Archives for category: politics

Interrupting the three-year long hiatus as some friends have asked for a quick run-down on the result of the Italian referendum.

How did we get here?

The long story (the context is important, but if you want the short story skip to the parts in bold at the bottom):

  • The end of Silvio: in November 2011, Italians took to the streets to sing the Hallelujah from Hendel’s Messiah to celebrate the fall of the third Berlusconi government. The resignation came on the back of a shrinking parliamentary majority as the Euro debt crisis became acute.
  • The technocratic government (2011-2013): on November 9, the President of the Republic appoints Mario Monti (a former EU Commissioner) as a senator for life, a title reserved for Italians of notable accomplishments, such as Nobel prize winners. In a somewhat undemocratic turn of events, after the fall of the Berlusconi government, Mario Monti (a university professor who had no previous political career) is asked to form a technocratic government to steer the country out of the crisis and enact structural economic reforms. After passing austerity measures and pension reform, Mario Monti announces that he will step down at the end of the legislature in 2013 and seek re-election. His party obtains 10.5% of the vote.
  • The Italian Grosse Coalition (2013-2014): the results of the 2013 elections were remarkable for two reasons. First, they mark the end of left/right politics as the country’s vote was split into three blocks, the Centre-Left (29.5%), the upstart 5 Star Movement (29.1%) and the Centre-Right (25.5%)  with a bunch of small centrists and fringe parties making up the rest. Secondly, in order to stave off a 5SM-led government, Enrico letta from the leftist Democratic Party agrees to a Faustian pact with Berlusconi’s  party, giving birth to a unique Left-Right coalition government, probably for the first time in the history of the Republic.
  • Renzi, the change maker (2014-2016): after winning the primary elections for the leadership of the Democratic Party, Matteo Renzi, the 38 year-old mayor of Florence, Renzi proceeds to reassures Enrico Letta that he has no intention to unseat him from the premiership by launching the hashtag #Enricostaisereno (#EnricoWorryNot). In Feb 2014, roughly 10 months after the beginning of the Letta government,  Matteo Renzi unseats Letta and becomes PM, running on a platform of renewal and bringing vitality to Italy. Optimism is running high in the youngest and most gender-balanced cabinet in the history of the Republic.
    • At the European elections of May 2014 the Democratic Party wins 40.8% of the popular vote, the highest percentage of votes ever won by a leftist party in Italy and the highest absolute number of votes of any European party in the 2014 election.
    • Emboldened by the results of the EU elections, Renzi moves the constitutional reform to the front of the agenda. The complex constitutional reform primarily aims to make the legislative process more agile by  moving away from perfect bicameralism (the Italian lower and upper houses have the same powers and are elected in a similar fashion not like the federal German or US Senate). The reform makes it through Parliament but without the sufficient number of votes to avoid a referendum. PM Renzi has to call for a referendum.
    • As the honeymoon phase tapers over (and the 5SM wins municipal elections in Rome and Turin by a large margin while the Democratic party clings on to Milan), PM Renzi vows that he will resign if the referendum does not pass. Warnings from his allies that politicizing the referendum might have negative consequences are not enough, Renzi doubles down on the threat. Rather than scaring people into voting in favor of the reform, this tactic has the effect of encouraging all the opposition to pile into the no vote. This includes the old guard in the democratic party that had been sidelined rudely by Renzi, some eminent constitutionalists, the 5-star movement, the xenophobic Right, the extreme Left, and Berlusconi (who flip-flopped form his early support).
    • A complex question, coupled with flat-lined economic growth, political scandals tied to influence peddling and a Minister’s family ties to a banking scandal and a brewing banking crisis means that the reform is rejected by 60% of the popular vote, with a turn-out of over 68%. Analysis of the vote split, show that roughly 25% of voters affiliated to Renzi’s Democratic Party joined the no camp, alongside the almost totality of 5SM supporters and over 50% of supporters for Berlusconi’s party. In terms of socio-economic status, the no was popular among young people, poorer geographic constituencies, the Italian South and the outskirts of big cities. La Stampa newspaper shows some of these trends in a very cool infographics for Turin, the city with the best run 5SM administration.

Where are we going next?

Politics

Renzi has vowed publicly to resign immediately. It appears that the President of the Republic (who is the one in charge of naming Italian PMs) is not quite enthused at this prospect, and has asked Renzi to see through to the approval of the budget law scheduled for the coming weeks.

The big constitutional elephant in the room is the fact that the country’s electoral law for the Senate has been deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court and the electoral law for the lower house passed last April is awaiting a ruling from the Constitutional Court in the coming weeks. For fans of constitutional debate in translation, this article explains the nitty-gritty of the situation, but, barring a surprise ruling from the Court, the two electoral laws could lead to different majorities in both chambers (and call for divergent electoral strategies). A particular point of concern is the fact that, in its current form, the law for the lower house assigns a majority premium to the coalition that wins the plurality of votes. This means that the coalition that wins most votes gets 340 seats out of 620. A slight complication is that if no coalition list wins 40% of the votes in the first round, then the 340 seats go to the list that wins a run-off election. As things stand now, in case of a run-off, the 5-Star Movement is posed to win a majority in the lower house.

