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The failure of my profession

I have been meaning to write a post about the state of economics for some time. For many years, I have been unhappy about the increasingly abstract articles in the most prestigious journals (e.g. the American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy etc.). My PhD is from 1991; yet, today, I do not understand most papers published in those journals. The level of mathematics required to read them is simply beyond me. So we have a group of people publishing for a narrow circle of like-minded academics with absolutely no impact on public policy.

This general malaise is not new, and others have complained about it as well. And of course there are exceptions, people like Paul Krugman or Thomas Piketty or Joseph Stiglitz who write about real world problems in an understandable manner, but still based on rigorous analysis of empirical data and on sound theoretical foundations and methods.

No, what prompts me to write this particular post at this particular time is the increasing influence of populist parties and movements in the Western world. Whether you look at countries where the crisis hit hard, like Spain or Greece, or those where it had much less impact, like the UK or Scandinavia or the USA, you see different expressions of the same phenomenon: an almost nihilistic rejection of the established order, as expressed by Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Front National in France, the Brexit vote in the UK and the rise of Donald Trump in the US…I could go on, but the picture is clear: increasingly, large groups of voters in Western democracies are voting for parties (whether on the left or on the right) that promise easy solutions to complex problems and that feed on the general sense of betrayal felt by those voters.

So, who are those voters and why do they feel betrayed? A big part of the answer lies in the globalisation that we have experienced in the past few decades and the failure of the political system to deal with its consequences. The Economist had an interesting article about this in early July, summarising the work of economists such as Dani Rodrick of Harvard, who question the consensus about the inevitability of globalisation and free trade.

Let us take a step back, to the birth of the economics profession in the late 18th century and early 19th century. The two significant names are of course Adam Smith who explained how society gets richer if everyone focuses on work that s/he is particularly good at and on the importance of the profit motive (“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”); and David Ricardo, who took Smith’s analysis further and extended it to international trade.

Adam Smith is often regarded as an ultra-liberalist who advocated a minimalist state, letting Darwinian capitalism rule otherwise. This is a complete misunderstanding of his ideas. In The Wealth of Nations he recognises that business owners will team up to take advantage of the consumer if the government does not prevent them from doing so, and more generally, there are many quotes in his writings to which progressives can sign up to without reservations. For example, the following two quotes clearly show that Smith was concerned about inequality and was in favour of a progressive tax system:

“No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable.”

“It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

In his 1817 book, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Ricardo formalised many of Smith’s concepts and formulated the main principle of international trade theory. Using a simple example of two countries and two goods, he showed that even if one country is better at producing everything than another country, both countries are still better off if they trade, with each country specialising in the products where its superiority is relatively greatest (this is what we call “comparative advantage”). By doing that, consumers in both countries get at least as much of each of the two goods than they do in a situation without trade. This fundamental insight is behind all subsequent trade theory. Later researchers have developed the theory further to take into account various complicating factors from the real world, but the  principle of comparative advantage remains the basis of the economics of international trade.

So, if trade (and the associated globalisation of supply chains, finance, etc.) benefits everyone, how come large portions of the electorate are turning against it? The latest WTO-sponsored round of international trade talks, the Doha Round, which began in 2001, is basically dead, and the future of other major trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and even the EU-Canada free trade agreement is in doubt. I will argue that at least part of the answer is the intellectual failure of the economics profession to deal with the real world consequences of globalisation.

When we economists say that trade and globalisation benefits society, what we really mean is that in aggregate, society benefits. As consumers, we all benefit from the lower prices we pay for our electronics, for instance, now that manufacturing of such things takes place mainly in low-cost countries, first and foremost China. But it does not mean that everyone benefits. Clearly, there are losers–namely the workers who lose their jobs because making stuff in rich countries is too expensive when competing against the likes of China. This is not new. We have known it all along. The implicit assumption behind the near unanimous support for trade liberalisation among economists is that the winners compensate the losers. In other words: since the aggregate gain from trade is positive, there is room for the winners to compensate the losers and still be better off. This is undeniably true on the level of calculation. Unfortunately, in the real world, the losers have not been compensated. Instead, the winners simply keep the gains to themselves and smugly tell the unemployed steel worker that he must acquire new skills so that he can perform the higher value-added tasks that are needed in the new economy.

With a few exceptions, we have ignored the rise in inequality since the 1970s. Until recently, the only people who worried about it were inconsequential left wingers. Today, the situation is changing. Even the quentessential establishment organisation OECD, often referred to as “the club of rich countries”, is increasingly concerned about inequality and its social consequences. Hopefully, during the coming years this concern will lead to some policy changes. But meanwhile, out there in the real world, those people who have not gained from the economic changes of the past decade have concluded that they have nothing to lose and are rejecting the established order. They are doing it in diffuse ways. This is not an organised revolutionary movement of the sort Marx would have imagined. Sometimes the anger is expressed on the left, as in Spain or Greece; sometimes on the right, as in France; and sometimes in ways that are completely nihilistic and impossible to fit into the left-right catorisation, such as the rise of Donald Trump in the US or the vote to leave the EU in the UK. What these political forces have in common, however, is a desire to turn inwards and even to reverse globalisation, exemplified by Trump’s promise to cancel the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and to build the wall on the US-Mexico border. Whether or not he will be able to carry out these promises if elected is irrelevant; what is important is that the people who vote for him, or a large proportion of them, anyway, either believe in these promises or at least are looking to Trump to “shake things up”, whatever that might mean.

