Friday, April 24, 2015

A big gaffe; Reality TV; Necklines; Raymond Carr; Rosalind Franklin; & A name dilemma.

There are 2 Spanish verbs that really shouldn't be confused: Sacar - To take out (and a thousand other things) and Saquear: To plunder. But the Secretary General of the PP party did confuse them this week, congratulating herself and her colleagues for working so hard 'to loot the country'. Which is about the only accurate thing the party's said for years.

And you thought reality TV couldn't get more preposterous . . . . After a fierce reaction from Pamplona, "Spain’s state TV channel has shelved plans for a reality show which would have seen celebrities pitted against each other as they ran through the streets of Pamplona chased by a pack of fighting bulls." The city's mayor complained: "We're working hard to improve the image of the encierro (bull-running) and to give it more artistic and cultural value. A reality show is not the best way of to do this". I wonder what would be. A ban on bingeing and vomiting? And nudity?

Which reminds me . . . Thanks to comments about my reference to Queen Leticia, I've been forced to make a dictionary check, with these results:-
escote - neckline
escotadura - low neckline
escote profundo/pronunciado - plunging neckline
As you can see from this picture, the correct term for Leticia was probably escotadura. But what do I know?

En passant, the bonus from this search was to learn that Pagar a escote means 'To go Dutch'. No idea why.

Spain's papers bid a fulsome farewell to Raymond Carr, a British historian who specialised in Spain and wrote about the country when no one Spanish was in a position to do so. It seems no exaggeration to say he was revered by the current generation of Spanish historians.

I see that Nicole Kidman is to play Rosalind Franklin in a future film. Franklin was the woman who, at my college in London as it happens, produced the remarkable fotos which Watson and Crick then used to determine the helix shape of DNA. Some say they stole these but others say Franklin was naive and foolish in showing the fotos to the ambitious pair. Anyway, I seem to recall that either Watson or Crick once made disparaging comments about Franklin's lack of beauty. So it's a tad ironic that she'll be played by a looker. But, then, there are worse things; she wasn't honoured for her contribution, whilst Watson and Crick were given the Nobel Prize. 

Finally . . . The lady with whom I'm dealing around my burglary is called Concepción but, like everyone else in Spain, she has a diminutive. Having to write to her, I didn't know whether this was Cookee, Cooki, Cukee, Cuki, Kookee, Kukee, Kuki, or Kooki. I plumped for Kuki. But it turned out to be Cuqui. You can't win 'em all.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Gag Law; Scapegoatting; UK election; Democracy?; NY NY; & A Football lesson.

About 2 years ago Spain's right-of-centre government introduced a 'Citizen Protection' Bill which finally became law a week or so ago. Despite the name, it's got bugger all to do with protecting citizens but everything to do with preventing protests against austerity, inequity and corruption. In fact, it's so bad that the only way to raise one's voice in Spain may be to do so as a hologram. The New York Times sees it as the most restrictive law in Europe and demands the EU do something about it. Which is about as likely as President Rajoy resigning, I fear.. You can read the NYT article here.

As mentioned, the prominent banker and (very) senior politician, Sr Rato, is under investigation for various crimes. Ironically, these seem to result from his using a 2012 Tax Office amnesty to declare his offshore wealth. This amnesty, is turning out to be anything but that, perhaps because, before yesterday, neither the Tax Office nor the government actually called it an amnesty, but a 'financial regularisation'. Anyone else who declared assets must now be quaking as they were assured there'd be only a small tax on the assets, not a lifetime in jail. Even more ironically, the PP government appears to be throwing their ex VP to the wolves so that it can boast of its anti-corruption credentials. So, yes, they do take us all for fools.

Over in the UK, 2 weeks ahead of the general election, one commentator sums up the situation thus:- All parties are trapped in a cycle of electoral bribery and reality avoidance. It suits them in the short term, but in the long term, it's killing our democracy.

Talking of democracy . . . Given the corruption in Spain and Greece, say, and the democratic deficiency of the EU, you have to marvel that the Anglo nations thought they could invade Iraq and Afghanistan and then set up a functioning, corruptio-free democracy in a part of the world where it was - and remains - unknown. Like honesty.

