David M. Russell

Archive for September, 2009|Monthly archive page

Banks by any other name

In Commentary on September 10, 2009 at 11:23 am

Nobody likes banks. That has been a truism for decades: prior to that all but the richest among us were simply scared of them. But the Global Financial Crisis has sharpened our dislike to a razor-edge.

So, what does an astute capitalist do when a trend emerges? Tries to make a buck out of it, that’s right! Which is where a raft of large and continually growing Australian retailers come into the picture (and their exploitation of this situation is surely replicated – or originated – offshore).

We’re talking about massive retail chains like Harvey Norman and A Mart/Super A Mart. With no fanfare whatsoever, they have begun to play the banks at their own game – and their continual expansion demonstrates how smart their strategic ploy has been and how successful they have exploited the banks’ weakness.

Notice the vanguard marketing tactics of these retailers: 24 months’ interest free – no deposit, no repayments till 2011. There are scores of variations on this theme now but the common tactic remains the same. They are effectively offering consumers a loan. It is tricked-up as a commodity purchase – buy a lounge suite, a plasma TV, a kitchen – almost anything you want: just so long as you sign a binding contract to take a loan with them.

The reality is that the consumer items are really just baubles in much the same way as bankers of yesteryear offered home-buyers an all-day sucker as reward for signing on the dotted line. Some things just never change! In fact, you could argue that the mass-produced items offered by these retail chains are more or less give-aways – the cost of inducing us to enter into a debt agreement.

It is noteworthy that these retailers are now starting to specify minimum monthly repayments to secure their deals (a factor of the reduced availability of capital in the monetary system) but their hope is always that consumers will lose their focus and accidentally not pay-out the full balance by the due date thus becoming liable for all the accrued interest penalties. It’s a harsh world.

Of course, the retailers are as thick as thieves with credit houses like CitiBank who provide the finance packages. It’s a cosy partnership that is making both parties very content. It’s just the banks sitting on the sidelines who are gnashing their teeth at the loss of business. None of us will shed a tear for them but we should never forget that there are all kinds of sharks circling us and not all are called banks. Let the buyer beware.

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Dedicated slackers!

In Commentary on September 10, 2009 at 11:21 am

Australians are frequently regarded as liking the good life just a little too much. Other people around the world seem to be convinced that our lifestyle advantages of sun, sand and surf lure us into a hedonistic mindset that puts work a very distant second to the noble pastime of enjoying ourselves to the fullest. Funny thing is, even us Aussies tend to agree with that assessment.

New evidence, however, suggests we may just have to see a different reflection in our mirror. The fact is that we are so dedicated to our jobs that we actually run away from taking annual leave. So great is our aversion to taking time off that we have accrued an extraordinary tally of 123 million days of time off.

What is worrying bosses is not that we won’t take holidays. That much they can handle. No, the problem is more prosaic: the accumulated liability of all that leave is a massive $33 billion. Now that kind of accrued debt can keep sleep away.

While bosses are starting to be concerned about this situation it is the tourist industry which is really beginning to develop grey hair as a consequence. All this dedication to staying at work is sending electric jolts through their hip pocket nerves. They don’t like it and they want us to change. So much so, they have prompted the production of TV ads to prick our consciences into having a holiday.

The response so far has been muted. It seems one in four of us is a committed leave-hoarder with five or more weeks of vacation time sitting unused in our entitlements.

An interesting aspect of this hoarding mania is that many of us really think work is important while just as many believe that if we actually walk out the door for a while, some of our ambitious colleagues will steal a march on us. Talk about paranoid! The Global Financial Crisis hasn’t helped, either, with many workers wanting to stockpile their entitlements just in case they get the sack.

The challenge we all face is to work out whether we are hedonists (taking all our leave as it becomes due); martyrs (the company would grind to a halt without me); scaredy-cats (the axe-blow of the sack could cripple my career at any time) or maladjusted misfits (can’t trust any of those bastards I work with). Whatever category we may belong to, the tourist industry and bosses just wish we’d take a few days off to think about it. As soon as possible, please! Our country needs us to slack off. Now that’s a turn up for the books, eh?

