Michael Pascoe’s journalism isn’t all business and economics. Here are examples of other pieces he’s glad he had the chance to write, from the personal to the purely entertaining:
Vale Max the Dog
– YTE, March 2011
Every second dog is called Max. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. I can’t imagine who surveys such things or how they go about it without birth certificates to work from, but “they” claim Max is the most popular dog name. And I don’t know if that’s correct – how can you tell what dogs think about such things?
It doesn’t matter. Our very dear Max, he of the common name, died sometime early the Wednesday morning before Christmas. He was lying in a flower bed in the backyard, near his favourite spot for sunbaking in cooler months.
He must have grown tired of the embarrassment and inconvenience of his back legs not working as well as they should anymore. Maybe he had just grown
tired, being 14 years and four months, old for a Dalmatian, a century in our money. So he went to sleep among the agapanthus.
Max was a happy, loved dog, a generous soul, an excellent companion for a walk or to have lie on your rug, a great help in the kitchen, just in case anything dropped and needed cleaning up. He grew up with a bunch of boys growing up, so he had been provided with entertainment. Unlike many
dogs, he was forgiven his indiscretions, he was never belted, never worked, never urged to be savage, never had to worry about going hungry – though his eyes might have said otherwise when he thought it was time for supper.
Being a particularly handsome liver-spotted Dalmatian, he received more attention from small children than most dogs. Patted, grabbed and chased by
random small strangers for 100 years, yet it was behaviour always suffered with good grace.
Aside from us, he most liked fellow doggy dogs (chocolate Labs his very favourite flavour – he turned gay for choc Labs). He was wary and suspicious
of those breeds more closely related to wolves and considered himself above any small dogs that yapped at him. (“Don’t even ignore them.”)
Cats were for chasing – except for that one that didn’t run away, that stood its ground and arched and hissed and stopped him in his tracks a metre away,
confused and uncomfortable. Stupid cat not knowing the Order of Things. We pretended it never happened. What cat?
The yard will be neater when no longer a big dog’s toilet, the house might smell sweeter without the lingering hint of his particularly foul farts. Possums, blue tongue lizards (sorry) and – from younger, quicker days – the occasional slow dove and mouse will not miss him, but anyone who had the chance to ruffle those big soft spotted ears surely will.
We are better for having had Max, for him increasing our ability to love another, for the pain of missing him, for making us more human.
The boys, now fine men, have buried him where he liked to snooze in the sun. He seemed happy to sometimes have sheets flapping over him from the washing line. Now they always will.
There is no theological debate about the presence of dogs in heaven, only about whether they run the place.
A friend replied to that statement that they probably are in charge – all those souls full of unconditional love, bounding about convinced that whatever they are doing at the instant is simply The Best Thing to be doing. Which is how it should be.
And that is all good, life and death and love and pain and heaven being run by dogs. And in the general scale of things, we know he was a dog. I won’t say ”just” a dog, but he was a dog, an old dog, when so many people suffer massively greater loss and real tragedy, unthinkable tragedies.
But, still, what do we do with the scraps? Christmas dinner with the leftover turkey on the plates of those with eyes even bigger than their stomachs, you really just throw that out? We feel a little guilty.
Without the benefit of Black Tie Canine Dinners or Itchy Ban only-sold-by-vets-at-the-price-of-steak special formula, Max lived a good life on scraps, leftovers of dubious use-by dates and whatever ordinary dog food was going round. (And it’s our luck that his preferred cans were on special the week he died – we went long 1.2 kg cans of Pedigree just before that particular market collapsed.) There may be allegations about the piquancy of his flatulence being the result of said diet, but he was a dog, a scavenger by distant heritage, and there was nothing he drooled for more than a good plate of scraps.
When going to such a good cause, some excess servings hardly mattered, that extra half-slice of lamb, an uneaten potato, gristly bits, the broccoli not wanted anyway. So the Thai takeaway from a couple of nights ago wasn’t finished up, doesn’t matter, Max loved it. And if a dog was lucky, sometimes a spare steak could disappear at the back of the fridge for a little too long and become his.
But now the Sydney Morning Herald is guilt tripping us with stories of families throwing out thousands of dollars worth of food, of waste and wanton wontons. We weren’t like that with Max. Now we are.
So if we take the newspaper’s advice, there will have to be changes. Smaller servings. Or forced finishing of unloved takeaway curries. And reportedly lesbians make better parents, but there are limits to our dedication.
