Sunday, December 23, 2012

Album of the Year: Father John Misty "Fear Fun"

Fear Fun

It takes a lot for me to fall head over heels for an artist or album. Granted I obsess about things such is my nature. However I never thought I would become a caricature, a decidedly over-aged frenzied version of some tween girl at a One Direction concert screaming “NIALL! NIALL!” But in a way I became just that one very wet November evening in the Workman’s Club in Dublin when at the corner of my eye I saw Josh Tillman or Father John Misty to use his quirky new moniker. There he was, finishing a cigarette less than ten metres away and seemingly about to disappear downstairs to prepare for his gig we had come to see. I was overcome with the most visceral urge to scream out his name like someone seeing their child walking on to a railway line before a train. And I did: “JOSH! JOSH!” I didn’t want to run over screaming and pin him to the ground like some lustful teenager, but that could have easily happened. As I slowly walked towards him in some sort of trance I probably did look that way to him. There then proceeded the most excruciating conversation of my life where before I had out of control vocal chords I was now tongue-tied, hand out to shake his with the marbled-up line of “Manchester last night? Cold? Thanks, see you”. It was an awestruck stupor, something I had never experienced before. I’ll never forget the horror and bemusement on Josh’s face and if he ever reads this, forgive me. Next time if you don’t already have a restraining order against me, I will be much more relaxed, agreeable and buy you a drink.

It goes to say that something must have caused me to have been infected by this man and his music. I had listened to one or two of his albums he had done under his own name and they were intricate, heartfelt, really beautiful pieces. I had listened to the Fleet Foxes, the band he played drums for a few years until very recently. Then back in May I had somehow stumbled upon the album Fear Fun not knowing who the artist was. It was a Father John Misty and after one listen I was enveloped by this strange all-encompassing feeling. It was like I had fallen down a rabbit hole in to this new world of lush sounds and fabulous, eccentric characters, laced together by haunting pianos, yearning guitars and a voice that sounded like it could tell a thousand stories. You felt like Josh was taking you in his hand, with a Jameson in the other and walking you through this land he had created, introducing you politely to all these wonderful people he had picked up along the way, a family of beautiful oddities.
Josh Tillman a.k.a. Father John Misty

Josh had left the rain-sodden Seattle, packed his bags and headed south to the warmer climes of California, took a ton of mushrooms and pondered writing a book. I don’t know if he ever got around to writing it but this album certainly feels like a novel. It is positively exuberant in sound and imagery. The feeling of sunlight cakes it sonically. Like a flower he opened up and a new beauty was there for all to see.

I never seem to listen to lyrics. Maybe it is my seeming ADHD, being all about the beat, the beat, the beat but I was always drawn to the lyrics in this album; quirky, sincere with a strong hint of romanticism to them. Then there is the music, a constellation of emotions woven through twelve songs, each seemingly a unique chapter. The twinkling cymbals and eerie piano in “Nancy from Now On” tickle you like sunrays through the leaves of a tree on a warm summer’s morning. In “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” it is like you have entered a solemn wake with Josh pining for someone lost. There is the noir-ish moodiness of “This Is Sally Hatchet” and finally that guitar in his most noticeable song “Hollywood Forever Cemetry Sings” It calls you to attention from the first few strings at the same time slowly meandering through your mind. I was hooked.

I should not have fallen for this album. It just wasn’t me. It was like when you have a certain type of guy or girl you like, your eyes are always locked on to that person in a bar or on the street. Yet at times we all seem to fall for someone who we would never ever thought about. They come out of nowhere and just have something about them that grabs you and before you know it you can’t get enough of them. Fear Fun is that for me. It is stand alone a fantastic album that is wonderfully accessible but that something something I feel for it made it by a long stretch my album of the year. 

Film of the Year: The Queen of Versailles

The Siegels, David and Jessica

It was all supposed to be completely different, an insight in to trashy conspicuous consumption. The year was 2007 and it seemed we all had money, buying cars and second homes on almost limitless credit. Economists called it the Great Moderation as interests rates stayed low and banks lent money to everyone. But there was nothing moderate about how some of the wealthy blew their cash and this was to be story about one family, a billionaire David Siegel, his wife Jackie, their kids and their plans to build the largest private residence in the United States. It would be called Versailles, inspired by the great palace of Louis IV but this was to be no modern replica. At 90,000sq ft, it would be a grotesque monster, a temple of questionable taste and bling, smothered in gold paint, tacky chandeliers and marble, the latter totalling $5 million alone. We were to be regalled, horrified and have our suspicions confirmed that some people have more money than taste.

Then in 2008 for most of us, the world went belly-up and even some of the super wealthy lost everything as lifestyles, built on shoddy foundations of loose money came crashing down. The Siegels, whose fortune was built on the somewhat dodgy business of timeshares saw their fortune virtually depleted by over-spending on a product people no longer had the money for. Drowning in debts, it became a contemporary story many of us today suffer of having to cutback on expenses and the possible loss of the roof over our heads. Versailles would become locked in by banks, left to stand an empty shell, a sad, empty shell.

We were supposed to hate the Siegels, like we take pleasure in reviling reality TV show stars. The larger than life Jackie (in more ways than one after obvious plastic surgery) would be the obvious victim of scorn with her trashy perma-blonde hair and trips to McDonalds drive-tru’s in her limo. Yet somehow The Queen of Versailles became a tragicomedy, almost heartfelt as the Siegels coped with losing virtually all their nannies for their army of children and pets. Soon pet lizards were dying from neglect, forgotten for days by a troup of children used to having everything done for them. Having taken private jets for years, their is excitement and bemusement at flying coach on a normal flight to visit family. At a Hertz stand in the airport Jackie asks “where is the driver?”, much to the shock of the Man behind the counter.

