Grander Bailout

16 January 2009

A Plane Lands on the Hudson

Paseo de los Heroes, by nathangibbs, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)When faced with physical danger it’s far easier to panic than persevere. Yet all that stands between success and failure, heroism and disaster, is a clear understanding that a process must be initiated, a path chosen and quickly followed. Still, that “all” is an obstacle over which almost everyone will stumble, far too difficult for most of us to contemplate. But not for Chesley Sullenberger and his crew, who guided an Airbus A230 aircraft that lost the use of both engines shortly after take off from New York’s La Guardia airport yesterday to a successful landing in the Hudson River with no fatalities.

The choice must have been terrifying – guide the stricken plane to an airport in New Jersey, risking the lives of all on board and many more besides, or turn and treat the Hudson as a landing field, with whatever consequences that might offer up. But others can tell the story better than me:

Wall Street Journala comprehensive description of the landing

US Airways – official press release

CNN – coverage of investigation to come and accounts of the impact

Newsday – a short biography of the pilot

New York Daily Newsan extensive set of photographs

New York Timesaccount of the rescue

What’s most striking about the media coverage is the sense that everyone, from the pilot to the cabin crew, ferry captains, police divers and many others, were doing precisely what they were supposed to do, and everything they could do, and everyone survived. That’s a truly salutary lesson, given the profound gravity of the situation.

It should pay to understand that the extraordinary involves a great deal of the ordinary. Amidst the petty dramas of our lives – increasing rent, decreasing economic growth, misbehaving children, truant lovers or what have you – just getting the job done, focusing on the task at hand, is all that really matters. We don’t have the terror of a forced landing or the icy waters of the Hudson to contend with, we merely have to make decisions and follow them through. That doesn’t seem too difficult any more.


The Spacemen Speak

6 December 2008

Dispatches from the Twilight Zone

Windup metal spaceman, by zen, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Relevance is not always an exhaustive criterion in Hong Kong journalism. A vague association, the merest hint of connection, a slim link between national prestige and local humdrum is often all it takes to crank out a feel-good headline. Hong Kong’s minority English-language newspapers, in particular, are adept at trumpeting thinly-disguised irrelevance as news. Not always, but it sneaks in there often enough. Consider the front page of today’s South China Morning Post. The banner headline tells of a high court judge who gave an oral ruling in an appeal case and then reversed his decision when he gave the formal written ruling eight months later. The judicial system under the spotlight, a real case for concern – now that’s worth reading about. But with equal billing at the top of the page is this far less explicable headline: “Astronauts confident HK can weather financial turmoil”.

And thus the spacemen speak.

In a world that matches naiveté and nous, credulity and common sense, this is not an entirely unsurprising headline. But it truly beggars belief that any newspaper, save perhaps the Weekly World News, would even try to cast astronauts as in any way knowledge about a very complex financial crisis. Still, the SCMP is ever willing to pander to the overlords of the north and their lesser representatives. The astronauts, members of the Shenzhou VII mission that featured China’s first spacewalk in September, are in town with their support crew to speak about their experience and, it seems, to relate that experience to Hong Kong, even if by the weakest of analogies.

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Same Old

20 November 2008

More Manufactured Scandal from a Directionless Rag

Shock Shock Horror Horror, by Jeremy Brooks, with Creative Commons licenceWhile waiting for the Coroner’s Court to hand down its finding on Vicky Flores’ death this morning I picked up our copy of the South China Morning Post, curious to know what salacious details it might have reported this time around. And it didn’t disappoint. The following post appeared in slightly different form on A Death in Hong Kong earlier this morning. The links to the original SCMP article lead to a PDF file, so everyone can read it.

The South China Morning Post has again reported incorrectly on Vicky’s inquest. Despite the headline on page 3 of the City section today, Vicky did not ‘visit’ a ‘witch doctor’ (otherwise known as a ‘quack’) about her headaches. A friend, supposedly a ‘boyfriend’, did on her behalf, taking a picture of Vicky with him.

So much for attention to detail from the SCMP’s subeditors.

