The Pharaohs at the End of the Universe

The French have a word, pharaonique, to describe any project that seems over-ambitious. National computer systems, networks of tramlines or new art galleries designed by Frank Gehry are all considered pharaonique, implying that they are likely impossible to accomplish, certainly over-visionary, and quite probably narcissistic.


Burj Dubai nears its completion (Image: Joi, Creative Commons)

The news this week that Dubai’s main state-controlled investment vehicle, Dubai World, is near collapse, really should not have suprised anyone. Back in 2006, I started paying attention to Dubai because it fell into my region of responsibility at work. After the stories I heard from salesmen in the region, and what I read online, it made instinctive sense that the Emirate’s vast property-based gold rush was unsustainable.

My amateur analysis was not based on a calculation of debt ratios. It was simply the halo of exuberant optimism that orbited Dubai that provided a warning. In Dubai, everything was going to be bigger, taller, better than the rest of the world. Real estate prices would never fall, and the Pharoah’s thrusting vision for his kingdom was infallible.

Dubai’s apparent bankruptcy provides no pleasure. But like the current world financial crisis, the fable of Dubai should make us cautious of  predictions of endless prosperity. It’s not that ambition should be discouraged: without it we wouldn’t have landed men on the moon, given the vote to women, or discovered penicillin. But the development of a scepticism gene might be a very healthy thing.


(Image: Monica R., Creative Commons)

Which brings me tangentially to the Oasis of the Seas, a piece of engineering which seems to fully embody the folly of us all: an energy-munching mobile shopping mall designed to shuttle between America and a few developing nations in the tropics while stripping its passengers of as much money as possible. It’s the perfect realisation of insulated hedonism. A floating Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

The allure of cruise ships escapes me. I can’t understand how anyone would want to spend precious free time in a Ritz-upon-Sea which offers little except good weather and a plasticised, hyper-controlled “guest experience”. I’d rather holiday in Invercargill.

It’s a pity that there are unlikely to be any icebergs floating near Florida in the near future.  If it sank, at least the Oasis of the Seas would provide a powerful poetic metaphor for our time, as well as a screenplay for another film by James Cameron or Michael Bay.

Sometimes I get the impression that all of us are (figuratively, of course) floating around in an air-conditioned bubble of ignorant bliss, zapping zombies on our Xbox while the planet collapses around us. Drinking champagne in anticipation of the big fireworks display at the end of time. I just hope their are enough lifeboats for everyone.

[*EDIT: thanks to klari for correcting my spelling of “pharaonique” 😉 ]

The Quiet Revolution?

14th September 2009 – remember this date. It’s the day that the Stiglitz Commission presented its report on improved GDP measurement to the French government. If the report has the impact that Nicolas Sarkozy hopes, it could eventually change the way politics and economics are done throughout the world.


Joseph Stiglitz arrives at the Sorbonne to deliver his report

The report, which runs to 291 pages in English, 324 pages in French, argues that current methodogy for measuring GDP, and therefore the performance of an economy, is inadequate because it doesn’t measure quality-of-life and ecological impacts.

Essentially, what these economists are saying is that we need to evaluate economies in terms of how they serves their society and environment, rather than measuring the economy purely in terms of the quantity of stuff produced. Changing GDP measurements would shift the goalposts for policy-making: the implications for countries everywhere could be wide-ranging.

The Commission started work in January 2008, before the financial crisis really hit, but the ensuing year of chaos has made its work even more relevant. The Commission argues that a more balanced GDP measurement could have assisted in blunting or preventing global banking collapse of September 2008:

“[Some of the members of the commission believe that] one of the reasons why the crisis took many by surprise is that our measurement system failed us and/or market participants and government officials were not focusing on the right set of statistical indicators. In their view, neither the private nor the public accounting systems were able to deliver an early warning, and did not alert us that the seemingly bright growth performance of the world economy between 2004 and 2007 may have been achieved at the expense of future growth. It is also clear that some of the performance was a “mirage”, profits that were based on prices that had been inflated by a bubble.”
Report of the Commission, Executive Summary pages 8-9

Will anyone pay attention? Will the recommendations be implemented? Perhaps the weight of old habits and vested interest will prevent change. But the timing of the report is masterly – the first anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse and just days before the G20 meet in Pittsburgh to discuss reform of the world financial system.

