Monday, September 28, 2009

Two Great Political Tomes

For the last two weeks I've been thoroughly immersed in these two huge, heavy but wonderful political books. I can wholeheartedly recommend both of them to anybody who loves to luxuriate in the rich details of our contemporary political history.

Ted Kennedy's Memoir is a reflective and beautifully written story of his life and career as a Kennedy and as a member of the US Senate for nearly forty years. The whole rich family saga is here, as well as fascinating behind-the-scenes narratives of all the great legislative battles Kennedy was associated with during the Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Shrub administrations.

What a huge family! Ted was the last of nine children, and his brother Bobby and his wife Ethel had eleven for god's sake. Seemingly, hundreds (well...four) of the family were wiped out in small plane crashes, and disasters of one kind or another overtook many of the rest. You'd have thought they would have learnt not to go out! Still, there's so much love in this book, for family, friends, colleagues and even occasional foes, that makes it so warm and involving, and, frankly, absorbing.

Many of Kennedy's great speeches are liberally quoted, which gives the book a special, literary power as well. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Paul Kelly's The March of Patriots is also an enthralling read. If you want a superb, sympathetic and politically astute overview of Australian politics over the last thirty years you couldn't do any better than this book. And Kelly has a special gift for bringing even the most mundane and complex issues to vivid life. He brings a strong sense of story as well as a wealth of juicy detail to all the great policy initiatives and stoushes that have made the last few decades of our history so fascinating. Keating and Howard are the main protagonists, but there are many more.

He's a bit too fond of 'ism's', like nationalism, regionalism, exceptionalism, globalism, etc, which he uses to give his narrative a dramatic lift and nobler purpose, but nevertheless he remains pretty grounded throughout, and invests the story with plenty of energy and drive.

Huge structural shifts and policy reforms have (thankfully) been unleashed on Australia over the years encompassed by this book, and Keating and Howard have driven them with passion. Kelly's superb chronicling of these events is a must read.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Celebrate these new Australian films!

Blessed opened today around Australia and I rushed to see it because two members of its ensemble cast are simply my favorite female actors alive today: Frances O'Connor and Miranda Otto.

It's become quite fashionable in critical circles to denigrate Australian films of the last few years for being too dark and depressing and decidedly noncommercial. They've become too consciously indie and worthy, luxuriating in being labelled 'gritty'.

There's truth to that, but there's also untruth. See Balibo, Beautiful Kate and Blessed for fine recent examples of excellent local productions that are powerful and emotionally wrenching and worth all the investment that time, money and talent can make in them.

Blessed is simply amazingly good. See it for Frances O'Connor's performance alone. It's not a large role, but it's stunningly raw and harrowing. You don't so much see this film as subject yourself to it, but it's worth every bit of uncomfortableness you'll feel. I simply bawled at the end for at least five minutes. Thank god the credits kept the lights off!

It's directed and co-written by Ana Kokkinos, who wrote the superb Lantana. One of the other co-writers was Christos Tsiolkas, he of Slap fame, that extraordinary novel of modern Australian working class life, which I enthused over in this blog.

There've been plenty of wonderful Australian films released this year. Don't believe all you read.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Genius of Paul Krugman

For years now I've been an enthusiastic reader of the Nobel Prize winning US economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

For so many reasons this guy is one of my all-time heroes! He's the scourge of the wingnut Republican conservatives in the US, particularly the neocons of recent times. He gives no quarter and lets them get away with nothing.

What makes him so powerful are two very formidable talents: the lucidity of his writing, and his exquisite intelligence.

Virtually singlehandedly he brought an end to Bush's crazy push to privatise social security in his second term, a proposal that would have savaged the entitlements and savings of tens of millions of Americans, but that was being sold as a way of rescuing funds from the dead hand of government bureaucracy so as to generate higher levels of returns on the market for individual citizens. Krugman's relentless and forensic critique of the proposal eventually sank it. Imagine the state those privatised funds would be in now after the financial crisis.

Krugman has written a number of books, but the latest and possibly best is The Conscience of a Liberal. There could be no better introduction to American politics and society than this magnificent and engrossing tome. The chapter on the rotten US health system and why it so desperately needs wholesale reform is one of the best things you could ever read on the subject.

But for a shorter intro to how good this guy is read his recent article in the New York Times called How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?

Krugman got his Nobel Prize for his seminal work on trade theory. He challenged the long held belief that countries traded with one another because of the notion of 'comparative advantage'. Country A is good at making cheese and Country B isn't, so B imports the cheese it needs from A and sells stuff it's good at making to A in return. (Australia sells coal to China and buys cheap manufactured goods from China).

But, wait a about all those countries in Europe who make cars and import them as well? Italy, Germany, France and Sweden all export and import cars at the same time. So in fact does Australia, not to mention the US. Krugman blew the notion of comparative advantage right away. He looked at what was actually happening in the real world and then tried to construct a theory around it, rather than the reverse. Countries export as a way of reaching out to new markets, as a way of growing. And they import what they need and whatever takes their fancy.

This bias towards real world immersion is what has made Krugman such a compelling commentator on the current global financial crisis. He is a strong supporter of the stimulus packages implemented by so many governments around the world (in fact he considers they didn't go far enough) and a fierce denouncer of the 'debt is bad' mantra of wooden-headed conservatives.

Reading Krugman is a tonic, simply invigorating. His columns appear twice a week in the New York Times. I urge you to indulge!