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June 19, 2012

Euro successes

Market SquareThe two Euro 2012 groups playing in Poland (and the only ones I've followed so far) may have not offered the best football, but they did offer the best fans: the Irish, winners of all prizes as most popular fans, the Russians, undeservedly attacked by hooligans in what however became an occasion for most Poles to rethink their anti-Russian complexes, the colourful Spaniards, the noisy Croats, the musical Greeks, the good Czech soldiers, and of course the poor Poles, who keep singing “Polacy nic nie sie stalo” (Poles, nothing has happened). The only exception is the Italians: few and made of essentially two groups: clueless families and fascists. A few times I wished I was sitting on the other side, but at least, after last night, I can confirm the positive observation that even right-wing fans now appreciate Balotelli.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon and night in Poznan with the Irish fans. While still in a good mood, they did go through a certain involution over the last week: “you’ll never beat the Irish” became “you’ll rarely beat the Irish”, and eventually “you’ll always beet the Irish”. As the football became less and less rewarding, “stand up for the boys in green” gradually gave way to “stand up for the Polish girls” (a bit sexist: just like the various versions of “shag the queen”, not an inherently wrong concept, but space for improvement on form). By the end, they even stopped cheering Trapattoni (he had to wait until the age of 73 for conceding 9 goals in 3 games). Poznan's beer, Lech, is sold in green bottles and cans and enjoyed much favour, even more than the equally green, but weak, Calrsberg sold in the stadiums. Seeing the queues outside bottle shops in Poznan, Polish onlookers could only comment: “it’s just like under communism”.

Quite. Mass rallies on Plac Defilad in Warsaw, under the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science, were not seen since the 1st of May marches of communist times. And Poland’s tournament, even if unsuccessful, has still been their best since… 1986.

What has changed since communism is the perception of Poland. It is, so far, a very successful tournament, all visitors visibly enjoying the perfect organisation, the new stadia and, most importantly, the beautiful cities and the landscape between them (not always the roads, but believe me, they are so much better than just ten years ago). Just like the 2010 World Cup changed the perception of South Africa from dangerous violent country to emerging world economic power, Poland now has strong ambitions of getting rid of any ‘grey’ or ‘poor’ perception. Most Poles have kept the white-red flags on their cars despite defeat. The open racism feared by the BBC has been limited so far to one Croat banana. This ‘feel-good’ effect may not last. When in 2006 Germans broke the tabu of waving their national flags during their home World Cup, the surge in national pride registered by surveys only lasted one month or two. In Poland, the bills for the stadiums, and the poverty of those who could not afford a ticket, will remain. Many companies building the stadiums (incluiding the main contractor of Warsaw's National Stadium), after cut-throat competition for the contracts, have already collapsed and failed to pay subcontractors, leaving hundreds of workers without months of hard-earned wages: like for the recent North Korea-style queen jubilee in London, should modern mass events have to rely on unpaid labour? Unpaid workers were rightly protesting at Wroclaw stadium last week.

PS I was forgetting that the Euro is about football after all. Cheers to Spaniards and Croats, who have provided the ultimate falsification of stereotypes on lower morality of Latin and Slavic people in comparison to pretendedly superior Scandinavians (see Swedish-Danish biscuit, Euro 2004). And cheers to Pirlo, but it hurts to think Milan gave it to Juventus for free last year... a karma for having previously given away Shevchenko and Kaka for trillions after their sale-by date, I suppose.

November 24, 2010

The Germans on terrorist alerts and Irish alarms

Since last week there is in Germany one of those unspecified terrorist alerts that Michael Moore ridiculed in his "Fahrenheit 9/11". Possible targets are airports, stations and Christmas markets in the big cities. Reichstag’s dome by Normal Foster has been closed to tourists, and there are scary pictures in the press of armed police with their German Shepherd dogs in front of the Brandenburger Tor. And we are continuously reminded that the 9/11 terrorists came from Hamburg and there is a good share of Taliban fighters with German passports.

