what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What's in a picture?

Regular readers will have noticed that my booklet on Bulgarian painters seems to be on the back burner. I have hit a wall – not being able to find the basic data which I feel I need on about 50 of the painters on my list (of whom I have a reasonable sample of images). I don’t know about you – but, whenever I see a painting which I like, I always want to know something about the painter. Where did (s)he grow up? Where were they trained? What were the defining inspirations and influences?
So I am trying to include in my booklet some text on such things as –
• Date and place of birth – and year of death
• Training; where (particularly if abroad) and with whom
• Genre – and how to identify
• Main places of work – and influences

But the time has not been wasted – I’ve been looking at some examples of painting books eg Modern art 1851-1929 by Richard Brettell in the superb Oxford History of Art series which is good on classifications, social context and the width of selection – as well as Art – a new history by Paul Johnson which is an easier and more personal read (as someone who does not profess to be an expert).
Paintings speak in different ways to each of us – although that doesn’t stop art critics and historians from imposing a lot of words and noise on us.

I realise that I have always put a visit to the municipal art gallery at the top of my list when visiting the various cities of Europe (and central Asia) – for example
• Berlin in the 1960s (to discover the 19th century realists such as Adolf Menzel; and the works of the first 3 decades of the 20th century of Georg Grosz; Max Liebermann and Kathe Kollwitz
• Brussels in the 1980s (to be moved by the 16th century Flemish art – and late 19th century realists);
- Venice also where I saw Caravaggio's incredible realism in all its glory
• Istanbul in the late 1980s (and the delight of their miniaturists and calligraphists)
• the stunning Hermitage in Leningrad in January 1991 (Repin and the Russian Itinerants); and
• Tashkent in the early 2000s (for the Asian side of Soviet art).

Only as I write this do I realise that most of these paintings are figurative whereas what I have fallen in love with here in Bulgaria are the paintings of their land- and sea- scape artists. Perhaps that it nostalgia for my home country, Scotland, which I left 20 years ago – and the glorious landscapes painted in Victorian times by people like John Knox and William MacTaggart and, in the early part of the 20th century by the Glasgow Boys and Colourists.
It was only in 2007/08 when I was living and working in Bulgaria that I stumbled on the landscapes and seascapes painted by the Bulgarian painters who were working in the early and middle of the 20th century.
I found them beautiful – and affordable – and have found myself an art collector!

And now that I have a reasonable number of land and sea-scapes, I am trying to find more figurative work – such as the R Ivanova painting which heads this post

- and this unknown

the demise of the citizen

I’m not a technical geek – so it was a bit of a surprise when I realised a couple of months ago that the information and references I receive when I google are in fact personalised to me on the basis of a personal profile the google machine has built on me from my internet activity. New York Review of Books has just published an interesting, wider review of the role of Google.

In this part of the world, an individual citizen is remarkably free from the sort of social controls on development we are used to in northern europe. Houses spring up without any sort of municipal approval; and of, course, two factors make it difficult to develop such a system here. First the municipal officials simply don’t exist to make it work; and, initially at any rate, any attempt to develop a planning system would be totally corrupt. People would simply buy the required permissions. The British planning system can, of course, sometimes go too far, with even minor adjustments to one’s home requiring protracted negotiation. But noone, as far as I am aware, has even suggested abolishing the system. Most citizens accept that the protection of the "greenbelt”; public parks; historical features; some element of aesthetic propriety are worth a little bit of bureacracy. I was appalled to learn that all of this could be thrown away by the coalition government in Britain.

The recent coverage of the Murdoch family and empire has focussed on the minutiai of who knew what. We must not lose sight of the fact that this is an empire which has successfully controlled government agendas and made a mockery of democracy.
And a good "take” on the current US crisis – and, again, how it has exposed the lack of any democracy in that country can be found on Real Economics.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

asking the tobacco companies to draft public health policy

You are all probably as confused about the Greek "bailout" and associated BRIC problems as I am. I have just read the clearest exposition - in Social Europe of all places. The article suggests that the 200 billion euros net support which the Greek economy has apparently received is equivalent to a "reverse wealth tax" and asks why the alternative policy of "direct bank support through bank recapitalisation" was not considered.
It is a much more effective and cheaper solution than a full guarantee of sovereign debt. The taxpayers could get bank equity in exchange for their money. If this crisis is like others, there is a chance that share values recover and taxpayers break even in the long run. The 2007-2009 crisis has shown that governments are indeed able to contain a banking crisis by resolute action like forced recapitalisation and temporary nationalisation of banks. The better prepared we are for such an event the smaller will be the impact on the economy. Europe’s governments have had plenty of time to prepare over the last year, so why was such a solution not even considered?
The reasons are political. Such a solution would have upset powerful vested banker interests, even though it would have imposed the costs on those most responsible for the massive credit misallocation.
A strong negotiating position of politicians confronts two important obstacles:
• First, the finance ministry and banking authority typically lack competence and information in order to prepare contingency plans for bank recapitalisation. There is an acute skill shortage in the finance ministry and what talent there is meets a wall of secrecy put up by an uncooperative banking sector.
• Secondly, the strong lobbying power of the banking sector deters politicians from preparing in advance and taking risks in favour of the taxpayer.
Conflicts of interest between the politicians and the bankers are rampant.
After the disastrous risk-management performance of many bankers revealed in the 2007-2009 banking crisis, it is surprising that the same people still enjoy great influence in the policy process. The consequences are predictable. If you ask a frog to come up with a plan for draining a swamp, you are like to end up with a proposal for more flooding
The painting is a Nenko Balkanski - a favourite of mine - to be seen at the Kazanluk Gallery

Is the Left Right?

I was interested to see that a long-established writer (Charles Moore) for The Daily Telegraph (the newspaper of English conservatism) has written a piece suggesting that at least the left’s analysis of present global woes may be correct.
I was even more interested, however, to be led on first to a commentary on that article in something called The Daily Bell - and, even more importantly, to The Daily Bell itself. The commentary focussed on what it regarded as sloppy thinking in Moore’s use of the word "conservative” -
English conservatism (Toryism) supports the monarchy, for instance. But the monarchy is a tool of the entrenched Anglo-American power elite, which values rank and file conservatives no more than anyone else. One is left ultimately with an amorphous philosophy that is resistant to change and endorses the status quo without a great deal of calibration as to what that status quo actually represents.
Conservatism is essentially backwards looking. One does not have to be financially literate to be a conservative. One need merely be "pro law and order." Thus, conservatives both in the United States and Britain are willing to tolerate far more state involvement in economic affairs than laissez-faire "classical liberals" – libertarians in the States.
The world is run by Anglosphere power elites with tactical arms in Israel, Washington. It is abetted by corporate, political and military enablers. Its enemy is classical liberal sociopolitical stances and free-market thinking. Conservatism holds little threat to it, especially as conservativism usually espouses government action to solve perceived problems.
Conservatism is often nationalistic and even militaristic. Even those who are profoundly ignorant of free-market principles, history and philosophy, can adopt it. Moore concludes his article by worrying that conservatism cannot be saved. He is worrying about the wrong thing
It’s the first time I have come across the phrase "Anglo-American power elite” – but it seems central to the purpose of The Daily Bell which is not a newspaper but rather a US libertarian think-tank of a different sort (not funded by corporate interests). I don’t like conspiracy theorists; nor those who rave against government regulations and use the language of the free market – but, equally, there has always been an anarchistic side to my political thinking (and indeed actions when, as a Regional politician, I encouraged community development processess). I have talked before here about corporate interests controlling governments – and there is little doubt that the deregulation of international financial controls in the 1970s (the subsequent growth of financial power; and enthronement of greed and credit) are some of the main factors behind the present global crisis.
It is therefore interesting that hard left, libertarians and anarchists seem to share a common assessment of the problem – namely large-scale, unaccountable and interlocking financial, corporate and government bureaucracies. Where they differ is the remedy. The hard left has an optimistic belief in the state. The hard libertarian right has an equally determined programme to take power away from the state and corporate power and to try (for the first time) to create a truly functioning market system – with myriad producers (how that can be done without regulations, I don;t know). The „soft anarchists” are those I suppose who encourage us basically to opt out from it all – to transform the world by our own actions (see the weekly archdruid blog for example)

Anyway, the articles on The Daily Bell are thought-provoking – see, for example, this long interview about the power elite.

