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Greece, debt default and ‘moral hazard’

January 27, 2015

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A few very quick words on this, as I have had this conversation many times and it seems sensible to pin it down. Do not expect subtlety – this isn’t an essay.

Hysteria over a Greek default, restructuring, haircut – whatever you want to call it – is in part manufactured and in part stoked by ignorant and sensationalist media. We’ve been told several times over the last few years that the world is about to stop turning. It hasn’t and won’t. Such alarmism is deeply unhelpful and entirely counterproductive. We really shouldn’t feed that particular beast.

Debt default, restructuring or partial write-off (a haircut) is, of course, not a good thing. But neither is it the end of the world. It is completely part and parcel of lending. It is explicitly expressed in the rate of interest. The reason entity A can borrow at 5% while entity B can only borrow at 20% is because B is seen as much more likely to default than A. That is how it works. So, let us not act like it is some unprecedented act of economic vandalism. It isn’t.

Then there is the issue of ‘moral hazard’ – the idea that if entities can take risks with no consequences this would act as incentive for more reckless risk-taking. This is a massive red herring in the Greek context. The idea that anybody might look at what has happened in Greece in the last six years and think “yeah, I’ll have me a bit of that, let’s borrow lots of money” is manifestly ludicrous. The consequences have been dramatic. Greece is, if anything, a cautionary tale on unbalanced budgets, however the remaining debt payments are now handled.

So, let’s keep a cool head and not propagate tabloid-style analysis full of chewing-gum terms, simply because it sounds good and gives a boring moment in our lives a little frisson.

Love. Peace.

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Some very preliminary observations on the Greek election

January 25, 2015

Here are some scattered and very preliminary observations on what looks, from exit polls, will be a very convincing victory by Syriza (which may or may not fall just short of an absolute majority).

Obviously, not all of this (or any of it) is universally applicable.

1. The centre-left vote turned out to be very susceptible to collapse when challenged from the left. Pasok has gone from largest party a few years ago to barely making it into parliament. From 44% in 2009 to 4.4% today. Syriza from non-existent to government. (UK Labour, beware. The Greens are coming to get you.)

2. Negative campaigning only works when it is reciprocated. If one side is left to predict doom and the other concentrates on its own message, the negative campaigner ends up sounding hysterical and the campaign feels like blackmail. (Again, lessons for UK.)

3. We need to stop fooling ourselves as to the number of bigots who exist in our societies. We made so many excuses for Golden Dawn voters: “They don’t fully understand. They’re just frightened. They’re voting out of protest. The dog ate their homework.” Many of Golden Dawn’s MPs are now in jail, charged with violent crimes. Raids on their homes uncovered swastika flags and nazi memorabilia. You’d have to have lived at the bottom of the sea to not know this. People voted for them in similar numbers as last election.

4. There are limits to the Shock Doctrine. YA GOTTA LEAVE THE PLEBS WITH A LITTLE SOMETHING TO LOSE. Otherwise you lose.

5. The EU is not The Troika. The EU is not Angela Merkel. If either Troika or Merkel act as if they speak for all member states, others will start to worry. While it is fair for membership of the Eurozone to come with rules, they have to be rules as to result, not method. You can demand a balanced budget. You cannot demand low taxation and private health. That bit is up to each country, not Angela.

6. There is only one prospect more terrifying to the global hegemony than Syriza failing. And that is Syriza succeeding. It is time for the European left to unite and lend its support to Greece. With elections coming in several EU states in the next year, this can have a very dramatic effect on how Greece is treated now. “First they came for the Greeks and I said nothing…” sort of thing.

7. It is possible to be pro-EU and still want to punch its current monetarist policies in the face. The EU as a project is very worthwhile. It has been captured by the very same interests that have captured national governments. The level at which the IMF dictates policy is irrelevant as to the democratic deficit. One might even claim that fragmented state governments are even easier to bully. We need to fight for the Europe we want. The idea that what stands between each of us and a life of prosperity is a hypothetical Romanian cleaner is the most ludicrous one we have ever bought so wholesale. Reject it.

More tomorrow. Or later. Or both.

Some thoughts from Greece, before I enter the polling booth

January 25, 2015

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I have no problem with people voting self-centredly. It is how it works. If you and your kids have food on your plate and a roof over your heads, you should protect that by voting for an option you deem safer. Fine. I have no problem with that. But to somehow elevate your choice to the status of the only moral or sane one and diminish the choices of people who have nothing as stupid, is intellectually dishonest. You choose who you think is best for your kids and others will do the same. Accept this may not be one and the same.