No, it’s too late for that much change. We’ll waste food and try to find some comfort in the thought that the consumption by one means or another is still good for the economy. Just when someone at a dinner party leaves a juicy piece of beef that was too rare for them, we’ll forever think: Gees, Max would have loved that.
Our 23-millionth citizen has just won life’s lottery
(http://www.smh.com.au/business/our-23millionth-citizen-has-just-won-lifes-lottery-20130422-2i96s.html ) – SMH, April 22, 2013
It will be a big night for the nation on Tuesday. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ population clock, at 9.57pm someone will step off a plane or a baby will be born to become the 23-millionth Australian.
Ask a random roomful of Australians what they think of our population might be to the nearest hundred thousand and you’ll find many of us are still getting used to the idea of being one of 22 million, let alone realising that the clock is about to tick over to 23 million – another milestone along the road to a bigger (but not actually big) Australia.
Baby 23,000,000, you will have won the equivalent of the global lottery just by being born here.
Using quarterly demographic updates to build on the 2011 census, the ABS reckons an Australian is born every one minute and 44 seconds, one dies every three minutes and 32 seconds and the balance of long-term arrivals minus long-term departures adds a net international migrant every two minutes and 19 seconds – all adding up to Australia gaining an extra person every one minute and 23 seconds.
Odds are that a baby born in Australia will have better housing, better health and much longer life expectancy than most of its global peers. Photo: Supplied
Net overseas migration’s share of population growth is running faster than our “natural” increase ( a ratio of 3 to 2), but the 23-millionth moment occurring in the evening makes it much more likely that the first of the new million is a new born – most international flights arrive during the day.
So, with the politicians yet to chime in on the photo opportunity, I suppose the honour of welcoming and congratulating the first one-in-23-million Australian falls to this mere journalist.
Congratulations are indeed deserved because, Baby 23,000,000, you will have won the equivalent of the global lottery just by being born here. If your mother is an unmarried teenager reliant on our social welfare system, you’re still much better off than most babies born on April 23. Odds are that you will have better housing, better health and much longer life expectancy than your mewing peers.
You have a universal free health care system serving your immediate needs when the world’s richest nation still can’t organise such a thing and most of the babies born tomorrow will do so in quite basic circumstances. You’ll have doctors and nurses concerned for your welfare and the start of an immunisation program that gives you a world-leading chance of making it to primary school – unless you’re unfortunate enough to score one of those dipsy organic Mosman mums.
And talking of school, you have the promise of 13 years of free education, if you want it and have the ability and common sense to grab the opportunity when much of the world is lucky to finish primary. Thereafter, we have a HECS system that offers you the chance of tertiary education without your parents being rich and/or apprenticeships in very valuable trades.
You have struck it particularly lucky in being born in a country that enjoys the rule of law – more-so if you’re rich and white, but it’s still there. You’ll get to decide which bunch of politicians is less-worse than the other on a regular basis and make your way in a society that is one of the least corrupt on the planet. (Everything is relative.)
Yours is a society that, while not as financially egalitarian as it was a little while back, remains one with a bridgeable gap between its rich and poor. There is luck involved, but it remains possible here for you to do anything that your talent, drive and dedication is capable of. (Right now you can even write for a great newspaper company, the one without a publisher’s political line, and end a sentence with a preposition.)
If you’re a girl, you’ll be able to wear as little or as much clothing as you wish, in appropriate circumstances, and you’ll have the same rights as a boy to the education and career of your choice. At our present rate of evolution, that right will be taken for granted by the time you get to exercise it and you’ll be legally able to marry the person of your choice, regardless of race, religion, social strata or sex.
Religion? It’s your call to believe or not believe in whatever god or gods you like, as long as you peaceably extend that right to everyone else because faith is, well, a matter of faith.
You might not guess it with all the whingeing and whining you’ll hear, but you’ve been born in the World Champion Economy – a country so rich and privileged that it complains about having a strong currency and an unemployment rate starting with 5. Your fellow citizens are convinced they are highly taxed, although they’re in the bottom third of rich nations on that score, and, ironically, that the government doesn’t do enough for them, although they’re in the top third when it comes to social safety nets.
If you’re really, really lucky, you’ll be born a Queenslander and therefore inherent ownership of the nation’s greatest rugby union and league teams, but have the freedom – if you can afford it – to live in Sydney, the world’s most beautiful city despite what its citizens try to do and not do to it.