The witness mentioned in the article who made the claim that Vicky was “out of her mind” shifted uneasily in her seat when Irene, Vicky’s sister, questioned her about this, kept looking down and moved her gaze from side to side. She also raised her voice defensively when questioned about how she knew that Vicky didn’t have good relations with her family. Her claim was that Vicky told her so.

In other words, she was presenting hearsay evidence.

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A Tale of Interesting Times

25 October 2008

Nick Paumgarten’s Literature of Crisis

These are interesting times, as the Chinese would say, and all the more worrying for it. Last week I spoke to a man who has built a reputation as a long-term value investor in Hong Kong’s stock market. “The market’s crazy”, he said, “I’m going to Shanghai for a while”. You just can’t argue with that. But there are other ways of perceiving the situation, and we can’t all afford a cross-country jaunt for the clarity of distance. So I’ve turned not to the dry financial press, with its hyperbole and gloom, but to a writer who knows how to weave a story a little better than well. Sometimes the technique is almost important as the telling, especially in describing what would otherwise be unknowable, or at the very least arcane.

Nick Paumgarten seizes on the role of credit in the current travails, writing in last week’s New Yorker. His brief argument is not in the least difficult to follow – interbank lending has dried up and all else has followed. “Hoarding”, he writes poetically, “is panic’s quiet twin”.  That might seem a little too rhetorical, but allusion can often trump analysis in drawing the bigger picture. First the banks panic, and then they – and everyone else – start to hoard. It follows that when someone mentions recession, no-one really wants to spend. Everyone’s thinking about whether they can keep their jobs, whether their savings will last if they don’t. So things get worse, and hoarding really does become panic’s quiet twin.

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From the Newswires

6 September 2008

The Persistence of Journalistic Bias

Objectivity is the journalist’s catch-cry and crutch. We might presume that it’s simply a function of news writing, but perspective is everything with the written word. When a newspaper journalist mentions objectivity it’s either a shout in rage at the way things are when they should no longer be, or a whimper of shame when happenings prove bias to be inevitable. But is the reading public prepared to scrutinise, to decide when coverage might be other than what it claims?

By and large, we in the minority of the world’s population with access to the Internet still rely on the newswires to bring us the business, to tell us what’s been happening this minute, this hour, this day, this week. And who amongst us seriously asks “is this correct?” or “why is this so?” or how could that be?” Not many at all. We accept that reportage is an approximation of reality, that what might be near enough is probably good enough. And we read on, understanding the world in ways we don’t fully understand ourselves.

But think about the acceptance of approximation for a while. Not only does it mean that we’ll never know ‘what really happened’, but it also indicates that we’re not very concerned about bias, which is what occurs when objectivity no longer pertains. In a maybe-biased-maybe-not world, how do we discern the effects of propaganda, and the extent to which any part of the media colludes with government in presenting a picture of that which has never been? This is not a problem of our epoch alone, as any historian would admit, but it has become particularly un-nerving just now, when so much information can be had, but so few search through it diligently.

Allow me to offer a brief example from that most biased of journalistic pursuits – the coverage of war. Search the archive of the New York Times online and you’ll be able to find a wealth of military coverage, but one particular article is noteworthy for exposing the mechanics of how both sides in a war might twist and break their own credibility in reporting battles, if only we’d stop and think awhile.

Relaying a report from London, the New York Times shows how some American publications covering one war – I’ll discuss which later – have been making “their accounts of the present operations interesting, tactics which seem to be copied, indeed improved upon” by their counterparts on the enemy side. Here is the crux of the problem, whether in war or in peace. Most of what happens is not very interesting, and certainly not interesting enough to fill a daily newspaper. When happenings capture attention, they’re converted into Events and that attention is recycled every day until the next big happening comes along.

