Just back from Holiday, thought I’d catch up on a few stories that came up while I was on my travels….
When in Rome do as the Romans do….stay away from burning buses
One of my stops on holiday, was Rome, where they’ve a bit of a wee problem with buses that keep catching fire. The locals blame the new Five Star mayor and cutbacks on maintenance, which is merely one of a host of scandals she’s gotten caught up in. Which given that 5S are now part of the government in Italy, is hardly a good sign.
While there was a few things in the joint NL/5S manifesto I agreed with, e.g. ending austerity, a national citizens income, better public transport (you might want to focus on stopping buses catching fire first!). But they also promised to lower taxes at the same time as greatly increasing public spending. This in a country whose in debt to the tune of 130% of its GDP.
Now while its true there’s nothing wrong with a country borrowing money, particularly in a time of crisis, Keynes never said that gives governments a blank cheque to spend like a sailor on shore leave and ignore any form of financial responsibility. Clearly, at the very least they’d have to demonstrate some plan for paying off this debt (otherwise nobody would lend them money to spend in the first place). This could include putting up taxes for the wealthy, or increasing the tax on things like alcohol and cigarettes (which are both very cheap, I mean I was buying Belgian ales for less than they cost in Belgium!), or starting to introduce carbon taxes (which would eventually replace things like VAT altogether). Cuts could also be made in areas that are cutable, e.g. in terms of defence spending.
But there in lie the problem with a populist government, they can’t do anything unpopular, even if its in the long term best interest of the country. Indeed, the NL part of the government wants to hire more police and build prisons for the hundreds of thousands of migrants they are going to deport. Of course, it would be unwise to undertake such deportations (and unlikely they are going to succeed). Many of the countries in question may not take them back and others would not be a safe place to send them. There is a legal precedence going back to the holocaust, whereby those responsible for deportations to Germany (in the full knowledge that they were potentially sending people to their death) which would come into play, meaning members of this populist government could find themselves facing a war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
And their solution to their debt problems is to demand that the EU simply writes off a large chunk of Italian debt. The EU’s unlikely to do that because A) that would set a precedence, which could lead to both Italy and the entire eurozone’s debt being downgraded. And B) as Italy would now be considered to be in a state of default, banks would be a lot less likely to lend to Italy. So rather than freeing Italy from under the thumb of the ECB, they’ve be more dependant than ever on ECB money to keep the country solvent. Yes, the EU must take some share of the blame for Italy’s predicament, but Italy is mostly in mess of its own creation (something which no populist party could ever admit, hence why they have to blame the EU and migrants for 100% of Italy’s problems).
Print money? That’s really only a temporary solution and the window of opportunity during which that could help has arguably passed. Also such measures would drive up inflation, diluting the value of people’s savings and push up prices. Indeed inflation (or more accurately stagflation) is a big problem in Italy right now. One could argue a number of the policies announced are in fact more anti-stagflation measures than anti-austerity measures. But introducing policies to counteract inflation, which will just cause more of it is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Or in Italy’s case (given that the ECB would never allow this either), its robbing Peter in the full knowledge that he’ll catch you at it and then beat you and Paul up later with a baseball bat.
Oh and 5S and NL also want to drop sanctions on Russia. And this in the same week the Dutch reveal how they have direct evidence linking the Russians to the downing of MH17. You have to love Italian corruption. In America Trump has to at least pretend he’s not Putin’s ally. But in Italy, they don’t even bother hiding that. He helped us get elected, so we’ll be sharing the cake with him, what’s wrong with that?
At least they’ve backed down from their more extreme policies of withdrawing from the Euro and the EU. The NL in fact actually wants a referendum for Northern Italy to separate from Southern Italy. But as is so often the case, when confronted with reality, such headline grabbing (but utterly ludicrous) plans have had to be dropped (like the £350 million a week for the NHS we were promised in the UK).
