Journalists are undoubtedly having hard time following official economic policy in Spain at the moment. The core of the problem they face is that we have a hydra headed government which speaks with many tongues. In some ways the lack of coordination can be put down to simple newness and inexperience, although it should be noted that all the principal actors were in action the last time the PP was in office, as part of the Aznar government. Continue reading
Swinging off this post at Unlearning Economics, I was motivated to write a long comment that really ought to be blogged.
The industrial economics of extreme wealth is an interesting subject. It’s often been observed that a lot of the spending of the rich goes into positional goods. A positional good is, in a sense, in fixed supply, or rather, position itself is in fixed supply. If more of a positional good is produced, its positional value decreases. More spending on them can only inflate their prices.
The quintessential positional good is land. A lot of land is useful in itself, but it is true everywhere that owning x amount of land gives you more positional utility than an equivalent position in cash or securities, and the most sought-after land by area isn’t farmland or building plots near a container terminal or an oil well, it’s billionaires’ row, whose value is entirely positional. Land is the classic case of economic rent, and that’s what I’m driving at.
Just as rent doesn’t reflect costs of production, but only a monopoly position, the price of positional goods reflects only their positional nature and the income of those competing for them. Let’s now switch to the economics of the firm; if the price of X is dominated by economic rent, an increase in the price is mostly an increase in profit. If profits rise in some sector, capital should be preferentially allocated to it.
Clearly, you can’t manufacture Hampstead or Palo Alto or the Prinzregentenstrasse, or only with great difficulty and the risk of destroying its positional quality. You can easily manufacture more iPhones, which therefore are gradually becoming less positional. You can manufacture Vertu phones by sticking diamonds on mid-2000s down-ticket Nokias, essentially creating purely positional items. Joseph Schumpeter would of course point out that it is the aim of all enterpreneurship to be able to claim the economic rents of monopoly.
In order for capital to be reallocated to the positional sector, then, it’s necessary to invent new forms of positional competition, and ideally, ones which escape from the temptation to just be a good product that can be produced on a big scale like iPhones or VW Golfs or my trainers. And indeed, we see a sizeable economy devoted to just that. One way of achieving this is to dematerialise the product – Cory Doctorow once remarked that if they can’t define your job they can’t outsource it, and the greater the immaterial content, the more of it is concentrated in the mind of its creator and the place and time of its consumption. Therefore, it is harder to replicate. In that sense, it’s a form of economic growth that is light on resources, but it seems intuitively difficult to defend activity that is pointless, other-regarding, private, and directed to snobbery.
Another way is to increase the service content of the product. We noted that land confers more status than most goods. But servants are almost as good or better, and would you bet against slaves being better still? This is very interesting indeed, as it may well represent a deliberate reduction of productivity and therefore a net loss to society. Where wealth is used to display power over others, by deliberately wasting labour, perhaps we’re seeing something like the costly-signalling logic of the peacock’s tail, or a form of bourgeois potlatch.
I didn’t expect to end up at this conclusion, but then that sort of dÃ©paysement what a good blog is for.
There are of course other options. In so far as positional spending is directed at public beauty, it is perhaps worth having – having your name prominently displayed as a benefactor of the Royal Academy, much as I find the place annoying and reactionary, is better than spending your money like Dennis Kozlowski on that giant ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, pissing vodka into your guests’ glasses. (Although to be honest, if anyone’s up for reconstructing the thing as an installation somewhere public, even I’d contribute to your Kozlowski Memorial Fund. Yes, I know he’s not dead yet.) And some bits of the positional industry have complex business models that rely on everyone else as much as they do on the super-rich – fashion couldn’t support its baroque R&D-and-advertising-and-French-heritage-project top end without the high-street and wouldn’t have any ideas without the low-street.
But then, if there’s a good reason to unlearn economics in the first place it’s to respect institutions and complexity and the notion that people’s motives ought to be taken seriously, not only when they are convenient.
Things in Spain are never exactly what they seem to be. This is a painful lesson that even Angela Merkel must have learnt in recent days, especially since she put her credibility so much on the line in backing the country’s deficit reduction efforts. “Spain has really done its homework and I think it is on the right track,” is the message she has been trying to sell to the world.