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Typographical Surprises

22 August 2008

Or, You’ve Just Gotta Laugh

Typos are the terror of the journalist and the scourge of the editor. In this technological age of word-processors, spelling checkers and state-of-the-art document sharing they should never happen. But take it from an overworked editor – they do, and more often than might seem apparent to the untrained eye. They range from the embarrassing to the downright silly when they slip on through. Once, in a thirty-six hour stretch of poverty-inspired freelance editing I accidentally changed the abbreviation for a mainland Chinese government department to that for a well-known Hong Kong kindergarten, to the outrage of the author who assumed an ulterior motive. What could I say? Dear client, I screwed up because I haven’t slept in two days . . .

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You Will Believe!

17 August 2008

The Economist on Marx

Every publication needs a conceit, a sort of literary attitude that extends across issues, separates believers from the heathen, occasionally flows into a full article, but more often manifests in a well-placed quip or a scornful remark. Wired has its peccadillo for predication, and the New Yorker its disdain for the drudge of popular culture. The Economist is a little more sophisticated, but no less enthusiastic in its construction of a bête noire. It has Karl Marx, and it just won’t let go.

Consider last week’s issue of the magazine. Buried in a leader on the failed intellectual “heirs” of Russian literary dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the grand old rag of English conservatism slipped in a warning that “ideas should not be suppressed, but nor should they be worshipped”. In the context of the article that wasn’t a particularly significant statement – the problem of co-opted intellectuals, of ideas held rigidly in place and manipulated by the state, was its central theme. So why bother to distil the argument into a single sentence at all? Because it set up a strained comparison of Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalised condemnation of Soviet excess, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Communist Manifesto.

Of course Karl Marx and Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels weren’t named in the article, all the better to maintain Solzhenitsyn’s status as a “great man” and underscore his well-known opposition to Marxism. But more than a simple genre-hop in pursuit of easy political points, the comparison pointed back to a long-term illogic in the magazine’s stance towards communism in general and Marx in particular. An illogic, I should add, that is very likely to comfort its core of conservative readers.

The article mentioned that “in 1848 two well-meaning intellectuals published another powerful indictment of a system, and their ‘Communist Manifesto’ went on to enslave half of mankind”. In the broadest possible sense, taking the words not at their literal meaning but as a loose pointer towards a series of documented historical events, you could say – on the balance of probabilities – that this is an adequate observation.

But if you think in more precise terms, the statement is clearly illogical. A book enslaved half of mankind? No, a political system did, or might have done depending on how you define ‘enslave’. And when you consider how that political system – wherever it was localised after the Bolshevik revolution – started at precisely the point at which the Communist Manifesto ended, with the dissolution of the old state, then the argument is little more than wasted ink.

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Slowly Turn the Wheels of Justice

14 August 2008

Police Report Issued on Vicky Flores Death

Almost four months after Vicenta ‘Vicky’ Flores – a Filipino domestic helper in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong – fled her employers’ home and drowned under mysterious circumstances, the regional police have finalised their investigation. Today’s print edition of the South China Morning Post reports that the North Lantau police issued a report on the case “this week”, without specifying a day or any other details.

Vicky’s disappearance and death have been a very serious issue here in Discovery Bay, not only because the loss of life is tragic and the community has been diminished by her passing, but also because the government reaction to it has revealed a distinct lack of enthusiasm in dealing with people from other cultures, and an inability to communicate meaningfully with minority ethnic communities.

Following standard procedure, the police report has been forwarded to the Coroner, who will consider whether an inquest is necessary. Given that the police refused to investigate the circumstances of Vicky’s employment and focused on ludicrous insinuations of “cult-like” connections, a re-investigation of the situation through the Coroner’s Court will be most welcome.

Around a month ago the Justice for Vicky Flores concern group, of which I’m a member, received independent advice that an inquest would be likely due to the publicity and genuine concern surrounding the case. This was complemented more recently by an indication from the Lantau District Police Commander that “a death inquest is very likely to be held”. Of course, that in no way guarantees an inquest, which will bring much needed transparency to the case in an open court, but it’s promising given the latest news.

Dealing with the police in Hong Kong isn’t an easy task, despite a wealth of propaganda that suggests a mission to serve and protect. For the sake of Vicky’s family – especially her sister Irene, who has struggled through a mountain of difficulty both here in Hong Kong and at home in the Philippines to make sense of the situation – any news of the police finding and a prompt indication of an inquest date will be vital.

