what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Iceland as Inspiration

Iceland is a small country (300,000 people) in the Scandinavian zone of influence whose citizens gave an example of democratic wisdom and power in 2008 when its financial and political elites were exposed as the shysters they were. Unlike the craven people of other countries, its citizens refused to accept the claptrap of the international community. Instead they held a referendum to deny its government the authority to make billions of payments to British banks. They not only sacked the Prime Minister who presided over the financial madness of the previous decade during which Icelandic banks had offered international investors enticing financial products. They also had him prosecuted – and also some of the senior bankers behind the Ponzi schemes. They have fared better as a result than many thought – although it is not true they are free from the sort of social and economic problems being experienced by countries(like the UK) which have swallowed the new austerity.
Having said all that, I fail to understand why they are being held up as offering a new model for those sick of the corrupt and spineless political classes in so many European countries. Sure they have used an open and technically sophisticated process to produce a new Constitution which they have been needing for some time - since they are still operating with one from 1944 (amended 7 times).This I have now read in detail – it seems to me a progressive one but could hardly be argued to be radical or relevant to Bulgarian, Greek or Italian protestors. 


OK the new Icelandic Constitution (still to be approved by its Parliament) does allow for up to 10% of the country’s Parliament to be selected from a separate list of independents - and gives (as many other constitutions do) the power to citizens to draft legislation for parliament to consider. But this is hardly revolutionary!


There is a general sickness with political parties and a ready inclination to support independent mavericks which apparently extends even to Austria where an 80 year-old billionaire has set up his own party(“Team Stronach”) already attracting support
Austria will elect a new National Council, the lower house of parliament, this summer. In addition to reforming the euro zone, the cornerstones of Stronach's platform will include: reducing the number of government officials and stimulating the economy; limiting representatives from his party to no more than two legislative terms; refusing to be part of a coalition; sending randomly selected citizens to the parliament; and promoting healthy nutrition and more exercise facilities for young Austrians.
This reflects a growing feeling that ordinary, independent people need an opportunity to show how they can better represent the public interest than those selected by political parties. After all, the first loyalty of such party hacks is to those parties - most of whose leaders are scared of offending global corporate interests. I understanding they have developed one of the strongest Freedom of Information and protection of journalists Laws - and this seems to me a crucial element which is forgotten about in most of the current debate.

The question is Do more independents make a difference in a council or parliament?
My father was someone who thought so – and served successfully for many years as an independent on the same Scottish municipal council on which I too served  some years later (as a party representative). We don’t actually have a lot of experience of “Parties of Independents”. The recent Pirate Parties which have penetrated German and other Parliaments are presumably one example – but too recent to draw any conclusions from.



The German Greens are perhaps the best (and longest-serving) example of a group of individuals who, even if they had an agenda (and were therefore hardly independent), were aware of the dangers of being coopted by interests in Parliament and therefore devised various mechanisms to try to retain their purity (including shared leadership). This is what I hope to explore in the next post.

In the meantime, I have uploaded most of my collection of Grigor Naidenov aquarelles and oils. Some of them are from the 1920s - most from the 1940s and 1950s. Sadly I have so far been unable to find out anything about his life - just this tantalising self-portrait.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Can public trust be restored??

If this blog has had one theme in its four years’ of existence, it has been that of the increasing moral corruption of the European political class and the steady loss of public faith in democracy. Neo-liberalism is probably the main factor at work over the decades in which it has been active – but the trivialisation of the media through corporate interests also bears a heavy responsibility. At the moment, for example, the English newspapers are full of the sexual indiscretions of politicians and priests but virtually ignore the misdeed of financiers and the sort of lobbying which lies behind most legislation. It is not just the public who find it difficult to follow the intricacies of finance – but virtually all journalists! And a vast apparatus of audit and scrutiny both in parliaments and in independent bodies - set up in efforts to hold power accountable - has been shown to be useless and toothless. Political research of the 1950s warned of what the academic economists have (typically) renamed "regulatory capture"!

Citizens are now being urged to take events into their own hands; be an independent force in parliaments (as in the weekend’s outcome in Italy); be given constitutional powers to place legislation before parliament and to hold Ministers to account.
Bulgaria is a typical example. The article I quoted from on Sunday put it like this -
There have to be checks on political power and mechanisms to prevent collusion between politicians, private economic interests and organised crime.
Protesters are currently calling for a Constituent Assembly to be formed to change the constitution and develop mechanisms of direct involvement of citizens in government matters. There have been proposals of specific measures to be taken such as: cutting the number of members of parliament to 240; stripping them of immunity; establishing procedures for early dismissal; establishing 50 percent citizens' controlling quota in state institutions.
In short, a new system has to be established in which elected officials do what they are elected to do, and citizens are close enough to them to make sure they do it.
I was intrigued to learn at the weekend that the Bulgarian protestors were basing their proposals for radical political and constitutional change on the “Icelandic model” and I have been doing some research to try to answer two questions - 
  • What bits of the new Icelandic Constitution are relevant to the citizens of countries wishing to have a political class which might be said to represent the public interest rather than financial, business and its own interests?? 
  • where else can we find experience which can help those now engaged in such an exploration? 
Watch this space!