That said, it is alleged that the reason why the Italian president rejected their pick for finance minister was that he heard that they were planning for a secret withdrawal from the EU over a weekend (think about that for a minute, the UK’s going to take several years to get out of the EU and this lot thought they can do something similar over a weekend!). In the wake of this the populists called for him to be impeached and replaced by the Prime Minster (which would be unconstitutional, this is kind of the whole reason why they are separate jobs). In short, it seems like they haven’t much of a clue what they are doing or how government is supposed to work.
The populists have also asked the EU with coming up with the means for a country to withdraw from the euro at some future date, if they were to have such a referendum. Well the bad news is, I suspect some eurocrat IS probably working on just such a plan as we speak. But its not how Italy can voluntarily leave the euro, its how the EU can kick Italy out of the euro if they break its rules, while minimising the damage the rest of the eurozone takes from the inevitable Italian bankruptcy that follows.
I think we can get some feel for how things will pan out based on one of the earlier sticking points the NL stuck with, they wanted Silvio Berlusconi to be part of the new government. Why in blue blazes would they want that? Well because they know full well they’ve made promises neither they, nor 5S can keep.
What Italy will get is just a less competent (as well as corrupt and more authoritarian) version of the previous government. Just one that picks random fights with the EU, which they will generally lose. There fear is, that Mr Bunga Bunga (whose probably more to blame than anyone else for Italy’s current woes) will exploit that and next thing you know, a year from now, he and Trump will be trading anecdotes about their criminal exploits at Mar-a-largo.
Barcelona tourism protests
Across the sea in Barcelona, there’s been anti-tourist protests recently. Now yes tourists can be annoying (in London during the summer you’re tripping over them, Edinburgh during the Fringe you can barely walk down the street and I reckon the use of rocket launchers against campervans on highland roads should be legal, when they trundle along at 30 mph with fifty cars behind them). But statistically, Barcelona isn’t even in the top ten of tourist destinations in the world (and having been there, the numbers aren’t anything near as bad as you’d find in say Florence or Rome).
However, a Spanish tour operator did mention to me that there’s been a big upsurge in tourism in Spain over the last few years, due to issues across the Mediterranean making such destinations seem unsafe. And as noted, Italy is starting to get very expensive (and politically unstable), so that’s driving more tourists towards the Iberian peninsula.
So to the locals the sudden surge in numbers is probably something they’d notice. And there’s a few particular features of tourism in Barcelona that I can see would likely wind up the locals. Firstly, there’s been a proliferation of Airbnb’s, with long term tenants being thrown out of their flats so it can be rented out to tourists (for the record, I stayed in one of the older pension hostals).
Also there’s lots of large tour groups running around, who seem to follow a set formula of places to visit. So if you’re in say, the Boqueria at the wrong time, you’re barely able to move for the numbers. And this has also had the effect of pushing up prices (the days of cheap eats in the Boqueria are long gone). And part of what’s driving these massive hordes are cruise ships, which have been docking in Barcelona in ever increasing numbers.
Indeed, my bit of tourist advice for Barcelona (or other cities like Rome with similar or even worse overcrowding) is remember that said tour groups tend to mostly consist of old retired couples. So with that in mind go to the places they won’t go (anything with lots of steps, loud noises, young people or this thing called “rock and roll”). And similarly if going to the places that are likely to be busy, such as the aforementioned Boqueria, go either early in the morning (when the oldies are still putting in their false teeth) or later in the evening (or around lunchtime when they’re having their nap) and you’ll avoid the crowds. But suffice to say though, you can see how all of this would piss locals off a bit. But equally, its a little more complicated than the simple populist “too many tourists”.
Now the thing is all of these problems are within the capacity of the local Catalan government to solve (keep in mind Barcelona voted in favour of independence by a margin of 92%). As I discussed in a prior article, most likely most of these airbnb hosts are breaking the law (notably local fire codes), so even without any new legislation a crack down on them is possible. Tourist guides can be regulated. And those regulations could stipulate terms that mean they stay away from certain parts of the city at certain times or on certain days giving the locals a bit of breathing space. Limiting the number of cruise ships or imposing a 72 hour rule on them (once in the harbour they can’t leave again for 72 hrs) would also relieve pressure somewhat.
