The Eurozone and the failure of today's politics

8:49am 8th June 2010

The recent volatility in the Euro and problems in the Greek economy have highlighted some of the deep divisions and structural problems within the Eurozone. The British government must be looking on with great amusement as the very concerns that saw them abstain from the Euro currency all those years ago have materialised. To me, the most interesting thing about the debates that surround this event are the facets of the socio-political paradigm of today's nations that they reveal.

One of the main characteristics of the Eurozone is that it requires the member economies to maintain a materially identical monetary policy, which is set by the European Central Bank in light of overall economic conditions in the Eurozone generally. Striped of sovereignty over domestic monetary policy, national governments are left with the other major economic tool in their bag, fiscal policy. However, governments must implement their fiscal policies in light of a monetary policy set by the ECB which may at best be appropriate for domestic conditions, or at worst, exacerbate problems and destroy advantages. Due to the enormous differences between member economies, it is inevitable that both situations will arise from time to time in different member states.

In other large national economies such as India or the United States, monetary policy is also set by a central bank for component economic units that may operate under vastly disparate circumstances. The current situation in the Eurozone could be compared to the US, where California, by far the largest state economy in the US, shares the same monetary policy with Vermont and North Dakota, the union's smallest economies.

How is the problem solved there? There are many ways that economic policy is harmonised, but the main way is through a complementary national fiscal policy. A set of taxes, subsidies and regulatory frameworks ensure that economic policy between the states are brought into consistency by transferring funds from rich states with large economic surpluses to those with deficits. This is a simplification of economic policy, but illustrates one of the main ways in which the overall economic strength of the United States is used to benefit all of its members, big and small. While larger, more well-developed states may be economically better off being independent, they reap significant political benefit by being part of the Union, while smaller economies give up some of the sovereignty they would otherwise have in return for the economic support of the US federal government.

Back to the Eurozone, implementing this would require putting fiscal policy control over national economies into the hands of the ECB, allowing fiscal transfers between member economies so that surpluses are put to work strengthening economies with deficits and turning them around with capital investment and infrastructure development rather than being spent on marginal gains in economies that are already well developed. Translating that into practice, the ECB would take money from Germany and France through taxation, and use it to subsidize things like factories in Spain, schools in Cyprus and highways in Portugal.

Unfortunately, under the current European political and economic structure, such systematic transfers would be unthinkable. The only way that such international transfers could be carried out are via bailouts, and they come with stiff penalties in the form of relatively high interest rates, nasty ratings adjustments to national governments' credit ratings and potentially ruinous blowouts to national debt levels. For it to be effective, it has to be conducted in a manner akin to national fiscal policy rather than international loans; the funds need to be given free. In the United States, California does not have a choice if the taxes paid by its residents are used to subsidize farmers in Nebraska.

However, almost all policymakers would baulk at the very suggestion that France should give money to Portugal for free. While it is clear that the members of the Eurozone derive benefit from economic consolidation, it does not appear that there are any benefits to be had by, say, Germany or France paying for highways or bridges in Portugal or Malta. The benefits only become apparent if one considers "benefit" in light of the total welfare of the Eurozone and thus, a welfare increase in Portugal is of benefit to Germany as well. Even at the highest levels, modern thinking is guided by self-interest, with cooperation only occurring where the parties both stand to gain, a benefit to one is not considered sufficient.

This seems almost nonsensical at first, but go back to the United States example; when the US federal government takes an action that benefits a few states but not others, the overall increase in strength of the union benefits all member states indirectly. In Western political thinking, the Us vs Them nation-state geopolitical paradigm means that unless there is total political integration between states, a benefit to one is not seen as a benefit to the other.

To further illustrate this point, assume you and I have $1,000 between us, split evenly. However, if I already have a house, a car and enough food, but you have nothing, the greatest joint benefit will be created by the spending of the whole of the money investing in your life assets (home, food etc). Given the way we think today, you'll spend your half on those things, while I'll spend my half on ice-cream or something else that will only marginally increase my welfare. In Europe, wealthy nations spend economic surpluses on such marginal increases to national welfare, such as sports stadiums or unnecessary infrastructure developments to ensure full employment. Less developed nations, however, struggle with investment in basic services and national infrastructure while burdened with far higher levels of unemployment.

This brings us to the core of the issue. Unless the EU finds a mechanism to integrate cross-border fiscal policy through fiscal transfers, the attempt to integrate Eurozone economies is doomed to failure. Countries that are not be able to balance their fiscal policies with the prevailing Eurozone monetary conditions will suffer greatly, and may even fail. This could be one of the reasons for Greece's current financial woes.

There must be a body that possesses the ability to set overall economic policy for the Eurozone as a whole, for the benefit of the Eurozone as a whole. member states need to recognize and accept that many of them will be benefited at some times, and disadvantaged at others. Right now, the Eurozone is considering bailouts and other options to save Greece from bankruptcy. However, if there were a properly federated economic structure in the Eurozone, these bailouts would take the form of subsidies to key Greek industries, tax breaks to struggling sectors of the Greek population and any other appropriate fiscal instruments to provide some financial breathing room to the Greek economy.

This would not be a "subsidy on stupidity". Economists agree that Greece's woes are not the result of it's own economic mismanagement. Rather, Greece is a victim of it's overall economic conditions, most of which are external. Unable to adjust monetary policy, Greece was almost powerless to avoid this situation. Thus, from a European point of view fiscal transfers to Greece could not fairly be viewed as supporting carelessness. The rest of Europe benefited from a monetary policy that suited them, it stands to reason that they should transfer some of that benefit to states that suffered as a result of it.