On the other side, I have been through the airport at the week-end, and yesterday I was at a very big event with the economic and political elite, including Angela Merkel. In both cases extra security measures were clearly visible, but rather low-key and unobstrutive – any British airport without alert is more fussy than the German ones during the alert. Which begs the question: if these alerts are for political consumption, why does not Merkel use it to the full? Is somebody else behind it? Who, the media who don’t have anything else to show to sell? Or worse of all, if it is not for political consumption, should we then start worrying for real?

Not that the Germans seem to worry much. But with a self-deprecating attitude that seems to characterize all European nations, they blame themselves not to worrying enough, rather than congratulating themselves for non panicking. In the news they even report that in Britain they know much better how to behave in case of terrorist alert because the government informs everybody and people have been trained for any event. I can’t remember anything of this kind: it must be that the neighbor’s terrorist alert is always greener.

More seriously are taken the financial alerts: the Euro is not as loved and looked after as the DM but it is still something very important. Yet the reactions to the Irish crisis are very different from those to the Greek crisis at the beginning of the year (on which I recommend this working paper by Dorothee Bohle). When it was Greece needing bailing-out, all the German media were scandalized by the breaching of the Growth and Stability Pact and by the immorality of saving the undeserving, undisciplined Greeks. Now, while in the English speaking media (Guardian, Financial Times) there are articles criticizing German strictness and self-righteousness, actually, the Germans this time are being very quiet and condescending, back to the old motto "a good German is a good European". Merkel has expressed a little obligatory concern with fiscal discipline (well, she can't say the Irish are free to use the 85bn Euro as they like, can she? there is not enough Guinness on the island) but basically nobody objects to saving Ireland, and there is very little fuss about it.

Why the different treatment of the Irish and the Greeks? Certainly, you can lose virginity only once, and once the Growth and Stability Pact’s article on national debts being non-transferable has been violated once, the following violations make little news. Also, there are objective differences between the nature of the debt of Ireland and that of Greece: while Greece has been in chronic debt since independence, Ireland was running, until the crisis, a clean budget. Germans still remember, with a little shame, how just a few years ago Ireland had a budget surplus while Germany itself (tu quoque!) was breaching the deficit limit – and how the Council criticized Ireland for planning tax cuts, while it closed an eye or two on Germany. Beside these objective differences, there may well be a little bias: it is undoubtedly easier, in Germany, to despise the Southern Europeans (I know something about it), than it is despising the Irish.

But more important than the national bias may be the economic bias. That is, falling into debt because of unbalanced, “over-generous” social welfare and subsidies to a frail economy, as in Greece, is morally unacceptable. But falling into debt in order to save disastrously-behaving banks, in which incidentally the Germans have invested so much, is morally OK.

August 27, 2010

Dublin blues and taxis

I often pop up in Dublin for work but unfortunately I rarely have the time to enjoy the weather, beach and views, as I had in October 2004 (see right - yesterday the weather was actually very out of character). On those short visits I consider myself lucky if I find the time for a furtive pint somewhere. I generally meet non-Irish people for work, so that some times the only Irishmen/women I enter in contact are the taxi drivers (taxis are often necessary there because Irish public transport's, and public infrastructure's, development has lagged far behind the rest of the economy during the unruly growth of the 'Celtic Tiger' years). Which is a bit of a shame given that Dublin has just won the title of freindliest city in the world (the sort of title that tend to have immediate negative effects on those who win it, I'm afraid).Dublin

But these days the mood in Dublin isn't that good. This Thursday, actually, Ireland was very pissed off, from the taoiseach down, because the country had just been downgraded by the rating agency Standard & Poor's. The estimate of the actual cost of saving the Irish banks, and notably the Anglo Irish Bank, is constantly revised upwards. The overall cost of the government intervention to save the economy was something like 260% the Irish GDP, as compared to around 80% for UK or USA (IMF data). Also, the Irish state (a bit like the Greek?) is not used to collect taxes anywhere else than from houses, so with the housing market's collapse it's not self-evident where they will find the cash - can they keep cutting public expenditure?