So this report will certainly be read and debated. Some will argue that the Commission’s membership was too “French” for the report to be more widely applicable. But as a statement of intent, endorsed by the government of one of world’s largest industrialised economies, the document is powerful in itself.

The Commission was convened at the insistance of Nicolas Sarkozy. Like all French Presidents, he’s a controversial figure – loved by some here in France for his energy and his will to change things, loathed by others for his autocratic style, his hardline stance on immigrants and his “bling bling” lifestyle.

If the findings of his Commission are indeed adopted widely, it could be ironic that Sarkozy, a right-wing president, and professed fan of free markets and liberal economics, could go down in history as the leader who initiated one of the most important advances in social and environmental progress in a century.

Dispatches from Mission Control

I’ve never been unemployed before.  Although officially I’m still a student until the end of September, the necessity of finding an income meant my job search started a couple of months ago, and so far it’s proving to be more bone-jarring than I ever anticipated.

Until this year, I never really considered that my self-esteem was wrapped up in employment. My career was something interesting to do while I travelled, played music, mused on human affairs and generally tried to make my way in the world.  But now, the reality of NOT having an income is hitting home. I’m budgeted through to the end of December, but just in case, I’ve checked what social welfare I might be eligible for. And what dishwashing jobs are available. It’s a Plan B I don’t relish.

Should I start my own business?  Entrepreneurship is the sexy thing to do. But going freelance or starting something from scratch requires a certain kind of desire in your bones. Cajones. Extraverted enthusiasm. My drive lies elsewhere. I am an team player, happy to lend my apparent INTJ energy to someone else’s project rather than building one all on my own.

Job applications are soul-wrenching things.  Scour the ads for something that fits your profile. Find a posting that really, REALLY excites you, like uncovering a diamond in the slag heap. Spend half an hour reading up about the company. Another hour or two spent tuning-up your CV, writing your application letter (in French and sometimes in English), and launch it into the mysterious black vastness of a review process.

Rejection letters are full of robotic euphemism: “We read your CV with interest. Although it does not correspond to our current requirements, we will keep your CV on file for future reference.” Hours of enthusiasm and effort rebuffed by an auto-reply. Never any word on what was missing, or what the successful candidates had that you didn’t.

You ask yourself: “What am I not doing right? Am I losing out to Harvard and INSEAD grads? Am I looking in the wrong place? Or did I make a spelling mistake in my CV?”  Sometimes, a job offer becomes such an abstract concept  it’s not worth contemplating. You wish simply to get a phone call. An interview. Some acknowledgement that someone, somewhere, may actually be interested in your skills and experience.

It’s hard work. Some days you’re inspired and confident. Other times, you rail against the world. If someone like me can’t find employment – with 8 years experience, of which 5 years in management positions, an international career profile, a bilingual MBA – what chance do new graduates have? Or that bloke recently released from prison? Or the forty-something solo mother returning to the workforce?

The economic crisis does not make the task easier, but I try to not make it an excuse. The week I stopped work, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world economy finally saw the iceberg towards which it had been steaming for decades. The crisis is an external factor for which I couldn’t plan.

So I can’t complain. I know I am lucky just to have this opportunity. The situation is of my own making. Having saved up a not-inconsiderable sum of money, I resigned my position last year to do a full-time degree, investing time and cash in a venture that I gauged would accelerate my career and open up a new country to me. But the sheer scale of the challenge is energy-sapping.

Looking for a job in France is an adventure, my own personal moonshot. Stepping outside the warm familiar spaceship, one small step for a man and all that. At certain moments, the mission is exciting and energising, but it doesn’t make it any less scary.

(Images: NASA/Apollo Lunar Surface Journal)

Boulangerie Economics 101

In this time of crisis it’s possibly useful to rethink our concepts of economy and the role that business plays in our society. I recently moved to a new apartment in a different part of Montpellier, but something was bugging me about my old place. I’ve been trying to work out how all the shops in my old neighbourhood survived.

