Sunday, 29 January 2012

We need more weird and wacky news

The urinal that gives as good as it gets
Now that it seems to be a given that the future of newspapers shall be online, the circulation - read site hits - wars have begun. The result is that headlines are becoming more sensationalist and faux-outraged than they used to be in their attempts to grab our attention, even on the more respectable broadsheets like the Guardian and the IHT.

Reading an online paper these days can sometimes be like being in a pub full of half-drunk punters and listening to their pet peeves and rants. Tiresome? You bet.

So that's why I visit 'weird news' sites and blogs regularly. They offer a welcome break from all the aggressive and depressing articles to read in the general news sections of the papers.

Take Huffpost Weird News and its story about South Korean activists sending cargoes of socks to their North Korean brothers in hot air balloons in order to help them get through the harsh winter for example, or the post about a Russian scientist who claims that there is a scorpion-like alien on Venus.

Next up is Stupid, and the story of a woman in St. Louis who robbed a policeman who visited her as a result of a complaint she had filed against her boyfriend. We also learn that two teenagers were arrested after breaking into CNN's Atlanta newsroom to check their Facebook accounts.

French site Orange is also worth a visit from time to time. Current stories include one about a British coffin design company called Crazy Coffin which has satisfied an apparently ever-increasing number of clients who wish to RIP in coffins of various shapes, such as a plane, dancing shoes (dancing shoes?) and a train carriage.

Then there's The Telegraph's Weird News page, with its warning to those dog owners in Hyndburn in Lancashire who like to walk their pets after nightfall. It appears that undercover wardens are now using night vision goggles to identify and fine pet owners who allow their dogs to foul in public places. Meanwhile, a 13-month old Israeli toddler has chewed the head off a poisonous snake, killing it. His mother was apparently preparing his milk at the time. Maybe she will prepare it earlier from now on to satisfy her son's healthy appetite?

None of these stories are of any real significance whatsoever of course. But that's precisely why I read them. Yes, I am aware of the latest news from the murderous Syrian conflict, yes, I do keep abreast of the latest developments in the Labour party's struggles to gain credibility on economic issues, and yes, I am most certainly aware of the current Eurozone crisis and the real risk of Greek default.

But surely there should be more to reading the news than that? Does it all have to be doom and gloom and cynicism? I have decided that it doesn't. After all, I learned long ago that the world can sometimes be a cruel and vicious place, but as I said, that's just "sometimes", and there's so much elso going on too, with much of it being fun and thought-provoking. It proves that news can be stranger than fiction, so long live weird and wacky news!

Do Hollande and French voters know that there is no Magic Wand?

The end of the age of belt-tightening?
So, here we are, just a few short months away from the possibility of Fran├žois Hollande becoming president of France. His substantial poll lead is holding up for now, and Sarkozy is plainly rattled. But even a week is a short time in politics and Hollande's campaign and policies shall come under much closer scrutiny from the moment Sarkozy finally declares his candidacy.

Indeed, there are already mumblings, rumblings and doubts about how he is going to be able to pay for his more ambitious plans, and people are worried about the possibility of him being forced to do a U-turn on some of his promises once in power. He is surely aware of this, and to his credit he has announced a series of measures designed to satisfy the many voters who are fed up with Sarkozy's refusal to get the rich to contribute more to help the economy.

He has decided that he would embark upon a short-sharp-shock 18-month campaign of cutbacks in tax reduction mechanisms and increases in the various taxes and charges paid by companies if elected, and these measures would be mainly aimed at major companies. This is a good idea in theory - after all, those companies would be able to absorb the effects of increased contributions - but you have to ask yourself if this policy would result in cutbacks in employment and investment designed to offset them, particularly at a time when growth is weak and the economy is almost in recession. Still, there is no such thing as a risk-free strategy here.

Another idea which will please many voters and raise cash is his plan to reduce tax breaks and increase basic tax rates on richer households. Proposed measures include less favourable succession rights, more income tax, and the suppression of the much-hated 'fiscal barrier' offered by Sarkozy as a freebie for the more well-off.

But those measures alone will not be enough to get debt levels down to an acceptable level. The question is, does he accept that to be the case? Maybe he does to an extent, because some of his proposed policies will certainly not please ordinary working people.

For instance, he says he would reduce France's dependence on nuclear energy by slashing its percentage of national production from about 75% to 50%. Fair enough, but this means replacing that energy by developing renewable energy, which means a lot of investment spending on renewable sources and a corresponding hike in electricity bills, 99% of which are paid by average French citizens.

He also wants to suppress the detaxation of 35-hour week-based overtime. That will save him a small amount, but it will also put pressure uniquely on working family budgets, and not the rich. Another plan is to raise retirement contributions to help make possible a return to retirement at 60. Again, ordinary people will pay because the rich don't even pay into that system. And who exactly will pay for the 60,000 new education posts he says he will create?

Finally - although there are many more examples - he has announced his intention to introduce a tax of about €5 - €6 on every computer user in order to help fight illegal downloading. Those who do not download illegally will surely fail to appreciate that. He also wants to tax Internet providers and big net companies as well as hard and software manufacturers for the same reason. And how will they all recuperate those costs? By passing them on to the consumer of course.

There has also been much talk about getting the markets and the banks to do more. After all, the vast majority of people would like to see that happen. The bad news here is that there's not much sign of that happening yet, and what little he has considered is more of a token gesture than anything else. Hollande is obviously aware of what expressions such as 'capital flight' mean.

My feeling is that Hollande knows that he has been let off the hook up until now, and that the real fighting has yet to begin. And when it does, he is going to have to persuade voters that he can simultaneously get the economy back on course and spread out the pain more evenly. But pain there will be, for everyone, and both Hollande and French voters are going to have to accept that there is no such thing as a magic wand which can obviate the need for continued belt-tightening.