A year ago I was suggesting we needed a new language of political change
The painting is Stanley Spencer's "The Adoration of Old Men"

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Bulgarian demonstrations move to constitutional revolution

“A plague on the political classes” – that’s what people have been shouting in the streets and squares all week in both Italy and Bulgaria. Here in Sofia a helicopter has been circling the skies for several hours as the demonstrations have moved into a new phase – putting pressure on the President to try to ensure that the outcomes of decisions he takes in this political vacuum offer the long-suffering Bulgarian people s bit more confidence.
The high electricity charges which sparked the events which led to the fall of the Bulgarian government last Tuesday are seen as a reflection of the payoffs politicians receive from businessmen who now control the privatised facilities. The demonstration leaders met with the President in the morning and he made supportive noises. An interesting article sketches what is going on
Demonstrators have been persistently rejecting attempts of opposition parties, including the BSP and the ultra-nationalists VMRO and "Ataka", to take advantage of the protests. There have been scuffles with those who tried to raise partisan politics during demonstrations, and people even chanted "No parties!"
The goal of these protests is not to topple one political party to have another take power and bring the country to another crisis, nor is it to demand just normal prices of electricity.
On the economic side, the demands are: scrapping of contracts with the electricity companies and nationalising them; putting those who signed them on trial; revision of electricity bills with citizen participation; declassification of the contracts for all privatisation deals in the last 24 years; revision of all concession contracts for the past 24 years; and ceasing privatisation processes.
 On the political side, demands have gone even further to seek an overhaul of the political system in Bulgaria. They have made clear that the system has to be changed in such a way that when the next party comes to power, it can no longer behave the way all governments in Bulgaria have for the past 24 years. There have to be checks on political power and mechanisms to prevent collusion between politicians, private economic interests and organised crime.
Protesters are currently calling for a Constituent Assembly to be formed to change the constitution and develop mechanisms of direct involvement of citizens in government matters. There have been proposals of specific measures to be taken such as: cutting the number of members of parliament to 240; stripping them of immunity; establishing procedures for early dismissal; establishing 50 percent citizens' controlling quota in state institutions.
In short, a new system has to be established in which elected officials do what they are elected to do, and citizens are close enough to them to make sure they do it.
This seems a much less partisan approach than that which we saw this time last year in the Romanian demonstrations. The idea of a Constituent Assembly smacked to me of the French Revolution (hence the cartoon) but comes, I understand, more from the Icelandic aftermath to its financial crash and utter loss of faith of the Icelandic people in its system of government. A Constitutional Council put a new constitution to a referendum at the end of the year - but it does not contain the radical proposals which Icelandic citizen groups suggested
The Bulgarian proposals seems to draw on the work of the Icelandic citizen associations but Bulgarians should be aware of the limitations of the Icelandic process - and of the basic fact that constitutional debate and new settlements cannot be rushed if the people are to trust the outcome.
On Friday the leaders of the 3 parliamentary parties indicated they would refuse to form an interim government - which would force the President to dissolve parliament in about 2 weeks  One scenario is that a non-politician like Andrey Slabakov (leader of a citizen association and son of a famous actor) forms a citizen party to contest the new elections - as has happened in Italy (see below). He apparently, however, has strong connections with the existing power structure and could well disappoint.

In Italy Much scorn has been levelled against the populist comedian, Beppe Grillo, who apparently looks set to capture almost 20% of the vote in the Italian elections now underway. This article looks more sympathetically at the sort of candidates who have been attracted to fight under his banner. One of the 200 or so discussants to the article posed three challenging questions -
I accept everything positive about the Grillo phenomenon: the need to scare the PD into action, the expression of positive anger. But I have three concerns, about which a Grillo supporter could perhaps reassure me:
1. new parties based on the charisma of an individual and with weak party structures are prone to infiltration. M5S (the Grillo party) has interesting policies and I am sure they are sincere. Leoluca Orlando's La Rete, 20 years ago, was a genuine grassroots anti-mafia party which, it is said, was later infiltrated by the mafia. How can M5S avoid this?
2. if you are angry with corruption and mafia, why trust Grillo more than Rivoluzione Civile, whose leadership has a real track record of fighting crime and the mafia?
3. are M5S supporters (and indeed Rivoluzione Civile or Monti supporters) genuinely indifferent between Berlusconi and Bersani (the PD leader)? If you think B and B are equally bad, then it makes sense to vote for neither. But the danger of Berlusconi winning 55% of the seats in Parliament with 30% vote, while PD+SEL get 29%, and maybe Grillo gets 25% fills me with fear. 25% would be a good result for M5S but would its supporters be really happy if this led to Berlusconi becoming President of the Republic and Alfano as Prime Minister?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A prayer for Bulgaria


While I was tucked in my (private) hospital bed for my first ever overnight in a hospital (for some diagnostic work), the Bulgarian Government resigned! The thought of state hospitals not being acceptable to me was just too much of a vote of non-confidence for them! That’s what I call true accountability! 
Or was it just that the Prime Minister felt unable to continue without the benefit of my blog??