Should you be wondering why the Catalan government isn’t doing any of this…..you’ve not be watching the news have you? They’ve got their eyes on the bigger prize of independence. And for that independence to succeed tourism will be a vital industry, as it will serve as a key source of foreign currency (meaning they can raise the cash to buy things like oil or other stuff the rest of Spain will be refusing to sell them). So at present the Catalan government doesn’t want to reduce tourist numbers, if anything they want numbers to keep going up. Not that they’re going to point that out to the angry populists in their own party of course!
But at least it shows that left wing populists can be as prone to blaming foreigners for their problems, as much as the right wing ones.
The downfall of Rojay
And speaking of Catalonia, we’ve just seen the downfall of Spanish PM Rajoy. If Catalonia ever gets independence, it will largely be thanks to his reign of error. When he took office, support for full independence was hovering around about 25-30%, although there was widespread support for greater regional autonomy. Now support for independence is closer to 40-50%. A combination of his austerity measures and his stubborn refusal to even consider alternatives has effectively convinced a large portion of Catalan’s that they can’t get anywhere with the likes of him in charge in Madrid.
Already, in complete contrast to Rajoy, his successor is talking about reconciliation and negotiating with the Catalan’s. However, I suspect the damage has already been done. The brutal crack down against the vote earlier this year has hardened opinions and nothing short of a legally sanctioned in/out referendum will suffice.
I bring this up because some in the UK have suggested that Westminster should copy Rajoy’s tactics when it comes to seeing off future moves for independence from the SNP. I would argue that would be an excellent idea….if the Tories WANT to guarantee Scottish independence.
As things stand, support for independence is hovering around the 45-50% mark. Given the fallout from brexit and the blow back the Tories will catch for that in a few years time, such tactics will all but guarantee the SNP will win any vote (official or unofficial) by a landslide. And while Rajoy could just ignore the Catalan’s, Scotland can’t be so easily dismissed (given that Scotland controls the majority of the UK’s energy supplies!).
In short, the Tories had best get used to conceding ground to Brussels, because the only way their going to hang onto Scotland and Wales is by conceding more power to Edinburgh and Cardiff.
Magic money trees
You may recall how Corbyn talked about nationalising the UK’s railways and the Tories laughed and said, oh we can’t do that, its too expensive, there’s no magic money trees……Only low and behold, the Tories have just nationalised the east coast mainline and bailed out their chum Richard Branson (who you will recall tried to rub Corbyn’s face in it last year, over that skit where he sat on the floor).
And this is hardly the first time. Hinkley C, Heathrow, BHS and Carillon, to name a few, have all had a bailout. And let’s not even begin to mention the costs associated with brexit. Recall, the tens of billions paid to the EU is just the start. The UK will also now need to set up whole new government departments to basically do the stuff the EU previously did for us. And there’s all the promises they made, farm subsides to be paid and the tax revenue hole left by leaving EU citizens.
So it would appear that whenever the Tories need it, not only is there a magic money tree, but there’s a whole forest of them.
On my travels I also passed through the wee seaside town of Ventimiglia. One unusual feature of this town is that it has three railway stations, of which only part of one is still in service (the rest are either demolished or slowly being taken over by weeds). And the disused sections are absolutely massive, consisting of marshalling yards with dozens of lines of parallel track.
You may wonder why a town with a population of just 50,000 ever needed such massive railway infrastructure. A little geography will probably help. The town sits right on the Italian/French border and is the last stop before entering France. So obviously, back in the days before the single market, every train that crossed the border needed to stop here for a customs inspection. It kind of hammers home the issues the UK will face post brexit.