And now a literary turn – I picked up another remaindered book a couple of days ago which I would stronly recommend - The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt is (according to a great Reading Guide produced by Penguin Books) - a
portrait of the intriguing and colorful private Venice—the world that exists in the off-season, when the tourists have departed and Venetians have Venice all to themselves. The book opens with Berendt riding in a water taxi to his hotel three days after a colossal fire destroyed the Fenice Opera House, one of the most beloved cultural landmarks in Venice. Berendt decides to extend his stay to learn more about the fire and the city from the most beguiling source, though not necessarily the most reliable—the Venetians themselves.
Drawing on all his talents as an investigative reporter, Berendt goes behind the façades of decaying buildings to reveal the city's intricate, hidden private life. Byzantine by nature, the Venetians reveal themselves in both open and secretive ways—after all, as Count Marcello tells him, "Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say." Berendt meets people whose families lived through a thousand years of Venetian history. He speaks with a variety of people who make their homes in grand palaces and in tiny cottages. There is the Plant Man, the wealthy rat-poison genius, the fearless and much feared Venetian prosecutor who unravels the mystery of the Fenice fire, the celebrated artist who schemes to get himself arrested, the well-known Venetian poet who commits suicide, the politicians struggling to point the finger of blame for the Fenice fire away from themselves, the former mistress of Ezra Pound, and the woman who may or may not have stolen her family legacy. Berendt spins a suspenseful tale out of the threads of many stories — some directly connected to the fire, others not. He finds chaos, corruption, and crime are as characteristic of Venice as its winding canals
These are the sorts of books I enjoy - which show
real people (in all their imperfections and weaknesses) engaged in struggles of different sorts. These are the sorts of books which should be used in classes on public admin!!
The painting is Scottish - John Knox no less (the Victorian painter - not the Reformation preacher!)- which is from Ben Lomond, showing not only Loch Lomond but, in the distance, the River Clyde and the Island of Arran.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Forward to the past - are there lessons from 1911?

The thunder which has rolled round Sofia these past 2 days has fitted my mood – a feeling of Goetterdaemuring as the right-wing fanatics crawl out from under the stones in Europe and the United States and threaten the codes of civilised behaviour.

In 1996 Linz and Stepan produced one of the key texts of "transitology”, drawing on the South American and Iberian experience of democratisation of the 1980s, to help us think about the change process underway in Central and Eastern Europe.
Their aim was to try to identify the conditions which created a "consolidated democracy” – one whose citizens accepted the legitimacy of specific governments (regardless of the scale of their policy disagreements) simply because they believed that the governments had been fairly elected.
Paradoxically, there seem a growing number of right-wing American citizens and representives who no longer share that basic premise; who are so opposed to the notion of public services and taxation that they no longer accept "compromise” as a political tactic. Their bile and spleen is so great that they are prepared to risk a default on their national debt to get their way.

Hours after posting this, I am glad to be joined in my feelings by a Real Economics post. Now these bampots are joined in their challenge to democratic legitimacy by mad northern european gunmen – who have equally made the judgement that their politicians have "sold out”; no longer warrant a civilised response; and therefore should try to take out a political generation. Other groups are also alienated by the direction of modern states.
If I were a Palestine fisherman, faced with this Israeli reponse, I would not be trying a civilised reponse. The pacific responses of Gandhi do not come easy to the "instant gratification” generation!

We do seem back a hundred years – at the point which preceded wars and revolutions. The anarchists and leftists are curiously silent (unlike the early part of the 20th century) and yet it is their agenda which is most comprehensively offended by the developments of the past few decades. I was rereading yesterday Tony Judt’s last political tract and also Susan Strange’s Mad Money (1996) which remains for me the clearest analysis of the decisions (and non-decisions) which have brought the western world to the edge of disaster.

This morning I wandered in the old market near the mosque, synagogue and Orthodox church and was strangely comforted. Poor people – whose disparate cultures (Arab; Turk; Bulgarian) – still brought together to trade, drink (coffee) and smoke.

I was strangely drawn to this painting (by contemporary artist Vladimir Dmitrov) when I saw it earlier this year in a Sofia gallery (my second from the artist). I bought it - and now know why. It makes for a lovely illustration of my theme of "twilight of the Gods".

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Eight Horsemen of the Apocalypse

In recent years, bankers have become a hated group. However, before the politicians could do any damage to their privileges and excesses, the British right-wing media was able to make an issue of some excessive financial claims made by numerous member of parliament (average 20k) and neuter what remaining power politicians had in that country. The ongoing media scandal in Britain has now (finally) exposed the moral bankruptcy of the “tabloid” newspapers who had politicians fearful of taking actions which would offend newspaper moguls. A joke which beautifully illustrates the perversion of these papers has the Pope in a rowing boat with the leader of the miners’ union of the 1980s then in deep conflict with the government. The oars are lost and Scargill (the miners’ leader) gets out of the boat and walks across the water to retrieve the oars. The next day’s newspapers headlines are “Arthur Scargill can’t swim!”!!
The ongoing scandal has now also brought police corruption into the frame in England.
So, in the course of 3-4 years, 4 core professions of the British Establishment (or Power Elite) have been demonised – bankers, politicians, media and police. Perhaps the most powerful professional group, however, has managed to stay out of the spotlight – but needs now to be “outed” and ousted from its privileged and corrupting position. And which group is that? They began to come into the frame at the recent exchanges between the Murdoch mogul and his son and members of the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Culture and media. Of course the questions (ranging from dum to clever) were interesting - and also the answers (clearly carefully prepared). But, for me, most interesting were the faces and body language. I was particularly struck by the faces of those who sat in the row immediately behind the 2 Murdochs – not just that of his (beautiful, young Chinese) wife but those of two elegantly dressed and elderly consiglione whose impassive features recalled nothing less than those in mafia films. These were his lawyers – and it was (corporate) lawyers whose advice had been sought by the Murdochs we heard about time and time again during the exchanges. Britain and America have more lawyers than most of the countries of the globe put together – and they basically protect the amorality of corporations. And it is these poeple who then go to become judges - Craig Murray has a short post today on the amorality of our judges. And those with any optimism remaining for the future of the planet will be disappointed to learn that the majority of graduates these days still want to go into either the finance or legal sectors. If our churches had any morality left they would be focussing on this – and discouraging our youngsters from such decisions.
I think it was Harold MacMillan who suggested at a meeting of ex-Prime Ministers that the collective noun for a group of political leaders was a “lack of principles” (He also, interestingly, said that “we did not give up the divine right of kings to succumb to the divine right of experts”! ). So I offer you the 5 groups who are destroying our civilisation - investment bankers, politicians, corporate lawyers, tabloid journalists and corrupt policemen. But what about the accountants/economists, academics and preachers??? Damn! There seem to be 8 horses of the apocalypse! Let me in conclusion, offer this quotation from mediaeval times -
Strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other human beings - above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends
I have never heard of the painter John Atkinson Grimshaw – but would recommend these videos one of which has the music of Thomas Newman whose soundtrack helped make the film Road to Perdition such a fascinating one for me
I have chosen Durer's version of the Four Horsemen genre.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Man ist was man isst – we are what we eat

