Thursday, April 25, 2013

Unemployment In Spain....Carry On Regardless

Another hilarious sequel with all your favourite characters. Mariano, as usual, has nothing to say. Laugh, we wish we could!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Voting With Their Feet

Puerto Natales, one of the places where we stayed on our trip to Chile last winter, is not a big town. In the Patagonian summer it does modestly well out of tourism, mainly from those who want to walk, as we did, the nearby Torres del Paine national park. Given the way the wind blew when we visited I can't imagine wanting to spend too much time there outside of that slightly warmer season. It's certainly not the first place you would expect to find members of the growing Spanish diaspora, those for whom economic exile is becoming the only way forward. But the waiter who served us one night in the local asador was from Barcelona, and the receptionist in our hotel from Canarias.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, we were at a family wedding in Oxfordshire. Having breakfast in the hotel the morning of the wedding my partner was talking in English to the waitress for a few seconds until, in that way the Spanish have of recognising each other, the waitress started talking to her in Spanish. Two people from Cadiz working in the middle of the English countryside. Last week it was a weekend in Innsbruck, the hotel receptionist who checked us in was Catalan. So what, some people say, young Spaniards have spent periods abroad for years and there is some truth in that. London in the late 1980's and 1990's always seemed to have a large Spanish population.

But I think some things have changed. Young Spaniards are not just going overseas now to get away from home for a year and pretend to learn a foreign language. Also, many of those who are leaving are not so young. People who would possibly be thinking more in terms of a settled life and maybe starting a family are also amongst those looking for a fresh chance overseas. This is not the rural exodus of the 1950's and 1960's, many of those making the move belong to the best educated sector of Spanish society. Many of them are going for the foreseeable future.

To the lords of the rentier economy, the Botins and others, there is no problem. They've got what they want from the crisis and everything seems to be going just fine as they pick over the debris from the crash. A complacent, and utterly useless, government seeks only to manage the situation in such a way that they don't get replaced by anyone else. Job creation is a skill reserved for friends and family only. The Spanish government even sets up websites to encourage people to look for work overseas. This weeks new government euphemism in a crisis where euphemism production has never been so healthy is to describe the growing exodus as "external mobility". 

The government will be happy to get rid of those voters most likely to be critical, and emigration looks like being the only factor in the next few years (barring extensive statistical manipulation) that can make any significant dent in an unemployment figure likely to reach 27% by the end of this year. So if lots of people leave it can be presented as yet another fake signal of economic recovery. Those on the receiving end are not fooled by the talk of recovery, they can look at piles of unsuccessful job applications, their friends in the same situation, and draw a sad but understandable conclusion. It's Spain's huge loss, a well prepared generation taking their skills elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tramping The Dirt Down

Although I usually blog about Spanish issues here, there are always exceptional cases. I was not even planning to write anything about the death of Margaret Thatcher, but the disgraceful and ideologically incoherent decision not to privatise her funeral and to turn it instead into an expensive and wasteful military jamboree has made me change my mind.

The armed forces presence in her funeral has of course been designed above all to pay homage to a military adventure only exceeded in its pointless absurdity by Aznar's dramatic capture of the goats grazing on Isla Perejil a few years back. The Falklands War was memorably described by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as being like two bald men fighting over a comb. Nevertheless, we are still force fed a mythical account of democracy triumphing over fascist tyranny as one set of troops conscripted by unemployment overran the positions of another group of, often very young, untrained conscripts shivering in their trenches. 

Except that not too long before the Falklands War the UK was training Argentinian naval officers in Portsmouth. That's right, the same navy that was running one of the most notorious torture centres of the last 50 years. Why be surprised? Anyone who was such an ardent friend and admirer of Pinochet as Thatcher was would also surely be a friend of those who tossed their victims alive from planes into the sea? Operation Condor, bringing nasty vicious murderers together throughout the 1970's and 80's. Indeed, such was Thatcher's fierce commitment to liberty that she was also one of the most determined defenders of the apartheid regime, labeling the ANC as a terrorist organisation. For a while I was becoming concerned that she would outlive Nelson Mandela, thankfully we've now been spared that sorry and unjust outcome.

