Archive for the ‘society’ Category

“Global food prices are at record highs, driven by huge increases in the price of wheat, corn, sugar, dairy and oils. A complex mix of factors simultaneously boosting demand and constraining supply means the recent price surges might be just the beginning”. Below is a list of some of the main factors on the demand and supply side:

DEMAND

  • continuing rapid population growth, especially in so-called developing countries, means rising demand for food (we’re close to reaching 7 billion people on this planet this year, with 9.5 billion predicted by 2050, which will be a 300% increase on 1950s’ figures)
  • rising prosperity, especially in Asia and Brazil: wealthier people eat differently compared to poorer people, and they eat more and are willing and able to pay more for food; meat and dairy consumption has been growing rapidly and dietary pattern developed in Western countries over centuries have shifted in developing countries in decades
  • the arrival of new investors in food commodity markets (including large pension funds), being attracted by higher profits as a result of higher food prices

Supply

  • ever-increasing production of biofuels: a result of peak oil, rising fossil fuel demands from growing economic power houses like China, India and Brazil, climate change concerns, misguided and unsustainable government policies and economic interventions, profiteering by energy companies and other factors that made energy prices shoot up; all have led to a reduction in available areas dedicated to growing food and diverting millions of tons of cereals away from food markets
  • climate impacts, having led to weather related crop destruction over the last few years in main food producing countries like Russia, the US and Australia
  • the so-called Green Revolution that started to deliver increasing outputs since the 1960 is coming to the end of its life cycle
  • urbanisation and pollution are contributing to a growing scarcity of land and water; it is predicted that by 2030, 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas under water stress if current trends aren’t being reversed (and that will not just affect to so-called developing world)
  • government policies, especially restrictions and bans on food exports having negative consequences on food availability

Interesting times ahead, not just for food supply but also for whatever exists as world peace …

Source: SMH

Another brilliant article by Elizabeth Farrelly published by the Sydney Morning Herald. This time on why the privileged at the top of our societies, the so-called leaders in politics, sports and business, get away with pillaging, corruption, murder and rape. Do they have a specially sanctioned system of ethics? Do we approve of their seemingly impunity-driven Silverback actions? What is our relationship to these mainly alpha males that for example makes us think that rape is just a slight sexual digression or at the most a sex crime, instead of seeing it as a violence crime based on the assumed right to having power over someone else? Why aren’t we bothered when the heads of governments and armed forces play games that kill thousands of innocent villagers?

Farrelly offers some interesting observations and reflections in her usual hard-hitting and eloquent way. One small reservation though: while I’m enjoying the bollocking those so-called leaders, the last paragraph is somewhat detrimental to the post; it deflates the whole previous argument and almost kills it. There’s an easy fix though: just ignore it ;).

Gruesome gorillas in our midst

What do Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Sepp Blatter and the NSW Labor Right have in common? Only this. The grotesque sense of entitlement that lets top people act in ways totally unacceptable for the rest of us.

This is silverback behaviour. “Every group needs one,” says the trailer for Mountain Gorilla, “and every male aspires to be one.” True, perhaps, for those primates. But is it also – still – true for us?

When l’affaire DSK broke on May 15, France was shocked – not by the allegation that this presumed presidential contender had forced a hotel maid to perform une fellation, but that he had been jailed for it like a common criminal.

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Christine Boutin, France’s Christian Democrat leader, insisted DSK had been entrapped, as though it were inconceivable that this wealth-loving socialist and legendary womaniser might do wrong. This was the truly astonishing aspect of the Strauss-Kahn affair; the revelation that, at the top of this powerful and finger-pointing organisation, ethics simply do not apply.

The IMF’s 2400 staffers must abide by its increasingly stringent and policed ethical code, but its 24 directors are above scrutiny.

It’s no isolated case. We laugh at the Putins and Berlusconis, the Stalins and Bushes and Sarkozys, marvelling at their ongoing popularity as if we ourselves would never childishly follow such thugs. Yet we’re not so different, having just spent over a decade politely re-electing a Labor government that was clearly on the nose.