Serendipidy again – was browsing amongst reduced-price books in the nearby bookshop and found one with the title We Want Real Food – the local food lover’s bible by Graham Harvey (first published in 2006) which took my fancy. Michael Pollan is the guy I’ve read on the development of the food industry in the post-war period (in America) – and how damaging agro-business is to our health. He is actually a Professor of journalism in California who writes, as you might expect, very elegantly – but has become increasingly concerned about the issue. In Defence of Food – an eater’s manifesto (2008) is perhaps his easiest read. His classic - The Omnivore’s Dilemma (also 2006)- goes into harrowing detail about the composition of what we are eating (basically oil!), is more hard-going and, of course, talks exclusively about the United States.
So I was interested in what Harvey (a Brittish agricultural specialist) had to say about the issue – and the book certainly seemed a lot more practical – with notes on the minerals we need, on individual foods and details of real food shops and farmers’ markets in the UK ( not much use for me!). I was quickly gripped by the story he had to tell – particularly about the passion of a few heroes who stood against the gadarene rush to industrialise and fertilise our food in the post-war period – I was introduced to a family doctor in rural Aberfeldy, Scotland (Walter Yellowlees) who noticed the deterioration of health in the town and tracked it to fertilisers. His presentation of the results in London in the late 1970s to the British Medical Council in a paper entitled Ill fares the Land left his fellow medics indifferent. And I was stunned to read of the results of adding rock dust (with its trace elements) to soil fertility. Harvey’s argument is simple -
The best farm is a mixed farm in which grass and forage crops grown for ruminants are reared in rotation with crops grown for human consumption. This is a very balanced and sustainable system that mimics natural systems. It’s very productive and produces healthy foods.
Of course this is the method in Sirnea – and Romanian and Bulgarian villages which multi-national fertilizer companies want to abolish and who have had the support of the EU’s Agricultural policy for the last few decades. There are a few other books now about this scandal eg Raj Patel's
Food, health (and the safetly of what savings we can manage) are surely the most fundamental issues for the majority of Europeans. If only more of us would focus on what has been going on in these fields in the last few decades; identify the culprits; and come together to map out the sort of practical alternatives which Harvey does in this book!!!

I challenge my readers to produce a more moving combination of paintings and music than these two vidoes from the Skalen art gallery – just north of Copenhagen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Oh to be in England!

A great European artist is dead – Lucian Freud (above). It’s rare for an artist to make the front page – and its sad that it’s so often only on their death that such detailed information can be found.

Alan Bennett has become a very English institution – in the sense of someone much appreciated for the loving way his essays and diaries recreate th sense of life in the middle of the 20th century. You can experience his wry appreciation of the past from this video which is part of a campaign against the cuts which are engulfing public libraries in England.

I liked this quote from Machiavelli as a commentary on the culture of ignorance with which we were presented in the parliamentary cross-examination of the Murdochs -
ONE ERROR into which Princes, unless very prudent or very fortunate in their choice of friends, are apt to fall, is of so great importance that I must not pass it over. I mean in respect of flatterers. These abound in Courts, because men take such pleasure in their own concerns, and so deceive themselves with regard to them, that they can hardly escape this plague; while even in the effort to escape it there is risk of their incurring contempt. For there is no way to guard against flattery but by letting it be seen that you take no offense in hearing the truth: but when every one is free to tell you the truth respect falls short...."
In my own humble experience every organisation i have ever worked in has resolved this conundrum by the simple expedient of ignoring it - in fact every management I have seen has encouraged the maximum possible sycophancy towards itself and the maximum possible group-think among employees. Genuinely independent thought was absolutely not to be tolerated. It would never occur to me that the Murdoch Empire would be any different
.And for those who can’t get enough of this developing scandal, here’s a podcast discussion between the editor of the Guardian and the key journalist to whom we owe the revelations.

It’s good to know that there is a sense of humour in some bureaucracies – this is the written response Bristol City council gave when asked about their strategy for dealing with a zombie invasion from outer space!

I’ve blogged recently about dead Bulgarian villages. This series of videos reminds us that many British towns are also suffering a slow, ligering death.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Painting treasures; bananas and bampots

Avid readers will remember my recent welcome for the work of Sofia City Gallery in opening up the thousands of paintings in its vaults to (selective) outside selection and display. I am always interested in policies for ensuring that the richness of paintings are, somehow, made more accessible. And last evening I encountered the most ambitious attempt – making the images of no less than 200,000 paintings which are currently in British public spaces (whether galleries, council buildings or universities) - accessible to us globally on the internet. It is a partnership between the BBC and an organisation which has steadily been publishing (at very reasonable prices) regional catalogues - and the first 60,000 images have just come available My only regret is that little information is given about the painters,
A short video has the delighful Scottish painter - Alison Watt – from my hometown – visiting the local art gallery (the board of whose wider library and museum complex my father used to chair for many a long year) and giving a lovely intro to the concept.
I have spoken several times of the impact which the novels (and an autobiographical piece) of Amos Oz have made on me recently. Much as I have admired the Proustian anguishings of Istanbul’s Nobel-prize winner Orhan Pamuk over the past decade, he actually can’t hold a candle to Amos Oz who surely should shortly attract the judge’s support. London Review of Books had a good assessment of Pamuk -
Among the less noted, but most striking aspects of the current government is its rediscovery of an Ottoman past long maligned by Turkish secularists. One could argue, without too much exaggeration, that the neo-Ottoman revival was anticipated by Pamuk’s novels, with their intricate portraits of a cultural past which Atatürk and his successors, in their drive to turn Turkey into a Western republic, were determined to bury. The building blocks of modern Turkey were denial, erasure and forgetting; with the establishment of a secular monoculture, the Armenian genocide was negated, Kurds were defined as ‘mountain Turks’, the fez was banned and the script was changed to the Roman alphabet. Trained as an architect, Pamuk has worked in reverse, dismantling the house Atatürk built, laying bare its cracks.
And I told you all to keep reading the Hungarian Spectrum blog – for the case study it currently offers of those we Scots call the "bampots” who are currently in charge of that country. The world’s attention is on the PIGS – so this little banana republic feels it can do what it wants – and it just could be the future hotspot for some central european violence. The posting about military studies becomning part f the school curriculum certainly suggests that this is being prepared for!
But where are the bloggers spotting and mapping such tendencies in other nations??
The painting is a William McTaggart - one of Scotland's big names (Victorian era). It is of the Island of Jura (which has 70 people and a great whisky) and reminded me a little bit of the Mitko Kostadinov I recently bought her in Sofia.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Evasion, amorality and Bulgarian tomatoes

OK Confession time – I did spend 5 hours of my life last evening hooked in front of the screen watching MPs of the british Parliament’s Select Committee on Culture and Media "cross-examine” first Murdoch Senior and Junior (who control so much of global media); and then Rebecca Brooks who was, until last week, the editor of one of their trash newspapers. It was a gripping and wonderful encounter between powerful people and a small cross-section of elected representatives of the british parliament – who revealed, each in their own way, both the weaknesses and (potential) strengths of that institution. I’ve put the verb in inverted commas simply because I could not believe how pusillanimous most of the the questions were (with the honourable exception of one Labour (Tom Watson) and one Conservative MP) – and how little follow-up and comment there was. Basically Rupert Murdoch has such a large empire (News of the World accounted for less than 1% of it) that he was rarely briefed; and his son’s comments could be reduced to two statements – "I only took up my appointment in 2007" and "I don’t want to prejudice the ongoing police inquiry". Rupert Murdoch clearly does not even begin to understand the meaning of responsibility – when reminded of the several occasions when people employed by his empire were publicly revealed as having committed serious misdemeanours and asked what action he had taken, his answer was simply that the law had to take its course. There were clearly no internal disciplinary processes. His further comment that "the people I had trusted had been let down by the people they had trusted" also reveals an interesting viewpoint, in which the more lowly you are, the greater a moral responsibility you bear.
The Guardian has useful video excerpts and commentary. Here's a great update of a song the Queen's drummer (Roger Taylor) gave us in the 1990s about Murdoch. Two Guardian correspondents give rather different perspectives (the strength of that paper) here and here. But Boffy’s Blog probably expresses it best.
And this media fixation effectively distracted me (yet again) from taking any real action on my bank savings. I had visited my three banks here to try to make a judgement of what to do with my cash – with a firm proposal being made to me for the first time to move into gold. Everyhere I look there are huge risks – inflation; banks failing; the euro failing; gold coins purchased neing duds.
So best thing is to bury oneself in (a) novels – eg Amos Oz’s Fimaand here and (b) in the delicious Bulgarian vegetables and wine. I don’t think I have yet paid tribute on this blog to Bulgarian tomatoes.