Jessica outside the unfinished Versailles
It is not just the story of a rich person over-leveraging, we hear of their driver owning nineteen homes and faced with banrupcy. As Jackie returns to her hometown to visit a friend she hasn’t seen in nearly twenty years, she is struck by the fact her friend is about to have her home foreclosed for a menial amount of money. She privately makes a cheque to the bank to help her old friend keep her house while she herself could lose hers.

The star of the film is most certainly Jackie with the looming, ghostly edifice of Versailles lurking behind. For a person who can so easily be caricatured, we find a woman who actually really loves her husband thirty years her senior, who cares for her family and even though threatened with losing everything, this apparently intelligent woman with an engineering degree just keeps on smiling, musing of the benefits of a smaller home and more normal lifestyle, one she was born in to. It is with this gusty, friendly aspect to her that we learn to love her.

Even though we are witnessing here in the Western World the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, there are strangely very few films, fictional or otherwise that relate to it. There have been some that tackle the issue of banking and its part in creating the recession. Unlike films from the 1930’s there are not many films that consider the hardship people are under these days. Maybe we are a lot more insulated by better welfare and anaesthetized by distractions such as Facebook and X Factor. The sight of economic hardship such as hungry masses queing up for soup is not as prevalent a sight as it was eighty years ago bar say the tragedy unfolding in Greece. While many of us live through financially existential threat, The Queen of Versailles is an entertaining and at times heartfelt story of our time. For that reason I have voted it my best film of 2012. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Shocking Delusion of the NRA

NRA's Vice Executive Chairman Wayne La Pierre

Even in light of the tragic events that struck a primary school in Connecticut last week, the media and America were not expecting from the National Rifle Association’s first public statement since the atrocity to result in a major change of policy for the gun lobby. Some had hoped that the overwhelming anger of the nation in reaction to the barbarous massacre of over twenty children would in some way pull them towards a somewhat more conciliatory stance about the issue of gun control. Indeed several hard-line gun supporters in Congress, some even in the past the recipients of campaign money from the NRA had sensed the fury in the media and the streets. Greater gun control would be an immediate issue for legislation by virtually all politicians. Instead there was bemusement and horror at the strong defense of the NRA by its Executive Vice President Wayne La Pierre in a tough statement to press Friday afternoon that was not proceeded by any questioning by the media.

In essence it was a cold condemnation of a constellation of maladies in American society, from violent video games, the care of mentally ill people to the media and political groups in Washington. Guns were only a factor in that there were not enough armed people in the primary school to defend against a mad man bent on murdering children. It was an astonishingly deluded set piece from a well-paid suit in the safe confines of a Washington office. It was far removed from the outpouring of grief taking place only a few hundred miles away as some of the victims in their tiny white coffins were laid to rest after having lived only a fraction of the time Wayne La Pierre has.

The simple fact is that in the United States over 12,000 people die every year due to guns, from misuse of the weapon to cold-calculated massacres. In some states it is frighteningly easy to walk in to a shop and buy guns that have no purpose in defense and are designed solely for effective destruction of a target or targets. No matter how one can argue that a gun is a means of defense, it is in the exact same amount a means to maim and kill. The NRA on Friday even advocated for the introduction of armed guards in to all schools in America.

Let’s just take a moment to think of this stupidity. First of all, not all massacres occur in schools, although the most shocking of them have occurred in places of education, such as Virginia tech and last week in Sandy Hook. However this past year saw mass murders in a shopping mall, a cinema and in recent years in work places. No place is safe when there is a high prevalence of gun ownership. Second of all, even with armed guards, there is no guaranteeing children will be safe when confronted by people brandishing multiple assault rifles. In 1999, two students embarked on a shooting spree in a high school in Columbine, a school that had armed law enforcement agents on call at the time. The presence of armed guards failed to prevent the death of over a dozen people that day.

It’s almost funny if it wasn’t for the context of the statement that a lobby with strong links to the tax-cutting and government-slashing Republican Party that the issue of cost and who would pay for armed guards in places of education, estimated by some to be almost $7 billion a year was not even considered in that statement. Nevertheless maybe it is my own feeling, writing here in the safe surroundings of Ireland but a school, especially a primary school should be a sanctuary. It should be a place where children are not instilled with fear by armed guards every morning. That a culture even has to consider such an issue is a sign of moral failure.

As a person who has dedicated eleven years of my life to people with intellectual difficulties I was horrified by the statement that the government should create a database of the mentally ill in some sort of twisted attempt to prevent mass murders. We may never know what exactly went on in Adam Lanza’s head that morning but to correlate massacres to the mentally ill was extremely blunt and disgusting. Not all multiple gun murders are caused by people the NRA would classify the mentally ill although the biggest have indeed been the result of people of questionable mental health. But that ignores the multiple murders on a Baltimore street corner over drugs or the murders caused by someone just blindly angry and taking it out on someone like their boss or spouse. It only takes one person, insane or otherwise to turn a gun on someone else.

Implying the need of a national database for the mentally ill is a gross stigmatization of people who truly need our help. To put mentally ill people in to a database like criminals or pedophiles is a horrifying concept smacking on fascism and a breach of fundamental privacy of innocent individuals.

That the NRA took issue with violent video games was bizarre. Those games they castigated are festooned with mass murder by the things they hold so dearly: guns. If guns were not so prevalent to begin with, the close correlation between fantasy and real world would not be there. Furthermore one must look at the society at hand. Video games are played universally but it is only in some societies that the debate concerning violent video games and murder is a major concern. In Japan, a nation whose explicit porn and violent video games are well known, there is virtually no gun crime. When you allow easy access to guns, it is then when the bridge between fantasy and real life comes close to allow things to get out of hand.