This leaves the following scenarios:

  • Renzi backpedals on the idea of resigning and instead sees through the end of the term to 2018. This seems unlikely, but as you may have gathered, continuity and coherence is not the biggest strength of the Italian political system. It would also be political harakiri for the Democratic Party, so Renzi is likely to face pressure not to stay, even if he should change his mind.
  • Renzi resigns now and the country goes to elections. This seems a bit extreme, especially given that the country is awaiting the decision of the Constitutional Court on the electoral law. As highlighted above, at the moment, the 5SM is likely to win majority in the lower house and, riding on the post-referendum victory, could scrape by a majority in the Senate or could form a minority government  with Berlusconi’s party or the extreme right. Again, this would be political harakiri for the Left, so it is unlikely to happen.
  • Renzi resigns after passing the budget law. In my opinion this is the most likely option. In this case the following could happen:
    1. Elections after his resignation: again unlikely for the point highlighted above
    2. Care-taker government until end of mandate: A new PM is nominated and a cabinet reshuffle takes place with the mandate to see through the end of the legislature in 2018, revise the electoral law and push through some necessary reforms with cross-party support. It is not clear to me that there is any appetite for cross-party work, in particular given the insistence of the 5-Star movement to go for early election and Berlusconi’s eagerness to stage a comeback into the political limelight (yes, he could come back as the figure head though he is still banned from running for office). But then again, the Left and Berlusconi’s camp spat vitriol at each-other for 20 years only to come together in a grand coalition to avert a 5SM-led government. The Italian Parliament is a jungle full of chameleons.
    3. A care-taker government to reform the electoral law: a government of technocrats or, more likely, led by institutional figures such as the speaker of the Senate or the current Ministry of the Economy is put in charge of reforming the electoral law (and maybe fix our impending banking crisis) and then calls for early elections. The electoral law would probably have to be one that appeals to all sides of the political spectrum. This is likely to take time and will probably offer a possibility to opponents of the 5SM to show the movement up by creating infighting (something that the movement seems to have a strong  capacity for).

It pains me to say that in both of the last two scenarios, Berlusconi’s party (in disarray, with no leadership and with the figure head barred from running) is probably going to be the kingmaker, as they could tilt the balance by siding with the 5SM. Thankfully, history has shown that Berlusconi’s party is something that could be up for sale. My uneducated guess would be that the last option (a care-taker government to change electoral law) is the most likely option. It buys the Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s party time to regroup, as both have been hemorrhaging votes to the 5SM.

Economics

The markets seemed to have had already priced in a no vote ahead of the referendum. Except for some volatility, no major drama took place since the vote in terms of Euro exchange rate or Italian bonds and stocks’ performance. Europe might send strong signals to Italy that it needs to sort out its banking crisis and provide a modicum of political stability so that the investors that have been lined up to bail-in/bail-out/bail-around Monte Paschi di Siena do not run for the woods. And/or it appears that state aid might be ready as a stop gap measure as soon as this weekend, to fill in the 5 billion euro gap and save the world’s oldest bank from dragging down the Italian and European banking system. Perhaps the strong resistance for state bailout from the German side has evaporated in the midst of this crisis?

February 25, 2013

She just turned sixty this winter. She used to earn 900 euros before the crisis, working as a nurse in difficult neighborhoods of a big city. Because of the crisis she now makes 400 euros per month. Yet she pays all of her taxes and welfare contributions. She has been working since she was 17. In the work place she has often been underpaid and underappreciated and once, even sexually harassed. She recently injured herself again and she is self-employed like a lot of Italians, so when she takes a day off she makes no money. She decided her day would be best spent resting at home rather than voting, like 25 percent of Italians today. She is my mother.

He is turning seventy this summer. He has been peaking outside the window trying to decide whether to go vote, waiting for the snow to stop. In the end, he goes out. He has always voted for the Right. He wishes he could vote for a better conservative candidate, but the leader is the only man that seems to be able to hold the Right-wing coalition together. His pension was cut because of austerity. He is angry with Monti’s government, or, as he calls him, the Professor. None voted for him. So he votes for Berlusconi instead, like a quarter of Italians. This man is my father.

He sent his ballot via mail two weeks ago. He votes from abroad, where he is about to graduate from a prestigious American university. He knows there are no jobs for him back home – he has not given up on looking, but he knows. He voted for the Left-wing party. He has always voted for the Left, but never for the larger Democratic Party. He finds their leader utterly uncharismatic and spineless, their agenda bland and largely irrelevant. He voted in the primary election too, even though he knows the party is a concoction of apparatchiks, anachronistic trade unionists and bipolar Catholics who throw a tantrum whenever immigration reform or gay marriage is brought up. His biggest dream one day is to be able to move back home if he wants, or at least to be able to avoid explaining why a sexopath is again Prime Minister to all of his foreign friends. Like twenty-five percent of Italians he voted for the Left. This person is me.

