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As austerity cuts bite and politicians retreat from the great unwashed rabble they are supposed to represent, comedians are finding themselves on the firing line of public anger at social injustice, the political class or just “outsiders”, writes Irish comic Keith Farnan:
There you are: a boy, standing in front of a whole bunch of other boys and girls, asking them to love you. But when times are tough, people need a target and politicians are much too canny to actually go out in front of a crowd that hasn’t been tightly vetted and controlled so they get the maximum return for their tested and meaningless sound bites. Comedians are in danger of becoming the canaries down the political coalmine. When one of them doesn’t come back up, you know it’s time to cede control of that voting district to some extreme left or right organisation.
As in all times of economic strife, the “outsiders” are being blamed and, while this traditionally and obviously means “immigrants”, there must surely be a cautionary tale in how the comedy clubs of the Weimar Republic were shut down after violent unrest at various 'why did the German cross the road jokes'. (Because zere vas a zebra crossing, ja, it is safe to go now. Ok, I made that bit up; Ireland is now a German-economically-occupied state, what can I say?)
Whether it’s a strategy or a natural consequence, there has been a rise in surreal and abstract comedy as well as mime-comedy. Mime-comedy is the perfect comedy for any time of social upheaval, because you can’t enrage a crowd when you’re literally saying nothing. If you’re going to play the fiddle while Rome burns, then play the fiddle and shut up about it.
As the G8 prepare to meet in economically depressed Northern Ireland, the UK government hosts have been touching up the area, by covering the windows of the area's many empty shops with large photographic stickers of thriving businesses:
One set of stickers have been fixed to a former butchers in Belcoo, on the border between the province and the Republic. They show the shop – which traded as Flanagan’s until it went out of business about a year ago – still fully stocked with a selection of fresh meat on display. A sticker pasted on a closed door even shows an open door and an apparently well-adorned interior. Another set of stickers have been put up in the windows of a former pharmacy in the village, to give the vacant site the appearance of an office supply stores.Perhaps if the Soviet Union and its satellites had had large-format photographic sticker technology, the Berlin Wall would never have fallen, and Marxism-Leninism would still be shambling on, joyless but just about alive, much like George Osborne's austerity plan is.
Meanwhile, the US Secret Service has reportedly deployed agents disguised as Irish farmers; they purchased a fleet of shiny new tractors, but apparently neglected to make them look less conspicuously new:
However, locals told the paper the agents would “stick out like sore thumbs” in Fermanagh, as their tractors are all brand new. It’s “like something out of Father Ted”, one resident said.Surely there'd be someone in the US Secret Service who could apply convincing amounts of dirt, rust and general wear to tractors to not compromise the whole point of having bought them in the first place?
As Italy's economy flounders, Der Spiegel has a report on the different way of business and administration in Italy's south:
The politicians have proven particularly adept at finding public service jobs for their friends. Today, some 144,000 Sicilians get their salary from the state, and one in eight of them is the head of something or other. Many administrative offices are full of people who have no idea what they're supposed to be doing.
The mafia controls large parts of waste collection and the transport industry, trades in milk and cheese and builds roads under public contracts. The system of public tenders lends itself to all kinds of fraud. But it's not being changed. People who win a contract to build a section of motorway for €100 million sell it on for €90 million -- without lifting a finger. The buyers pass it on to a third company for €80 million. And so on. In the end, someone builds the actual road that should cost €100 million for just €10 million -- and the result looks correspondingly unsatisfactory.
A prime example of this is the A3 motorway from Salerno to the city of Reggio Calabria in southern Italy. Construction began in 1962, and almost every kilometer was built by a different firm. When the motorway was finally finished in 1974, there was -- surprise, surprise -- no emergency lane. After more than 20 years of debate, renovation work begain in 1997 and the A3 is now scheduled for completion in 2017. The estimated construction costs are 10 times greater than planned. There is no hint of national outrage or political consequences.Not all Italians are putting up with such commentary from the Germans (i.e., the ones left to pay the bill at the end of the night): Italy's disgraced former pornocrat, Silvio Berlusconi, is having his tabloids call the Germans Nazis, in between commenting unflatteringly on Chancellor Angela Merkel's appearance. (In Germany, you see, women politicians typically don't ascend to office from having worked as showgirls.) Perhaps he's hoping to reclaim an Italy kicked out of the EU as his personal fiefdom?
Meanwhile in France, a statue of former supermodel and First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has been installed in a Parisian suburb. The statue was commissioned before her husband, President Sarkozy was swept from power and disappeared from public view shortly after losing immunity from prosecution, and shortly before his home and two offices were raided by police:
The Sarkozys' decision to go to ground contrasts magnificently with the opulent lifestyle the once publicity obsessed pair showed off when they were in the Elysée Palace. Private jets with made-to-order bread stoves, daily fresh flower bills of more than €750, Vanity Fair cover shoots and even a CD release by the self-styled "rock chick" first lady were all part of a presidential package which so disgusted ordinary French people that they ended up replacing Sarkozy with the most overtly leftwing government for decades.
street financial sector finds its own uses for things psychopath profiling tests:
My companion, a senior UK investment banker and I, are discussing the most successful banking types we know and what makes them tick. I argue that they often conform to the characteristics displayed by social psychopaths. To my surprise, my friend agrees.
He then makes an astonishing confession: "At one major investment bank for which I worked, we used psychometric testing to recruit social psychopaths because their characteristics exactly suited them to senior corporate finance roles."
Here was one of the biggest investment banks in the world seeking psychopaths as recruits.
Dispatches from the American kleptocracy: In 2008 and 2009, the US Government distributed trillions of dollars in bank bailout funds. These funds were authorised as a matter of urgency to prevent the imminent collapse of the financial system and get the banks lending money to the little people again; the distribution was done in secrecy. Now, thanks to an act of Congress, the destinations of these funds have been revealed, and it's not pretty.
Among the beneficiaries of the US taxpayer's largesse: financial firms run by bank executives' wives, themselves having little financial experience to show other than having invested in racehorses, random billionaires with Cayman Islands addresses, funds for investing specifically in foreign countries, and carmakers in Germany and Japan. Oh, and a bank majority-owned by the Gaddafi regime. If you made this stuff up, nobody would believe it:
It is as though someone sat down and made a list of every individual on earth who actually did not need emergency financial assistance from the United States government, and then handed them the keys to the public treasure. The Fed sent billions in bailout aid to banks in places like Mexico, Bahrain and Bavaria, billions more to a spate of Japanese car companies, more than $2 trillion in loans each to Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, and billions more to a string of lesser millionaires and billionaires with Cayman Islands addresses. "Our jaws are literally dropping as we're reading this," says Warren Gunnels, an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. "Every one of these transactions is outrageous."