Many were left speechless by Friday’s press conference by the NRA. For a moment I certainly was, it was truly that breathtaking. Whenever a massacre occurs in the United States caused by guns, the NRA is cocooned in the surreal land of lobbying, far removed from the scene of the crime. It is not Wayne La Pierre’s six year old daughter being laid to rest this week, a few days before Christmas. It was not his son maimed and paralyzed for life while watching a film with friends. It was not his wife or child caught in the crossfire of a drug war. It was a shocking speech laced with arrogance and denouncements. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” he said. No, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is to never give him access to the gun in the first place. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Instagraming Privacy

Once there was a time when people bought records and CD’s. We slaved in lowly part time jobs to earn the cash to go to that temple we called Tower Records and buy that album we had lusted over for many a week. Then came this anarchic upstart the Internet and it gave us new tools with which to slowly break down barriers and do things such as share music with each other without paying. Soon a whole generation was brought up imbued with the sense that music should be free. The music industry, lobbyists and politicians scrambled to keep up with the blinding speed that the Internet was changing our lives. The world wide web, just a little over twenty years old now still to this day challenges engrained rules and perceptions.

What were once walled edifices of copyright content and privacy have come crashing down or have slowly eroded away. While it refashions beliefs and organically creates a new culture around it we are challenged by rules and assumptions fashioned from another time. Things we took for granted are no longer there or have mutated. The crisis the music industry first had to contend with wrought on by the Internet ten years ago is similar to the crisis of privacy individuals have today. Copyright content we once paid for was given away for free through file-sharing. Now personal content that we created ourselves freely would be sold to make money and with it questions of privacy and what is considered private content not to be sold to individuals and groups wanting it.

The trading of personal information, from web-browsing patterns found on cookies to created content is a huge business. For over a decade Google has been at the forefront of this, using the information of users to fashion advertising more related to the person using their search system. During the recent presidential election, huge sums of money was spent by both campaigns to what they termed “data-mining” to micro-target possible voters. Your Internet usage is now a commodity that many people unwittingly know is being traded.

However it is in the realm of social media where the biggest consternation is unfolding. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter are closed environments, restricting the information that can be accessed and sold to prospective data-miners. That is not for want of trying as this week’s events prove. Earlier this year prior to its flotation, Facebook bought Instagram for a cool one billion dollars. The price seemed like one picked out from the sky, such was its stratospheric valuation for a company that allowed people to take photos in different styles and hues. Facebook has given a reason somewhat for the high price by announcing an update to the photo-sharing company’s privacy policy allowing it to sell users’ photos to advertisers without notifying them. Facebook has been under pressure from investors and shareholders to ramp up revenue from advertisers since its flotation and the popularity of Instagram and the data reamed from interactions with users seemed like a sure bet. That is until questions of privacy blew up in their faces as social media went in to a frenzy over the possible use of personal content and threats by many to boycott Instagram until the changes in privacy policy were revoked.

The issue at hand is that the Internet has broken down barriers and a new environment where things once private could be disseminated and thus fair game for people who make money from that information. The old walls of intended or unintended privacy have been pried open by the Internet and created a strange new world. While people feel they have a right to send and disseminate certain material without prosecution, information they thought was private before due to circumstance was now through simple, hidden things such as cookies, available to others and sold for a price.

There is no doubt that the issue of privacy is central to the debate about the good and ills of the Internet. Where legislation has failed to catch-up, it has been left to companies themselves to manufacture what they consider private or public, thus creating confusion and at times fear of personal violation whether justified or not. Companies themselves have created an environment of what they consider to be fair game in the selling of personal data that is in conflict with what individuals consider, just as Internet users changed their opinion about the rights and wrongs of sharing of music online ten years ago. Many jurisdictions have been moving towards creating regulations in respect to Internet privacy with the European Union and its multiple political organs mainly at the forefront. Earlier this year saw the passing of the Data Protection Directive regulating what data can be processed and sold to other parties. However the process is a slow one and considering very few people saw the power of social media five or six years ago, the issue of internet privacy will continue to be debated as the evolution of the Internet continues and permeates our society even more. The fear is that before strongly enforced data privacy laws are fashioned, a new culture of acceptance of data-mining and the misuse of personal information becomes so commonplace that a new culture where the majority don't consider it a major issue. Just as people in some countries resign themselves to the fact that their politicians are corrupt, the lack of enforcement will reduce people's desire to fight back in the future. If that is to occur basic privacy is diluted for the next generation. When that happens, industry rather than the individual will benefit. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Quiet Evening in Belleville, Paris

Cafe Cheri(e)
For thirteen years I had failed to return to Paris after a family holiday as a teenager in 1999. In fact it was the last time I stepped foot in the most-visited country in the world. It wasn’t that I really didn’t want to return to the City of Light. As a sixteen year old and to this day still an avid lover of history and architecture I was mesmerized by Paris, with its elegant uniformed Haussmann boulevards peppered with instantly recognizable sights such as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. However as I grew up, what I wanted from a holiday changed and with it my perception of the city. In my 20s I began to see Paris as a desiccated museum, scrubbed clean of the grime and proletarian fervour that shaped its history. In my mind it didn’t have the creativity of London or underground excitement of Berlin. It was an overpriced confectionary for American and Japanese tourists to excitedly digest.

