Ill wind


This month, once again, air pollution in Beijing has been in the news again. The only new part was that some enterprising fellow was selling bottled air to the public! Let’s leave that for a moment to sink in.

Yes, bottled air. I mean, once upon a time bottled water seemed the ultimate in environmental madness, but we as a species have now really excelled ourselves.

Still, an ill wind and all that, the right-wing think tanks of the US and Australia will be pleased. You see their major task, and this of course has nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with the big corporations that fund them, is to get rid of all regulations in their respective countries. “The Market”, they profess to believe, and I am sure, almost sure, this is a genuine belief they would hold even without funding, will take care of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, once freed of the terrible burdens of red, black, green, purple tape.

And here in China (just a touch ironically, but never mind) is the perfect example of their belief in action. Allow business to pour fumes into the air unchecked and, cometh the hour, cometh the libertarian, someone will be ready to sell bottles of less polluted air to twenty million people.

Not saying their beliefs haven’t been proved correct over and over. Here the collapse of a building erected without the burden of building codes provides work for bulldozer drivers in the clean-up; there people burnt in a factory with no fire escapes or sprinklers will provide work for undertakers. Polluted drinking water provides work for medical personnel, as do train and plane crashes, and cigarettes.

In fact scarcely a day goes by but somewhere in the world someone, as well as the owner, is making money as a result of regulations unwritten or unenforced. And, thanks to the think tanks succesful fight against any action on climate change, the whole world is still the oyster for energy companies as well as forestry industries, fisheries, agribusiness.

What’s the old Yorkshire saying – ah yes, “Where there’s muck there’s brass”.

Odds on


In Orwell’s imaginary world of 1984 there was a government department whose role was to rewrite history in order to make it seem that the way things were in the present was the way they had always been. No need for that these days, the media, and therefore the public seem totally incapable of imagining that things have ever been different to the way they are today.

This week a kerfuffle arose over doping and match fixing in Australian sport. Attention quickly turned to gambling on sport (although it could also have looked at the huge sums of money now paid to sportsmen in order to keep them in a winning team and allow the club to reap the huge sums of money associated with sponsorship and merchandising).

Before you could say “Place your bets, madames et messieurs” the betting companies were swinging into action to try to head off any suggestion that gambling in sport might be curtailed in any way. Apparently if you criminalise gambling only criminals will run gambling, or am I getting confused? Perhaps it was – if you try to wrap gambling in plain packaging criminals will sell gift-wrapped gambling? No, I’m obviously confused. But indeed, the same self-serving rubbish was trotted out by gambling companies as we hear from gun dealers and tobacco companies.

The underlying theme in such debates is always the proposition that the way things are is the way they have always been. That the saturation of Australian sport and society generally by gambling has always been the case. That a casino in every capital city, then a second; that hundreds of thousands of poker machines in clubs; that games of football and cricket being interrupted by bookmaker’s ads and details of available odds; are all perfectly normal, and moreover, an essential part of our economy. But old folks like me, keepers of the corporate memory of the country, remember a time when none of that was the case. A time when effectively the only legal betting was on racetracks and “two-up on Anzac Day”. A time when the government-run TABs were introduced and illegal off-course gambling on horses clamped down on. A time, heaven help me, when there were no casinos and poker machines, and certainly no gambling on all aspects of cricket and football publicised during tv broadcasts. And even more amazing, young folks, society and the economy seemed to function perfectly well.

But it crept up on us gradually, here a casino, there a casino, and suddenly you are talking real money. And suddenly this big money talks, loudly. And suddenly this non-productive activity is essential to our economy. And suddenly it is not just non-productive but actually damaging large numbers of people with its carefully calculated addictive lure. Oh, and almost incidentally, damaging sport, once the pleasure of the public.

And new casinos are rushed through with the active help of state premiers, actively over-riding planning considerations. And the mildest attempt to reduce poker machine addiction is met with a massive political campaign from the clubs. And any suggestion that gambling on who wins a game, indeed who scores first, or last, or most, is met with outrage from big bookmakers, concerned that their licence to print money might be revoked.

Horton’s Law – whenever some activity is begun in order to see how it goes, as soon as it becomes profitable it will be found that it is impossible to stop doing it. A bit like taking up smoking which you can “stop any time, not addicted” until you actually try. Corollary – no matter how much an activity is damaging society it will continue while it is profitable.

You can bet on it.