Cue your Billy Mays voice, because wait, there's more! A key aspect of TALF is that the Fed doles out the money through what are known as non-recourse loans. Essentially, this means that if you don't pay the Fed back, it's no big deal. The mechanism works like this: Hedge Fund Goon borrows, say, $100 million from the Fed to buy crappy loans, which are then transferred to the Fed as collateral. If Hedge Fund Goon decides not to repay that $100 million, the Fed simply keeps its pile of crappy securities and calls everything even.
And then there are the bailout deals that make no sense at all. Republicans go mad over spending on health care and school for Mexican illegals. So why aren't they flipping out over the $9.6 billion in loans the Fed made to the Central Bank of Mexico? How do we explain the $2.2 billion in loans that went to the Korea Development Bank, the biggest state bank of South Korea, whose sole purpose is to promote development in South Korea? And at a time when America is borrowing from the Middle East at interest rates of three percent, why did the Fed extend $35 billion in loans to the Arab Banking Corporation of Bahrain at interest rates as low as one quarter of one point?it's like the salad days of the Iraq occupation, only those in the loop don't need to actually fly to Baghdad to pick up a pallet or two of greenbacks. Of course, it's the long-suffering US taxpayer who's stuck holding the bill for this party, but they've been well trained to believe that it's their fault for having it too good for too long. (Isn't Calvinism, with its attendant self-loathing, a wonderful ideology for keeping the masses from rebelling?) So no, America can't afford a public health care system, or decent public schools, high-speed trains or non-crumbling bridges, because the cupboard's bare, and it's your fault. That money over there? Well, that's not yours, and you can't take it because that'd be socialism, and socialism is always absolutely wrong. So when they're given the choice of a 50% pay cut and unpaid overtime or losing their job, and are struggling to keep their homes from beign foreclosed, they flagellate themselves for having the temerity to have bought a PlayStation and a plasma screen, and then turn their rage on the trade unionists whom they see as trying to take their few crumbs of the pie.
Though at least America's luxury goods dealerships will survive another day.
Vanity Fair has a long but interesting article about the Irish financial crisis:
reland’s financial disaster shared some things with Iceland’s. It was created by the sort of men who ignore their wives’ suggestions that maybe they should stop and ask for directions, for instance. But while Icelandic males used foreign money to conquer foreign places—trophy companies in Britain, chunks of Scandinavia—the Irish male used foreign money to conquer Ireland. Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was to buy Ireland. From one another. An Irish economist named Morgan Kelly, whose estimates of Irish bank losses have been the most prescient, made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that puts the losses of all Irish banks at roughly 106 billion euros. (Think $10 trillion.) At the rate money currently flows into the Irish treasury, Irish bank losses alone would absorb every penny of Irish taxes for at least the next three years.
Yet when I arrived, in early November 2010, Irish politics had a frozen-in-time quality to it. In Iceland, the business-friendly conservative party had been quickly tossed out of power, and the women booted the alpha males out of the banks and government. (Iceland’s new prime minister is a lesbian.) In Greece the business-friendly conservative party was also given the heave-ho, and the new government is attempting to create a sense of collective purpose, or at any rate persuade the citizens to quit cheating on their taxes. (The new Greek prime minister is not merely upstanding, but barely Greek.) Ireland was the first European country to watch its entire banking system fail, and yet its business-friendly conservative party, Fianna Fáil (pronounced “Feena Foil”), would remain in office into 2011. There’s been no Tea Party movement, no Glenn Beck, no serious protests of any kind. The most obvious change in the country’s politics has been the role played by foreigners. The Irish government and Irish banks are crawling with American investment bankers and Australian management consultants and faceless Euro-officials, referred to inside the Department of Finance simply as “the Germans.” Walk the streets at night and, through restaurant windows, you see important-looking men in suits, dining alone, studying important-looking papers. In some new and strange way Dublin is now an occupied city: Hanoi, circa 1950. “The problem with Ireland is that you’re not allowed to work with Irish people anymore,” I was told by an Irish property developer, who was finding it difficult to escape the hundreds of millions of euros in debt he owed.
A few months after the spell was broken, the short-term parking-lot attendants at Dublin Airport noticed that their daily take had fallen. The lot appeared full; they couldn’t understand it. Then they noticed the cars never changed. They phoned the Dublin police, who in turn traced the cars to Polish construction workers, who had bought them with money borrowed from Irish banks. The migrant workers had ditched the cars and gone home. Rumor has it that a few months later the Bank of Ireland sent three collectors to Poland to see what they could get back, but they had no luck. The Poles were untraceable: but for their cars in the short-term parking lot, they might never have existed.
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One possible silver lining on the cloud of Ireland's economic woes: numerous pop-up art spaces are opening up in vacant properties in Dublin. Could the Irish capital become a Berlin-style hub of spontaneous creativity?
High demand for cocaine in Europe + high prices due to drug prohibition + global trade downturn resulting in glut of cheap cargo jets + Venezuela not cooperating with the War On Drugs = drug cartels buying jumbo jets, packing them with cocaine, flying them to Europe and then torching them, because it makes economic sense:
Fuel and pilots were paid for through wire transfers, suitcases filled with cash and, in one case, a bag containing €260,000 (£220,000) left at a hotel bar. The gang hired a Russian crew to move a newly acquired plane from Moldova to Romania, and then to Guinea.
The gang had access to a private airfield in Guinea, was considering buying its own airport and had sent a team to explore whether it could send direct flights from Bolivia to West Africa, Valencia Arbelaez said in recorded conversations.
A Welsh artist is recruiting people to stand outside Cardiff City Hall looking miserable tomorrow from 1pm to 2pm. Barrie Davies intends the "sulkathon" to "capture the mood of the moment".
A new book ("Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization", by strategic consultant John Robb) claims that the credit crunch and ongoing financial crisis will make Iraq/Mexico-style insurgency and terror a fact of life across the Western world:
The establishment of a predatory and deeply unstable global economic system - beyond the control of any group of nations - is in the process of gutting developed democracies. Think in terms of the 2008 crisis, over and over again. Most of what we consider normal in the developed world, from the middle class lifestyle to government social safety nets, will be nearly gone in less than a decade. Most developed governments will be in and out of financial insolvency. Democracy, as we knew it, will wither and the nation-state bureaucracy will increasingly become an enforcer for the global bond market and kleptocratic transnational corporations. Think Argentina, Greece, Spain, Iceland, etc. As a result, the legitimacy of the developed democracies will fade and the sense of betrayal will be pervasive (think in terms of the collapse of the Soviet Union). People will begin to shift their loyalties to any local group that can provide for their daily needs. Many of these groups will be crime fueled local insurgencies and militias. In short, the developed democracies will hollow out.The part about the bond market is probably true; for example, in Britain, no matter who came to power, they would have to make deep cuts to please bondholders, or otherwise the credit (and the electricity and the flow of beans from Africa and iPods from China) would stop. Whether this means merely Thatcherism 2.0, the end of the post-WW2 welfare state, or a collapse of state institutions to a dystopian kleptocracy as Robb suggests, remains to be seen.