If it wasn’t for a chance to go to a music festival and stay for free in the city, it could have been another thirteen years before I returned. Having already ticked off the major sights all those years ago and now an adult, I decided to branch out. On the one evening I had free I took the opportunity with a Parisian friend to visit Belleville. Historically a working-class district whose residents were fervent but tragic supporters of the Paris Commune of 1871, the area has become more heterogenous, home to artists, hipsters and a large ethnic community. It is a refreshing break from the sterilized central arrondisements of the city.

Being France I had to start my little wander with a late afternoon glass of wine in Le Chapeau Melon. During the afternoon it is a wine shop and a place to quietly drink a glass. The selection was decent but at night the place switches over in to a restaurant with a delightfully eclectic four course menu which at €32.50 is a steal for pricey Paris. Booking is essential as it is popular and there is only one sitting.
Le Chapeau Melon

Upon finishing my glass of wine it was time to meet my Parisian friend. A wander around the streets we encountered a constellation of characters, from immigrants in their phone shops that doubled up as local meeting places, hipsters, young families and prostitutes. The architecture is bland bar the random flourish of graffiti, some of which was pretty good. However for architecture fans there is one little gem to be found. It only seems right that the Communist party of France would have its headquarters in this traditionally working class district. Commissioned by lifetime Communist and at the time living in exile in Paris Oscar Niemeyer, it displays his characteristic brutalism with flourishes of pure beauty, especially in the glistening auditorium whose bright ceiling is as inviting as the gates of heaven. One can make an appointment to visit the inside but alas my time was constrained and I could not visit. With the recent passing away of Niemeyer this month, my lost opportunity now has an added poignance to it.

Communist Party Headquarters by Oscar Niemeyer
In Paris it can be at times hard to find a decent bistro. They are either good quality but expensive or tourist tosh. There appears to be very few middle ground places and certainly so with a bit of character. Le Sainte Marthe on the street with the same name is an exception. Located on a part of the street where it  recedes to create a quaint little square covered by trees, in the summer I heard it is one of the most pleasurable places in Belleville to eat and drink. Since it was early November the weather was not exactly conducive to sit outside so we dived in to the bosom of this red-painted bistro. It felt like a truly local place where young twenty-somethings drank wine while on another table a gaggle of grannies ate traditional French food while their grandchildren scribbled on paper. Indeed it felt very cozy and we were willing to stay for it not for the pangs of hunger emanating from us. While we could have enjoyed the food here we felt that it was only fair that in this home for multitudes of immigrants that we try something ethnic.

Le Sainte Marthe
“You see the person behind me” whispered my friend Antoine as we were about to dive in to a noodle soup in Pho Dong-Huong, the lively Vietnamese restaurant on Rue Louis Bonnet; “he’s in gay porn”. Not the typical conversational topic you would have over food but it was an example of the eclectic crowd to be found in this delicious restaurant. All the kinds of people you would expect to find in Belleville were devouring freshly-cooked food in this lively place, plus your local porn star. The food was very reasonably-priced where a big bowl of noodles, a side dish and a beer left change from a €20 note. The beauty of Vietnamese food is that it always fills you while making you feel refreshed and it certainly perked us up for the five minute walk to a bar in the night where the temperature bobbed just over freezing.

Our destination was a low-key local bar called Café Cheri(e). Situated on the corner of Boulevard de la Villette, it seems to be a mash-up of a typical contemporary Parisian café and a dive bar and for that reason seems to attract a crowd of artists and students. It was a Thursday night at 10pm and the place was busy but not full, however Antoine had informed me that on Friday and Saturday nights it can get quite rammed. To take the opportunity to see my friend I had decided to skip the first night of the music festival but was happy to be here where the DJ was playing music by the bands I could have be seeing at the festival such as the Chromatics and Twin Shadow. The crowd was decidedly mixed with a smattering of artists, gays and hipsters. It nevertheless felt warm and welcoming and conversation flowed as easily as the beer that was cheap for Paris. However it was a school night and by 1am we were beat and time to sadly leave this great bar.

On my first night in Paris in thirteen years I had finally seen another side of Paris that felt a world away from the romantic film-set ideal that most tourists seem reluctant to leave. Venturing to Belleville was a refreshing and rewarding experience that defied the stereotype of Paris being an expensive and unimaginative city while showing hints of the old city of past. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Curious Case of Cristina and Clarin: The Making of Enemies

President Cristina holds up a copy of Clarin

Last week as a toxic cloud billowed up from a burning tanker in the port, smothering the central business district, floods in the barrio (neighborhood) of Belgrano and tornadoes dancing menacingly on the outskirts of the city, one could be forgiven for believing that Buenos Aires was witnessing the end of days. For a city prone to drama and a population who at times almost masochistically revel in it, it was an eventful week for the Argentine capital. However as much as Mother Nature conspired to dominate the headlines, the real drama was unfolding in a courtroom in the city as former allies now bitter foes, the administration of President Cristina Kirchner and the media conglomerate Grupo Clarin fought bitterly over a new media law. Drafted in 2009 by the administration as a means to break up the perceived monopoly of Clarin, to others it seemed an insidious tool to silence a powerful dissenting voice against the government. For three years both sides battled in the courts with the climax to occur on December 7th when the law was to come in to force. However such as it is common in legal cases, the courts granted an injunction thus staying the execution or more appropriately the amputation of a number of Clarin’s limbs.