The EU stands at a crossroads right now: either integrate further to allow more harmonious management of its member economies and adopt a greater sense of international cooperation, or begin unravelling the integration of the last decade to give member economies better control over their own individual affairs given their own individual situations.

The latter option would result in the last decade of work on the Eurozone being undone, a reversal of historical proportions and a concession that true co-operation is just not possible under the nation-state paradigm due to the political attitudes of national governments and the inherently selfish nature of today's thinking.

The former option, however, as philosophically desirable as it may be, appears impossible in practice. The desire for superiority is too ingrained in current thinking and is fundamentally incompatible with the notion of true international cooperation. If a single nation is at an advantage over another, there is virtually no chance that politicians will give up that advantage in the interests of mutual benefit, especially if the benefit is weighted to the other side. The very notion that this could happen would be labelled "socialist" and disregarded. However, for the Eurozone to succeed, politicians must do just that; give up their tendency to take every advantage and concede some benefits to other nations who could use it to derive greater overall benefit.

In this blogger's opinion, the problem outlined here is intractable under current socio-political conditions. Selfishness is too strong a part of the modern mind. People, especially politicians, simply do not think cooperatively, which is why globalization is not really achievable in its true sense, and why it is just resulting in a descent into rule by the rich and powerful.

Deception from the WWF

2:25pm 10th June 2008

I recently received an email from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) requesting help in their ongoing effort to save the giant panda. The request asked me to help them provide relief in the wake of the earthquake in China for the "estimated 1,600 wild pandas living in the surrounding areas" whose fate is as yet unknown.

The danger to human life from earthquakes is a result of the relatively unstable and high structures that humans construct. The vast majority of deaths and injuries from an earthquake occur due to the collapse of buildings, falling debris or ejected shrapnel from these occurrences. The number of deaths that occur afterwards are the result of infrastructure damage, causing disease, interruptions to vital services such as water, electricity and gas and sociopathic effects such as breakdowns in law and order. On the other hand, deaths resulting from ground movement alone are extremely rare.

Natural structures such as mountains and trees have a natural stability far greater than typical man made structures such as houses or buildings. Earthquakes generally do not affect them. Furthermore, in a natural environment, there are few objects that will be thrown around in a potentially hazardous manner; twigs, leaves and even falling branches do not pose the same danger that falling concrete and flying glass do, to say nothing of people who may be above the ground floor in a building that collapses. Pandas, in their natural environment, are likely to be totally unperturbed by a little shaking of their tree in the event of even a major earthquake. Try shaking a squirrel or cat out of a tree to demonstrate just how hard it is to make an animal fall. Also bear in mind that even a major earthquake will result in little more than a light rustling movement which animals will be accustomed to given that strong winds cause far more violent shaking far more frequently.

For these reasons is should be apparent that earthquakes pose little to no threat to animals and humans living out of built up areas due to the absence of those factors that make an earthquake dangerous in the first place. Thus, there is no causal link between the Chinese earthquake and an increased need to provide support for pandas in the wild. In the email I received, one of the things that donations would be spent on was "reconstruction of panda nature reserves and the communities living within them". Unless the WWF has spent the last 30 years constructing high rise condominiums for wild pandas, there is no need for habitat reconstruction. Hills, trees and bamboo can survive earthquakes juts fine, and have been for several millennia. I can understand the potential need within communities in the area, and if that is what the donations are needed for, then why not just say that rather than attempting to tie the two together? The only conclusion that I can come to, given the level of misdirection in the email, is that the WWF was intentionally seeking to maximise donations by manipulating the emotional response that people have both to tragedy and fluffy black and white bears.

Using the human tragedy in China from the recent earthquake to foster sympathy for a cause is reprehensible and immoral, regardless how worthy a cause it may be. It is a shameful abuse of the good nature of the WWF's supporters. While I agree with the mission of the WWF and am greatly sympathetic to their cause, I find this emotional bandwagoning to be disgusting. In the pursuit of philanthropy and charity, one should adhere to the highest standards of intellectual honesty and integrity, even where rallying support may be otherwise difficult. It is self defeating to fight the inequities and ills of this world by spreading misinformation and dishonesty, as it is simply trading one social pathology for another.

I find it greatly disappointing that nobody at the WWF, a long running and well respected organisation, is able to make this distinction and restrain the fundraising writers from getting overzealous in their desire to secure donations, allowing truth and honesty get bruised in the process. For what it's worth, I would like to rebuke the WWF for engaging in such an egregious hijacking of the misery being suffered by the Chinese affected by the earthquake, and would request that for this breach of intellectual honesty they apologise both to the Chinese people as well as to me for attempting to lead me under the banner of misdirection.

CSCT2k8: Pai, Thailand

2:55am 3rd March 2008

So it's been a while since I last updated my blog. Apologies to all. I will try to summarise the last month as best I can.

I arrived in Thailand on the 10th Feb to work with the admin/tech team of CouchSurfing.com. Having landed in Bangkok, I took a domestic flight up to Chiang Mai. As luck would have it, I arrived on a Sunday, just in time for the Sunday Night market. I decided to delay a night here to sample the sights and sounds of this town that I have never been to. Chiang Mai is an ancient city that used to be the capital of one of the northern Siamese kingdoms. Founded around 1296 by King Mengrai, it was originally named Nopphaburi Si Nakhonping Chiangmai. After being captured by the Burmese, it was finally incorporated into Thailand in 1774 when King Thaksin recaptured the area that is now Chiang Mai province. Since then Chaing Mai has become an important local economic hub in northern Thailand, where locals come to engage in trade and work. It is also an important destination in the Thai tourism industry. It is a fascinating city, and I highly recommend that any visitor to Thailand make the effort to visit it.