This Christmas he celebrated his new job contract. For the first time in a year, instead of a one-month renewal, his contract got renewed for four months. His family celebrated with a champagne bottle. With a youth unemployment rate above 30 percent, any job that pays slightly above minimum wage is like a status-item. I don’t know whom he voted for. Maybe he did vote for Grillo’s party, a party whose stated aim is to make the political system implode from the inside. All the exit polls underestimated Grillo’s results by a margin of 5 percent. Some people are too ashamed of the party they vote for, because they are voting out of anger. No one seems to know who these people are, but they are 25 percent of us. One of them might be my brother.

We have been sleepwalking as a family, as a nation. Over the past two decades, as we were searching for the reasons of our decline we have blamed the euro, the Muslim terrorists, jobs outsourced to China, earthquakes and global warming. We have searched for our enemy among the American investment bankers, the Brussels bureaucrats, the Vatican hypocrites and the Moroccan baby escorts. But on February 25, 2013 we woke up and realized that our enemy could be found within the walls of our houses and sitting across from us in our offices. Our enemy had been there all along. We were too busy yelling and watching TV and talking past each other. On February 25, 2013 we finally met the enemy. Our enemy is us.

Sto leggendo un libro parecchio interessante, intitolato “Chissà come chiameremo questi anni” edito da Sellerio. Il libro (postumo) raccoglie le grandi indagini realizzate da Giuliana Saladino, una giornalista de “L’Ora” – quotidiano progressista pubblicato a Palermo fino all’inizio degli anni Novanta e che annoverò tra le sue firme Sciascia, Guttuso e Quasimodo (giusto per citare i nomi più famosi).

Il libro raccoglie una serie d’indagini sociali e reportage che raccontano con una voce estremamente limpida i cambiamenti sociali della Sicilia e dell’Italia tra gli anni Settanta e Novanta. Dalla speculazione edilizia, alle sperequazioni sociali e i delitti di mafia, il libro raccoglie quelle pagine di giornale che il giorno dopo sarebbero finite per incartare il pesce (come scritto nella prefazione) e che oggi sono conservate per riproporci uno spaccato di quello che eravamo in altri tempi. E come forse siamo anche oggi.

Da “Quanto spende, Signora?” (p.91)

Rivolgo la domanda alla moglie di un bigliettaio […]

Al primo del mese lei ha dunque in casa tutto il necessario [dopo la spesa allo spaccio aziendale n.d.r.] e 83 mila lire [dopo trattenute dalla busta paga n.d.r.]. Come le spende?  35 mila di casa, 30 mila la cambiale della macchina, 3.000 la rata della macchina da cucire, 10 mila di acqua luce gas, e ogni tre mesi il telefono. Faccia il conto… fanno 78 mila lire … mi restano 5 mila lire e ce ne devo aggiungere altre dieci per pagare il prestito di 100 mila che ci ha fatto una di queste casse per impiegati: su centomila se ne tengono 30 mila. Ladri. E’ stato l’anno scorso, che ho avuto un aborto: 40 mila lire. La cassa soccorso dell’azienda di mio marito mi paga solo la visita ostetrica più 5 mila lire, e abbiamo dovuto fare questo prestito a interesse.

Che fate la domenica? Ce ne andiamo al mare, dalle parti di Terrasini. Ci divertiamo moltissimo, arrostiamo la carne là stesso, abbiamo l’ombrellone e la tendina per spogliarsi, i bambini impazziscono di felicità.

I bambini chiedono soldi?  Sanno che non ce ne sono e non ne chiedono. Quando usciamo li avverto: non si compra niente. E il piccolo fa tutta la strada dicendomi “mammina io sono bravo, ciliegie non ne domando” poi vede le fragole: “mammina io sono bravo, non ne voglio fragole” E così per il cono, per le banane, per le noccioline.

Forse perché mi ricorda molto mia madre, il modo in cui faceva (e adesso, a quattro anni dalla pensione continua a fare) la spesa e quello che lei ci diceva prima che uscissimo di casa, però credo che questa storia di giugno 1969 rimanga anche oggi la storia di molte famiglie italiane, come si puo’ evincere dai dati Istat rilasciati qualche giorno fa.

Da “L’imprenditore diffidente” (p.132)

I nostri interessi – dice [S.M. piccolo imprenditore n.d.r.] – sono completamente diversi da quelli della Confindustria. Noi cerchiamo alleati, certi alleati, e a noi non può stare bene il discorso di Agnelli, presidente appunto della Confindustria, oltre che della Fiat, il quale porta avanti un discorso che secondo me è molto pericoloso. Cosa dice Agnelli? Partendo dal parassitismo, dagli sprechi, dalla disamministrazione imperante, finisce per sparare a zero sulle partecipazioni statali, mira a privilegiare il privato sul pubblico e a quei livelli il privato significa soltanto monopolio”.