The story of an affair gone sour between a government and a powerful media company is nothing new in the history of politics. One just has to look at recent events in the UK. However the case of Cristina and Clarin has a particularly Argentine hue for there is never a middle ground in politics in Argentina. It becomes frighteningly easy from the simplest of disagreements to become diametrically opposed. Support and largesse can be unceremoniously whipped away with the political guns pointed at your head at the slightest hint of dissent. With the Kirchner administration and supporters, individuals or groups who oppose them become existential threats to be removed at all costs, using whatever methods of the political and legal machine that are at hand peppered with sneering insults and insinuations. It is the fuel for a movement that increasingly looks embattled by an economy spluttering under choking inflation, increasing crime and an emboldened yet still disparate domestic opposition.

This year the Kirchner government has lashed out at multiple real and perceived enemies, at times viscerally waving the bluntest of weapons while throwing immature insults. Discretion and consensus are two words that are alien to Cristina and her supporters. Last month witnessed a court case in the US in which the government was a defendant against hedge funds that refused to take part in Argentina’s restructuring of debt after its default. It was a case that the government had a very strong chance of winning handsomely, however the Kirchner government lost the respect of the judge and thus the case by its insubordination and insulting ignorance of the jurisdiction of the court. Instead of attempting to garner support from the court and other nations battling these so-called “vulture funds”, it decided to shore up its domestic supporters in a populist attack on the case and court at hand. After the granting of an injunction in the case against Grupo Clarin, several ministers insinuated about impeaching the judges who didn’t rule in the government’s favor. When border police went on strike over pay, supporters of the government alluded to the threat of a coup, no minor provocation in a country with a bitter recent history of military dictatorship.

Cristina with her deceased husband and former president, Nestor
It is this need to formulate existential threats that shores up support for the current government. Added with largesse for supporters, it is potent material to maintain power. The history of the Kirchner movement and Clarin is a perfect example. When Cristina’s deceased husband and former wearer of the presidential sash was elected in 2003, Clarin rightly supported the government’s hard-line stance against bondholders after the Argentine default. In 2007 it was awarded with presidential approval for a merger allowing Clarin to take control of one of the region’s biggest cable companies. In essence this was creating the monopoly the current media law wants to remove but it was all fine in the minds of the Kirchners because it was for a supporter of the government. What resulted in both sides falling out and becoming bitter foes was when Clarin did not side with the government of Cristina in a dispute with farmers protesting a windfall tax on their booming products. Within months the government went on the offensive, digging up documents relating to the owners of Clarin and their involvement in the military dictatorship and especially in relation to the distressing issue of children forced in to adoption by the military government. The media law was to be the final nail in the coffin for Clarin’s dominance, allowing for the forced divesting of radio and TV licenses.

While as a firm believer in the need for a plurality of media in a country, one must question the motives of the current bill being debated in the courts. The timing is suspect and politically motivated. Furthermore while intending to broaden the access to media it will only transfer dominance in this field from an independently owned organization to the government that will have direct or indirect control of over 80% of Argentine media, a much larger share than Clarin ever had. State media has proven itself subjective recently with the president commandeering the airwaves more often for increasingly random speeches and news coverage that failed to adequately report the recent large anti-government protests of the past few months. The media law is only another means to remove an enemy that the government has built up to be an existential threat and probably would never have been formulated if it was not for Clarin siding against the government.

Recent protests against Cristina's government 
All this drama has masked the fact that the government should be spending more time battling issues that citizens feel more pressing, such as inflation, crime and government restrictions to hard cash. Like the Republican Party in the US, it has preferred a policy of galvanizing its core supporters at the expense of consensus and others by pandering to fear. It is a recipe for failure in the long term but is too blindly enamoured with the simplicity in the instrument of creating enemies rather than governing for all. It might be better for all if one left the drama for the weather. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Has Alex Sammond’s Eagerness For Scottish Independence Doomed It?

Yesterday Scotland came one step closer to independence when Alex Salmond, the First Minister and Prime Minister David Cameron came to an agreement about holding a referendum in 2014 on the issue. The process and the referendum being offered to the Scottish people in two years time will be a surprisingly simple affair. There will be only one question asking whether or not one wants Scotland to secede from the Union and become independent. The First Minister wanted two questions offering two separate choices for Scotland’s future: independence or “devo-max”. The latter would have seen increased devolution of powers from Westminster to Holyrood in such affairs as taxation. David Cameron, a stern opponent of Scottish independence had refused two questions but to the consternation of his own party agreed to the referendum on the condition that there would be only one question that explicitly laid out the issue of independence or not.

There is no doubt that Alex Salmond and his Scottish Nationalist Party will be happy today and that getting Westminster to even approve a vote on independence will be seen as a crowning achievement. It is without doubt a seminal event but has the First Minister in his haste for a vote on independence doomed it? Scotland has had devolved government for close to fourteen years and in many respects it has been a very positive thing for Scots. The parliament in Holyrood has passed popular legislation such as abolishing prescription and college fees, the latter creating a huge discrepancy between the rest of the United Kingdom where students now could pay up to nine thousand pounds a year for their courses. To many politicians in London they snort that it has been only possible from financial transfers where Scotland gets more money than it creates by taxation and is therefore a blatant free-rider. The Scottish Nationalist Party scoff at such remarks saying that with North Sea oil revenues Scotland does the exact opposite with Westminster siphoning off money that are the fruits of its nation. Scotland in the opinion of nationalists will prosper if granted independence.

David Cameron would never have agreed to a referendum on independence if he did not believe it could be decisively beaten. Polls show only lukewarm support with the majority still in favor of staying in the United Kingdom. It appears people are more interested in the basic issues of the economy, education and welfare. Nationalists respond that once the debate gets kicking and the people begin to take an interest in the vote, things will change. Nevertheless the economic question of can Scotland be both financially independent and viable will be the decider. The prime minister was straight out of the gun after agreeing to the vote by visiting Rosyth and the shipyards where the next generation of British aircraft carriers are being built to emphasize that with independence such contracts could be in jeopardy and thus the loss of thousands of jobs.

