An Interloper Offers Weekend Film Commentary: Les Miserables

Based on its vivid colors and exaggerated gestures, one is tempted to dismiss Academy Award Best Picture nominee Les Miserables as a cartoon. But cartoons have clarity of line and a sense of direction, not to mention momentum from frame to frame. This movie is more like the result of dropping the Sunday funnies in a mud-puddle: smeared with detritus and coming apart at the seams.

Start with the source. The musical itself, though much beloved by aficionados of Glee and Smash, takes Victor Hugo’s outraged critique of post-revolutionary France and turns it into a parade. While purporting to address the depredations and degradations of poverty, Cameron Mackintosh’s production was staged so elaborately that it depended on $150 tickets to keep it running. Thus there was the awkward matter of cheering gaunt poor people on the barricades from plush seats in the orchestra.

Happily even overpriced movies like this one cost only $10 or so to see, reducing the contradiction between medium and message. But director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and his collaborators have replaced that one difficulty with a raft of their own: frying pan, meet fire.

Continue reading “An Interloper Offers Weekend Film Commentary: Les Miserables”

What Shall We Call the New Franco-German Partnership?

Charlemagne has a proposal:

Merging first names to make Frangela is too familiar for leaders who barely know each other. Homer is too American (or worse, Greek). Merkollande sounds too close to Merkozy. That leaves just the shortened Merde, which at least sums up the state of the euro.

Mein Solardach

A proposal for large solar panel leasing scheme in Spain funded by puritanical Germans.

Was it Matthew asking for ideas to get Europe’s economy moving?

It was a great insight of Keynes that spending doesn’t have to be useful to be effective in a slump (though he also said that useful was preferable). Helicopter drops of cash, banknotes buried in coal mines, and cheques mailed out randomly would work just fine, but clash with the Protestant ethic. Few Germans believe Keynes’ argument, and no German central bankers, so you really have to come up with Useful and Virtuous ideas.

At the risk of sounding like a one-subject crank, here’s mine. A part of my roof as it could be by Christmas:

What I suggest is a very large solar panel leasing scheme, funded or underwritten by the creditworthy members of the EU, meaning Germany. Taking a number out of a hat, 5 GW at €2.5 per installed watt would cost €12.5bn up front. That’s 2 million houses at 2.5 kw each, or €6,250; or 50,000 industrial roofs at 100kw, or any linear combination. Continue reading “Mein Solardach”

Président Hollande

Hollande’s probable election as President of France.

For a year French opinion polls have consistently given François Hollande the forecast of a comfortable victory over Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of the French presidential election. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that Sarkozy will pull some rabbit out of the hat in the next 10 days: the massacre by nutter-terorist Mohamed Merah in Toulouse in March played to his strengths, and didn’t change things. How can Sarkozy, with his manic and omnidirectional energy, campaign against a candidate who makes a virtue of being boring? Sarkozy’s claim to be the experienced safe pair of hands is about as convincing as one coming from Newt Gingrich. So Merkel, Cameron, Barroso and Obama had better get used to the idea of Président Hollande.

My reading is that nothing much will change for the French, unless they are rich and will face higher top rates of tax. Hollande’s essential appeal is conservative: he will maintain the French social model against Sarkozy’s hypothetical néoliberalisme. The promise to roll back Sarkozy’s raising of the pension age is limited to workers with 40 years of contributions, i.e. the small and shrinking set of those who managed to get a steady job when they were 20. The reintroduction of rent controls is likewise limited to “les zones où les prix sont excessifs”.

The main beneficiaries of his election will be citizens and governments of beleaguered Mediterranean Europe, Portugal, Pain Spain [see comments re parapraxis], Italy, and Greece. Continue reading “Président Hollande”

Bandit cable

Thre cable TV service run by crimunals in Rio´s favelas was much cheaper than its legal successors.

Last month the Rio police, supported by marines in armoured cars and a cloud of TV cameras, stormed the Rocinha favela, unopposed by the drug traffickers. Behind the media theatre, the policy of reoccupation seems to be working. Police stations are followed by social services. Tourists and banks are venturing in. Shopkeepers don´t have to pay protection any more. The favela dwellers are delighted to be freed from the rule of mobsters, right?

Up to a point, Lord Copper. They now have to pay for their electricity instead of stealing it from the street lighting cables. Tough. They also – and here I have much more sympathy – have to pay a lot more for TV. As air reception is very poor on the steep hillsides, TV was supplied over an illegal cable network, the gatonet, controlled of course by the drug gangs. The going rate was 15-30 reais a month for up to 120 channels, including the free-to-air ones that carry telenovelas and football, and hacked paying film channels. I´m quite impressed by the bandits´ technical achievement here.

A gatonet office in Bangu favela

are now being offered the service by legal providers for twice the price: 40 to 80 reais. The minimum wage in Brazil is 543 reais a month, and many favelistas will be living off less. 10% of their income just for TV!