But you don’t have to. You’ll have freedom of movement to enjoy the whole Dorothy Mackellar panorama – sweeping plains, rugged mountain ranges, jungles, deserts, drought and flooding rains. You can go troppo in the Build Up and cuddle around a Tasmanian fireplace, worship vast, empty surf beaches and embrace the blizzard-tortured sculpture of snow gums.
You can open your heart to the endless openness of the outback, absorb that red dust and strength of character into your soul, or thrive in a tiny inner-city apartment with the sound of sirens and aroma of coffee, spilt wine and stale beer as constant companions. You can even follow something called AFL, if you really want to.
We have cities and country towns and bush, Baby 23,000,000, where you can find your life’s meaning, or lose it if you’re careless. It’s up to you – and that is the most wonderful privilege of all.
And you get all that just by being born here. Beyond such extraordinary fortune, it’s a matter of wishing you well, hoping that you are born into a family that loves and strengthens you, that gives you what you need rather than what you want, that encourages you to adopt the best of the national character – believing in a fair go, supporting the underdog, being prepared to stand up for a principle against the odds.
John Menadue wrote an Australia Day reflection on what is different about being Australian. For him, it came down to redemption, to giving people a second chance. He quoted his friend Ian McAuley as saying that while the British sent the puritans to America, they sent convicts to Australia and that we got the better of the deal. The underprivileged and the outcasts in Australia got a second chance.
For you, Baby 23,000,000, it’s a first chance. Please enjoy your incredible good fortune and privilege instead of taking it for granted, whingeing and demanding to be given more while offering less.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll be better than the current crop. I hope so.
Straighten up and fly right
– Sunday Age, April 24, 2011
Here’s a message to the many people flying over this long weekend: just because your seat has the ability to tilt back, it doesn’t mean it has to.
It is an unwritten law of frequent flying that only the most boorish bogans, the most selfish suits, only the least sophisticated and uncivilised primates, only those lacking in any sense of empathy or who are, at best, simply inexperienced and pig ignorant recline a domestic economy class seat when someone’s behind them.
Why all economy seats aren’t locked upright, like those in the emergency exit rows are for takeoff and landing, is beyond me. The recline button should be reserved as a privilege for those occasions when there are bums missing from seats and no discomfort is caused. At least it should be part of the pre-flight safety briefing: “You put on a seat belt like so, the exits are here, the life vest has a light and a whistle, the oxygen mask does this, and it shows a lack of common courtesy to tilt back your seat if someone’s behind you. If you do it, you will be ejected from a height of 30,000 feet.” I could even suffer without complaint the insulting John Travolta introduction if such a message was included.
And business class is not necessarily immune. Depending on the plane and the configuration, reclining at the pointy end also can be very poor form. Yes, I definitely mean you, old 737s.
(In fairness, it’s not always the apparent recliner’s fault – there seem to be an inordinate number of seats that automatically ease themselves backwards, displaying their age or lack of maintenance. As a fervent anti-recliner, it’s embarrassing and an annoyance to have to spend the whole flight pulling the seat upright, lest one be thought a scumbag.)
The brilliant thing (and the excuse for getting this whinge off my lengthy frame) is that most people get it. Without anyone saying anything, most of the flying public, or at least those who do it regularly, resist the urge to grab a little more room for themselves by taking some away from the stranger behind them.
For example, take a bow everyone who was on QF 785 Sydney to Adelaide on March 17 and especially the bloke who sat beside me. The flight was chockers. I’m six-three in the old money (1.9 metres for Gen Ys), sitting in an aisle seat, when a fella some inches taller approached and sheepishly indicated he had drawn the middle straw – but what a champion, what discipline. I of course left the arm rest at his disposal (another unwritten rule of good flying form – middle seat has first dibs on both arm rests) but he didn’t take it, keeping within his space, hands mainly on his big knees. If I had to guess, I’d say he had military training, maybe SAS, able to lie motionless under camel dung for three days in desert heat and cold awaiting a single glint from an opposing sniper’s scope.
I stood for a while to let him breathe and observed that we weren’t alone in keeping the code. The entire cattle cabin, as far as I could see, was bolt upright. Not a recliner among them. We were part of an unspeaking, anonymous team of which to be proud.
