Ahern remains delusional

19 October, 2011

Apparently the press is to blame for the collapse of the Irish economy.  At least that appears to be the latest line being spun by Bertie Ahern.  Unbelievable. You couldn’t make it up.  See details of an interview with our dodgy, delusional, and disgraced former Taoiseach here.

A flavour of his ramblings:-

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has called for an investigation into the media for what he said were failures to follow the economy because journalists were more concerned with following his dealings with the Mahon tribunal.

Mr Ahern said that from the time he began evidence to the tribunal, the media “just stopped following the economy”.

In an interview on Dublin City University’s radio station DCU FM, he said: “There should be an investigation into it. They should have been following the economy from August 2007, but they weren’t, they were following me. I think a lot of these guys really should have looked at themselves.

“The government were following the economy but the media weren’t. It was a very poor job by the media really. They were shown to be incompetent and that was the trouble – everything was on me.”

When will he ever recognise that the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of citizens came with the job of being Taoiseach, and it wasn’t just about lining his own pocket and being nice to his developer pals?  Trying to deflect responsibility to the media for our economic problems is beyond a joke.

Please, Bertie, get off the stage.

Last Wednesday’s Guardian had an article about the Frieze Art Fair, an international contemporary art fair that takes place every October in London.  Specifically, it dealt with Christian Jankowski’s cruel artistic joke “The Finest Art on Water”.  As their chief art writer, Charlotte Higgins, puts it:

….. one artist has taken the sometimes queasy-making connection between extreme wealth and the artworld to its logical conclusion: by attempting to sell a 65-metre superyacht at the fair.

Buy it as a boat (it will be built to order by CRN of Ancona, to the buyer’s specifications), and it costs €65m (£60m). Buy it as an artwork, authenticated by the German artist Christian Jankowski, and it will cost €75m. If that seems a little steep, a smaller, 10m Aquariva Cento motorboat is on display at the fair, among the Robert Rymans and Tacita Deans. That one’s €500,000 as a mere boat; €625,000 when officially designated art.

According to Jankowski, the boats are not artworks until he has handed out a certificate to the new owner, who will then have the right to call the vessel “Christian” (for the motorboat) or “Jankowski” (for the superyacht). There is nothing, he admits, to stop the owners calling the boats what they like even without paying the extra. But without the certificate, he said, “it won’t be sculpture”.

This brilliantly exposes the typical con-job that passes for conceptual art, much as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal famously did almost 100 years ago.  In 2004, Duchamp’s work was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century and it has been asserted that, with this single work, Duchamp invented conceptual art and “severed forever the traditional link between the artist’s labour and the merit of the work”.

But, more significantly, Jankowski’s “sculpture” also highlights the dark question which we find so difficult to deal with: how can it ever be justified to pay tens of millions of dollars/euros for any artwork, no matter how rare?  If I can pay a skilled artist a few thousand euros to create an exact duplicate of (say) Van Gogh’s Irises, brush stroke by brush stroke, so that nobody can distinguish it from the original, then why should I not get as much satisfaction from hanging that on my wall as I would if I had paid $54 million for it?  It is functionally and aesthetically identical, after all.

The $54 million is surely a lot to pay for the bragging rights and reflected glory associated with owning an object which, although in principle unique, can effectively be reproduced at will by a talented forger.

Christian Jankowski is doing us all a favour by taking conceptual art to its logical (illogical?) conclusion.  If he forces the art establishment to look in the mirror and to concede that concept alone should not (or should hardly ever) triumph over skill, beauty and wit, he will deserve a place in art history.

The Sunday Business Post had an article yesterday describing how “a new type of insurance product could help consumers to cut the premium they pay on other insurance policies”.   As I read the article, I became increasingly concerned about the consequences of the product described.

Irish insurance firm Blue Insurances …. will launch an excess insurance policy in the coming weeks. …. An excess is the part of any insurance claim that you have to pay yourself. For example, on a policy with an excess of €100, the customer will pay the first €100 of the cost of any claim, with their insurer covering the balance ….. Blue Insurance’s new product will allow customers to insure the excess applied on a range of products, such as home insurance, motor insurance, pet insurance and travel insurance policies. Customers can insure to a total of €750 in excesses …. Typically with insurance policies, having a higher excess can help to reduce your overall premium.

Why is this a bad idea?  Because the normal policy excess exists for very good reasons:-

  • by requiring that the insured person has a material financial interest in protecting against loss, the size and incidence of claims is lowered, and everybody gains through lower insurance premiums
  • it eliminates small claims which are disproportionately expensive to administer – again, everybody benefits from lower premiums as a result

So the effect of this new product being made available will be a much higher level of claims generally.  And it’s clear that the people who will be attracted to this new offering will be those who (for a variety of reasons) are most likely to be making claims.  The result will be higher premiums and a net loss for everybody (except those who have the excess cover and actually make a claim).  This is a classic “Tragedy of the Commons” in the making.