Only now, for example, is the 2007 below-market sale of Currawong to alleged Labor mates referred to ICAC. Engineered by the then secretary of Unions NSW, John Robertson, and facilitated by the Heritage Council member, uh, John Robertson, the Currawong sale seemed fishy from the start. Yet only now, with Tony Kelly’s vanishing, does sad little ICAC finally turn up the heat.

Or consider the weekend’s honours list, giving an AO to Mick Keelty who, as federal police commissioner, deliberately betrayed 19-year-old Scott Rush to Indonesian ”justice”. Keelty knew Rush was small-fry, and knew the father’s desperation, yet he dropped the boy into treatment we won’t tolerate for cattle.

Or take sport, which should be the cleanest of enterprises but consistently turns up among the filthiest. It’s dirty because of the money involved and because our reverence blinds us, but also because sport is native silverback territory.

Indeed, you might say sport derives its excitement from the tension between jungle-rule and the rules of the game. The same tension in the boardroom, however, generates cosiness and corruption. As the New York judge Loretta Preska noted in dismissing a 2007 appeal, “FIFA … still does not govern its actions by its slogan ‘Fair Play’.”

Sepp “let the women play in … tighter shorts” Blatter survived the Qatar corruption scandal but, as head of this graft-ridden autocracy, probably shouldn’t have. Juan Antonio Samaranch, who as head of the IOC (on which Blatter also serves) was more tinpot tyrant than Spanish patrician, shamelessly parading over decades his predilection for Franco’s fascists, five-star presidential suites and being addressed as ”Excellency”.

It’s like the Kerry Packer tax question. Why do we constantly condone behaviour at the top which we ourselves would never get away with and which, as a society, we affect to despise?

One theory is that decency isn’t mandated at the top because it needn’t be, because silverbacks are inherently decent.

This would explain the huge public outcry, almost grief, whenever a favourite actor is found sniffing cocaine from toilet seats or a football star king-hits a colleague for fun. But were it true, such events would be rare. So, hmmm. Plausibility problem. Another explanation is that we, needing to revere our Churchills and our Menzies, simply overlook their failings. But there’s a third, more disturbing possibility; that we actually select leaders who can look moral while acting in ways that are profoundly not. Leaders who have perfected the art of church-and-apple-pie Sundays while bombing the shite out of Third World villages. Leaders, that is, whose hypocrisy facilitates our own.

No surprise, then, that these primal morals accompany equally primitive attitudes to both violence and sex, blurring the bounds between these, our most primate appetites.

Open any paper and alongside the relatively innocent tabloid array of celebrity babies, boob-ads and ministerial fishnets there’s a whole other, more sinister genre of forced sex: paedophile priests, Gaddafi rape squads, campus stalkers, child-immigrant rape, asylum-seeker rape, workplace abuse (and its profits), naked French chaps leaping on hotel maids and rape rampant – so to speak – throughout the armed forces.

This is silverback territory, and it’s not actually sex at all. It’s repression, territory and power.

For there is a neglected distinction between sex and sexual abuse. Abuse, any psychologist will tell you, isn’t sex. It’s power. Rape is not a sex crime – though the titillation may be sexual – but a crime of violence. Yet these violent tendencies to treat others as territory are traits we consistently prefer in our leaders.

So is this reality? Has sex-as-repression always been core human behaviour and we’re just now noticing it? Or is it more that this brutal picture is the self-portrait we choose?

Even now the French press treats l’affaire DSK as a sexism issue – les phallocrates getting their comeuppance at last – while we treat it as a fascinating scandal, with added political frisson because the maid in question is black. But it’s not really about sexism or racism. It’s about the kind of monkeys we want running the show.

There is of course a good argument for evil, which is that perception depends on contrast. We wouldn’t feel goodness without knowing its opposite. But I’m suggesting more than that. That we actually love evil, especially when it’s in the closet.

Perhaps we’re like those chimps in the snake-in-the-box experiment, who know there’s really bad stuff in there but cannot resist going back for another peek. Are we secretly attracted to evil?

