Saturday, May 29, 2010

Europhrenia - Ryanair, masters of actually existing capitalism

The Irish Times has just reported that ex-Commissioner Charlie McCreevy has been appointed to the board of Ryanair. For a while the European Commission wrestled with its conscience as to whether this might be a conflict of interest, and won. McCreevy, with his oodles of insider knowledge of labyrinthine EU processes must surely not be without his uses to the low-cost airline much of whose profits are derived from EU regional funds. McCreevy is joining just as the Commish reopens seven inquiries into some of Ryanair's allegedly dodgy contracts with European airports. His work, though, as a director is restricted “to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.” All above board then, perceptions wise. To my utopian minded Central and Eastern European colleagues who are all devotees of the free market, I’m often compelled to draw their attention to such glowing examples of Actually Existing Capitalism.

Still on the subject of planes, over forty days after his death in the Katyn air disaster, French daily Libération reports that Kaczynski mère has been finally informed of her son Lech’s demise. This comes a week after Russian investigators confirmed that there were non-crew members in the cockpit at the time of the disaster. “The question of whether the crew were pressured to land remains unanswered,” an official said. Ouf, as they say in Paris. It’s still quite plausible, isn’t it, that the non-crew members were in the cockpit wondering whether it was a good idea to land. All that fog. The Libération headline for the above story runs “Goodbye Lenin with the Kaczynskis". Ouf again.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Europhrenia - Predicting the future, rewriting the present

The Irish Independent led this morning with news from the OECD that Ireland’s economy “is close to a turning point and could rebound to 3 per cent growth next year.” According to the “influential” body’s twice-yearly global report, “export-led growth would be almost twice the expected level in the 16-nation euro area,” the Dublin daily beams, “and more than twice the predicted 1.3 per cent growth in Britain.”
To be twice as good as the Brits always make an Irishman’s heart leap. And what with The Indo being a major exponent of the infamous budget “pain” the country endures, such news must be welcome. Over the Irish sea, however, the Lex column in the FT advises taking the OECD report with “a truckload of salt.” While forgiving it for having “missed the initial meltdown”, Lex reminds us that in 2008 the OECD forecast that “the US economy would expand by 1.1 per cent (it contracted 2.4 per cent) and the eurozone and Japan would grow about 1.5 per cent (the former shrank a whopping 4.1 per cent, the latter by even more).”
Looking into the seeds of time, wondering like Macbeth’s future stab-victim Banquo “which grain will grow and which will not” is one of the functions of influential bodies. However, in recent times, you’d be a lot better off talking to Shakespearean witches. Shakespearean witches, although they’re not good on letting you in on when the bloodbath starts, are reliable concerning the seeds of time. They would probably have been a bit cagier than in influential Moody’s which, two years before it opened hunting season on Greece, foresaw all kinds of growth for future zombie Lehman Brothers.
Joe Strummer once said that the future is unwritten. When the present is obscene, these are important words to remember. Right now, 300,000 homes lie empty in Ireland and yet town councils and banks are continuing to evict people who default on their loans and rents. The Irish government, so eager to save its banks, has ruled out saving such irresponsible people. Like the Irish Independent, it is no doubt waving around the OECD’s empty prophecies. When there is no future to offer, then you must rewrite the present, you write reality out.
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Friday, May 21, 2010

Europhrenia – Leave Naomi Campbell alone

The BBC reports that Naomi Campbell might be subpoenaed to testify at the trial of Liberia’s ex-President Charles Taylor. Let’s remember that Mr Taylor, among other things, is accused of selling diamonds and buying weapons for Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front rebels, who, among other things, used to hack off people’s hands and legs during the 1991-2001 civil war. He was also quite a nasty piece of work in his home country too.

Did the supermodel between turns on the catwalk fly down to West Africa to get stuck into a spot of war crime? Apparently not. Prosecutors at The Hague say she was given rough diamonds by Taylor back in 1997 at Nelson Mandela’s house in South Africa. Says the prosecution motion filed with Special Court for Sierra Leone “Ms Campbell’s testimony is necessary as there is evidence that Ms Campbell was given rough diamonds by the accused (Taylor) in September 1997.”