The Tories are still stuck with their delusions that they can magically solve the issue of the Irish border with technology (and presumably more magic money trees). Well the experts don’t just say no, they say “are you mad or what!”. Every month 385,000 goods vehicles and 1.85 million cars cross the border. That’s an average of 75,000 vehicles a day that would need to be checked (and potentially double that number or more at peak times). And there are potentially hundreds of border crossings where you’d need to have inspectors or infrastructure in place.
I think the problem is that many brexiters still have this vision of Ireland as a nation of farmers who ride around with a donkey and cart. They don’t seem to realise that as a factor of GDP manufacturing represents a greater share of the Irish economy (about 40%) than it does the UK (about a quarter). And we’re talking several high tech industries here, everything from aircraft parts, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, to microchips and software. And yes, this does involve parts being sent north of the border, then onto the rest of the UK or Europe.
And speaking of farmers, agricultural produce does represent a significant portion of our exports to the UK. And it is agricultural products that will likely see the largest shift in tariff’s and prices post-brexit (by as much as 50% accounting for currency exchange and differences in tariff’s) and the largest drift in regulation if the UK caves in to some of the demands its likely to face from trading partners such as the US (meaning certain UK food products would be banned from sale in the EU or visa versa). So there’s going to be a very strong financial incentive for smugglers to start shifting such goods.
Already there are smuggler gangs, moving narcotics (Ireland’s rugged coastline makes it a transshipment point for drugs), alcohol, tobacco and fuel. Many of these gangs have links to either loyalist or republican paramilitaries. So even if this “electronic” border did work, they’d take steps to thwart it. Such as taking pot shots at drones, blowing up cameras, or sending guys in balaclavas around to threaten the families of the technicians who program the surveillance software. And these groups also have politician connections to the DUP or SF (much as how the RHI scheme in NI ended up mired in corruption, so too is likely to be any electronic border).
But this is the problem with brexit. Its an idea dreamt up by posh public school boys who live in some ivory tower and are ignorant of what happens in the real world.
Interesting article here about the likely impact of brexit on the full English breakfast. Let’s put it this way, about the only two ingredients that will be unaffected are the bread and the eggs. Well at least we’ll be able to make French toast then!
The height of hypocrisy
And speaking of brexit, Nigel Lawson, a leading brexiter, is now apparently trying to get residency in France. And he’s in good company, Nigel Farage’s kids both have gotten German citzenship (and its been claimed he’s applying as well) and several unionist have applied for Irish citizenship.
Do right wingers have no shame, no sense of irony and do they understand the meaning of the word hypocrisy? Or are they just a bunch of idiotic self centred jerks? They see nothing wrong with campaigning for something that will drag tens of millions of brit’s out of the EU, then think nothing of applying for EU citizenship themselves. After all how am I supposed to get to my yacht on the Cote d’Azur! Hell, who wants to live in England anyway, why they eat French toast for breakfast since brexit.
What happens in Donegal, stays in Donegal
Ireland recently had a referendum on abortion, which resulted in a resounding vote in favour of overturning the ban…..Well everywhere except in Donegal. That said, Donegal is kind of the land that time forgot. Its the sort of rural backwater where you’d be almost tempted to greet the locals by saying “how”. Its the sort place you fear that using a mobile phone might result in the locals burning you at the stake for witchcraft. So no real surprise really that they bucked the trend.
This creates some awkward problems for Theresa May. Her DUP allies have, like their cohorts in the south, relied on the hypocrisy that they can pretend to be anti-abortion, even thought it just means anyone looking to get an abortion merely has to get a Ryanair flight to the UK. In a year’s time however, they’ll merely have to drive across the border, which will make something of a mockery of this policy.
The result was also was a major blow to the religious right in Ireland and their north American allies. One (catholic) priest even suggested that anyone who voted yes, should be bared from confession and basically excommunicated (which means 66% of the country!) until they do penance. Here’s an idea, how about as penance yes voters have to join the DUP or the orange order (given that they’re the only two groups in the country still in favour of an abortion ban).
Another spot on my travels was the Benedictine abbey of Montecassino. A bit off the beaten track, but well worth the visit. It is steeped in history (back to Roman times, as well as the founding of the Benedictine order and monastic orders in general). But its also famous for being the site of the battle of Monte Cassino in World War II.