Let me therefore quote on the latter from an ex-pat -
I spent half of July and all of August on the Bulgarian sea coast, starting the day with thick slices of tomatoes on buttered toast, continuing with tomatoes and feta salad for lunch, and ending it with more tomatoes and roasted long peppers or eggplants in tomato sauce, or stuffed zucchini with tomatoes, or nibbling cherry tomatoes straight from the vine, or… you get the picture.
The sun ripened tomatoes from my aunt’s garden are the second reason I go back to Bulgaria every summer – the first being my family and friends. The fact that my parents live ten minutes from the sandy beaches of Varna – the best city in the country – is also a big plus.
I’ve never found better tasting tomatoes – heavy, meaty, sweet. Bulgarians are crazy about their tomatoes, and most of them will grow their own in every available plot. August will be dominated by tomato topics such as the prices on the market, a disease threatening the crop or the extinct local varieties.
The pungent sweet fruits will even overshadow yet another cabinet crisis or new corruption scandal and everybody’s weekends will be spent not on the golden beaches, but plucking or watering the mighty tomatoes. Growing, eating and canning tomatoes is our national sport. And though I’ve been living abroad for many years now, I’m more than happy to participate in those late summer games. By September I have tomato juice flowing in my veins instead of blood
. See the photo I've just taken - this is an average tomato (note its relationships to the coaster or "biscuit" beneath - there are much larger ones which weigh in at a kilo apiece)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cities and States

Our understanding of the past came traditionally through books portraying royal families and then of the development of and conflict between nations (variously studied by historians, economists or sociologists). Biographies then developed wonderful insights (eg Henry Pelling’s study of Churchill). More recently writers such as Jason Steele, have offered anthropological, biological and psychological perspectives into our past. But, for me, it is those approaches which focus on geography and specifically cities which give the most powerful insights into the past and its influence on the present – eg Amsterdam (Geert Maak), Barcelona (Robert Hughes), Berlin (Alexandra Richie), Breslau (Wroclaw) by Norman Davies), Constantinople (Philip Mansell), Paris (Richard Cobb). It is in cities that we live, experience (and occasionally influence) the drama of history through the mix of events and individuals. And I doubt whether there is a more evocative book than Mark Mazower’s Salonica – city of ghosts, Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 which I was unable to put down after opening its pages.
I have the book with me since I hope to visit the city – which is only a few hours’ drive south of here. I first heard of the place from my father who visited it in the 70s because of its connection with St Paul. Mazower’ s book tells a fascinating story of the city’s 500 years under the Byzantine and Ottoman rule – with their tolerant policy making it a beacon for Jews harrassed and victimised elsewhere in Europe. At one stage, they formed the largest (if most poor) part of a city which was dominated by a small group of local elites and suffered from plagues and strife. The growth of Bulgarian, Greek, Macedonian and Serbian nationalist feelings in the 19th century heightened the fears of the city’s people – but noone could have predicted the sheer scale of brutality and population movement which the early part of the 20th century brought to this part of the world – with muslims being driven out of their homes and forced to flee to what was becoming Turkey; with Greeks being forced out of their homes in East Thracia and Anatolia. Last September I mentioned the massacres in Izmir in 1922 which transformed a city which, until then, had been peaceful. Mazower’s book tells a story of a city which had been much more riven with conflict and despair; which was conquered (against all expectations) by the Greek army in 1912; became a central node for hundereds of thousands of western soldiers in the Gallipoli campaign; and then had a third of the city ripped out by a great fire in 1917. As if this was not enough, the major part of its inhabitants were then forced to leave because of their religion.

From Salonica to Sofia – about which little is available on the internet. Here’s a short video on the city – with a rather obnoxious Australian-Brit hectoring an embarrassed Danish woman. But the pics are nice – particularly in the second half.

Der Spiegel gives Italy a deserved kicking here. This links back to a recent post about "amoral familiasm".

And, just to show there's no snooty british prejudice at work, an appropriate quotation about Britain -
It used to be said that the Russian tsarist system was autocracy, tempered by assassination. British public life feels similar: we don't do thoughtful, deliberate, progressive change. We do long periods of complacency, followed by explosions of outrage.
We don't properly confront the casino-banking system, until – bang! – all bankers are found to be evil and greedy. Hardly anybody discusses MPs' money until suddenly – crash! – MPs are evil and corrupt. Nobody talks much about how stories end up in newspapers, until suddenly – wallop! Journalists and executives, who made such a good living tearing at other institutions, are at last experiencing the same unforgiving mechanism of public opinion in its outraged mode
The first photo is one I took as I climbed up the Belogradchik fortress - its the superb painting above the door of the derelict but restored mosque there. The second photo shows the town from the old fortress.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nudging and lying

Rain last evening has brought cool. My ever-resourceful journal put me this morning onto another House of Lords inquiry which has been going on for some time – into „behavioural change” of all things – and onto about 1,000 pages of evidence related mainly to changing eating, drinking and travelling habits. An amazing freebie! I’ve long considered that policy advisers and makers (who churn out legislation) did not give enough attention to the numerous factors which make people behave the way they do. Some years back, I developed a table on this – which I keep updating. A fairly recent version can be accessed at page 73 here.I’m just flicking through the evidence – but already a couple of things have caught my attention – a fascinating table on ages of public service development in a paper on managing the impossibility of expectation – public services in 2020 from a new website. And an interesting submission from the Central Office of Information (COI) – which immediately raised in my mind the question of its relationship with the Statistical Office (which has been downgraded by the Coalition Government and whose chairman-designate has just resigned after a tough gruelling from MPs). I discover that the COI is also heading for extinction – after a review by a State Secretary (Matt Tee) who bears the title Permament Secretary for Government Communications but who seems to me to embody all that is worst in Orwellian Nuspeak. Instead of analysis, there is scoping and benchmarking. "Partnership” is nuspeak for privatisation. Indeed a new verb is invented "to brigade” as in
Government should agree a direct communication strategy, taking into account its priorities, the audiences it is trying to reach and the channels available to it. The strategy should brigade communication around a small number of themes.
And the axing of the COI is phrased as "its brand should cease to be used” !! These are weasel words – for wankers. Better to say that "government communications” is a synonym for…..lies!
Finally a nice gypsy rythm
And bring back Hieronymus Bosch!!! What would he make of our world in 2011? This is "ship of fools"

Saturday, July 16, 2011

UK the new Chile

As the sun beats down relentlessly on Sofia (35), I have had to switch the air conditioner on for the first time.
I realise that it is a bit odd that a blog from the Balkans should so frequently be referring to British events – for which I do apologise. In defence, I can only say that Britain offers a fascinating case-study in governance. For three reasons –
• Its constitution gives governments free rein on whatever nonsense they wish to perpetrate on the public (provided the programme is acceptable to the Murdoch and other media/corporate interest agendas). In that sense the UK can be compared with Chile - which was the first country to be used as an experiment for neo-liberal doctrines.
• Its academic and other traditions ensure that we get serious, civilised and analytical commentaries on government programmes (even from government)
• The disparate parts of the "United Kingdom” have had their governance systems for the last few centuries – which are now developing even faster in different directions. The part of which from which I come (Scotland) has never bought into the neo-liberal agenda which is about to tear England apart.
The return of the public blog - which I discovered today - is ruthless in its appraisal of the british political system – and of the shape of relevant programmes to deal with the financial and economic crisis -
Ignorance of political economy is not normally a serious impediment to a career in politics, but Liberal MPs who want to stay in Parliament after the next election need to figure out what’s going on, and fast. They could start by listening to what Vince Cable is telling anyone who will listen: You have a model of economic growth that has broken down, comprehensively broken down. We had personal debt, which was unbelievably high, and this means you have an overhang debt on houses. You’ve got a property bubble, where property prices went out of control, and so now you have households worrying about falling house prices. Businesses that can’t use their property as security. We’ve got this long-term, systemic neglect of key productive sectors, including manufacturing, because the exchange rate was overvalued. We’ve got the hollowing out of industry: we now don’t have the skills. And then we have the deficit, which was the consequence of the bank collapse.Cable (Lib Dem Business Secretary in the Coalition government) has started to echo the critique of the British economic settlement offered by Ann Pettifor and others. Credit expansion fueled a boom in construction and consumption; credit expansion also created financial sector profits and asset price increases that could be taxed and channeled into the public sector. The triumph of the financial sector was accompanied by a spectacular maldistribution of capital and talent. This was the essence of Brown’s economic miracle. The stockbrokers Tullett Prebon provide a summary of the consequences of this miracle here. I suspect that Cable has been reading it, or something like it. And as Cable well knows, the economy cannot turn round in a few years. The Conservatives do not have a coherent plan to deal with the mess they inherited from Labour. They know that the economy cannot deliver broadly based private prosperity and public goods in its current form. They are hoping to reconcile us to lower living standards as the price of maintaining the existing structure of power.
And it was this post which introduced me to Anne Pettifor’s name – who (after publications about debt in the Third World) was apparently warning from 2003 about the coming debt crisis for the First World and who now has her own great blog – with, for example, this useful explanation of what is really going on with the "bail-out” of Greece.

