Thursday, 26 July 2012

Runway spending

Valencia has applied to the central government in Madrid for financial assistance, being unable to cut its budget to the extent required of it. Murcia has followed suit. Catalunya has joined them. According to El País, writing just before Murcia made its application, Castilla La Mancha, Andalucía and Canarias are likely to follow.

There are a few different ways of looking at this. One is that Valencia, Murcia and Catalunya are all led by the aggressive Right, a point that may escape commentators outside Spain, especially those whose knowledge of Spain is small but whose desire to characterise Spanish politicians as all the same is greater.

In Spain, however, it has not escaped our notice that Valencia is a major stronghold, perhaps the major stronghold, of the Partido Popular, or to put it another way that is not in fact another way, that it is the heart of political corruption in Spain, even more than the Balearics. Nor that it was held up by Mariano Rajoy, before he was Prime Minister, as a model for the rest of Spain to follow.

Murcia, for its part, is as rightwing a province as Spain possesses, give or take Cantabria. And Catalunya is run by politicians whose two most noticeable tendencies are to blame Madrid bitterly for all of Catalunya's problems and to agree wholeheartedly with Madrid when it comes to economics.

Another pertinent observation to make about all three comunidades is that they have been making gigantic cuts, leading to strikes and huge street protests, especially in Valencia and Barcelona. (And Castilla La Mancha, whose leader, the unspeakable Dolores "Tres Sueldos" La Cospedal, is met with whistle-protests wherever she goes.) And another one is that they have been doing so in order to try and meet deficit-cutting targets set by central government, a task in which they are not succeeding. Hence their application to central government for funds.

It's both worth making that observation and futile to make it, and for the same reason: which is that the narrative with which we are presented is of grotesquely overspending regional governments which have brought down the national economy. This narrative is not a true one. But as with so much in this crisis, the narrative is going to prevail regardless of how little it is true.

There is a saying that data is not the plural of anecdote. This, too, is true, and nevertheless doesn't matter. How much local and regional government spending has actually been wasteful? I've never seen any attempt to quantify it. Instead, they just tell you about the airports.

The airports have been expensive, wasteful and stupid, for sure. Huesca airport is closed, other than, apparently, its restaurant. A very decent restaurant, according to anecdote, but a very stupid airport nonetheless. As far as I am aware it has only ever been used by Pyrenair, a short-lived, swiftly bankrupt airline offering package trips to the Spanish Pyrenees (further from Huesca Airport than Luton Airport is from London) and SD Huesca when playing away games in places like La Coruña.

Huesca Airport is not as well-known a disaster as some, largely because Huesca is a faraway country of which the Madrid-based press knows little (when we go to the capital, most people either do not know where Huesca is, or mistake it for Huelva, or assume we live in the mountains). Ciudad Real (which you may read about here) is mentioned more often but the most-quoted example by far (for which, see here) is Castellón.

This was the case even before the recent, unpunished activities of Ana Fabra. But her old man was responsible for building the thing, which does tend to draw attention to a waste of money rather more extensive than spending it to help the unemployed avoid begging and starvation. Still, fuck 'em.

Fair enough. I have no objection. Stupid projects are stupid projects. Even in our village there is a new dance hall, next to our huerto - serving a village with a permanent population of about twelve people. About three of whom dance there. Yes, it brings people in from other places. Not that they spend money here - we have no bars, no shops. Yes, if it's raining during the fiestas we can hold the cena there. But really, is it worth it?

But by the same token, if it is a waste of money, how much has it wasted? Compared to the whole? (And how much when compared with the waste that will be involved in exploding our economy to meet deficit targets and recapitalise bankrupt banks?) How much? And what does it prove?

As Miguel-Anxo Murado observed, three months ago:
When you have 17 regions, you're likely to find examples of whatever you look for, including mismanagement of funds and even corruption. I have criticised them myself in my own region, many times. The question is how representative they are. Not very, I think.

The origins of the regional deficit are the same as the central deficit: not over-expending but the fall in tax revenue due to the economic slowdown. This is aggravated in the case of the regions because it is the central government that collects most of the taxes, and then decides how much it gives back to them. As a whole, the regions are responsible for less than a third of the total Spanish debt, yet they have to do more than a third of the total public expending. And it's not in jails or airports that they spend most of it, but in healthcare, education and other basic services, which in Spain are fully decentralised.
Quite so. But then again, who cares? We know that it is all the fault of regional governments, we know that they are addicted to spending and we know that because of the airports. And not just the airports, to be sure. But the airports come up time and again.