The trouble with dealing with someone who doesn't know there's both a Pontevedra province and a Pontevedra city is that they're likely to confuse the two. Especially if they're on the end of a phone line in, say, Colombia. Fortunately, I checked whether the windscreen company I urgently need really was in Vigo(Pontevedra province) and found it's here in Pontevedra city. Does this happen in New York?

Finally . . . If you're a football fan, you'll enjoy this account of the 5 things learnt from the Real Madrid-Atlético match earlier this week. Here's a once sentence taster:- Some top-class play-acting was on display from the first whistle, as it was in the first leg. No tackle was too tame for a player not to make out that he had been punched in the mouth.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Lovely Leticia; The Bulls; Galicia's trains; Insurance; & Don't do do.

The lovely Queen Leticia has caused a bit of a stir. She's given herself a fashionable bob, appeared with bare shoulders and arms and even offered a bit of cleavage. The majority reaction is horror at the confirmation of her much-discussed skinniness. Possibly even anorexia. I can't say I noticed any cleavage but, compared with what's on display every night in Spain, it can't have been significant.

Bullfighting in Spain is not in the best of health. Some blame greed, some the poor quality of the bulls and some the inadequate artistry of the toreros. Either way, it's a minority sport and may well be a dying one, despite subsidies from the current right-of-centre PP party. Anyway, a headline I saw this morning read: "The Dictatorship of the Modern Bull." There's a saying here that even a maestro can't do anything with a 'bad' bull. This article seemed to be saying the opposite.

If you're interested in getting the gen on Galicia's fast trains, it's all here. The lines are described as 'high speed' but I don't think they're the real AVE McCoy yet, as they lack the brakes of the fastest trains. At the other end of the spectrum, there's mention of the train from Portugal to Galicia not connecting with this network. This is because it goes to the wrong Vigo station, not just because it's one of the slowest trains in the world.

Anyone over, say, 25 will know that insurance companies are brilliant at increasing your cover so that your premium is high and then equally brilliant in finding ways not to reimburse you for your loss. So it is with the gold Iranian coins I lost in my recent burglary, which "should have been listed under the Joyas (Jewellery) section and not as part of the contents". Which reminds me . . . If you don't know what the rule of proportionality is, you should pin back your ears. Essentially, if you decide you wouldn't want to replace half of your contents and so only pay for cover for half your possessions, the insurance company will say you can only get half of the value of the goods you thought you were fully insuring. It may be that you can avoid this by identifying all the specific items which comprise half of your total and that you want to be insured. Worth checking out, perhaps. Before the disaster that no one expects arrives. 

Finally . . . Inhabitants of towns along Galicia's famous camino have finally decided to take action against walkers who leave the wrong sort of deposit as they pass by. More on this here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Noise; Monuments; Political accounts; Wind subsidies; My denuncia; Metaphors; & A correction.

I've mentioned that both Britain and Portugal are (far) quieter than Spain. But "noisy" can also mean "vital" and I'm reminded, again, of the comment of a neighbour who responded to a comment from me about the noise in Spain years ago with: "No noise means dead".

It's a little surprising but there are still a few monuments to Franco around Spain. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that some Republican monuments were not destroyed during the 36 years of his dictatorship. These can be seen here.

The ex VP of the governing PP party is being investigated for possible criminal activities. This follows the discovery that he has many millions of euros and much property around the world. What interested me is that he has 28 accounts in different banks around Spain. If you or I have even one account, the Tax Office knows all about it. So, how come they didn't, it seems, know about his prior to a 2012 amnesty which he took advantage of? Unwisely, it now seems.

Also being investigated are politicians who are suspected of receiving kickbacks from companies who produce the wind turbines for Spain's numerous parques eólicos. As one investigator put it:- The payments of €110m are without commercial logic.