And Colin Talbot draws on his experience to make some comments about this week’s british government white paper on open public services.

Finally a powerful post from Real World Economics -
What we are currently seeing is the end game of a clash begun in the height of the Great Depression, which like a dormant virus, has sprung back in a more virulent and potentially dangerous form. Back during that time, in the 1930′s, the intellectual world was heavily engaged in practical politics. It was a time of momentous change, and depending on your point of view, either danger or opportunity. The collapse of western economics was a threat, not just to political stability, but to the theoretical framework that lent credence to the governing principles that fed into policy. Theory and practice were being tested. And when policy failed the need to articulate new theory became not just evident, but urgent.
It was within this heated forum that modern economics was formed. It may have taken a while for the various alternatives then developed to to be formally worked out – to reach their final specification – but the seeds were all sown. Everything that came later was an effort to clarify or to synthesize the ideas presented during those years.
Thus we recall the great arguments over the feasibility of central planning. We see for the first time the argument that economics is strictly interested in allocation. We see the Keynesian revolution and the emergence of uncertainty as crucial, and his use of aggregation in methodology. We see the beginnings of the modern Austrian school and its emphasis on entrepreneurialism. The list goes on. This was a high point for economic theorizing. The arguments were both public and severe. Great divides opened up that have never been bridged adequately despite the efforts in the post war era to accommodate pieces of Keynes within the classical project. The divisions were so deep that the landscape of the social sciences generally was re-written: sociology peeled away and reserved certain aspects of behavior, very often economic behavior, for itself

Friday, July 15, 2011

People types and a plea for slow politics

I’m a sucker for labels! By that, I mean I enjoy people classifications. It was probably Jung’s introvert/extrovert distinction which first impacted on me and I remember, twenty years ago, a book which looked at three scenarios for the future - "Retrenchment", "Assertive Materialism", "Caring Autonomy" - and how different groups are likely to respond to them viz the self-explorers, the social resisters, the conspicuous consumers and belongers, and the survivors and the aimless (the book was Millenium - toward tomorrow's society by Francis Kinsman). Those particular labels were, however, a bit confusing.
I prefer when the labels emerge from a simple matrix; for my work, one useful matrix has people plotted on one axis on the basis of their „agreement with the change” and on the basis of „trustworthiness” on the other – to give 5 types – allies, adversaries, bedfellows, opponents and fence sitters. In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book The Tipping Point argued that the attainment of the "tipping point" (that transforms a phenomenon into an influential trend) usually requires the intervention of a number of influential types of people. On the path toward the tipping point, many trends are ushered into popularity by small groups of individuals that can be classified as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Connectors are individuals who have ties in many different realms and act as conduits between them, helping to engender connections, relationships, and “cross-fertilization” that otherwise might not have ever occurred. Mavens are people who have a strong compulsion to help other consumers by helping them make informed decisions. Salesmen are people whose unusual charisma allows them to be extremely persuasive in inducing others’ buying decisions and behaviors.
And we mustn’t forget Belbin’s team roles and test.
I remembered all this when I saw this article in today’s Guardian which quotes from an ongoing research study in Britain which has suggested its citizens can be classified in three ways - Pioneers, Prospectors and Settlers

I mentioned the UK government’s White Paper on Open Public Services yesterday; and Owen Abroad’s blog alerted me to an inquiry the House of Lords is currently running on Overseas Aid.
It should be fairly obvious from this blog that (whatever my gripes about UK political leaders) I am a fan of the "classical model of british government” – a combination of rhetoric and "golden age” quasi-practice of –
• The judgement and "institutional memory” of career civil servants balancing the impatience and naivete of politicians who enjoy power for only a limited period
• Strategic statements of government intent being published as "Green” papers – with interest groups (or "stakeholders” in the modern jargon) being properly consulted
• Policies being reviewed not by "one-off” technical evaluations – but by submissions to a parliamentary body which are then cross-examined those with knowledge and experience and issued cross-party reports

It's time for a taste of "slow" politics - it was Tony Bliar who turned British governments into 24-hour media fixated machines. Hopefully the present media scandal there will encourage politicians also to look at this fixation.
And finally a marvellous commentary (and video) by the man who exposed the dirty tricks.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Strategy - or an academic essay?

The UK Coalition Government’s first official document (White Paper) on Public Services this week apparently got no publicity – the media was distracted by the phone hacking scandal. That’s a pity – not just because it’s a well-written document which clearly sets out mainstream thinking in England (the Scots would not go along with some of the themes eg choice) but also because the centrality given to the issue of equal opportunity is not what you would expect to find from a Conservative government -
But while we all have a shared interest in the best possible public services, we know that the poorer we – or our neighbours – are, the more we rely on the state and its agencies. Those who live in our most disadvantaged communities rely most critically on the NHS and need most urgently to see public health improve. Our poorest children depend most powerfully on high-quality childcare, good pre-school provision and excellent teaching to flourish in later life. Those in our most economically impoverished neighbourhoods rely most on decent provision of sporting facilities, parks and greenery close at hand to lead fuller lives.
And at the moment they are often let down.
So reform of public services is a key progressive cause. The better our public services, the more we are helping those most in need. That is why those who resist reform, put the producer interest before the citizens’ needs, and object to publishing information about how services perform are conspiring to keep our society less free, less fair and less united.
Throughout this paper, we will explain just how our reforms give power to those who have been overlooked and underserved. We will also demonstrate that it is only by publishing data on how public services do their jobs that we can wrest power out of the hands of highly paid officials and give it back to the people. And our reforms will mean that the poorest will be at the front of the queue
Although there are few references to the frenetic reform agenda of New Labour – starting from the 1997 Modernisation Programme and culminating in a self-congratulatory overview by the Strategy Unit of its work in 2009 – there is little with which Labour (at least in its later phases) could disagree. But what is most annoying is that the opportunity is missed for a really serious consideration of why – despite the apparent political commitment since 1997 to equal opportunity and a range of reasonably funded programmes – no real progress has been made on that front. What are the lessons for any new strategy? That’s the whole point about strategies – identifying the factors and forces which have undermined good intentions in the past and developing a “theory of action” and programme which gives us confidence that things might actually change for the betterOne comment makes the point well
The white paper places much emphasis on consultation and facilitating change rather than directing. A weakness is that many proposals are projects or programmes and should be subject to the established public sector controls such as "starting gate" and "gateway". These are not bureaucratic, help identify what should not go ahead, whether the necessary success factors are in place at each stage of the project and whether there need to be changes. These robust approaches save time and money and greatly increase chances of success. The white paper should have provided assurance about applying these disciplines.
A couple of other useful commentaries - first on the realism of the document's reliance on "choice" and "community"; and, second, on the encouragement of social enterprise and "mutualities"are here -

And I've discovered another nice painting blog

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wine, figures and power

Magura is the name of a large cave 25 kms from Belogradchik – the end of the line here with no links to neighbouring countries. But it is also the name of a vineyard which produces excellent wines which I have now discovered. All due to the small kiosk they have at the entrance to the Belogradchik fortress; the two young people who manned it yesterday (as I arrived gasping from the steep climb) clearly knew nothing about wines but I did, after my tour of the fortress, buy a bottle of the attractively labelled Chardonnay (same price – 3 pounds - as the excellent Mezzek range which is currently my favourite). In the hotel last night, the Chardonnay tasted as good as the Mezzek – so today I returned and was lucky to find one of the vinoculturalists herself – with the highly appropriate name of Venelina! She was delighted with my comparison with Mezzek – and was able to tell me that they do have a shop in Sofia – Pushkin St 5. And also a nice website. I bought some other stuff – and will duly report on my tastings! The shop also stocks wine from a small place I passed through on my way here – Borovitsa (sounds Romanian) – which I hope to buy tomorrow and taste over the week-end. Watch this spot!