The Scottish Nationalist Party was formed with the explicit intention of advocating for independence for Scotland. After winning a stunning outright majority last year in Scottish elections based on PR voting it seemed to Alex he had his mandate to ask for the referendum. But by placing all his cards on the table he has created a high-risk game. While already having control over certain aspects of Scotland through devolution, “devo-max” seemed a deeply unsatisfying option compared to independence. Considering the debate in Spain about Catalan independence, Scotland after winning from central government the right to a binding referendum has become the vanguard for regional independence in Europe. Although the Catalan President Artur Mas has advocated for Catalan independence, recently it has been more out of frustration with the government in Madrid refusing to devolve more powers such as independent tax raising to Barcelona, in essence “devo-max”. This is an issue seen even more egregious considering the other independence-inclined region of the Basque Country has that right. Artur Mas’s centre-right nationalist party Democratic Convergence of Catalonia would much prefer a process beginning with increased devolution for Barcelona to allow a stronger sense of independence to grow organically because to many right now a full jump to independence is somewhat unpalatable.

Scottish Parliament Debating Chamber, Holyrood
David Cameron firmly believes that many Scots are fearful of taking that jump to full independence, a new frontier that in light of the current world economic environment could be dangerous. Alex Salmond, who advocated for two questions took that exact jump. In 1979 Scotland voted in a referendum for devolution that failed on two accounts, a failure to win a majority of supporters voting and also the mandated quorum of registered voters. It took another generation to have another vote on the issue. While that issue was for basic devolution, it would be a lot harder to get Westminster to agree on another vote for independence in the future. A rejection of the referendum will be in the eyes of the government in London as a copper-fastened verdict and a mandate to refuse any other votes for a very long time if not forever. In essence the independence vote would in fact become the pawn of Westminster to prevent independence.

Alex Salmond and the SNP firmly believe they can win this debate but with rejecting a vote on “devo-max” in favor of a vote on full independence they could in fact doom the cause they were founded on for over a generation. David Cameron played hard-ball, pandering to that eager, genuine desire by the SNP for independence. Intoxicated by winning a strong mandate in elections last year more likely due to other issues than independence and a discredited Labour party, Alex Salmond has probably fallen for a Tory-designed trap to emasculate them. A failure to win a referendum could mean the other parties in Scotland against independence sense blood and advocate for a new Scottish election. It will at the very least hurt the SNP.

Rosyth shipyards

While I am personally a supporter of Scottish independence I feel that devo-max would have allowed a stronger sense of independence grow in Scotland and thus win over the sizeable minority firmly against secession. With greater control over all the important aspects of government bar currency and foreign affairs, Alex Salmond could then point to that success and call for outright independence. However he has never been one to take that path and has been consistently itching for a clear referendum on the issue. Alex Salmond is a surprising politician who has come back from behind countless of times to succeed at the end and he could very well win his cherished lifetime goal. But the stakes are high and in his haste he could have in fact sabotaged the entire cause for at least a generation. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Argentina and the 100 Peso Note: A Story in Economic Mismanagement and Manipulation

The new 100 Peso note

Eight years ago when I first visited Argentina in what would result in an affair that lasts to this day, I was very naïve in what to expect from a nation that still felt numb after its economic collapse. I will admit that one of the reasons to visit Buenos Aires was curiosity about what exactly happened. To be fair the media at home were not particularly concerned with the economic calamities of a South American country such was the jaded and somewhat ignorant opinion that these things, like coups or attempted coups were as prevalent as the seasons in that part of the world. All I knew was that in the year and a half prior to my arrival Argentina suffered the biggest sovereign default in history, its currency crashed and with it the savings of a once wealthy and proud nation were wiped out. To this day, the sight of cartoneros, the newly poor and destitute from the far edges of this vast city arriving by twilight like economic zombies to collect the cardboard in the empty evening streets of the financial district, all the time too proud to ask you for money haunt me.

I had never heard of the term corralito, a word that even today makes the average Argentino spit in disgust that described the economic measures taken by the desperate government to prevent the nation falling into economic and political anarchy. Breaking the one dollar one peso peg that hubristically held that perennial demon inflation away and underpinned the boom of the 90’s resulted in a peso freefall, wiping 75% off the value of the peso and all peso-denominated wealth. Since then I have taken a keen interest in the economy of Argentina. Buenos Aires went from being one of the most expensive cities in the world to one with a cost of living on par with many African nations. This confirmed the belief many of my Argentino friends that all the time no matter how wrong they were such was their resignation they in fact lived in a Third World country.

On my second day in Buenos Aires I took a taxi to a restaurant. For the lengthy trip it came to about 10 pesos or just over 2 euro. I gave the taxi man a 100 peso note. He looked at me with an expression between exasperation and horror as if I was a pedophile. Cursing in Spanish he angrily scowered around for change before without a smile speeding off. In the past 100 pesos amounted to 100 dollars and thus a note of novelty but with the crash it had become a piece of scorn. Smaller notes became much more needed due to the devalued peso but became prized. Handing over a 100 peso note back then would result in angry sighs in shops and restaurants. Yet today it is a completely different situation and Argentina is a nation in desperate need of new 100 peso notes that resulted in a new one issued with the revered Evita as it’s face and a rapid increase in print numbers. What caused this change of events is a particularly Argentino story that has as its star that old foe: inflation.