I arrived in Pai on the 10th Feb. Weston and John met me at the bus stop after a long, stomach churning minibus ride down a windy road driven by a maniacal driver. I immediaely hired a motorbike to get around town, as there are no taxis or other forms of public transport. I spent the first day exploring the area in and around Pai, and taking lots of photos. I haven't uploaded them yet, but if you check the gallery soon they'll be there, as soon as I get to a fast internet connection. It is an incredibly serene piece of countryside, lush with vegetation. I have taken many photos of this trip, all of which are available in my Twerl gallery.

There are many rural villages nearby where the tribes people live very traditional lives, more or less untouched by the dramatic social changes modernity brings. Pai, on the other hand, is a whole different story. It was clearly conquered long ago by armies of backpackers searching for authentic foreign experiences. While not westernised in the almost tasteless manner that Phuket or Koh Samui have been, Pai has been transformed by the many people travelling through it. All the foreigners there say how they prefer the authentic experience that Pai represents, which has taught me something fundamental about how societies interact; they cannot see reflections of themselves in others, they only see the differences. This may seem obvious, but in Pai, this property of human behaviour was demonstrated to me from the reverse angle; Instead of looking at another society and searching for something familiar as most people do, the travellers to Pai are looking for something different, they want the "authentic Thai experience". Over the years, Pai changed. Its society re-modelled itself to suit the backpackers flowing through it. The economy changed from selling farming tools and produce to selling handicrafts and souvenirs, the primary wealth generating activity changed from producing goods and trading them in nearby Chiang Mai to service based endeavours catering for their guests. The fact that the ex-pats living there did not recognise this and insisted that Pai represented "Thainess" as opposed to the regular tourist traps illustrates to me that they were unable to see those parts of themselves that were being imbibed by the locals, they only saw the differences that remained, which kept them believing that Pai was still truly authentically Thai. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a bad thing, Pai has retained a very pleasant, highly social community spirit, with local townspeople, foreigners and nearby Lesu tribe members mixing together in as close to perfect harmony as one will see on 21st century Earth. I merely make the point that this demonstrates the truism that observation without intervention is impossible. Backpackers are famous for their low-impact travel nature, they strive to leave as few footprints as they can and assimilate into the places that they go as invisibly as possible. However, Pai is an example of the ultimate impossibility of this effort. It is a macroscopic societal manifestation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The backpackers' money is the metaphorical photon to the the momentum of the local economy's particle, and I feel that this very interaction, this cross osmosis of human experience, ultimately enriches the lives of everybody it touches. Economically, fair trade always results in net gains to both sides. So too in societies; respectful trade in ideas, experiences and knowledge allows all who engage in it to gain from their expanded pool of wisdom.

The CouchSurfing collective was for me quite productive. While I did not get as much real coding done as I would have liked, interacting with the rest of the ream and meeting the other people who up until then I had only known by reputation or by email was great. The CouchSurfing team are great people, with a wonderful sense of common purpose and a genuine desire to have a positive impact upon the world. If only more groups could look past their implementational disagreements and concentrate on a shared vision, then there would be far more positive results from human interaction. Great work guys, I look forward to working with you in the future.

One story worth telling was the tale of The Nameless Cat. While on one of my exploration trips, I came across a cat starving and near death. Given its distance from any livable area and the fact that it was obviously highly domesticated, I could only conclude that it had been dumped as a nuisance cat by an annoyed ex-owner. Being the animal lover that I am, I bundled it up in my shirt and took it back into town. I must have looked a little odd, being topless with a half-dead cat wrapped up in the bike's basket. We got back to the Mango Tree (the main guest house where we all worked) and gave her some water. It seemed, however, that she was unable to drink. I went back into town to fetch some chloromycetin drops, syringes and latex gloves. John helped me wash her up, put some drops in her eyes which were caked over with dry sticky secretions and syringed some water down her throat. We attempted to feed her, but she wasn't interested. We decided to let her rest, and give her fluids every few hours until she got her strength back. She responded very well to handling, purring very strongly and seemed to welcome the syringed water. Unfortunately however, she just wouldn't eat. More disturbingly, maggots appeared at her nostrils and mouth. We spoke to a local vet, who suggested killing it with a shovel. I decided to get a second opinion. I took some photos and called an emergency centre in Australia who gave me some care advice. After assessing the photos, it was decided that the most likely result would unfortunately be euthanasia. I had neither the time nor the resources to give the cat the several weeks of intensive care that would be required to give it a chance, and even that would be a slim chance. The only other option was to put the cat back where I found it, which would only prolong her misery. We decided to wait and see what happened. 24 hours later, she was still unable or unwilling to eat, which, along with the ever-present maggots, was an indication that her condition was unlikely to improve. We euthanised her that day, using carbon monoxide asphyxiation, as it was the only non-violent means available to us. We buried her under a tree.

CouchSurfing was nice enough to pay for a collective outing to go bamboo rafting and elephant riding. It was great fun, we all got to float down the river on bamboo rafts, and then ride elephants. I really enjoyed the rafting, but the elephant riding was a bit boring. I enjoyed it for about 15 minutes, and then I realised just how slow the things moved, and just how hard their backbones were. I had a sore butt by the time we had to get off. Afterwards I sat in a hot spring that smelled of sulphur, which was great, as I was starting to get bad gas due to stomach problems.

Now I have not vomited since I was in primary school. However, during the course of the collective, I got such a bad bout of food poisoning that I vomited every hour one night. I was much better the morning after though, the whole episode lasted about 12 hours only, thankfully, with only minor belching issues for a few days thereafter.