My readings in the last few days suggest that this blog should focus more strongly on the whole issue of managerialism which has popped up from time to time on this blog. See here and here
Until now this site has reported on other people’s interesting "takes” or "scoops”. So my discovery of a government nominee for the position of Chair of the UK Statistics Authority deciding to withdraw from the position after her cross-examination by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee at the end of June is a first for my blog. With all the focus on the phone hacking of the Rupert Murdoch media empire, noone else seems to have noticed this. I’m still listening to the discussion (one third through the 2 hour intrerview) – and so far have noticed no reason why the MPs might feel she would not be a strong independent leader of the Statistics Agency. Apart from anything else, this is a rare and fascinating example of parliamentary power.
The photograph shows my faithful 14 year old steed resting while I photograph just outside Vrasets on the way to Belogradchik.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

out of this world

I'm now in Belogradchik and could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the first rock formations - some 20 kilometres before I hit the town. They extend over a 600-700 sq km area. The area is very poor - I detoured to the old carpet village of Chiprovitsa in an amazing bowl of mountains. A sleepy and disconsolate place - with many Trabans in the area. I had expected to see carpets displayed in the street - but all was desolate with only a small shop displaying very expensive stuff - 5 times what I had paid for an old carpet!
There is a very nice write-up of the Belogradchik rocks and town here.

Balance again - revising training material

During the preparations for a recent project bid, I could not come up with anything to say about how we might review (as outsiders) existing training material. Of course we can identify criteria such as –
• factual
• comprehensive
• balanced
• up-to-date
• user-friendly
• clear

But the subsequent judgements (for a board which is not expert in the varous subjects) are inevitably subjective and arbitrary. And do they really expect trainers to use material which had been developed by a third party? If so, it is a good example of the mechanistic thinking about organisations which has overwhelmed us in the era of project management and the logframe (treating people as things which can be manipulated). Chris Grey’s book for which I gave a link yesterday, is one of the best exposes of this I have read for a long time. Indeed I now see his little book (purportedly about studying organisations) as the best tract against modern society I have read in a long time. It ties together very beautifully a lot of strands of critical social and political thought.
My recent experience attending these workshops has given me probably the most appropriate approach to this issue of revising training material. All trainers were asked last week to summarise the various difficulties which workshop participants (from the Bulgarian municipalities) have mentioned as having with the design or implementation of EC projects. This is a good approach since it requires the trainers to think about what the participants have said (rather than what they, the trainers, think) – one frequent comment is the disagreements they have with the national authority which identifies mistakes (for which they receive a monitary penalty). Of course, the way to deal with that is to have a note from the national authority identifying the most common mistakes!
Only when the trainer minds are focussed on the problems of the trainees, should they be invited to revise their material - with the following sort of questions to help them -
• Compared to what the target group needs to know about your subject, what did you assume they already knew when you drafted your slides and handouts?
• How would you now change your assumptions about what they already know?
• What changes will you now make in your slides and handouts - in the light of these comments and changed understanding?
• Do you work with a statement of “learning outcomes”? That is – a detailed statement of things participants did not know when they arrived at the workshop and that you hoped they would know at the end of the workshops?
• How much time do you take at the beginning of workshops to ask the participants for detailed statement of their expectations and the questions they bring to the workshop?
• How do you check whether these expectations have been met?
• Have you checked the split of time between your presentations – and participants input?
• Do you observe the rule that participants cannot take much more than a 20 minute presentation?
• What efforts do you make to bring participants into discussion?
• Do you put yourself in their shoes – with their concerns about HOW to draft winnable bids which can actually be implemented successfully?

Of course, this is self-assessment – and the new project I was talking about assumed that outsiders would review and update the training material. I think, however, this is a last resort. It is the trainers who have been through the experience of teaching their material. Better to have a system to encourage them to think about what they themselves learned (and then apply it to their own revision) – with the outsider’s role being a facilitating one. Such an approach, however, which tries to get a balance (or dialectic) between groups does not seem to fit the positivist beliefs and “monitoring and control” culture of our times.

The photo is one I took as I left the training workshop - just a few kilomtres up the road - to show the village dereliction Bulgaria has to cope with

Monday, July 11, 2011

British Arab Spring?

For several decades, British political leaders have been operating a Faustian deal – hoping that toeing the agenda of media barons like Rupert Murdoch would buy them political immortality. Within weeks of his being elected Leader of the Labour party in the early 1990s, Tony Bliar notoriously flew half way round the world to pay homage at the baron’s court; seeking and getting acceptance as someone who would not upset the applecart and subsequently glowing in positive press coverage in the baron’s newspapers. Everything radical was strippped from the programmes and speeches of politicians for fear of losing media support.
But such abuse of power always has its come-uppance. A (Canadian) media mogul (who had owned one of Britain’s famous newspapers) went to prison in 2007 – and the biggest of the lot (Murdoch who owns almost 100 newspapers globally including 4 UK papers and was hoping to take over a major TV channel) seems now to be heading for perdition. It was a Guardian journalist who for 3 years relentlessly and fearlessly pursued the malpractices of the Murdoch empire – and it is therefore fitting that a Guardian journalist should gives us the best summary -
News of the World journalists ordered the hacking of as many as 4,000 people including grieving relatives of soldiers and of terror and murder victims because they thought their paper was untouchable. The cover-up was further evidence of this arrogance and included misleading Parliament and the Press Complaints Commission, the claimed bribery of the police, the intimidation of legitimate claimants and, it is now suggested, the destruction of digital files in Wapping. Little wonder that last year I wrote here that Murdoch, his children and clannish associates were beginning to match the profile of your average crime family.
This story is about the failure of the entire political class. Journalists and politicians, advisers, PR people, writers and lawyers drank Murdoch's champagne, swooned in his company and took his calls (with the current PM acutally appointing one of his editors as his Communications Director). Over more than three decades, the perversion of politics by and for Murdoch became institutionalised, a part of the landscape that no one dared question.
Serious crimes were committed and the police covered them up. Corrupt, or at least badly compromised, relationships became the norm and all but a very few politicians looked the other way, telling themselves this was how things were and always would be.
But let's not forget that a journalist, not a politicians was responsible for exposing the scandal
Attending (on one’s own) a workshop at a leisure hotel is, I find, a great aid to reflection – especially if your role is observation. I’ve fallen into the habit of taking with me to these workshops stuff I haven’t been able to read at home. Last workshop, I took the printed version of all of this year’s blog posts (more than 100 pages) – just to see what sort of coherence (or duplication) these is in it all. This time I took a small book with the title A Very Short, fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about studying organisations which I had criticised in the Amazon reviews when I first read it. Yesterday I romped through it again and found it an enjoyable and powerful critique of management – even justifying the flippant definition I give in Just Words – a sceptic’s glosary of the verb „to manage” – „to make a mess of”.
Here is a useful article the author wrote in 2000 about the critical management school of thinking.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Vrachanski Balkans