High electricity bills had sparked off protests more than a week ago in all Bulgarian cities and the foreign-owned electricity companies (Czechia and Austria) who have monopolies in each of the Regions had been the focus of the discontent. The much-quoted doubling of prices is a distortion since the last bills for a longer and colder month than the previous – but the 60 euros I paid this Monday for a one-bedroom flat whose heating I control is excessive for the many people whose total monthly earnings is no more than 200 euros. On Monday the head of the Deputy Prime Minister was thrown to the crowds – with promises of reduced prices and the revoking of the licence of the Czech electricity company.
But the demonstrations continued and so the Prime Minister resigned his entire government – and this was accepted by an overwhelming majority of parliamentarians yesterday.
So now we are in the same situation Romania was in exactly a year ago – when demonstrations against austerity measures in that country took it from the frying pan into the fire – a new Prime Minister who quickly was exposed as a plagiarist; then ran into conflict with the European Union on fundamental issues of rule of law; and who orchestrated an unsuccessful (on a technicality) Presidential impeachment; but faced and won a general elections in the  autumn – which changed nothing.

I pray that Bulgaria will avoid such chaos.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Casanova and all that

One of the many pleasures to follow from the absence of television from my living places is the selection of videos to buy and watch – and the serendipity of buying videos in Cyrillic script! The writing on the covers is so small and indistinct that I generally don’t know what I am buying here in Sofia – relying generally on the photos of the actors. A good source is the bookshop in the University underpass. On Sunday I emerged with 8 films costing an average of 2 euros. One I bought only because of it starring Helen Mirren and it turned out to be a touching film about the last days of Tolstoy - The Last Station.
Another hero of mine is Casanova who is generally totally misunderstood. He did not “have” as many women as is generally assumed – more importantly he respected and loved most of them. He is such an interesting figure that I collect books about him – and another video I took home and watched last night figured Peter O’Toole as the old Casanova  in the castle in northern Bohemia I would often drive past 20 years ago on my trip from Prague to Berlin; and David Tennant as his younger version. It’s the best of the 3 films I’ve seen so far on the subject

An art blog I discovered recently has just completed an excellent set of vignettes on the Scottish colourists - Peploe; Cadell; Fergusson; and Hunter.
I’m not really into abstract art – but liked this review of a couple of New York exhibitions of key figures a century ago who spearheaded that art form

Sunday, February 10, 2013

About economic parasites

A couple of weeks ago I referred to a series of strategic reports written by Tim Morgan which adopted, for me, some much better yardsticks of national economic performance than we have been stuck with for the past few decades – trying to measure sustainable value rather than dubious short-term financial measures. The great blog A Diary of Deception and Distortion has a Saturday essay which yesterday had the same spirit to it -
In 1978,  there were 6.9 million people employed in UK manufacturing; at the start of 2011, the figure had fallen to 2.5 million.  Unlike our EU contribution, it is still falling. By the summer of 2012, just 18% of us were employed largely or solely in exports….under one in five. Britain probably has the smallest and least marketing-savvy export sector in the developed world.
Today, however, I want to focus not on this blindingly obvious structural problem in our economy. Rather, I want to examine another trend that has run alongside the truly suicidal policy of deserting our manufacturing base:
the rise and rise of the economically useless and ethically bereft professions.
One of the biggest single flaws of media business reportage in recent years has been the loss of a hard-nosed commercial perspective. This has been largely dumped in favour of ‘good news’ amplification, and statistics that look good but are rarely interrogated. Both here and in the US, for example, we read regularly of rising supermarket profits and ‘a retail recovery’. But for Anglo-Saxon countries already hugely invaded with foreign produce as a result of trade wars, that’s the worst possible recovery they could have; all it will do is increase the deficit, and make the fiscal budget-balancing harder still.
In Britain, supermarkets destroy local community business, import enormous quantities of foreign goods to cater for increasingly cosmopolitan and price-driven customer needs, corrupt local authority planning decisions, and weaken our already minute agricultural sector by screwing them on price. Growing supermarket profits are most decidedly not a ‘good thing’ for Britain: their contribution to the Exchequer is massively outweighed by consequently reduced export output and rising import costs.
Even without these factors, retailing is often the process of distributing and selling stuff made and grown elsewhere. It has no specific contribution to make to export income at all. One or two UK retail giants have thriving foreign businesses, but none are significant. The distributive profession in Britain is a massive employer of course, but overall it has a neutral to negative effect on our balance of payments.
Since 1970, the number of lawyers has grown by nearly 250%. In the last decade alone, the total of lawyers ‘employed’ has gone from 105,000 to 150,000. Almost none of it exports for Britain. Almost all of it increases the complexity of doing business, and the cost of employing people. Personal injury services are now routinely advertised on television. Lawyers are 1800% over-represented in Parliament. All of these facts are connected.
And it’s best not to get me started on Mandarins (senior civil servants). I refer to them in the narrow sense of a professional group of administrators based in Whitehall and local government: other professions like teaching and social work cause their own unique problems, but neither of those are either overpaid or obesely pensioned. Mandarins and local officers are. Together, their pension liabilities comprise a quite unbelievable £1.2 trillion of national debt liability.
A lot of food for thought there!! He might have mentioned banker who were a decade ago considered to be nice earners not only for themselves but for the country. How that has changed!!