So I finish with a plea to my fellow economists: worry less about equations and more about describing and analysing the real world, including the political consequences of economic developments. I, for one, am no longer convinced that globalisation, given the political context, has been a good thing.

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Voting with the heart

This is a year of three important elections (possibly more, but these are the three that I truly care about): the Brexit vote in the UK on June 23rd; the Spanish general election on June 26th; and the US presidential election in November. All three votes have something in common: a large proportion of the voters will decide their vote based on emotions, and in all three cases the results will be disastrous.

In the UK referendum, it seems this morning, with just over a week to go, that the LEAVE side might win. The people who vote this way do so for a variety of reasons, of course: some genuinely dislike the EU, rail against the “Brussels bureaucracy” and really think that the UK would be better off on its own. This is a fantasy. Still others (and I believe this is the majority among the LEAVE camp) are voting based on a vague fear of globalisation, of foreigners, of immigration–even if those things have little or nothing to do with the EU. The end result might well be that the UK votes to leave the EU, with grave economic and geopolitical consequences for itself (including a likely breakup of the UK as Scotland will surely hold another referendum on independence) and for the rest of Europe. Because regardless of this vote, geography will not change, and however much the Little Englanders dislike it, the UK is part of Europe.

Then the Spanish election three days later. Again, large numbers of people will vote for the new left-wing Podemos party, probably pushing the social democrats PSOE into third place. The people voting for Podemos have the idea that the two big parties on the left will then come together to form a governing coalition. This is another fantasy. In this scenario, the PSOE should accept that the larger partner, Podemos, gets the prime minister post. They will never accept it; nor can PSOE ever accept the Podemos line on Catalan independence. So the most likely result of the many Podemos votes will be that PSOE will abstain in the vote on government formation, allowing Rajoy and his reactionary and corrupt Partido Popular to continue governing. Surely this is not the outcome the Podemos voters want, but this is what they will get.

And finally, the US presidential election. Here, once again, we have millions of people who support Bernie Sanders in his hopeless quest to become the Democratic nominee. In the past I have had a lot of sympathy for Sanders. I certainly agree with many of his policies, much more so than with those of the other candidates. But sadly, Sanders is unelectable–he is simply too far to the left for most Americans (as opposed to Democratic primary voters). By continuing his campaign as long as he has, Sanders has accomplished only one thing: he has damaged his party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, to such an extent that what used to be a comfortable lead for her over Donald Trump has now become a dead heat. So once again, by voting with their hearts rather than their heads, the Sanders supporters have probably accomplished only this: Donald Trump is the next president of the US. Surely this is not what you intended, my friends??

2015 as our family experienced it

The year began with both children here, a rare pleasure now that they live on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

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But soon after this picture was taken, I found myself in Madrid airport, saying goodbye to Moses.

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Lars came to visit as he does every January, and we spent a couple of days in Barcelona. We met up with my friend Lluis.

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We looked at art, at the Joan Miró Foundation and elsewhere.

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It was a very nice trip, although it ended on a sour note: Lars’s rental car was broken into and our backpacks were stolen while we were out and about during the day on Sunday. We did not lose our photo gear, since we had that with us, but I did lose my laptop and iPad, a major headache. And this was in a supposedly guarded parking garage on Plaça Catalunya!

Monica was still here, so we did some things together, including eating at L’Indret, a vegan restaurant in the centre with an awesome salad bar.

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And of course Lars treated us to a delicious evening meal at home.

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But then it was time to say goodbye to Monica as well, as she headed back to Cardiff for the spring semester.

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After Monica’s departure, Lars and I engaged in one of our two shared passions, cycling (the other is photography). One day we climbed the Puerto de la Carrasqueta, one of the mountain passes in the Alicante area which sometimes features in the Vuelta a España bicycle race.

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I finish January with a portrait of our dear Cheeta. The pets have aged during 2015 (who hasn’t?) but they are still with us to love and to cuddle.

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February is usually a quiet month for us, and this year was no exception. We got together with friends.

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I continued to feed the cats that live on the golf course.

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And on February 14th, our own Taco turned 15 and received his serving of tuna.

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Later in the month, I had a brief business trip to Mannheim, a city I had not visited before. It was cold and rainy.

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On the last day of February, we visited our friends Carmen and Hilarión in Almoradí. As always, it was a day of friendship, delicious food and relaxation amid the orange trees.

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In early March, we took advantage of Moses’s weeklong business trip to England and met up with him and with Monica in London. We arrived on the 6th, and Monica came by train from Cardiff. It was nice to be together again. We took Monica to one of my favourite pubs, the Chandos near Trafalgar Square.

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The next day, Moses flew in the from US. He was tired but we spent the whole day out and about in the great city, including having some fun at the Southbank book market.

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As always, we ate well, and we did not go thirsty either.