[T]he problem is that Mexico is a hollow state. Unlike a failed state like Somalia (utter chaos), a hollow state still retains the facade of a nation (borders, bureaucracy, etc.). However, a hollow state doesn't exert any meaningful control over the countryside. It's not only that the state can't do it militarily, they don't have anything they can offer people. So, instead, control is ceded to local groups that can provide basic levels of opt-in security, minimal services, and jobs via new connections to the global economy - think in terms of La Familia in Michoacana...The real danger to the US is that not only will these groups expand into the US (they already have), it is that these groups will accelerate the development of similar homegrown groups in the US as our middle class evaporates.The commenters chime in, trying to pick holes in the guy's argument, but then again, it's the sort of argument you would really want to be wrong. If he is right, we can expect the collapse of the entire Maslow hierarchy of needs; people are going to be far too busy worrying about staying alive to even consider the idea of self-actualisation.
23% of voters in Iceland sign a petition against a deal to repay British and European savers in an Icelandic national bank, and surveys suggest that 70% of voters oppose the deal, believing it to impose crippling burdens on the struggling Icelandic economy.
In other news, the UK Foreign Office has denied that the aircraft carrier battlegroup headed towards Reykjavík has anything to do with the current issue, stating that it is on routine exercises.
Economically, things are pretty grim in Iceland. The country's beset by crippling debts, prices are rising and foreign currency is being rationed; public opinion has turned against the free-wheeling capitalists who caused the crisis, and support for joining the EU is dropping as EU members (particularly Britain and the Netherlands) hold Iceland's feet to the fire over bank debts.
However, there are plans to utilise Iceland's geographical advantages to make the country the world's server farm. It makes sense; server facilities use increasingly vast amounts of electricity, both for powering servers and cooling them. Iceland, however, has a cold climate (providing for natural cooling), and more electricity than it knows what to do with (thanks to geothermal energy), all generated with negligible carbon emissions, and is conveniently located in the middle of the North Atlantic, within easy reach of both North America and Europe.
Iceland has been busying itself laying fibre optic cables to connect the country with North America and Europe. The cables coming in provide a capacity of more than five terabits/sec - all with server farms in mind.
Travelling down this pipe, data sited in Iceland is just 17 milliseconds from London.
The Times has found another symptom of the credit crunch in the UK: a wave of offers to sell kidneys on the black market:
One person willing to sell a kidney is a 26-year-old mental health nurse who said he needed the money to pay debts after a business he set up went bankrupt. Another is a 43-year-old taxi driver from Lancashire, who wants to raise cash to pay off some of his mortgage and buy a new kitchen.
Offering to sell an organ in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is an offence under the Human Tissue Act even if the seller is planning to travel to another country for the transplant operation.
To figure out the current state and direction of the global economy, economists are turning to somewhat unusual indicators, such as the membership of extramarital infidelity websites and the price of prostitution in Latvia:
The Web site crunched its traffic and membership numbers and found that there was a big increase in both when there was a turning point in the FTSE-100 index, which measures the leading companies listed in London. When the market collapses, people plot affairs. And when the bulls rage, the same thing happens. When it is trading sideways, they stick with their partners.
“It has to do with people’s confidence levels,” says Rosie Freeman-Jones, a spokeswoman for the site. “When the markets are up, they think they can have an affair because they feel they can get away with anything. When the market hits the bottom, they are looking for a way to relieve the pressure.”And here is more information on the prostitution index, and why prostitution prices make a good economic indicator.
Anyway the problem is that most industries have contractual arrangements which fix prices. Wages are very hard to flex downwards. Rents are fixed over sustained periods and the like. All of this means that people go bust rather than reduce prices – simply because prices are sticky.
Well – most prices. The contractual terms of prostitution are short (an hour, a night) and entry to the industry is unconstrained. That means that the prices are very flexible. Extraordinarily flexible.
As the economic crisis bites, credit card companies are turning to advanced psychological techniques to manage their customers, using their purchasing records to develop detailed psychological models of their behaviour.
Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls — or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a “Mega Thruster Exhaust System” was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually.
Martin’s measurements were so precise that he could tell you the “riskiest” drinking establishment in Canada — Sharx Pool Bar in Montreal, where 47 percent of the patrons who used their Canadian Tire card missed four payments over 12 months. He could also tell you the “safest” products — premium birdseed and a device called a “snow roof rake” that homeowners use to remove high-up snowdrifts so they don’t fall on pedestrians.
By the time he publicized his findings, a small industry of math fanatics — many of them former credit-card executives — had started consulting for the major banks that issued cards, and they began using Martin’s findings and other research to build psychological profiles. Why did birdseed and snow-rake buyers pay off their debts? The answer, research indicated, was that those consumers felt a sense of responsibility toward the world, manifested in their spending on birds they didn’t own and pedestrians they might not know. Why were felt-pad buyers so upstanding? Because they wanted to protect their belongings, be they hardwood floors or credit scores. Why did chrome-skull owners skip out on their debts? “The person who buys a skull for their car, they are like people who go to a bar named Sharx,” Martin told me. “Would you give them a loan?”It's not only your purchasing record that's mined for psychological data, though:
Most of the major credit-card companies have set up systems to comb through cardholders’ data for signs that someone is going to stop making payments. Are cardholders suddenly logging in at 1 in the morning? It might signal sleeplessness due to anxiety. Are they using their cards for groceries? It might mean they are trying to conserve their cash. Have they started using their cards for therapy sessions? Do they call the card company in the middle of the day, when they should be at work? What do they say when a customer-service representative asks how they’re feeling? Are their sighs long or short? Do they respond better to a comforting or bullying tone?The card companies have, as you might imagine, a variety of uses for this data. On the blunter side of the spectrum, signs of potential unreliability (bills for dive bars or marriage counselling services, unusual login patterns) may trigger card companies to raise interest rates or start pushing more aggressively for repayment. More subtly, though, if your credit card company calls you to discuss your bill, the person talking to you will be trained in psychological techniques and will have on their screen a detailed psychological profile of you, all the better to elicit compliance:
Santana had actually already sought permission from the bank to settle for as little as $10,000. It’s an open secret that if a debtor is willing to wait long enough, he can probably get away with paying almost nothing, as long as he doesn’t mind hurting his credit score. So Santana knew he should jump at the offer. But as an amateur psychologist, Santana was eager to make his own diagnosis — and presumably boost his own commission.