And we mostly are. For all that we read about the murderers and thieves and bullies, the vast majority of us aren’t bad people. We go to work and earn our money and pay our taxes. We buy Legacy badges and take our shift amidst the smoke and spitting fat of the junior footy club’s barbeque. We drive on the correct side of the road and allow other cars to merge without fuss. We generally try to pick the lesser political evil when we have to vote. Collectively, we help our neighbours after flood and fire and feel sorry for the kid next door when the dog dies. We somewhat instinctively know that unrestrained selfishness is not the best policy.
There’s a growing discipline within the economics trade that recognises and tries to quantify this social dimension that defies the hard-core market claims of self interest above all, that debunks the Thatcherite claim that “there is no society”. In can become a bit convoluted – a hypothesis that we can be unselfish because there is self interest in selflessness, or some such.
I don’t know about that, but on an extra-long long weekend that combines Easter and Anzac Day, both occasions for contemplation of heroic sacrifice, in a very, very small way it’s nice to recognise that most of us don’t tilt our seats back. So don’t you either.
YESTERNIGHT, MONSTERS AND THE BLEARIES
– Mode magazine About Men column, July 1986
Saturday morning, supermarket peak hour. A passing youth grabs the spruiker’s microphone: ”Customers, we’d like you to help us celebrate our birthday this morning, so for the next 10 minutes all the beautifully fresh produce in our fruit and vegetable section is free. Yes, absolutely free! But you’ve only 10 minutes to reach the check-outs, so be quick for our free fruit and vegies.” The youth rips the mic out of the wall and leaves.
It may be a damaging psychological admission, one that should ensure that I’ll never work for IBM, but I like that story. I came across it years ago in an affectionate article about going troppo, and while tales of greater important vanished in the softer grey matter, the vision of those check-outs remains.
It’s not so much the ensuing chaos that appeals to me as the acute embarrassment to the management. Such embarrassment is a key element in much of our humour, yet its enjoyment obviously depends on your perspective.
Recently in another busy store a wom was to be seen dragging a crying child who was yelling, between screams, “Help! You’re not my mummy! Help!”
the woman was my wife, the child our son, but of course I wasn’t there at the time.
Nicholas, for ‘twas he doing the yelling has a gift for altering perspectives. In four years, his achievements range from the logic of referring to the previous evening as “yesterdaynight” to more profound questions.
A bathroom opes off our family room and small boys are wont to leave the door open, especially when there is night without and wind among the bushes beyond the partly open window. While standing before the toilet, Nicho tries at such times to keep an eye on the window and his head over his should to be sure we are in sight. The position of the window, the toil and the door make this physically difficult, but he manages.
“Farver,” he called one night, glancing at the window and back at me. “Farver, are they any monsters?”
This is a subject he has raised with me before.
“No, Nicky, there are no monsters.”
He looked back at the window and then over his shoulder again.
“Farver, what if you’re wrong?”
Now, this is a fairly stunning question. The immediate reaction of laughing is probably psychologically damaging, but I don’t think Nicholas wants to work for IBM, either.
“Nicky, I’m not wrong. I’m not wrong. I’m your dad and I really know these things, and there are no monsters.”
“Adam says there are monsters at his place.”
And so I am undone. Obviously, my store of parental wisdom is no match for the experience of a playmate from kindergarten. It is an impossible position. ON what basis can I say Adam is wrong? I don’t even know the boy.
“Nicholas, there really are no monsters.”
“Adam has seen monsters.”
I retreated. Someone was probably just playing a joke on Adam. Anyway, there certainly were no monsters hereabouts.
Nicholas let the subject drop, but I didn’t fool him. He knows. Adam has seen monsters. I haven’t.
Such moments provide a glimpse of Nicholas’s perspective, and also jog near-forgotten, pre-school memories. The best advice ‘ve had on fatherhood came from my mother: try to remember what it is like to be a little boy and make allowances accordingly. It has served well, so far, and had unexpected benefits in coping with the daily crises. Such as the Blearies.
The Blearies are what hit adults when young children clamber in to the parental bed at the first hint of daylight. With Irish logic, I have defeated them five days out of seven by working on morning television. Mad dogs, Englishmen and even children are asleep when I rise, but before the horrors of the twilight zone struck, it was mum’s advice that sustained me. Thinking what it was like to be enthusiastic about morning conjured uip memories of my father waking, with my help, to make the family institution of morning tea.
It is possibly dangers to romanticise such times, but there really was a wood stove and large, unsliced loaves of bread. A boy in the uniform, dowdy, check dressing-gown of the period perched on a kitchen stool, probably rocking the thing, while dad made thick toast with orange marmalade.