To say this was controversial was to put it mildly. The Americans bombed the Abbey (effectively committing a war crime) to the point where it became the most bombed building in Europe. What was more tragic was that it was entirely unnecessary. While there were Germans in the hills surrounding the abbey, there were none within the abbey itself….well not until after the Americans bombed the place. After this the Germans argued, perhaps not unreasonably, that the allies had just made it part of the battlefield and they promptly occupied the ruins. The large Polish cemetery just below the abbey testifies to the consequences of this error.
And the Polish cemetery also hints at how the British have a warped view of history. Read a British textbook on the battle and they’ll go on and on at great length about how this commonwealth unit or that took part in the battle. They scarcely mention that it was Polish who had to come in and dig the British and the Yanks out of a mess of their own making and ultimately take the abbey. And then they’ve got the nerve to come over to the UK and get jobs, pay taxes and help to fund the NHS!
Trump’s Korean flip flop
A major story that broke while I was away was that of Trump pulling out of the Singapore summit, apparently because the North Korean media said mean things about his vice president (somebody call the wambulance). Of course the real reason he pulled out can be summarised in two words – John Bolton. He no doubt convinced Trump that he should have his little war with the North Koreans as a way of saving himself from impeachment.
Unfortunately, what Trump, or Bolton, didn’t seem to get is that there are other players involved here. The South Koreans, while they want to keep up the pressure on the north, they also don’t want to see a war start (as they’ll be on the receiving end of any retaliation). So they will keep the talks going if they can. Which, probably explains why Trump’s just flip flopped now. An egomaniac like him couldn’t bear the situation, where they carried out without him, even thought he’ll really just be meat in the room.
The other factor is China. They are often described as a North Korean ally. As I’ve discussed before, that’s not entirely true. But certainly they ain’t going to sit ideally by and let North Korea, get attacked by Trump because of some mean tweets (and anyone who knows anything about North Korea would realise those comments were merely for the purposes of domestic consumption). The danger is that they will use economic pressure against the US, or potentially interfere in any war.
So all in all, its a very worrying development. At the very least it means the US will increasingly see itself sidelined, much as Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal just means the US will have no say in how that deal progresses in future.
Also while I was away, Israel won the Eurovision song contest. This raises a worrying problem, as it was announced they will host the contest next year in Jerusalem.
What’s wrong with that? Well, it would be seen as legitimising their claim of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. There is no way the Palestinians, nor the rest of the Arab world will ever accept that. They might be willing to accept a divided Jerusalem with one half the capital of Israel and the other half the capital of Palestine (or an international city which is capital of both), but a Jerusalem that is exclusively the Israeli capital is just not an option they’ll ever accept. Which basically means that the current conflict will go on forever…..or at least until someone gets there hands on a nuke or something. That effectively is what Trump endorsed when he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Trump did this to placate the religious right in his country. They are some of the biggest supporters of Israeli expansion of its settlements on the west bank. Not because they necessarily like Jews, actually its because they’re hoping that this war forever between Israel and the Arab world will bring about the end times….during which most of the Jews will be killed or converted.
So to me its quite clear that there should be a boycott of the next eurovision, if its held in Jerusalem.
Trump syndrome in action
And speaking of crazy Trump supporters, while I was away we saw the melt down of Roseanne Barr. And Kanye West, suggested that slavery was a choice. Well, at least we won’t be hearing much from either of them for a while. Indeed, this seems to be something of a trend for Trump supporters. Apparently many of those who quit the Trump white house are having trouble finding jobs afterwards. Supporting Trump is literally hazardous to ones career. On the other hand, both have done us all a service, by demonstrating the cult like behaviour of Trump supporters.
There is a distinct difference between a cult and say a religion or a political party. For example, a catholic bishop doesn’t have to agree verbatim with everything the Pope says (many won’t be happy about his recent comments about gays). Similarly in most political parties its okay to criticise the leadership (up to a point of course). And they can praise the opposition when they do something positive.