After about 3 weeks I decided that it was time to leave the collective. I left with a friend of mine named Diamond from London, and headed down south for some sun and sand. We stayed in Koh Lanta for 3 days, which was absolutely stunning. The Thai south is beautiful, and I'm just sad I didn't spend a few more days there, as I didn't manage to get any scuba diving in. After that, I jumped on a plane for home, which brings us to the present. I hope you're not all too upset with me for keeping you in the dark, I'll do my best to update more often. Until the next time folks!

The myth of "economic rationalism"

9:15pm 26th June 2006

Why is it that every time world hunger, poverty or other humanitarian problems are brought up, all solutions offered are couched in terms of "economic rationalism"? The fiction of economic rationalism is counter-productive at best, and abhorrent when applied to matters of conscience. The way to solve human hunger and poverty is not through "economic empowerment programs" funded by the IMF, the unregulated employment of third world labour by first world corporations or donations by public charities. Rather, the rejection of selfish utilitarianism and the re-discovery of compassion are far more likely to yield positive results in the area of humanitarian need. How about paying the third world fairly for the resources they provide? Pay a fair rate for copper mined in Chile, or a fair rate on natural gas from East Timor, or a fair rate on timber milled in Thailand, or a fair rate on labour provided in China. After decades of counter-productive activities, I think it is now clear that economic theory, financial restructuring and nebulous concepts of development are not the answer to any of the world's many ills.

The first world pays deflated prices extorted out of third world countries because desperation is easily exploited. If a man has to choose between being exploited and starving to death, he will choose exploitation. It doesn't mean the exploiter is helping him survive, although that may be the argument used to salve an easily silenced conscience. It simply means that the starving man has no option, and the exploiter is willing to make use of that knowledge to his or her own advantage. To make matters worse, the first world intervenes in the politics of lesser developed nations or overthrows legitimate governments to install corrupt client regimes that will sell their citizens' very soul for a few petty bribes, deliberately exacerbating the problem of already abusive conditions. Many would think this to be conspiracy theorists' ranting or alarmist, anti-establishment propaganda. Perhaps, but I would suggest that one look to examples where organized, governmental efforts are made to create conditions where big business can exploit the rights of the world's people. An example that people in the technology world would be familiar with is the draconian US law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the corresponding government support of DRM, commonly accused of serving no purpose but the maintenance of the artificial monopoly that media production houses have on human creativity. Other examples include the history of Diego Garcia where a community was destroyed to provide a military base, the story of Britain's Opium Wars where a population was "pacified" and forcibly saturated with opium to create a market for a British trading company, the US mining of Nicaraguan ports, the overthrow of the elected Allende government in Chile and the hypocritical partaking in the Apartheid system. The list goes on so long that anyone who believes in the bona fide intentions of first world governments is either utterly misinformed or deliberately self-blinded to the truth.

The real answer to exploitation (and the "terrorist" reaction to it) is the rejection of greed as the motivation for human activity and replacing it with a sense of collective spirit. Markets, while they may be the natural order of things, are dangerous in the absence of communal consciousness. They can work for the good of society, but only if people think on a more mature level than "I want". This idea was put forward in the movie "A Beautiful Mind", where Russell Crowe's character comes up with a new economic theory when he and his friends are in a bar. According to his theory, members of a community need to be aware of the ramifications of their actions on the group, and take them into account when making decisions on how to go about achieving their personal goals. Acting with only their own interests in mind resulted in a negative result for all of them. People should be able to take into account social issues without a constant need for the government to tax them into a pattern of responsibility. There are cases where government intervention is required due to an issue's complexity or scope. Examples would be regulating the amount of fishing in an area or taxing the use of water from a river by local farmers. Such issues are beyond the judgement of individuals and need to be administered from a position of overarching information. Note also, these are not issues of personal morality or conscience. We cannot, and more importantly should not, rely on the government to apply community conscience in the form of taxes on cigarettes or legislation to prevent exploitation of workers. Paying workers a fraction of the real value of their work or deliberately causing others harm for profit should invoke Jiminy Cricket on short order. You know what happens when we let governments act as our consciences? They sell our collective soul, piece by piece. A little piece was sold on the market to the American organizations RIAA and MPAA, the title deed of which reads "DMCA". Another little piece was sold on the market to US defence contractors in a box on which was written "The PATRIOT Act". And then there are the unregulated international markets for insurance, financial services, the media, healthcare and education, markets that turn into feeding frenzies for corporations hungry to bite off chunks of our souls in the form of unreasonable insurance policies, exploitative mortgages, propaganda, disinformation, intellect-destroying "entertainment", socially asphyxiating security policies and the deprivation of medical care and education from all but the super rich. Community values are pieces of a society's soul, and they are being devoured wholesale by the government and corporate neo-noble plutocrats.

The myth that the market can solve moral problems by allowing consumers to "vote with their feet" and choose the most competitive and ethical options on the market is just that; a myth. An example of the way in which leaders arrogantly reject calls for community examination of market failure was in the answer Australian treasurer Peter Costello gave when asked about the possibility of government investigation into constantly rising fees in the Australian retail banking sector. He advised customers to just shop around when faced with unreasonable fees being charged by banks. This ridiculous stance was taken despite the glaringly obvious fact that consumers are unable to bank hop every few weeks or indeed, even every few years, as changing banks incurs massive expenditure of effort and energy. If banks are taking it in turns to hike rates by small amounts, then at any given point in time, consumers cannot reasonably change banks such that the benefit is worth the effort. This enables banks to raise fees, evaluating how much they can raise them by before they exceed the tolerance of their customers. Other banks see this, and raise their rates to match, or further if their marketing department tells them that the increase will not result in significant customer losses. Forget the fact that Australians already pay among the highest bank fees in the world as attested by foreign bank operators. Another example is the early market for broadband Internet access in Australia where customers faced heavy rewiring costs when changing from one provider to another. Consequently, the incumbent local carrier, Telstra, exploited the fact that they were "first off the block" with cable Internet, squeezing their existing customer base long after other companies had arrived with competing products. These are examples where market forces exploit the "hostage audience" phenomenon that occurs when a consumer product's nature places barriers against customers' exercise of choice. I am unaware of any acknowledgement of such "reverse price wars" in traditional economic theory, as it would undermine the principles of fundamentalist marketism currently dominating Western business, politics and economics.