Naturally then she will not have been amused to learn last Friday that rather than the 6% promised under the Spanish stability programme, the country’s deficit in 2011 is going to be something like 8%. Some sort of overshoot was long being anticipated, but such an overshoot? Naturally it isn’t (quite) Greek proportions, but it is still hardly evidence for a credible and praiseworthy effort. This is the thing about Spain, it obviously isn’t Greece, but still all isn’t quite what it should be. Add to this deficit result the fact that the Bank of Spain is reported to be frantically pressuring banks into revising the valuation of their property asssets following the publication by ratings agency Fitch of a report which claims they are currently on average 43% overvalued. And, of course, any major downward revaluation of the repossesed assets will give an entirely new reading for the balance sheets of many of the institutions involved (the Caja de Ahorros del Mediterraneo went from having a 50 million euro profit at the end of 2010 to 1.7 billion euros in losses in June 2011 following the application of just such a mark-to-market procedure – and the savings bank was finally sold to Banc Sabadell for the princely sum of one euro). Put two and two together here, and it is clear that the country’s bond spread may once more be in for a bumpy ride when investors finally recover from their yuletide hangovers. Continue reading
Well, it’s been more time than I care to remember since I posted anything on this site. In the interim many things have happened, especially on the European sovereign debt front. I think I now have plenty of stuff lined up to waffle about, but maybe one simple way to ease myself back in to the world of blogging would be to republish the lengthy interview I just gave to the website Barcelona International Network. The topics covered range from the debt crisis itself, to prospects for Spain under the new Partido Popular government of Mariano Rajoy, and to the kinds of tensions with might arise in the months and years to come between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, and, of course, how this relationship might itself in turn have an impact on the debt crisis itself. Continue reading
“What do I think about the legacy of AtatÃ¼rk, General? Let it go. I don’t care. The age of AtatÃ¼rk is over.”
Guests stiffen around the table, breath subtly indrawn; social gasps. This is heresy. People have been shot down in the streets of Istanbul for less. Adnan commands every eye.
“AtatÃ¼rk was father of the nation, unquestionably. No AtatÃ¼rk, no Turkey. But, at some point every child has to leave his father. You have to stand on your own two feet and find out if you’re a man. We’re like the kids that go on about how great their dads are; my dad’s the strongest, the best wrestler, the fastest driver, the biggest moustache. And when someone squares up to us, or calls us a name or even looks at us squinty, we run back shouting ‘I’ll get my dad, I’ll get my dad!’ At some point; we have to grow up. If you’ll pardon the expression, the balls have to drop. We talk the talk mighty fine; great nation, proud people, global union of the noble Turkic races, all that stuff. There’s no one like us for talking ourselves up. And then the EU says, All right, prove it. The door’s open, in you come; sit down, be one of us. Move out of the family home; move in with the other guys. Step out from the shadow of the Father of the Nation.
“And do you know what the European Union shows us about ourselves? We’re all those things we say we are. They weren’t lies, they weren’t boasts. We’re good. We’re big. We’re a powerhouse. We’ve got an economy that goes all the way to the South China Sea. We’ve got energy and ideas and talent – look at the stuff that’s coming out of those tin-shed business parks in the nano sector and the synthetic biology start-ups. Turkish. All Turkish. That’s the legacy of AtatÃ¼rk. It doesn’t matter if the Kurds have their own Parliament or the French make everyone stand in Taksim Square and apologize to the Armenians. We’re the legacy of AtatÃ¼rk. Turkey is the people. AtatÃ¼rk’s done his job. He can crumble into dust now. The kid’s come right. The kid’s come very right. That’s why I believe the EU’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us because it’s finally taught us how to be Turks.”
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, pp. 175-76
In 1971 Manoli [Pagador], who was 23 at the time and not long married, gave birth to what she was told was a healthy baby boy, but he was immediately taken away for what were called routine tests.
Nine interminable hours passed. “Then, a nun, who was also a nurse, coldly informed me that my baby had died,” she says.
They would not let her have her son’s body, nor would they tell her when the funeral would be.
Did she not think to question the hospital staff?
“Doctors, nuns?” she says, almost in horror. “I couldn’t accuse them of lying. This was Franco’s Spain. A dictatorship. …”
“The scale of the baby trafficking was unknown until this year, when two men – Antonio Barroso and Juan Luis Moreno, childhood friends from a seaside town near Barcelona – discovered that they had been bought from a nun. “
The scandal is closely linked to the Catholic Church, which under Franco assumed a prominent role in Spain’s social services including hospitals, schools and children’s homes.
Nuns and priests compiled waiting lists of would-be adoptive parents, while doctors were said to have lied to mothers about the fate of their children.