I made my police report about my burglary yesterday - my denuncia. It's normal at times like this to be told you've not brought at least one document so will have to return. And we came perilously close to this because I'd left my passport at home. The Guardia Civil clerk told me the photocopy of my passport wasn't really enough as he needed to see a real photograph of me. As he mused over whether to accept the copy - and I decided I wouldn't expose my expired Identity Card(NIE) - I happily recalled I had my driving licence with me. And all ended well.

I find that, when one talks to theists, they tend to use a lot of metaphors when explaining their beliefs and answering questions about God's behaviour. For example: "Well, God could know about that but he's like the guy who leaves the room before the football results are announced as he's going to watch Match of the Day and doesn't want to know the results. I thought of this when listening to a psychic in a debate I was watching on Sunday as he was explaining why he'd just told someone that the wrong spirit was in the room:- "Well, you don't always know who's on the bus when you get on it". Which apparently meant that you can call up a spirit but you never know which spirit is going to answer your summons. Conveniently.

Finally . . . My thanks to those readers who kindly pointed out - unlike the Portuguese chap I showed the foto to - that the street sign CANAS TRAS was actually CANAS-TRAS, or CANASTRAS. The Street of Basketmakers. Not Canes Behind.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Pretty women; Ugliness; Fine dining; Changing Évora; Insults; & The UK's NHS again.

My trip down into Portugal last week convinced me there really are some pretty women in Portugal, perhaps because of the lure the capital city, Lisbon. But, that said, there's no real comparison with Spain.

Another observation was that, at least when it comes to modern buildings, the Portuguese have a talent for the ugly.  Either that or no ability to tell architects where to get off. Or perhaps it's a function of wealth.

Our Society gala dinner on Friday was in a fine restaurant in Évora. But I had a misgiving when it became clear they had a surplus pork dish and I wasn't terribly surprised when, as the last to be served, it was presented to me an as alternative to the lamb I'd ordered. Err, no, I said. No problem, they replied. The chef will prepare you an extra lamb dish. So I sat back in expectation of a 20 minute wait and was then surprised to get my dinner 5 minutes later. So, did they have the lamb all the time? Or did it only take 4 minutes to heat up in the microwave? Anyway, the staff were lovely, as they were everywhere in Portugal. I'd recommend everyone goes to see Lisbon, Sintra and Évora before they become like Venice. As for the "Venice of Portugal" - Aveiro - I'm not so sure.

I mentioned changes in Évora over the last 10-15 years. One of these is that a fine building that used to be a 16th century monastery and a (separate!) convent is now a spa hotel. I trust the rooms are a bit bigger than they were 4-500 years ago but it's a 5 star 'boutique' place, so they may not be.

Back to Spain . . . The empty word used by politicians here to insult and blacken their opponents is 'fascist'. I learnt from French TV this morning that the equivalent word north of the Pyrenees is 'liberal'. Ironically, their meanings are polar in the Anglo Saxon world.

Corruption: Below is a translation of an article from yesterday's El Pais on Spain's biggest challenge. It's by Google, so you'll have to do some figuring.

Finally . . . . Below that, there's an article from today's Times, is which the writer addresses the real problems of the UK's NHS - a busted model, myths and lies - talks about the insurance based models of the Continent. Does this herald a change? Or the beginning of change? I rather doubt.

End corruption: an economic imperative, not only an ethical one: Luis Garicano, Professor of Economics and Strategy at the London School of Economics and coordinator of the economic program Citizens.

Most of the debate on the runaway corruption we face is in terms of legal and moral issues involved. But many citizens are willing to close their eyes to these problems if the corrupt apparent generates welfare and jobs. This pact with the devil ("it's a sausage, but it's our sausage") which continue to see in Spain, where corrupt people keep winning elections, and avoiding resign, confident that voters will forget his misconduct.

Contrary to this tolerant view, economic research shows that corruption has huge economic costs. Even forgetting the moral and legal problems, corruption costs us well. I tell a very relevant to Spain study.