Yet, if problems are real, the anger this time is more against the rating agency than against the government or the crisis as a whole. The Irish have endured the recession and public cuts in a very quiescent way that contrasts with the reaction in Greece. But in this case all, from the taoeisech to the media to the taxi drivers, blame the rating agencies. In fact, it is suprising that the rating agencies are still around, as powerful as ever, after having completely missed the financial crisis (they were giving the top AAA marks to Lehman Brothers until the week before it collapsed). Rating agencies and more in general auditors are the visible hand of the market: those who decide the price of things. They are so few that they enjoy oligopolistic power. They have huge vested interests too, just like Arthur Andersen with Enron. When rating private companies and their products (such as the derivatives that led to the crisis), they want to make their customers happy (the issuer-pays model). When rating public bodies, they want to spill as many friendly reforms as possible, or at least get better returns for investors. The political timing of so many rating agencies' interventions is extremely suspicious. What does James the Dublin taxi driver suggest? all against the wall. Yet, if we agree that the problem of financial market is the nebulous information, the job rating agencies are supposed to do is actually important, and we would need more of it, not less. There are EU proposals to create a EU rating agency (but how independent will it be?) or at least to regulate the existing agencies, but the suggestion to end with the 'issuer-pays' model has not made any progress. At least, it is refreshing that people, politicians and media are no longer taking the rating agencies as oracles. The Irish National Treasury Management Agency has taken the unprecedented step to criticise Standard and Poor's methodology - this may look like shooting the messanger but it is actually a useful contribution. The Irish media, which are not leftwing at all, including the Irish Times, are full of critical opinions.

Now let's get back to my informants, the extremely friendly Dublin taxi drivers. There's one thing they keep complaining about: the liberalisation of taxis in 2000. Apparently unrelated to Standard and Poor's, that measure was a symbol of the Irish neo-Thatcherite market enthusiasm of the period. It was a sadden populist reform that excited neoliberal economists, and tripled the number of taxis (apparently there are now more taxis in Dublin than New York), without, of course, solving the original problem, that is guaranteeing taxi supply at unfriendly times (3am Saturday) or at very high peaks (solving that problem would have needed more co-ordination and regulation, not less). But it made life for taxi drivers extremely hard - as the rest of liberalisation would have made it for most of the population a few years later.

I'll declare an interest now: my dad worked as a taxi driver. Yet, as a frequent taxi customer I'd say I know both sides of the debate. I like chatting to taxi drivers in any country, from Lima to New York to Moscow to (by gesticulating) Beijing. And my unscientific, unsystematic comparisons say that while taxis are regulated in very different ways country by country, city by city, some ways better than others, nowhere does the ideal free market actually works. Some politicians (in Italy, sadly, it's the centre-left ones, like Bersani and Amato) have made taxi deregulation the flagship of their pro-market policies. But the nature itself of the business - which requires some degree of trust on one side, and which involves nearly no physical barriers to entry on the other - begs for regulation, not liberalisation. Taxi operations are, in fact, always regulated somehow. If not by the state, if not by associations, then maybe by private corporations; and if not even by them - as in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s - then at least by the mafia. But taxi supply cannot be left to increase so long as anybody with a car and same spare time wants to put a Taxi sign on the roof of their wreck. It would be just like, in the name of the free market, allowing more people inside a cinema as long as anybody is willing to pay for the entry ticket: putting a limit is actually in the interest of a reasonable use of the cinema. Taxi deregulators are, in fact, just promoting different forms of regulations, usually of an inferior kind. In Chicago, where taxi drivers earn less than one dollar an hour, you can find taxi drivers who don't know English, let alone the city's geography - but they have been recruited by corporations according to their own interests and policies. As Madonna (indeed, not my favourite scholar in comparative piolitical economy) once put it when explaining her choice to move to London: in London she can put her child in a taxi and tell the driver to take it to nursery, without any worry; in the US, it would be tountamount to say farewell to her offspring. For more on New York taxis, by the way, I strongly recommend, apart the famous movies, the sharp "Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City" by union organiser Biju Mathew.

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