“Che alleanze cercate? Intanto da un po’ di tempo a questa parte, fatto abbastanza recente, cerchiamo un dialogo col movimento operaio. Anche qui troviamo delle difficoltà. Non perché non ci sia una reale volontà d’intesa, ma direi che è un’intesa su basi sbagliate. Secondo me è da respingere il discorso totalmente paternalistico del movimento operaio nei confronti della piccola e media impresa. Vengono a parlarci di “momento privilegiato” della piccola e media impresa da parte del sindacato. E che vuol dire? Che pago di meno l’operaio? Che non mi faranno le lotte sindacali? È paternalistico nei nostri confronti, è rinunciatario da parte loro. I tempi cambiano, la società cambia, oggi il discorso serio e alternativo sarebbe quello di porre l’operaio come protagonista della piccola e media impresa, di coinvolgerlo in prima persona nella partecipazione alla programmazione. Questa oggi è la via nuova, il resto è demagogia di chi si accorge solo adesso della nostra esistenza e vuole “salvarci”.

Ora, questo articolo venne pubblicato il 7 giugno 1975. Non aggiungo altro, solo un link ad un articolo del Sole 24Ore sulle diatribe recenti sull’Articolo 18.

Piccolo bonus: una foto della chiesa di San Giovanni agli Eremiti a Palermo, giusto per ricordare che a volte nel nostro paese abbiamo la bellezza sotto gli occhi ma non ce ne accorgiamo.

I am still battling with jet-lag and catching up on the sleep that grad school has deprived me of for the past 5 months. It’s good to be home. Good-ish. After dealing with reading depressing news about Italy’s imminent implosion for months, now I get to be immersed in national hysteria 24/7. Awesome!

The other day some CEO from a big supermarket chain was on TV saying how sales in supermarkets have gone down by 6% from last year, marking the worst decline in 50 years (really? I did not know our nonexistent supermarkets collected statistics back in the 1960). In particular, sales of red meat have gone down while sales of eggs and beans have gone up, or so he claimed, suggesting that either Italy is on the cusp of a vegetarian revolution or Italians are buckling up for a very lean Christmas. His voice adds to the chorus line of customers in taped in shops while lamenting the pitiful state of the nation, entrepreneurs whining that the government is not doing enough, our trade unions that are living in some Dickensian parallel industrial universe when our factories are all shutting down by the minute, homeowners impoverished by having to pay 150 euros in yearly property taxes on their first house (the horror!) and on top of all, our beloved politicians from the left and right doing what they do best: crying “Social Butchery” (Italian for “We don’t know what to do or say and would rather not do anything about this”) from the travelling shit show that is the Italian Parliament.

It appears to me that Italians firmly believe that if we are deep in the shit it is either none’s fault or someone else’s fault. Some enlightened citizens have been all too quick to blame the political class for the mess we’re in, as if those got where they are by self-appointment. None seems to have voted for these politicians (although, truth be told, we actually did not pick candidates but had to vote for a list in the last election thanks to our new electoral law, called ‘the pigsty‘ by the same MP that sponsored it). Some other enlightened citizens like to say Berlusconi is the cause of all of this, and while I tend to agree to some extent, I cannot ignore that Mr B. is the toxic by-product of our dis-functional politics (this in and of itself could be the subject of a longer post, some background). I am also not deluded enough to think that if our left-wing politicians could not win an election and keep a government together for more than 15 months when the alternative was a philandering clown marred in sexual and corruption scandals, it must be that they are also not very capable. Everyone seems to agree, however, that the Euro must be the cause of all this, to which I like to point out that if we still had our own currency it would probably be worth less than toilet paper right now. In fact, we had a major speculative crisis in 1992. Let me fish out some news article from those days (11/09/1992):

Global recession apart, Italy has two major problems: a massive public debt (much higher than that allowed by the Maastricht treaty) and uncompetitive labour costs. Source: here

It seems that twenty years have passed and nothing has changed. Our political class supposedly went through some major regeneration (on paper) but still nothing has changed.

I was slightly irked by all of this. It seems that a large portion of the Italian population is engaging in a national competition to stick their head into the sand while also waxing lyrical about how someone else is the cause of their misfortune. If this crisis has done anything is to hold a mirror to our faces and revealed us for what we have become: a nation that is morally and financially bankrupt.

To have a proof that we are morally bankrupt, it is enough to watch this video shot the day after some model citizens torched a whole Roma camp, after a rumor (later revealed to be false) was spread that a local teenager was raped by two Roma men. Pogrom,  Italian style. Condemnation flew in from all sides (minus those scumbags that sit on the right-hand side of our Parliament and their sycophants) and this was archived as an anomalous episode. Until a couple of days later a neo-nazi shot two Senegalese street vendors dead in Florence. Clearly we seem to have found that someone else who is the cause for our problems.