That was a time I shared with my father, just the two of us out the back in the kitchen, the rest of the house still abed. I had forgotten it, but I know I would have been prattling about anything, just as Nicholas does, and father made the effort to answer endless questions, as I do. It is commonplace, but there is warmth in the memory, love in being together that is not realised until it is too late, if ever.
He also brings back to me vaguely-recollected events, such as ordering ice-cream from the local store and attempting to pay for it with pebbles, of getting into the inevitable collection of half-empty paint tins with disastrous results, of the boredom or car travel lasting anything more than 15 minutes, of the proximity of monsters and night noises, but it is the times I spent as a small boy with my father for which I am most grateful.
My dad died four months after Nicholas was born, but not before the baby had promoted all sorts of contemplations. There is a great Australian novel yet to be written about the extraordinary ordinary people raising families through the momentous events of this century, through whatever trials of their own, not finding it all too hard but just getting on with it, motivated by providing opportunities for their children. There are no guarantees in this line of work, no certainty that a life-time’s effort will be appreciated, that the opportunities will be seized, that there is any happiness in them, anyway. Sometimes, the good intentions are negated in the method of their implementation. But still, countless good people try, driven by the deep desire to improve their children’s lot.
It was only after Nicholas’s birth that I realised how impossibly successful my parents had been in this, and how difficult it is going to make my fatherhood. I don’t know that there is anything I can offer my children that is an improvement on what was given to me. Certainly, there are material progressions, but at times I’m not sure that is an advantage. Instead of building a raft of bamboo and drums on the river, Nicholas and his little brother may learn to sail at a yacht club, but eh difference will probably be lost on them. Certainly, providing what we hope is an optimum education will be much less of a sacrifice for me that it was from my parents. I sometimes wonder, will my sons appreciate it?
And not only is it difficult to see what I can do which in any way continues the family progress, but there is the onus of not back-sliding, of achieving at least the same delicate balance of support, encouragement, love and understanding that prepared me.
Not long after Nicholas was born, I wrote a letter to my parents in an attempt to explain these thoughts and to thank them for bringing me thus far. It was a joy to try to write that letter, tangling with words in ways we’re not used to using them, and it made my folks happy and sad, but mainly happy.
It had taken the beginning of another generation to prompt it, but that letter somehow fulfilled communications started when I was born, finishing stories told in that kitchen and throughout boyhood, though perhaps let lapse for a while. Dad’s death was easier for me because of it. I miss him, most of all because my boys won’t know him on this earth, but there is a peace in nothing being left unsaid, the calm of not needing to say anything.
OPEN SEASON ON BANKERS
– YTE, December 2010
One door closes, another opens. Fox hunting folds but, as nature abhors a vacuum, open season is declared on bankers. Such is the circle of life. Cue Lion King music over video footage of hounds and horses pursuing pin-stripe suits down city streets. Crowds cheer, join in chant of “tally-ho”. Fade to credits.
It’s not a good time to be a banker, especially a North Atlantic investment banker. The over-paid suits who made fortunes from lending away entire economies are somehow out of fashion. But if they’re feeling unloved in New York or London, it’s worth remembering it could be worse – they could be Irish bankers.
In little old Australia, it’s a very different but similar story. Australia’s bankers didn’t trash the economy, they didn’t make billions of dodgy sub-prime loans. Well, OK, they still made billions of dodgy loans to corporate cowboys, making possible Babcock and Brown, Allco, MFS, ABC Learning, Storm Financial, Citi Pacific et al, but it didn’t add up to enough to wreck the entire game.
They don’t deserve too much credit for that because they weren’t necessarily smarter than their US or European peers – they just weren’t allowed to be overly stupid by the relevant regulator and they didn’t need to either because they were making an absolute poultice lending to people who could afford their loans. And, as former Reserve Bank governor Ian Macfarlane has opined, they were prevented from trying to take each other over at inflated prices that would have forced them to take greater risks to make the profits to justify the ego-fest.
But whatever the reasons, Australia’s bankers came out of the GFC smelling relatively good. Having four big, rich banks among the handful around the world that kept a AA rating was nice. Sure, they still screwed their small and medium business customers to make up for what they blew on the list of big mistakes above, but that’s banking.