The name of one doctor, Dr Eduardo Vela, has come up in a number of victim investigations.
In 1981, Civil Registry sources indicate that 70% of births at Dr Vela’s San Ramon clinic in Madrid were registered as “mother unknown”.
He refused to give the BBC an interview. But, by coincidence, I had recently given birth at a clinic he founded, so I was able to book an appointment with him.
We met at his private practice in his home in Madrid. The man painted as a monster in the Spanish media was old and smiley, but his smile soon disappeared when I confessed to being a journalist.
Dr Vela grabbed a metal crucifix which had been standing on his desk. He moved towards me brandishing it in my face. “Do you know what this is, Katya?” he said. “I have always acted in his name. Always for the good of the children and to protect the mothers. Enough.”
Babies’ graves have been dug up across the country for DNA-testing. Some have revealed nothing but a pile of stones, while others have contained adult remains.
Are these crimes limited to Spain?
What would it be like if a Swede made a classic British spy movie? Well, we found out.
One of the things I liked most about this version of Tinker, Tailor… was that it was a visually convincing portrayal of Britain. The cinema is always in the business of constructing a mythic past or present, and in the UK, there are basically four historical eras in the eyes of the movies. One is Will Shakespeare and before, the age when everything was brown except the crown jewels and the sword blades. Another runs from the deer parks of the 18th century to the 1930s and basically celebrates everything posh. It’s the world of Mary Poppins and a million takes on Jane Eyre. Then there’s Blitz Grim, which runs from the outbreak of war through to the miners’ strike or thereabouts as if the bombs had never stopped falling. And then there’s Shiny World, which picks up in the late Thatcher era and runs through to now.
The problem with this is that the UK is the only European country where the post-war consensus is depicted as looking like shit. I suspect that class is behind this; the people who weren’t rolling in prosperity and unrivalled possibility in those years were exactly the old-fashioned upper middle class that gave us someone like Control as played by John Hurt, a pseudo-academic spook in a studiedly tatty silk near-kimono. He doesn’t dress like that because he’s poor, after all, but because he can. Smiley and his colleagues are much the same, marinating in cod-Oxbridge shabby-library kitsch in chilly flats in Hampstead, plunging into Highgate Ponds, dressing in expensive-but-fashionless tailoring.
But Tomas Alfredson shows early 1970s London as a city with tatty look-and-feel but fleets of brand-new cars (hey! it was the golden era of the British sports car! nobody feels existentially crushed by decline and runs out to buy a MGB roadster!), ruled by a government with uncared-for buildings but a more than generous budget for the technology of spookery and bureaucracy. This suggests he may have read a book or two before starting out. In fact, the intelligence world’s budget is nothing as to Alfredson’s budget for sets – the enormous, hugely detailed archives and secure conference centre are amazingly impressive, and permit him to put the audience in the point of view of a highly classified file making its way through the system.
Of course, London is always like that. There is a long history of new arrivals writing about the noise! and the smog! and the prices! and how do they live like that! and then, in their next letter home, declaring that all their friends had better hurry up as it might not last. These days, Smiley might have moved his skunk-works mole hunt into a Regus serviced-office block in Shoreditch rather than a rotten railway hotel around the old Broad Street station. The paranoia would have to float through the air conditioning in the spirit of J.G. Ballard rather than give the walls uncanny life in that of M.R. James. But it wouldn’t be all that different.
Neither would the politics, in some ways. One reading of the plot is that the loyal British spies and the pro-Soviet moles are in a sort of unconscious conspiracy. The original scheme is to get information from a Hungarian defector that will induce the Americans to share more intelligence with the British. But the moles, who are deliberately providing the British with information to get them to keep the defector case running, also hope that the Americans will be impressed enough to share, so they can get their hands on whatever they do share. After all, the British are deliberately passing information back to the Hungarians to protect the agent’s cover. In what way, then, are their aims actually opposed? The distinction between loyalty and betrayal is a question of the terms-of-trade.
Interestingly, we now know that while John Le CarrÃ©/David Cornwell was writing the book, the whole issue had blown up and the Americans had cut off signals intelligence sharing with the UK over prime minister Edward Heath’s refusal to let SR71 reconnaissance flights over the battles of the Yom Kippur war land at the British base in Cyprus. Specifically, Heath and his foreign minister Alec Douglas-Home were concerned that the Americans would pass the information to the Israelis, forcing the UK to take sides in the conflict. The Americans refused to give this assurance and the landing rights were refused, and the US flew the missions anyway using dozens of air-to-air refuelling tankers. As it happened, the Israelis weren’t being entirely honest with the Americans in exchange for the use of the photos, and the Americans were severely embarrassed, leading them to patch up the row with the UK quickly once it was all over.