Honestly, the only promise Alexis Tsipras has made that matters to me is that he will try and give “dignity back to everyone”. Of course, he cannot deliver that. Only we can deliver that for ourselves. But even mention of that word – “dignity” – in a political context is striking to me. It is hugely refreshing to have someone speaking that sort of language, instead of the Thatcherite dogma that has destroyed entire countries. A system which collapsed globally and spectacularly only a few years ago. A system which eschews taxation but required unprecedented bail outs from taxation. A system which, somehow, has now gone back to being considered infallible, supreme and self-correcting. To me voting for that is irrational and trying something different, however risky makes sense.

Dignity may be an abstract concept, but its complete absence is a very real and practical thing. Go outside a central Athens supermarket at closing time, to see elderly women, dressed in black, rummaging through the bins for food. Meanwhile the wicked accountant we have for Prime Minister boasts of a surplus.

“I won’t be a sponsor” said to me someone planning to vote for the New Democracy party. A sponsor? A sponsor for whom? Let’s be specific. Are you a sponsor for my mother, for instance? She and her generation built every, tiny particle of the country on which you stand, after a devastating occupation and civil war. She worked two jobs (sometimes three) for over 45 years and raised three kids in the process. Paid every penny in tax, and bought every IKA social security stamp. She invested in the system which promised her dignity in her old age. She now has Alzheimer’s, no medical provision whatsoever and a pension of €400 per month. Are you her sponsor? Or is she maybe yours?

I have played this game too many times. I offer specific policy X, you shoot it down on a practical point and vice versa, so let’s not. I think everyone understands the general debate instinctively. We will either, as a country, continent and planet, put life ahead of money or not. Either the markets, currency, trade, business, state are in the service of utility, of making life better for as many as possible, or utility is secondary (to something – what?). In my view, we have slipped to that latter state. We anthropomorphise the abstract on the news – “markets are sceptical”, “markets are nervous”, “markets are angry” – and offer human sacrifice to the volcano. Free market fundamentalism with a religiosity as extreme as any caliphate.

To me Syriza is part political choice, part resistance movement. I am fully aware they will probably fail – everyone and everything is against them. But this is about putting down a marker and saying “No more. Currency, Markets, the EU, Government – they are all tools in our service; not the other way around.” Ultimately, this is just one battle in a much larger war. This attempt might be unsuccessful, but (judging by the panic emanating from the Troika) the message has been received loud and clear.

Vote for whomever you deem the right longterm choice for you and your loved ones. Vote bravely. Most of all, vote.

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UPDATE: 9:43am

“That was quick!”, said the man guarding the ballot box.

“Well, very few choices and very clear ones”, said the lady crossing names off the register, as she handed me my identity card.

I smile, inscrutably, and say “Καλημέρα σας”. I step outside the school, into the morning petrichor. The island seems brighter, cleaner, after the night’s deluge.

What a day.

The debate about the debates

January 20, 2015

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Everyone is sagely offering reasons why this or that party can’t or shouldn’t participate, as if we have done these debates for centuries, always exactly so. We haven’t. We only had the first ones in 2010 and the political landscape has changed significantly. So, since we are making it up as we go along, why not make it inclusive, diverse and interesting?

At the very least we must keep the criteria internally consistent. There is not a formula which could yield the result of Conservatives and Labour in three debates, LibDems in two and Ukip in one, with all others excluded. Not a single logical formula. I have read both the watchdog’s recommendation and the BBC’s leaked draft coverage proposal. They are, frankly, bunkum.

If we go by the last election result, Ukip shouldn’t be included. If we go by number of MPs several other parties should be. The DUP has the fourth highest number of MPs currently. If we go by poll popularity, the LibDems should not be anywhere near two debates and the SNP certainly should be. If we go by the last European Elections, then the Greens should be in. The current composition smacks of dodgy, reverse-engineered sophistry, used to justify a result already predetermined by some grey man who evidently knows what we need to see.

On top of everything, this questionable methodology has ended up excluding all female, all non-English leaders. As a matter of fact, the debates will take place entirely among white, straight, rich, well-off, middle-aged, English blokes, from a tiny area in the South East.

Nor do I have any time for this “not a national party” nonsense. No parties stand in every constituency in the UK – none. We assume that a party which only stands in one nation has nothing to offer to the political debate. We spent the last year being told how valuable the UK’s constituent nations are and how they make us the great nation that we are (whatever, but different blog). What if one of the major parties has to enter a coalition with Plaid and/or SNP after the election – would it not be useful for the electorate to get to know them?

There are no hard and fast rules. We are making this up and the conventions we establish are important. Let’s be inclusive in our national debate. Let’s not complain about stale politics, then do our very best to keep it stale.

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Tolerance

January 20, 2015

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What is tolerance? It seems to be something we all think we have amply in general, but rarely when it comes to specifics. We all like to think we are tolerant, but happily confess we can’t stand X, Y and Z. “We pride ourselves in being a tolerant society”, dither faceless leaders, while introducing legislation to victimise this group or that.