It’s hard to know where to begin here. But firstly, let’s take a look at the notion of international war crimes tribunals. Trials are being held for Sierra Leone, and also for the ex-Yugoslavia, that is to say, for, failed, weak, easily overrun-able states. On the other hand, crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the British, American, French, German armies do not fall into the same category. Attempts to have Tony Blair prosecuted as a “war-criminal” enjoyed a vogue a couple of months back, but from those who consider Blair guilty of murder in Iraq, we have heard little about Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan. This is apparently because the West’s involvement there is a just cause. As long as we feel morally superior, the mission to civilise Afghan civilians with bombs and drone missiles might lead to hand-wringing but little else.

Aside from the obvious publicity an eventual subpoena on Ms Campbell might generate, you’ve got to wonder why her evidence is “necessary”. No questions have been raised, as far as I can see, as to why Nelson Mandela would have been dining with Taylor, or for that matter what insights Naomi Campbell could have brought to such an unusual repast. The only thing obvious here is that complex, dirty wars are now being reduced to the problem of the individual consumer. There is a weird hint here that Ms Campbell is complicit in a horrific war for having been the beneficiary of a product that funded it. In which case, in the interest of full disclosure, I would like to declare my complicity in the Iraq war. I am completely addicted to HobNob biscuits from England. I buy at least two or three packets of the things a week. Almost every day, my shirt is covered in crumbs of guilt. After all, part of Hobnobs’ revenues must have gone in taxes to the UK’s 32.6 billion pound defence budget. Subpoena HobNobs eaters now.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Europhrenia – Let’s drink to water scarcity

“Brussels has warned that Europe is facing water scarcity and droughts, and not just in the drier Mediterranean countries,” writes the EUobserver. A report from the Commission states that even the Czech Republic and Belgium are at risk, with “water scarcity” reported even in these reputedly dribbly places. What might be the solution to the problem?

As the EUobserver notes, the word from the Commish is that increasing the price of water might be a good start. Said one spokesman “We consider water to be a commodity like anything else”.
Researchers now warn of “water poverty” i.e. those who can’t afford to pay for their water consumption. What happens in that case? Will bailiffs charge into your home and padlock the mains? Will WCs be exempt or will the flush not work either? One measure the executive is urging on people is “to use less water while showering”. By extension, you could just shower less. As a male of the species, I put in one per day as a gesture to my wife, the colleagues I share an office with, the strangers I sit on the metro beside. But perhaps this needs revising. What is sure, however, is that “water poverty” cannot be of a genteel kind, since it will come with its own distinctive waft.

Some other solutions spring to mind. Drinking more alcohol during meals or on breaks or just cooking everything in alcohol. After reading Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann a few years back, it struck me that Germany’s genius was putting back at least three bottles of claret a day and could still make his way to the desk and find a pen to knock out Faust. On a nineteenth century note, if you do a wine bottle count for the opening lunch in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, it must be about seven pints between pals Levin and Oblonsky. I have also noticed as a football fan that water tends to collect around the goal area in early spring, so practising dives and flying headers as a means to attain personal hygiene might be useful. There is also bumming “showers” off friends who work at the Commish, or any EU body, since these appear to be only places of secure employ for the considerable future. They could always create a mechanism to claim tax credits off “water gifts”. But I’ve forgotten, they do not pay tax either.

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Europhrenia – Escape the future, become a luvvie

Not without a soupçon of relish is The Daily Telegraph grinding out stats in its series on “Rebuilding Broken Britain”. Public debt exceeds £777 billion and will metastise to £1.4 trillion by 2014-15 etc, etc. It’s impossible to grasp what such figures represent, so right now, being confused as to what money itself is supposed to represent, I’ll pass.

On the other hand, the budget rigour, the financial redemption through “pain” that chancellor George Osborne is preparing in order to propitiate the black light all this anti-money emits, is another matter. To me, at least, it looks like nothing less than a final onslaught on the welfare state. This means a massive change to our culture. Welfare, after all, has legitimised the British state, and others, for nearly seventy years. So what next?

Perhaps there are some pointers at the bottom of above-quoted article with the list of those occupations on the rise in Britain? From spring 2008 to summer 2009, 69% more hotel porters, nearly 70% more pharmacists, and a staggering 90% more actors were observed walking the land. If you have ever known the giddy, chirruping, ultimately tradge world of actors, then it’s quite possible that they are same ones lugging open the doors to the Ritz, the Hilton, the Savoy, the same ones making queues at all the new chemists to get over the humiliation of lugging open doors at the, and so on. The moral of this being that in the Britain to come, there will be actors everywhere. Now that is truly pain.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Europhrenia - If Ireland is sovereign, then this duck will ride bicycles again

It’s a long time since we last heard from Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Ireland’s equivalent of Gordon Brown, but whose political career is unlikely to survive beyond the opening minutes of the next general election, let alone a week like Brown’s. Cowen is quoted today in Cork’s Examiner addressing the Dail, Ireland’s parliament, telling it that - “The strategy that the Government has been pursuing since July 2008 has been vindicated". By recent events in Greece. At least, he offered, Ireland is “credible” on international markets and “we have not lost our economic sovereignty".