Argentina today is a strange yet fascinating country again for politics and economics lovers. Instrumental in all of this is the person some see as the contemporary Evita, the current president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, or CFK to many Argentinos. CFK and her husband, the former president and deceased Nestor rose up from the calamity of 2002 to steer the nation back on track. Taking a particularly brazen and confrontational approach that gave them supporters and haters in equal amount, Nestor was rightly successful in getting a massive write down in international debts for the country.

Former president Nestor at the innauguration of her wife Cristina as president
However what happened after was more dubious. Fuelled by revenues from hugely increased international demand for agricultural exports, Nestor and later Cristina (who won election in 2007 when Nestor stepped down to prevent the handicap of two-term limits) created a state of clientelism and largesse, lavishing the country in subsidies for things such as fuel and public sector wages. To some it was a game of indirect vote-buying or at the very least an incentive to sectors supportive of the Kirchners to vote for them in the future. What resulted in this is basic economics. Inflation, although always there returned to double digits and in a nation long prone to the erosion of purchasing power by it, the acrimony increased.

To dampen criticism about increased inflation and prices and move attention to other policies considered more important, Nestor and later Cristina slowly began to manipulate the board of the independent national statistics organization INDEC, thus taking control of the institution and cooking the books. Soon the organization was posting inflation numbers much lower and certainly lower than what the average person on the street was seeing in the prices of goods in shops. A plethora of alternatives, formal and informal flourished in an attempt to keep people informed of price increases. A personal favorite was called the Ugi’s index, started by an American ex-pat that charted the price increase of the price of a pizza from a pizza chain of dubious quality in Buenos Aires.

In a fashion prevalent in some South American countries, which the Kirchners have their own virulent brand of, they begun to find measures to prevent the publication of alternative inflation indexes. Cristina enacted laws that prosecuted individuals and organizations that published inflation statistics that were not INDEC’s with six-figure fines. No matter how much of merit these alternative statistics were, in a sense it was a crack down on the freedom of information and thus a furor has ensued ever since with the Economist refusing to post INDEC’s statistics in its paper and a “yellow-card” from the IMF, much to the delight of Kirchneristas, the name given to supporters of Cristina. Only a number of members of the federal Congress post monthly statistics under the protection of Congressional immunity such is the situation right now.

The slide in the price of the Argentine peso since last year
The ratcheting up of the printing presses is at times a sign of economic mismanagement and the beginning of failure of the economic policies of a nation that is involved in it. To many that seems to be the case in Argentina with increased money flight and growing demand for more stable dollars. To prevent this the government has imposed restrictions on buying dollars and taking them out of the country, resulting in sniffer dogs at ports and airports on the hunt for large quantities of foreign currency on a person and the return of that truly Argentino situation of parallel exchange rates. Although Argentinos now have to inform the state revenue commission if they plan to go abroad and buy dollars for the trip and have to endure a mandatory 15% credit card surcharge on all purchases outside the country the president refuses to say that such actions are in fact restrictions. It is in Cristina’s opinion a process to de-dollarize the economy and start getting people thinking and using pesos in a country where all major transactions from cars to houses are denominated in dollars.

However one must ask why now? With almost ten years of Kirchner presidents why is the process being implemented over the past few months and seemingly haphazardly? To Kirchneristas it is the natural progression of an economic process begun under Nestor to rebuild confidence in the peso but to others it is a sign of desperation as people lose confidence in the Argentine economy. It doesn’t help that the peso has been on a continuous yet slow slide in price against the dollar, bringing back bad memories of 2002 and the end of the currency peg. It seems that the cogs are coming off the machine that Nestor and Cristina have built and that the newly-printed 100 peso note will lose even more value. To some it could result in the next economic crisis in Argentina. Looks like there will be more Evitas in my pocket than I expected before.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Party And a Nation Meets Its Vice President Nominee

Republican Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan

In politics the game is to tell people what they want to hear and not at times the true facts. In a race so polarized as it is, the 2012 presidential campaign takes things to the next level. With very few undecideds and certainly a lot of people holding exceptionally strong and unwielding views about politics it is a process of galvanization of your core supporters.

Tonight Paul Ryan, the Republican vice president nominee did just that. His speech was simple, accessible and at times eloquent but it also included some glaring inaccurances. The Democrats will certainly have a lot of ammunition to throw back at him at their convention and also in the vice presidential debates in October. The sad thing is a lot of it won’t stick. Paul Ryan stuck to the core beliefs of many modern die-hard Republican supporters. He hammered the issues of increased debt, interfering government and the supposed evils of Obamacare. He took no mercy in showing the failure of the main templates of Obama’s run for the presidency four years ago of hope and change. To many there is no point in arguing these issues. The Republicans have painted a rich and fruitful tapestry for their strong supporters that will overlook what Democrats will call the deceptions to be found in Paul Ryan’s speech.

There were indeed quite a lot of them. Ryan’s speech started by depicting a grim economic situation of a failed recovery with one in six Americans in poverty and the loss of America’s much cherished triple A bond rating. No matter how much the Democrats have tried to say otherwise, statistics have shown that the economic rehabilitation is still an issue for intensive care. Not just for Republicans but for many more in America that is all they see and pointing fingers as who is to blame is not going to help. Without the person on the street feeling the recovery in their bones it is a failure and the blame must fall at the doorstep of the President. Paul Ryan railed against Obama’s stimulus and has gone all out in depicting virtually all stimuluses as economic mismanagement. This is when in fact he voted for numerous stimulus programmes dating back to George W Bush’s first term as president.