Maybe so. Then again, maybe we’re overdoing this whole primate thing. Maybe we could work a little on the sapiens angle instead. If actual goodness is too big an ask, just a little wisdom at the top would go a long, long way.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author and architect
More Elizabeth Farrelly articles

 

 

 

Illustration: Edd Aragon

Cane toads of the air thrive on stupidity

Elizabeth Farrelly, Sydney Morning Herald

I’m always amazed by how readily we let our buttons be pushed. It’s almost as though we want them to manipulate us. As though we like it. “Them”, here, obviously includes politicians, advertisers and spin merchants, but the worst offenders, partly because they’re the least explicit, are “shock jocks”.

They are the cane toads of contemporary culture: ugly, ubiquitous, toxic to most other life forms and adept at using their peculiar behaviour to force change in ours.

It’s not so much that they’re rude, lowbrow or just plain wrong, although these, too, are often the case. The most destructive effect of the shock-jockariat is the poisoning of the logic-well itself; followed by the incremental death of the argument tree that is root and branch of intelligent civilisation.

Take Alan Jones. Though it pains me to say it, he is forcing me to change my mind. Not on climate change, or cycling, or the right to public protest, all of which he opposes, but on censorship.

Foucault argued that unreason died with the enlightenment. But the shock-jock phenomenon proves repeatedly that if you make an argument sufficiently idiotic, the sheer scale of stupidity makes it hard to defeat. It was highlighted for me this week by a letter that argued, as Jones does, that anything so small as 0.04 per cent – the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere – couldn’t possibly matter. “Please let me know,” concluded my correspondent, “how anyone could believe that CO2 is responsible for climate change?”

It’s like arguing that a virus is too small to give you AIDS. Or that a lethal dose of heroin, at about 0.0007 per cent of your body weight, couldn’t possibly kill.

Never mind that applying the same logic to asylum seekers would make you wonder what all the fuss was about (our total asylum applications – 8150 last year, including dependants – being a mere 0.04 per cent of the population.)

These climate-change rants deliberately ignore everything about eco-balance, homeostasis, the greenhouse effect and tipping points we’ve all been taught since primary school and instead raucously promote a red herring.

Yet it’s neither stupidity nor ignorance on Jones’s part. Quite likely he’s read Robert Thouless’s list of dishonest tricks in argument, including caricature, anecdote and non sequitur. Or even Schopenhauer’s list. Bombast, hyperbole, personal insult; certainly he employs most of them.

No, Jones’s position is more cynical. It’s a deliberate appeal to (our) stupidity by (his) intelligence. And it’s not just Jones, or just Sydney, or just climate change.

What’s truly alarming is how accepted it has become that these popular voices deliberately flout the rules of argument. And that, in doing this, they so manipulate the vote that politicians move to appease.

The Adelaide author Ruth Starke has written of her encounter with a South Australian shock jock, Ray Fewings. At issue was a book – Nicki Gemmel’s Cleave. Written for adults, it contained sexuality and was selected by a 12-year-old from the school library. Mother appalled. Controversy ensued.

“Porn!” screamed the jocks. When Starke suggested the mother might have discussed the book with her daughter, Fewings cut her short for “attacking the mother” and accused her of wanting “open slather” so that “12-year-olds could read filth”.

Fewings then twisted this into “What gives Ruth Starke the right to dictate to parents what they should discuss with their children?” and “You heard from a writer who wants open slather to write whatever she wants”. Caricature, insult, emotive language; all core shock-jock stock.

Jones’s infamous carbon tax interview with Julia Gillard in February was scarily similar. First he repeatedly reprimanded the Prime Minister for being 10 minutes late. “I’ve got my job and you’ve got your job . . . 7.10 is 7.10 isn’t it? . . . We’re all busy.” This was followed by dozens of cuttings-in and talkings-over, plus an outright accusation of lying: “There are people now saying your name is not Julia but Ju-liar, and . . . we’ve got a liar running the country.”

Ditto with Clover Moore last May. As the lord mayor arrived Jones was already in a lather, voice raised, epithets at the ready, describing Sydney’s new cycleway as “the virtual destruction” of the city. “Thirty-four thousand votes,” he told her, “you virtually speak for nobody . . . Clover, you haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about . . . For godsake, Clover Moore, can’t you read?”