It’s become a sport in Ireland these last few months to be uppity with the Greeks. Comparison is odious, n’est ce pas? But let’s look at Ireland’s credibility and its assumed sovereignty. Its banks are in hock to the banks of Italy, France and Germany to a post-modern aphonic tune of €12billion, €41.8billion, and a blood-freezing €127.4 billion respectively. According to the obscurantist genius of the times we live in, Ireland's zombie banks have been bailed out a so far disclosed sum of €100billion, which "assets" are then shifted to the risk and the indulgence of the Irish nation and its institutions. In the midst of such gigantic cascades of money, it might just be simpler to conceive of what for an individual a massive burden of debt is, and then argue your way through to a glittering vision of his or her alleged sovereignity, autonomy, freedom. Let alone thinking that all risks traditionally assumed by banks confided to Paddy, PJ and Aishling, but think of how your own mood is affected as a new month begins by the number at the bottom right-hand corner of the bank statement that is now coming through your letter box? Free,  or magret of duck?

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Europhrenia - That market news explained

And so to The Guardian and the FT. We have been given to understand that another turbulent day has bewildered the world's markets. Only yesterday they rallied after the announcement of the €750bn eurozone bailout package. Today, that powerful mind like time lapse shots of a fast evolving weather pattern is “losing faith”. This has not prevented the press from relaying the appropriately named Italian economist - Marco Annunziata's - declaration that the whole thing is “shock and awe, Part II and in 3-D”. Meanwhile, over in London, “on the Evening Standard's report that Cameron could be anointed as prime minister tonight” the British Pound has “bounced back.”
The mind boggles. A Pound bounces, a Tory is anointed. And who shall pour the oils onto the head of the Cameron? And why do the market men mutter in the torments of unbelief like friars of melancholy? So they have not harked to the shining vision that Mark of the Annunciation has beheld? Or do they require further proof that all will be well? If so, I suggest that Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel unveil once and for all the ultimate game plan for the salvation of the Euro and of the world. And let’s hope it’s something dead impressive like that glittering planet sized foetus last seen at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Otherwise, at the very least, market metaphors and similes are really going to get worse.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Europhrenia - Human sacrifice on an Excel sheet

So the European Union has decided to set up an economic defence mechanism. Said mechanism, reports, amounts to “half a trillion euros to protect weaker eurozone nations from market speculation”. Let’s remember that prior to this everyone was invoking the “no bail-out clause” in EU treaties that explicitly prohibits member states from taking on the financial commitments of a national government. In order to get around this uncomfortableness, the EU has cited Article 112 of the Lisbon Treaty –

“Where a member state is in difficulties or is seriously threatened with difficulties caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences beyond its control, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may grant, under certain conditions, Union financial assistance to the member state.”

The first circumstance then is what insurers term an Act of God. The second - “beyond its control” (and I assume this is the relevant part) leads us to understand that the Greek disaster is not an aggregate of human, i.e. rational, activity, but of something else, something like an act of God, an earthquake, a tsunami, a hurricane…, but secular.

In his preface to his play St Joan George Bernard Shaw argued that modern man was a more credulous animal than his medieval forebears, who at least had the excuse of Christian superstition to back their world view. In our supposed scientific age you will read almost everywhere today that with the eurozone defence mechanism EU leaders are seeking “to calm the markets.” It is now taken completely for granted that the markets are something to be propitiated just as tribesmen once offered feathers and beads to the fuming volcano god spewing up lava onto the slopes on which they lived. Austerity budgets are on the other side of this new black magic. Though they give rise to chirpy articles about their tonic effects, they are nothing less than 21st century versions of human sacrifice drawn up on Excel sheets.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Europhrenia - Bon anniversaire, Mr President of France

It’s exactly three years since Nicolas Sarkozy was elected President of the French Republic. It only seems like one thousand and ninety five days since I went walking out on Place de la République to watch some anti Sarkozy activists in a standoff with the CRS riot police, who sent tiny CS gas canisters tocking out of wide stubby barrelled guns. Just as I was turning in for the night, I saw one such Vicks jar sized canister fly up into the air, bounce off the fifth floor of a building at Boulevard Magenta, go spinning through the top of a 50 foot tall linden tree, drop to the footpath, bounce into the alleyway where I live, and come to a rest approximately 6 inches away from where I was standing. All this to explain that on the night that Nicolas Sarkozy was elected I shed a few tears.