The gatonet was provided by murderous outlaw kleptocrats, but their legal Brazilian counterparts are in this area even worse for the poor. My (non-poor) daughter in Lille pays 30 euros a month (72 reais) for 20-megabit ADSL (the slow offer!), 100 free TV channels and many others at a reasonable a la carte charge, and unlimited phone calls in France.

It´s not I think an accident that there are no low-power repeaters on Rio´s many hills to provide decent air TV reception, or that the municipality has not simply taken over the seizedgatonet and run it as a very profitable public service. There are TV satellites over Brazil, but owned by Globo and Sky (from which we buy a poor-value package). The selection of free-to-air channels is very thin. In Europe the TV satellites are owned by Astra, a Luxembourg corporation independent of the TV networks it carries, including Sky´s encrypted ones and FTA ones from the BBC, ITV, and Germany. There must be a profit opportunity in Rocinha for pirate satellite TV using hacked second-hand Sky receivers.

Brazil has the typical second-world problem of governance. It seems to lack a professional higher civil service; ministers are free to staff their fiefs with party cronies, which helps explain the high level of corruption and the serial scandals in Brasilia. In state capitals, it doesn´t even become a scandal. A technocracy can be a force for competition if it´s given a mandate. The European Commission is unideologically power-hungry, so it´s super-statist in agriculture (inheriting French policy) and strongly pro-competition in electricity and telecoms (inheriting German policy).

Lacking technocrats, it would still be possible for Brazil´s vigorous democracy to provide checks on monopolists. But the Brazilian left is typically soggy on competition. Partly it´s ideology; if you demonise all capitalists, you lose the ability to discriminate between useful and exploitative ones, and this continues when you make your peace with them. Partly it´s the organisational base: for the PT, the unions, representing a labour elite, many working for public and parastatal organisations. Monopolists can offer safe jobs with good wages. (A necessary but not a sufficient condition; see Amazon´s sweatshop warehouses.)

It´s possible for a right-wing party to be pro-competition, if it has a liberal ideology (in the European free-market sense) and a base representing small business, like Thatcher´s Conservatives or the German Free Democrats. If the losing conservative candidate in the last Brazilian general election, Jose Serra, had such a vision, he certainly didn´t articulate it.

Which brings me to the Republicans, another party of businessmen. GOP policies clearly only reflect the interests of big monopolistic corporations, not small ones. On credit card fees, the GOP backs the extortionate fees of the Visa and Mastercard duopoly (>2% per sale against 0.5% in Europe) against the interests of retailers, garage owners and Joe the Plumber. It opposed public works in a recession, a lifeline to small construction companies; and Obama´s moves towards universal health care, an obvious interest of every American employer. How many minutes a week does a Danish employer spend worrying about the health insurance of her employees, and how many staff does she pay to handle it? Zero.

Thomas Frank, in his famous What´s the matter with Kansas?, noted the ¨false consciousness¨ of Republican American workers who vote their cultural biases against their material interests. Does not the same apply to Republican small businessmen?

Stealth attack of the Tobin tax

Sarkozy lines up somemiddle-rank supporters for a financial transactions tax; and how an FTT can improve financial markets.

The idea for a generalized Tobin tax (financial transactions tax – FTT) on financial transactions continues, slowly but steadily, to gather supporters.

For a long time it was mainly backed by starry-eyed development NGOs who wanted to tax currency speculators (as in Tobin’s original proposal), but to fund a UN war on poverty. Tobin dissociated himself from this linkage. Either way, Tobin tax v.1 didn’t get anywhere.

It took the current financial crisis to revive it in the generalised v.2 form. Continue reading “Stealth attack of the Tobin tax”

A nail in a lead coffin

Nuclear power is doomed by its negative learning curve.

A damning chart by Arnulf Grubler of IIASA in Austria, via Joe Romm:

Figure 13: Average and min/max reactor construction costs per year of completion date for US and France versus cumulative capacity completed

Remember that the French nuclear programme had the most favourable institutional and political environment imaginable Рa centralised polity, a stable political consensus administered by a technically-trained ̩lite, a single capable purchaser insisting on maximum standardisation Рand costs still went up.

Why the negative learning curve? Continue reading “A nail in a lead coffin”

The Right Stuff

The maid did not charge DSK withrape becaus eshehad nothing to lose.

Penelope Trunk
(via Matt Yglesias) has a strange career-woman take on the DSK rape charge:

These [low-status] women have nothing to lose when they report men who cross the line sexually. So the maid reported. And then, it turns out, all sorts of women in higher up positions spoke up against Strauss-Kahn. The women wouldn’t report the harassment on their own. They don’t want to suffer retribution. But now there will be no retribution, so it’s safe to come forward.

Nothing to lose? Like a good steady (if low-paying) job? And the right to stay and work in the United States with her child?

She didn’t know quite how important a political figure Strauss-Kahn is, or more exactly was – far more than a mere US Senator. She must have known – as Trunk herself points out – that middle-aged men who stay in $3000 hotel suites are rich and influential. Filing a complaint was extremely risky. At the very best it would certainly expose her to the trauma of cross-examination in the witness box by the nastiest defence lawyers money can buy.

