October 2010

Should we view the media market as similar to the market for baked beans? Or should we view it, instead, as being unique? If we accept the latter perspective, what implications might this have for ownership of media outlets? These are hugely important questions for the future of democratic societies.

What has made them of immediate relevance to the UK is the bid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for the remaining 60.9 per cent of BSkyB. This would give the company control over the country’s biggest commercial broadcaster, with 35 per cent of television revenue (including the BBC), along with the 37 per cent of national newspaper circulation it already controls. This situation raises profound questions. It would raise those questions, in any case. But the fact that Mr Murdoch is the actor makes them more pressing.

In making that judgement, I am influenced by having spent five months in the US over the last two years and watching the impact of Fox on public debate in that country. Fox demonstrates the business genius of Mr Murdoch: the mixture of popular entertainment with right-wing populism has proved extraordinarily successful. But it has also helped destroy the middle-ground in American politics and made coherent discussion of policy alternatives nigh on impossible.

Now turn to the case of the UK. Walter Bagehot, the great 19th century British journalist, distinguished between what he called the “dignified” parts of the constitution (by which he meant those that had symbolic importance, such as the monarchy) and the “efficient” parts of the constitution (by which he meant those that ensured things were done, such as the government and the House of Commons). It would be an exaggeration to state that Mr Murdoch is the efficient part of the British constitution and the government the dignified part. But it would not be quite as big an exaggeration as I would like.

This is why the market for media and baked beans markets have such a different significance: the media do not just provide information; they mould opinion and so shape the public debate. They are the engine of democracy. The ownership of media is a source of power, as Silvio Berlusconi has demonstrated conclusively. Just as Mr Berlusconi is the most powerful private citizen in Italy, so Mr Murdoch is the most powerful private individual in the UK and, in my view, in the US, as well. The Republican revival we see today in the US owes much to the influence of Mr Murdoch’s media.

Anybody who cares about the future of democracy should want a diverse media, by which I mean not many titles, but a media that no one individual or company can dominate. Yet that is precisely what the UK now risks with the planned takeover of BSkyB by News Corp. As the FT argued in an editorial on the subject, Mr Murdoch “could bundle his newspaper websites with Sky subscriptions, potentially giving him a big advantage as news migrates to an online subscription model.” Already far and away the most powerful force in UK media, Mr Murdoch could become still more potent, as competitors collapse.

I will, accordingly, judge Vincent Cable, the UK’s Liberal Democrat secretary of state for business, by whether he is prepared to take on this takeover. The law allows him “to ensure the existence of a range of media voices”. He should do so. But, in my judgement, preventing the takeover of BSkyB by News Corp does not go far enough to redress the imbalances that now exist in British media.

I would argue that there is a strong case for much tougher control over media ownership. No private individual should be so powerful that politicians tremble before him. That is not democracy. I would argue, therefore, that no individual or company should own both national newspapers and national TV stations. I would also suggest that no individual should own more than, say, two national newspaper titles or more than 10 per cent of national readership (whichever gives the higher share of the market). I cannot see why laws to this effect should not be passed: they would be simple and clear. They would make obvious the aim, which is to avoid putting too much political power in the hands of any one private organisation or individual.

Furthermore, having spent substantial time recently in the US, I have a much better appreciation than before of the case for having a strong public-service broadcaster. The BBC forces UK politicians to engage in a national conversation. It would be impossible, for example, for Conservatives to argue for lower taxes, offer no credible plans for reduced spending and yet insist that they care about the size of the fiscal deficit. But that is what the Republicans are now doing. Such economic illiteracy is more difficult if politicians are regularly forced to make their case before impartial TV journalists. I shudder to think what British public life would become without the BBC.

I recognise that these approaches are irrelevant to the US: there are few national newspapers; and there will never be a BBC. I understand, too, that no British government is willing to take the issue of concentration of media ownership on. But I have no doubt of one point: the media do not merely reflect the society they serve; they shape it. Those who believe in democracy should not allow any one individual or organisation a dominant voice in shaping the future of their country.

This play on the Rare Earth paranoia out of China, Rare Earths ETF, etc might turn into another CROCS/NFLX etc. Certainly it’s starting to crop up on message boards, stock clouds etc. As it’s still a small cap, it won’t take that much to move it.

Historian Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, notes that while “some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, whose original spelling was Samuin (pronounced sow-an or sow-in)”.[1] The name is derived from Old Irish and means roughly “summer’s end”.[1] A similar festival was held by the ancient Britons and is known as Calan Gaeaf (pronounced Kálan Gái av).

Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise showing a Halloween party in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832. The young children on the right bob for apples. A couple in the center play a variant, which involves retrieving an apple hanging from a string. The couples at left play divination games.The festival of Samhain celebrates the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”, and is sometimes[2] regarded as the “Celtic New Year”.[3]

The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family’s ancestors were honoured and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks. Their purpose was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces.[4][5] Samhain was also a time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the bonfire. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames.[6] Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual.

Another common practice was divination, which often involved the use of food and drink.

The name ‘Halloween’ and many of its present-day traditions derive from the Old English era

Just keeping an eye on them.

“Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them,” Obama’s campaign Web site states . “As president, Obama will not sign any nonemergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House Web site for five days.”

Allow five days of public comment before signing bills

To reduce bills rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them, Obama “will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.”

But the first bill Obama signed into law as president — the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — got no such vetting.

For his second bill, Obama signed an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage for low-income children. He signed it on Feb. 4, 2009, just hours after it was finalized in Congress.

This time, though, the White House had posted the text of the working bill to its Web site on Feb. 1, 2009, with the following note : “Since this version of the bill is expected to pass the House of Representatives in the coming week, we are making the legislation available for public comment now.”

The camera lights still outshine sunlight at the Obama White House. In his latest violation of this promise, President Barack Obama signed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 on May 22, only two days after the bill was finalized in Congress.

Examining the details of the three current examples, one might say, well they were pretty good Bills, so don’t worry too much. Be that as it may, whether they be good or bad, the point was to let the electorate have their say.

This is of course akin to running a referendum on each Bill, which is an excellent idea for the electorate, a terrible idea for government. Why would government seriously wish to give up the power of the Law? The power to instigate new Laws is the primary way in which the government legitimises its criminal activities.

This seemingly innocuous broken promise is huge.

From Business Week.

Lydia Wang, a 28-year-old marketing manager in Shanghai, gripes that the shoes and clothing she normally buys are at least 50 percent pricier than in 2009. Wu Sengyun, a 54-year-old retiree living in the coastal city of Ningbo, Zhejiang, says prices of fruit and fish are both up more than 20 percent. Willy Lin has cut back on serving free drumsticks in the canteen of his Jiangxi clothing factory as meat and vegetable prices climb. “The workers suffer,” he says. “Everybody is crying.”

Officially, China’s consumer price inflation topped out at 3.3 percent in July from the year before—a 21-month high. The government says the spike is a one-off caused by crop damage in recent flooding. Other costs, they say, such as cars, mobile-phone bills, and clothing, are actually falling, and price increases should slow as the economy cools. At an Aug. 12 press conference, Pan Jiancheng, a deputy director in the statistics bureau, announced that the inflationary threat was “overhyped.”

Many consumers, investors, analysts, and academics disagree. “There has been a jump in prices that isn’t reflected in the numbers,” says Chinese Academy of Social Sciences economist Yu Yongding, who formerly served as an adviser to China’s central bank. Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University, wonders how a country that grew 10.3 percent last quarter and is seeing upward pressure on wages could register inflation of only a few percentage points. Another sign of rising prices: Multinationals in China expect to hike wages an average of 8.4 percent this year, according to human resources consultant Hewitt Associates (HEW). Ordinary Chinese, meanwhile don’t see the steep jumps in their housing, education, and medical expenses reflected in the official stats. “Inflation could well be 6 percent now for most people in China,” says Pettis.

If the doubters are right, then the government has a serious inflation problem that it either hasn’t figured out how to measure or has chosen to ignore. Other vital Chinese statistics—such as retail sales and unemployment—have also been murky. In the case of inflation, mismeasuring could prevent the kind of swift action needed to tame rising prices now—and force the government to apply much harsher measures later, such as a sharp increase in interest rates or a rapid appreciation of the currency to curb growth. The political risks are high, too: Social unrest in China often increases when ordinary workers can’t keep up with the cost of living.

Unlike most countries, China refuses to release in detail how much weighting it gives different product categories when calculating inflation, a situation that World Bank senior economist Louis Kuijs calls an “oddity.” An official with the statistics bureau says there has been no major change in the basket that makes up the price index since 2005. Plans call for adjusting the weighting next year to reflect housing costs more and food prices less, says the official, who declined to give her name because of agency rules.

Chinese consumers see firsthand how dramatically household expenses have changed in the last decade. Medical costs are the No. 1 concern for 84 percent of China’s rural residents, according to a recent survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Officially, medical prices are only up 2.8 percent so far this year. That number does not include the cost of gifts to hospital doctors and administrators to ensure adequate care. Also at issue: rising apartment and rental costs that eat up more of Chinese budgets. For 26-year-old Beijing resident Wang Yulu, the monthly rent of her 35-square-meter one-bedroom apartment has just increased more than 20 percent, to $338. “It’s too expensive,” says Wang, who works in the Beijing office of a Hong Kong advertising company. “I’m thinking of moving.”

Getting a handle on rising prices is a particular challenge in China. Hundreds of millions of rural Chinese keep moving to urban coastal areas, pushing up rents and food prices.

By now, you’ve probably heard the story about the Tennessee man whose house was allowed to burn down because he hadn’t paid a $75 fire-protection fee.

The heart-rending image — firefighters standing by as a family’s home is reduced to ashes and four pets die — became instant fodder for a fierce election-year debate over what the government should and shouldn’t be doing with public dollars.

With the midterm elections looming and Tea Party candidates stumping for drastic cuts in government spending, their foes held out the Tennessee fire as a glaring example of the perils of privatization.

“This is essentially the same as denying someone essential medical care because he doesn’t have insurance,” economist Paul Krugman blogged for The New York Times. “So the question is, do you want to live in the kind of society in which this happens?”