If all else fails, Schopenhauer recommends clouding the issue through bluff, confusion and induced anger. But beneath the barrage of emotion and insult, the technique here is to make scapegoats of cyclists as the cause of all that angers motorists (when in truth, every bike is a car taken off the road).

Why do politicians tolerate it? Why do we? My theory is this. Most shock jocks, and their audiences, are pretty long in the tooth. Perhaps there’s just a certain kind of person who, as the hormones start to recede, needs this pseudo-emotion to feel alive.

Yet it’s dangerous. We’re used to arguments about civilisation but seldom do we notice just how deeply argument itself underpins civilised life. In the classical tradition, this – rhetoric – was taught in schools. As a basic thinking skill, it came to govern public discussion and debate.

We could do the same. The rules of logic are not difficult. As taught to philosophy sophomores, they cover deductive and inductive reasoning, true and false syllogisms, building arguments with consistency, validity and soundness and – crucially – how to spot a fallacy. Pretty basic.

Without them, however, parliamentary democracy would be impossible. We’d never have risen from the yah-boo of the playground or the might-is-right jungle of silverback tribalism.

You don’t have to look far to see what happens without logic’s civilising structures; it’s the cultural equivalent of those Indonesian abattoirs. Yet this is where shock jocks are coming from and where, if they had their way, they would take us, forcing me to wonder whether censorship mightn’t be reasonable after all.

But there is hope.

Last week, after my cane toads column, several Queenslanders wrote in to say they hadn’t actually seen serious toad numbers for some time. Something, they inferred, is killing them off.

Maybe it’s the same with shock-jockery. We can only hope it happens before it irreparably harms our civilisation, as well as our climate.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author and architect
More Elizabeth Farrelly articles

Why men stopped going to the moon

Posted: June 8, 2011 in society
Tags: ,

To interrupt Obama to speak out against the incarceration of Bradley Manning is certainly a justified action on many grounds, but to volunteer US$ 76,000 for the privilege somehow takes the edge of the meaning of protests. But then: you’re a protester of a special kind guess when you actually love the guy you heckle!

Protesters Interrupt Obama to Sing Support for Bradley Manning

Updated at 4:10 p.m to identify the female protester who led the song.

Protesters supporting WikiLeaks suspect Bradley Manning managed to infiltrate a private fundraiser for President Barack Obama on Thursday morning in San Francisco, interrupting his remarks with a song.

As Obama was speaking at the $5,000-a-plate breakfast fundraiser, California activist Naomi Pitcairn (above), sitting at one of the tables, began humming and singing a modified version of the song “Where’s Our Change?”, decrying Manning’s treatment in prison. Pitcairn removed her blazer and shirt to reveal a T-shirt with a picture of the young Army intelligence analyst who is suspected of leaking a massive cache of classified and sensitive documents to the secret-spilling site WikiLeaks.

As the rest of the group at Pitcairn’s table joined in with her song, they held up signs that read “Free Bradley Manning“.

“Each of us brought you $5,000 — we’ll vote for you in 2012, yes that’s true. Look at the Republicans, what else can we do,” the group sang.

As White House aides escorted Pitcairn from the room, she said, “Free Bradley Manning. I’m leaving. I hope I don’t get tortured in jail.”

“That was a nice song,” Obama said as she finished singing. “You guys have much better voices than I. Thank you very much.” Then he turned back to his speech. “Where was I?”

Pitcairn told the San Francisco Chronicle that she paid $76,000 to get the protesters tickets to the event, which was held at the swanky St. Regis hotel downtown.

The protest was arranged by a new group calling itself the Fresh Juice Party, which is promising to pay protesters various amounts of money if they videotape themselves singing the song in public forums and handing out Fresh Juice bills.

Participants can earn $50 if their performance is before 20 people who are “within earshot of the song,” and $75 if the singer dons a costume. The nature of the costume is up to the singer.

The price goes up to $100 for singing the song in a Bradley Manning mask and T-shirt, or for singing within the legal perimeter of a state capitol building, the U.S. Capitol building or the White House.

The lyrics of the Bradley Manning version of the song follow.

