J’accuse: Institutional Mal(t)aise


American comedian Jerry Seinfeld is credited with the quip: “Have you noticed that no matter what happens in one day, it exactly fits in the newspaper?” It’s a bit like the J’accuse weekly pill. No matter what happens in one week I’ve got to fit it in around 2,000 words (give or take a few). The magic of it all is that most times it works… then again it’s all an illusion – I convince myself it works because once you have reached the 2,000 word point you just have to stop writing. 
It reminds me of the joke that you always find something in the last place that you look for it. You can think of that in a pessimistic way and wonder why you never find things earlier but then again you can be realistic and reason out the obvious – that once you have found something you do not need to keep looking for it. If you really want to feel good next time you are looking for something then just keep looking for it after you have found it. Then you will have the satisfaction of having found it before looking in the last place. That, and the general feeling that you have just done something absolutely ridiculous.
Central Banks

There’s a money problem. They call it a financial crisis. It’s big this time. It’s being compared to the crisis of ’29. That one was called the Wall Street Crash and happened on a Tuesday – hence the moniker Black Tuesday. In short it seems that we are short of cash and more. I am not about to embark on an explanation of the how and why we are in this predicament, mainly because it is better to keep your mouth shut (or your pen capped or your keys off the keyboard) than utter (write or type) complete nonsense.

What I can write about is the general feeling of doom that keeps creeping up on us no matter how many safety nets are devised by the governments of the industrialised nations. It does have a Sodom and Gomorrah feel to it (incidentally can anyone tell me what sins the citizens of Gomorrah had committed?… Sodom we know) in a “punish the hedonist capitalist” kind of way. The news from the US is not nice at all. People cannot afford their homes and financial establishments and institutions are, to put it mildly, running around like headless chickens.
My faith in the science of finance (if it is a science and not a highly overvalued system of legal gambling) has never been strong – mainly because I have always harboured a feeling that it is based on a number of fictions and trust built thereupon. It could also have something to do with my innate inability to save and the impossibility of combining the tenet of carpe diem with the necessary diligence of the careful planner. I am now officially a financial agnostic. And a scared one at that. Affluent society might be about to take a nasty knock and gadget freaks like me will have a hard time adjusting to the situation. 
The US financial crisis provided us with an interesting parenthesis in the Presidential campaign. Senator McCain chose to suspend his campaign and invited Obama to do likewise in the interest of solving the financial crisis. Petrodollar Bush hooked on to the idea and before we know it Congress leaders were admonishing the Republicans for politicising the issue. There we go again – a familiar accusation in politicis, a nonsensical oxymoron: politicians accusing other politicians of politicising. The OED had better come up with a better definition of that word. 
Meanwhile back in the Old World, the affable politicians of Europe came up with an interesting concept. Both Sarkozy and his charming Finance Minister Christine Lagarde have started to speak about the need of introducing “morals” in the world of finance. That’s a Sodom and Gomorrah term again. Somehow I tend to think they are right. Which redefines which part of the liberal spectrum I sit on. Once again the EU and it’s hodge-podge member states are facing a new challenge and this time they might have the right tools to come up with a reasonable solution to face the crisis.
European Council
Whether Malta’s regular subjection to waves of immigrants is actually a national crisis or not has been the subject of debate in our media this week. There were two reasons for this issue falling back on our laps before you could say “boat people”. First there was Inhobbkom Joseph who defined the immigrant issue as a national crisis. We had the naysayers deriding the man for jumping on some kind of bandwagon and the supporters who praised the man for calling a spade a spade. We could get lost with the semantics of the matter and get into our usual Lilliputian obsession of arguing irrelevant details as to what to call the issue. Or we could face it.
Which is what the Gonzi government has done while negotiating Sarkozy’s Immigration Pact with the other nations sitting around the big big EU table. It was encouraging to see an obstinate Maltese government put its foot down and state without reserve that unless the other states of the Union were prepared to take on their share of the burden Malta would be having none of Sarkozy’s grand plan. Bollocks to all the “Malta is lost in the EU” crowd. Bollocks to those who said Malta would be voiceless in the big European sea.
It’s babysteps yet but we are beginning to find our way around “using” the European institutions the right way. There will always be the conspiracy theorists, there will always be those who natter on about the lost sovereignty and the faceless Eurocrat regime but the truth is that in the global reality that we live in forming part of the club is more than the millions of euros flushed into our economy. True, the EU itself is trying to find the right framework in which to operate but the role Malta played in the framing of the Immigration Pact is no small achievement. If you are still having doubts just ask the “we could do it alone” crowd what solution could have been had if we were still role playing as some Switzerland in the Med. Ask the Colonel for help maybe? Give me a break will you?
People’s Parliaments
Which brings us back to other institutional business. The European Parliament to be more precise. The EP has been meeting in Brussels because the Babel like structure in Strasbourg had a little accident over the summer. The ceiling of the main chamber (built 10 years ago) collapsed. Thankfully this happened when the EP was not in session thus avoiding the loss of many lives. This meant that the usual caravan of MEP’s traipsing to Strasbourg with their little green cases did not happen this month. In the process the EU coffers were spared a 2 million euro expense (and many Strasbourg businesses suffered huge losses). It will take much more than this inconvenience to convince the French that the EP should be based in Brussels once and for all.
Someone who has left Brussels and the EP is Inhobbkom Joseph. I saw a photo Mr Muscat presenting his letter of resignation in all the pomp and circumstance that Labourites seem to deem fit for this kind of occasion. Few people can say that Joseph Muscat’s period at the EP  was not one in which he performed a sterling service of representation. He will probably be best remembered for his outburst at the lack of interpreters in one of his earlier sessions. That and the summer homework that kept him from taking on his duties as Leader of Opposition immediately.
It seems that MP Cuschieri is giving up his seat for Joseph. I am told that there was a full TV program dedicated to the handing over. We do not seem to have got over such theatrics yet. Meanwhile the watchdogs at Maltatoday asked the question whether Cuschieri is receiving some form of compensation for giving up his job which was his main source of income. What do they expect? He’s a politician for heaven’s sake not a philanthropic organisation. Personally I would be surprised if his action is completely pro bono – I would lose my faith in Maltese politicians outright. Frankness about what he has negotiated might help Labour reply to the loose tongues who already imagine Mr Cuschieri being appointed President of Malta come next election!
Another facet of the European Parliament has begun to pop up in our dailies. MEP hopefuls have begun to churn out soporific articles of the cut and paste kind in order to convince the voting fraternity that they are the one for the job. Some will cast themselves into their stereotypical role such as Malta’s answer to gender imbalance, EU gurus or the eurosceptic who wants to fight the gravy train by swimming in it. It will be interesting to see whether this first experience of the Maltese MEPs will have served to improve the discussion and quality of candidates this time round. Fans of J’accuse keep egging for the J’accuse Party to go to the ballot. We are still mulling the idea but frankly we are not convinced that crossing the institutional divide will be intellectually rewarding. Not unless a real breakthrough in representation can be made with the voting public.
The Courts
My line of employment precludes me on commenting on matters institutional related to the European Court of justice. Something from the local courts instead… the more time passes the more it seems that JPO’s tears were an Oscar performance. There might be a lesson to be learnt for voters when assessing the final outcome of the whole affair. I suggest a good reportage that would show the timeline of the JPO case and the varying levels of credibility and how these were affected by party spinning choices (vide the Joe Saliba admission). In matters mediatic regarding political perception we remain a tad bit naive.
Thank God for the free press and the new media that will continue to scrutinise and push the boundaries of expression where others have feared to tread (or have been coerced or bought into not treading). The EP this week passed a resolution about, among other things, the importance of blogs to the freedom of expression. An earlier proposal to include a suggestion to regulate blogs and blogging in Europe was shot down at the voting stage. Hooray for that!
And now for the non-sequitur. Just as the financial crisis should be having us sewing our pockets shut we are exposed to more and more reasons to spend. By “we” I mean the gadget addicts who cannot walk by a technology store without missing a heart beat. The galaxy of products that make you drool is multiplying: from the Asus EEE mini-laptop that brings internet to your pocket to the mind-boggling graphics of the PS3 games… How do you stop yourself? Luxembourg sees the official landing of the iPhone 3G today and I personally witnessed a queue a block long of people trying to be the first to get their hands on the darned thing. I am resisting temptation but I am not too sure how long that will last.
For the more reachable objects in the desirables price range allow me to suggest two new pearls that are out in September. Terry Pratchett that master of sci-fi has just published a new children’s book. It’s called “Nation” and every child should be obliged to read it before the standard play hour dedicated to their preferred console. Another master of fiction Neal Stephenson has a new book out called “Anathem” and it seems to be on the same lines as “The Glass Bead Game” by Herman Hesse. There. Another way to assuage your spending worries.
This has been J’accuse…. spending so you don’t have to.
Jacques has been discussing the Beeb at https://jaccuse.wordpress.com. Do you like Auntie too?