French presidential terms last five years so today has a definite Wednesday feeling to it. We have passed over the hump, so to speak, and now the lightened weekend mood is only just around the corner, getting ready to jump out and say Boo. While busy working on unearthing the particular achievements of this presidency of “rupture”, as it was then called, I am wondering whether to extend him the traditional English birthday wish of “Many Happy Returns”, aware that this could be construed in an electoral way.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Europhrenia - Whoever wins, the rain will raineth every day

The first British general election I remember was in 1979. It was Mrs Hamilton, the local Protestant lady from the Big House (this is borderlands Irish Republic) who was telling us, a bunch of Catholic kids on the way home from school, that a lady was gonna come. She was going to smash the unions over in England, was going to smash the killers five miles away in the North. She was a rain that was going to come to make it all clean.

The name of the rain was Thatcher. I didn’t know what Thatchers were, nor Tories, nor Labours. I listened and took another bite out of one of the Mars bars she handed out to us kids. I wondered if Mrs Thatcher was as impressive as Mrs Hamilton, who went swimming in Donegal bay every morning, every day of the year. In the coming months, as I began to start watching the news, I saw the rain clouds gather, grow darker, then break.

So I sympathise with Gary Younge’s Anything-but-the-Tories comment in the Guardian today. It brought back lots of memories of “the miners, apartheid, Bobby Sands, Greenham Common, selling council houses, Section 28, lining the pockets of the rich and hammering the poor – to name but a few.” And I sympathise with his killer point that as a youth Dave Cameron looked out on the social carnage wrought by the Tories and thought “These are my people.”

Sounds good at first but does Dave Cameron have the balls of a Lady Thatcher? Would he even go swimming in the Atlantic every day? I doubt it. After thirteen years of Labour, though, I’m inclined to agree with some, just some, of the Daily Mail’s points – “New Labour will also be remembered for corrupting the democratic process, politicising the Civil Service…launched a series of bloody and highly questionable wars, cheated us out of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty” - while finding David Cameron utterly unpalatable.

The best point made today comes from the Telegraph’s Simon Heffer on the mammoth in the room throughout this dreadful election campaign that has me missing the passions of the Thatcher years when politics walked the land etc etc, this being “the failure of any of the main parties to address how they would tackle the deficit.” The Guardian has just reported that, according to the European Commission, Britain’s deficit is on the verge of overtaking Greece’s at 12% of GDP, making it the worst in the EU. Now that deficits can no longer be the issue of the languid Med, we can perhaps put a stop to this sub-racist sneering about the Greeks and their feckless ways.

For whichever of the candidates who wins tomorrow, there is a rain that's going to come. In the current way we organise our economies, this will mean massive cuts in the public sector, jaw dropping tax hikes, and in the way the Irish journos so lovingly call it like clients queuing at an S&M parlour (S&P?), there will be “pain”.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, the problem is that we don’t even use the right words to describe this crisis. We can’t even “think” it properly. We are led to believe that this is an unlucky streak in poker, when for the vast majority of us citizens, we are locked in a game of Asshole not of our choosing. Until we begin to ask some questions about our relationship to work, why we work, what we work towards, the very nature and terms of our economic life, then the rain will raineth every day.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Europhrenia - If austerity is Ireland’s strongest card, what game is this?

How has economic nut-job Ireland reacted to the Eurozone/IMF €110bn bail-out of Greece? Let’s look at that ineffable source of mainstream blather that is the Irish Independent. Brendan Keenan in an article promisingly entitled “We’re not like the Greeks” admits that after last week’s Greek, Spanish and Portuguese downgrades Irish bonds fared badly. “People may well feel miffed about all this, as well as puzzled,” he owes. “What about all that budgetary pain, and the forthright actions of cutting public sector pay, even social welfare?”

