Friday, March 27, 2009

Krugman in Europe

Whether or not the Nobel Prize for Economics is a "real Nobel," Paul Krugman knows more about money than you do. So it was unsettling to see his suggestion that the European Monetary Union could have been a mistake.

According to Krugman, it's not the cumbersome welfare state that has Europe in so much economic trouble. He argues that financial authority has not been centralized enough in Europe, that is, that the slow development of E.U. political institutions has prevented decisive action to save the economy. Hendrik Hertzberg compares the current E.U. to our own Articles of Confederation-era, when state sovereignty precluded cohesion.

Just like America, Europe has a sunny southern peninsula that recently enjoyed an ill-considered housing boom. All the construction led to an influx of immigrants into Spain, a country that historically exported more people than it took on. Spanish unemployment has always been pretty high and now it will get bad. Krugman points to the impossibility of devaluing a currency that many economies share.

With the benefit of hindsight, maybe the Lisbon Treaty should have been ratified long ago, so that there would then be enough of a federal presence to make some deals. But this is Europe we're talking about, 23 official languages, 730 million souls, and a justifiable skepticism of bold political leaders.

Charles de Gaulle said about France that it was impossible to have a one-party system in a country that has 246 varieties of cheese. The body politic is too variegated. Maybe, in the long run, it's better that way.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

At Your Service

I think I saw Thomas Friedman today at my place of work. He was all sweaty and had dorky little shorts on, and his mustache was flecked with gray whiskers just like in his author photo.

He came into the cafe to buy a turkey sandwich. Like Friedman, the cafe has planet-saving pretensions: recycled paper cups and compostable cutlery.

The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner was mealy-mouthed and took a long time deciding what he wanted, and when he got it he was unappreciative. The young lady I took to be his daughter shot me a friendly glance though. She and I commiserated in a moment of "Isn't my dad embarassing?"

She was right. Thomas Friedman is an embarassment and his green capitalism is a sham in a thunderingly obvious way.

Christopher Hitchens is another columnist whom I'm told lives out here in California much of the time. In spite of his hawkishness, I would thank Hitchens for his moral seriousness and thoroughly entertaining command of the language. I would not be tempted to put a booger in his sandwich. Whether you agree with him or not, Hitchens will never bore, as Chomsky so often does. But it's doubtful that the tubby Englishman would ever come in, though, because he's a dreadful food snob.

One other world-redeeming luminary, a recent Oscar winner, ordered a grilled cheese sandwich off the kids' menu some years ago. When asked if he wanted milk or apple juice with his kids' meal, the famous actor replied: "I just want a grilled cheese sandwich. Is that so hard?"

Bruno in U.S.A.

"Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." --Mark Twain

If this quote is true then Sacha Baron Cohen is an envoy sent from Europe to destroy America. The conservative backlash to the comedian/chameleon has been considerable, and his "invasion" is now dogged by a raft of lawsuits.

Cohen's hijinks began as English-on-English spoofs, then developed into a series of lampoons on an ignorant and intolerant stateside culture. The humor in his put-ons comes both from how far he goes and from how far his interview subjects allow him to go. Borat Sagdiyev, the faux-primitive Kazakh TV journalist, can sing a disgusting song called "Throw the Jew Down the Well" at a rodeo in Arizona, but the joke is not on Jews, it's on the crowd of American rednecks that applaud the song.

Of course in Borat the developing world didn't come off well either. The lead character defacates on the sidewalk and tries to throw Pamela Anderson in a "traditional wedding sack." In Cohen's work, everyone and everything is pulverized in a hailstorm of ridiculousness.

Replacing Borat, from a Central Asian backwater, is Bruno, a gay Austrian hairdresser with no decorum at all. The laughs in these sketches derive from Bruno's unapologetic sexuality, contrasted against a background of American puritanism. Bruno is an explicitly European character. His stealthy cosmopolitanism will push America's buttons in the upcoming movie.

Apparently in one scene, Bruno will try to seduce Congressman Ron Paul on camera. A quick survey of the sexual peccadilloes of Paul's colleagues in the legislature would suggest that a sex tape with a famous Republican is not such a farfetched idea on Bruno's part.

Sometime decades hence, Cohen will be recognized for pointing out the departures America has made from mainstream Western culture.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Taciturn Italian Beelzebub

Can you name the two countries in which lawmakers can hold on to their seats for life? Hint: one is shaped like a boot.

Only Italy and Burundi share this outdated and anti-democratic provision. An incident on Italian television last year should prompt a long look at the seven remaining lifetime senators. On a talk show, 90-year-old Giulio Andreotti failed to respond in any way at all to the question "What is the future for our children?"