The curious thing though is that the one group of genuinely privileged customers who were particularly looked after through Australia’s very minor slow down –residential mortgage punters – is the group that’s now carrying on like stuck pigs while various politicians dance to their squeals. Australia’s Big Four banks are being treated as the most evil powers since the Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia because they’ve moved to make residential real estate borrowers pay a margin a little closer to what small-to-medium business customers have to cop. Go figure.
So I have been figuring. I reckon the disproportionate concern with the mortgage market is because the average journalist is a young wannabe either desperate to have a better quality of housing or mortgaged to the hilt in search of same. Only a third of Australian households have a mortgage, but the media concentration on them suggests 99 per cent of journalists do. Maybe the ability to push your own barrow helps make up for the low pay.
And that is where we eventually get to the bit vaguely linked to trading and investing stuff. All the media and political attention on the banks has been reflected in their share prices as various analysts jump aboard the bandwagon of wondering what the Big Four will do to keep making ever greater piles of money. On top of that is the much-rumoured but unproven allegation that foreign hedge funds have been shorting Aussie banks in the belief that we have a housing bubble that must inevitably pop. They really shouldn’t believe absolutely everything they read in the Economist.
In such a climate, the populist commentators and pollies of all parties are bank bashing as never before, apparently of the opinion that banks don’t need to increase their profits and should be discouraged from trying to do so. Certainly they don’t need to pay their senior executives more, but I would have thought in a still uncertain world, you wouldn’t want to threaten the health and vibrancy of your banks right now.
Thus the bankers can’t win. On one flank, they’re being attacked by analysts for not making enough money and hedge funds trying to spark a crash, while on the other they’re copping it for making too much money, being greedy and always wearing white shirts with red ties. Or something like that. Along the way, the market has become coloured by conniving politics and perspective is lost.
(What’s particularly stupid is the red herring the politicians are dragging across the housing affordability trail by howling about banks increasing interest rates. The reality is that average consumer rates are still set by the Reserve Bank – if the commercial banks increase rates by more than the cash rate, they’re just doing some of the RBA’s heavy lifting on its behalf. Limit all bank interest rate movements to that of the RBA’s cash rate and the mortgage punters would still be paying about the same amount. Just don’t tell the government that – it’s too embarrassing.)
So the bankers just can’t win. That’s why I think it’s a generous public service to open the Bankers’ Comfort Centre – a quiet and gentle place where misunderstood bankers can come to feel safe, where there’s soothing music and it’s OK to talk interest rate increases among consenting adults. As a special treat, on every second Tuesday the Bankers’ Comfort Centre staff will be instructed to act like 1960s bank customers, bowing and scraping before the bankers, calling them all “sir” and quietly begging for loans. They love that. (The bankers, not the staff.)
Once upon a time, the entire country was like that. Bank managers were respected pillars of the community. In country towns they were afforded social status very nearly equal to the doctor and well ahead of teachers. Just working in a bank was a superior sort of living, at least compared with crutching sheep and digging holes in the road.
Now bankers will have to pay to gain admission to the Bankers’ Comfort Centre to get that sort of experience. Luckily they can afford to. And no hounds are allowed.
The split ends of insider trading
– YTE March 2012
This is where I start living dangerously, venturing into a particularly risky aspect of insider trading, going where few men have gone before and lived to tell the tale.It’s quite possible that I will have to disappear for a while after this column, grow a beard perhaps and hide out in the bush. And that might not be enough. Wonder if there are any positions available for generally useless journalists at our Antarctic base? The things I do for YTE…
This story might end in the frozen waste at the bottom of the planet, but it began over a late dinner one Wednesday night in New York’s Circo, the Italian brother of Le Cirque which we had tried two nights before, both favoured haunts of many a wealthy inside trader, ponzi scheme operator and investment banker.
You might already be suspicious: what’s a mere journalist doing dining at Le Cirque and Circo? Has the restaurant dropped its standards that low? Who was buying Pascoe dinner – or simply buying Pascoe?There is an explanation: New York Restaurant Week, when many of the Big Apple’s fine diners offer the hoi polloi a whiff of the expensive life with a special limited menu – $35 for three courses, plus tax, gratuities, coat check and drinks, so with a couple of half decent bottles, round it up to a couple of hundred.
As we await our table, a woman of a certain age enters with a poodle in her handbag. She might or might not have been someone the paparazzi would recognise, but obviously is a regular. The maitre d’ welcomes her with warm respect and the poodle more warmly, taking its woolly head in his two hands and all but rubbing noses. I’m glad he’s the maitre d’ and not the chef – who knows where that handbag has been. The woman and her canine companion are ushered to a discreet banquet – I couldn’t see what the dog ordered but I’m tipping the steak.