Within 150 metres of my front door there were:

  • 5 boulangeries
  • 3 épiceries Marocaines (selling fruit, vegetables and groceries)
  • 1 Lidl that never has the same products on sale two days in a row
  • 1 SPAR that sells things at ridiculously high prices (just like SPAR in the UK)
  • 1 Casino that sells exactly the same stuff as SPAR and Lidl, but 100 metres further away
  • 1 Schlecker that mainly sells dish detergent and cat food
  • 1 halal butcher
  • 1 Tabac-Presse which is also a bar and PMU (betting shop)
  • 3 hairdressers

If you drew a Venn Diagram of all the overlapping products, and graphed the potential demand from local consumers, one might conclude that none of these businesses could be profitable. Yet somehow they all open daily and serve customers, and apparently all make a living profit.

A little further thought provided the clues to how this ecosystem works. First of all, the dwellings in the neighbourhood were large apartment complexes. By my conservative calculation, 25,000 people (the population of Taupo) live within a 300m radius of the shopping centre. So in fact, local demand for groceries and basic services is significant and sustained.

Secondly – and more importantly – none of the businesses is any bigger than any other, and none of them is trying to expand, so competitive pressure is fairly low. So long as each business can achieve a turnover sufficient to feed a household, and nobody rocks the boat, everyone is happy.

On an MBA course, (a degree designed to train managers for a globalising industrial economy), the teaching tends to emphasise the “logic” of achieving growth and shareholder value in an environment where intense competition for customers is an unquestioned reality.

By contrast, my old Montpellier neighbourhood illustrates a concept of a fairly equitable ecosystem, where everyone’s activities are bound by social convention to achieve mutual benefit: rather different to the sort of capitalism we’ve come to expect in Western economies.

A few weeks ago our MBA class was lucky to have a flying visit from Dr Leo-Paul Dana (who coincidentally teaches in NZ at the University of Canterbury). His doctoral research among the Inuit of northern Canada revealed startlingly original attitudes towards entreprenership.

The rate of entrepreneurship in Inuit communities is very high, but not because Inuit want to grow profitable businesses or to become wealthy. For many Inuit, (according to Dr Dana), being an independent businessperson simply means that you can organise your own time around communal activities such as whaling and house construction. To work for a salary ties you to shifts and you cannot participate fully as a member of your community.

This is not an argument against capitalism or market forces. But it seems pertinent to re-examine how individuals use capitalist practices to serve themselves, society and the planet. The current crisis is partly the result of a loss of focus: we have been encouraged to see unfettered capital growth and consumption as an end in itself, rather than a tool to help us live together.

Now I’m off to buy a baguette at the boulangerie on the corner.

(All photos were taken in Burgundy in 2007, not in Montpellier in 2009)

“The Wrong Conclusion” – Amin Maalouf on the Crisis

Lebanese-born author Amin Maalouf is the first commentator I’ve heard who frames the current financial crisis as a logical conclusion of the end of the Cold War.  His ideas are laid out in his most recent book (March 2009) Le dérèglement du monde : quand nos civilisations s’épuisent (“The world’s moral dissolution: when our civilisations exhaust themselves”).

Maalouf was interviewed for last Saturday’s Rue des Entrepreneurs on France Inter. Although his argument may be a little reductive, his thoughts were interesting enough that I transcribed them. An English translation is below, and a copy of my transcription is available if you want to check the accuracy.

Image: gavinandrewstewart (Creative Commons)

AMIN MAALOUF: “I think that the current economic crisis is a symptom of a moral dissoluteness, a dissoluteness which goes back a long time in history. It’s tricky to find the cause of an event, but it’s possible to date this [crisis] generally from the fall of the Berlin Wall.

[The fall of the Wall] was the end of a certain kind of world. At the end of an era like that you need to take stock and decide what you want to build on the rubble of the world that’s just collapsed. In reality, we didn’t do this.

I’m not nostalgic for the world prior to the fall of the wall. I consider that the Soviet system had manifestly failed in economic terms, that dirigisme had showed its limits. This can be seen in how China and India have started to develop themselves by getting rid of dirigisme.