The influential politician has earned the nickname Beelzebub for his relationship to a certain Italian fraternal organization. In his appearance on Canale 5, which like most Italian TV is owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, he appears to suffer from a stroke or some kind of mental breakdown. After a long and awkward pause, the show cuts to a commercial break, after which Andreotti seems to have recovered. The host apologizes for "technical difficulties," and everyone applauds. For some reason two stunningly beautiful women have appeared at either side of the Senator-for-life.

Is this what passes for serious political discourse in Italy?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dutch Baseball Heroes

To fill out a sixteen-team international baseball tournament you need to send out plenty of invitations. While it's true that the game is an internationally-beloved phenomenon, it falls into a category with rugby, ice hockey and BMX: important in a few countries but far from global in the way that soccer is.

According to baseball's creation myth it was organized and refined by Abner Doubleday, but this explanation falls short of explaining the international popularity of the sport. Ball-and-stick games have appeared in many cultures. The urge to pick up a stick, swing at a small moving object and then take off running is an elemental urge shared by every member of the human family. More concretely, America's peripatetic military has been an ambassador of the game.

This month's World Baseball Classic features ballgame-loving countries like the U.S., Japan and Cuba, but apparently to complete the bracket there are also delegations from Chinese Taipei, Italy and the Netherlands (China is a natural participant because they will certainly field the best team in five or so years, and they're a lock to put on the first baseball game in space).

Of the two European teams, Italy was predictably an early-round elimination, but the Netherlands shocked the world by twice defeating the powerful Dominican Republic. The Dominican squad included as many Major League Baseball stars as the American one, but couldn't summon the hitting to defeat the Dutch.

Eligibility for the Classic demands that at least one parent be born in the nation a player competes for. Hence the Italian team was largely made up of Italian-Americans. As for the Netherlands, the Dutch possessions in the Leeward Antilles, just off the coast of Venezuela, have produced more baseball talent than the motherland, although don't repeat this sentiment in any of the dugouts of the Honkbal Hoofdklasse.

Turns out that in spite of widespread continental indifference, the Confederation of European Baseball has played a championship every year for decades. Eurobaseball lags behind the Caribbean, Pacific Rim and of course North America, but this upstart Dutch squad could make their mark on behalf of an overlooked baseball culture.

Friday, March 6, 2009

There is Power in a Union... Billy Bragg sings. In the case of the European Union, there's also money, of course.

Everyone could have predicted that the first great challenge to the EU would be a global recession. And here we are. Europe's decade-long tear is over. They were on the point of surpassing the dollar as the world's reserve currency when the crisis hit. Eliminating exchange rate risk, lowering tariffs, and broadening consumer bases can still net the New Europe a lot more money.

What is counterproductive is shifting blame according to national rivalries. The Hungarian premier pointed to "a new Iron Curtain." I'm with Anne Applebaum when she says that the crisis will consist mostly of political squabbling and should not pose a serious challenge to unification. It may be true that Western car-makers are being lowballed by the Czechs, but what about those cheap vacation to Prague that the French, Germans and British have loved for so long? All that cheap labor, and cheap land? It's tit for tat. For the Economist, not cooperating is impossible at this point.

And don't forget what makes money make money: the dream of something better. The New Europe's higher goal, besides getting rich, is the surpassing of the nation-state. It's been working better than anyone had thought. This blog is here to tell you that a new culture is emerging, and that this guy's dichotomous thinking is wrong:

I lived for about a decade, on and off, in France and later moved to the United States. Nobody in their right mind would give up the manifold sensual, aesthetic and gastronomic pleasures offered by French savoir-vivre for the unrelenting battlefield of American ambition were it not for one thing: possibility.

You know possibility when you breathe it. For an immigrant, it lies in the ease of American identity and the boundlessness of American horizons after the narrower confines of European nationhood and the stifling attentions of the European nanny state, which has often made it more attractive not to work than to work. High French unemployment was never much of a mystery.

Americans, at least in their imaginations, have always lived at the new frontier; French frontiers have not shifted much in centuries.

The Europeans will keep their nannies, but gain broad horizons anyway.

Get Your Treaties off my Asparagus

Foraging is the same as smuggling if you draw lines around it. A village in Cyprus can't get to their wild asparagus crop due to the U.N.'s demilitarized zone that divides ethnic Greeks from ethnic Turks. (Maybe this forbidden zone will one day become Cyprus' most beloved attraction, as the DMZ is now in Korea)

It's one more example of a socially-constructed barrier that fails to recognize the way life really happens. As in the Bosnian film No Man's Land, the arbiters wear the smurf-blue of the United Nations. That film is thick with ironies, the least of which is that the English idiom "no man's land" has been borrowed into common use in several European languages.