In a humane society, people care for people, even foreigners.


Double Standards

31 July 2008

More on Maid Mistreatment in Hong Kong

A journalist once told me that letters to the editor are the last refuge of the anally retentive, a view I’m often happy to agree with despite my reservations about the suitability of any journalistic advice. But today I read the print edition of the South China Morning Post here in Hong Kong and decided that silence changes nothing. Adorning the front page was an article encouraging the employers of lowly paid domestic helpers to cancel their contracts and rehire them to take advantage of the suspension of an employer-paid levy I mentioned recently.

The absolute irresponsibility of that article and other coverage in the issue should be clear from the letter I wrote to the editor a few hours ago.

Dear Editor,

I am appalled at the tone of your publication’s irresponsible lead article on 31 July (‘4 years off maid levy for some’). Suggesting that employers of foreign domestic helpers can “get the most” out of the levy suspension by breaching a set-term contract, which will force a period of unemployment on their employees, is the epitome of callousness. Leaving aside the fact that any such actions would not be “terminations” as reported (a contract is terminated due to wrong doing, not fiscal expediency), the chances of many employers even bothering to secure agreement from their helpers is small, given that the Immigration Department does not require them to fill out the reasons section of the form they submit when a contract is prematurely ended. This fact alone makes nonsense of the Secretary for Labour and Welfare’s claim that helpers should not fear being sacked because of the new arrangements. What will constrain irresponsible employers?

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City of Silence

26 July 2008

In Hong Kong, Who Speaks to the Unspoken?

There has long been a crucial link between politics and the mass media that plays out in the background of our lives. Leaving aside self-congratulatory accounts of the so-called ‘fourth estate’, the media communicates what politicians want known. Occasional exposés break this comfortable relationship, but even in criticising government action, the media more often than not barely scrape the surface of the issues behind political decisions. The focus remains on the head of the body politic, not the organs that make it function. So it comes as little surprise that media commentary on the Hong Kong government’s decision to suspend a levy placed on the employers of foreign domestic helpers completely misses the point.

First, a little background. Following the economic downturn generated by the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, during 2003 the local government decided to reduce the minimum wage payable to foreign domestic helpers – mainly Indonesians and Filipinos – and tax their employers to the tune of HK$400 a month. You might not see the immediate logic in this, until you realise that the euphemistically named ‘levy’, promoted as a way of collecting funds to help retrain locals disadvantaged by economic restructuring, was meant as a disincentive. Hire a foreign maid and pay for it. The operative word here is foreign; the idea was to have employers hire local helpers. Given the draconian conditions and low pay involved, few took up the offer.

In fact, the much vaunted multi-billion dollar retraining slush fund seems never to have been touched. With every request for information about it the government slides almost effortlessly toward another topic. The media doesn’t press too hard, so the issue fades until the government stumbles in one of its convoluted populist gestures. That happened recently when, as part of hastily assembled package to limit the effects of inflation, the government proposed a suspension of the levy for two years.

Given that the suspension applies to all contracts initiated within the period, it seems like a reasonable saving, until you realise that the HK$9,600 saved over the two years would be barely a few months’ lunch money for many employers, and hardly an amount substantial enough to somehow, miraculously, mitigate against inflation. As the package of ‘relief’ measures includes no incentives for saving, any money retained will most likely go to increased consumption.

Hey, presto! More inflation.

And what about the intended recipients of this ill-judged largesse? Well, some of them just can’t wait until September, when the suspension was first slated to start, and have started giving their maids notice – although in my neighbourhood some helpers have already been summarily dismissed. It would be entirely reasonable to ask why, and the tortured logic behind it is that the employers can save money now by dismissing their helpers and re-hiring, or hiring again, when the suspension comes into effect. Aside from the fact that this is completely illogical – the employers will save the entire amount when they renew the two-year contract anyway – it shows a callous disregard for the helpers themselves.