It seems to me that we have become a society where none is ever at fault for things that go wrong, none is ever responsible, none ever wants to pick up the tab for fixing things, because our country is, in the end, not ours: it is some bottomless pit we can keep taking without putting things in. Suffice to say that Italy has the highest tax evasion rate in all of Western Europe, after Greece (YAY for Greece, for not making us look bad!):

Tax fraud is estimated to equal more than 20 percent of Italy’s annual economic output. From more than 41 million tax returns filed in 2010, fewer than 1 percent of Italians reported income greater than $135,000 (Washington Post)

According to the book “Soldi Rubati” taxes have gone up by 12.5 % in the past 30 years. If everyone paid taxes and we could cut payroll taxes, each salaried worker would get 275 euros per month (3300 euros in a year approx). Meanwhile:

There are 200,000 Italians who own luxury cars, but they’re telling the taxman that they have an annual income of between €20,000 and €50,000. One Italian claimed to have an income of €500 a year, but managed to run five Ferraris (source)

So where am I going with this? This debt crisis is not only a problem of economics and fiscal rigor, but a chance to turn ourselves around. We are either at the lowest point but looking up, or we are on an irreversible path towards global irrelevance and moral and financial impoverishment. Italian debt exploded in the 80s partly because of high global interest rates because of the various oil and global economic crises, partly because our political machine kept banking on macroeconomic tricks (currency devaluations etc…) to keep us going and beautify our deficit problems without having to come up with political solutions (for a more in-depth analysis, you can read here).

This crisis can be our way out of this vicious circle. If we got everyone to pay taxes (and apparently they have a game plan to do this) we might have a GDP that is 20% higher.  There is clearly a way out. Now that we are done with the economic austerity, we need moral austerity. The economic and moral case is clear and the solutions are all there, all it takes is responsible politics.

(Bonus track: advert on tax evasion currently running on national TV. Hint if you do not speak Italian: it shows different kind of animal/plant parasites and ends with a social parasite.)

I have enrolled in a graduate programme in public administration and, as a reward for having made the cut, I was invited (with the remaining 70 other admitted students) to a pre-course, also known as Math Camp, much to the amusement of my friends who now consider me irredeemably lost in the twilight zone between New Jersey and Nerd-land.

By day two of math camp, the daunting fear that the overachiever within me had made me pick too hard a math pre-course finally evolved into a fully fledged epiphany. Twenty minutes into the class the only intelligible thing on the blackboard was the acronym WLOG. Now, the fact that the acronym for the phrase ‘without loss of generality’ has already become part of my vocabulary should let you imagine what was on the rest of the board (it was a class on ‘real numbers’ yet there wasn’t a single figure on the board, just greek letters and other doodles).

The remaining two and half hours of the class had become a futile exercise of copying notation, as I had resolved to cut my losses and ask to be moved to the intermediate course the next day. In a sense it could have been a class on Urdu calligraphy in that what I was copying was totally unintelligible to me. My pride was not particularly hurt, as the PhD candidate (with an engineering degree) sitting next to me had the same facial expression as me, i.e. that of mild physical and mental discomfort just like a child with food poisoning sitting on a dentist chair.

My mind started wandering and flash backs of moments in my work life appeared. My work life usually revolved around managing personalities of colleagues, bosses and counterparts and the hardest conceptual part of my workday was keeping up with the ever-growing editing requests for my boss’ power point presentation.

I tried to think about the role of cartesian geometry and its elegant rationality in public policy, and struggled to find a real-life example.

I thought about the current US budget problem and how it could be (relatively) easily solved in an econ class, but how it has become a messy, byzantine turf war. Congress has access to the best economists in the world, yet the tone of discussion about the budget would fit right in an episode of Housewives of New Jersey.

And then I thought about how putting myself through the pain of math and econ course will make me a better professional bureaucrat at the service of the nation one day. I remembered a classmate from my undergrad days who made the most out of her uni degree and had a visible and sizeable impact on the welfare of the Italian population. After graduation, she became the poster girl for a famous lingerie company (see below – I am not making this up), thus doing more for the nation (oh well, at least half of the nation) than the whole of our Parliament’s Economic Commission put together.

Pyongyang’s Pizza Connection

The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il apparently is so fond of pizza that he decided, in his vast magnanimity, to ensure that the North Korean populace could also enjoy the privilege of having a pizza while in Pyongyang. He thus provided for the establishment of not one but two pizza restaurants in Pyongyang. We visited one and we learned that once a year two Italian chefs are flown in for refresher training for the staff. The restaurant we visited had a totally legitimate Italian feel with limoncello bottles for sale at 17 US$ and a margherita around 5 US$. I worked out that in comparison to the purchasing power of local salaries, a pizza and a beer cost the equivalent of 30 or 40 US$ in terms of European prices, so pizza is pretty much a luxury (shocker for a country with chronic food shortages), more or less like a sushi dinner in a fancy place is in Europe.