Image: aur2899 (Creative Commons)

But at the same time, we came to the wrong conclusion. We thought that we could take the market to its logical conclusion – a market without limitations, without scruples. We unthreaded all the concerns, the idea of “social capitalism” – everything that had been accomplished within capitalism to humanise the system. We thought we had to roll all that back…

…at an intellectual level, it’s true that the fall of the Berlin Wall represented the end of a certain ideology, and I have no nostalgia for the ideology or for a world split between marxists and anti-marxists. Simply, we drew the conclusion that the era of ideologies was over. Everyone fell back on their loyalties, particularly religious loyalties. We find ourselves today in a world that’s difficult to live in, where our loyalties are expressed with violence.

INTERVIEWER: “So [the fall of the wall was] a mistaken victory, you say?”

AM:“A mistaken victory in terms of economics, a mistaken victory in terms of ideology, as well as a mistaken victory for international relations. It was the end of a confrontation between two blocs, the triumph of a superpower who became the sole superpower. And at the same time the behavious of this superpower has not been above reproach! It’s difficult for people to behave properly when there’s nobody opposite them watching.

Image: KCIvey (Creative Commons)

Iceland: Elves or Economics?

As a riveting piece of writing, you can barely fault the article on Iceland after the credit crunch in the April edition of Vanity Fair. Michael Lewis’ feature contains anecdotes of drama and pathos, an account of a testy interview with outgoing Prime Minister Geir Haarde, as well as nuggets of wisdom unearthed before and after the crash. It’s a recommended read.

Skaters in Reykjavik in winter (Photo: Stuck in Customs. Creative Commons.)

But I worry that Lewis, in his lucid account of what went wrong in one of the richest countries on the planet, has indulged in a little amateur anthropology along the way. Take this passage, for instance, on gender relations:

“I note a slight tension at any table where Icelandic men and Icelandic women are both present. The male exhibits the global male tendency not to talk to the females—or, rather, not to include them in the conversation—unless there is some obvious sexual motive. But that’s not the problem, exactly. Watching Icelandic men and women together is like watching toddlers. They don’t play together but in parallel; they overlap even less organically than men and women in other developed countries, which is really saying something….”

And elsewhere, a passage that could have been cited as evidence of colonial arrogance in Edward Said’s Orientalism – a direct comparison of Icelanders to wild beasts:

“We assume [Icelanders] are more or less Scandinavian—a gentle people who just want everyone to have the same amount of everything. They are not. They have a feral streak in them, like a horse that’s just pretending to be broken.”

Iceland Haukadalur

Haukadalur, Iceland (Photo: taivasalla. Creative Commons)

I wonder if this tendency to describe the Icelanders as somehow “other” or “exotic” is a way (conscious or unconscious) to make VF‘s mainly American readership feel slightly better about their own economic predicament: “yes, we’re in the shit, but look at that naïve bunch of fisherfolk from a quaint country we’ve barely heard of – at least we weren’t as foolish as them”.

Lewis’ exploration of the arcana of Icelandic culture reaches its apotheosis in his account of how Alcoa needed to certify its building site in Iceland “elf-free” in 2004 before it could commence construction of an aluminium smelter. A picturesque episode, but not substantiated or sourced.

Despite a long Google search, I can’t find any reference on the web to this event, except for Lewis’ own article. Even Wikipedia’s article on Huldufólk uses Vanity Fair as its source. Lewis was probably told this story in good faith, but this is how urban myths are born.

Of course, New Zealand has also been the scene of sniggering over the supernatural – in 2002 parts of the world media picked up on a story about a taniwha (a river-dwelling monster/spirit) that stopped work on a major highway project.  The real event, as recounted in this report, was a more prosaic story of relations between a local community and a government department.

Near Akureyi (Photo: Stuck in Customs. Creative Commons)

When Michael Lewis writes about the recent economic history of Iceland, he tells a clear and compelling story. His précis of H. Scott Gordon’s 1954 treatise on the economics of fisheries is actually fascinating. His interviews with British, Icelandic and American economists are enlightening and pertinent. I just wish he’d left the elves and wild vikings out of it.

