivated, by younger writers especially, bewcause at his best he's forensic, compelling in argument and capable of generosity to writers with whom one wouldn't expect him to have much sympathy.

If a first rate critic's aim is to be believed, loved and feared in roughly equal measure, Craven is one of our finest. There's no one I'd rather read on Martin Amis, Irish fiction ... He's often outstanding on film too ... and one of the few local poetry reviewers who doesn't have a tin ear.

Imagine falling from favour with such a protector ...

This is the ugly fate which has befallen writer Elliot Perlman:

The giddy rise in Perlman's stocks as a writer is hard for me to understand, except in terms of the author's attractive personality and oppressively politically correct views. Interviewed by the Good Weekend in August this year, he hesitated when asked if he missed Australia: "I'm not homesick but I have such an affection for the country, it's like a member of your family - no one can make you angrier."

Obviously, someone like Perlman, who can't make up his mind whether he misses his own country, isn't going to be much chop as a novelist. To add weight to his case that Perlman's success is due to his political correctness, rather than his writing style, Pearson quotes a passionate outburst from the same interview:

We had such promise, such great institutions. But I've seen terrible changes in the last 20 years, a rapid descent into inequality and insecurity barely known in the last 100 years. I've been saying in my fiction that Australia has undergone a profound social revolution. In a population of 20 million, 2.5 million are on social security, 1 million children come from homes where no one has work, 2 million people are precariously unemployed ...

And on it goes. As Pearson notes, with such impeccably politically correct opinions:

It was, I suppose, only to be expected that he'd win The Age short story award for The Reasons I Won't be Coming.

Pearson makes his opinion of that award clear by chiding Peter Goldsworthy, chairman of the Literary Board, for making the mistake of awarding Perlman's story his vote.

After his undeserved win in The Age short story award (which happened in 1994; no dates appear in Pearson's article), Perlman went on to write Three Dollars (1998):

... an exercise in social justice advocacy I couldn't bring myself to read. [It] won The Age Book of the Year. Craven described this as "against the odds and the heavyweights" but also said "Perlman's young, humorous, angst-ridden culture-vultures are raw and attractive ... Perlman is an engrossing writer who has such a tender sense of the place he comes from and produces a fierce denunciation of how economic rationalism can blight a nation's life."

Another undeserved award, for a book that no person of good taste could possibly bring himself to read. Although Pearson hasn't read Three Dollars, his opinion of Perlman's writing isn't entirley unsupported by evidence:

I met Perlman at a Goldsworthy Writers Week party some Adelaide festivals ago. He struck me as too nice to write outstanding fiction and probably better suited to law, his other profession ...

Pearson goes on to demonstrate, that on this score at least, he is much better qualified than Perlman to write fiction.

... I made the faux pas of criticising Craven in Perlman's hearing for engaging in heavy-handed boosterism of his proteges ... Perlman walked out of the function, declaring that he wasn't going to stand still and hear one of the great men of the culture defamed.

And finally, Pearson lets us in on why the cane-toad smirk in his by-line photograph looks a little wider today:

I wonder how he felt when he read the November edition of Australian Book Review, in which Craven dissects his new novel Seven Types of Ambiguity. The heading "A Blander Shade of Grey" must have made his heart sink, but there was worse to come:

"Everything seems to be issuing into the kind of varnished, epigrammatic sentences that aspire to the condition of wisdom ...
[Pearson's elision] Except that, in Perlman's case they don't. They're callow, they're silly, they have no generalising power of application and they seem to testify to nothing but the author's ignorance of life. Perlman's style filled me with such torpor that for many weeks I couldn't read on." And that was just for starters ... [my elision]

After some final speculation over what caused the "rupture" between Craven and Perlman, Pearson demonstrates his magnanimity by holding out this olive branch:

... When Perlman gets over "the novel as puppetry articulating an agenda phase", he and I might at last have a proper converstation.

Is it my imagination, or is Pearson hinting that he might be prepared to sling a little literary patronage Perlman's way, once Seven Types of Ambiguity has been given its just desserts and remaindered? A damn good remaindering might be just the incentive Perlman needs to get over "the novel as puppetry articulating an agenda phase".