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Back in Alicante, we went to visit friends whose little dog had a rash and therefore had to wear a “lamp shade” to keep him from licking it.

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Later in the month, I had yet another trip to Brussels, a city I visit often in connection with my work. This time I was there for St. Patrick’s Day. The City Hall on Grand’ Place was illuminated green for the occasion.

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As usual, I went for a beer at Poechenellekelder, my favourite watering hole.

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And later I got together with a visiting fellow photographer from England for a pint of Guinness at the Six Nations pub.

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Then back home for a couple of days of rest with Aixa and the pets.

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And then it was time for another business trip, this time to Geneva, for a meeting at the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a UN body based there.

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We celebrated Aixa’s birthday with a party at our place. By late March it is nice and warm in Alicante, and our back terrace, adjacent to the den, is a perfect venue for this kind of thing.

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On March 31st, I had an all-day meeting at the OECD in Paris. I took advantage and flew to Paris already on Sunday morning so that I could visit my cousin Francis whom I had not seen for 5 years. We went for a relaxed bicycle ride along the Seine.

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Later, during dinner, we were joined by Francis’s daughter Iris who is now an 18-year old young lady.

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As always, I enjoyed the magnificent sights of the city.

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But then it was back to work, and I spent all of Tuesday at the OECD headquarters. Afterwards, I had a drink with Piotr, a Polish economist at the OECD.

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April began with Semana Santa, the week of religious processions which culminate on Easter Sunday. I always enjoy these events because of the photographic opportunities they provide.

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The high point of April was my first ever trip to Latvia–in fact, it was my first trip to any of the three Baltic countries. Latvia held the rotating EU presidency during the first half of 2015, and so certain institutional meetings that we organise every spring were held in Riga. I really loved the city.

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We have a very good working and personal relationship with our Latvian colleagues, especially Linda (on the right) who had basically organised the entire 3-day event from their side.

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Linda had arranged a truly wonderful evening for us, dinner at Folkklubs Ala Pagras, a restaurant with traditional Latvian food and traditional Latvian dancing.

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From Riga I flew to Copenhagen to visit my parents’ graves and my childhood friend Beata, here lounging with her children.

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The Japanese cherry trees at Langelinie, close to the Little Mermaid, were in full bloom.

Explosion of colour

And then it was on to Brussels for some more work-related meetings, but also an opportunity to help open a photo exhibition by members of Viewfinders, a photography club in Brussels to which I have belonged since we lived there in the 1990s. Our exhibition was at Halles St-Géry, a great location in the centre of Brussels. I participated with two images.

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In early May, something truly joyous happened. Both my American and my French families came to visit! Here are the two senior men of the global Wajsman clan, uncle Zev from Florida and uncle Joseph from France.

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One of our traditions is to play an international match of pétanque, a game at which Joseph of course excels.

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The American side provided stiff resistance…

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…but in the end, France prevailed.

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The elder Wajsmans flew off to Israel from Madrid, but first I took them to  Toledo, a city not far from Madrid which is one of Spain’s most interesting places to visit. It is a place where the pre-1492 Jewish and Moorish culture is very much in evidence, of course along with the now dominant Catholicism. All this gave rise to many interesting, serious and not-so-serious conversations.

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Late in May, the Miracle of the Cactus happened again. A bit of background: when my mother died in 2001, I took one of her beloved plants, a round cactus, to Switzerland (where I lived at the time). Later, the cactus moved with us to the Netherlands, and in 2007 to Spain. The Spanish climate apparently suits it well, because after a couple of years of living here, it has started blooming a couple of times a year.

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Also in May, the younger generations of US and French Wajsmans came to visit–my cousin Nicole from Brussels and Renata from Florida, with assorted offspring. It was great to have them all here.

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We put the young ones to work at the BBQ.

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And I still fed the golf course cats.

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On the last day of May, I cycled to Puerto de Tudons, one of the most challenging rides around here.

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In early June, we got together with our Spanish friends to watch “el clásico”: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona.

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Later that month, I went to Denmark to spend a week in my hometown with Lars. His daughter Klara works part-time in Den Gamle By (“the old town”), an outdoor museum of life in the 19th century. She has to dress in 19th century clothing and becomes Jensine.

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Lars and I spent two days cycling in Jutland. It was very intense, 250 km the first day and 266 km the second day.

Denmark has a lot of water which means that often you have to take as small ferry like this one to cross a fjord.

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Towards the end of the first day, a selfie somewhere in western Jutland. My lip is swollen due to an insect bite.

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After a long day, we have arrived at Klitmøller on the west coast of Jutland where Lars had reserved a bed & breakfast for the night. We found a place to have a much needed dinner.

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The next day was really hard. It was cold and rainy for the first several hours. Utter misery. Lars is wringing his socks which have become totally water-logged.

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But the weather improved and we made it back to Aarhus before it got dark. It helps that it does not get dark in Denmark until 10 p.m. in June.

Later in the week, I attended the midsummer celebrations on the beach in Aarhus. It is a very traditional Danish celebration, going back to the pre-Christian era.

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Then Lars and I drove to Berlin and spent a few days there, hosted by his friend Dominique.

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We also did some sight-seeing, including a visit to the former Stasi headquarters, now a museum.

