Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Lech am Arlberg

I hope everyone (who celebrates it) had an excellent Christmas. I'm certainly enjoying Hannukah... my family (parents and sisters) and I are staying in Lech am Arlberg (Austria) where we are doing some intensive skiing - which explains the lack of blogging. At any rate, I have been skiing since I could stand on my feet, so I'm really having fun.
Lech is a great ski resort in the sense that it is high up in the Alps, very snowy and the slopes are almost never too crowded, because there are only a limited number of hotels and houses available. And the Queen of Holland spends her Winters here...
On the first of January I'm taking a train to Zurich, where I'm meeting a friend from my time in Trieste (where I spent my childhood) who I haven't seen in almost a decade, and on the second I'm catching a flight back to London. I should be back in full form then. Enjoy the holidays.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Tigers on patrol

Better luck next time:

A criminal suspect on the run ended up being mauled to death by a caged tiger, South African police say. The man took refuge in the Bengal tiger's cage at the Bloemfontein Zoo. A visitor to the zoo on Sunday noticed a body covered in bite marks in the cage.
"The man was involved in a robbery and was chased by security guards," police spokeswoman Elsa Gerber told the South African Broadcasting Corporation. "He had nowhere else to go, so he jumped over the zoo fence," she added. The police said that the man had tried to escape after he had robbed a couple with a knife.

Though the punishment seems a little disproportionate, the Nemesis aspect of the episode is interesting.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Pas trop tôt!

I'm feeling giddy: yesterday Antonio Fazio finally resigned!

Antonio Fazio resigned on Monday as governor of the Bank of Italy, finally succumbing to the mounting pressure of a banking scandal that has severely damaged the reputation of the country’s business community.
The governor, under judicial investigation for possible abuse of office and insider trading, quit on the eve of an emergency Italian cabinet meeting to discuss new laws aimed at forcing him out of office.
Two senior members of the Bank’s own board met Mr Fazio on Monday afternoon as internal support for the governor crumbled.
Mr Fazio had resisted calls for his resignation since the summer when court documents highlighted the close relationship which he and his wife had with Gianpiero Fiorani, a banker involved in a controversial takeover battle. The calls reached fever pitch last week after Mr Fiorani was arrested on charges of running a criminal network for personal gain and market abuse related to the takeover battle.

It has taken him so long to leave that it almost feels like some incredible goal has been reached, while the truth is that this is only the first step: what really counts is who will replace him.
According to the Italian press there seem to be five leading candidates:

Former European Central Bank Executive Board member Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa is among the frontrunners to head the Bank of Italy after Antonio Fazio's resignation, economists and politicians said.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet today will discuss a proposal to give the government the power to appoint and remove the Bank of Italy governor, a day after the departure of Fazio, 69. The government was powerless to force Fazio out even after he became the target of two criminal investigations into bank takeovers in Italy.
"Padoa-Schioppa would be the perfect candidate," said Lorenzo Codogno, co-head of European economics at Bank of America in London, in an interview. "He knows the Bank of Italy very well and has experience at the ECB. It would be a comeback."
The 65-year-old economist, who served seven years on the ECB's six-member executive board, would garner support from both sides of the political spectrum, economists said. Padoa-Schioppa and Fazio worked side by side as deputy director generals, the No. 3 position at the Bank of Italy, until 1993, when Fazio was chosen over Padoa- Schioppa as governor.
Other names mentioned this week by Italian newspapers such as Corriere della Sera and among economists are Mario Draghi, former director general of the finance ministry and now a vice chairman at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.; Vittorio Grilli, the current director general of the ministry; former European Union Competition Commissioner Mario Monti and Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, who took over Padoa-Schioppa's seat on the ECB executive board in June.

They all sound pretty good, and their mandates will probably be limited to five years, which is great. It even seems they intend to reform the governing council of the central bank which could use some transparency. And Fazio might even follow in Fiorani's footsteps an end up in jail.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Italian perspicuity

I usually don't speak to strangers and keep myself to myself. I was tempted to say something, though, when I was recently browsing in Waterstone's flagship book-store in Piccadilly. I overheard two Italian women who were looking at some books and commenting loudly (no surprise there). At one point one said to the other "Che bello questo libro. Eh, ma è tutto scritto in inglese..." which means "This book is very nice. But it's all written in English...". Hmmm, how strange... I wonder why.
To say the least Jacques de la Palisse would have been proud, no doubt.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A new Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact?