The drawing is a Daumier - "we lost but you were lucky to hear my brilliant pleading!"

Friday, February 8, 2013

Quis Custodiet Custodes? Transparency, trust and accountability

Last April, I wrote about the accountability of public bodies on my blog -
"Some 15 years or so ago, transparency and accountabilitybecame a big issue  in my professional field (of governance). I have only recently begun to question the motives which have been at work. Reassuring at one level in the story it told of how various public organisations were held to account by citizens, it demonstrated one of many apparently superior elements of the capitalist model of governance over the communist one which had been the default system of the countries in which many of us were working post 1989. For example, in 2001 I myself wrote this briefing note on the issue for my beneficiaries in the Presidential Office of a Central Asian State.
But, at another level, the emphasis (in the UK at any rate) on the need for more and m"ore scrutiny of government business has perhaps had a hidden agenda – part of the wider agenda there has been for several decades to convince people that government activities were inherently inefficient and malevolent – and that the private sector would do it much better. But, while we were devoting more and more energy to scrutiny, for example, of local government activities, regulations and controls were being lifted from banks and financial agencies".
 This week a shocking report was issued on the apparent failure of a panoply of control and accountability bodies in the British health system. An article written the day before the report was published summarised the issues very well.
An estimated 400-1,200 patients died as a result of poor care over the 50 months between January 2005 and March 2009 at Stafford hospital, a small district general hospital in Staffordshire. The report published on 6 February 2013 of the public inquiry chaired by Robert Francis QC is the fifth official report into the scandal since 2009, and Francis's second into the hospital's failings.
His first report, published in February 2010, was an independent report under the NHS Act rather than a full-blown public inquiry. It examined the quality of care at Stafford hospital in 2005-09 and the many reasons why it was so bad, such as inadequate staffing, and produced devastating conclusions.
The new public inquiry began in July 2010. Its remit was "to investigate why and how a wide range of commissioning, supervisory and regulatory bodies and systems in the NHS failed to detect poor care at Stafford and to intervene". As such it probed the role of the bodies and individuals all the way from the hospital itself – including the trust's board and its patient liaison group – up to the most senior figures at the Department of Health in Whitehall, including ministers, senior civil servants and key figures in the NHS.
Its brief included its duty "to examine why problems at the trust were not identified sooner; and appropriate action taken. This includes, but is not limited to, examining the actions of the Department of Health, the local Strategic Health Authority, the local primary care trust(s), the Independent Regulator of NHS Foundation trusts (Monitor), the Care Quality Commission, the Health and Safety Executive, local scrutiny and public engagement bodies and the local coroner."
None of the links in what should have been the NHS's chain of monitoring and scrutinising hospital care, and intervening if necessary, did its job properly.
 Andrew Lansley, the then health secretary, commissioned the full public inquiry in June 2010, soon after the coalition took power. It was held under the Public Inquiries Act 2005. Labour in 2009 and 2010 had refused to accede to persistent requests from relatives of victims of the Mid Staffs scandal to hold such an inquiry. Instead ministers commissioned the first Francis report as well as two other, separate inquiries into specific aspects of how the hospital and local healthcare system operated. They were led by Professor George Alberti, the DH's national clinical director for emergency care, and Dr David Colin-Thome, his counterpart at the DH for primary care. They reported in April 2009.
Francis's report into care at Stafford hospital in February 2010, based on evidence from over 900 patients and families, was scathing. "I heard so many stories of shocking care," he said. "They were people who entered Stafford hospital and rightly expected to be well cared for and treated. Instead, many suffered horrific experiences that will haunt them and their loved ones for the rest of their lives."
Francis cited a litany of failings in the care of patients. "For many patients the most basic elements of care were neglected," he said. Some patients needing pain relief either got it late or not at all. Others were left unwashed for up to a month. "Food and drinks were left out of the reach of patients and many were forced to rely on family members for help with feeding." Too many patients were sent home before they were ready to go, and ended up back in hospital soon afterwards. "The standards of hygiene were at times awful, with families forced to remove used bandages and dressings from public areas and clean toilets themselves for fear of catching infections." Patients' calls for help to use the toilet were ignored, with the result that they were left in soiled sheeting or sitting on commodes for hours "often feeling ashamed and afraid". Misdiagnosis was common.
"A chronic shortage of staff, particularly nursing staff, was largely responsible for the substandard care," Francis found in his first report.
In addition, morale was low and "while many staff did their best in difficult circumstances, others showed a disturbing lack of compassion towards their patients", he added. "Staff who spoke out felt ignored and there is strong evidence that many were deterred from doing so through fear and bullying."
He laid much of the blame on the trust's ruling board. The action they took to investigate and resolve concerns "was inadequate and lacked an appropriate sense of urgency". Its members also "chose to rely on apparently favourable performance reports by outside bodies, such as the Healthcare Commission, rather than effective internal assessment and feedback from staff and patients". He was particularly critical of the trust's failure to take patients' complaints seriously enough.
Crucially, Francis also highlighted the key impact of the trust board's decision to try to save £10m in 2006-07, as part of its desire to gain foundation trust status. "The board decided this saving could only be achieved through cutting staffing levels, which were already insufficient." It also ignored staff's concerns, he added.
Needless to say, the scandal is being used by both left and right in their battle for votes. The disaster occurred on the New Labour “watch” and arguably was linked to the major structural changes the Labour Government had been pushing for 10 years to give both market mechanisms and private companies a stronger role in England’s (Scotland has not bought this “commodification” model) National Health Service. The Coalition Government in power since 2010 has gratefully built on that principle and is using the scandal of care in that hospital to bolster its argument for the need for the dramatic increase in marketization they have introduced in recent months.