Dear Mr. President, we honor you today, sir.
Each of us brought you $5,000.
It takes a lot of Benjamins to run a campaign.
I paid my dues, where’s our change?
We’ll vote for you in 2012, yes that’s true.
Look at the Republicans — what else can we do?
Even though we don’t know if we’ll retain our liberties
In what you seem content to call a free society.
Yes, it’s true that Terry Jones is legally free
To burn a people’s holy book in shameful effigy.
But at another location in this country
Alone in a 6 x 12 cell sits Bradley,
23 hours a day and night.
The 5th and 8th Amendments say this kind of thing ain’t right,
We paid our dues, where’s our change?

Photo: Logan Price

Kim Zetter is a senior reporter at Wired covering cybercrime, privacy, security and civil liberties.
Follow @KimZetter on Twitter.

Genentech, part of Roche Group, inventor of Avastin and Lucentis

Many great scientific discoveries were born out of pure accident.  How about curing blindness in only one or two treatments with a drug that was originally designed to combat cancer? What if it only cost around the same as taking your family to the movies? Impressed yet? You should be. Doctors have been using Avastin (bevacizumab), an anti-cancer drug, to treat certain types of blindness, such as vascular retinopathy, and the initiative paid off more than anybody ever imagined, the drug being 20% more effective than conventional laser therapy. However, there are always obstacles to great ideas, and this time they are human rather than technical. Roche Group, the company behind Avastin, simply does not support its use for treatment of retinopathy. Why? Roche’s official position is that they are concerned about patient safety since Avastin was not designed to be used for eye conditions. However, perhaps it has less to do with supposed safety concerns and more with the fact that Avastin costs approximately forty times less than Lucentis (ranibizumab), Roche’s officially supported retinopathy treatment?

Avastin was originally developed as a treatment for colon cancer. However, unlike the traditional chemotherapy, it works by preventing growth of capillaries in cancer tissue. Since cells receive the necessary nutrients through the blood, halting proliferation of blood vessels effectively starves the cancer until it dies off naturally. The idea to use Avastin to treat vascular retinopathy, a type of blindness caused by overcrowding of blood vessels in the retina, seems only natural as the next logical step, as many doctors have figured out, successfully treating age-related macular retinopathy in pre-maturely born babies. By using Avastin to stop the unchecked growth of blood vessels, doctors were able to prevent the degeneration of the retina, sometimes in only one treatment.

The difference? Around 1,550 bucks.

However, since Roche does not seem to be too keen on approving Avastin’s use on the eyes, doctors undertake such treatment at their own risk. The treatment of vascular retinopathy with Avastin remains off-label and unofficial. Of course, all is not lost: Roche is coming to the rescue with Lucentis, a patented retinopathy treatment from the makers of Avastin. The only problem is that Lucentis is nothing more than a smaller derivative of Avastin’s active compound. Sure, it has been subjected to a technique called affinity maturation, which, theoretically, makes it bind more strongly to the blood vessel proteins, but on a practical level, it does not seem to be all that more effective. In fact, the only practical difference between Avastin and Lucentis, when it comes to the treatment of vascular retinopathy, is the price. Avastin costs an average $40 per dose as opposed to Lucentis’ $1600.

Doctors both in the United States and Britain have been trying for many years to get Roche to organize clinical trials to compare the efficacy of Avastin and Lucentis, but Roche has been reluctant for obvious reasons. A recent study conducted by the National Eye Institute (NEI), which included over fifty-five participant medical centers, is supposed to finally put an end to the controversy of which drug to use to treat eye conditions. The study was only finished in February with the results showing no difference in efficacy between Avastin and Lucentis in treating vascular retinopathy. A smaller scale study was done in parallel in Boston University School of Medicine that reached the same conclusion.

All of this really begs the question of just how genuine the pharmaceutical industry is. It is no secret that pharmaceutics is an expensive industry, especially in America. The United States spends the most on healthcare out of the developed countries, in large part because of medication, and still manages to have the highest rates for infant mortality and diabetes. Incidentally, the United States is also the only country in the world that allows advertising of medicines on public television. It is this practice that inflates the price of drugs for the average consumers – the marketing budget for a particular solution is usually always factored into the manufacturer’s price. This and other business practices hike the prices of medicines to obscene amounts even though the actual drug costs cents per pill to produce.