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Back in Aarhus, we were visited by Lars’s daughter Marie, along with Lauge, Lars’s first grandchild.

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We also visited Aros, the local art museum, one of the best in the world.

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And we took pictures, including my portrait of Lars, inspired by Helmut Newton’s famous portrait of Stravinsky.

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On July 2nd, we had the last wine tasting at the office before the summer break.

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Then we had our friend Iñaki’s birthday party.

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July and August are lazy months. The heat of the Alicante summer means that both people and animals spend most of their time lounging around.

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Monica was home for the summer. She has recently developed a taste of beer, in particular Belgian fruity beers such as Mort Subite.

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At the office, we had a festive luncheon to say goodbye to a departing colleague and to usher in the summer vacation.

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Then August arrived. I continued my cycling in the mountains around Alicante. This is the kind of landscape that I traverse on two wheels.

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Every year, EU employees have a medical checkup, part of which is an urine sample. I always try to inject a note of humour into the procedure.

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We were going to the US to visit Moses for 3 weeks. Instead of putting the dog and cat in the usual pet hotel, we arranged for my sister and brother-in-law to come and house- and pet-sit during our absence. Here they are, arriving at Alicante airport from Poland.

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Before flying off to the US, I took Irka and Telesfor for lunch at our favourite beach eatery, Hostal Maruja in La Marina.

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Then we flew to Philadelphia, rented a car and drove to Lansdale, where Moses was staying. On the way we stopped to buy a few things at a drug store. It was nice to be together again.

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And the babies (who are no longer babies) are together again!

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Philadelphia is a great city, with its history, its monuments…and its vegan pizza!

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It also has great bookshops. A proper bookshop needs one or more cats, and this one, near the Barnes Foundation, ticked all the boxes.

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One of the really great things about Philadelphia is that my friend Jim and his husband John live there. They are great guys in many respects, and they have the coolest car of any of my friends.

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They treated us to dinner in a Brazilian restaurant, transporting us there in this magnificent driving machine.

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The food at the restaurant was great, but the company was even better.

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Jim, as always, told funny stories. I think this one involved a woman with large breasts.

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And then there was dessert…

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Another Philadelphia delight we discovered was the Barnes Foundation.

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A few days later, we drove to Montreal, the first visit there for all of us. We arrived tired and hungry but fortunately there was a Korean restaurant near our hotel.

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Montreal is a wonderful, multicultural city, where you can get sushi even in the metro.

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There are lots of cool neighbourhoods in Montreal.

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We visited Montreal’s cathedral where the children lit candles for their grandmother.

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And we tasted some nice locally brewed beer.

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Just before driving back to Philadelphia, we visited the iconic park at the top of the hill. Moses and Monica assumed the American Gothic pose.

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Back in the USA, we visited the part of New Jersey where we lived in the early 1990s and where Monica was born. This is the bridge across the Delaware River which forms the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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We walked around Princeton, the town where Monica was born.

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August 13th is Aixa’s and mine wedding anniversary, and we celebrated it with the children at a nice restaurant in Doylestown.

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We also went to Washington for a day, with a visit to the Holocaust museum the first item on the agenda.

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I have been there before, but not Aixa and the children. We had an important mission; Moses took with him one of my late father’s war medals and we photographed him with it in the Hall of Remembrance.

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And I made sure to pass by the exhibit that always makes me so proud of my beloved country.

A boat used to ferry Jews from Denmark to Sweden during the rescue in October 1943.

A boat used to ferry Jews from Denmark to Sweden during the rescue in October 1943.

We also visited the monuments on the Mall.

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Back in Pennsylvania, we visited Amish country. The town of Intercourse is quite touristy.

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We also went to see a Phillies game, just as we had gone to see the Yankees during our 2014 visit to New York. Sadly, the Phillies were quite inept, and we left during the 7th inning, secure in the knowledge that the game was decided.

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In Moses’s apartment in Lansdale, Monica is doing some exercise, following directions on her computer screen.

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We then flew down to Florida to visit uncle Zev and the rest of the family there.

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It was wonderful to be together with our Florida family. A highlight of the trip. Zev and Alina treat Monica and Moses as if they were their grandchildren.

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My cousin Renata with one of Ilan’s doggies.

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We stayed one night with Ilan in Jacksonville, and then moved on to Zev and Alina in Jacksonville Beach. In the morning, this is the view from their back porch.

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My cousin Dan who lives in California keeps a bicycle at his parents’ place, so I was able to do a proper ride, about 100 km to St. Augustine and back. The coastal route A1A is not the most exciting cycling road, but I still enjoyed it.

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On the way back, I met another cyclist, a nice man from Alabama. We had a chat outside a convenience store where we had stopped for a drink and a snack. And I got him to take a picture of me.

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We spent the last few days of the US trip at a hotel in Philadelphia, since Moses had moved out of the Lansdale apartment. He works a lot on the road, like this.

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On the last Saturday night, my two children went out in Philadelphia. Monica got nicely dressed for the occasion.

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We spent one of the last days in Philly walking around the Reading Terminal Market, an utterly wonderful place.