The hotel manager gave a very strong endorsement of her :

Our employee worked at the Sofitel New York for three years and was completely satisfactory in terms of her work and behaviour.

We can therefore rule out that she’s a naive idiot. On the scanty evidence available, the most economical hypothesis is that she is simply an exceptionally brave human being.

I do wonder however if an equally courageous African-American maid in the same situation would have shown this African immigrant’s faith in American justice.

DSK (and BHL)

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is experiencing the presumption of innocence at the heart of the American system of criminal justice. When he goes to trial, it will be up to the DA to prove the charges before he can be punished as a criminal; a jury, probably, will get to decide whether he is guilty or not.  The cards are stacked in his favor: they have to find that the charges are proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and all his defense team has to do is to show such doubt, not to prove him innocent; indeed, there is no finding of “innocent”: just “not guilty”, and you walk out the door.

He’s in jail now to assure his presence at his trial, not as punishment.  We let defendants out on bail as much as we can, consistent with assurance that they will not skip; in this case the judge was not so assured.

Presumed innocent has to do with what the government can do to you, not what people think of you, and Mark has a point about setting you up for pictures in handcuffs, pictures that cannot be untaken if you aren’t convicted. There is no requirement that citizens believe anything at all, including “innocent”, about an accused.    The smirking agreement now coming out in the French press is that DSK has always been a randy goat and everyone knew it.  The formal complaint of attempted rape from Tristane Banon, a complaint she was counseled out of filing at the time by her mother and other people who probably had her interest at heart, lead me to exercise my right to believe absent new evidence, that Strauss-Kahn tried to rape a poor woman who happened into his path because he thought he could, and my right to conjecture that he thought that because he had successfully done so in the past. This time he got the surprise of his life. I make it nine to two that more women will be heard from in this way now. YMMV, and the facts will tell.

DSK’s wife, having made it through an affair he had with a subordinate that almost cost him his job, says she doesn’t believe a word of this story.  Perhaps she doesn’t; perhaps he never tried to rape her, perhaps she has been protected from what everyone else in her circle seems to know, or perhaps she has her own odd ideas of what is attractive in a man.

What’s totally astonishing is the repulsive screed posted by Bernard-Henri Lévy, a journalist cum soi-disant philosopher claiming to be a twenty-year friend of Strauss-Kahn. An adequate translation is here, original here.  Short version:

DSK is my friend, and I am Bernard-Henri Lévy.  How dare these people of no importance treat him as though he has been credibly accused of a violent crime!  He has a wife, with whom I, BHL, have dined, at parties with witty and charming Important People, and to speak publicly of any of this is victimizing her.  To show my loyalty to this member of my privileged and superb tribe, I am going to make up nonsense about how rooms are cleaned in New York hotels, and assert, in my most magisterial way, that the US criminal justice system has a presumption of guilt. I have been to America, and I know about these things.  The idea that a chambermaid is permitted in that vile country to accuse a Man of Great Importance! That a servant is permitted to trip up the great enterprise of my beloved French socialism! That if my seductive, charming, friend DSK, who loves the ladies, especially his own three, has forced himself on women they are supposed to be seen as victims – the nerve!

Two French intellectuals with their reputations and careers in tatters, I would say.

Those free riders in the sky

The rest of the world’s free-riding on American medical innovation is dwarfed by American free-riding on foreign medical education.

Matt Yglesias channels the CW on medical innovation:

Arguably the rest of the world gets by free-riding on American generosity. We provide the windfall profits that drive innovation and they offer payments much closer to marginal costs and save money.

Cry me a river.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, drawing on hard Census data:

In 2005, 15 percent of all US health-care workers were foreign born. … Of the 10 million persons engaged in health-care occupations ages 18 and above …1,454,883 were foreign born. … The foreign born accounted for 26.3 percent of 803,824 physicians and surgeons.

This army of professionals is very close in number to all the US armed forces put together: 1,445,000 in May 2009. The great majority of these doctors and nurses were educated at taxpayer expense in their countries of origin, which are mostly far poorer than the USA, like India and the Philippines. Not many Swedish or Japanese doctors choose to emigrate to greener pastures. The US health care system is a huge free rider on the developing world.

This regressive transfer of human capital far outweighs the hypothetical free riding on American medical and pharmaceutical innovation – usually overstated anyway.

The French Communist politician Jack Ralite was French Health Minister in 1981-83, during the swan song of the PCF in Mitterand’s early years. (The PCF ministers all quit government when Mitterand was forced into an economic policy U-turn in 1983.) Ralite tried to raise the number of medical students, but gave in to pressure from the professions. (Article in French).

Ralite understood basic capitalist economics better than John Boehner. If the US wants to cut bloated medical fees, it needs to tackle the Malthusian cartel that blocks the opening of new medical schools – and hoovers resources from the Indian poor.