Memory dims for want of a bulb

In Commentary on September 9, 2009 at 3:52 pm

A shadow is falling across the globe as one of the brightest spots in our lives is extinguished forever. Okay, so that’s hopelessly corny but can you believe it? Incandescent light bulbs are about to go the way of the dinosaur. By the end of this year we won’t be able to buy them anymore as they are to be replaced by compact fluorescent lamps.

It’s all in the name of sustainability so there can be no argument against it: old-fashioned bulbs generate way more greenhouse gases than fluorescent lamps so they’re being switched-off by government fiat.

Interestingly, I can’t remember any political party in the past decade unveiling a policy platform that promised to dim our lives. And that is just what is happening. At first I thought my eyesight was failing because every time I replaced a bulb, my world shrank a little. Sure, I felt good that I was saving the world but a nagging inner voice kept asking why that world was getting smaller even though I was being as green as a frog.

The fact is that these new lamps are not as bright as the old ones. Their advocates – disturbingly young people with eyesight so good they can see in the bloody dark – don’t notice the difference. Lucky sods. They are so full of joy for the world as they preach the virtues of these new forces of darkness that they ignore the downsides – and there are quite a few of them.

For a start, the new fluoro lamps contain cancer-causing mercury which is also labelled a neurotoxin (don’t let any Russian spies get to you with this stuff). Nor is there yet any safe way to dispose of them. Our beloved federal governments (both persuasions are guilty) have put hands over their eyes so they can see no evil. Their sustainability approach is to ask us to store dead lamps at home or work until someone figures out something we can safely do with them.

And these people expect us to believe they deserve to run the nation! As the old saying goes: they couldn’t organise a root in a brothel.

But those dreadful entrepreneurs that the former government nurtured during its decade in office have recognised a money-making lurk when they see it and will recycle these mercury-ridden lamps safely for a hefty fee. They don’t say how they do that safely so keep a watch in your local creek for fish glowing in the dark. Just kidding.

It’s a wonderful state of affairs, isn’t it? We have to pay way more for these new lamps. They pollute the world with a deadly neurotoxin/carcinogen. There is no safe disposal scheme. We have to pay an outrageous price to supposedly get rid of a few safely. They don’t light up our lives as well. And they look bloody ridiculous.

Thank heavens those relics called candles will not yet be sacrificed on the altar of sustainability. Sure, they may create greenhouse gases but I’m now convinced there are faults far worse than that. Hey, maybe in a few years’ time we’ll be able to spot old folks staging light bulb parties just to celebrate a few bright moments in their dotage. Theirs will be the well-lit houses shining with an inner light.

Stop this bleeding nonsense

In Commentary on September 1, 2009 at 9:07 am

There are some topics that many people believe should be taboo. Sex, religion and politics are said to be best avoided in polite company – which doesn’t leave a whole lot to talk about! But one subject above all really is regarded by many as not fit for discussion: menstruation. This is despite the topic coming somewhat out-of-the-closet in recent years thanks to progressive advertising campaigns for tampons.

If it were just misogynist males desirous of keeping periods or PMS (Pre-Menstrual Syndrome for any naïve blokes reading this) it might be okay, but it appears some women are keen to keep things in the closet, too.

A columnist at a major newspaper recently lamented that women should, effectively, bury the subject of periods. She claimed that women should ignore this issue and just get on with life without complaining. Her thesis was that women could not be taken seriously as potential leaders ‘of the free world’ if they admitted to succumbing to ‘the bloating, cramping anxiety, irritability and the mood swings – to name just a few of the roughly 150 symptoms that the Women’s Health Centre of Australia associates with PMS’.

Look, any reasonable person – male or female – should be forgiven for suspecting our columnist was in the throes of PMS (or completely taking the piss) for making such an inane suggestion. And even if irony was her intent, I suspect she’d now be regretting ever penning those words.

As a man who dares to consider himself a male ‘feminist’ I find this approach appalling. I do so in humble acknowledgement that I have no intrinsic understanding of menstruation and its attendant physical and emotional impacts. But as one who shares his life with women and respects them, I find it absurd to pretend that periods and all their attendant consequences simply do not exist.

Let’s face it: a certain proportion of men will never want to consider this condition – full stop, period – let alone as part of a quest for enlightenment. They can be termed misogynists without argument. But as a hopefully aware man you even wonder if using a term such as ‘condition’ might be deemed derogatory or inappropriate. As a male, even if we are sympathetic, we are often on the back foot. And, I dare to suggest, not through any real fault of our own. This is not a typical male bleat of ‘Oh, I’m not understood’. It’s a reality we have to deal with.