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We walked to Rittenhouse Square, where a farmers market was taking place. We had a chat with this nice couple from Lawrenceville, NJ, the town where we lived for five years.

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We walked through the gay neighbourhood.

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And to top off a great day, we happened upon the Naked Bike Ride.

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And then it was time to say our goodbyes and to fly back to Spain. September was around the corner, which meant return to work.

Back home, we were greeted by my sister and brother-in-law who had been house- and pet-sitting while we were in the US. A win-win-win situation, for them, for the pets, and for us.

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And then, just a couple of days later, I was off to Scotland to attend a conference at the University of Glasgow. I was very pleased with this, as I am one of the few people who actually prefer Glasgow over Edinburgh. After arriving and checking in at my hotel, I walked to the other side of town, to the Brewdog pub (the mothership of Brewdog pubs, so to speak) to meet up with a former trainee and consultant in my team, Antanina, who is now doing her PhD in Italy.

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And then I spent most of the next couple of days at the university.

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Glasgow has a rich history, and the main gate of the university has the names of famous alumni. Since I am an economist, none is more important than this one.

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On the last day of my stay in Scotland, I rented a car and drove north from Glasgow. It is an incredibly beautiful country, and I intend to return soon.

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I stopped for lunch at a famous restaurant by the shore of the lake of the same name, and had the best oysters in my life.

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Just over a week later, I was back in the UK, but this time further south. Monica was going on a placement at a hospital in North Wales, and I accompanied her there. We flew to Liverpool and spent the first night there, having a good time, including a visit to the local Brewdog pub.

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The next day we enjoyed Liverpool some more. The city is home to two of my lifelong passions, Liverpool Football Club and The Beatles. Both are much in evidence, from the moment you land.

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We did some shopping in the Liverpool One shopping centre. Our kind of shopping.

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And Monica had something or other done to her eyebrows at one of the department stores.

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And we ate well too, at Wagamama, a favourite for both of us.

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But then it was Sunday morning and it was time to head west in our rented car, to the town of Bodelwyddan. It is a very small town with a very big hospital, where Monica was going to spend the next three months. To say that this is a rural area is an understatement. Here is Monica with one of the neighbours.

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But the house turned out to be very nice, and Monica shared with a lovely young doctor, working at the same hospital (which was just a few hundred metres away).

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In the second half of September, I had a meeting of an international group of photographer friends in Barcelona. This is a group that originally met through the internet but have since become friends in real life, and we get together occasionally. As usual, we met in Barcelona, with my good friend Lluis as the host. Here he is (on the left) at our customary restaurant, El Julivert Meu, with Geoff from Australia. As I said, this is a very international group.

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Here I converse with the lovely Mariela, a friend of Lluis’ in Barcelona.

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The ancient Catalan art of drinking wine from a porrón was demonstrated by the natives and attempted by the rest with varying degrees of success.

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At the end of the evening, stained shirts and all, a group photo outside the restaurant. The people in this picture live in Spain, Australia, France and the USA, and between them probably have at least 7-8 different citizenships.

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Back at work in Alicante. A new restaurant called Moments has opened on the beach just a few minutes drive from our office, and it has quickly become a favourite among my colleagues. I took my team for lunch there one day in late September.

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I finished September in Brussels, a city where I go so often (for work reasons) that it feels almost like a second home. The fact that I lived there in the 1990s helps, of course. I am always struck by how seriously the Belgians take their comics. I know of no other airport in the world which is decorated with Tintin artifacts.

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I had a free afternoon, and I walked to the European Parliament where some vegan activists were giving out free food. As an economist, one of my mantras is that “there is no free lunch” but in this case there was. The main esplanade at the Parliament is named after Poland’s Solidarity movement which was one of the main forces behind the liberation of Eastern Europe in 1989.

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The vegan food was being cooked on a truly industrial scale.

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This nice lady showed me around and explained the political agenda to me. I always enjoy seeing the various demos and other happenings around the EU institutions in Brussels. One can get cynical about things sometimes, but this is real democracy in action.

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One of the pleasures of visiting Brussels is to walk through Parc Cinquantenaire. This time, they were getting ready for celebrations of the 25th anniversary of German re-unification.

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Back home, I went to an interesting photo exhibition in the cultural centre of El Campello, called Tales from Lemuria, a strange and wonderful fantasy world created by photographer Mitar Terzic. I got him to pose for me with one of his images.

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I continued my almost daily cycling. In El Campello, just one km from the beach, one encounters a completely  different world.

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Aixa has taken up golf in a big way, and spends many days on the course.

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On October 13th, my sister turned 70. To celebrate the round birthday with her, we flew to Wrocław for the weekend. The day before, we left Cheeta in the good hands of the people at Canicat, the doggie hotel we always use.

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Wrocław has become a nice, dynamic city since 1989. This is the view of the Ronald Reagan Circle from my sister’s balcony.

Plac Grunwaldzki, Ronald Reagan Circle

My sister and brother-in-law are both in their 70s now but they are keeping well.

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Irka had made my favourite Polish dish, bigos. This is simple, delicious food.

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Aixa and I really enjoyed Wrocław despite the usual autumn weather.