The disaster that is befalling Spain has many more important causes than failed prestige projects, just as it has many more important causes than the holiday and pension arrangements of functionarios. Or the labour market. Or, for that matter, the mendacity and incompetence of the Rajoy administration, heavy though it be in both deficiencies.

But these causes are less tangible. They often lie outside Spain. And they are not causes which it suits powerful people in Europe to point at, since it would involve pointing at themselves.

Truth is that in Spain we didn't have a crisis until Zapatero was ordered to embark on austerity. Difficulties, yes, and very serious ones. But not a crisis. And we didn't have a disaster until the PP piled on the austerity further. A crisis, yes, but not a disaster. And now we are waiting for the disaster to turn into Armageddon.

Murado wrote more recently:
What is really puzzling is how little attention is being paid to the fact that these measures aren't working.
But it's not really puzzling though. It's not really puzzling at all.

It's just a question of what suits. Of what story suits.

As well as one of PP suits. Fuck them too.

EDIT: No sooner written than blow me, the BBC do Ciudad Real airport

 [Villareal image: Un Mundo Peculiar]

Friday, 20 July 2012

Go on

I didn't go to any demonstrations. I've not even seen any of them on the television, since we only have one television in the house and the room where it sits is out of use for a few days. We live four hundred kilometres from Madrid, and nearly thirty from Huesca. I'm a member of Ecologistas en Acción but I've never been to a meeting. My Spanish isn't up to it anyway.

To be honest, if you are forty-seven, you do not go abroad, and live in a tiny village in the country - a village so small that to give its name would be as good as giving your address - if you want to involve yourself in politics any more. Which I don't. I am retired.

It would be the opposite if I were seventeen, just as it was the opposite when I was seventeen, with giant CND demonstrations, with the Tony Benn campaign just past, with the miners' strike to come.

But now I am forty-seven, and it is nearly thirty years since all these great causes were happening, and hence almost thirty years since they were entirely and traumatically beaten. And what I mostly think about politics, here in this tiny village with its view of the mountains, is that I would like politics to go away and leave me in peace.

But still. If this goes on, then everything will come to an end. This mad spiral of austerity followed by recession followed by austerity has to be fought. It will not stop of its own accord and it will not stop unless we make it stop.

And if we do not, then Northern Euorpe, the financial institutions and the "markets" are going to demand that the economy be smashed into non-existence, in order to save an economy which they themselves helped to explode (and to save a common currency which they do not want to pay, themselves, to save). And when everything is smashed to bits, they will walk away from it, and from us, and blame the smashed-up Spanish for the failure of the course of action on which they themselves insisted.

It will take a whirlwind of protest to stop them. But they have to be stopped.

My age and circumstances are not the same - far from it. But from all the reading I did years ago, I remember this, from a French shipyard worker to Daniel Cohn-Bendit during the events of 1968. Because what they are doing on the streets is what I would be doing if I were young. And what I am doing now is thinking, rather than doing. But thinking like this.
Listen, I'm forty-three, and at that age a worker is too old to learn a new job...but I can remember when I was your age. We wanted to change the world, too. Go on, you lads.
Go on, you lads. Go on.

[Shipyard worker quote from Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years, Collins, 1987, p. 199.]

Friday, 13 July 2012

What became of the monkey?

This isn't new, and has been posted elsewhere, but as I am away in Wales playing chess, it will more than do as a commercial break.

Moreover, I am in large part responsibile for the English subtitles, which are still a long way short of perfect, but a great deal better than they were before. Any failings are to be ascribed to deficiencies in my villainous Spanish* rather than Juan Zea's considerably superior English. Enjoy.

[* I steal this phrase a lot]

Friday, 6 July 2012

Don't release Rodrigo

I mislead of course: Rodrigo Rato isn't in custody. He, has, however, been charged with accounting irregularities, while in charge of Bankia. I believe the IMF are presently engaged in examining the accounts of a number of Spanish banks to try and find out how much bad news they've been hiding: while they are doing this, their former Managing Director is accused of orchestrating those irregularities. (He was succeeded in this position by one Dominique Strauss-Kahn. They can't half pick 'em.)