So the British and the Russians (including the Hungarians) are willing to go to any lengths in order to influence the Americans. The other big target is of course the British Government, specifically the Treasury and SIS’s parent ministry, the Foreign Office. Ironically, the moles are as keen as the loyal to fight the good bureaucratic fight, and both sides want to do so by scoring off the Americans. If anything they mistrust the mainline civil service even more than they do Karla. There is a brilliant moment when the suspected mole, Alleline, spits at a senior civil servant that “None of your civil servants lost their lives!” – in Britain, the intelligence and diplomatic services are technically “crown servants”, without the independent professional status or final access to the highest peaks of power reserved for the civil service proper.
There are other things that haven’t changed much. Gary Oldman’s diction was so perfectly establishmentarian that I missed the first reference to what sounded like “Pseare” but was of course SERE, the survival, evasion, resistance to interrogation, and escape training course that Donald Rumsfeld’s agents re-purposed to create a wholesale torture capability after 2001.
Some other points…who didn’t love the government minister, very much the motorway-building go-ahead bulldozer of the Heathite Tory imagination, who plays a vigorous bout of squash in his Fred Perrys and immediately afterwards sparks up a gasper? It was also hard to avoid thinking that it was the Cold War that made Britain European, a time of civil service linguists and the BBC World Service. And finally, this is a slow movie, as slow as paranoia, well likened to the Godfather. Time stacks up, thickens, intensifies.
I donâ€™t find it particularly surprising that some of the people freed by police after allegedly being kept as slaves at a travellers site say that they wanted to be there. For one, thing, that doesnâ€™t tell you anything about what would have happened if they had tried to leave and been caught.
And there are a whole number of reasons why people picked up from soup kitchens and homeless shelters being kept as slaves might have found their situation preferable to the one they were in before. They had regular accommodation, no matter how squalid. They were wanted, if only for forced labour. As the local MP pointed out, they will have worked out there where everybody could see the condition they were in â€“ and nobody apparently thought that worth remarking on. They had a reliable, if reliably inadequate, food. Perhaps some of them were made into pets, or even given a kind of kapo status. They had regular company. Above all, people can be treated much worse than they were allegedly treated and still behave like loyal, faithful dogs. Rebelling against your condition, as the people who escaped and complained to the police did, is entirely natural. So is accepting it. Neither acts determine what your actual condition was in the first place.
And it should hardly be so surprising that people accept the idea they have to work in order to receive the means of basic sustenance when this notion forms a large part of government policy on unemployment.
As an economics blogger, I am not an expert on international humor, but today’s sad news got me thinking. Germans insist – mostly unsuccessfully – that “German humor” is not the least bit oxymoronic, the rest of the world just doesn’t seem to understand it. Which is why the prejudice will probably live on.
One of the most German of all humorists, Vicco von BÃ¼low (”Loriot”), passed away on Monday at the age of 87. Explaining what Loriot meant to German humor and culture is difficult (see above). He was probably to German humor what Monty Python was to the British. His sometimes absurd drawings and stories of twisted everyday situations were a provocation at first, but have strongly influenced the way Germans have continued to develop their humor – in comedies, but also in literature and film.Â ”This is just like in Loriot” is almost a standard expression in German, describing an everyday situation that turns to become so absurd that it is just hilarious.
An example from Loriot’s work: a couple on a romantic date. He, slightly older and played by Loriot himself, starts a short, somewhat serious but also romantic monologue. The only problem: he has a small piece of a noodle from the last dish stuck on his face. The woman cannot concentrate on anything but the noodle on his face. He, somewhat annoyed by her distraction, tries to remove the noodle but then sticks it to some other part of his face. The noodle therefore travels around his face while he tries to get into a serious relationship talk with a completely distracted girlfriend.
Another example is the almost wordless clip “The picture is crooked”, where an older gentleman (again: Loriot himself) waiting in a hotel room for a business meeting, in his attempt to correct a slightly crooked picture on the wall, destroys the whole hotel room.
The most absurd, yet very German, example is probably “Gentlemen in the bath tub“. Two men meet for the first time in one man’s bath tub, and discuss various aspects of taking a bath, when to let in water, at what temperature, when to put a small duck into the bath tub etc. It is mostly a struggle for authority where both keep a formal distance (“Herr Dr. KlÃ¶bner!”) while sitting naked in a mostly empty bath tub.