Paul Ryan spoke often about one of the biggest issues for Republicans, that of healthcare and especially the Affordable Care Act known colloquily as Obamacare. While to some the issue of forcing someone to buy healthcare under penalty of a fine is wrong, how does one attack something which tries, albeit with substantial flaws to actually give universal healthcare, especially when Medicare is extremely popular? The Republicans have ingeniously latched on to the idea that to pay for Obamacare, the president intends to suck out of Medicare $716 billion. However this is false and was an effective smokescreen tonight to hide the fact that Paul Ryan’s own plan for healthcare would gut Medicare as we know it and create a voucher system instead.

One of the more contentious issues will be about Paul Ryan’s statements on debt and that President Obama walked away from a bipartisan debt deal and thus endangered the future prosperity of the nation. Ryan has made a name for himself as a deficit hawk and tonight made the allegation that Obama increased federal debt by $5 trillion, more than any other president in history. That may be so but the Democrats will point out that most of it was linked to the previous presidency and its economic mishandling. Furthermore, Paul Ryan made issue tonight about looking at the past record of Obama but failed to point out that his own signature has been on legislation in the past that has increased the debt even more than Ryan makes out Obama to have done . Furthermore, Obama was not the one to walk away from the bipartisan deal on debt and that he advised house Republicans to not support it due to the positive political implications it would have for the president.
Paul Ryan and his children

Surprisingly some of the most divisive social issues of the past few years barely got a mention. Gay marriage and issues concerning a woman’s body such as abortion were conspicuous by their absence. Interestingly enough the most noticable thing in relation to this was a small group of women protestors waving a banner calling for the Republicans to stay away from their vaginas! Later Paul Ryan to wide applause harangued Obama and government saying it had created “a country where everybody is free but us”. This of course hits on the nail of Republican hypocracy in relation to social issues. For all their advocation for less interference in people’s lives they are extremely quick to call for a constitutional amendment making marriage only between a man and woman and for a ban on abortion. It is for this reason that tonight’s speech was fundamentally a critique of Obama and his handling of the economy.

One of the more interesting inaccuracies that will be taken up by the press in the morning will be about Paul Ryan mentioning the supposed lies of Obama during his presidential campaign in promising upon election to prevent a car factory from closing. There no legitimate basis for this and in fact Obama pledged to do his best to secure the viability of the car company, not outright saving it. But the funniest bit about this lie is that the factory closed before he was elected president.

For all its inaccuracies the speech ticked the boxes for many Republicans. Paul Ryan gave them what they wanted to hear in a simple and clear way. To many that were watching tonight they would have seen a man speaking about the issues that cared directly to them – healthcare, debt and the failing recovery. The resonance of that coupled with the sheer joy of the crowd in Tampa will be etched in to their minds and will it is hoped by Paul Ryan’s speech writers and campaign crew overcome the erroneous nature of some of its facts. Tonight a nation saw their vice presidential candidate and have two months for the Democrats to do their upmost in tearing down the image his speech created among people

Monday, August 27, 2012

Gentrification and Nostalgia For What Is Lost

East Village Graffiti today

As a regular to New York City I have become accustomed to hearing about gentrification and more worryingly for some, the yuppification of various neighborhoods. Gentrification is a poisoned chalice. It makes certain areas unquestionably more livable but in the process the essence is lost as long-time residents and tenants are slowly pushed out due to higher rents.

Today virtually all the island of Manhattan has become gentrified. A strong whiff of sterilization can be experienced in some of the areas which were previously seriously dodgy. This is particularly the case in The East Village and Lower East Side. Here there is to be found ruthless property developers  more akin to other, wealthier parts of the city taking advantage of the increasing desire of people to live in these areas. While still having a particular charm and feel to them, they are completely different to what they were twenty and certainly thirty years ago.
Lower East Side in the 1970's

In the late 70’s and early 80’s the East Village and Lower East Side were virtually no go areas for many and most certainly for the wealthy elite uptown, chambered in their ivory towers on Park Avenue and so forth. However just like many no go areas in big cities it was a cheap place to live. While they attracted the down and outs of society and riddled with social hardships, many artists found a welcoming as in affordable place to live. After a time in situations like this a critical mass is reached and the whole area develops in to a flux of cross breeding of ideas and styles that attracts even more artists. Whole, vibrant and at times, extremely influential scenes emerge.

This was certainly the case for this part of New York over thirty years ago. From the run down tenements and ruins of the Lower East Side that almost looked in parts like Berlin in May 1945 came the flourishings of post-punk, new wave and most certainly no wave. This has all been recounted by a recent documentary about the no wave film scene in the late 70’s and early 90’s by filmmaker Celine Dahnier’s wonderful and accessible documentary called “Blank City” and the inspiration for me writing this article. Not only does it contain a satisfying mix of conversations with influential members of that movement but it creates oddly in this writer a nostalgia for what a vibrant and inclusive place Manhattan specifically but New York as a whole was for artists at that time. Nowadays one must pay an arm and a leg for a run down place in the East Village that has staunchly refused to be eaten up by developers. Back then a hundred dollars would have gotten you the same shack of a place but at least it was financially accessible.

Gentrification is a universal and ongoing process with an uncertain ending. Artists are slowly being pushed further and further away from the centres of cities. Some will argue it is a good thing, that in time artists will find a far away enclave from increasing rents and prices that have bedeviled them in the past from being so close to centres. However it is at times a somewhat symbiotic relationship between urban artists and the wealthy, many that later bankrolled the artists who made great art, such as Jean Michel Basquait in New York. But technology opens up other means of revenue and communication. Nevertheless gentrification as we know it will continue. Areas will lose some of their charm and vibrancy once that new giant condo gets built in the area.