So, is the media focusing on this breach of human decency? No, not at all – and that observation covers both the English and Chinese language press. Typically, the coverage is mentioning the situation and interviewing NGOs that help maids, and the ever quote-worthy head of the foreign domestic helper employer group. But no-one has bothered to interview a single helper. The English language dailies could easily do that, given that most Filipino domestic helpers here, at least, have a better command of English than some of the reporters. But not a word.

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A Question of Money

5 July 2008

Is the Allure of Remittances Fading?

? by Stéfan, with Creative Commons licence

Questioning orthodoxy is often the hardest, least rewarded task. Everyone hates a whiner, and even the most artful of dissenters rarely appreciate the value of their own kind. But only by pushing and prodding can we expand our understanding of the way things are, always with the aim of shifting them towards the way things should be. When J.K. Galbraith coined the term ‘conventional wisdom’ in the 1950s he did so in the belief that there was “a persistent and never-ending competition between what is right and what is merely acceptable”. He wanted to root out and analyse ideas that were popular only because they could be understood within a broad social consensus, regardless of their content. They were persistent because people built on them, using the same or similar methods to produce slightly different explanations.

I’ve written about money sent home by overseas workers to the Philippines before, but allow me now to consider recent comments by others to put the issue in perspective. When I attended the opening forum of the International Migrant Alliance in Hong Kong not long ago, the most credible of the speakers had an interesting tale to tell. Sonny Africa is an economist with the IBON foundation, a left-leaning think tank in the Philippines. He argued, very much against the conventional wisdom, that remittances might well be propping up individual households in the country, but there was no hard evidence that they were encouraging anything but low-level investment. Most importantly, he said that remittances were not beneficial to long-term economic growth.

Africa’s position sounds like sour grapes in a country that received a staggering US$17 billion in remittances last year, second only to vastly more populous China at $US25.7 billion. But other economists have been questioning remittances recently – not dismissing them, but asking whether their beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

YouNotSneaky, an economist blogger far more perceptive that the name suggests, has argued in much the same way as Africa that the benefits people think come from remittances are actually from the transfer of money within households. The overall economic benefit, he argues, comes not from the remittances themselves but from the entire process of labour migration. Reviewing the post at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen agrees that “the gains are to be found in the immigration itself, not the subsequent transfer. Beware double counting.”

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Afterwords

1 June 2008

A Brief Interruption

083/365 - Ahead and Up, by Just.K, with Creative Commons licenceIn a recent post on the limitations of traditional news I mentioned the importance of looking past events, of understanding happenings as a sort of ill-defined continuum. The point should always be to ask what happened next, and what should happen now. That entails speculation, of course, and ways of anticipating the future, to the extent possible. It’s also a fundamentally activist position, moving past the passive reception of news, actively seeking evidence of change where none seems apparent. So with that in mind I’m putting my short series on mental health and human rights on hold for while to offer an example of what news might look like, after the event.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I’ve recently been involved in a difficult campaign to have the Hong Kong police thoroughly investigate the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores, a Filipino domestic helper who lived and worked in my community of Discovery Bay. It seems increasingly likely that they’re taking the easy route to an explanation, which the major English language newspaper foreshadowed in an article claiming that Vicky had “occult-links“. In many ways, the group to which I belong – the Justice for Vicky Flores Concern Group – is powerless to change that insinuation, but we have been fortunate in raising the profile of migrant worker rights in a small part of Hong Kong.

A week or so back Joan Gill, a writer for the community magazine Inside DB called me to ask questions for a feature article on Vicky and what has been happening in response to her death. She also spoke to Edwina Antonio, another member of the group and a tireless helper of migrant workers in Hong Kong. Joan wanted to know more about the situation as it stood, and what we wanted to do in the future, what we needed to do in the future. I was very pleased to offer my thoughts, and hopeful that the article would highlight the difficulties faced by women who earn less here in a month than what many people spend on lunch over the same period.

The result was astounding, and a perfect example of what the media, even the community media, can do if it wants to look past events. The following is a modified version of a post on the article I published earlier on A Death in Hong Kong.

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