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Santana told the man. Santana’s classes had focused on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a still-popular midcentury theory of human motivation. Santana had initially put this guy on the “love/belonging” level of Maslow’s hierarchy and built his pitch around his relationship with his ex-wife. But Santana was beginning to suspect that the debtor was actually in the “esteem” phase, where respect is a primary driver. So he switched tactics.
“You spent this money,” Santana said. “You made a promise. Now you have to decide what kind of a world you want to live in. Do you want to live around people who break their promises? How are you going to tell your friends or your kids that you can’t honor your word?”
The man mulled it over, and a few days later called back and said he’d pay $12,000.
“Boom, baby!” Santana shouted as he put down the phone. “It’s all about getting inside their heads and understanding what they need to hear,” he told me later. “It really feels great to know I’m helping people in pain.”Of course, another way to look at this was that, had the chump (who, according to the article, had recently been left by his wife) not offered to pay up extra, the friendly man from the card company would know exactly which buttons to push to kick them down further. Which is all very well (Personal Responsibility, after all, is What Made America Great, as any card-carrying Libertarian will tell you), other than the inherent asymmetry of going up against a huge organisation with frighteningly powerful intelligence-gathering abilities, and no interest in your welfare beyond what's required to maximise its profits.
In Britain, the government is making plans to let artists and community groups take over shops hollowed out by the recession, to sow the seeds of Berlin-style regeneration (which, for all its lack of respect for the sanctity of property rights, is a lot nicer than the alternative, urban wasteland):
Planning rules will be relaxed to allow changes of use which go against local guidelines. For example, a disused clothes shop could become an art gallery or an empty Woolworths an NHS drop-in centre.
Temporary lease agreements will enable owners who want to retain a vacant property in the long term to make it available for community or creative use during the recession. Councils will be urged to take control of empty properties until the recession ends.
"Empty shops can be eyesores or crime magnets," Blears said. "Our ideas for reviving town centres will give communities the knowhow to temporarily transform vacant premises into something innovative for the community - a social enterprise, a showroom for local artists or an information centre - and stop the high street being boarded up.Of course, as always, the devil is in the details. What exactly "relaxation of planning rules" involves is uncertain. As long as the shopfronts are used for community centres or art spaces and not, say, cut-rate toxic-waste processing facilities or something, that's a good idea.
Not all artists and activists are waiting for Her Majesty's Government to hand them the keys to a disused Woolworths, though; some have taken matters into their own hands:
The slack space movement has echoes in previous slumps when many now successful architects, magazine publishers and artists moved into vacant premises. There is certainly room for creativity again. One in six shops will be vacant by the end of the year, according to the data company Experian. It predicts that 72,000 retail outlets could close during 2009, more than doubling the number of empty units to 135,000 in the UK.Of course, some artists still haven't shaken off the language of Thatcherism-Blairism, and talk not of "community spaces" but of "business development". Art, you see, is a means to an economic end, and, even immediately after the recessionary shock, in Anglocapitalist cultures, there is the assumption that artists and squatters' role is merely that of the microbes in the soil of commerce, to prepare the ground for the next wave of aspirational consumerism, and hopefully make a few quid at the end of it:
"Rather than letting lots of pound shops appear, we are encouraging people to start up businesses," said Firmin. "We know recessions are awful but can be a good time for artists as creative ideas start appearing while otherwise redundant people are sitting at home fiddling and doing creative stuff."And here is a profile of various groups of artist-squatters, including the Da! Collective, notorious for outraging the tabloids by having the temerity to move into a disused mansion, rather than a warehouse or something more appropriate; not to mention a chronology of the history of squatting in Britain (and Europe).
Via Momus, who's, understandably, over the moon about this, hailing it as a triumph for the Berlin model (which, for a while, looked like it was going to be ground under the wheels of yuppification):
Since it's a global recession, I also like to think Berlin has now become a sort of template for cities all over the world. Whereas we might once have looked like a museum of crusty subcultures past their sell-by date, this city now looks like the future of Tokyo, the future of London, and the future of New York. We're your best-case scenario, guys, your optimal recessionary outcome. Everything else is dystopia, Escape-From-New-York stuff.
If the major cities of the world all become "Berlins", though, I can't guarantee I'd stay in the actual Berlin, the black flagship, the Big Squat itself. If Tokyo, for instance, got as cheap and cheerfully creative as Berlin -- if it became the kind of city you could simply occupy without having to scuttle around pointlessly making rent -- I'd be there in a flash. Secretly, what I'm doing here in Berlin is waiting for Tokyo to Berlinify.
Your humble correspondent is now back in London, having returned this evening from Iceland.
Iceland, you will be glad to know, seems to still be there. There is still a Reykjavík, and it's still a living city (except perhaps on public holidays, when everything closes). Hallgrimskirkja still stands tall, visible from across the city, though now it's covered in scaffolding. Laugavegur is still full of groovy cafés and bars (though fashion boutiques, apparently, have been closing down), and 12 Tónar still has an excellent selection of music, much of it by new Icelandic bands. Furthermore, the café culture leaves London in the dust, as does the quality of the coffee on offer. Alcohol is still more expensive than elsewhere in Europe, which still fails to deter the locals from consuming it enthusiastically. Outside of the capital, there are still spectacular fjords, glaciers, waterfalls and desolate landscapes.
Politically and economically, Iceland is undoubtedly in trouble, though not without hope. It looks like the conservatives, who have governed forever, will be ousted at the next election, with a Social Democratic/Leftist Green coalition likely to govern. Scandinavia is being cited as a model for governance. And while the prospect of Iceland joining the EU has been cited, it remains unpopular with the population, and looks likely to go to a referendum if it comes up. Meanwhile, the Icelandic people are developing a taste for protest and for rocking the boat in an uncharacteristic way. During a visit, I saw an empty building which had been taken over by squatters, who intended to set up a community centre. On Tuesday evening, the building was surrounded by activists, anxiously awaiting a police raid. (Squatting is uncommon in Iceland, and there is no concept of squatters' rights there.) Anyway, only time will tell what will happen.
Anyway, I have posted photos from my visit to Flickr; they can be found here.