Up and away early to avoid the midday heat which once (actually three times) disabled the car a few years back in this part of the world at this time of the year as were driving back from the lovely Thassos island. Just outside Drama in Greece - as were were beginning the ascent for the new border crossing there – the car engine just stoppped. We were kindly treated (with an overnight stay needed for a petrol filter to be replaced) before the same happened at Plovdiv - after much meandering through gorges and round the densely wooded edges of the Rhodopes (with many minarets in the villages). After a mechanic asked for 300 euros with no guarantees, we discovered the car was working again and decided to proceed – over the Balkans. A Romanian lorry driver confirmed that it was the heat – it had happened to him. Just as we reached the top of the mountain ridge, the car stopped again – but, by then, I knew the trick – just to wait ten minutes or so.
Anyway I neednt have worried today – since, apart from my climb over the Petrohan Pass starting before 09.00, the road is heavily wooded and therefore protected from the heat. But the surface is bad (particularly on the descent) and the road twisty – so a 100 kilometres journey from Sofia to Varshets actually took 3 hours (including a trip to Pennywise in the nearby village of Berkovitsa for a bottle of Mezzek Sauvignon/Pinot Gris . I’m in the heart of Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park here – with towering mountain ranges on 2 sides. The hotel is very nicely situated - with solar panels covering the entire roof (very rare!). I was able to check in (to a large room), get organised and have a swim all before midday.

After my last post, I got thinking about Path dependency – and discovered that the phrase originated in economic not sociological studies as I had imagined. And, of course, it takes us deep into fundamental issues which thinkers have argued about for millenia - such as free-will! The opening pages of this paper are quite enlightening about this – but thereafter the paper gets typically turgid.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

culture matters

I changed the title of yesterday’s post after inserting some of the argument of the 2nd article on Greece (which tried to explain what might be called the "amoral familism” of the country – and its neighbours such as Romania and Bulgaria (to a lesser extent I feel)
I also added the link to the brilliant paper about Romania written by Ionitsa in 2005 which had used that term -
Leaders are supposed to be promoters of their protégés; and clan-based loyalties take precedence over public duties for salaried public officials. Such behavior can be found not only in the central government but also in local administration, the political opposition, academia and social life in general, i.e. so it permeates most of the country’s elites. Classic studies of Mezzogiorno in Italy call this complex of attitudes “amoral familism”: when extended kin-based associations form close networks of interests and develop a particularistic ethics centered solely upon the group’s survival7. This central objective of perpetuity and enrichment of the in-group supersedes any other general value or norm the society may have, which then become non-applicable to such a group’s members. At best, they may be only used temporarily, as instruments for advancing the family’s goals − as happens sometimes with the anti-corruption measures.
Since Romanian society, like others in the Balkans, still holds onto such pre-modern traits, its members are neither very keen to compete openly nor are they accustomed to the pro-growth dynamics of modernity. Social transactions are regarded as a zero-sum game; a group’s gain must have been brought about at the expense of others. This may be a rational attitude for traditional, static societies, where resources are limited and the only questions of public interest have to do with redistribution
And I was reminded of a recent discussion I had with an ex-Deputy Minister who was bemoaning the lack in public life here of the soft skills of communications and cooperation operating for the public good. And of my realisation of how rare was the enthusiasm of the lady from Pernik. It takes me back to the early days of my work in Romania when the Head of the European Delegation handed us summaries of Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy work; civic traditions in modern Italy which had recently appeared (I already had a copy of the book). She had quickly sussed out what Putnam called the „lack of social capital” in the country – ie the lack of trust and associations. Thanks to the World Bank, academic writing about Social capital then became a cottage industry. I’m not sure if we are any the wiser as a result!
As I’ve noticed before, "path dependency” is the phrase used by those who feel that it is impossible for a country to shake off its history. And that takes us into the murky areas of cultural studies – and of
Samuel Huntington whoe views are considered so offensive here since he suggests that the line dividing civilised from non-civilised countries puts Balkan countries on the wrong side (mainly for their Orthodoxy). But his stuff is worth reading – particularly Culture Matters which is a marvellous coverage of the proceedings of a conference on the subject which brought together in argument a lot of scholars.

I wrote recently about a new Gallery of Contemporary Art opening in Sofia’s south park – a magnificent renovation of an old mansion. Courtesy of Norway, Iceland and Leichtenstein no less. I paid my 3 levs and ventured in – and was bitterly disappointed. No Bulgarian artists – just a few small Chagall and Picasso etchings – and a large exhibition of Scandinavian ceramics. The second floor was roped off. I ceremoniously tore up my entrance ticket at the reception – and roundly chided them for false pretences. Apparently all the fault of the Prime Minister who wanted it open earlier rather than later to show what his government is capable of (the rehabilitation work only started in October). OK the building is nice – as are the large (Bulgarian) scupltures which surround it. But don’t bother going in!
And an example of the problems of moving around in this part of the world. Next week I will be up on the Bulgarian side of the the Danube just south west of the city of Craiova – as the crow flies it is little more than 90 kilometres from there to Vidin where there is a ferry from Calafin. I thought it would be a good idea if Daniela came down from Bucharest and met up at Vidin – so that we could explore the fascinating mountain area which is the north-west. In fact it will take her about 4 hours to make that 90 kms (much longer if she were to take the train) on the Romanian side. Two hours by bus; waiting time 2 hours; and 15 minutes the ferry which deposits you apparently 5 kilomtres from the town of Vidin- with no onward public transport! A bridge is half built (with European money) – but the Bulgarian side is bogged down in commercial arguments – and it could be another 18 monthe before it is ready (watch this space). I remember a woman from the cabinet Office here telling me that it took her a similar time and 3 changes of transport to move a similar distance within southern Bulgaria.
An interesting post this time last year - on government matters.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Balkan mistrust

Summer seems to have dawned at last – with 40 expected in the plains of Bucharest and 31 here in Sofia rising to 33 Monday. I should then be in the rarely explored North-Western mountain area – first of Varshets then, from Tuesday evening, in the old fortress area of Belogradchik. In the meantime, I have my spreading fig tree to protect me from the sun in the garden.
Amos Oz has been keeping me company these last few days – first with Black Box mapping ruthlessly the relations a woman has with her present (faithful and loving if rather eccentric) husband; her tight-arsed and rich ex; and their delinquent boy. Great stuff – with the powerful outporings of emotion I have now come to expect of this writer who should have got the Nobel prize a decade ago. Now I’ve started on his story of the strained relations between a 60 year old nomadic planning/engineering consultant back home and living with a younger woman with a mission – Don’t Call it Night. Oz seems to have a happy 40 year old marriage himself but he really gets into the painful crevices of relationships! Here's a long interview with him from Paris Review.
During the night I was reminded what an insightful writer Michael Lewis (of Vanity fair) is on current financial matters – the best things I have ever read on the Irish meltdown (his story reads like a modern version of The Emperor's New Clothesand the Greek crisis.In the classic journalistic (if not Detective Colombo) tradition, he approaches the issues from a common-sense point of view.
And here is an interesting article which was inspired by Lewis's exposure of Greek corruption to dig deeper and to try to explain why the Greeks have the political and ethical problems they do.
He reimnds us that, until the late 19th century, Greece was part of the Ottoman system (as were BUlgaria and Romania) - with all this means about clientilism and antipathy to authority. "Greeks are naturally distrustful of their leaders, and extremely quarrelsome among themselves" - as one can certainly say also about the Romanians. Here it's worth going back to the Ionitsa article I excerpted from on June 13. There is little doubt that officials have major difficulties talking and cooperating with one another (let alone with citizens!)in this part of the world (an ex-Deputy Minister here who is one of the trainers on our programme was talking to me recently about this). And yet this is never really picked up in the needs assessment which supposedly precedes all the training which EC programmes fund here. All the emphasis is on transferring knowledge - not altering attitudes and behaviour.
Finally an excerpt from a longer piece -
The present financial conundrum is a result and not a cause. It is the result of decades of rule by incompetent politicians, certainly in the case of Greece.( It doesn't need a Marshall plan it needs a regime change. Count on the evil undemocratic EU to take over much of the decision making behind the scenes, and a good thing too.)
The problem with present-day politicians in general is that they aspire to power and once they have it they don't know what to do with it. Consequently they're easily influenced by lobbyists and public opinion. The result is - predictably - indecision and procrastination or hysteria and panic. Being so unfocused our dear leaders get lost in petty detail, always a sign of people not getting the big picture. The founding fathers of the EU had a clear concept: no more war in Europe. The present lot just looks after the shop, and not very well
Two musical bonuses – first, from Romania (but only for the next few days), the pianist and composer Dinu Lapatti (1917-1950)
and from the English mining community The aquarelle is a Stamatov

