Saturday, September 26, 2009

Taking A Break, But Not Resting

This blog has been fairly quiet recently and I have all sorts of half-completed posts which haven't quite made it as far as publication. Things are about to get worse, because of this. I'm not sure whether it's a good idea but it certainly promises to be an experience. Frankly, I'm hoping that the description of it being a "tea-house trek" turns out to be true, that sounds like my level. In the event that I survive the trip I should be back at full blogging rhythm sometime around October 21st. Naturally, because I'm going away, lots of things will happen in the meantime concerning the topics I most like to blog about.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Taking The US For A Ride With Spain's Renewable Energy

Some time ago, when the Obama administration in the US expressed interest in the extent to which Spain was developing renewable energy sources, the opposition to such developments siezed on a report that had been published by a leading member of the Instituto Juan de Mariana. The report by Gabriel Calzada claimed that the investment in clean energy in Spain was destroying many more jobs than it created. This was of course good news for the Republicans, the fossil fuels industry and right wing media outlets such as Fox News - so the Calzada report got far more than its Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Even more absurdly, Calzada was happy in his interviews to back the idea that Spain's current unemployment problems were a result of this investment in clean energy.

However, now there is a reply to Calzada's claims and it demonstrates fairly neatly the line that divides genuine academic research from industry funded propaganda. The response from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory highlights multiple defects in the original report, both in the methodology used and in the conclusions. Calzada's case rests fundamentally on the claim that if all the money spent on subsidising clean energy had been spent on private sector job creation then the result for employment would have been much better. Of course there is no reason at all to assume that this is what would have happened.

The original report doesn't even take on board the simple truth that not every job costs the same, as if training a doctor is equivalent to putting someone to work in Burger King. No mention at all was made of the benefits from exporting the technology and expertise, already significantly more than the subsidy received, and other incidental factors such as a reduced dependence on imported energy also fail to feature in Calzada's analysis. The methodology is, of course, the opposite to that used in scientific research. First you define the conclusions that you want to arrive at and then you set about carefully selecting and manipulating your evidence to try and fit those conclusions.

The Insitituto Juan de Mariana is one of the homes of Spain's busy little group of neoconservatives. Having arrived so late for the original game it seems that they are now determined to "out-neocon" everyone else in a bid to make up for lost time. Renewable energy is precisely one of those areas where Spain can become a leader and develop much needed alternatives to construction and tourism. As Spanish companies try to sell their expertise in renewables overseas it can't be very comforting for them to know that the these people are out there doing their very best to undermine those efforts.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Go On, Insult Your Boss

It's ok, if your boss is giving you a hard time you are allowed to call him a "hijo de puta" and not be sacked for it; or at least to claim your compensation. Quite right too, they can sit around the lunch table using the same words to describe their employees and nothing ever happens.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Next Train May Not Stop In Lisbon

Spain has become an issue in the Portuguese general election campaign following the pledge by the right wing candidate to stop the planned high speed rail links between Lisbon and Spain's expanding AVE network. The idea is that high speed train lines should enter Portugal both from Badajoz and Vigo. The Portuguese right were in power when the plan was initially approved but now seem to have decided to stir up a bit of anti-Spanish sentiment in the campaign by presenting the train plan as a Spanish imposition. Maybe they are obeying the saying that only bad winds and bad marriages come from Spain, or perhaps they are just keen to show that Spain doesn't have an Iberian monopoly on crazed nationalist right wingers. In reality the plan would plug Portugal into the emerging European high speed network rather than place them under Spanish domination. The first time I ever travelled to Portugal I went by train from London to Oporto and the journey took me around 36 hours. There are some who don't like to travel so slowly, although perhaps they should try it sometime.

Not everyone in Portugal thinks the same about their neighbours. A poll that was reported on a few weeks ago showed that 39% of the Portuguese would be prepared to consider a union with Spain. Whilst quite a few Spanish tend to smugly assume that this means the Portuguese just want to join Spain, the reality is probably that those in favour would prefer some sort of federation rather than just adding 5 or 6 new autonomous comunidades to those that already exist. There is a widespread feeling in Portugal that the country somehow missed the boat and lost out on many of the benefits of EU membership compared to Spain. Then there has been the unequal economic performance with Spanish companies dominating sectors of the Portuguese market, although that gap may well be closing now that Spain has become the land of the bankrupt builder. Leaving to one side some of the incidental details, such as 39% not normally being regarded as a majority, it's worth thinking about what shape such a union might take. Portugal is a republic, something that is to its credit. How would the Portuguese take to coming under a Spanish king - again? In any case, according to my 21st Century calculations monarchy + republic = republic. Then imagine how Madrid's loony right would react to Lisbon's children being educated in, gasp, Portuguese! If such a project ever took off it would probably be the spur to Spain finally becoming a federal state. Anyone for the Federal Republic of Iberia?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Does The Road To Catalan Independence Pass Through Arenys?