I'm spending the Easter break in Iceland. I flew in to Keflavík last night. On the Icelandair flight, the attendants handed out copies of a free newspaper named Reykjavík Grapevine. This is a slim English-language weekly, which exists primarily to distribute event listings wrapped in a thin shell of articles and the obligatory ads for restaurants and tours. In the past, when Reykjavík was a capital of cool, it would have undoubtedly been buzzing with events and self-congratulatory pieces on the next big thing on the Reykjavík scene. Now, with the economic crisis, the tone is somewhat more muted and soul-searching; there's an article about the closure of an art space; next to it, in the print edition, is a column titled "Icelandic art makes me feel nothing at all". (On the facing page, meanwhile, is a full-page advertisement from the Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs on how to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections—which are open only to Icelandic nationals—written, perplexingly, in English and Polish.) Elsewhere, the opinions page contains pieces on anarchism and one titled "I'm Not Stupid!", railing against the torrent of recent blog articles describing Icelanders as "naïve", "immature", "over-confident" and "stupid".
Anyway, the Grapevine's feature article is its own piece on the genesis and collapse of the Icelandic economic crisis. Titled The End Of Neo-Liberal Neverland, it argues that Iceland was a testbed of radical Chicago-school economics, and/or a victim of what Naomi Klein calls the Shock Doctrine:
President Grímsson was not the first to mythologize Iceland's rapid implementation of global capitalism with Viking references. In the late 1970’s and early 80's, a handful of young men, members of the so-called Locomotive group [Eimreiðin], made themselves busy importing Milton Friedman's free market ideology. Davíð Oddsson was a prominent member of this group. He would later implement Friedman’s ideology as the Independence Party leader, Prime Minister (1991-2004) and, since 2005, chairperson of the Central Bank. Milton Friedman’s dogma is now well known: privatize, deregulate, then look away. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein has exposed to us how Friedman’s disciples went about doing this, by using the disorientation caused by traumatic events, such as natural catastrophes or economic depression, to push through programmes that otherwise would never have been democratically approved.
A lesser known proponent of ‘more radical capitalism’ is Milton Friedman’s son, the self-professed 'anarcho-capitalist' David Friedman. In 1979, Friedman jr. published an article entitled 'Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case'. The historical case in question is medieval Iceland, when law was not upheld by a state, but by individuals: “Medieval Icelandic institutions […] might almost have been invented by a mad economist to test the lengths to which market systems could supplant government in its most fundamental functions,” wrote the young Friedman. In such a society, he goes on, seats in parliament are a commodity and justice is upheld by the threat of thralldom as punishment for any offence. The Old Norse term ‘thralldom’ is a bit of an obscurity in modern English. Its modern Icelandic variant – Þrældómur – is transparent enough; it just means slavery.
Most of the country’s citizens live in debt but precise statistics are hard to find. Thatcher’s dictum ‘There is no such thing as society’ was taken very seriously by policy makers under Oddsson’s rule, and institutes that had the role of providing social data were disciplined and silenced, or simply shut down. When the National Economic Institute repeatedly published unsuitable information, Oddsson passed law through the Parliament to abolish the institute. That was in the late 1990’s. He then redirected the institute’s role to the Central Bank and years later appointed himself as Central Bank manager. This is why key figures, such as the international Gini index, meant to measure equality of wealth distribution, do not exist for Iceland.The article then asks how deep the rabbit hole goes; whether Iceland wasn't set up from the start:
Neoliberal Iceland was run as a secret conspiracy worthy of a James Bond screenplay: it was exchanged for gambling money in a plot involving Russian oligarchs, offshore accounts in the Caribbean, and luxury yachts no less kitschy than your average dictators’ – not to mention Elton John, Tina Turner and Duran Duran entertaining in private parties, and a lot of cocaine. Or so they say. Rumours abound, but no details, no facts: no single money transaction has been publicly verified. In Iceland, no businessperson, politician or civil servant has been charged with any crime.
The first revolutionary stroke in Iceland’s history re-established the possibility of meaning. Just that. Then everything is left unsaid and undone. How far back do the lies reach? Was Iceland rigged up to feed the US army? It may not be much harder to forge a national identity than decorating a Pizza Hut: one Nobel Prize here, Viking myths there, put a ‘The world’s oldest democracy’-plaque on the wall ….
We have every reason to fear that they and other representatives of global market interests will want to use this opportunity for a full-scale Friedmanite Shock Doctrine. Already in early October, right-wing forces tried to create consensus on the dogmatic “Now nothing can be holy”, i.e. now is the time for environmentalists, feminists and socialists to shut up and let business do its business. Venture capitalists have made bids at the state’s total real estate. It’s Don Corleone’s world, full of ‘offers they can’t refuse’. We know little about the IMF’s agreement with Icelandic authorities, only that they promised each other to suspend the full force of the collapse until 2010. It’s a gluey sort of Apocalypse. 8000 of the country’s 300 thousand inhabitants are currently studying business and finance, acting as if nothing happened. Everyone still acts as if money has a function and basically every trick in the hysteric’s toolbox is currently applied to hide the fact that there is no way back. Tomorrow may be capitalist, but tomorrow’s capitalism would be a dystopian remix of Fukuyama’s universe, without any pretences towards freedom.
As the economic crisis drags on, sales of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" have been skyrocketing, at one point overtaking Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope:
Atlas Shrugged tends to inspire either cult-like devotion or sarcastic mockery in readers, who are either thrilled or appalled by Rand's vision of a world in which the "men of the mind" - inventors, entrepreneurs and industrialists - withdraw their labour from a society intent on bleeding them dry with taxes and regulations.
Starved of their genius, society collapses and wars break out until eventually bureaucrats are forced to beg the rebels' leader, John Galt, to take over the economy.Some are even talking about Barack Obama's "socialistic" bailout of the economy sparking off an Atlas Shrugged-inspired revolt among appalled greedheads:
Obama's frequently expressed view that the crisis demands that all Americans make sacrifices - and that those earning the most will need to "chip in a little more" - would have disgusted Rand, who believed that altruism was evil.
In cities around the US, conservative activists have been organising street protests known as "tea parties", inspired by the CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli, who in a high-profile rant last month called for direct action by taxpayers in the manner of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, the anti-British protest that helped trigger the American revolution.
But sceptics have described the threats of Galt-style tax boycotts as the rightwing equivalent of "moving to Canada".I imagine the scammers who sell the greedy and gullible fraudulent advice on why income taxes are actually illegal and they're entitled to not pay them (typically it derives from something like the flag in US courtrooms having the wrong fringe, rendering the authority of the courts null and void, or similarly kooky arcana) will make a mint from the New Randroids, as they did from the militia types in the 1990s.