Many would politely refute these ideas as idealist, unrealistic or utopian, or, impolitely deride them as communist. I reject this, and provide examples where ethics and community goals can be achieved and selfish impulses resisted within the ideology of market rationale. The change that is required is not a shift in paradigm from market mentality to some unworkable central administrative system or collectivist authority. Nor is it the complete degeneration into far-left wing anarchy. As with everything in this world, a balance needs to be struck. Market forces can operate effectively for society, provided society is made up of individuals not only concerned with self-gratification, but also social-gratification. To use economic terms, market agents have to act not only to maximize their own utility, but to maximize the total utility of the market as a whole.

The open source software movement is a community of developers who build products as a community. After much trial and error, successful business models have emerged around products like Linux, Apache, MySQL, PostgreSQL and PHP. They were all developed by people who were able to think in terms of community, community progress, meritocracy, and being motivated based on the unselfish desire to see humanity as a whole progress as a result of their efforts. Businesses often directly contribute money and staff time into developing these community projects. Examples include IBM, which restructured its entire operations to give a major focus to open source. This has proved to be an incredible success, despite the fact that IBM's contributions benefit their own competitors. IBM is now among the most skilled and profitable providers of Linux administration support and deployment consultation services.

Opponents of open source, such as Darl McBride and Mohit Joshi are fighting a bitter war against open source, labelling it communist, viral and damaging to innovation. Not only because it threatens proprietary software, but because it represents a fundamental shift in thinking from "I am the centre of my universe" to "The community is my universe". This way of thinking does not promote rampant consumerist behaviour or unfettered monopolist marketism, and as such is bad for corporate profits.

Other examples of self-regulated community conscience are to be seen in Ray Anderson's efforts with his company Interface, which required a huge leap of market-defying faith before dividends were paid. And paid they were, for Interface is now being rewarded by the market for its initial boldness. Unfortunately, community minded people are still in the tiny minority and generally labelled charlatans or hippies. Men like Ray Anderson are virtually non-existent in the business sector where profits this quarter are all that matter. Visionaries with sights on a better place for humanity, the arrival at which requires sacrifices on the bottom line this fiscal year, are unwelcome and derided as communist.

Pop culture convinces people that the only morality is satisfying the self. There is no reason that markets can't be self regulated by people with conscience. I agree that it is unrealistic, but only at this point in western history, because society has been conditioned by the panem et circenses of McDonalds, reality TV, credit cards and 34 brands of shampoo, all of which are elements of pop culture, acting in concert with the aim of convincing us that the only goal in life is self-gratification and consumption. It's no wonder that nobody thinks about the welfare of others; there isn't a game show that rewards altruism or a tabloid about people like Fred Hollows. Society as a whole has been saturated by depravity, and it is for this reason that the assertion that markets solve the ethical problem by creating a mechanism where consumers can vote with their feet for those market operators who engage in ethical practices is false. Society doesn't know, and has been conditioned not to care, about the ethical transgressions of corporations. Nike is still popular despite exposure of its sweatshops, Pfizer products are still among the most prescribed drugs despite its heinous transgressions in Nigeria and teenagers still take up smoking at record rates.

The answer to the poverty, hunger and war resulting from the gross inequalities between populations is not some socio-economic model of living standards, the issuing of "development loans" or even organized charities like World Vision and Oxfam, laudable though they may be. The answer is the re-discovery of social conscience. The answer is to recognize and resist the destructive elements of modern society such as spirit-crushing beauty magazines and depraved reality game shows. The answer is to re-introduce morality into society, reject the selfish consumerist values proscribed by pop culture and to re-realize that no man is an island. Helping one is helping all and in effect, helping ourselves. Only when we consider social gains to be intrinsically beneficial to ourselves, can we begin to cure social ills.

Mate, where's my country?

1:05pm 29th January 2006

I am becoming more and more alarmed by recent events in Australia in the post 9/11 world and the resulting political and legal changes this country is undergoing. Politicians and lawmakers tell us we are under attack from global fundamentalism of various kinds, that we should accept a stronger government hand in the fight against lawlessness and terrorism, and that fighting "preventive wars" abroad is a good thing. All the best things about Australia, her loving protection of everyday citizens, her blindness to racial, religious and cultural differences between her people and her provision of opportunities for all are falling apart.

John Howard's Australia Day speech should be unsettling for anyone who believes in the traditional moral, social and political values that Australia is built on. Australia was once called "The Lucky Country". It is for this reason that my family moved here in 1979. We came here from Apartheid South Africa, leaving behind a repressive regime intent on maintaining a singular moral and political ideology, forcefully and lethally imposing its values on those who would live differently. So today, 27 years later, hearing a speech from the most powerful man in my new home say "We expect all who come here to make an overriding commitment to Australia, its laws and its democratic values. We expect them to master the common language of English and we will help them to do so", I find myself afraid. Australia is not the place it was 2 decades ago.