There are a few ingredients to German humor of the Loriot type: you need an audience that knows and has witnessed too many times before how people take themselves and their procedures and rules a little too seriously. In other words, they need to be German. What is more, you need a twisted everyday situation that turns absurd in a very subtle manner and in a way that does not offend your audience. And you need to put in hard work. Loriot did not consider himself particularly funny (although he was the most modest person I have ever seen). For him, humor was simply hard work: carefully observing German everyday life, constructing these situations in a small play, working out the details with the actors (for instance with the brilliant Evelyn Hamann), and thereby making it absurd in the Loriot type of way.
To be sure, not all Germans like Loriot. But his work is a perfect example of two aspects of German humor: it exists, and it is very hard to export (something that Tyler Cowen pointed out a while ago). Therefore, being German is perfect if you are a humorous person: On the one hand, you (more or less) understand and appreciate US, British and also other European humor to some extent. On the other hand, and mainly thanks to Loriot, you have access to a very special source of German absurdity humor. When it comes to humor, Germany might actually be the best-supplied country in the world.
Â By now it’s very obvious to everyone in the UK that there aren’t enough Olympics tickets. Two thirds of the nearly two million British ticket applicants didn’t get any of the tickets they wanted – in fact they didn’t get any tickets at all. At the same time, there are stacks of unsold tickets to sports such as football and volleyball. It seems that applicants realise that the Olympic experience can’t be exported to regional football stadia, or to Excel, or to Earl’s Court. No one wants to settle for second best, and why should they? I’d guess there’s a lot of bad feeling about this around the country; an unusually large amount of it, even. To make things worse, there’s a steady stream of stories about great thick wads of corporate sponsor tickets, local and national government tickets, tranches reserved for sale abroad, and so on, giving a sense that the whole process is characterised by unjust privilege and possibly minor corruption too. Luckily for the 2012 organisers, the resentment at all this will likely find no expression, and in any case the circus will be conveniently leaving town once all the medals have been handed out.
But what must the ticket furore look like from an entrepreneurial point of view? There’s an obvious market lesson here. Money – masses of it – has been left on the table. You might wonder if it’s enough for somebody – a television network, perhaps – to think it worthwhile to stage a competitor event to the Olympics. So what would stop a start up event – let’s call it the Spartan games – from getting off the ground?
Venues are not scarce: many cities bidding for the Olympics already have athletics stadia and parks. For example, Rome, which is bidding for the 2020 games, has Mussolini’s stadium and the Foro Olimpico. Say Rome loses its 2020 bid; well, there’ll be a discount to be had. And since in all likelihood the Spartan games will simply not offer things like dinghy sailing and ping pong but will instead offer more athletics – much more – the Spartan games organisers will likely not face problems of needing to find multiple venues, of connecting them, of giving them consistent branding, etc.
No, the main problem I see in getting the Spartan games going is the old problem of mind share: people have to believe that the Spartan games matter. They don’t much believe in the Commonwealth games, or in your regular international athletics. But what the Commonwealth games is missing is countries; whole regions of the globe are excluded. And what regular international athletics is missing – as far as I know – is a decent medals table. Now, the international medals table is surely the key innovation of the Olympics (even if its existence is not officially acknowledged by the Olympic management). The medals table makes the Olympic games matter (no, really, it does). Further, it seems to me that a well constructed medals table absolutely requires opportunities for certain countries to do better than might be expected. And this is where minor sports come in (for instance, rowing and track cycling are where Britain finds its Olympic medals) yet these are exactly the sports the Spartan games will do without. So, what to do?
The answer, I think, lies in recognizing that there is a network of nationally-based training organisations with an orientation towards the Olympics; the existence of these organisations give the Olympic contests the texture they in fact have. And these could be replicated, with strategic intent. Each American NFL team strategically locates its annual training camp so as to maximise fan appeal; likewise, the Spartan games could strategically emplace its own sports academies. Each such academy could have a narrow specialisation; narrower than what we currently see. For example, France might become the location of a pole vaulting centre of excellence. And while of course open to non-French nationals, the Spartan pole vaulting academy – given time – would indeed tend to produce mostly French pole vaulting champions. This solves the medal table problem: the Spartan games can reliably feature winners from many nations, not excluding the rich nations, in fair and open competition.
Step three: profit!
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