Sunday, October 5, 2008

Duffy, AAA Credit Ratings, Milton, Rowling, Rees, Iemma, the Metro and the figuring of meaning

This blog is dedicated to a simple, powerful and perhaps ultimately terrifying notion - that the path to the truth and enlightenment can be attained by studying in detail the thoughts of Michael Duffy in his columns for The Sydney Morning Herald.

True, it's an indirect path, for the winding, twisting path relies on the fact that Duffy is infallibly wrong, and therefore intense study can always lead to an alternative, infallibly correct insight offering redemption and understanding. Thus when Duffy says Morris Iemma (remind me what did he do again?) is a great reforming politician, we know with absolute certainty and clarity that the opposite is certainly true. When Duffy proposes that the whole landscape be covered with righteous McMansions on quarter acre blocks, motivated by some deep seated primeval territorial urge and a desire to assert the truth of Rooty Hill over Paddington, we are given profound insight into urban planning and the human condition.

When Duffy demands more and more tunnels for more and more motorways, we are not too far from the need for rice boys, Marrickville doof doof, speed, autobahns and liebensraum. And so on. Of course there are dangers in any such carefree reading of the holy text. As a contrarian, Duffy opposes any conventional thought, particularly those held by inner city dwellers with a taste for the product of the evergreen bush coffea arabica, and a weakness for descendant mutations of gouais blanc. So any contrarian to Duffy's contrarianism must perforce arrive at a third place, a synthesis of the dialectic which is tinged with Duffian and arabica drinker insights, but takes us to the top of the mountain. 

This can be difficult given that Duffy, as a broadcaster for the ABC as well as Granny columnist, appears in many ways to be exactly alike to the things that he most dislikes and argues against. One small flip of the coin and you might see him hanging up his bicycle clips as he heads to the ABC cafeteria for a sip of magical brown arabica. 

This week's column - luminously entitled "I'm an AAA credit rating addict" with withering irony - raises all these issues with an almost hideous intensity - for at last it seems the scales have fallen from Duffy's eyes, and he has discovered that Morris Iemma's pet project, the North West Metro, is a folly.

Duffy has discovered this via figures being peddled by Michael Easson, snakeoil salesman for another outfit peddling another project of equal irrelevance - a western fast rail link between the west and the city which would fail to integrate in all the ways the North West Metro fails, but with bonus private sector carpet bagging thrown in for good measure (Easson, as former secretary of the NSW Labor Council, presumably got the gig so he could deliver his Labor mates to the Leighton contractors wanting to put together the boondoggle - now let's all sing along together Simpsons' style, what this town needs is a monorail, oh it's got that, ain't it grand, what this town needs is a fast, oh so fast super train duorail).

Duffy, if you recollect, in between bouts of hatred for all public transport, managed to see the Metro as a valid contribution to Sydney's transport problems and hungered for it to be built. Now - while having no knowledge whether Easson's $40 a trip passenger trip is actually a fair calculation - the Duffy is mortified: "I don't know if this figure is correct, but it fits broadly with overseas experience of new railways. If it is true, why have we been taking the metro seriously for so long?"

Only in Duffyland would such a profound reversal and a continuing lack of insight be feasible. But then the rest of his column is dedicated to wondrous illogicality. First of all he's driven by his new fixation with credit agencies and their rating of New South Wales as AAA, which threatens to drop to a lower rating (with an increase in interest payments) if the NSW government - with an election in mind - embarks on an orgy of debt and infrastructure building.

Duffy is appalled by the thought that Standard & Poors might be running the state (though how they would manage this by simply observing the debt level and credit rating of a state and dropping it a notch if it over-spends would be a mystery to most disinterested observers.) Duffy is at his most socialistic deploring standard private sector market place ratings mechanisms, and the consequence of what he is proposing would be to encourage the government in embarking on  higher debt levels and greater expenditure.

Hang the budget, we've got a point to make about Standard & Poors and we need a heck of a lot of money to boondoggle the next election, so let's spend, spend, spend. But just as you think Duffy might have made a break through, he berates the new premier - a literature graduate for god's sake - for building a useless desalination plant, and wonders about the wisdom of Kevin Rudd pouring $8 billion or so into infrastructure projects for the state. "You have to wonder whether it will be spent wisely", opines Duffy, so then you have to wonder exactly why the Duffster wants to break the credit rating, borrow money, and have the government go on a spending rampage just to show it can.

But as always the Duffy can be relied on for a key insight, one that explains everything. Like a blinding flash, he strikes when he writes: "It seems that we're best in Sydney where the state's future is concerned is talking. Unfortunately, the conversation is rarely informed or sustained and rarely does it lead to action". Substitute "It seems that we're best in Sydney where the state's future is concerned is writing blinding drivel for The Sydney Morning Herald" and the insight is complete. As usual, the sacred text has delivered a profound insight.

Sydney is fucked, fucked by years of a derelict Labor government - especially and notably Bob Carr, so here's hoping Macquarie goes down the tubes. New South Wales is fucked, fucked by a derelict Labor government. The opposition is fucked, fucked by years of futile opposition and a devotion to internecine wars about fundamentalism and moralism that have nothing to do with running and managing a state. Consequently the state budget and the state's infrastructure are both comprehensively fucked. If I was Standard & Poors I'd give it an F and move on.