I am at a loss to understand the business model being adopted by Blue Insurances here.  I can’t see how they will avoid massive losses on this product, as the people who are most incentivised to take up this policy are the worst risks from an insurance perspective, not to mention prospective scammers and fraudsters.  I predict that the product will be withdrawn or modified before long, but probably not before it has caused unnecessary cost and inconvenience for nearly everybody.

I hope the major insurance companies will react by declining cover to anybody who insures all of any policy excess; it’s essential that insured persons have some financial interest in avoiding claims.

It’s an established part of the Irish economic and political cycle.  Just when we are starting to see Christmas goods appear in the shops (in October, damn it), then we also start to hear the plaintive and deceptive tones of the special-interest groups trying to bend the ear of the Minister for Finance, and promote their own causes at the expense of everybody else’s.

There is a pattern to these transparently self-serving submissions.  Reduce (or more likely these days, don’t increase) the tax on this activity or that product, they say, and the effect will be a wonderful growth in jobs and prosperity, which will more than offset the tax foregone.  Alternatively, NGOs and quangos fire off a fusillade of demands that this allowance or that subvention should not only not be reduced but that, because their constituents are uniquely vulnerable, it should be increased (with wholly beneficial effects on the economy, of course).

And newspapers and other media blandly regurgitate the related press release without adding some proper analysis.

I am reminded of the famous candlestick makers’ petition revealed to us by Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) wherein they asked the French government “to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat”.

And how did our resourceful candlestick makers justify their demands? By pointing to the wonderful effects such a law would have on economic activity:

First, if you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?

If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.

If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land.

Our moors will be covered with resinous trees. Numerous swarms of bees will gather from our mountains the perfumed treasures that today waste their fragrance, like the flowers from which they emanate. Thus, there is not one branch of agriculture that would not undergo a great expansion.

The same holds true of shipping. Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honour of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc.

But what shall we say of the specialities of Parisian manufacture? Henceforth you will behold gilding, bronze, and crystal in candlesticks, in lamps, in chandeliers, in candelabra sparkling in spacious emporia compared with which those of today are but stalls.

There is no needy resin-collector on the heights of his sand dunes, no poor miner in the depths of his black pit, who will not receive higher wages and enjoy increased prosperity.

It needs but a little reflection, gentlemen, to be convinced that there is perhaps not one Frenchman, from the wealthy stockholder of the Anzin Company to the humblest vendor of matches, whose condition would not be improved by the success of our petition.

A wily bunch, these French candlestick makers.  But our own special-interest groups are more than a match for them.  I can already hear the thundering hooves as they launch their cavalry at the poor Minister, armed with blustering press releases and practised in tugging at our heart-strings.  Pass the popcorn.

At least it’s bad news for Obama.  His best hope for re-election as POTUS was to have as an opponent a bonkers Tea-Party type (pardon the tautology).

His next best hope is that Michelle Bachmann is selected as the Republican contender.  In terms of who would be the ideal head-banger for Obama to have as an opponent, Bachmann runs Palin a close second.  The evidence for her madness is not hard to find, but I particularly like the following example, quoted from an article in the New Yorker, August 2011:

In the spring of 2009, during what appeared to be the beginnings of a swine-flu epidemic, Bachmann said, “I find it interesting that it was back in the nineteen-seventies that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama—I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”

Rick Perry is a paragon of sanity and erudition by comparison with Palin and Bachmann.

My recent scribblings on Dublin Contemporary 2011 and on Richard Serra’s “challenging” works prompted me to think further about the root causes of the questionable integrity and vacuousness of much contemporary art, and its general lack of any discernible skill.

There was a heavy clue in The Sunday Times Culture section of 24th July (Irish edition).   Cristín Leach had a fascinating article entitled “New graduate shows raise the question of whether art should be led by ideas or skills”.  It is mainly about Dublin’s National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and how it now emphasises teaching students how to conceptualise rather than how to draw or paint properly.

While NCAD was the subject matter of the article, I suspect that a similar analysis could be written about almost any school of art in the western world.  Below I am quoting some extracts from the article.  The actual article is behind a pay wall, so I’m trying to balance my wish to give readers a good sense of what it is saying with the retention of a degree of respect for copyright issues.  I should also admit that I have seriously cherry-picked the extracts to suit my own perspective, and that Cristín Leach was more balanced in her article (although I have a suspicion where her sympathies lie).