However, much more is at stake here than pharmaceutical companies trying to recuperate the indirect costs of production by charging a higher price for the drug. The most insane fact in this whole controversy of Avastin vs. Lucentis was that Roche blatantly refused to approve, or even test, a product that was obviously effective, all the while trying to push through an almost exact copy for forty times the cost. Of course, in a capitalist economy, everyone is within their right to make a profit on a product of their making, but therein also lies the problem. The chief priority of any private company is not to actually produce anything, but to make a profit on whatever it is producing.

Of course, the study that was conducted by NEI should clear everything up in this case, but who can really be sure that other companies and other medications are not involved in similar incidents? How can the person paying for a drug know that he is really paying what the drug is actually worth? Perhaps this is a good moment to take a closer look at the pharmaceutical industry and possibly reform or tighten some of their regulations. Hopefully, this case will be a strong stimulus to launch such a reform and see that it is carried out to completion. Sadly, though, few of us believe that will actually happen.

[Source: The Guardian, National Eye Institute, Roche Group, Visual Economics]

Detention centres for asylum seekers are bad; badly run detention centres are even worse. Who runs all detention centres in Australia? Cerco. Who is Cerco? Find out some astonishing facts …


 
Produced by the forever excellent Hungry Beast gang.

An interesting opinion piece by Elizabeth Farrelly in the National Times, reflecting on the results in politics and life at large of ignorance, dumbness and the pursuit of happiness.
 

cartoon
Illustration: Edd Aragon

 
It may be, as one correspondent wrote last week, that advertising works on the “80/80 principle”, the assumption that 80 per cent of Australians have an IQ average of 80. Now I’m fine with stupidity in advertising. Indeed, I expect nothing less – isn’t that why God gave us the mute button? But what makes the 80/80 thought especially gripping – as in, by the throat – is how much it explains that branch of advertising we call politics.

This is all about scale, or if you like, dosage – a thing whose implications we perpetually refuse to grasp, although they are increasingly hard to ignore.

We’re used to the idea of economies of scale, the savings in time or money reaped by producing something – from attack helicopters to graduate dentists – en masse. We’re not as good at getting our heads around the costs of scale, how a small personal indulgence blows out, when repeated over time and space, into planetary destruction.

Everything is dose related. Whether it’s arsenic in your diet or radioactivity in the sea, small amounts now and then are OK, even beneficial, but large amounts, repeatedly, are bad and even terminal. It’s the same with almost everything else – cars, houses, chocolate, holidays, even happiness.

For one person to live in an acre of grass and trees is perfectly harmless, even lovable. But for the numberless hordes to do it means an end to wilderness, clean air and polar bears. This must be obvious to everyone who has ever sat in the daily Sydney-to-Richmond traffic jam, yet we do not see it. Which is why premiers repeatedly stake their careers on building more roads, which just means more congestion. We don’t have to be dumb. It’s enough that our leaders think we are, and pander accordingly.

All of which bears out the 80/80 principle, and is why we may find ourselves forced to choose between democracy and survival.

Democracy is very close to our hearts. So close that we go to war in order to impose it on those too weak or benighted to grab it for themselves. But democracy, the tyranny of the majority, may yet prove an own goal for humanity, mainly because of the weird trick it does with scale; allowing us all to pursue our own happiness as if we were the only ones on the planet. Allowing us to act like a vast family of solipsistic only children, steadfastly voting for lower taxes and higher services.

Democracy and happiness have been buddies ever since Thomas Jefferson wrote “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence. In the 250 years since, this has become one of the most influential phrases of all time, and not necessarily in a good way.

Happiness has become not just a universal entitlement but almost an obligation, replacing such ideals as goodness or enlightenment as Life’s True Purpose. It’s not that, as a society, we’re especially happy. More than we feel we ought to be. We feel that, under the circumstances, and given the vast quanta of food, pleasure, leisure, wealth and freedom at our disposal, there’s no reason not to be.