I have always thought Schroeder was a creep, but this takes the cake:
Barely three weeks after his resignation on November 22 it turns out that Herr Schröder’s private pension scheme is a lucrative job on the Kremlin’s payroll. Last Friday the former German chancellor was appointed foreign policy advisor of Gazprom, the Russian state-owned oil and gas company, and chairman of the board of commissioners of NEGP, the Russian-controlled consortium that is building a gas pipeline from Siberia to Germany.
NEGP (North European Gas Pipeline Company) is a joint venture of Gazprom (for 51%) and two German companies, E.ON and BASF (each for 24.5%). The bilateral gas agreements between Germany and Russia were signed by Schröder last September 8, just 10 days before the German general election, which he lost. Schröder’s last visit to Putin dates from October, when he surprised some German journalists by mysteriously declaring: "Who says that this is going to be my last visit here?"
Do read the whole thing: the story, if at all possible, gets even worse!
In a plan reminiscent of the Stalin-Hitler pact to rip off Poland, Putin and Schröder agreed to build the NEGP pipeline on the Baltic seabed rather than through Poland, despite the far greater expense. The plan has infuriated Central European and Baltic countries. They realize that the Baltic Sea route allows Russia to cut off gas to Central and Eastern Europe while still delivering to Germany. The pipeline, which should be ready by 2010, will allow Moscow to demand the same price for oil and gas from its former satellites as from the Germans, thereby putting the squeeze on countries that, according to Putin, are gravitating too much toward the West.
Though I shouldn't be surprised, I still am. Where is the outrage? The agreement needs to be rescinded immediately and Schroeder must be reprimanded unequivocally and officially by the German government (fat chance!).
What I find particularly galling is that Germans, echoing the insufferable condescension they apply to the US, have been giving Italians constant grief for years about Berlusconi's (admittedly awful) antics. Well, two things come to mind:
  1. At least Berlusconi is transparent: what you see (an extreme caricature of all the most appalling traits attributed to Italians) is exactly what you get!
  2. And, more importantly, Berlusconi could never pull off anything as damaging to the geo-political situation of Eastern Europe as what Schroeder has done.
I wonder what else the esteemed Chancellor was up to while in office.

Fresh faces

Last week David Cameron was elected leader of the British Conservative party. Many people have compared him to Tony Blair for his media savvy. A subtext of this comparison - which is often not meant as a compliment - seems to be that Blair does not have fixed principles and that he has a tendency to adapt his message to public opinion. In my view this is rubbish: Blair is an excellent example of a leader with strong principles and leadership skills (at least in some areas), unlike many governments in continental Europe which cave in at the least hint of a strike. For instance, it was very courageous of Blair to stand firm on Iraq, given the public opinion he faced at the polls.
At any rate, though Cameron seems to be a likeable fellow, it's quite hard to tell what his policies would be if elected. Margaret Thatcher he ain't. Which, though rather unexciting, might not be a bad thing, if not for Britain, at least for the Tory party. As L'Ombre de l'Olivier notes, it does seem that his approach will have more success that that of his predecessors:
I hope this is part of an deliberate Tory strategy because I think it holds considerable promise. Blair has been identified by numerous commentators as the best Conservative PM Britain has never had (or similar) and certainly he has shamelessly stolen the best parts of successive Tory manifestos for himself. If the Tories start publicly taking credit for this and simultaneously damning with faint praise as in "getting the good bits passed into law" this could cause a nasty split within ZANU Labour. Given the existing fractures between Blair and Brown and the fact that Tax'n'Spend is looking like a bit of loser as taxes rise higher but we see little improvement in government services this could well help the Tories regain the perceived centre ground that Blair so cunningly stole from them.
I agree that this is an excellent approach, but only with the gradual unveiling of Cameron's actual program will we get a better idea of how much of it is media savvy and how much is real substance. I'm hoping for the latter.

Long time, no see

Our good friends Fazio and Fiorani are back in the news. The other day, the former CEO of Banca Popolare Italiana was arrested:
Italian authorities on Tuesday night detained Gianpiero Fiorani, the former head of a bank at the centre of a European cross-border takeover controversy that has engulfed Italy’s central bank and Antonio Fazio, its governor.
Mr Fiorani was placed in custody on the same day the European Commission in Brussels announced it would take legal action against Italy for its handling of the takeover affair.
Mr Fiorani, a family friend of Mr Fazio, was already under investigation by Italian magistrates for suspected financial offences in the way that Banca Popolare Italiana, the bank of which he was chairman, tried to acquire Banca Antonveneta, another Italian bank earlier this year.
BPI was eventually forced to give up its bid in favour of ABN Amro, a Dutch bank that had claimed its takeover campaign was being unfairly obstructed.
Mr Fiorani was placed in custody on suspicion of embezzlement, market manipulation and association with criminal intent. However, he has not yet been formally charged with any offence.
Also detained were Gianfranco Boni, BPI’s former financial director, and Silvano Spinelli, another former BPI executive.
The close relationship between Mr Fazio and Mr Fiorani was exposed in July when the Italian media published transcripts of telephone conversations, taped on magistrates’ orders, that showed the two men discussing the Bank of Italy’s approval for BPI’s bid for Antonveneta before the central bank had officially notified financial markets.
Though appalling, I think Fiorani's conduct pales with respect to the behaviour of Antonio Fazio. As central banker, Fazio was (and inexplicably still is) a public figure with virtually absolute and unfettered regulatory power over several important aspects of the Italian market. This privileged position of influence brings with it increased responsibility, and it is Fazio's fault - not Fiorani's - that Italy has the highest banking fees in the world.
At any rate, if the Italian people cannot muster sufficient outrage to get rid of him, then I guess we deserve him. And I'm suffering of "outrage fatigue."

