About that Greek public sector

Charlemagne, over at the Economist blog, can be… uneven. But this recent post about Greece’s public sector is IMO top notch. It puts the creation of Greece’s huge, poorly paid, inefficient public sector in historical context:

Take the painful question of the huge public sector, and all those civil servants with jobs for life, and unusually generous retirement packages. The existence of those jobs for life is not a cultural quirk, in which Greek officials simply like coffee and backgammon too much to do any work. It is the end result of a brutal, multi-decade power struggle between the left and the right: a struggle that got people killed within living memory…

The Greek civil war, and the bloody score-settling that followed, is a living memory for many Greeks. Any consideration of Greek nepotism or clientelism needs to be seen in that light. So for example, it is not enough to say that Greek civil servants enjoy jobs for life, and that is a big problem. (Though it is a big problem, not least because many Greek civil servants are paid pitiful wages—partly because there are so many of them. That means they will resist austerity measures all the harder, because they feel like victims in this crisis, not fat cats.) But the bloated public sector is also a function of history… Continue reading

“Porque no te callas?”

Well, that was interesting:

SANTIAGO: Spain’s king Juan Carlos I told Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to “just shut up,” bringing an Ibero-American summit to end in spectacular fashion on Saturday.

Spain’s monarch stormed out just before the scheduled end of the forum, visibly furious at Chavez’s description of his former PM as a “fascist” and for launching a wide-ranging tirade that could not be stopped.

The dispute was a dramatic finale for the 17th meeting of the heads of state and government of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries in Latin America, and Spain, Portugal and Andorra, which started on Thursday.

[Chavez’s] description of Spain’s former conservative PM Jose-Maria Aznar as a “fascist” prompted current PM Jose-Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a socialist, to call on Chavez to show more “respect.” But Chavez forged on, and on Saturday he repeated the contentious f-word in relation to Aznar, adding: “A fascist isn’t human, a snake is more human than a fascist.” An irate king Juan Carlos then stepped in, demanding of Chavez: “Why don’t you just shut up?”

Aparently Chavez was talking over (current, Socialist) Spanish PM Zapata in a wide-ranging attack on (former, conservative) Spanish PM Jose Aznar. There was an attempt to turn off his microphone, but you don’t stop Hugo Chavez when he’s on a roll.

The King’s comment may have been (if I understand correctly, and maybe I don’t) more insulting in Spanish Spanish than in Venezuelan Spanish, because he used the “tu” form. In much of Latin America that’s no big deal, but in Spain (I’m told) it’s only used for close friends, children and animals. So “porque no te callas” is very much de haut en bas.

Unsurprisingly, the Venezuelan media has lined up behind Hugo, and the Spanish — even the leftish El Pais –behind the King; around the world, conservatives are high-fiving, while socialists are fuming that Chavez is a democratically elected leader, who should not be shushed by a hereditary monarch.

Comment threads on this tend to spiral into “Chavez is a dictator!” “No he isn’t!” and “You know, the King was chosen by Franco, but he actually helped end fascism in Spain.” So let’s take the first two as not being very useful, and the last as given. Is this just an amusing break in Iberian good manners, or is there anything deeper here?

Et in Formentera ego; or, où sont les flaons d’antan?

We’ve just returned from two weeks on Formentera, the smallest and southernmost of the inhabited illes Balears. We try to spend some time on the island at least once every two or three years; for it is an unspoilt place, a place time has left behind, a place untouched by the imperatives of vulgar economics.

No, that’s bollocks, of course. It is no such thing, nor could it be. Continue reading

A Face That Launched A Thousand Ships

An unlikely Helen, Spain’s deputy prime minister, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, that’s for sure. Yet outside a few thousand years difference in timing the two seem to have been cut out for one and the same the same historical role: urging the boats to go back. Indeed the only thing which really separates them might be the magnitude of the problem to hand, since Coalición Canaria president Paulino Rivero suggested this weekend that what might be involved were not a mere 1,000 ships, but anything between 10,000 and 15,000 currently being built along the Mauritanian and Senegalese coastlines.

Joking aside this post is about tragedy, a human tragedy. According to the NGOs who are involved some 3,000 people have already died in attempting to make the hazardous crossing, a crossing which was actually completed over this weekend by a record 1,200 people in 36 hours.

As well as tragedy the post is also about folly, the folly of those economists who think low fertility isn’t an important economic issue. This opinion was recently expressed by respected US economist Greg Mankiw, (on his blog) who described the very idea that it might be as ‘wrong headed’ and, to boot, suggested that a poll of the world’s top ten economists would draw a blank on names who thought that low fertility was among Europe’s major economic problems. I am sure Mankiw is right about the poll, and this is why I use the expression ‘folly’. So what do I mean?
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The Catalan Statute

Well here in sunny Catalonia we don’t have a fooball team of our own right now, so maybe that’s why we chose this precise moment to hold a referendum about our future.

Now the first thing to get straight is that despite all the direst predictions, Spain is still here the morning after the big vote, and in one piece, I just touched the floor to prove it. Indeed 11 footballers (some of them Catalan) will also come to earth on German turf tonight just to graphically illustrate the point. So it does seem that some of the concerns raised in the coments to this post were well wide of the mark.