One of the guides asked about my opinion about the unfolding fiscal melt-down in Italy. I had caught the news on the BBC the night before so I explained the various measures that my beloved government has been taking to avert fiscal implosion. Leaving aside the slightly disconcerting fact that news of the Italian debt crisis had reached North Korea basically in real time, I will never forget the worried looks of our guide who, while living in the second happiest country in the world (according to Korean sources), seemed genuinely preoccupied with the prosperity of Italy and genuinely wished my country a speedy recovery from insolvency.

Revolutionary Art

Out of body experience. Feat. The Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung
As instructed by our travel company, we wore our best clothes for the visit to the Mausoleum where the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung lies in state in Pyongyang. The dress code requires a shirt, tie and smart-ish shoes for the gents and a long skirts for the ladies. I had to purchase a shirt in China before leaving for the DPRK, which has now become my Kim Il Sung shirt. We were slightly disappointed to find out that the rigid rules did not seem to apply to two Russian tourists who showed up in their blue batik shirts and sandals. The horror, the horror. When we pointed out the fashion faux pas, our guide shrugged and mumbled something along the lines of ‘Russians, they are like that’.

You leave cameras and all other belongings at the cloak room of the mausoleum, before walking the one kilometre that separates you from the glass coffin of the Father of Our Nation, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Like tin soldiers we march with other visitors, mostly Koreans brought in by their collective farms and factories to pay tribute to the Father of Our Nation, the Great Leader, Comrade Kim il Sung. We enter a big room with a marble (or is it plaster?) larger-than-life statue of the Great Leader, Sun and Father of Our Nation, Comrade Kim Il Sung against a pink and sky-blue background (recreating sunset, we gathered). The faux-plaster/faux-marble statue is lit with a light coming from above and a celestial sound is spat out by the speakers in the room. As told, we march in groups of four, get to a line marked on the floor, where we bow in front of the statue of the Great Leader etc. etc. Kim Il Sung. Thus we proceeded towards the Hall of Lamentation, where we are handed Sony MP3 players (made by the Imperialist Swines in Japan) whereby we can hear the mourning sounds (translated in English) of crowds of Korean lamenting the death of the Leader Maximo. The Koreans are luckier than us because they get a live rendition of the sorrows of the Korean people, courtesy of one of the guides of the mausoleum with indefatigable performance skills (As an aside, imagine having a business card that reads “So and So, Live Performer at the Hall of Lamentations of the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum. Just a thought for your next high school reunion). We are then showed a big collection of honours and awards received by Our Great Leader Father of the … you get the idea Kim Il Sung. These include, inter alia, certificates of honorary citizenships from Italy, France, Belgium and various other Western nations. We learn that those have been bestowed in acknowledgment of the Great Leader’s contribution to modern tought through his Juche idea (in case you haven’t yet, you can educate yourself about Juche here).

Finally we reach the Sancta Sanctorum of the Mausoleum. We pass a door that is like a mini car wash booth, where the soles of our shoes are brushed and we are sprayed some air (containing disinfectant? or perhaps it is communist holy water from Leningrad?). Ahead of us, lies the mummified body of Our Great Leader, perfectly preserved in a glass coffin. We march in rows of four, like little toy soldiers, in what is a spectacle of choreographed mourning. After forty minutes of interminable corridors, halls of lamentations, celestial visions of plaster statues the propaganda machine starts to work its magic. As we bow four times (one time for each of the sides of the coffin), I am only one step away from thinking to myself  “Thank you Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung, Sun of Our Nation. Thank you for being the  Liberator and Father of the Second-Happiest Country in the World. Our Glorious Nation. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”

Outside the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum, Pyongyang

Customs of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea

Upon going back to my seat after lunch on the Pyongyang-Beijing train I found that my fellow travellers had indulged in a weird sort of packed lunch which included clams, bananas and pumpkin seeds. Pretending to find the crustacean lunch explosion and the remains thereof absolutely in tune with my expectations of what a Chinese packed lunch on a train might entail, I sat on my seat while filling the exit card and the custom declaration form of the DPRK.

I prepared myself for the two hours it would take to complete formalities. First an officer came, took all of our passports and walked away. As he left, I realised that my passport was now entrusted in the tender loving care of Korean authorities, much like it had been for most of my time in Korea. I had become again member of the international brotherhood and sisterhood of people whose passports are taken away from them and who are thus at the mercy of their sponsors or guardians such as minors and domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

A second official came and our compartment began the hectic process of luggage inspection that had already caused considerable chaos all over our carriage. The process started shortly after the officer  expressed some mild disgust at the manner with which the lunch leftovers had taken over most of the space on the table where the paperwork would have to take place. Perhaps hoping to get over the painful bit first the officer started with me. I opened both of my bags for the officer to have a look while also fishing out the electronic items I had declared on my form. The officer took my camera and tried to place it in the narrow empty space between the gaping carcasses of clams and the carpet of spat-out pumpkin seeds and banana peals. Then he proceeded to unwrap my phone which had been sealed in a paper envelope, stamped across the seal and wrapped in tape before being entrusted to my guide upon arrival at Pyongyang airport. Upon seeing a keyboard-less mobile not bigger than 5×7 cm the officer made a perplexed face and called a colleague over to show how Sony had managed to produce a Lego toy that can handle internet browsing and international roaming.