Ayn Rand, though, is not the only contentious thinker to be making a comeback in the Great Recession: on the other side, Karl Marx' stock has also been rising recently.
Iceland may join the EU by 2011. The once fiercely independent Iceland had in the past rejected the idea of surrendering its independence, though with its economy bankrupt, it may have no choice; meanwhile, the EU's senior diplomats, as well as the Czech and Swedish governments (who hold the current and next EU presidencies) are in favour of Iceland joining, and preparing to accelerate its accession. Of course, not everyone's keen on this; Iceland's fishing industry, for example, doesn't look forward to sharing its national waters with fleets from across the EU.
There is also talk of Iceland adopting the euro, and abandoning its distinctive krona coins (which, instead of heads of state, historical figures or monuments, have fish on them), though this will take longer because of constraints on membership of the euro.
Read: Another Day At The Office, a fine and topical short piece of dystopian sadofuturism by Nile Heffernan:
Work enough weekends under constant threat of downsizing, maybe any of us would look like that. Maybe.
Get downsized enough times, then one last time in a world where white-collar work is over, and maybe you'll look like the woman in the next cubicle across. Which is to say: crying silently and either not knowing or caring and just carrying on. And the next cubicle, and the next: scuffed and fading grey partitions repeating like an exercise in perspective, straight lines along and across the concrete floor of a factory that hasn't had machinery for thirty years: closed and cleared in the last recession, or maybe the one before that.
Look closer and there's no lamps or work lights in the cubes. None. Four of them - the corner offices - are lit by the blue flicker of a monitor. The rest are not: these people are 'working' in front of dead screens, tapping away on keyboards that may or may not be plugged into the silent metal boxes underneath the desk.
Some of the 'monitors' are cardboard boxes, sideways-on.
People have been shot for coffee: it's the currency of choice for criminals, and we don't touch it. Our trade is bread-and-butter materials recovery, digging through the garbage and extracting lead for roofing, paper and cardboard for compression into pellets; these bulk commodities, like the gas and water, are the currency for a regular supply of food and nowadays some biodiesel. Higher-value items - tools and wheel-bearings and plastic sheeting - are tradeable for spares and welding gas but it's slow: we have a network and a market, but bartering depends on luck - without a formal currency, you have to have the thing they want, and they have to have the thing we want, both in the same place at the same time. It's frustrating and it isn't getting any better.
I have absolutely no idea who's supplying food to the 'Office Workers', or why; Médecins Sans Frontières provides a monthly clinic on the local round but there's no way they can be supplying all those people with antidepressants or tranquillisers... Is there? We supply the gas and water because the doctor's round will stop if we can't keep up a 'population centre'.
The Independent reports from Iceland, formerly the happiest country in Europe, now economically bankrupt, and its government having resigned today:
There is no word from the government yet on how it plans to repair the damage. What does that mean for the man on the streets of a country whose coffers are empty? Are we talking soup kitchens, sheltered housing and begging on street corners? Far from it. If you're as comfortable as Iceland was, the rot has its work cut out before it emerges on the surface.
On Friday morning, human rights campaigner and protest organiser Hordur Torfason told a chilling anecdote to illustrate the desperation many Icelanders are feeling. He had received a phone call from a man who said that four generations of his family had lost everything. "He wanted me to help them build a gallows in front of the parliament building," says Torfason. "I asked him if this was to have some symbolic significance. 'No,' came the answer. 'A member of my family wants to hang himself in public.'"
The seas are full of fish, geothermal energy and natural gas are abundant. Oil prospecting is beginning. But there is a risk that Iceland will give its riches away in a fire sale to the same Vikings who have already half-sunk the nation once.Meanwhile, even though a large part of Iceland's economic collapse could arguably be attributed to Britain hastily freezing Icelandic assets under anti-terrorism legislation, Icelanders have managed to donate jumpers, socks and blankets to the freezing pensioners of the northern English city of Hull.
A photo gallery of masses of unsold cars around the world, building up in parking lots, docks and racetracks as the economic crisis bites. These images have a sort of Koyaanisqatsi-esque beauty to them.
Having seen their previous bets turned into a spectacular wipeout, some hedge-fund managers are now betting on the total collapse of civilisation:
In his book Wealth, War, published last year, former Morgan Stanley chief global strategist Barton Biggs advised people to prepare for the possibility of a total breakdown of civil society. A senior analyst whose reports are read at hedge funds all over the city wrote just before Christmas that some of his clients are “so bearish they’ve purchased firearms and safes and are stocking their pantries with soups and canned foods.” This fear is very much reflected in the market—prices of corporate bonds have been so beaten down at various points that they suggest a higher default rate than during the Great Depression. Meanwhile, while the overall gold market has fluctuated, the premium for quarter-ounce gold coins—meaning the difference between the price for gold you can hold in your hand and that for “paper gold,” such as exchange-traded funds—rose to an all-time high of 20 percent. “Gold is transportable, it’s 100 percent liquid, and it’s perfectly divisible in the context of ounces, bars, or coins,” says the head of a California research firm who keeps a supply of it, along with food, water, and guns, on hand. “And most important, there’s no counterparty”—i.e., it’s an investment beholden to no one, and perhaps one of the few assets that will retain value if the financial system collapses.
While it may look like these Wall Streeters are betting on such a collapse, their embrace of survivalism is an outgrowth of their professional habits of mind: Having observed the economy’s shaky high-wire act from their ringside seats, they are trying to manage their risk and “hedge” against a potential fall. “It’s like insurance,” says an investor who has stockpiled MREs and a hand-cranked radio. “And by the time you need it, it’s way too late.” Leave it for others to weep for the collapse of the social order. These guys would prefer to be in a high-speed boat or ex-military vehicle, heading off toward their fully provisioned compounds in pursuit of the ultimate goal: to win the chaos.I wonder how many of these Wall Street supersharks would be able to translate their killer instincts to being effective post-apocalyptic warlords, or whether most of them would end up as mincemeat when the first killer caravan rolls through their survivalist homestead. I also wonder how long until "Post-Apocalyptic Warlordship for Dummies" replaces "Flipping Houses for Dummies" in the Business sections of bookshops.
LiveJournal sacks almost its entire US workforce, including all US-based engineers, leaving only a few financial and support staff. Panic ensues, with perverts worldwide stocking up on emergency supplies of Harry Potter slash fiction in case it disappears.
Chances are, the obligatory jokes about disturbing online subcultures aside, LiveJournal won't disappear overnight. For one, the cuts are in the US office, and LiveJournal is now Russian-owned, and is much bigger in Russia (in America, the typical LiveJournal user is a thirtysomething goth-scene veteran with an IT job, whereas in Russia, it's a mainstream media site). Given that most of the money and ad revenue come from the Russian operation, it presumably won't cost them much to keep running an English-localised rump site on the same servers.