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Then it was back to work. In late October we hosted a big meeting with participants from all EU member states and other organisations. As always, one of the evenings was devoted to a nice dinner, and I had the opportunity to meet my friend Linda from Latvia again.

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The following weekend, I had the pleasure to visit Oktoberfest in the sunshine, hosted by Jenni and Hilarión in Rojales. The weather was Spanish but the food and the beer was totally German–wonderful!

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November began with my first ever trip to Vienna, to attend a conference there. It started terribly, thanks to the utter incompetence of Iberia, Spain’s old national airline. The picture below will give you an idea. For the details, look at the special web site I set up to express my disdain for this joke of an airline.

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But once I got to Vienna, I fell in love with the city. So much wonderful art–just like Rome, except that the streets are clean and the public transport works.

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Johan, a bit closer

November 11th is the anniversary of the end of World War One, but it is also Poland’s independence day. So the Polish people at my office arranged a festive lunch to celebrate the day. As this was a Polish event, the vodka flowed freely.

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Later that month, Aixa and I went to visit Monica in North Wales. We spent an afternoon across the border in Chester, a beautiful town. However, English weather in November is not the best.

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But thanks to all this rain, the Welsh countryside is lush and green. This is a view of Monica’s house in Bodelwyddan as seen from the neighbouring farm.

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We visited Bodelwyddan Castle which provides wonderful views of the surrounding countryside.

Rainbow over the Marble Church, Bodelwyddan

Rainbow over the Marble Church, Bodelwyddan

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There are many interesting things to see inside the castle. One of the interesting bits was an old-fashioned photo studio where period clothes are available to the visitor.

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We drove around the countryside and visited the various towns and the coast. There is a certain stark beauty there.

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On Monday morning we said goodbye to Monica, who posed for one last picture in her NHS Wales uniform.

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We flew home from Liverpool. There is a statue of John Lennon in the airport terminal. I really “dug” that.

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As we usually do, we celebrated Thanksgiving on the last Saturday in November. We invite our Spanish friends and Aixa makes all the traditional Thanksgiving foods.

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I had to be in Paris on November 30th for some meetings at the OECD. I took advantage of the opportunity and travelled to France the day before so that I could visit uncle Joseph in Le Mans.

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We had dinner with his daughter Isabelle who lives very close, just a few minutes walk.

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The next day I took an early morning train to Paris and spent the day at the very fancy Château, part of the OECD headquarters in the 16th arrondissement.

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Before flying home the next day, I had just enough time to visit Place de la République to see the Marianne monument which had become the focal point for people to pay their respects to the victims of the terrorist attacks in November.

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Back in Alicante, there is a more modest impromptu memorial on the main seaside esplanade.

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There was a parliamentary election in Spain just before Christmas. The campaign here is short, only about 3 weeks, and quite low key.

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The approaching holiday was in evidence both in the streets of Alicante and at our office.

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A few days before Christmas, we released a report on counterfeit toys. The press conference was held at a toy factory in Ibi, a town near Alicante. Not the typical corporate setting.

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My colleagues Claire and Carolina with the genuine and fake articles.

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The holiday season officially started with the arrival of Monica.

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We had a Danish Christmas lunch at the office.

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On December 22nd, I drove to Madrid and picked up Moses who flew in from Philadelphia. A few hours and 440 km later, the family was re-united, and the holidays had truly begun.

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On Christmas Eve, we had our holiday dinner of turkey and other assorted goodies. Cheeta just waited patiently on the kitchen terrace.

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But then she took a more active interest in the proceedings.

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Moses got to do the honours.

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On Christmas morning, Monica is waiting for the distribution of presents to begin. She and Moses are now adults, but on this day they are children again.

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At the end of the gift exchange, we made the official Christmas portrait for 2015.

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Between Christmas and New Year, we just relaxed, watched football on TV, and I took advantage of the good weather to cycle in the mountains.

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We welcomed 2016 at our favourite restaurant, La Ereta.

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And that was the year that came and went.

The day I grew up

Some people might say that I never fully did. And of course, growing up is a long and gradual process. But in my mind, there is one particular date that stands out, and if I were to pick a date on which I lost the illusions of my youth, it would be 9th December 1980, early in the morning.

I had recently turned 20 and was studying economics at the University of Aarhus in my hometown in Denmark. I lived in a large student housing complex in the suburbs of Aarhus, Skjoldhøjkollegiet. That particular Tuesday morning was an ordinary one. I woke up and began the morning resuscitation ritual, involving strong coffee and such, in preparation for the day at the university. But then I turned on the radio… Just a couple of hours earlier, around 11 p.m. on 8th December local time, John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his apartment building in New York.

I had been a Beatles fan for many years. Unfortunately, since the band stopped touring when I was 7 years old and broke up when I was 10, I never had the chance to see them live. For a decade, I had held on to a dream–that one day they would reunite and make some more of that wonderful music that I so loved. But on that December morning 35 years ago, I suddenly knew that my childhood/adolescence dream would never be fulfilled. Childhood was well and truly over.

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When I am in New York, whenever I have the time, I go to Central Park and visit Strawberry Fields. And just recently, I had the pleasure of flying home from Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport, where he is honoured with a statue in the departure hall.