There are potentially a number of ways of encouraging public support for independence in Cataluña, but in the case of the vote held this weekend in the municipality of Arenys de Munt it seems that they found the perfect combination. 96% of those voting supported the idea, and whilst the turnout was not huge it still exceeded that for other more official popular consultations. True opinion on the issue in Cataluña as a whole is hard to measure because it always depends how the question is presented, but the most recent figure I saw put it at 19%.

Part of the credit for the pro-independence vote has to go to the Spanish state prosecution service who decided to take the issue to court because the municipality was proposing to provide facilities for the vote; even though it wasn't organising it. The courts duly ruled that such an issue went beyond the powers of the local ayuntamiento, which may be true but it's hard to avoid the suspicion that they may not have been so quick to act had the question put to the vote been "Shall we all club together and buy a new yacht for the King to use on his holidays next summer?"

If the action of the abogados del estado wasn't enough to mobilise the voters, how about the prospect of having the fascist Falange marching through the middle of your town? Apparently one of the reasons why Espanyol football club requested Real Madrid not to hand out tickets for Saturday's game to their Ultras was so that Arenys would not be graced with their presence on the following day. That might have pushed the pro-independence vote up a couple of points more. In the end a meagre 50 fascists made it to the town, only to be heavily outnumbered by journalists, police and pro-independence demonstrators.

A vote in a small municipality of 8000 people has attracted huge media attention and looks like sparking a competitive battle between Catalan nationalist parties keen to ride the wave as long as it goes in their preferred direction. Esquerra Republicana clearly sense an opportunity to reverse their electoral decline in recent years, although there are also signs of a new pro-independence alternative emerging in the shape of a breakaway grouping from that party. All it needs now for the movement to take off is for the Spanish Constitutional Court to strike down a couple of key clauses in the Catalan autonomy statute. The rumours that they will do this have been strong in recent weeks, and the delay in their verdict is becoming almost unsustainable.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Pijo Rebellion

In the reporting of the disturbances the other day in the Madrid dormitory town of Pozuelo, much has been made of the fact that the town is one of the wealthiest in the region. Despite the predictable plea of the town's administration that those who fought with police were "outsiders", the finest brains of the nation have since tried to make sense of the events that would cause the gilded youth of Pozuelo to attack a police station. Perhaps it's the economic crisis? But when the banks have guaranteed profits no matter what happens to everyone else, and the stock market rises ever higher on the back of the grimmest crisis in decades, then it seems unlikely that a decline in the fortunes of Papi's SICAV is causing Pozuelo's youth to take to the streets.

The "Defensor del Pueblo" thinks the parents are to blame, which is a harsh accusation to make against the people who appointed him to his comfortable post. The man who presents Telemadrid's Soviet style news programmes says that it's all the fault of television! When all else fails there's always the botellón, symbol of the decline of civic values in whatever remains of Ejpaña. Things start to look dangerously counter-revolutionary when we find out that members of the aristocracy were involved. I've always felt they were a bunch of troublemakers, but we'll have no truck with calls for the return of the guillotine on this blog. Still, you would think his parents might have warned him about the dangers of pouring too much Vega Sicilia into the kalimotxo.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


Many years ago, way back in another century, the Lone Guiri stepped off the FEVE train in the small Asturian town of Navia. Making his way into town he found a room in what was then almost the only hotel there was. First stop was the local tourist office, a fairly limited affair in those far off days. The man in the office wasn't really expecting any guiris although he didn't actually say "We don't see many strangers around these parts". We chatted for a while in pidgin French, the only language in which we could understand each other. It emerged that Navia, like most of the region in mid-August, was in fiestas. Later on that day I met him again in the street and he introduced me to his friend the English teacher at the local school, which helped communication no end. The Lone Guiri then became the Adopted Guiri and spent a very enjoyable weekend in Navia with these two and their group of friends.

It's not a very pretty place to look at. I know because I've just been there again a couple of weeks ago.