Worse still, by extension, Duffy himself is fucked, since it was only a little while ago that he was singing the praises of Morris Iemma and looking forward to the Metro. In fact it could be said that in this whole sorry dereliction of duty, Duffy and his fellow columnists should claim the credit for fucking NSW. My point being that in Duffyland, with the rules of logic behaving like a Dali clock, stretching and flexing, any truth is as subjective as a French structuralist philosopher.

But wait - that's a cheap shot - as cheap as Duffy having a go at Rees for liking Milton's poem Paradise Lost and having a degree in literature rather than economics. That would be like me asking what qualifications Duffy has for writing a column on economics and credit ratings and all that other figuring stuff  - given that when he writes his column, he doesn't bother to check crucial figures proffered like burnt offerings, but still uses them for a dialectical purposes to prove a point (thought exactly what that point is, except to say that Duffy loves rubbery figures, is moot). How else to explain a column intended to praise a "boring mathematical line"of thought, and then delivers a capper line "I don't know if this figure is correct" - but I'll go ahead and use it because it suits me, just like Humpty Dumpy, who knew that words mean exactly what I want them to mean.

Worse still, perhaps harking back to his time as a publisher, Duffy has a fondness for unseemly, cheap literary metaphors that make Rees's love of Milton positively Shakespearian. This time Duffy deploys Hogwarts and magic wands and spells to diss Rees. God, to go from disparaging a man's love of Milton to deploying J. K. Rowling is spell-binding, though perhaps not in the way Duffy intends. No wonder he apologises, but here's a tip - when you write the cliche 'with apologies' you should never have written what you wrote in the first place.

But there's a grander point here.  At a time when the world's economic system is verging on collapsing to the ground, Duffy's rant is strangely surreal and irrelevant. It seems he wants us to defy the credit rating systems when it provides a credit warning (yet whose lack of supervision he blames for the subprime crisis in the United States), with the implication of a plunge into debt the only way to prove that inept politicians are indeed running NSW. And it seems he now has a new ready made pet project - the snakeoil fast train project - as a folly to contemplate as the Metro slowly disappears up its fundament.

But you know there's one thing about being caught up in the weird world of Duffy. At least it's not Gerard Henderson. Last week Gerard, the dull, lifeless fellow columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, said he'd be rooting Sarah Palin during the VP debate - sorry, correction, he actually said he was rooting for her, because the inner west liberal elite hated her, as well as everything about Penrith, like football trophies and bingo. Poor Gerard (and Duffy) - to so love a dumb bell because some people think she's a dumb belle. Trouble is, I can't recollect either Gerard or Duffy telling us once which team they barack for (no, we're not talking Obama).

Where do they stand on the crucial issues of the Storm and Manly and the grapple tackle? What do they feel about the All Blacks? It was easy to know where Mike Carlton stood, sad though that was for a rugger bugger sniffing the backs of men in scrums. I don't recollect this other pair, who struggle and toil for the natives of Kellyville, managing to write even once about the hot feud between VB and XXXX, or taking a position on Holden v Ford or the futility of SBS making a local car show (or the role of Japanese cars in the lives of doof doof rice boys). 

I can't even remember them waxing lyrical about the joys of poker machines, not once in their columns. In fact most of the time they carry on like a prissy, poncing Henry James, writing with fastidious care about boring politics no one in the outer west could give a blind flying fuck about - where hard nosed realists know the state government will do nothing for you, and even if they try something, it will be spectacularly useless.

You get the sense that Henderson (or Duffy), if he ever bowled a ball, would see it bounce first very close to his toes, then dribble its way towards silly leg, in a way that would make Greg Chappell give him the final over in a 20-20 against NZ. Maybe Gerard got excited about Sarah doing a field stripping on him, and claiming his precious bodily fluids. Maybe the notion that he wants to root her, if only he knew how, isn't so far from the truth. 

Get a life guys, and let's hope that Melbourne thrashes the shit out of that bunch of silvertails hailing from Manly. Yep, it's come to that, we must chose between the mortal enemy and the mortal enemy, between Southwark and West End, between soap and soap, between Reschs and Tooheys, between out of towners and northerners so far from the real world of the west they might have come from Unley. Hell, there isn't even a toad to whack with a two iron from North to South head. But that's okay, normal programming will return after Sunday, and neither Gerard nor Duffy will have to pretend they want to take an interest in western suburbs passions. 

Oh but they will, and that's the sadness of it all. We have many more Duffys to trudge, promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep, and the Herald's columnists are properly scourged.

So to this week's score:

Love of Milton lovers: 0
Love of snake oil salesman: 11
Love of Metros: 0
Love of Iemma and Rees: 0
Love of credit agencies: 0
Love of logic: 0
Understanding of economics: 0

A low scoring week, but as any Zen follower would know, nothing is being and being is nothing. Duffy, it seems, can open the gateless gate.

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