Between federation and the 1980s, Australia had transformed itself from an insignificant collection of colonies in the British Empire to arguably the best place to live anywhere. Despite having a total population less than some cities elsewhere in the world as well as a land mass larger than Europe, she had a highly developed national infrastructure. Her roads, railways and telecommunications networks were as good as or better than those found anywhere. She had a public health care system that was among the best and most equitable in the world. There was a vibrant and politically aware culture, imbued with a unique sense of pluralistic commonality, where "live and let live" was more than just a catchy phrase. Government funded education put all levels of education within the reach of all. Even those with the lowest incomes were able to attain the highest levels of education, thanks to a framework of education policies such as HECS, the overall design of which was nothing short of benevolent genius.

Sure there were problems. Crises of conscience, arising out of the atrocities of colonialism and the racist "White Australia" policies provided reasons for the nation to collectively have a long, hard look at her history, acknowledging that all was not well for all segments of her population. Nonetheless, the people of Australia showed no fear in confronting these issues, and with developments like the "Mabo" cases, the formal establishment of communities from foreign lands and the public promotion of multiculturalism, it seemed that the Australian people were going to be among those few to make real progress in resisting the imbalanced, elitist, social order that has been imposed on most of the world by a colonial Europe.

And then something happened. Globalization. September 11. The spread of neo-conservatism among western governments. Terrorism. Precisely when it happened, I don't really know, but somewhere, somehow, Australia seems to have lost its way, hijacked by the corrupt forces of fundamentalist militant corporatism. Gone are the values of "fair go" and "equal opportunity for all", which are now nothing more than nostalgic phrases used by Australians fondly remembering a time that has since passed. Gone is the simple recognition that life is more than just dollars and cents and that happiness for individuals and families comes from a healthy society rather than a profitable economy. Gone are the ideals that drove Australia to reject the ideologies of uniform social order that she inherited from her colonial forefathers. They have all been replaced in Howard's brave new world, and frankly, I am terrified by what he has replaced them with.

In his speech Howard says:

"The great struggle of Australia's first century of nationhood was to reconcile a market economy with a fair and decent society. At the start of the 21st century, we have found a healthier balance in our political economy between public and private - one in keeping with the times and the contemporary character of the Australian people."

Well what does this mean? My interpretation, coloured by recent developments, is that Australia is degenerating into a raw capitalist society. True, in most of the first century after federation, Australia established a nation that did very well in balancing market ideology and liberalism with the values of a fair and decent society. She had the best of both worlds. The benefit of free markets were reaped; entrepreneurial activity was strong, her companies flourished globally, her standing in international trade was far higher than the tiny population would have suggested was achievable. Yet the people, the mothers, fathers and children that made up Australia, were not exposed to the raw chaffing that accompanies unfettered market activity. There are no economic indicators that show this, but have a chat with any Australian over the age of 40 and they'll tell you all about it. They'll tell you about a government that genuinely cared about the people it was elected by. They'll tell you about a time when economic policies did more than induce economic growth benefiting the rich. They'll also tell you that Howard's Australia is corroding these things. No longer does economic policy consider the "common good" as being what is good for common people, rather it now considers it to be increases in GDP, business growth and expansion of international trade, regardless who or how many actually see the results. Howard pays lip service to the ideals of equity in income distribution and claims to care about issues like poverty, but his policies belie his true views and disregard of the people he is supposed to lead. Examples abound, such as his decision to privatize Telstra in the face of clear opposition from a majority of the public. His policy of reckless privatization places all Australians at the mercy of the ruthless plutocracy it will create, turning Australia into an American styled society where money is the only measure of value, and only the rich benefit from Australia's health care, education and entrepreneurial opportunities. Another example was his blatant disregard for due process in pushing though anti-terror laws that do nothing to protect citizens from war, but create an environment where the government has far greater control over its citizens' activities and placing undue pressure on their rights. These laws, in the years since the pretext for their creation, September 11, have been getting more and more repressive, inching Australia towards Howard's apparent vision of a police state, ruled with the iron fists of his corporate friends. Oh, and let's not even discuss his decision in 2003 to send Australia to war with Iraq, a country she had no fight with, in a dispute her citizens wanted no part of, to support an ally the world is deeply suspicious of, for reasons that were questionable at the time and have since been proved to be false. Howard claims Australia has found "a healthier balance in our political economy". If it is healthier for someone, it certainly isn't the average Australian.

Howard also outlines his idea about what it means to Australians to be Australian. His new and improved idea of "one people, one destiny" harks back to Cold War era politics where nationalism and a singular set of national values drove nations to self-destruction in their struggles against one another. As though the wars of the twentieth century had never happened, Howard lays down his nationalist agenda with cultural, political and religious overtones. He proposes an Australia where we all sing the national anthem, our hands on our hearts, gazing in wonder at the majesty of the Australian flag, flapping in slow motion. Never mind that many in Australia consider the Australian flag to be a relic of colonial times, reflecting only that view of history where Anglo-Saxon settlers were heroes and pioneers. Never mind that many in Australia even consider flags and other such national symbols to be shallow meaningless celebrations of nationalism with no place in the modern, global world of the twenty first century where cultures, people and ideas know no borders.