Your memory plays tricks with you after so many years because the place I remembered seemed to have been much smaller. Perhaps I didn't get the real measure of the town because it was in fiestas and I had a fairly thorough introduction to the concept of the cubata and the art of staying up very late. One place I do remember well is this beach and the trees that lie just a short distance behind it. It was in this place that we ate a huge paella cooked over a wood fire (probably illegal to do this now) and washed down with several bottles of Asturian cider.

The area between the town and the sea is still very nice and unspoilt, and a walkway has been constructed beside the river for pedestrian access to the beach. There is also now a longer coastal route which can be walked, something to bear in mind for my next visit.

I hadn't even planned to come to Spain on that holiday, but the weather over the French Pyrenees convinced me to try my luck further south. I crossed the frontier with no guide book and about 5 words of the language. My first ever taste of Spain was San Sebastian, followed by Santander and Oviedo. Then I decided to try something that wasn't one of the bigger towns and the random biro point made a hole in the map just beside Navia. I enjoyed the other places I visited - particularly San Sebastian. However, as I drifted off into a paella and cider induced siesta by Navia beach I'm pretty sure that it was here where I first thought something along the lines of "You know, I think I could come back to this country".

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Age Of Consent

The Partido Popular has little time for thinking these days, dedicated as it is almost full time to the defence of the corrupt. It's not really what they do best anyway. So when the PP does take on other issues it soon becomes clear that they haven't really thought them through. This week we have had almost simultaneous proposals from the party that would reduce the age of penal responsibility to 12 whilst at the same time restricting access of the under 18's to social networking applications such as Facebook. The PP veers between a concept of purity and childhood innocence in some cases and regarding all children as potential monsters in others. On the one hand much of their opposition to the proposed abortion law reform is based around the suggestion that 16 year olds will be able to obtain an abortion without the consent of their parents. For the PP these are mere "chicas" who are clearly unable to make up their own minds on the issue of whether they want to be a parent or not. On the other hand the 13 year old who commits a crime is an evil monster who must be locked away for the good of society. I suppose it has the compensatory side effect that whilst you are serving time in one of the PP's youth prisons at least you will never have to receive the dreaded email message "Mariano Rajoy Added You As A Friend On Facebook".

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Madrid's Fading Olympic Flame

Madrid's attempt to host the 2016 Olympic Games has taken a serious knock following the issuing of the reports on the candidate cities yesterday. It looks like their Powerpoint skills may have let them down, or perhaps lunch wasn't to the liking of the visiting delegation? In any case the city is trailing behind rivals such as Rio de Janeiro or Tokyo. Personally I'm delighted at the news, there may be cases where hosting the Games brings a real boost to a city but that is only the situation where those in charge have the imagination and skill to use the event to make a difference. Madrid's administration fails on both counts, the bid being much more about the attempt by mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón to promote himself and his political career at vast expense for an already heavily indebted city. Two strikes and you're out, Madrid already lost the last time around.

The City of Eternal Trenches has been a sight for sore eyes this summer as Plan E has come to the rescue of the Pharaoh´s broken budget. I have read reports that those taking the open topped tourist buses that drive around the city centre have seen little else except workmen drilling holes in the asphalt. The smart Olympic betting says that Rio will get much of the Latin American support and that some European countries will not support the Spanish bid because they intend to be contenders for the following games. Then there is the question of whether Obama throws his weight behind Chicago. Given that the final selection might well be based on what we should call "other criteria", there could still be hope for Gallardón. He doesn't have much else to look forward to at the moment, having had to resign himself to being the PP candidate for mayor yet again in 2011. His waiting game continues, but life is much less fun with no money to spend.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Pagar Impuestos Es De Pobres

As all the talk circulates of the need for tax increases to pay for the consequences of the economic crisis, it's clearly time to put in a word for the less fortunate amongst us. Let me introduce you to the SICAV, an investment vehicle for what is usually described as the "grandes fortunas" in Spain. Anyone can start one of these very special companies, provided you have 2.4 million euros at hand. Such is the unbearable fiscal pressure on those who have sacrificed their lives and health to raise the money for a SICAV, that when the annual tax bill comes in they are required to pay a distressing 1% tax on the profits of their investments. This is compared to 25% or more for a normal company, without even talking of the standard rates of income tax. Whilst there will always a resentful few who will suggest that those who did so well out of the bubble economy could perhaps contribute something to the cost of paying for its downfall, it seems unlikely that Spain's government will be presenting them with the bill. There are far more pressing reforms needed whilst we still have some people working who enjoy employment protection. El Roto in El País put it very well this morning.