As someone who has been married for more than three decades I have real and practical experience of dealing with periods and PMS. But it would be a betrayal of my wife’s privacy to discuss some of my learnings so I cannot use that experience. Even so, I suspect every woman’s experience of menstruation is unique. Just as some women experience menopause without serious adverse consequences, many of their fraternity suffer truly debilitating symptoms. As a young male who lived through my mother’s stiflingly painful menopause exacerbated by recent deaths of her husband and daughter, the experience remains painfully vivid. Honestly, you would not wish it on a violent criminal offender.

Yet it is – surely – the ignorance (I was going to say mystery or mystique but they are wholly inadequate terms for this issue) that surrounds periods and PMS that creates and prolongs much of the mental rather than physical suffering associated with this phenomenon.

To suggest, however, that a medical condition which so seriously affects so many women should be swept under the carpet is, in my humble male view, madness.

If PMS is a reality for most women why should its acknowledgement stand as some insane barrier to their potential for achievement in our society? Let’s face it: men think with their dicks and that has never precluded them from high office. Indeed, in the cases of leaders such as John F Kennedy and Silvio Berlusconi, it has apparently aided and abetted their attraction.

I, for one, urge women to make PMS a cause celebre. Let’s end the mystique and mystery. It is that cloak of unknowingness that creates antipathy. That which we do not understand we tend to fear. It’s not rational but it’s no less serious because of that.

The columnist’s additional proposition that PMS should not be used as an excuse for poor behaviour caused by ill-discipline is pertinent and valid. Yet it is only if all members of society understand what is involved in PMS that actions and likely causes can be assessed. The suggestion by the columnist that periods and PMS remain secret women’s business (her actual words) is tantamount to denying men a presence at the birth of their children because it was another form of secret women’s business. We have left the Dark Ages behind in no small part because of a willingness to explore realities. The cause of female equality cannot be fully realised in secrecy, darkness and mystery. There are many men who are genuinely sympathetic and open-minded. Do not freeze us out. Do not make us a minority. That can only – inevitably – victimise women.

The blindness of greed

In Commentary on September 1, 2009 at 9:06 am

The Global Financial Crisis has caused many investors to lose their life savings. Many others have suffered severe set-backs to their financial wealth. All of us have (or should have) learned serious lessons about fiscal prudence. But you have to shake your head at some f the madness that was going on prior to the meltdown.

Details emerged recently of just one victim of an investment scheme that collapsed due to poor management. Oh, and a good mix of greed and a very large dollop of madness.

This investor is a female elderly pensioner. She is close to being evicted from her modest home because her shares in a failed investment company are now worthless. At face value, it’s a classic tear-jerker. Poor old lady diddled by financial institutions focused on greed and aided by scumbags who were nothing more than con artists. But is all what it seems?

The basic facts are that this woman was given a loan of $208,000 by a major bank so she could buy shares in the investment company. Well, there are worse things in life than that, it’s true. But then we learn that woman already owed $625,000 on a margin loan for more shares in the same company. Yes, those shares were valued at $713,000 so – on paper – she’s a smart investor.

We won’t ignore the apparent facts that she was conned by slick marketing and was allegedly duped into signing a bank loan application form. Dumb? Sure. But there are two facts which start to pt this picture into true perspective. First, her house is apparently worth just $320,000 and her only income is the aged pension. Yep. That’s worth less than $20,000 a year. So, she’s borrowing the best part of a million dollars with income of not much more than a thousand dollars a month.

Nah, you don’t have to be Einstein to figure that’s not a viable arrangement.

But the point I want to tease out is this: even if this woman was duped, what possible right did she have to think that she could be a million dollar sharemarket player when her only income was the aged pension and her only substantial asset was a house worth a bit more than half the national average?

We have consumer protection laws to muzzle blatant crooks but we cannot simply ignore personal responsibility. The adage of ‘let the buyer beware’ remains just as pertinent today as it ever was. I have some sympathy for this woman but I cannot feel truly sorry for her because she was so greedy she sold her inheritance on a gamble that was – on any sensible assessment – sheer madness. The real sadness is that somehow, some way, the rest of us taxpayers will have to pick up the tab. Now that’s real injustice.