It wasn’t the dog that provided the insider information, though I’m sure he or she had plenty. It was at my own table that the hot tip was disclosed, in the roundabout way that such things come to be uttered at Circo. For the protection of my sources, I will offer scant details of the identities of those at my table other than to say that none of them was a dog and that the group included a male international relations academic and two women, one a fellow journalist, the other a Harvard MBA New Yorker and a life-long trader, mainly in grain. (And, no, she never worked for AWB but knew where various bodies were buried, figuratively speaking.)
Conversation ranged as it inevitably will with such a group to matters of Middle Eastern politics – how Syria might turn out, how soon Israel would bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities, the likely American response to the likely Hamas response and how that might fit into the US presidential election campaign.
And here I begin to tip-toe into the dangerous territory, daring to make an observation or two about the comprehensive nature of the female view of the world.
It was observed that Hillary Clinton seemed to have aged rapidly as Secretary of State – as anyone well might given the hours, the travel and the responsibilities of such a job if approached conscientiously and with intelligence. (Donald Rumsfeld finished as Defence Secretary as fresh as he started.)
“She needs to cut her hair,” said one of the women. “There comes a time when long hair doesn’t do you any favours.”
Having been a third wheel on many an occasion and professional observer at all, let me suggest that women talking to women will do that. In the middle of bombing Iran, there can be a hair question. A woman talking to a man won’t do it or is much less likely to do it, but between us girls, hair is just one of the ever-present factors in an all-encompassing, totally holistic world view. And that’s where the inside knowledge comes from.
For fear of copping a sexual discrimination suit or just the general ire of the feminist lobby, blokes are decreasingly likely to say what they think about the way women look, unless they’re among close mates or their name is Berlusconi. Besides, there is no correct answer to the question: does my bum look big in this?
We blokes all still think it, but it tends to be a binary equation – a woman looks hot or not and that’s it. And that’s why we miss the boat, the insider knowledge women have. In the context of Hillary’s hair, the grain trader explained:
“That’s why any good woman CEO has short hair – she doesn’t have the time to look after long hair.”
And that’s the tip for some insider trading – short any company that appoints a female CEO with long hair.
This tip has to be seen within the context of the US where big or at least long and flowing remains de rigueur. The biggest risk on the subway from Wall Street in peak hour is having your eye taken out by a power dresser flicking her locks. But now we know: a company will soon be in trouble if the CEO has what it takes to feature in a shampoo commercial.
I’m not saying this is fair or reasonable, just that it is. Certainly the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump aren’t judged on their hair – but maybe they should be. And besides, it’s not me saying it, it’s the grain trader.
On the domestic front, both in business and politics, this insight seems to hold true. Think of the women above the glass ceiling in Australia and there’s not a whole lot of hair on show. In politics, Kristina Keneally had her short flick as NSW Premier but has gone for the hair extensions as a backbencher. Julia Gillard’s do seems to get a little shorter the longer she’s PM while on the other side of the chamber, Julie Bishop’s death stare wouldn’t have the same impact if it was framed by luxuriant tresses.
But then there’s Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest person, CEO of the inherited family firm and would-be dictator of journalistic ramblings. So I’m not going to comment on her hair.
Australia’s next big problem: India’s democracy
Here’s a nasty thought: the big threat to Australia’s commodities-underwritten prosperity extending out to 2030 and beyond is India’s democracy. Much worse though is the threat that irresponsible democracy poses to India itself.
Present crises aside, Australia is supposed to live happily ever after thanks to India picking up the commodities demand slack as the Chinese economy matures, thus extending our resources boom for another decade or two, giving us yet more time, money and opportunity to restructure into a smart country by investing much more heavily in education.
But as we saw in speeches by BHP’s chairman and CEO last week, the world’s biggest miner is no longer buying that story.
The Goldilocks scenario was based on the assumption that India would follow much the same path of industrialisation and urbanisation as China is and the likes of Japan, Taiwan and Korea did. They, in turn, travelled much the same road as the US and Europe had a century or two ago, experiencing massive restructuring, productivity growth and wealth creation as their societies were transformed by the growth of cities and moving up the value chain from being primarily agrarian.