After that, the other passengers went through their customs checks. The numerous suitcases of the two Chinese business men were opened while the rest of us watched the process for its sheer entertainment value (incidentally, based on a nationally-representative sample of two people, I have decided that all Chinese traders are messy packers). Everything went smoothly until an undeclared phone was found in one of the bags. Some commotion ensued as the real owner of the suitcase was brought in from the other compartment. A calm exchange ensued via a Chinese passenger who was also fluent in Korean. More officers were summoned and a thorough search of the compartment took place as the mobile phone smuggler was sweating profusely. While I was wondering if we would be regaled with a body cavity search performed live on the train, the officer found some souvenir posters of mine which I was asked to unpack. Those were replicas of propaganda posters that we were told not to parade around customs. A perplexed look later the officer carefully packed the posters away and dished out my camera from the food-ocean and handed it over to a colleague who would go through all my photos to ensure they were all kosher. As the officer went through my holiday artsy fartsy pictures absent-mindedly some kind of solution had been found to the sino-korean mobile phone debacle, although what exactly happened is unclear to me. I noticed that the officer suddenly a 100 Chinese yuan (10 euro) note had appeared inside the pocket of the officer.

Eventually the customs inspection process came to an end and we received our passports back as well. We thus completed the 10 minute journey to  Dandong, China where a life of free mobile phone usage and a bright future of clam lunches awaited us.

Get your vote out. It’s the DEMOCRATIC People’s Republic after all…

For more photos from the DPRK, check my Flickr account

While in Hoi An I booked a half a day tour to the archaeological town of Mi Son.
So there I was, at 8.30 am on a lime green bus surrounded by equally sleepy tourists in shorts and sandals.
As soon as we left, our guide, Mr Dong, introduced himself with military-like demeanour and detailed the schedule for the day, before conducting a head count of us useless people. So that we would not lose people to other groups visiting the site, we will hencefort be referred to as the tiger group and he would be our self-appointed tiger king, Gen. Dong informed us. He proceeded to explain in a martial voice that Mi Son had been established as a trade empire by Javanese merchants well before Angor Wat was built (so much for all that Khmer swagger, Cambodia).
Once arrived at the site, Gen. Dong briefed us in front of the map, his body language a mix of military demeanour and moves from a Chinese Opera.
He informed us that the site, now a world heritage site, was first vandalised by French explorers that cut the heads off all the Hindu statues so that they could be exhibited at the Louvre and then by the Americans that thought that the proximity of My Son to the Saigon trail meant that the Viet Cong were using the ruins as a base (they weren’t). You can see the hole in the ground caused by one of the bombs in the picture below. Not trying to suggest any comparison, but the only other people that cut off head of statues in the region where the Khmer Rouge and Mao’s cultural revolutionaries. A proof that in terms of idiocy our (in)civilisation can be on par with any other.

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One of the reasons behind this trip to South East Asia was to got away from the Middle East for a little bit – As I am sitting in a frozen yogurt cafe in Ho Chi Minh City, I just realised that sometimes you just can’t escape very easily.

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I just came out of an exhibit on the history of Vietnam’s communist party. I went because I figured you don’t get to see propaganda by a ruling communist party a lot these days. In the midst of various memorabilia (silver plate from the Libyan Jamahiryya, Cuban stamps, plate from Turkmenistan etc.), posters of all the communist party congresses, photos of party officials being received by various dignitaries and/or at the ceremony for Vietnam’s accession to ASEAN or the WTO, one document from the 1945 liberation struggle from the French really caught my attention. The pamphlet calls for an end to French aggression in exchange for protection of France’s commercial interests in the country. The second last paragraphs is very militant ‘Français! Réfléchissez! Vous avez appris aux événements de Syrie-Liban`. It reminded me of a different Syrian revolution that once was.

The next stop on the tour was the War Remnants Museum. The museum is an impressive and harrowing tour of the impact of the Vietnam war. It has a bright orange room full of pictures of victims of Napalm and other biological weapons, US army tanks and helicopters parked outside and a ‘requiem’ photo exhibition. The ground floor hosts a collection about the various protests that took place all over the world, including in Aleppo, Syria.
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A lot of thoughts are now racing in my head on imperialism, military intervention, resistance and post-resistance propaganda (brought to you by the `historic truth` part of the museum). Perhaps the loudest one is a reflection on how humans take part in historic events, motivated in part by my non-heroic and passive experience with the Egyptian revolution. This quote has moved me more than anything else in the museum.