With a cult however there are only two things you can say, praise for the leader and the vilification of his opponents (which will be anyone who has criticised him in the past). The leader is considered infallible and his enemies are evil and anything they say (such as the Russia investigation) is clearly lies and fake news. Unlike other political leaders at no point will you hear any of Trump’s supporters criticise him, even when he’s clearly done something wrong. Even things that sound like criticism are often phrased such as “the leader should do XYZ”.
And the trouble with getting involved with cults, is the difficulty in leaving. You want to leave the labour party, all you’ve got to do is cut your membership card in two. But once people are in the Trump cult, its not easy to leave, given that they’ve burnt all their bridges behind them (I can’t see Roseanne going back to the green party). Hence the hostility and lack of rational reasoning you’ll see from them.
Of course what this means is that anyone waiting for the penny to drop for Trump supporters, think again. If he makes it to the next election, regardless of how badly he screws up, he’ll still take in at least 40% of the vote at a minimum.
Gun hire schemes
A bunch of practical jokers thought to set up a mock “gun hire” scheme at subway entrances recently, as a way of mocking the NRA. A dangerous thing to do, because this lot have no sense of humour and don’t understand the concept of irony. The danger is they’ll decide this is a good idea and actually do it for real.
Consider how a few weeks ago I joked how the Outing club should start carrying guns around campus, to get around some SAPS in administration who wanted to shut them down on Elf’n’Safety grounds. Well in another incident a Trump supporter recently showed up to her graduation with an assault rifle and “come and take it” written across her mortar board. Ya and if she’d been black she’d have probably been shot by the police before she got two blocks.
But like I said, your trying to reason with people who are not reasonable people.
Setting the range for hybrid cars
The current transport secretary Chris Grayling is known as a bit for being pro-car and not a huge fan of green energy, so you have to view everything coming out of his department with a level of suspicion. For example, they’ve recently announced that the UK reg’s will specify a minimum all electric range that hybrid vehicles must be able to achieve.
On the one hand this sounds like a good idea. As things stand a car with a larger than normal car battery and starter motor can be classified as a hybrid, when in truth its really just a conventional petrol powered car. However, that said, the range that his department is talking about is in the order of 50 miles, which even well established hybrids such as the Prius can’t achieve.
Its important to realise that the range of vehicles do vary for good reasons. The all-electric range of a hybrid involves a level of compromise. Putting a heavier battery into a hybrid will deplete its fuel economy, which may well negate the benefits of hybridisation. And its worth noting that the bulk of car journey’s in the UK are less than 20 miles.
Of course with the UK pulling out of the EU, it hardly matters what the UK says on this matter. Inevitably the EU will decide what it thinks a suitable hybrid range should be and car manufacturers will build according to that specification. They’ll then simply sell either all electric or petrol only models in the UK, if they aren’t compatible with this new law. So all Chris Grayling is doing is restricting the car choices of future UK drivers. And the fear is that might be exactly what he’s aiming for, so he and his Tory pals can keep driving around London in their range rovers.
And speaking of the EU, they have also announced legislation requiring future electric vehicles to have noise generators fitted to them. I would question the need for this. While yes, its eerie having electric cars creeping quietly up on you, but its something you get used to when you are in a city with lots of electric vehicles (such as Oslo or some Chinese cities). Maybe its just because I had the green cross code drilled into me as a kid that I instinctively look both ways when crossing the road, so its not really an issue for me.
One of the main benefits of electric cars is that they cut down on traffic noise, leading to quieter cities. This policy could negate this benefit. Now if people were being regularly cut down by electric vehicles, I’d agree we have to do something, but I see no evidence that this is a problem. And some experts have also questioned whether such noise generators actually work in the real world. So I worry that this policy is simply being imposed as a sop to those who are suspicious of electric cars, in the same way the first petrol powered cars had to have a guy walk in front of them with a red flag.