Men and "choice"

GayandRight links to a fascinating editorial that appeared in the LA Times recently:
Describing his own experience with a girlfriend who terminated a pregnancy against his wishes, Conley took some brave steps down the slippery slope of this debate, suggesting that if a father is willing to assume full responsibility for a child not wanted by a mother, he should be able to obtain an injunction stopping her from having an abortion — and he should be able to do so regardless of whether or not he's married to her.
Conley freely acknowledges the many obvious caveats in this position — the most salient being the fact that regardless of how "full" that male responsibility might be, the physical burden of pregnancy and childbirth will always put most of the onus on women. But as much as I shudder at the idea of a man, husband or not, obtaining an injunction telling me what I can or cannot do with my own body, I would argue that it is Conley who has not gone far enough.
Since we're throwing around radical ideas about abortion rights, let me raise this question: If abortion is to remain legal and relatively unrestricted — and I believe it should — why shouldn't men have the right during at least the first trimester of pregnancy to terminate their legal and financial rights and responsibilities to the child?
As Conley laments, the law does not currently allow for men to protect the futures of the fetuses they help create. What he doesn't mention — indeed, no one ever seems to — is the degree to which men also cannot protect their own futures. The way the law is now, a man who gets a woman pregnant is not only powerless to force her to terminate the pregnancy, he also has a complete legal obligation to support that child for at least 18 years.
In other words, although women are able to take control of their futures by choosing from at least a small range of options — abortion, adoption or keeping the child — a man can be forced to be a father to a child he never wanted and cannot financially support. I even know of cases in which the woman absolves the man of responsibility, only to have the courts demand payment anyway. That takes the notion of "choice" very far from anything resembling equality.
Do read the whole thing. I had never really thought about this discrepancy in these terms, but I think it's a compelling question. It would certainly be interesting if these ideas got a wider airing in the general debate about abortion.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Self-righteous as ever

Glenn Greenwald has written a magisterial post (via Instapundit) in which he comments on the European outrage in the face of Arnold Schwarzenegger's refusal to grant clemency to Tookie Williams, who was executed a few days ago. He rightly identifies this as an excellent example of the intellectual dishonesty of many Europeans:
The moral perversion here is breathtaking. Convicted multiple murderer Tookie Williams is now the hero of the European Left in whose honor they want to re-name monuments. And it is Gov. Schwarzenegger who is the criminal and murderer who deserves punishment and public repudiation.
And this is where the odious anti-Americanism is so evident. Say what you will about the death penalty – reasonable people can certainly disagree about it, and it’s one of the issues to which I confess an irresolvable ambivalence, usually leaning against it. But even to ardent death penalty opponents, the execution of the unquestionably guilty mass murderer and violent gang founder Tookie Williams –- after a jury trial and multiple judicial appeals –- ranks very, very low on the list of the world’s human rights outrages and grave injustices.
The countries which the European Left makes a passionate cause of defending – from the Palestinian Authority to Iran and Syria, not to mention Cuba, China and multiple other historic Communist regimes –- routinely imprison and/or execute people without any due process, for reasons ranging from criticism of the Government to adultery and homosexuality. None of that sparks “outrage among Europeans,” because none of that provides an opportunity to depict the United States as the world’s real evil. As a result, the European Left is uninterested in it.
And therein lies the embodiment and definition of “anti-Americanism”: the parmaount desire to find fault and evil with the U.S. and thereby adopting that goal as the first and only real principle, from which everything else follows. That goal is then fulfilled by selectively and endlessly highlighting and exaggerating America’s faults and downplaying, ignoring and even defending far worse flaws in others. In its most virulent (and quite common) form, this extends to making common cause with the most abusive and genuinely evil regimes and movements around the world, whose only virtue –- the only one the European Left needs -- is that they are opposed by the U.S.
Do read the whole thing. I can emphatically confirm, from personal experience, that this is an accurate representation of the European reality. To me, one of the most baffling aspects of this subtle - but entrenched - attitude that many Europeans adopt is how acceptable it seems to be, to the point where being "anti-American" is almost seen as a badge of honor in some circles. Glenn does us an invaluable service by exposing clearly and concisely how perverse, dishonest and revolting this routine anti-Americanism is. Thank you.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

No, I haven't dropped off the planet...

In fact I have been very busy moving from Brussels to London, closing bank accounts, opening bank accounts, getting a British SIM card for my mobile phone, frantically looking for a place to live (while crashing at a friend's house) and starting my new job (yesterday was my first day).
At the moment the results are quite pleasing. I now live right behind Russell Square, where the British Museum is, which is a really cool area (Bloomsbury), and the people at work are interesting, very nice and engaging. And, though I am in the "ultra-liberal" UK, I do have six weeks of paid holiday... Sorry, I just had to tell you that. Plus, quite ironically, my commute here is about half as long as what I was used to in Brussels (which is about seven times smaller than London). Well, I'm certainly not complaining about that...
However I do feel very bad about not blogging in such a long time, and I plan on resuming as soon as possible. I think it will be hard to post from work, at least initially, but I seem to be able to pick up several excellent (though unfortunately not completely reliable) wireless networks from home. In the next weeks I'll see if I can get away with those; otherwise I'll get my own connection.