Until this latest report, however, no one was really looking at the effectiveness of the control bodies. The incredible growth of regulatory and auditing bodies in Britain in the last 25 years was the subject more than a decade ago of a considerable literature. And English municipalities were required in 2000 to set up “Scrutiny” committees. This 2010 House of Commons research report gives a brief overview; and a blogpost of  mine in that same year gave a wider perspective.

But perhaps it is time we looked at the counter-productive aspects of all this – in the spirit of Ivan Krastev’s new book entitled In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don't Trust Our Leaders? 

The print at the start of the blog illustrates the famous Panoptican of control dreamed up by the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Perfidious Albion again?

Glorious sun yesterday in Sofia with pavement cafes full of people tasting an early spring day as I emerged from the Rodina Hotel after some swimming and exercise.
Although the English newspapers seemed to have moved on to other topics, feelings are still very high in this part of the world about the latest example of perfidious Albion – threatened restrictions on the free movement of labour from January 2014. Britain was, after all, one of the governments pushing for early entry of Bulgaria and Romania ten years ago (and indeed was one of only three EU members to allow open access after 2004 to citizens of the 7 new member states who joined then).
The accusation of inconsistency misses a crucial point – that it was a Labour Government (1997 to 2010) which did these things. The Cameron government which is now in charge is a government of upper-class ideologues who want to go one better than Thatcher in the breaking of the old “social contract” which the UK benefited from the end of the second-world war to about 1980. Further marketization, attack on welfare benefits are the basic strategy – although they were not mentioned in the respective manifestoes of the coalition partners. Of course open immigration fits such a neo-liberal approach - but loses the votes necessary to pursue such policies. Immigration has been a major issue in British (or at least English) politics for the past 50 years – and some of the reasons are set out in the fascinating diagram which shows thevarious waves of immigration to Britain in the last couple of centuries – particularly those of the last 60 or so years. Although an English politician did in the 1960s make an infamous speech warning of “rivers flowing with blood” if the immigration (of West Indians then) continued, the UK had, until the early 1980s, a net negative flow of migration. More people were leaving than coming in.
This all changed 30 years ago – due to a new flow of Asian immigrants many of whom do not easily integrate. When 7 central European countries joined the European Union in 2004, the UK was one of only 3 countries (the others being Ireland and Sweden) to allow unrestricted entry on to the labour market for the citizens of those 7 countries. The government advisers had anticipated only a small flow – but grossly underestimated the scale. That’s why 3 years later, the government took a more restrictive approach to Bulgaria and Romania – for a period which runs out in January next year.        

England has actually benefitted from the professionals and students who have come to England – it is actually Bulgaria and Romania who have suffered from the loss of highly-skilled doctors and young people. The real fear is, of course, that the 2014 relaxation will first bring in the gypsies – who have been the bane of France and Germany (German cities have become very concerned about the scale and effects of such immigration) - after which, the British Conservatives fear, they will lose votes (in England) to the nationalist UKIP and thereby the next General Election in 2015. Pity that the Conservatives are so insular that they did not think of cooperating with the French, Germans (and Italians) to explore ways of dealing with immigrants who harass and steal from the public. My understanding is that deportation (as France found out) is a difficult option legally.