Perhaps this in itself is just another illustration of that 80/80 thing. There are two compelling proofs of the stupidity of the pursuit of happiness. One is small scale, private and relatively benign; the other large scale, public and a serious threat to survival.

The first proof is that pursuing happiness doesn’t work. Whether breatharianism or extreme underwater yoga is your bent, happiness is an elusive creature that exists only when you’re looking neither for nor at it. Even Martin Seligman, positive psychology’s founding father, admits that the most reliable path to happiness is not to pursue it, but to commit to some greater, connective cause (be it housing the homeless or writing metaphysical sonnets).

The second proof is more serious because it engages questions of scale and dose. En masse, when all of our small, personal happiness pursuits coagulate into one big, ongoing, democratic res publica, the result is an increasingly cowed and cowardly leadership with no higher goal than this; to service an increasingly petulant public by telling it precisely what it wishes to hear.

Of course you can have both cheap petrol and clean air, my darlings. Yes, yes. Big houses and swift individual transport, perfect health for free and forever, new toys all round, all the time – these things are everybody’s right. There there. Back to sleep with you.

Are we stupid? Or are they? Often it’s hard to tell. But there is, I suggest, little or no evidence that democracies can take hard decisions, even when their own long-term interests are at stake. To wit, America’s reluctance to impose a GST despite the embarrassing talk of a credit rating drop and the fact that most of its states are bankrupt. To wit, Australia’s ludicrous dithering on a pollution tax.

Whether non-democracies such as China will negotiate the rapids of the coming century more adroitly remains to be seen. Certainly, freed from any need to pander to the 80/80 rule, they have at least one freedom Western-style democracies do not have – the freedom to act decisively.

This, of course, can be bad, very bad. But it can also be good, facilitating just the kind of purposive decision making needed to change habits quickly and cater to excellence rather than popularity.

Maybe it’s too soon to dump democracy, but I’d make voting a privilege; not a right, and certainly not an obligation. If they can’t be bothered to vote, the last thing you want is their help in running the country. Rather, we’d earn our voting rights by demonstrating at least some intelligent grasp of the issues and so force, or perhaps allow, our leaders to raise their eye-cues.

Elitist? Perhaps. But we don’t have a problem choosing runners for the Olympics. So how is that different from putting the smartest in charge of the ship? It’s that dose thing. A small increment in IQ, repeated daily, would make all the difference.

An advertising company has apologised after placing a billboard for The Walking Dead next to a funeral parlour.

(While i can seriously imagine the grief it might cause to some people, a part of me cannot ignore the funny irony of this juxtaposition, especially since it seems that the funeral parlour might benefit from the billboard 😉 ).

See Digital Spy for more info.

The following article is  a bit imbalanced – for example by focusing on that one individual and not highlighting the role of the major parties in creating the media billionaires in the first place, even long before that incompetent media tart Fielding appeared on the scene.

Nevertheless, his conservative presence was part of pushing further the process of demolishing freedom the press and the production of balanced information – in the same way he supported anti-gay, law and order, and zero-tolerance drug policies as well as christian indoctrination at schools.

On the other hand: he and the billionaires are just another expression of the system overall, which is not a people’s democracy, doesn’t stand for social and economic justice, doesn’t promote by example ethics of peace, harmony, equality, respect and tolerance, ravages the environment, and so on.

Having said all that: despite the article’s narrow focus it gives a good overview of how the media in Australia are concentrated in whose few hands.

By Stephen Mayne for Crikey

Steve Fielding retires from the Senate on June 30, but one of his lasting legacies will be the continuing flow of media deals triggered by John Howard’s liberalisation of foreign and cross-media ownership laws in 2005.

With Austar set to be swallowed by Foxtel, WA News now merged with Seven and Southern Cross Media consuming Austereo, it is worth reflecting on just how far the media landscape has changed since Fielding provided that key vote.

Former Fairfax Media chairman Ron Walker lead that company on a debt-funded takeover binge as it bought Rural Press and Southern Cross Broadcasting’s radio assets, wiping out two independent players. Today Fairfax is capitalised at $3 billion, although it somehow claims to have net assets worth $5.3 billion, suggesting new CEO Greg Hywood needs to ‘do a Leighton’ and take some write-downs.