In any case, I hope LiveJournal survives, because it has one thing none of the other sites have: no, not Harry Potter slash fiction; fine-grained social-network-based access control, i.e., the means to specify that posts are not just friends-only but only accessible to a subset of friends. Which might sound like a symptom of some kind of geek social neurosis, but is actually useful. (Consider, for example, a Facebook friends list, containing everyone from coworkers to family members to people you met at a party or festival; as on Facebook, you can't control who can read a posted item (it's all your friends or no-one), there are a lot of things you cannot or should not post; from boasting about faking illness to planning surprise parties for contacts, to discussing personal situations, so your Facebook stream becomes a stream of lowest-common-denominator banalities.) Something with Facebook-level usability and LiveJournal-level access control would actually be useful; maybe once the world emerges from the New Depression, someone will write something like that?
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Texan Cyberpunk sci-fi author turned father of the Viridian pro-green design/technology movement turned Belgrade-based design theorist Bruce Sterling gives his annual state-of-the-world address to the Inkwell forum. It's focussed mostly on the economic cataclysm in progress, and it's full of the sorts of apposite powder-dry black humour you'd expect from him:
Do we HAVE to talk about the economy this year? I'm wondering what conceivable event could overshadow the fiscal crisis. Maybe a cozy little nuclear war? An Indo-Pakistani nuclear war might conceivably take a *back page* to the fiscal crisis.
I'm a bohemian type, so I could scarcely be bothered to do anything "financially sound" in my entire adult life. Last year was the first year when I've felt genuinely sorry for responsible, well-to-do people. Suddenly they've got the precariousness of creatives, of the underclass, without that gleeful experience of decades spent living-it-up.
If the straights were not "prone to hostility" before that experience, they might well be so after it, because they've got a new host of excellent reasons. The sheer galling come-down of watching the Bottom Line, the Almighty Dollar, revealed as a papier-mache pinata. It's like somebody burned their church.After indulging in terriblisma for a while, Sterling turns his attention to Dmitry Orlov's prediction of the US disintegrating, and ideas for a "new localism" that might arise in the event of catastrophic collapse:
In any case, after eight glum years of watching Bush and his neocons methodically wreck the Republic, both Kunstler and Robb have gotten really big on American localism -- "resilient" localism. Kunstler has this painterly, small-town-America, Thoreauvian thing going on, kinda locavore voluntary simplicity, with lots of time for... I dunno, group chorale singing. Kunstler seems kinda hung up on the singing effort, somehow... Whereas Robb has a military background and is more into a gated-community, bug-out-bag, militia rapid-response thing.
Certainly neither of these American visions look anything like what happened to Russia. As Orlov accurately points out, in the Russian collapse, if you were on a farm or in some small neighborly town, you were toast. The hustlers in the cities were the ones with inventive opportunities, so they were the ones getting by.
So the model polity for local urban resilience isn't Russia. I'm inclined to think the model there is Italy. Italy has had calamitous Bush-levels of national incompetence during almost its entire 150-year national existence.Meanwhile, Clay Shirky gives his predictions for 2009. Whether or not we're all toast, a lot of the old media, such as newspapers, seem to be:
The great misfortune of newspapers in this era is that they were such a good idea for such a long time that people felt the newspaper business model was part of a deep truth about the world, rather than just the way things happened to be. It's like the fall of communism, where a lot of the eastern European satellite states had an easier time because there were still people alive who remembered life before the Soviet Union - nobody in Russia remembered it. Newspaper people are like Russians, in a way.
Why pay for it at all? The steady loss of advertising revenue, accelerated by the recession, has normalised the idea that it's acceptable to move to the web. Even if we have the shallowest recession and advertising comes back as it inevitably does, more of it will go to the web. I think that's it for newspapers. What we saw happen to the Christian Science Monitor [the international paper shifted its daily news operation online] is going to happen three or four dozen times (globally) in the next year. The 500-year-old accident of economics occasioned by the printing press - high upfront cost and filtering happening at the source of publication - is over. But will the New York Times still exist on paper? Of course, because people will hit the print button.Shirky's not one for terriblisma, so not much about social collapse, cannibalism or killer caravans marauding the post-apocalyptic landscape there. For that, you'll have to read Charlie Brooker's column:
Dim your lights. Here's the highlights reel. The worst recession in 60 years. Broken windows and artless graffiti. Howling winds blowing empty cans past boarded-up shopfronts. Feral children eating sloppy handfuls of decomposed-pigeon-and-baked-bean mulch scraped from the bottom of dustbins in a desperate bid to survive. The pound worth less than the acorn. The City worth less than the pound. Your house worth so little it'll collapse out of shame, crushing you in your bed. Not that you'll die peacefully in your sleep - no, you'll be wide awake with fear, worrying about the situation in the Middle East at the precise moment a chunk of ceiling plaster the size of a flagstone tumbles from on high to flatten your skull like a biscuit under a shoe, sending your brain twizzling out of your earholes like pink-grey toothpaste squeezed from a tube. All those language skills and precious memories splattered over your pillows. It'll ruin the bedclothes. And instead of buying expensive new ones, your grieving, impoverished relatives will have to handwash those bedclothes in cold water for six hours to shift the most upsetting stains before passing them down to your orphaned offspring, who are fated to sleep on them in a disused underground station for the rest of their lives, shivering in the dark as they hear bombs dipped in bird flu dropping on the shattered remains of the desiccated city above.
The US subprime crisis, and the wave of foreclosures and evictions which ensued, left a ticking timebomb: countless thousands of abandoned swimming pools; ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes. But not to worry: help is at hand, in the form of armies of underground skateboarders who find abandoned pools, drain them and skate in them:
Some skateboarders use realty tracking sites like realquest.com and realtor.com to find foreclosed houses with pools, while others trawl through satellite images from Google Earth. On the Web site skateandannoy.com, where skaters trade tips about how to find and drain abandoned pools, one poster wrote about the current economic malaise. “God bless Greenspan,” the post read, “patron saint of pool skatin’.”
Mr. Peacock travels around town in his pickup searching for the addresses of homes he has learned have been foreclosed on, either via the Internet or from a friend who works in real estate. He has also learned to spot a foreclosed house, he said, by looking for “dead grass on the lawn and lockboxes on the front door.”