Discount Disco for the Downturn

“Dad, can you put on Hercules and Love Affair again?”

Is indie electro going to be the music of 2009 recession?  Building on fond memories of MGMT and Black Kids storming the summer festivals last year, it seems that slightly dark synthpop is what today’s students need while they’re applying for non-existent graduate positions. Here’s three bands that might cash in…

Emil and Friends – Downed Economy

The rather mysterious Massachussets band Emil and Friends were early on the act in November 2008, addressing financial turmoil directly in their single Downed Economy. Although you suspect that all this lamenting about the recession is just an excuse for some indie club madness underpinned with big farty synth bass lines.

Casxio

Casxio, apparently ripping up some LA club. Before it got repossessed.

Casxio – Seventeen [Unreleased]

Hailing from southern California, Casxio do a nice line in straightforward groove. Their track Seventeen is as basic as it comes, and sometimes that’s the best style when you’re so poor you have to take your disco intravenously. Anyone lucky enough to be in Austin this week can catch them at SXSW.

“We have no confidence in Gordon Brown’s quantitative easing policy”

My Tiger My Timing – This is Not the Fire (Django Django Remix)

From the Cray Brothers to the Sex Pistols, snarky London accents have a knack for expressing contempt for the powers-that-be. Despite a band-name that reeks of “scene”, My Tiger My Timing‘s debut single This is Not The Fire has the makings of a summer hit. You can hear it on theirspace or wait until April 6th to buy it. That’s if you have any money left.

Musings in the Macro-Economic Maze

Credit: Kal (The Economist)

There’s nothing like a big old financial crisis to re-ignite an interest in economics. I can’t pretend to fully comprehend the detail of what all the analysts say, but the implications are fascinating and frightening. First of all, it’s increasingly clear that the situation we face is indeed the deepest and most  fundamental economic crisis since the Second World War.  It’s global, and it’s a gazillion times more complex than any of us understand.

Much of what I’ve been hearing over the past few days has focused on the thesis that the United States may be in a better situation to handle the crisis than Europe.  James K. Galbraith (son of another J.K. Galbraith) argues convincingly that, at the very least, the United States is a single federal entity, and thanks to FDR 70 years ago, some of the key delivery mechanisms required for Obama’s big-spending reignition package are already in position.

By contrast, Europe is a loose collection of nation-states, only some of whom share a common currency.  If the EU is to cooperate more closely on economic policy (as even Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the IMF is now advocating), it will likely have to break many of the clauses of the Maastricht Treaty, and perhaps even devolve some executive decisions to Brussels and the European Central Bank: something that EU leaders may find difficult to sell to increasingly anxious populations.

Even in terms of sentiment, it seems America is more optimistic at the moment than Europe. Loïc Le Meur, speaking to France Inter after Davos, senses that Americans are more confident than Europeans about their ability to ride out the storm.  Perhaps this confidence is the temporary afterglow of Obama’s inauguration, or it could be that America is genuinely more ready than Europe to pull together and make some hard decisions.

But regardless of who is better prepared to deal with crisis, the goal can no longer be the reestablishment of “normality”.  The current crisis has proved that the status quo ante (light regulation that favours special interests and pure-play Friedmanism) does not delivered sustainable wealth to more than a favoured few.

Capitalism per se is not going to disappear, because there is no better system to replace it.  But the post-WW2 version of capitalism has failed in addressing two issues that are vital to the survival of the human race – environmental protection and equitable distribution of resources.

Everyone is talking about a moral, as well as a systemic realignment, and I wonder if we are capable of achieving it.  There’s a strong impression that our generation is going to be judged by the way we behave in the next few years.  The words of Lula da Silva from his 2004 speech to the UN seem remarkably appropriate:

“A generation is remembered not only for what it accomplished, but also for what it failed to accomplish. If resources are so much greater than our achievements, how can we explain to the generations to come why we did so little, when so much was within our reach? ”

Clive James on Silly Money

Clive James is one of my favourite writers. When I was 13 years old I wanted to write like him.  I still do. Deeply funny and very, very well-read.  Cambridge educated, he wears his omniverous intellect lightly, rather like David Mitchell.