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 Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace, you

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you

Greece–some thoughts from a plane

Last week, while flying home from a visit to Denmark, I wrote down some thoughts on the Greece situation at the request of my uncle in the USA. This is written from the perspective of a European economist who cares about the European Union and what it represents. As I write this introduction, the situation is uncertain to say the least. There will be an EU summit later today at which the Greek government has to present new proposals, the banks in Greece remain closed, and the attitude of Greek people that I see on television can best be described as a mix of delusion, defiance and nihilism. In any event, here are my thoughts from a week ago, with just some slight editing to correct errors:

Back in 2010, when the Greek crisis first broke and the first bailout was being worked on, my thought was that rather than throwing good money after bad, the EU should look for a MANAGED way for Greece to leave the Eurozone—not the EU, just the common currency, meaning that they would return to the drachma. Why did I think that back in 2010? Because Greece, more than any other country, should never have adopted the Euro. By their own admission, the government of the day cooked its books so as to make its budget deficit appear about half as large as it really was. This illustrates a basic difference between Greece and the other countries in the EU that have needed help during the crisis (Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus, and to a lesser extent Spain). In all those countries there were problems: too much crazy speculation and debt in Ireland and Spain, lack of competitiveness in Portugal and Spain, some level of incompetence and corruption in Spain and Cyprus…but Greece combines all those problems, and more, in a perfect economic storm. And this is why the other countries that have needed help are now recovering, with rising employment and decent economic growth. But Greece continues to be in a recession with seemingly no hope. Let us look at its problems:
Start with corruption—from what I have read, it is pervasive, both at the highest level of public life and business, and in everyday life, where apparently getting access to public services such as medicine or education requires paying bribes, just as it did in the Communist countries.
To the corruption we can add the clientelism which has bloated the public sector to a level that is mindboggling. Each time the government changes, the new governing party adds thousands of its supporters to the public payrolls, but without getting rid of the previous party’s people (the way it happens in the US at the higher levels of the federal bureacracy when the presidency changes hands). They cannot get rid of the previous lot because as civil servants, they cannot be sacked. The new Syriza government is apparently no different from its predecessors in this regard.
Crazy pension rules. Greece spends a higher percentage of GDP on pensions than any other rich country (soon we can stop calling it rich, it is on its way to middle-income status, similar to Latin American countries). It is not because its pensions are that generous. Rather, it is that people become eligible for them at incredibly young ages. Civil servants, school teachers and other public employees can retire after as few as 20 years of service—so you have people retiring when they are still in their late 40s in some cases. And since Greece faces the same demographic changes as the rest of Europe, i.e. the aging of the population, this kind of generosity is simply not sustainable. Other countries (including Spain!) are raising their retirement ages to reflect the fact that people are living longer. In Denmark the official retirement age is now tied to life expectancy so it will rise automatically as life expectancy goes up. This sort of reform is badly needed in Greece.
Tax evasion. Apparently, most Greeks regard paying taxes as something optional, to the point that Greece is described as having a dysfunctional-to-nonexistent tax collection system. This makes it difficult to close the budget gap, obviously. And it is linked to something deeply ingrained in people’s way of thinking about the state—that it is something distant, not part of “us”. The corruption only reinforces this.
Bureaucracy: Greece is listed as one of the worst countries in the world in terms of ease of doing business, something like no. 130 in the latest ranking. This refers to bureacracy, corruption, slowness of the legal system, difficulty enforcing contracts—all sort of boring things, but these are important things, as the legal system and efficient administration are the plumbing of the economy. There is a reason why all the well-functioning economies—Denmark, Singapore, the US, the Netherlands etc.—are in the top 20 on this ranking.
So, what all this adds up to is that the Greek economy is incredibly inefficient and has many third world elements. This is of course not new, but back when they had their own currency the markets took care of things: the value of the drachma against the D-Mark, the pound, the dollar etc. continued to fall, ensuring that Greek products continued to be competitive abroad. With the adoption of the Euro, devaluation is no longer possible, so Greece has to compete on equal terms with Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, etc.—this is simply an impossible task for them.
So, the reality is that Greece would be better off outside the Euro (but still in the EU). And the money they owe will never be repaid anyway, so this is a non-issue. Most of it is owed to the IMF, the ECB and thereby to the governments of other EU countries (Germany is the largest creditor). Only a small portion of Greek debt is held by private investors, because no sane person would buy a Greek government bond in the past several years. I think that the creditors would be better off recognising the losses and, more importantly, the Greek people would be better off outside the Euro straitjacket. They need to work hard to reform their economy—the problems I listed above are serious and need to be solved. And they can be solved, as shown by many of the ex-Communist EU member states that in less than one generation have become dynamic and well-functioning market economies.
So why is this “managed Grexit” not happening? Of course, I don’t know what Merkel and the other leaders think, but I suspect they are afraid of a contagion effect. If Greece leaves the Euro, will other troubled countries be next? Big ones like Italy which have similar problems to some degree? This is the big fear. I think that if the rest of the Eurogroup were sure that any impact would be just on Greece, then Greece would have been abandoned long ago.
Legally the situation is also complicated. The EU treaties do not contain any provisions for a country to leave the Euro and re-create its own currency. There is simply no mechanism for it and no precedent. Ironically, there IS a precedent of a country leaving the EU altogether: in 1982, Greenland, an autonomous Danish territory, was allowed to leave the EU (which it had joined as part of Denmark in 1972). They were worried that the fishing fleets from the other EU countries would come and take all their fish, the main industry in Greenland. So a Greek exit from the Euro while remaining in the EU itself would require some legal creativity. But I am sure that if the political will is there then a legal construction can be found. The EU has in the past shown itself quite flexible and creative when a need arose to accommodate a “difficult” Member State—that is why the Danes have the opt-out of the Euro (together with Sweden and the UK) and from some other things they do not like.
I will finish on a personal note. I was in Athens for a few days about a year ago, attending a conference. I came away with a feeling of profound sadness for the Greek people. Even though key economic numbers such as the unemployment rate were not too different from Spain’s, the feeling of crisis and depression was so much more palpable in Athens. The Spanish have hope; it seemed to me that the Greeks had lost all hope. The big square in front of the parliament building in this cradle of Western democracy and culture is full of homeless dogs, abandoned there by their owners because they could no longer afford to keep pets (or had become homeless themselves). At least the poor creatures get food from some of the surrounding hotels and restaurants.
As in Spain, there were many beggars, and I mostly ignored them—what can you do? If you give money to one then why not the other? But on the last day of my stay I was taking a walk in the neighbourhood around my hotel. It was an affluent neighbourhood (yes, they do exist in Athens). But I met a man, dressed normally, not a bum, who looked at me and simply asked, “Can you help me?” I could not NOT give him something.
So yes, the Greek elite and government can go to hell as far as I am concerned. But I hope that a solution is found so that the suffering of ordinary people can end.