By defining Australia as a Judeo-Christian nation rather than a nation that imbibes the views and ideas of all of its people equally, Howard places Australia at odds with the three quarters of the world that cannot be described as Judeo-Christian, including her nearest neighbours. At a time when globalization forces the Western and Eastern worlds together in such a way that they are exposed to the innermost workings of each others' ideologies with the differences resulting in varying levels of conflict, Australia is in a unique position to demonstrate to the world how an ideologically agnostic and socially compassionate government can lead to harmony and prosperity by allowing Australia's existing cultures of "fair go for all" and "live and let live" to simply continue. Howard instead chooses to redefine Australia as officially supporting a particular moral and religious point of view, while merely tolerating the existence of others. He does not seem to realize that other cultures have more to offer than souvlaki and tandoori chicken. This is at odds with my experience with the Australian people, who throughout my life here, did not merely tolerate the fact that I am Muslim, but embraced it and showed a willingness to have me actively participate in and be represented by the social fabric into which I have become woven. I am thankful for the benefits I have derived by living among such hospitable, principled people.

Howard doesn't stop at imposing his own personal ideology upon Australia's domestic political landscape, he has also irrevocably changed Australia's foreign profile from a historically peaceful nation, content to isolate itself from global conflicts, into one supportive of a particular global social order, willing to fight to further that cause. In doing so, Howard places Australians into the global, ideological battlefield. This, more than anything, is the real reason Australia has become the target of terrorism, and it seems that Australians now are going to have to take the blows that fall as a result of Howard's big mouth.

There was little gain from Australia's involvement in the Iraq war. The invoking of the ANZUS treaty was complete rubbish, as the flaws in the arguments for the war, the unreliability of the intelligence presented as supporting the need for the war and the complete absence of any indication that there was a link between the Iraqi government and the September 11 attack meant that there was no grounds on which Australia could consider its treaty partner to be "under attack". This is required by the treaty, which was established for the purpose of mutual defence, not mutual support in aggression. By choosing to enter the war, Howard has categorized Australia globally as another member state in the Anglo-American alliance of ultra conservative regimes spreading their particular brand of political order through military force. The so-called anti-terror laws, his dismantling of the bulwarks of Australian society such as her traditional labour protections, Medicare and HECS systems and willingness to commit Australian men and women to battles far away lay bare his right-wing alliances.

On a side note, the current situation in Australia highlights the flaws in the British style political culture that Howard is so keen on. With the opposition currently in administrative disarray and their views being an obsequious exercise in towing the official line, who do Australians vote for in order to effect real change? The Democrats? The Nationals? The Greens? The Australian Labor Party has clearly stated that they will not reverse the draconian anti-terror laws forced upon Australia by the Howard government, nor will they withdraw Australians from the unpopular war in Iraq, nor will they commit to cancelling the privatization of Telstra. Heck, why doesn't Kim Beazley just apply for Liberal Party membership? Even were Labour to be elected in the next election, it is doubtful they will have either the ability or the will to reverse the majority of the damage done to Australia's social fabric.

So it seems that Australia has started down the road to unfettered right wing conservatism. This road leads to a commodification of everything from health care to education, putting even these basic social services out of the reach of everyday citizens. This road leads to rampant erosion of civil liberties and an overbearing government. This road leads to a militant Australia starting fights with global opponents she has neither the will nor the resources to fight. This road leads to suffering. Perhaps, like my parents 27 years before me, it is time, sadly, to look for a more peaceful, more balanced place to live. Perhaps South Africa?

Laptop fixes and Thai village life

9:09pm 28th December 2005
Well its been a while since my last entry, I am typing this on my newly refurbished laptop, which I refurbished myself. The problems I was having was that the fan kept seizing up, causing the CPU to overheat. This in turn caused the Speed Step feature to constantly throttle down the CPU to prevent chip failure. The result was that the laptop was going very slowly, and making a rather scary noise while it was on. Also, the laptop was coming out of standby on its own, even while folded up inside the case. This annoyed the hell out of me, as the battery would be dead flat when I went to use it. Finally, the other relatively minor problem was the overly sensitive space bar, which would trip even on a moderately heavy press on the 'M' key. I dismantled my laptop, vacuumed out the fan enclosure, removed the key board and blew under the key caps, hoping to dislodge any foreign particles that may have been jammed under the space housing and jamming the mechanism in a partially depressed state. I also tightened several chassis screws that had obviously been tightened using power screwdrivers with on too light a torque setting. After re-assembly I am no longer getting fan operation errors on boot up and the noise is gone. Furthermore, CPU throttling only occurs under heavy load on hot days, just as it should. A complete success. The keyboard was less of a success, however it seems to be better, I no longer get rogue spaces when hitting 'B', 'N' or 'M'. I have yet to see the laptop coming to life on its own, and I think its safe to say that tightening the screws has exorcised the ghost that was bringing the laptop out of standby.

Anyway, at the moment I am in Thailand. Yes, again. Yes, I was just here, in October. No, I do not have a girlfriend here. Yes, I know I haven't put the photos from my last trip up, things have been hectic. I've been here for about a week now, and I've decided that I've had enough of the cities. So I decided to go out on a little tour. The guys were going to come with me, but they pulled out at the last minute, I was unable to cancel the whole thing as arrangements had already been made, so I'm doing the lone ranger thing and traveling solo. At the moment I am in a villa type hotel, if you can call it that, it's more like a group of chalets. I just had a drink with Kai, the owner, and his friend Manfred at the bar (Coke, before you ask). He is German and moved here after marrying a Thai woman. They have a daughter named Anne-Marie. We chatted for a few hours at the bar under the makeshift pagola, listening to 50's classics played from his laptop and state of the art German sound system. He was a man who knew what is really important in life. His business here earns very little, just more than what it costs to keep running, but then how much more do you need when 'running' means you and your family has a beautiful home, great food and is about 200km away from the nearest burglar?

