Saturday, August 6, 2011

Bullying the government

Snow CrashSovereign governments are simply being bullied by financial markets.

It began with verbal harassment.  Under the 80’s refrain that “Government is the problem”, they call for starving the beast through ever-lower taxes, unleashing the markets through deregulation, globalization of trade, and privatization of  programs and services.  Amplified by right-wing media and talk-show hosts, the criticism of governing officials and promotion of free-market solutions is unrelenting, goes unchallenged.

Then, through multiple bank crises, traders and speculators discovered how to bluster when caught. As a result, accountability shifted: Market gains were privatized, creating immense wealth for the few, while market losses were socialized, crating huge debts for everyone else.  The argument was that payouts to attract, retain, and reward talent; subsidies, stimulus, and bailout re lifelines to institutions both too big to fail yet hapless victims of government policy.  It made no logical sense, but it caught on as populist wisdom.

Today, it’s physical.  Having loaded governments with debt and stretched social safety nets to the limit, the financial elite are directly challenging governments and workers.  In a classic bear raid, speculators whisper rumors, rating agencies downgrade bonds, and traders raise borrowing costs.  Governments are forced into austerity programs to eliminate benefits,  promote markets, and privatize public assets.  Starting with Greece, rolling through Europe, now arriving in America, market-makers increasingly drive policy for their own gain.

Where does it end?  Dystopian writers often imagine a Corporatized future, where the Market replaces the State.  As in every schoolyard, the bully aspires to authority; as in every age, power yearns for authority.  So, today, financial interests believe they are an election away from power.

But sovereign governments, democratic and autocratic, already occupy that seat, and they have laws and tools to ensure both individual and institutional survival.  At some point, their instinct for self-preservation will outweigh their need for campaign contributions.  There are finally stirrings within the GOP against the Tea Party; within the European Union against the banks and rating agencies.  There will be more.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Back among the Brits, briefly


I headed back to Cambridge at the weekend, the balance of work shifted from one side of the Channel to the other, sloshing me out with the current.  August was arriving, ‘never a month for taking initiative in Europe.

Maastricht was pretty cold and rainy throughout the weeks; it felt like summer spent itself in May and there was going to be an early start to autumn.  The college suspended Dutch classes for the month of August, taking off the daily pressure of preparing for and attending classes.  The construction of the tapas restaurant downstairs has entered it’s final phase, with trucks dropping off serving pieces and food, wine glasses and espresso makers being unboxed, staff being trained.   The hammering starts earlier and ends later – the owner tells me that his official opening is next Wednesday if the permits arrive on time.


Cambridge had entered the slow-paced summer holidays.  The weather was hot and muggy, with thunderstorms rolling out of the east at sunset.  Cricket returned to the village Green, teams out in their starched whites, swatting and running while fans  clustered beneath the trees, idle through long afternoons.  The ice cream truck rolled into the lane alongside the field, announced its opening with a burst of bells.  There’s a brisk exchange of cones for pence, then the van scrambles off to the next field, the next village.


The folks who have the summer days best figured out live at the Cambridge Gliding Centre, out in the fields beyond Gransden.   The club has about 80 planes and a couple of hundred members; visitors are welcome at the airfield to watch the planes coming and going or to take a trial ride.  Gliders are beautiful constructions, reminding me of sailboats in the way they are designed to interact with the elements rather than just force themselves through it.  The owners are always willing to talk about their experiences and to show their planes, delicate constructions, with a bulbous cockpit, tapered fuselage, and long, thin wings.


The planes are launched by winching them madly across the field using  quarter-mile cable attached to a tractor drum.  They arc steeply, silently, up into the summer sky, releasing the connection as they reach the top of the circle and banking off to find a willing updraft.  Five or six planes hover around the field  lazily circling in rising thermals, then dropping back down to land, rolling across the meadows on their single wheel.

It costs about £60 to take a flight, but nothing to watch.   I’m content to enjoy the slow ballet of the operations, the bird-like planes, the open quiet of the countryside on a warm summer day.