That world citizen Tony Blair actually turned up in the Romanian parliament in May 1999 and promised  them that the gates of Europe would be flung open for them if they would help NATO in its confrontation with the Serbian ruler Milosevic over his ill-treatment of his Albanian subjects in Kosovo.
Not only did they comply, but they made huge economic sacrifices to prepare Romania for full membership of the EU in 2007. Britain was their chief sponsor and the 20 million Romanians were regularly told that their living standards would start to approach the EU norms if they swallowed the harsh medicine. Instead, it will take centuries for this to occur. They privatised their industry, abandoned their price subsidies and allowed massive economic dumping by powerful EU states only to find that they cannot make ends meet at home with derisory salaries.  Their sleazy political elite allied to the British Liberals and Labour have been the only real local beneficiaries of membership. 
The satirical poster is one of Franz Juttner's - "The British sing hymns - but think of war"

Monday, February 4, 2013

welcome to my new Taiwan and Ukraine readers!

I wish I knew more about my readers! I am told only how many there are each day, week and month - and which countries they are reading in. In recent weeks we have apparently been joined by readers from Taiwan and Ukraine. Yesterday indeed the Taiwanese pushed the United States off the top ratings they normally enjoy!
So a warm welcome to readers in both Taiwan and Ukraine!
Hope you find the posts interesting - and please don't hesitate to let me know what you feel about the posts......what subjects interest you......
You helped boost my readership figures in January to their highest monthly level - just under 3000

The aquarelles are Grigor Naidenov's - whcih I was very pleased to find in a pile of unframed paintings here last week. I have greatly taken to his cafe scenes (of Sofia in the 1940s) since first bidding for an oil last year - and then an aquarelle in December. I know nothing about him except that he was born in 1885 and died at a ripe age in his 90s. I had some fun with Yassen selecting appropriate frames and passe-partouts!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Crisis on screen

It’s not easy to transfer ideas and argument about financial and economic crises onto the big screen. Sure we had Rollover with Jane Fonda and Kris Kristofferson – an amazingly prescient film in 1981 about financial speculation which I only recently came across in a pile of remaindered DVDs.
In 1987 Michael Douglas played Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) in Wall St - Money Never Sleeps
In 2010 Michael Moore gave us Capitalism – a Love Story
And, in 2011, Matt Damon starred in Inside Job 

But, for various reasons, the big money which decides which films sound to be box-office winners doesn’t readily support a pitch for a film which sounds to be a glorified lecture. And agit-prop stuff rarely translates into good cinema. But Robert Reich now looks set to become the first American academic to take economics successfully into the movie halls
Reich has been rated as one of the top 10 business thinkers in America. You don’t forget him easily – he is less than 5 feet; was Secretary of State for Labour in Clinton’s first administration; coined the phrase "symbolic analysts" in his 1992 book Work of Nations; has been one of the few self-avowed American “liberals” (which is now a term of abuse in America) consistently to take on the neo-Cons there; wrote in 2010 an aggressive book about the global crisis - Aftershock; and was, again, one of the few American academics to have strongly and visibly supported the Occupy Now movement.
Today’s Guardian has an excellent story on the success at Sundance film festival of the film Inequality for All - based on his Aftershock book
Reich charts the three decades of increasing median income after the second world war, a period he calls "the great prosperity" and then examines what happened in the late 1970s to put an end to it. The economy didn't falter. It kept on growing. But wages didn't.
The figures that Reich supplies are simply gobsmacking. In 1978, the typical male US worker was making $48,000 a year (adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile the average person in the top 1% was making $390, 000. By 2010, the median wage had plummeted to $33,000, but at the top it had nearly trebled, to $1,100,000.
"Something happened in the late 1970s," we hear him tell his Berkeley class. And much of the rest of the film is working out what happened.
Some inequality is inevitable, he says. Even desirable. It's what makes capitalism tick. But at what point does it become a problem? When the middle classes (in its American sense of the 25% above and below the median wage) have so little of the economic pie that it affects not just their lives but the economy as a whole.
Reich's thesis is that since the 1970s a combination of anti-union legislation and deregulation of the markets contrived to create a situation in which the economy boomed but less of the wealth trickled down. Though for a while, nobody noticed. There were "coping mechanisms". More women entered the workforce, creating dual-income families. Working hours rose. And increasing house prices enabled people to borrow.
And then, in 2007, this all came crashing to a halt. "We have exhausted all the options," he says. There's nowhere else left to go. It's crunch time
 In the film, he tells how he made strategic alliances with older boys who could protect him from the bullying he suffered by virtue of his small size (He is less than 5 ft) . And years later, he discovered that one of them had travelled down to Mississippi to register voters and had been tortured and then murdered. "That changed my life," he says.
"He has never cashed in," says Kornbluth, the film's Director. "He's an incredibly smart guy and he could have found a way to correlate that into money as so many people do. But he never has. He has absolute integrity. It's almost shocking now for someone not to do that. I mean one of the film-makers I admire is Mike Leigh. And he does McDonald's commercials and I was like 'Whoa!' when I found out but I can't hold it against him. You can't hold it against anybody who's trying to make a living. But it makes Rob all the more amazing. He doesn't sit on boards. Or on think tanks. He draws a modest salary. He has this absolute moral compass. And he's still trying to change the world."
In the 60s and 70s, this wasn't such a surprising thing. Reich recounts how he grew up "in a time of giants". His first job was working for Bobby Kennedy. Changing the world was what everyone wanted to do.
The world has changed. Just not in the way many thought it would. We fell victim to what Reich calls "the huge lie". That the free market is good. And government is bad. Government makes the rules, Reich keeps on reminding us, over and over. And it decides who benefits from those rules, and who is harmed. And increasingly, that boils down to the rich and the poor.
Perhaps the most surprising voice in the film is Nick Hanauer's. He's just your ordinary, everyday billionaire. One of the 1%. Except that he believes – like Warren Buffett – that he doesn't pay enough tax. And that hammering the middle class, the ones who buy actual stuff, who create demand, which in turn creates jobs and more taxes, is simply bad for the economy. "I mean, I drive the fanciest Audi around, but it's still only one of them… Three pairs of jeans a year, that will just about do me."
The system simply isn't working, he says. It's put the millionaires and the billionaires, the Nick Hanauers and the Mitt Romneys – the people that Republican rhetoric describes as job creators – at the centre of the economic universe, rather than what Hanauer calls the true job creators – the middle classes.
The problem is, he says, is that they've been attacked from every side. He was one of the initial investors in Amazon, a business of which he's "incredibly proud", but he points out that on revenues in the last three months of 2012 of $21bn (£13bn), Amazon employs just 65,600 people. "If it was a mom and pop retailer, it would be 600,000 people, or 800,000 or a million."
Globalisation and technology have played their role. But so has the government. For decades, under both Republicans and Democrats the highest rate of tax didn't dip below 70%. Now, Hanauer says he pays 11% on a six-figure income. Hanauer believes that if he was taxed more, he would be better off, because his company – he's a venture capitalist and his family own a pillow factory – would sell more products, and he would, therefore, make more money.
The caricature is by a Romanian painter of the inter-war period - Joseph Iser