A virtual and a real friendship

I do not remember how I first became aware of Jim Shulman. I joined the Leica Users Group mailing list in 1998. At some point I noticed this guy from Philadelphia who not only posted great pictures but also seemed to be very witty. I think the first time I met Jim in person was in 2004, when we were visiting the US, not least to show our children the places where they were born, and had lunch with Jim and Kyle Cassidy somewhere in the centre of Philadelphia.

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Then, in 2011, I was spending a few days in Washington and took the train up to Philadelphia to visit Jim and his husband John.

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I was treated to a ride in their awesome supertanker on wheels, complete with all the correct period equipment, and then to a dinner which I still remember as one of the funniest evenings I have ever spent. Imagine a group of 5 or 6 guys, telling true stories from their past careers, most of them absolutely hilarious but also not fit to print 😉

Jim also showed me a type of Pennsylvania cultural institution that I had never visited before: a drive-in liquor store.

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And he took me to Hymie’s, a true temple of Jewish deli-ness.

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In 2012, we were on another family vacation in the US, and on the way home from California we had a 12-hour layover in Philadelphia. Jim met us at the airport at 6 a.m., took us for breakfast at Hymie’s and then entertained us in his home before taking us back to the airport for our flight home.

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Jim and John have a beautiful home with many antique record players and lots of other decorations from the 1920s–just something for my wife. And Jim is a veritable fount of information and stories about his neighbourhood, where he seems to know everybody and everybody seems to know him.

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And just this week, Jim and John welcomed my son Moses into their home for an overnight stay, since he is moving from Buffalo to Landsdale, not far from Philadelphia.

Why am I telling all this? Because I find it really neat that something that started out as an online acquaintance on a photography mailing list has morphed into a friendship in the real world. And I have made several other friends over the years during my now 17 years on that Leica list.

Día de la Hispanidad: celebrating genocide

Last Thursday, October 12th, was Spain’s national day. This day is known as Columbus Day in the USA and used to be called Día de la Hispanidad in Spain. Now it is simply called “Fiesta Nacional de España” but the origin of the date remains the same: October 12th is the anniversary of Columbus “discovery” of America, specifically his landing in the Bahamas in 1492.

Many of my thoughtful Spanish friends and colleagues exhibit a certain uneasiness about this holiday, and nobody I know actually celebrates it. It is just a day off, nothing else. The reason is obvious. One cannot celebrate the beginning of Spain’s colonisation of the Americas without considering what it meant for the native peoples in the newly “discovered” lands. The conquistadores did not just take the Native American land and gold. In many cases, they committed what we today would consider crimes against humanity or even genocide.

It is a disturbing feature of Spain that such a day is still celebrated. After all, Germany does not celebrate Hitler’s birthday, say, or the anniversary of his attack on Poland or any other date related to Nazism. Now, the reader might say that Columbus was not Hitler; of course not, but still one cannot help but notice similarities between the racist ideology underlying Nazism and the racist ideology used to justify the conquests in the 16th century. In both cases the world was divided into “Übermenschen” and “Untermenschen”, with the latter having to accept the supremacy of the former or perish. We just do not care that much about what happened to the American Indians because it happened five hundred years ago and on the other side of the ocean, rather than within the lifespan of many people still with us today and on our own continent.

It would be much better to simply discard October 12th as a holiday and stick to December 6th, the anniversary of the referendum that approved the post-Franco democratic constitution in 1978, as this country’s national day.