In a recent international conference in the Bank of Spain, the young (and promising) economist Enrique Moral Benito showed excellent research work (with García Santana, Pijoan-Mas and Ramos) on the causes of the lack of productivity growth in Spain during the boom years. The starting point is the observation that, between 1995 and 2007, Spain grew a lot, but each unit of labor and capital increasingly produced less. That is, we were growing base of adding more workers (participation of women, and immigration) and more machines, but not on the basis that each employee and each machine to produce more; on the contrary, produced less every year.

This prolonged decline in productivity is an unusual event in a comparative perspective. And it is very worrying for the long term: Once given the demographic realities, Spain has no capacity to increase labor force or the participation of women and migrants, the economic growth needed to sustain the welfare state can only result of productivity growth.

The usual explanation for this decline in productivity is the construction boom: if we grew fat based on a sector with low productivity growth, it is not uncommon that the economy did not experience increases in productivity. But the work of Moral Benito and his coauthors shows that it is not, because this decline occurred within each production sector, rather than by the reallocation of resources from one sector to another. As the boom progressed, in each sector the companies that grew were not often the most productive, but less productive. In many cases, the best companies were immune growth, and were "bad" in the sense of the least productive which took advantage of the large amount of resources, "free money" bubble, to grow.

To try to explain this result, Moral and his coauthors seeking, and reject, different explanations. Just find an explanation with strong predictive power in the data: the importance of crony capitalism in the sector (crony capitalism) and the incidence of corruption (Bribe Payers Index). In short, the only variable that explains how resource allocation worse is how corrupt is this assignment.

This analysis coincides with the sometimes intuitively makes the angry citizen. It is where companies are protected from competition where outlets predominate, access to dodgy licenses, contracts and favors trick where this deterioration in the allocation of resources occurs. Is corruption and cronyism that lead to bad firms are leveraging the bubble, absorbing capital and labor available, at the expense of the more cautious and less connected.

The cost of this misallocation of resources for the Spanish economy is enormous. While total factor productivity (capital and labor) fell by 0.7% annually in Spain, rose 0.4% annually in the EU and 0.7% in the US. If productivity in Spain had grown as the EU, in 2007 our GDP would have been 15% higher than it was. That is, in this scenario, the cost of corruption, contacts and crony capitalism is 150,000 million euros. Even more: Moral and his coauthors estimate that if the initial resource allocation had not deteriorated, Spain had grown to 0.8% annually. In this case, GDP would have been 20% higher, 200,000 million cost misallocation of resources caused by corruption: 5,000 euros per Spanish.

On second thought, these numbers should not surprise us. How else would be rich if licenses were Spain where it is due, if the contracts were the best, if the work is not carried the plug?

Given magnitudes and not worth continuing that "Spaniards are well" or "not have remedy." Corruption is a major problem and we have to do what is necessary to change the culture broth in which flowers, with imagination, with courage and rules are met.

Ray Fisman, a professor at Columbia University in New York, and a great world expert on the subject, suggested in a book due out later this year that success in the fight against corruption lies in the combination of legal sanctions and economic incentives on one hand with the other moral and social rejection.

As an argument, consider the amazing and inspiring example of Antanas Mockus. This Colombian philosopher and mathematician made in two short terms as mayor of Bogotá (two years each, 1995-1997 and 2001-2003) more to end corruption and strengthen the rule of law that most political will in decades.

When Mockus became mayor, the municipal government of Bogotá was completely corrupted, runaway crime. Bogotá was the world capital of crime, with 4,200 murders in 1993. How do changing attitudes and law enforcement in such a place? Mockus started by a surprising place, traffic regulations, and in a surprising way: using mime (yes, pampering with tights and white painted face) around the city. When a pedestrian crossing in red, a military member 400 mimes (theatre students, mostly) crossing behind, making mockery with grimaces and gestures. When a driver blocking a street, mime taught him a card with a thumbs down and handing other passersby to help him. In a few months, according to Fisman, the proportion of pedestrians obey traffic rules increased from 26% to 75%.

Of course, the work was not only Mockus attitudes. For example, the police closed public transport (2,000 agents), notoriously corrupt, and established a program to buy guns in private hands.