He’s Australian, but like fellow brainy Aussie Germaine Greer, he left his native land early to forge a formidable reputation in the UK.  Occasionally Clive James does a series of talks for Point of View on Radio 4. (A 10-minute podcast each week – well worth subscribing to!)

He nails his topic just about every time: last week he delivered one of the best atheist-agnostic descriptions of the continuing importance of Jesus I’ve ever heard.

This week, he takes on the credit crisis, and makes one very serious point – why the heck do we need all this money anyway?  What WAS Bernard Madoff (already a wealthy man) actually going to DO with 50 billion dollars?

James makes one prediction for 2009 – having lots and lots of money is going to look very silly.

“We’ve reached a turning point. A madness has gone out of fashion: the madness of behaving as if only too much can be enough. There will always be another madness, but not that one. From now on a man will have to be as dumb as an petrodollar potentate to think that anyone will respect him for sitting on a gold toilet in a private jumbo jet.”

2009: Another Year of Short Termism?

Image by Passetti

2009 already looks like it’s going to hell in a handcart.   The credit crisis rolls on and with it the possibility of the worst economic conditions for 60 years. Israel and Hamas continue their mutual idiocy. (Can someone please put the leaders of both sides in a sealed room for a month and tell them to  tell ’em to f*cken sort their sh*t out? I apologise for the expletives, but they aptly convey my frustration and sadness at what’s happening in Gaza).

Oh, and we still seem unable to help Zimbabwe, and the slaughter continues in the Congo.  And there’s that climate change thing, and Australia’s running out of  useable water.  So, everything’s alright then.

Last night I found Jared Diamond‘s talk on Why Societies Collapse at TED.com.  It’s worth spending 18 minutes watching it, even if just for his awesome Boston accent. Recorded in 2003, Diamond’s talk seems remarkably prescient, looking back on it with 5 years’ further wisdom.  Environmental change, inability to adapt, incapacity to think beyond the short-term self-interest … although his studies of environmental history concentrate on individual societies, Diamond could be describing the entire human race right now.

For me, Jared Diamond’s key insight is that human societies have a general inability to plan for the long term.  We have evolved to instinctively choose short-term benefit, even if this means long-term catastrophe.  We’re also not helped by our political processes. Although democratic government is probably the best way we have of organising ourselves, a major weakness of democracy is that it encourages policy-making based around electoral cycles.

Politicians aim for targets that ensure they get re-elected the next time around – giving most policies a maximum time for payoff of between four and seven years.  No leader seems willing to make a good long-term decision if it might lead to a lower standard of life for their voters in the short-term.

Diamond suggests there’s probably not one single thing we can do to avert global disaster.  There’s probably a dozen things that need to happen, and we need to get them all right.  Off the top of my head – dramatic and immediate CO2 reductions, giving women an equal role in all decision-making, media and politics, reducing energy consumption, a re-thinking of the benefits and side-effects of economic growth… and that’s just a short brainstorm. Add your priorities in comments below…

Image: uncultured

So yeah, I’m a bit down on the whole humanity-planetary-viability-survival thing at the moment. I blame the cold weather in Birmingham.  But there are reasons for hope.  For example:

  • ColaLife.org – a project to use Coca-Cola’s global distribution system to get medicines to patients in remote villages (possibly the smartest idea I’ve heard all year – for once, I really want to buy the world a Coke).
  • ICRD – an NGO involved in peacemaking that recognises the necessarily important role that faith still plays in solving conflicts.
  • Room to Read – supplying books, libraries and educational acitivties to children living in poverty. Founded by former Microsoft executive John Wood.

And these programmes aren’t necessarily the best, or the most worthy of our support – they’re just three I’ve learned about just in the past 24 hours.

We have brilliant brains, we have brilliant people, we have brilliant ideas. But we don’t have much time.  As with all strategy, the problem isn’t coming up with a plan. The problem is implementation – we need brilliant leaders.   Will we make it?

Sorry for the kinda heavy post. More of a mood-piece than a think-piece. Hopefully some music soon!