Some issues do, however, remain.
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Words Said In More Than Jest

This news is surely not as grave as it seems, but the placing under house arrest of the commander of the Spanish Land Forces is hardly to be taken as a trifle. In a move which is reminiscent of the environment surrounding the military coup of 1981., the decision of Defence Minister José Bono to place Lt. Gen. Jose Mena Aguado under house arrest and relieve him of his duties may seem to be a strong one (Aguado was to have resigned in only a few months), as there is really surely no imminent danger of a military coup. It does however reveal just how sensitive the issue is in a country which has seen both civil war and attempted Coup d’Etat. The military is definitely not a welcome participant in the political process here.

What exactly did Aguado do? Well essentially he chose the opportunity of an occassion which is something like army day’ to cite in a speech a clause in the Spanish constitution that calls on the armed forces to intervene if needed to guarantee the unity, independence and sovereignty of Spain, using the example of the proposed reform to the Catalan Statute of Autonomy as an explicit case in point. He did not specify how he thought the armed forces should intervene.

So the rapid response of Bono is both welcome, and unsurprising, what is more surprising – or given recent events, perhaps it isn’t – is the reaction of the opposition Partido Popular:

Only the right wing Popular Party, the most vociferous opponent of the Catalan charter, pulled back from condemning the officer, saying his comments were the logical result of the uncertainty triggered by the charter debate.

So those who claim to be the staunchest defenders of the Spanish constitution turn out to be the most blasé when someone rattles some sabres which might actually threaten its integrity.


This is not an analytical “perspectives” type post. Just a number of bitty threads that seem in one way or another worth noting (small pieces loosely joined). They could basically be grouped together under the following headings: photos, suicides, explosives and origins.

Maybe I should also point out the obvious: that living in Spain while coming from the UK gives me a rather unusual perspective on what is happening. I lived the days surrounding the Madrid bombings intensely, now I am doing the same with London (where I had my home for many years). In some ways I can’t help but see this in terms of similarities and differences.

The big difference is of course in the government reaction, and the way that this is transmitted to a wider public. The British official reaction is one of ‘containment’ in every sense of the word. I think this is a good approach, since I think that excessive shock and panic only serves the purposes of the terrorists. The overall sensation was that London was as prepared for this as it could have been, and that many of those working in the crisis management and emergency services areas were following through on already well rehearsed roles.

Things in Spain couldn’t have been more different.
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Daniel Pipes on Tariq Ramadan: Why French literacy still matters

Readers of my previous comment on Tariq Ramadan will no doubt have come away with the impression that I don’t much like Daniel Pipes. This is not an entirely accurate assessment of my opinon of him. I think Pipes is an unreconstructed bigot and xenophobic fanatic whose academic work fails to meet even the lowest standards of scholarship, whose career has been built on politically driven attacks, and who has set up with his “Campus Watch” as a terrorist front designed to intimidate academics and ensure that there is as little debate, discussion or rational thought on Israel, US foreign policy or Islam as possible. His reseach and scholarship are not intended to better inform action but to support specific agendas, usually revolving around hating some foreign force or people. Instead of fostering debate, his work is intended to intimidate. Pipes advocates religiously targetted surveillance, he supports making federal university funding conditional on ideology, and he has helped to terrorise professors who are named on his website. In short, I think Pipes is swine.

He is a second generation right-wing tool, the son of one of the men most responsible for America’s “Team B”, which grossly overblew the Soviet menace in the 70s and 80s – causing massive US defense spending and resulting deficits – and complained that anyone with a better sense of reality was soft on communism. Normally, Pipes’ parentage would constitute poor grounds for condeming him as having a pathological relationship to facts. But keep this in mind, since it constitutes one of his arguments against Ramadan.

All you need is Google to find out why I think these things about Daniel Pipes. It’s not a lot of work. His own website provides ample examples.

But, today, I will be targeting something a little more specific. Pipes has put up on his website his comment on Tariq Ramadan’s visa denial, originally published in the New York Post on Friday. In it, he makes specific points against Tariq Ramadan, linking, in some cases, to articles on the web in support. These articles are primarily in French. As a service to our non-francophone readers, we will be translating the relevant sections, since they lead one to the conclusion that Pipes assumes his readers will just take his word on their contents.

We report, you decide.
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Spain in the Line of Fire?

OK here’s a post about Spain that’s all in English. Juan informed comment Cole has a piece about the assasination of the Spanish intelligence officer in Bagdhad yesterday. Cole argues that Bernal may have been singled out in an attempt to get at Spain, who may be seen as a ‘soft’ target. Support for Aznar’s Iraq policy has never been exactly universal in Spain, and elections are due early next year. There is a big disconnect between the declarations of Spanish politicians in the international arena and what they say here in Spain. Officially Spain hasn’t even participated in a war, and any Spanish deaths in Iraq are highly sensitive. Cole’s speculation about the Baathist connection seems to be borne out by the statement from the Spanish government about the victim’s long-standing connections with Iraqui security.
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