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Rating agencies are part of a criminal set-up

With all the focus on Greece, I had missed the latest news about the rating agencies cutting Portugal's rating - here's a powerful response from a Portugese journalist
The rationale for Portugal’s rating cut makes no sense. Portugal was targeted with a streak of rating cuts that put us in the verge of “junk”. But then everything changed, a stable majority in parliament, a 78 billion euro loan, a programme designed by the troika, a committed government, a prime-minister obsessed with compliance. No matter what. We weren’t even given a full week: we’re junk.
The reasons for a rate cut are now absurd: the challenge of reducing the fiscal deficit, the need for more money and the troublesome return to the financial markets in 2013 are topics being addressed by the government. By the Country. This rating cut doesn’t identify these challenges, it precipitates them. This decision carries with it severe and immediate consequences. Not only because Portugal takes one step backwards in the path back to the financial markets. But because many investors will now dispose of Portuguese assets. Because collateral on our debt will have to be reinforced. Because today all Portuguese assets lost value. Portuguese companies, Portuguese banks, everything lost value between yesterday and today. At a time when privatizations are being prepared. When stress tests are underway. There are no coincidences. Today, thousands of investors who’ve been short-selling Portuguese stocks and bonds are richer. Buying stocks in EDP and REN will now come cheaper. We’re not on sale, we’re being ransacked.
Portugal was a mad MAN, he threw himself into a cliff and now clings to a rope that was thrown in his direction. He’s trying to hold on with all its strength, lucid and humble in the way only those in ruin are lucid and humble. Then came Moody’s, spitting to the side and saying climbing the rope is tough – thus cutting the rope.
This is not about Portugal, it’s a matter of war between the US and Europe, it’s about profits for private investors in the shadow of ratings agencies. Two weeks ago, an outstanding piece by the journalist Cristina Ferreira, at newspaper “Público”, illustrated that corrosion. Another journalist, Myret Zaki, wrote the remarkable book “La fin du Dollar”, which documents the “system” on which these agencies thrive and the underlying euro-dollar tug of war.
Yesterday, Angela Merkel condemned the power of rating agencies and promised to fight back. In less than 24 hours came the response: S&P’s warning that the Greek debt roll over will be considered a selective default; and Moody’s rating cut on Portugal.
We’re in the middle of a scam and the European Union is impotent. Four years after the crisis that these agencies allowed, Europe has been unable to put out a recommendation, a threat, a European rating agency. What has China done? They created their own rating agency. What does that rating agency say? That Portugal is BBB+. That US debt is no longer triple-A. The Chinese have power and courage, Europe has hung itself in the American bargain-price shop.
The troika is worried about the lack of corporate competition in Portugal… What about competition in rating agencies? Two days ago, Stuart Holland put forward, along with Portuguese former Presidents Mario Soares and Jorge Sampaio, the proposition for a European “New Deal”. He told this newspaper “we need government governing instead of rating agencies ruling”.

We’re not asking for pity, we want fairness. Europe crosses its arms. Let us not do the same. The European Central Bank must stand up against to this despotism. In October, a report by the Financial Stability Board, led by Mario Draghi, advised private banks and the central banks to build their own models for assessing the eligibility of financial instruments, putting a stop to the mechanical evaluations made by rating agencies. Draghi will soon become chairman of the ECB’s governing council. He doesn’t need to terminate rating agencies, he needs to rise up in look into their eyes.
This rating cut is uncalled for, and it will cost us. Portugal is now Europe’s junk. Rating agencies are the undertakers, wealthy and euphoric, of a ridiculously impregnable system. The agencies assure us they don’t hold anything against Portugal. As the man said, “it’s nothing personal, it’s strictly business”. That man was a mob boss
The rating agencies, are of course, utterly incompetent and corrupt - since they are funded by the companies they rate. This has been admitted by a senior manager. I would normally choose a georg Grosz painting or caricature for a subject like this -for a change I've used James Ensor, the Belgian painter of the early part of the 20th century since the picture captures the corrosive characters of those set in judgement over us.

Is there an alternative?

In March, I drew attention to a new sub-site on Europe established by the Guardian newspaper – and reproduced my response to its invitation for comments and suggestions on possible people who might contribute to the site
Thereafter I forgot about it – but went into the site today and found a useful piece from the historian Mark Mazower about a possible Marshall to deal with the economies of the European periphery. It has set off an interesting discussion thread – with many useful points being made – eg
• The role of the rating agencies (ineffective (they didn’t pick up the practices which led to the global crisis) unaccountable; corrupt (their resorces come from the companies they are rating!)
• The different contexts of post-war Europe and now
• The incentive banks still have for buying dud Greek bonds (they make more than the minimal rates available elsewhere)
• The basic issue about Greece being not their life-style but 2 other things - its political system (its conflicts being so great that it was felt necessary as early as the 1930s to give civil servants constitutional protection for their jobs – with the result that the system has swollen to 800,000); and the immorality of its richer middle class (who simply don’t pay taxes)
One particular post caught my eye -
The private sector caused the crash. The private sector created the conditions for the crash by ceaselessly chest-thumping for ever-greater deregulation and lower taxes (with threats to depart the country if its wishes aren't granted, an undemocratic influence which often outweighed the voices of voters). The private sector also causes the deficit (both here and in Greece) due to its persistent failure to pay the correct amount of tax.
And by relying on unreliable, undemocratic, random, greed-led and potentially catastrophic "market forces", they have created a national and international economy that makes no sense whatsoever - not for people, not for the environment, not for society.
It's time we stopped letting the private sector - in other words, the rich and powerful - hold us, our society and our children, as hostages to the fortunes of capitalism. Anything useful that the private sector makes or does, ought to be done in the public sector. It can be done there without the inefficiencies of competition or stuffing the pockets of the wealthy with profit margins and dividends. And anything useless that the private sector makes or does - and there's a lot of it, from advertising junk food to poodle-grooming parlours and conservatory-salesmen - would not be missed if it were shut down. That might reduce notional GDP, but if those figures place profit above people, then they were useless to start with. The opportunity cost of having a private sector are simply unsustainable in the 21st century: every pound or professional wasted in the private sector is one not being used to shore up the NHS, to build our green energy resources, rebuild our infrastructure, or research the cure for cancer. It's time to cut the parasitic private sector loose, and focus on our society's really valuable economy instead
Perhaps a bit over the top. But a lot of basic truths. The rich and powerful just don’t seem to get it – that most of them are useless parasites who live in a bubble world separated from reality. It’s all too easy, however, to vent one’s energies on such emotive outbursts – rather than patiently selling an alternative. And the alternatives do exist – as is shown in The Equality Trust’s second Digest which looks at inequality trends and reveals how Sweden’s policies cut inequality there between 1960 and 2005 by 12% - whereas it rose by 32% in the UK in the same period. One June 10, I referred to an article in Social Europe about the Nordic model.
It was Thatcher who undermined our belief in political and collective action. Her mantra was TINA – There is no alternative. And the underlying agenda of the triviliality which overwhelms us in the press and television is the old “bread and circus” one. Powerful media barons want to keep the world the way it is – for their sort. They define what is feasible – and are drumming still the TINA agenda.

Finally, some useful clues on how to assess whether the money in your bank is safe.
Today I'm showing an Angela Minkova print I acquired recently. Astry Gallery had an exhibition of this talented artist's work. She also does quirky little scupltures (see May 5 for an example)