Meejit 18-01-07

Confront this: No, of course you shouldn't believe everything I say. Last week in this column, when I challenged, nay dismissed, Denis Staunton's assertion in the Irish Times that George Bush faced a “serious confrontation” with the Democrat-controlled US congress over his Iraq “surge” plan, you may well have felt I was off-base, a knee-jerk left-wing ideologue – especially as everything you've heard and read in the meantime takes the same “confrontation” line as Staunton.

Don't trust me on this. Instead, dig through the US media coverage, the source of 99 per cent of the Irish coverage of this issue, at a conservative estimate. There you'll find boilerplate claims of “confrontation” alongside a couple of salient, albeit buried facts: (1) all the extra American troops will be on Iraqi ground within three or four months; (2) the congress will postpone any real and effectual – as opposed to symbolic – vote on the matter for “several months”.
Then you decide if you can seriously confront a proposal if you do nothing genuine to oppose it until after it has been put into effect.

Greetings, earthlings: Even the best journalists get things wrong, because the conventions and economics of the profession often have the net effect of valuing glib clarity over complex accuracy. The often-admirable Jane Powers, for example, edited last week's special eco-edition of the Irish Times magazine dedicated to “earth”, of all places. Being the Irish Times magazine, it was full of incongruous consumerism: posh organic cosmetics, anyone? How about a €2,500 folding bicycle? And that was just the editorial stuff, before you turned to the full-page adverts for wine shipped halfway around “earth” and imported water in plastic bottles.

Most of the edition was well-meaning, “on your (folding) bike” stuff, very thin on the hard, real-world capital-P Politics that could make a real global difference on global warming. And some of it was just plain “oops”. Powers's own opening essay, for example, offered a sharp little definition of “peak oil”: “the point at which we have less oil in the ground than the amount we have already taken out”, she wrote. Clear, alright, but it just happens to bear no resemblance to the wider world's definition of the concept, a concept that is itself more debatable than Powers lets on. (For the record, “peak oil” refers to an alleged global production maximum, not a halfway point in supply.)

Okay folks, here comes the knee-jerk, barely reconstructed Marxism again: when journalists misapprehend crucial economic concepts, it is more than an academic problem. Economic factors, after all, generally provide the best explanations for the course of human events.

The economy, stupid

How come fishermen are out in awful weather? Well, they're brave all right. Maybe, as some suggested over the weekend, fisheries regulation is a factor. But what about the simple supply-demand economics that says a scarce resource can command a premium price?

The latest rural-pubs stories have also tended to miss a key economic point. While many pundits sneer about whinging publicans, they essentially buy the vintners' shortlist of causes for the trade's decline: the smoking ban and random breath-testing. The posh pundits throw in some dimestore sociology about the changing habits of the Celtic Tiger.

But the Irish pub business peaked in 2000, well into the Celtic Tiger and years before smoking indoors and driving home pissed became quite such a problem. So what happened in 2000? The Intoxicating Liquor Act – the one that made it possible to extinguish a pub licence in rural Ireland and spark it up again in the Big Smoke.
Rural pubs have long been marginal-enough businesses. The publican's sudden capacity to sell a licence to a faraway developer, and then perhaps sell the property to a local one for, say, lucrative housing, has surely been the decisive reason for their gradual disappearance.