It is a quality I hear much about, in Britain especially. But I have to tell you, social awkwardness so crippling it ensures aggression is repressed is not tolerance. Bitching about each other quietly, in an interminable private internal monologue, isn’t tolerance. It’s just dysfunctional bigotry.

In any case, what sort of goal is “tolerance”? I don’t want to live in a society where we merely tolerate each other. What a mean little abstract noun to aim for. Understanding, compassion, support , love, grace, generosity – apparently, they’re just too lofty. The most we can hope to leave behind now is a sort of passive-aggression, masquerading as forbearance. My generation’s legacy.

Can we hurry up with Humanity v.2.0 please?

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Growing Art

January 12, 2015

Today, I was reminded of the work of Jason deCaires Taylor, which I find deeply touching. He makes sculptures – really quite beautiful, technically accomplished and thought-provoking – which he then plunges into the sea and plants with living coral. He allows the work to grow and photographs it. The results are quite haunting.

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Jason deCaires Taylor (born 12 August 1974) is an English sculptor specialising in the creation of contemporary underwater sculptures which over time develop into artificial coral reefs. Taylor integrates his skills as a conservationist, underwater photographer and scuba diving instructor to produce unique installations that encourage the habitation and growth of corals and marine life. His early work includes Vicissitudes, Grace Reef, The Lost Correspondent and The Unstill Life. All are located in the world´s first public underwater sculpture park in Molinere Bay, Grenada, West Indies, commissioned in 2006. More recently his most ambitious project to date is the creation of the world’s largest underwater sculpture museum, MUSA, situated off the coast of Cancun and the western coast of Isla Mujeres. Works in the museum include Hombre en llamas (Man on Fire ), La Jardinera de la Esperanza (The Gardener of Hope), El Colecionista de los Sueños (The Dream Collector) and La Evolución Silenciosa (The Silent Evolution).

His website can be found here.

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The Most Radical Thing You Can Be Is Moderate

January 11, 2015

Many commentators have chosen this moment to be very brave and intellectually honest about Islam. But if we are going to be brave and intellectually honest, especially in the aftermath of events this incendiary, then let’s be brave and honest about the whole thing, including our relationships with each other.

The reason criticism of Islam as a religion is often branded as racist is that it often is. Not always, but often.

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(Photo: Thibault Camus/AP)

Of course, if you don’t experience this prejudice in your everyday life, it is easy to be blind to it; to deny that people use the mantle of legitimate criticism of a religion to justify their own secret, ugly prejudice that is bundled up within the concept. But I suspect, privately, unfashionably, we might all acknowledge the possibility that there are many more people than we would ever admit, who make assumptions about, distrust or even hate brownish looking, foreign sorts.

And so, in the same way that we demand of Imams that they take particular care, that they all come out and condemn the attacks – because there is a provably significant percentage of idiots who need such unequivocal guidance, we must demand the same of intellectuals with a platform. We cannot recognise the power of others’ words, but not ours. Confirmation bias is a wondrous thing in the context of a digital age.

I know I’ll be jumped on for saying this, because it seems that to ask for calm moderation is tantamount to terrorist apologism right now, but we have a choice to either amplify the terror being spread or douse it with an ice cold bucket of calm logic. I think some comments, both by politicians and in the press, have not quite stayed the right side of that equation. They weave rather tenuous evidence into an “all people who are Muslim are an imminent threat to you” narrative.

If a panic is created about Muslims in general it is, in my view, entirely foreseeable that people who look Muslim, regardless of their actual status, ethnicity or views, will bear the brunt. People can shrug their shoulders and go “that’s not what I intended” all they want, but that is what will happen. We know this. In this context – and knowing this to be the case – one can choose whether to fan the flames or not.

I’m not talking about not telling the truth (whatever your truth is). I’m talking about not sensationalising that truth. Measure every single word with care. And I’m not asking this because of some vague wooly pinko fear that people’s feelings might be hurt. I am talking about real harm. People do terrible things when they’re scared.

So, next time someone rolls down their car window and shouts at me “take your sharia law and fuck off home” (even though I am a Greek atheist, but when have facts made a difference to the terrified?) I shan’t be thankful for the sort of public comment that you think makes you terribly brave and edgy. When people who fled these regimes are spat at in the street, they won’t praise you for your scattergun intellectual honesty.

Hysteria is the black teat from which forces of darkness suckle nourishment. Panic is the terrorists’ aim. The sort of hysteria and panic that makes the police put seven bullets in a Brazilian’s head on a crowded train, just because his features were swarthy. Hysteria and panic is what we must absolutely avoid.

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