WA News also joined the “no longer independent” club and foreign private equity firms enriched James Packer and Kerry Stokes beyond their wildest dreams, although both partially squandered their windfalls.

The media industry globally retains unusually high levels of family ownership and this is especially so in Australia, where billionaires remain as dominant as ever, even after considering the influx of private equity.

After factoring in Monday’s WA News vote approving the $4 billion Seven Media Group purchase and Southern Cross Media’s fully committed $471 million capital raising to fund the Austereo acquisition, this is how the 12 most valuable Australian media companies stack up in terms of market capitalisation and billionaire influence:

  1. News Corp:$44 billion; Murdoch family controls through a gerrymander which allows a $6 billion stake to translate into four family members on the 17-person board because 70% of the shares can’t vote.
  2. Telstra: $35 billion; Future Fund now under 5% and no billionaires with influence.
  3. Fairfax Media: $3 billion; Fairfax family has second largest shareholder with 10% and one board seat.
  4. Seven Group Holdings: $2.86 billion; Kerry Stokes owns 67.8% and Westrac is now a dominant asset although pay-TV investment remains.
  5. Seven West Media: $2.4 billion; Seven Group Holdings owns 29.6% which equates to a direct stake for Kerry Stokes of 20%. Kohlberg Kravis Roberts is the second largest shareholder with 13%.
  6. Seek: $2.25 billion; founding Bassat brothers’ share is down below 5% and James Packer sold out so register is wide open.
  7. REA Group: $1.78 billion; value of News Ltd’s 61% stake has just gone past $1 billion for first time.
  8. Austar: $1.7 billion; John Malone’s Liberty Media owns 55% (worth $935 million), most of which is profit.
  9. Consolidated Media Holdings: $1.6 billion; James Packer privately controls 47% and Kerry Stokes has 23% through Seven Group Holdings.
  10. Ten Network: $1.45 billion; three billionaires plus Lachlan Murdoch are sharing control with 40%.
  11. Carsales.com: $1.21 billion; CVC just sold controlling interest so register now wide open.
  12. Southern Cross Media: $1.2 billion; Macquarie Group is largest shareholder with 25% worth $350 million. They are a seller in time so control is open for any billionaire who wishes to step in.
  13. APN News & Media: $977 million; embattled Irish player Independent Newspapers still hanging on with controlling 30% stake but O’Reilly family influence has waned.

The only big player missing from all this is PBL Media, although private equity firm CVC is still hoping it can float the Nine Network and ACP later this year. Bermuda-based billionaire Bruce Gordon also has a big business in his privately owned WIN Group which owns Channel Nine in Perth and Adelaide, plus several regional affiliates. He also happens to be the largest shareholder in Ten Network Holdings, with a representative on the board despite the conflict.

Interestingly, there aren’t too many mid-cap media companies once you move beyond the 12 companies listed above.

You could try investing in Macquarie Radio (market cap $89 million) if you fancy some exposure to Alan Jones or Seven regional affiliate Prime Media, which is worth $286 million and controlled by healthcare billionaire Paul Ramsay. After that, you are looking at smaller advertising and marketing plays such as Photon, Hyro, Facilitate and STW Holdings.

Billionaires are clearly more attracted to media assets with political influence, which might explain why Carsales and Seek have wide open registers.

Online classified advertising has been hugely lucrative for those cutting the lunch of the old newspaper companies but it is neither s-xy, prestigious or powerful for those wanting influence. That said, News Ltd is now enjoying paper profits of about $900 million on its 61% stake in REA Group which more than offsets all the losses from its disastrous MySpace internet adventure.

The Murdochs remain the most powerful media family in the Australian market because News Corp owns more than 60% of Australia’s newspapers, the third biggest magazine business and has management control of Foxtel. Then you have Lachlan Murdoch who personally owns 50% of radio operator DMG and almost 10% of Ten Network Holdings, where he is making a hash of things as acting CEO.

Look no further than the resignation this morning of former Ten CEO Paul Viner, who has clearly had enough of the “buy 10% and get a board seat” billionaires club who now control Australia’s third biggest television network.