Someone may criticise me, a citizen of a third world country for self-burning in protest, but I strongly believe that those who long for the real peace in Vietnam and all over the world will not consider my death as being in vain

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The Hong Kong government is running a campaign aimed at getting citizens’ feedback about the HK airport (which has won multiple prizes for being the most functional in the world). The rationale is that they see the airport as a key to keep HK competitive so they are asking citizens for their views on how the 2030 expansion plan should look like (foresight, anyone?).
Seeing the ads on the MTR (the underground) prompted me to ask my friend about HK politics. While the city has an active local politics that is free and fair, she complains that HK people are rather disengaged from politics. To be honest I do not find it hard to believe. After months of discussions about why the military has put so and so on military trial for protesting in Egypt and a 5-week stint in Libya where everyone is happy to walk about with guns and fire them in celebration in the midst of crowds, I am quite happy to let consumerism embrace me and put my political self to sleep.
My friend agreed that in a society where efficiency is the norm (and with the comparison of mainland China next door), citizens become more like very empowered customers rather than politically engaged citizens.
My friend told me that while HK people can be quite vocal (those stereotypes about the Cantonese must come from somewhere) and happy to take a protest to the streets, politics is not on the radar of most youth. A few weeks ago it was the anniversary of the Tienammen square events. During a discussion one of my friend’s friend admitted that until recently she did not know that the portrait hanging on the square was of Chairman Mao.
Maybe she thought it was the portrait of China’s next top model?

I am writing this post on the topic of the minimum wage at the request of a friend (not sure what this says about my personal life :)).

The Egyptian government recently announced a plan to increase the minimum wage first to 700 Egyptian pounds and then to 1,200 EGP (200 USD) for some 1.9 million public sector workers. The plan was detailed in the economic programme released by the Egyptian government which was the subject of a previous blog post:

The government is committed to provide a fairer wage structure. To honor this commitment, we will introduce lump sum wage increases in entities with low levels of remuneration, to achieve a minimum gross wage of LE 700 per month for all workers in the public sector in 2011/12. It is our objective to increase this wage level gradually in the coming years to reach LE 1,200 by mid-2015. The partial wage increase in 2011/12 is expected to benefit some 1.9 million employees (about one third of the total public sector work force), mostly municipal workers. It will increase the effective wage bill by around 6 percent and cost the budget about LE 7 billion. Workers earning wages above this minimum in non-targeted entities will receive their standard annual increases to contain the growth in the wage bill while maintaining incentives for progression and skill differentiation.

So this is overall good news: 1.9 million people (and their families) will supposedly received a better salary soon.

However, like in many other countries including developed ones, the issue of minimum wage becomes a highly political one (for a good overview, check this). While public sector employment is a life-time guarantee (although this has proven not to be true for those workers in publicly owned manufacturing industries that have been privatised in the past decade), a large number of  workers are employed in the private sector where the minimum wage does not apply. Actually, make it the private sector where hardly any labour law is really applied. In my personal experience, with the exception of few friends who work for large Egyptian or foreign companies (e.g. companies that are listed on the stock exchange, multinationals etc…), most Egyptians do not have a work contract. And the few who do, are often asked to sign a dateless resignation letter in case their employer decides to lay them off at some point in the future. So, it’s clear that even if a minimum wage became mandatory for private sector employees, it will probably not be applied.

So how could the Egyptian government improve the wages of the million workers in the private sector? The labour market situation requires overall restructuring in Egypt, if nothing because the informal sector, while providing employment for a large share of the workforce, is also the sector where abuses such as withholding of wages, lay offs without compensation, lack of insurance and pension rights are hardly ever addressed.

My argument is going to be that trade unions could be part of the solution (but not the only solution) to the problem of low wages in Egypt. This paper details the impact of trade unions on wage of workers. The subject is at the centre of a long and complex debate but in a nutshell, the more unionised workers are there, the more unions have bargaining power over wages and benefits. This creates a ‘Trade Union Wage Premium‘ (for more info check here). The paper mentioned above shows that the difference in wages between (similar) unionised and non-unionised workers averages around 15-20% with peaks of 34% in places like Brazil.

There are also a lot of other issues when unions come into play, including creating a situation where those who are not unionised basically represent a pool of workers that can be employed informally to avoid paying higher wages to unionised workers etc… The paper linked above does a good job of explaining the various caveats.

The point I am making here is that the discussion around the minimum wage should not only be centred around public sector wages or declaring a minimum wage also for the private sector that will not be enforced just like most of labour laws in Egypt.

Giving workers the right of assembly, the right to be a part of independent unions (with different political affiliations) could do a lot more for Egypt’s workers by increasing their bargaining power, somehow going against the patronising idea that the state gives its citizens rights as concessions as opposed to empowering them to demand, campaign and hopefully obtain what they think is best for them. Of course empowering trade unions will also require an industrial policy that is based on consultation and dialogue between employers, workers and the state – perhaps an even harder cultural shift from the current dynamics.

On the subject of labour rights, a little bonus track material on corporations and interns:
The Corporate Social Irresponsibility of the Internship Phenomenon
– aka “the highly competitive race to the bottom of the corporate ladder”