Dmitry Orlov, an engineer who watched the collapse of the Soviet Union, argues that the United States is in the process of collapse. In Orlov's model, collapse is divided into five stages: financial, commercial, political, social and cultural. The first one is currently happening, and the other two are guaranteed to follow; as for cultural collapse, that happened a long time ago, but people were to narcotised by consumerism to notice. And things look set to get very, very dire indeed:
Commercial collapse, when it arrives, will again cause much more of a psychological crack-up than you'd expect from a purely organizational problem. The quantities of immediately available goods and services right before and right after the collapse would remain about the same, but because market psychology is so ingrained in the population, no other ways of coping would be considered. Hoarding would become widespread, with looting as the obvious antidote. There would be an instant, huge black market for all sorts of necessities, from shampoo to vials of insulin.
Another telltale sign of political collapse is actual disintegration, where regions declare independence. In Russia, that was the case with Chechnya, and it led to a prolonged bloody conflict. Here, we might have a "Reconquista" where former Mexican territories become ever more Mexican, the South might rise again. New England, California, and the Pacific Northwest might decide to go their separate ways. Once the interstate highway system is no longer viable and the remaining domestic airlines are extinct, there is not much to keep the two coasts together. What once united the country was the construction of the continental railroad, but railroads have been too neglected to hold it together now. A country consisting of two halves tied together via Panama Canal is de facto at least two countries.
Financial collapse is already quite far along, and is guaranteed to run its course. Bailouts can make insolvent institutions look solvent for a time by providing liquidity, but one thing they cannot provide is solvency. For instance, no matter how much we bail out the auto companies, making any more cars will still be a bad idea. Similarly, no matter how much money we give to banks, their loan portfolios, loaded down with houses built in places that are inaccessible except by car, will still end up being worthless. By continuously nationalizing bad debt, the country will make itself into a bad credit risk, and foreign lenders will walk away. Hyperinflation and loss of imports will follow.
Political collapse is guaranteed as well. As tax receipts dwindle, municipalities and states will no longer be able to meet the minimal maintenance requirements for existing infrastructure: roads, bridges, water and sewer mains, and so forth. Municipal services, including police, fire departments, snow removal and garbage collection, will also be curtailed or eliminated. The better-organized communities may be able to find ways to compensate, but many communities will become impassable and uninhabitable, generating a flood of internal refugees.
The Times' Giles Coren (who's sort of like a more highbrow Jeremy Clarkson or something) has a terrific rant against the whole notion that, in times of economic hardship, what we need is low-brow escapism:
Escapism is an illusion. Escapism is what has got us into this mess. Buying on credit, from the tiddliest MasterCard lunch you couldn't really afford to billion-dollar leveraged buyouts, is, when you boil it down, just escapism - avoiding any sort of engagement with objective reality and doing something just because it feels good at the time. Like a child might do. Or a monkey.
If you had at least read a bit of Tolstoy, you might have expanded your mind a little. If, instead of watching all those reality shows, you had learnt Japanese, you would be in a better position to remain in work. And if, rather than calling radio phone-ins to say that Len Goodman is a spoilsport, you had learnt the French horn, you would, if nothing else, be able to play your children a bit of Mozart while they sit shivering round the last candle in the house.
I cannot tell you how furious I am with these people who seem to think they should be given back the money they spent on voting for John Sergeant. Anyone to whom a single pound represents a significant, useful quantity of money, and who spent it on a celebrity game show vote, should have his or her assets frozen immediately - under the counter-terrorism laws if need be. Their children should be taken into care. And they should have their credit cards melted and moulded into a stick with which they should be flogged until they bleed.
It was the fat years that made us lazy, dumbed us down, replaced great television with a series of reality shows and killed literature to make room for celebrity whingeing and kiddy books repackaged for adults. It is no coincidence that the publication cycle of Harry Potter, from the first book to the seventh, marked almost exactly the years of economic growth. It is a fat, lazy race that turns its brain off as a prelude to cultural engagement.The original article was a response to a "scandal" to do with the voting on a BBC celebrity dancing programme, which came a few weeks after the BBC was involved in another scandal, to do with Russell Brand (a supposed comedian whose shtick seems to be "I'm a wild and crazy guy who thinks with his balls") leaving obscene messages on Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs' answering machine. Which does bring to mind the question of why is the BBC spending licence-payers' funds on putting out such drivel. Has the commercial media somehow failed at providing viewers with lowbrow junk food for the eyes, a failure which requires the intervention of an institution such as the BBC? Are its lofty Reithian principles of broadcasting as something to educate and elevate seen as too stodgy or snobbish or out of touch with the new democracy of the lowest common denominator? Has neo-Thatcherite everything-is-a-market fundamentalism and New Labour's image-driven culture redefined the BBC's mission in terms of competing for eyeballs with the Murdochs and lad mags in an orgy of sensationalism? Is there a secret compact between New Labour and News Corp. to let the public down gently, transforming a cherished and lofty institution through gradual neglect into just another peddler of celebrity scandal, so that the formerly unthinkable step of selling it off comes, the public, voting with their pocketbooks, will be all for it?
The most serious casualty of the economic crisis has been Iceland. Only five months ago it was hailed as a success story, with its balance of a strong economy, mass affluence and a Scandinavian work-life balance and, apparently, the happiest people on earth. Now the good times are over; Iceland's economy has been devastated by the credit crunch/subprime crisis/opening phases of World Depression 2, banks have collapsed (some of them taking vast amounts of British savings with them), and the nation teeters on the verge of "national bankruptcy".
Some people are calling for Iceland to swallow its pride and join the EU, adopting the Euro. Also, the Icelandic government is reportedly negotiating with Russia for a huge multi-billion-Euro loan to stave off economic collapse. If this takes place, it will be interesting to see what place an Iceland massively indebted to Russia takes on the world stage. For one, will the US air base at Keflavík airport (which has been there since World War 2, generally lukewarmly tolerated) be given its marching orders? (If the Russians are willing to spend big to move it out, I suspect the US would have more pressing concerns on its mind at the moment.) Also, Russia is one of the nations competing for sovereignty over vast (and possibly mineral-rich) stretches of the Arctic; having allies near the Arctic Circle could prove useful to them.
There have been some unexpected upsides to the crisis, though; Iceland's tourist industry is booming, as the formerly unaffordable krona has plummeted. This has also reduced Iceland's notoriously high alcohol prices, making Reykjavík a destination for stag parties and the sort of chavvish tourism the old cities of Eastern Europe have been complaining about. The Icelanders are, as one might expect, also going out, getting drunk and partying like there's no tomorrow. Or like tomorrow will be a lot less fun.
The credit crunch has produced a new boom industry: spray-painting the dying lawns of empty, reposessed houses green, to increase the chances of selling them.
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