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Bulgarians and Romanians teach the English manners!

The Guardian has today a piece about the scale of offence the British Government has caused here in Bulgaria by the restrictive attitude it is apparently taking to the lifting in a year of the current restrictions to the entry of Bulgarian and Romanian workers.
Quite rightly people here are saying it was apparently OK for Brits to come in their thousands a few years back and snap up houses in Bulgarian villages for 6,000 euros or so - so why is the reverse movement not acceptable?
Romanians have also reacted very strongly with a lot of the energy being poured into a campaign to produce posters advertising the positive aspects of Romania – many of them with a gentle mocking tone eg one which simply says “Charles bought a house here in 2005 and Harry has never been photographed once naked”. Nice one!! See the last half of this post for more on this....

Little wonder that the author of the link I’ve just given suggests that the ineptness of the British Government has, remarkably, managed to produce a positive sense of national pride amongst Romanians – probably the first since the Romanian football team was playing well some 17 years or so back in the World Cup Final.

But it all makes life a bit difficult for people like me who live in the two countries (little wonder that the old lady selling wine from the Karlove and Rila areas in the shop on Rakovski street frostily told me yesterday to speak Bulgarian yesterday!!) I will have to resort (as I generally do!) to my Scottish identity...
And Scotland does generally have a good record of greeting its immigrants who have, admittedly, never come on the scale of West Indians in the 1950s to England, for example. It is the Scottish weather which discourages - rather than its people!
The only immigrant group which has complained recently about experiencing prejudice in Scotland is.......the English! For most of the 20th Century it was the Irish who experienced great discrimination....the urban poor (at least in the West of Scotland) was a synonym for the Irish immigrant and their descendants who experienced great religious (and political) intolerance.... 

It will be interesting to see how the UK Ambassadors in the 2 countries will handle the affair. The UK Ambassador in Romania must be particularly angry and embarrassed. He had recently gone on the charm offensive and issued a video about the beauties of the UK!! The UK government has been caught on the hop on this one (the info about the negative campaign was, I understand, leaked) so has not so far even had the time or decency to apologise.
But of course this government of upper-class twits would never entertain a second thought about offending foreigners! Indeed it revels in it - imagining that the more Europeans it offends, the greater their popularity amongst the electorate!!
And it's interesting that an article in today's Independent UK newspaper about the Romanian campaign has already attracted 850 comments - although a lot of them seem to be about the last war! And most of the others moaning about the quality of life in the UK. The (Scottish!) writer Alex Massie has a sensible article in (right-wing) Spectator pointing out how illogical, indeed "contemptible", the arguments are for discrimination against Bulgarian and Romanian workers.   