Prior to running the IMF, Rato was Minister of the Economy and Finance under Aznar. To all intents and purposes this means he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is therefore as if Gordon Brown, rather than becoming Prime Minister, had got the top IMF job that he later coveted, and then later been arrested and charged in connection with a bank scandal. Or, seeing as Rato was and remains a totem of the Right (several government ministers have rushed out statements insisting we remember the presumption of innocence, not an unreasonable comment in itself but something they do not normally feel moved to do) it is as if Kenneth Clarke were now to be arrested. Or Norman Lamont. Or John Major. It's immense.

But it is more immense still, since among the other imputados is Ángel Acebes. Make your own comparisons.

While this is going on, Jaume Matas, Environment Minister under Aznar, is for some reason still walking around at liberty having been sentenced to six years in the big house for his part in the giant Palma Arena scandal, in which the king's son-in-law remains a suspect.

All this may give the outside observer the impression that Spain is a great deal more corrupt than the United Kingdom. Or it may give a different impression, that people are actually charged here who would never get near a British dock. Take your pick. Personally, I'll reserve judgement until somebody actually sees the inside of a cell.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

From both sides, now

Talking as I was of banks, and our regional bank in particular, we're very lucky to have a branch in the next village, which saves us having to drive half-an-hour to Huesca in order to use one. One wonders if it would survive a "rationalisation" programme, though it would probably have more chance than the three-days-a-week bus service between Huesca and our village, which miraculously survives, presumably because it's too obscure for anybody to notice it and have it stopped.

As far as I know the only scandal involving our local branch is the occasional absence of the manager. I say "manager" but there is, in fact, only one person who works there, and until a few months ago, if you arrived at the wrong time in the morning you would find the branch locked and the manager in the village bar.

This was his daily habit until he was recently replaced by another, younger man, who preferred to spend his working hours in the bank. Until, a couple of weeks ago, I arrived to find the door locked and a note on the door claiming that he would be back in five minutes. It takes more than that to drink a cup of coffee.

We transferred quite a large proportion of our money out of our Spanish bank, and into our UK banks, during the recent Bankia scandal, perhaps more to do with fear of the Euro collapsing than of Spanish banks doing the same. Still, this now brings to mind the parable of the man who tried to escape the rainstorm by standing under one tree until it was sodden, then going to stand under another.

If only a little regular skiving was the worst that ever happened. Compared to the carnival of corruption which appears to have been occurring in different banking systems in different countries, it'd be a luxury you'd pay good money to put up with.

Pondering the LIBOR scandal, about which one assumes we will learn a great deal more about than we know already, I recalled this piece written only three weeks ago about the Spanish banking crisis. It's a perfectly good piece, too, but reading it now (three weeks seems such a long time in a permanent crisis) I'm struck by this passage.
The bill that Europe's rescue funds must pay has been increased by the multi–million euro payoffs taken by some senior executives shortly before their banks collapsed and decisions taken by unqualified board members who admit they were incapable of analysing the banks' books. Boards were stuffed with political placements or people who had little idea about banking – including, in one case, a supermarket checkout worker.

They often rubber-stamped decisions. In some
cajas they were rewarded with well-paid positions on the boards of subsidiary companies as well as with luxury foreign trips and soft loans.

Trips to India, China or Chicago and the hundreds of millions of euros in loans to executives, board members and their families formed part of the gravy train of political favouritism and cronyism.

Chairmen were often unqualified politicians, with academic investigators finding a close relationship between the size of a bank's bad loan book and the inexperience, lack of qualifications and degree of politicisation of the chairman.
All of which is true. But is any of it - including either the damage done both to the banks' finences, or that done to proper accounting standards - any worse than what has happened in more Anglo-Saxon banking systems? Has the absence of knowledge, in the case of "unqualified board members", been any worse than the use that has been made of knowledge, by people who possessed it?

So perhaps the problem is not "political meddling", but the wrong kind of "political meddling". Perhaps it is less that politics has meddled with banks, than the influence banks have had over politics.

I mean why were inexperienced nonentities in positions of influence in Spanish banks? Was it really against their will? What effect did it have? To prevent banks being run in the way they should have been? Or to allow them to be run precisely the way the banks wanted it?