There’s one big difference though – India is a democracy. It is arguable that no country has undergone such a revolution as a genuine democracy. The leap involved in a populous nation industrialising tends to involve plenty of hard and nasty stuff as the status quo is overturned – land being cleared of peasants, established rent seekers replaced by a new order, societies uprooted and overturned.
The established Asian economic powers weren’t democracies when they passed through that stage and China definitely isn’t now. Universal suffrage remains a relatively recent phenomenon, post-dating the European and American industrial revolutions. The US might have come closest to it, but only a minority of Americans had the vote (women and blacks were excluded just for starters) as it absorbed “your tired, your poor” and created wealth in various dark mills.
To state the obvious, India is different. By most reckonings of the standard development curve, India is travelling somewhere between 15 and 20 years behind China. Of particular interest to Australia, its steel intensity has barely started to take off. If India was to follow the Chinese example, the economic benefits would be massive, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty. It’s been expressed in various ways, but Deng Xiaoping arguably did more to alleviate poverty than all the world’s NGOs, charities and United Nations agencies combined.
Krishna knows India urgently needs to follow the established pattern. Cheap labor certainly is exploited in the social sense, but has scarcely begun to be in the economic sense – the poor are just exploited and kept in their place.
As China moves into the next phases of higher value manufacturing, as robots move into Guangdong factories, India barely has manufacturing industry thanks to a conspiracy of poisonous protectionism, stifling bureaucracy and endemic corruption, never mind the gross waste of resources that is the caste system.
India’s great success stories in technology and outsourcing, from software engineering to call centres, have been achieved because they are new industries that didn’t have the dead hands of protectionism and bureaucracy upon them and thus allowed the entrepreneurial skills of well educated people to blossom.
But while those new service industries have thrived, fuelling a burgeoning middle class of a hundred million or considerably more (depending on how you care to measure it), it remains a fraction of the whole. Yes, India produces hoards of talented university graduates, but more than a quarter of the population is illiterate. GE, Microsoft and IBM have Indian research centres, but the garbage dumps are combed by rag pickers who try to make a living by recycling plastic bags. India is a nuclear power, but the fuel of necessity for many remains dried cow pats.
And looming over everything is a fearful demographic imperative. India, running hard to stand still for most of its nearly 1.2 billion people, is on track to add another half a billion or so by 2050. (And a worryingly disproportionate percentage of those new citizens are male, but that’s another story.)
A feudal agricultural system won’t cope with that and the difficulties in establishing manufacturing and building infrastructure prevent the necessary job creation to support the population. The weight of the status quo fights against the necessary change, a status quo imposed by a vibrantly dysfunctional democracy.
An Economist magazine cover story in March editorialised around three recent examples of the nation’s political paralysis:
“First, the government announced that it was at last opening its inefficient retail industry to foreign firms — only to change its mind within days. This month, to protect industry at home, it banned the export of cotton, upsetting India’s farmers and trading partners; within days, it backtracked. And last week the government moved to overrule the Supreme Court and change the tax code to tax foreign takeovers retroactively, not least Vodafone’s purchase of its Indian arm. Some worry that the rule of law, one of India’s great strengths, is being eroded.
“No wonder business is in a sulk and investment is falling. Red tape and corruption, always present, seem to have got worse — in recent state elections so many banknotes were doled out that they help explain a liquidity problem in the banking system. Longstanding bottlenecks have not been tackled. Partly as a result, inflation is high and stubborn.
“Every one of these problems involves the state, still huge and crazy after all these years. Few ever thought it could be reformed easily. But the hope was that a wily private sector would allow India to sprint to prosperity regardless. That view now looks romantic. It is not just a matter of a lack of the public services, from roads to power, that any economy needs, particularly if manufacturing is to thrive — as it must in India if the millions entering the workforce every year are to find jobs. Lately the state has found other ways to muck things up.”
Increasingly fractured and corrupt politics failing to deal with India’s enormous challenges now means the nation is being set up for greater crises as its population boom rolls on. The pro-India cheer squad cites its demographics and democracy as reasons for the Indian tiger to eventually overtake the Chinese dragon, but while China’s one-child policy has become a demographic problem and it suffers from not having enough democracy, India’s quickly growing population and rampant democracy may prove even more dangerous.
Should the day arrive when one brand or another of authoritarianism – nationalistic, religious or military – is able to seize control through gross government failure, lack of demand for Australian coking coal could be the least of the region’s concerns.