Meanwhile the fans of Thatcher's economics, of which there are many, have developed an understandable aversion to hard data. Because it's not a theoretical debate, not any more, after 34 years the results are in and it doesn't look good. Average economic growth in the 30 years following her election in 1979 has been significantly poorer than in the preceding 30 years. Then there is unemployment. Here things are even worse, high unemployment has become an almost permanent feature of the UK economy since 1979. Ironic when you consider that Thatcher used it as the main issue of her first election campaign. Even more so when you take into account the numerous changes made to the unemployment count that were designed to artificially reduce the figures.

Then there is oil. Many oil producing countries have been noticeably wasteful in the use they have made of their earnings from it. But even so it's hard to think of a country that has obtained absolutely no long-term benefit at all from it. That's the UK. Stupid Norway eh, with its sovereign wealth funds trying to use oil revenues to guarantee decent pensions and to invest in the future of their economy! What would they know? Idiots. Showing the way forward, the UK under Thatcher pissed away the country's oil wealth on corporate tax breaks and the like. Not even a balance of payments surplus to show for it. Nada, cero patatero.

I think of these things when, as I did in the days immediately preceding Thatcher's death, I travel on the finest Victorian public transport system in the world. I don't know what they did to make The Tube work during the Olympics but the sellotape and chewing gum has now fallen off again and you get plenty of time to think about all sorts of issues as the tannoy announces yet another delay or line closure. Cut long term investment for short term political gain via tax cuts and nobody notices the true effects for 15-20 years. Thatcherism in a nutshell.

It's a failure, an abject failure if you analyse the data. But the dogma survives in the form of "my theory must be correct so therefore something is wrong with the economy". We see it today with the slash and burn economics practised in the name of austerity. Indeed, the current crisis has its roots deep in the kind of economics advocated by Thatcher. The UK economy has been hollowed out and nobody has any notion of how to get it working again without generating yet another "your house is temporarily worth four times its real value so don't worry be happy" credit and property bubble. Of course we have to present the other side of the argument. There are some impressive statistics from the period since 1979. Inequality has increased enormously since Thatcher came to power. Poverty too. That deliberate redistribution of wealth to those that already had the most is what sustains the stupid, failed dogma. It works magnificently for those who wield economic power.

It's hardly surprising in this context of economic failure that the inheritors of Thatcher's political tradition promote hatred and fear of the poor to mask their failure to deliver. If a millionaire member of the Bullingdon Club turns out to be a misogynist prepared to kill his children to take revenge on a woman who has spurned him then it's an isolated case you see. Shit happens. But if the misogynist in question happens to be drawing welfare benefits then we get the vile, repugnant attempts by the likes of George Osborne to use the case to smear all welfare recipients. Likewise, if you've promoted policies that mean a huge chunk of social housing stock has ended up in the hands of private landlords then obviously the only solution to a lack of housing for those on low incomes is to blame those who are still lucky enough to have a roof and a spare bedroom. So you make their incomes even lower. There are even more vindictive policies than that.

Ah, but you don't understand how terrible things were before she came to power is the last resort of the Thatcherites. But I do know how things were before Thatcher, and it seems I have a much better memory than her fans. I don't just remember strikes and tales of inexorable decline, I remember a country supposedly much poorer than it is now yet able to provide a whole range of reasonable public services that have now become perplexingly unaffordable. Pensioners weren't expected to live out their last years on the poverty line, a health service that kept people healthy without corporate sponsorship! Industries that made things. All terribly old-fashioned I know, but if I want to look for evidence of long term decline I don't need to go back into history to find it.

So I'm glad that she's dead and I hope the coffin is made of lead. All the better for it to sink slowly, but relentlessly, down through the sticky London clay until it reaches a point where return becomes impossible. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and check that the cava I have in the fridge is chilling nicely and that I have the right music selection ready for such a solemn day.