…..“Every year, people say to me there’s hardly any painting,” says Robert Armstrong, the head of painting at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), of visitors to each summer’s graduate art shows…… He mentions …..Bob Glynn, who graduated with a pseudo-architectural installation made from found scraps of wood and carpet, John Ryan, who made sculptures from the trays in which he had mixed his paint, and Tom Boland, who filled a room with cardboard boxes into which words and phrases had been cut with a scalpel……

It’s hardly news that, in 2011, painting graduates are not necessarily painting. It’s a predictable result of the way in which art is taught at third level: concept first, medium second. …. He points out that students who want to learn to paint or attend life drawing classes still can, although many don’t “It’s an option and it’s available regularly. A very small percentage take it up because a lot of people don’t see the value in it any more.”

They’re wrong, says the painter Mick O’Dea, who attended NCAD in the late 1970s and taught there from 1981 to 1999. “Painting is the kind of art that you learn as you are doing it,” he says. “The concept is never divorced from the activity. It’s through the activity that the concept becomes clear. If you go to an art college that emphasises concept, it can be to the detriment of the activity. You need to be encouraged to get your hands dirty.”   O’Dea is the principal of the recently re-established Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) School, which, he says, has emerged out of necessity. “The people involved feel this drawing-and-painting issue needs to be addressed,” he says.…..

…. among the current crop of graduates are some with ideas and no understanding of how to execute them, or lacking the skill to do so. This isn’t necessarily the college’s fault. If the students haven’t gained the skills it’s maybe because they haven’t sought them out. In the current system, the onus is on the student to take what they want from their time in college.  Teaching is more discursive now,” says Napier, the head of fine art at NCAD. His idea of a successful student is one who has learnt to self-educate, to make connections, to ask the right questions. “I think it’s a more flexible, empowered way to come out of art college into today’s art world.

“A person standing up telling you something is no substitute for someone keeping their mouth shut and doing it,” says O’Dea. So at the RHA, teaching is by demonstration.

… a successful NCAD graduate has been well taught under Napier’s definition if, 10 years after graduation, they turn up at the RHA and say, ‘I need to learn to draw now.’ That’s concept-before-medium in action.

Having read the article, the question I was left with is: how much does NCAD get in taxpayers’ money to perpetuate this empty, derivative and self-indulgent approach to art and design?

Why is Fine Gael still cosying up to DO’B?

This from the front page of today’s Irish Times: Ex-Esat chief refuses to take part in forum with O’Brien

Former chief executive of Esat Barry Maloney has written to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste saying he is no longer willing to take part in the Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin this weekend because his former business associate Denis O’Brien is attending …..  in letters sent to Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, Mr Maloney said he would not attend this event, given that Mr O’Brien would be a participant, despite the severe criticisms made of him by the Moriarty tribunal in its final report …… a senior Government source expressed confidence in Mr O’Brien, who was involved in many important Irish businesses and charities and had an important contribution to make to the forum.

As I wrote in June, when he was invited to meet the Queen of England:  “Mr O’Brien has denied any wrongdoing, and the issues dealt with by Moriarty may be tested in some form in a court of law.  But in the meantime, surely we are right to expect some circumspection from our political establishment in dealings with Mr O’Brien, and that they should keep him at arm’s length on our behalf.”

Is there nobody in Fine Gael who has the integrity and backbone to stand up and be counted on this?

Dan O’Brien had a good piece in Saturday’s Irish Times about house prices in Ireland.  But a couple of comments should be made.

Firstly, Dan (or the sub-editor) gave the piece the title “How low can house prices go?”  While the article was interesting in many respects, I don’t recall him answering that particular question.  OK, so headlines are always making false promises which the actual article fails to deliver;  not exactly Man Bites Dog.  Also, if you read the article expecting to see Dan’s own view, you would have been disappointed.

In fairness he does say “If the 2011 rate of decline in residential property prices continues for another 12 months, prices will fall by about 15 per cent from their current level. Given the headwinds facing the market, that is more likely than not.”  And he also notes that the Banks’ Stress Tests had a baseline assumption “that prices will fall by a further 20 per cent before the market hits bottom. In their worst-case scenario, the decline would be almost 30 per cent. That would bring the fall from the 2007 peak to 59 per cent.”

But it would have been nice to have the personal view of the Economics Editor of the Irish Times on the matter.

Secondly, and more surprisingly, Dan doesn’t seem too hot on the calculation of percentages.  Two sentences in the article offer contrasting views on the extent of the rise in Irish house prices during the bubble phase:

Compare “In the decade from the index’s start date, in early 1997, Irish property prices quadrupled” with “Although the US did not look out of the ordinary in the property-price rises it experienced from 1997 to 2006 (130 per cent compared with Ireland’s 400 per cent), it has suffered the second-worst rich-world crash (after Ireland)…”

Surely Dan doesn’t think that if a number quadruples, it has risen by 400%?  Surely he knows that it has only risen by 300%?  Must be an error by the pesky sub-editor again.