Kai built this place on his own with a few workers from a local village and now lives here with his family. He has done a magnificent job. The bar overlooks the pool, and the whole area looks like a tropical resort. About 20 feet from the pool is a pit with a raised walkway above it and overhanging wire fencing. In this pit live several large crocodiles. I don't know about you, but the sight of crocodiles really makes me want to have a swim. All night Kai plays jazz and country while chatting idly with Manfred and any guests who happen to come out for a stroll. One could spend hours lying on a deck chair looking up at the crystal clear sky. The rooms are superb, right now I am sitting in bed, under a satin duvet that feels like it is filled with goose down on an incredibly comfortable mattress. Oh, and the air conditioning works a charm.

Before dropping me off at the hotel, Wassana, my tour guide, took me to visit her family's home, which is nearby. They live in conditions to be expected of rural areas in Thailand, reminding me just how much of a privilege things like hot water, gas or electric cooktops and plumbing really are. Most of the houses were nothing more than four walls made out of cinder blocks, with windows, clay tile roofing and a doorway. I say doorway, but most houses don't even have a door, privacy is achieved by the fact that it is dark inside and one cannot see inside during daylight. Bathrooms were made by partitioning off a section and putting in a traditional far eastern style squat toilet which, regardless of the modesty of the house, was kept surprisingly clean. Beds are little more than mats on the floor. People live in close proximity to each other, no more than 20m separating each dwelling. This suits their incredibly strong communal mentality, with everyone knowing everyone else and being welcome to sit on each others' porch, enter each others' homes, even use each others' motorbikes. Fences are unheard of. People trust each other implicitly and are friendly to strangers. I was welcomed with the genuineness that only the very poor seem to be able to manage, and immediately offered all kinds of food. I tried some fish and rice, but the rest contained pork and I was unable to try it, much to the chagrin of the housewives. Nevertheless, I wandered around the area, followed by a few young children including Wassana's son, Teun.

After getting to the hotel, I tried to convince my driver to take a room for himself, seeing as it costs under $30 per night it seemed ridiculous for me to allow him to spend the night in the van. However he refused, saying it was too expensive. I spoke to Kai and asked him to send his wife to tell my driver that a room was available and that he could stay there for free, but he saw through my little trick and politely told her that he preferred the van.

And that brings me to the end of today. It's been an adventure and I will no doubt be coming back to visit here again. I told Kai that if I ever came back I'd bring him a media PC he can use as a dedicated juke box with a nice big hard drive so he can store enough music to entertain even the most obscure of his guests' tastes. I hope you're all well and taking care of yourselves. I'll be home in about 10 days. I have many photos to show you all, and I beseech you to have patience until I find the energy to get them all up. Until my next entry, dear readers, this is Naz, signing out from somewhere in rural Thailand.

Thailand - Part 4

8:02am 30th September 2005
Well, a lot has happened in the days since I last updated my journal. We've been spending the majority of our time in Pattaya, a relatively new city that was made famous in the Vietnam War, when it was used as an official R&R center for the US military. It boasts some of the most beautiful tropical areas on the planet. After exploring, it is immediately clear why this area was chosen as the setting for the movie "The Beach", featuring Leonardo Di Caprio and telling of the search for paradise on Earth. There are many ancient fishing villages along the nearby coast and here you will find some of the oldest and most popular scuba diving sites in Asia.

By now we have made friends with many of the shopkeepers, the restaurant staff and a lot of the local residents. This is truly a different world to the one that I live in at home. The differences are so stark that one can't help but be taken aback. People's attitudes and their way of life is so different that I feel like I'm on another planet. One thing I noticed that really floored me was the breadth of ideological availability. There are people visiting here from all over the world, and all are catered for. There are swastikas as pendants and on t-shirts, posters with Fidel Castro looking heroic, shirts with anti-US slogans and the now-defunct hammer and sickle from the former USSR. Even Osama Bin Laden had a spot with his signature raised index finger looking as deadly as ever. But right next to them were icons from western bloc politics such as the common CIA, SWAT and FBI shirts representing the west's most respected law enforcement bodies, images of recognizable military hardware like the famous F-16 fighter aircraft and the almost indestructible Nimitz class aircraft carrier, and, of course, the good ol' stars and stripes. I spoke to a shopkeeper who told me that just about all items sold including the one with Adolf Hitler on it. My own personal feelings on the matter aside, I guess it just goes to show the extent of the phrase "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". One of the lecturers I had in law school said to me one of the very few things I heard at university that I consider valuable. He said "Everything is political. Oh, and everything is relative." Seeing a shirt with swastikas on sale for the price of a can of Pepsi rammed home just how true that statement is. It's a pity he said that to me in an after-class conversation and the rest of my class missed out on what I consider to be the best thing he said all year.

A friend and I have decided to take up scuba diving. We hope to get out PADI certifications soon. I have decided that as soon as possible I will be coming back here to do some of these dive sites. There are some of the best reefs in the world, as well as many wrecks, from small fishing boats to huge modern naval vessels sunken in recent wars.

Getting to some of the off shore islands is easy. We pay Bt2,000 (current exchange $1AUD = about Bt30) for our own private speedboat to take us to an island such as Koh Larn and wait there to take us back as soon as we're ready. There are many things to do on the islands, such as jet skiing, para sailing, scuba diving, beachside traditional Thai massage, a huge variety of foods to enjoy, motorbike trekking, swimming, sunbathing and banana boat rides. There are places to stay on the island and I think next time I'd like to stay on an island instead of in Pattaya itself with the loud obnoxious tourists.

Well that covers at least some of what we've done, I'll try to post an update in the next day or two with some more and I'm going to try to find a point I can plug my laptop into so I can upload my photos. Take care everyone and don't forget to watch this space!