On the other side, most of the logic went this way: If the firefighters had saved the home anyway, who’d ever pay the fee again?

“I know that if I opted out of the program before, I would be more likely to opt-in now,” Jonah Goldberg wrote on National Review Online.

It’s not as if people aren’t aware of the potential problems of privatization. After 9/11, the nation decided airport security couldn’t be left in the hands of poorly paid private screeners. The high cost — in dollars and human life — of outsourcing operations to contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan has been painfully clear for years.

But as the recession drags on and governments sink deeper into the red, it’s easy to be swept up in the call for government to do less. That’s until a picture of what that might look like emerges: public firefighters, in uniform and with hoses in hand, doing nothing.

Privatization, broadly defined as any transfer of a government service to a private company, is used at every level of government and often with positive results. It can involve work contracted out but paid with city dollars, or fees paid by the users of, say, a service or a roadway.

In the Tennessee fire, a city department responded to the call. But the home was outside the city, where residents were required to pay a fee for service — akin to a privatized model.

Privatization is almost as old as cities themselves. The ancient Greeks and Romans raised funds by auctioning off the right to serve the public for a profit. Privatization in the U.S. is nothing new either, but it had been largely abandoned by the mid-20th century in favor of a growing public sector.

“In the 19th century, New York City used to experiment with privatizing street cleanup. It was always cheaper to privatize, but the streets didn’t get clean,” says Elliott D. Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University and the author of “You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatization.” “Finally, by the 1890s, they had thrown up their hands.”

The history of fire protection is similar. “In the 19th century, cities used to burn down with private fire companies,” Sclar says, so they went public.

The basic concept — protecting the common good by protecting each individual — has been applied to schools, libraries, fire and police service, trash collection, transportation, infrastructure, health care, social services and more. The success of these services is credited with laying the foundation for a prosperous American middle class with an innovative industrial base.

But as the backlash against “big government” grew in the 1970s and ’80s, privatization re-emerged. By 2007, half of all local governments said they had considered privatizing some services, with nearly 90% citing cost-cutting as the reason, according to the International City/County Management Association.

Name a public service today, and somewhere a private CEO is running it: prisons, schools, parks, trash collection, welfare centers, mass transit.

Proponents say the profit motive inspires companies to innovate, streamline and cut costs. The Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, says privatization typically reduces costs between 5% and 20%.

A good chunk of those savings comes in the form of reduced labor costs. Today, 30% of public-sector workers are unionized, typically receiving pensions, good health benefits and better-than-average pay. Just 7% of the private sector is unionized. (Public-sector unions also tend to support Democrats — another reason privatization is a big issue for the largely Republican Tea Party movement.)

“Oftentimes it’s about breaking unions,” says Dean Baker, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive Washington, D.C., think tank. “Insofar as you can get a lower-cost work force, you can get savings.”

Like many public agencies, Jackson County, Ore., considered the bottom line when it tried to reopen its 15 library branches, shuttered after a loss of federal funds in 2007. While negotiating with the county workers union, it put management of the libraries out for bid.

Library Systems & Services, the only private company to bid, won the contract with a bid that cut costs by about 40% over what the union had proposed. With library hours reduced, the company rehired 70 of the 110 laid-off library members, at their same salaries but with reduced benefits, says Amy Blossom, the manager of the Ashland branch.

An analysis by the Oregon State Library found that while overall library staffing in Jackson was reduced by 36%, the number of librarians was reduced by 52% and the number of those with advanced degrees — common for the position — by 57%.

This net result — lowered compensation overall and fewer benefits — is typical with privatization, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union.

“It’s certainly been one of the factors in the growing inequality” between rich and poor that led to the recession, Baker says. “You get rid of those jobs, you put more downward pressure on the wages of other jobs.”

Nothing appears more surprising…than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.

When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that because Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.

It is, therefore, on opinion that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments.

There are a number of issues here:

*Divide and conquer
*Dissemination of information
*Control of information
*Perversion and control of legal system

[i] The government, by being small, has clarity of purpose. It, the State, thinks and acts as an individual, intent on self-preservation and expansion. By contrast, society, a collection of individuals, thinks and acts as an individual. Thus the imbalance in numbers, as postulated by Hume, in point of fact, for the majority of the time, resides with government, and not the populace.

[ii] Which in turn is exacerbated through the imbalance in the dissemination of information. Government, acting as an individual, knows what it knows, and acts on that basis. The individual, will, only know what he knows, and incurs a cost in finding other individuals that think in a like manner, and who wish to act on that basis.

[iii] Government, of course, realises the costs involved in gathering information, and takes steps in exerting control over the transmission of information: television, film, books, magazines, newspapers, schools, universities, research, etc. The current gamebreaker, the internet, and blogs like this one and millions of others, have reduced the cost of gathering information to a manageable level for this to potentially become a problem for government.

[iv] Control of the legal system allows government to exert and extend control via coercion over the populace, largely through a propaganda and erosion of critical faculties of the population. The legal system, designed to curb the power of government, now actively expands that power.

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