Reasoned discussion is difficult in such an environment - but the Bulgarians and Romanians are teaching us a lesson (in both tone and smartness) on how to deal with prejudice. The civilised and generous terms in which the Editor of Gandul ("The Thought"), the Romanian newspaper which spearheaded the campaign, has explained their approach should embarrass British populists -
We invaded Britain two years ago as a tourist, leaving many pounds and my soul. London seemed to me one of the most cosmopolitan, multicultural and tolerant cities that we visited. Everywhere people were attentive and eager to help, especially when they saw us confused standing in the street with map in hand. I beat London on foot, from Clapham Common to Kensington Gardens, and everywhere I had a comfortable feeling of "home". A feeling I discovered in Barcelona, ​​New York, Paris or Amsterdam, a feeling that I am on the streets in the centre of Bucharest, Brasov or Sibiu, but leaves me when I get in the neighbourhood Pipera or villages swimming through mud.
 People who are "everywhere at home" feel part of Western civilization and act accordingly. I know many Romanian who went to learn, work and live honestly in the UK. I never heard anyone complaining of discrimination. On the contrary, they are appreciated, successful and obviously did not have any cultural complex. Of course, exceptions can always rely on, but my impression is that the general atmosphere among British to Romanian is significantly different from what some newspapers anti-immigration and some conservative politicians tries to portray. Therefore, as the news about the "hordes" of Romanian and Bulgarian will invade the United Kingdom after lifting labour market restrictions should be treated with leniency. Who wanted to leave in the last 10-15 years has already left.
Also, a campaign like the one that the British government would like to discourage Romanians and Bulgarians from coming for work cannot be done without humour. The best way to fight stereotypes is to laugh at them.
 Hence our "Why do not you come over?" campaign aimed at the Brits- as a possible answer to the fears of the British and the frustrations of Romanian who feel that they get an injustice. We are not barbarians. We invite you to discover and see the reality with your own eyes - this is the message of the campaign which soon hit the international press.
Romania has unsuspected resources of talent and intelligence, and when they are channelled into worthwhile projects foreign reaction is initially surprise, then admiration. Intelligent ideas and humour have come to the newspaper thought the comments box on our Facebook page and discussion forums at The Guardian and The Huffington Post shows if needed, they are the most valuable country brand.
 As for me: London, here I come!
(Google translation)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Exposing the international consultancies

I read three journals – 2 dailies and one weekly – The Guardian and Der Spiegel online and Le Monde whenever I can find it in a shop (easier in Romania than in Bulgaria) by virtue of the latter’s thin, sensuous paper (I deeply regret the disappearance of its copious footnotes!). Yesterday The Guardian invited me to take part in a survey – I suspect to explore the commercial possibilities of erecting a paywall to protect some of its content. I was, however, happy to participate in the survey since I have become increasingly disillusioned with the superficial (if not biased) nature of some of this famous liberal paper’s recent drift and wanted a chance to say something about my misgivings. I recognise the glorious role the paper had played in unmasking the machinations and manipulations of the Murdoch Empire’s media empire but, for my money, it has played a most curious (and unacceptable) role of "the establishment" in the Julian Assange affair.  
In filling out the questionnaire I duly took the chance to sound off about this – and also about the overly New Labourist views of correspondents it uses such as Polly Toynbee. 

But, after the article she has published today, I take that back and offer my apologies. Her article gives great coverage to a long-overdue attack on the criminal role of International Financial Consultancies in government
Westminster is rarely a palace of pleasure, but Thursday brought the magnificent spectacle of Margaret Hodge walloping the big four accountancy firms for their role in helping companies deprive the Treasury of taxes everyone else has to pay. Four heads of tax – at PWC, Ernst & Young, Deloitte and KPMG – wriggled and obfuscated, hiding behind the polite euphemisms of their trade. Never say avoidance or, God forbid, evasion – but call it "tax planning" and "tax efficiency".
As she came at them from all sides, Hodge and the astute MPs on her public accounts committee ripped off the accountants' veil of respectability. She waved a monstrous map showing the tax avoidance device one of the four had created for a company operating with circles of subsidiaries sited in off-shore havens: "That stinks!" she said. Yet there the four sat piously deploring "complexity" in a tax system that keeps adding volumes to the code just to chase down their devilish loopholes.
When the burglar is unscrewing your window locks, would you pay him a fat fee to clean your windows while he's at it? Yet that's what the government does. Last year these four firms said they earned some £400m from the state, and they help to denude this same state of the tax that pays them. But far worse, the government has invited the burglar in to be consulted on the best kind of locks for the future. Now the old lag is in the pub selling the pin code to the locks to all his burglar friends.
And I now see that it was an article of Polly Toynbee's that I extensively quoted from in one of my posts about the Murdoch Empire last year. I think I've absorbed too many of the wisecracks on Craig Murray's (otherwise admirable) website about "The Guardian" newspaper!!