3 responses to “J’accuse: Institutional Mal(t)aise

  1. ‘My faith in the science of finance’

    Finance is no science. It is art.

    It is for this reason that finance should never ever be a business.

    Finance is a basic catalyst that oils the capitalist process. It should never be a profitable exercise per se.

    Why should financial activity not be a business?

    A business seeks to sell a product or service at a profit.

    Finance sells you financial products especially loans.

    The more loans you sell the more profit you make the higher the dividend, heftier the personal bonus.

    Now a restaurant will soon go out of business if it sells bad food.

    But in finance it is the other way round.

    The more that the product is rotten (home loans in the US in excess of 120% of a home value that is already inflated by extraordinary demand fuelled by easy credit) the more loans you ‘sell’ hence higher profit, higher bonus, higher property prices,…(and competition means that one has to compete in selling rotten food) until…

    Moreover there is no science to guide the operator, and more importantly, the regulator.

    Creating a pseudo-science gives a respectable skin to the process through operators who are as well groomed as they are ‘incompetent’. why have the best investment bankers in the city ended up becoming taxi drivers years ago?

    Suggesting the business of financial operators can be regulated is naive to an extreem.

    Yet do not worry too much unless you have too much equity (and even then it will only be luck of the draw).

    For even the most influential politician in congress knows this…it could not be otherwise.

    The ‘business’ of finance will come with cap in hand to whom?

    The tax payer of course.

    And the tax payer’s choice is a hobson one, pay up or die.

    The tax payer will never want to die.

    The real problem will only be that of inflation.

    So the issue has nothing to do with values or morals. A business is a business and always a business.

    The issue is: should financial institutions be a business or a catalyst?

    Now I do not want to face a doctor whoes prime objective is that of selling me pills, do I?

  2. Jacques, please email me as I switched computers and my address book failed to follow. I need to ask you something.

  3. Just go and get your hand on an Iphone. Your life will never be the same again 🙂

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