Forthright. Nevertheless, pain “is still Ireland's strongest card.” Only a problem looms for which “even friendly disposed lenders have reasons to worry”, Keenan frets… “The budget deficit is the one area where we can make our own luck. If the speculators are doing their research, they will have noticed the growing opposition among public sector workers… Political pressures are making morons of the intelligent people at the head of public sector unions. Were they to succeed in their stated aims of reversing the public sector pay cuts, there is every chance that the day would arrive when their monthly salaries could not be paid at all.”

No pay at all, you pinkos! And what will you butter your spuds with then, eh? Your regrets! But let us pass over this churn about research-rich lenders wisely and sadly shaking their heads as puzzled public sector morons tip the country over into the abyss of BBB- credit ratings. I’m mainly interested in the idea that this "pain" is "Ireland's strongest card”. What game is moron-averse Mr Keenan talking about?

He must mean poker. Poker has always been a popular game in Ireland. You play at home, in the pub, with pennies, with euros, with big notes, with strangers. Democratic open-to-all comers poker has rules that apply equally to all. Luck detemines victory of course but it's really the skill in divining which cards rise back up the pack and psychological probity in determining that Johnno's watery eyes means he bluffing on a crap hand again. Lest we get carried away here, however, the history of this crisis suggests something other than poker's levelled playing field. It can't have escaped even Keenan's intelligent notice that major financial players, as well as dominant countries like Germany or France, do not need to play by any rules other than those they make up. Historical latecomers to the gambling tables of international finance like minor powers Ireland, like Greece, must submit to such rules which were never written with their advantage in mind.

There is only one card game I know of that operates on such a principle. It's called Asshole. Asshole has four players who, depending on a first hand, are assigned four castes – President, Vice-President, Vice-Asshole and Asshole, and unfolds according to this initial pecking order. If you are Asshole, then you must always give your best cards to the President, who in turn gives you his worst. Once you are Asshole status, it’s extremely difficult to get out of it. You might just attain to Vice Asshole with a slew of lucky hands. But mostly, assholedom is where you are stuck, so to speak, because the game itself works against you. It only works for the President.

The game is comic because it parodies the utter injustice of life that we all instinctively understand but refuse to admit; it's addictive because hope springs eternal with each new hand. It’s also a great measure of an individual’s psychology. Some philosophical Assholes laugh, some brood, others dream of less despicable Vice Asshole status and the struggle with Vice-President for mid-flight dominance. In the meantime, the almost unassailable President grows into a sense of his entitlements. The President sees his good fortune not as chance but as the inevitable consequence of his personal intelligence and courage.
With its colonial history, Ireland for many centuries languished in confirmed Assholedom, and in the last decades rose to Vice-Asshole while imagining in its repressed longings for supremacy that it could be President.. Now that it finds itself verging on Untouchable again, it looks down at fellow Greece, waiting for one more good hand when it can crawl back up a rung. It's a pitiful destiny for a country, but these unfortunately are the rules. No-one seems to have pointed out that we are playing the wrong game.

Europhrenia - Greece, this is your doctor

A day after the Eurozone and the IMF pledged €120bn to bail-out Greece, the financial markets, which last week “panicked” at the downgrades awarded to Greece, Spain and Portugal, are now, according to the BBC, “muted”. One supposes this is good news. “But the markets realise,” says medically minded Philippe Gijsels, head of research at BNP Paribas Fortis Global Markets “that it will be a very long, difficult road to travel before it can get better."

So the Greek economy is ill, is getting the spins, is no doubt "tripling or quadrupling chances of death", as CNN's Doctor Gupta dadaistically puts it. And according to the mute and hushed markets, for whom Mr Gisjels acts as a ventriloquilist (let’s call his dummy Doctor Chuckle), the best cure for sick patients is to prescribe them long and difficult stretches of road, which obviously – because difficult - include potholes and steep bits. In concrete terms, as Athens daily To Ethnos reports, this means slashing public sector wages by anything from 20% to nearly a third, cutting pensions, upping VAT. How taking lumps out of a civil servant's usually modest shoe budget or kicking out the transversal bars from a senior citizen's zimmer frame is supposed to inspire euphoric health suggests that Mr Gisjels has never gone on a big walk before. Unfortunately Doctor Chuckle has thousands of clones chanting the same creed. But until people reject the arbitrary and politically driven yoking of public sector salaries to national debt, Doctor Chuckle will be the only show in town.

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