This combination, changing rules and changing attitudes, succeeded also in other areas. His campaign to reduce water usage included both incentives and prices as a video of himself showering, but turning off the shower to soap.

The Spaniards have not yet made the decision to end corruption. We remain tolerant of those who use their public office for their private purposes, especially if they are "one of us". This has a calming and high cost in terms of welfare. We must prioritise change the rules, incentives and attitudes to eliminate these behaviours.

The NHS is bust because the model is totally flawed

We’re still hopelessly addicted to the NHS: If we want health care on a par with the Continent, we have to introduce insurance schemes

On one thing the three main parties are agreed. The NHS will be safe in their own hands and unsafe in the hands of the other lot. The truth is, however, that the NHS will be safe in none of their hands.

This election campaign has seen a procession of uncosted pledges and vows of fiscal rectitude that don’t add up. The NHS, however, has given rise to the most dishonest promises of all.

The Tories and Lib Dems have promised to meet the funding requirement of an extra £8 billion a year by 2020 laid down by Simon Stevens, the NHS England chief executive. Labour, which is to make the NHS its big issue this week, has promised £2.5 billion a year extra.

Yet the NHS is heading (once again) for a funding crisis that even these dubiously costed pledges cannot address. Hospitals are expecting to rack up an extra £2.5 billion deficit by the end of the year. By 2020, the health service faces a £30 billion funding gap.

Between May 2010 and February this year, the number of patients waiting longer than the 18-week target for treatment almost doubled. The British Medical Association says that a third of family doctors are considering retiring within five years, mostly because of overwork, bureaucratic frustrations and stress. Yet in this political looking-glass world, Labour is promising to magic up 8,000 more GPs and the Tories are pledging seven-day access to all NHS services.

Improvements to the NHS, we are told, will be funded partly through the £22 billion “efficiency savings” to be made by 2020. But this is actually a euphemism for an impossible £22 billion of cuts.

The real swindle lies in the pretence that the NHS model works, and that the only issue is which party is most committed to it. In fact, successive governments have poured ever-more eye-watering amounts of money into the service. NHS net expenditure increased from £64 billion in 2003/04 to £113 billion in 2014/15. Such money will never be enough, though, because demand for health care is infinite and taxpayers’ willingness to fund it is not.

In addition, the NHS is far too big and unresponsive to be run from Whitehall. Targets have produced perverse incentives; regulators have covered up poor care because of the imperative to sustain the illusion that the service is getting better and better.

The NHS is bust because the model is fundamentally flawed. This does not mean there aren’t fine and committed healthcare staff doing wonderful things for patients. But the NHS simply cannot do what it says on the tin: provide equal care for all, free at the point of use.

Britain tells itself that the NHS is a national treasure because no other system in the world matches it for decency and compassion. This is simply untrue. In the Mid Staffordshire Trust, more than 1,200 patients died through the incompetence, negligence and callousness of the staff, a story repeated elsewhere.

My own previously firm commitment to the NHS was irrevocably shaken by the way my own elderly parents were treated with indifference, neglect and even cruelty. From those experiences and many worse horrors recounted to me, I concluded three things: that there was a moral problem at the heart of the NHS; that if you were old and feeble you were particularly vulnerable; and that the most important thing patients lacked for their own protection was leverage.

That last crucial factor is provided by social insurance health schemes run by countries such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

These are privately run insurance schemes and health providers that are socially redistributive because they cover those who are genuinely unable to pay. Because they are so generously funded, their standards of even basic care are higher than in the NHS.

These schemes are extremely popular not just because standards are so high. They are well funded because people can see how their money is being spent. And the choice of schemes and providers provides purchasers with leverage. Healthcare professionals are thus answerable not to bureaucrats or politicians but to patients themselves.

No healthcare system is perfect, and European social insurance schemes are beset by similar problems of unlimited demand. But their combination of higher standards and social justice is not even on the British political agenda. 

This is because, in a country whose values and national identity are in flux, people cling to the foundational myth of the NHS as the one national institution with which they are proud to identify. But it is a myth. And after the election, we are going to find out its impossible price.

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