Olympics screws Greece, so why should London bother?
The initial estimated bill for Greece to host the Olympics was 4.2 billion euros (£3.2 billion; $6 billion). It turns out that the final tally is nearer 9 billion (£6.3 billion; $11.6 billion) - and that doesn't even include the costs of infrastructure building and repair in the run-up.
But hey - it's worth it, right? Tourism and stuff? Economic boosts? Well, erm... no, actually.
So why the hell does London want the Olympics? Lovely fancy designs are all very well and good, and the parts of east London in which the Olympic village would be built certainly need redevelopment, but is a two-week display of grown men and women running around in circles and playing in sandpits really the way to do it?
And how exactly is all this going to "help address some of the key issues our nation faces – health, social inclusion, educational motivation and fighting crime."? Is the Olympics suddenly going to include competitive heart surgery, being nice to people, teaching and beating up criminals?
And how are we going to pay for all this? The cost estimate is just £2.375bn - only a third of the Athens games. Will we stick to this budget? Well, if the Millennium Dome disaster is anything to go by, no - that hideous white elephant is currently costing the country nearly £30 million a year just for it to stay closed and empty, blighting the landscape and the view from Greenwich Park.
Of this under-estimate of £2.375 billion, £875 million is to be borne by London through a £20 pa increase in council tax. So I'm going to have to fork out an extra £160 over the next eight years when my Council Tax is already extortionate to pay for something I don't want in a part of London I've never been? Great. And those who actually WANT the Olympics - are they going to get free tickets in return for having their hard-earned money taken from them to pay for a bunch of well-paid athletes to have a jolly? Bollocks are they.
And what happens when the games goes over budget? As has been revealed, costs were double the estimate in Athens, and the same was the case with the 2000 games in Sydney. So the final budget for London hosting the games (which again doesn't include infrastructure costs or the promotional nonsense that's being done to "help the bid") will end up as much as £4.7 billion - none of which has been budgeted for. Genius.
Would it, perhaps, be more sensible to use this money to tackle the housing shortage in London, build some schools or hospitals, top up the pension fund, help some starving people in Africa, do some serious cancer or AIDS research etc etc - anything other than this mindless athletics nonsense?
(Sorry - browsing news stories on a lazy Saturday has a tendency to get me het up a bit... Time to head to the pub and calm down, methinks.)
Terror and society
Eulogist at European-Democracy.org seems to be embarking on what looks to be an interesting series of posts on the primary concern of modern western society: the impact of terrorism on our civilisation's "values" and the lessons we can learn in dealing with terrorism. It is a topic I have covered here briefly, and which bears much thinking about.
The challenges the world is facing are not new, they just seem to be on a bigger scale than what has gone before. But the past can, nonetheless, teach us much. Leaping into the fray with a cack-handed, unthinking approach rarely works (as those who are spending their every spare hour playing the newly-released Halo 2 are no doubt learning to their cost). We need a more thoughtful approach to terrorism, and to the underlying causes.
With Arafat's death comes a new opportunity for helping bring to an end the on-going chaos of the Middle East, and with Bush's second term about to begin the US President has a clear mandate to do what he thinks best. Will he learn from the mistakes of the past, or carry on blundering about abroad and curtailing civil liberties at home as he has done for the last four years? The omens, as yet, don't look promising.
Submarine shenanigans - Pacific not pacific?
For the last few days I've been following with interest the story of the mystery submarine off the Japanese coast. Considering previous occasions where unidentified vessels have entered Japanese waters, it seemed likely at first that this might be another move by North Korea to test the water (no pun intended) to see what the regional and global reaction would be to belligerant moves, post-Bush's election.
North Korea has been playing silly buggers with Japan for decades, recently scaring the constitutionally pacifist Japanese with news of potential new missile tests which, after previous launches into the Sea of Japan, and rumours of North Korean missiles capable of hitting the United States (and even that some have landed in Alaska), are naturally taken quite seriously. It is, in part, this bizarre standoff which has prompted some in Japan to talk of potential war and move to change the constitution to allow Japan to build up an independent military.
The Far East is a worried region - Bird Flu, SARS, Chinese civil repression in Hong Kong, military coups and the all pervasive Islamic extremist groups are combining to make the north west Pacific anything but.
However, after early suggestions that this time the mystery sub was Chinese, thanks in part to nearby Chinese naval manouvres, it appears that this has now been confirmed.
It is unlikely that China is going to start getting uppitty and causing trouble, but the worries over this submarine - especially following so soon after the news of the two mile wide mushroom cloud detected in North Korea in September (which, apparently was not nuclear, but still might have been) - highlight quite amply that the more publicised Middle East and African crises are not the only potential world troublespots, and that of the three nations that made up the so-called axis of evil, the country with the most obviously belligerent and dangerous attitude to the rest of the world continues unabated and largely unchallenged by the Bush administration.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has already announced that an attack on Iran is "inconceivable" and stated categorically that "I don't see any circumstances in which military action would be justified against Iran, full stop." Could it be about time for the US/UK coalition to turn their attention towards North Korea? If we're going to be getting rid of madman dictators like Saddam I can think of few better candidates than Kim Chong-il and his buddies.
What next for the Middle East?
The death of Yasser Arafat may mean the suspension of business as usual in the Middle East for the next few weeks — but by golly, if ever there was an opportunity to catch this tiger by the tail, it’s now.
Arafat was not just a leader, but a figurehead and while his recenly-announced successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is respected internationally, does he have the domestic clout to unite the factions within the PLO?
Considered a moderate liberal, as well as a critic of the most recent Palestinian uprising on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he left his post as secretary–general of the PLO after a fight with Arafat.
After inaugurating the ‘road map’ peace plan with Junior and Ariel Sharon and working to secure a cease-fire agreement with Palestinian militant groups, he grew frustrated by the Israeli prime minister’s refusal to help build support for Palestinian prisoners.
Arafat, jealously guarding his power, repeatedly undermined his prime minister and in September 2003, Abbas resigned in frustration, so angry with Arafat that he refused to speak to his old boss for more than a year.
It was a move which could still have repurcussions among those with long memories — many militant Palestinians have more time for the reactionary ‘party line’ of current prime minister Ahmed Qurei than Abbas’ more progressive stance.
Israel, the UK and America have predictably suggested that Arafat’s passing could be a turning point — and you can bet that the powerful pro-divisionist American interests are already considering their options in the race for dominance in the Middle East.
Could Kerry still win it?
Could ALL the votes cast in the Presidential election in Ohio be recounted? The Electoral College has yet to vote and confirm George W Bush's election. If the Ohio recount alters Bush's 133,000 vote lead (which it could well, if reports of dodgy votes, dodgy counting, and the 155,000-465,000 provisional votes are taken into account), the state's 20 Electoral College votes would go to Kerry, and he, not Bush, would be declared the winner.
In the words of a mate of mine, "Now, that's an idea that's going to fester. They wouldn't would they? Naah..."
Rocco and Religion 2
Controversial ex-commission candidate Rocco Buttiglione contributes an interesting article to The Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com on his new pet topic of Europe's apparent hostility to Christianity.
He strains the point quite a bit - especially in the first paragraph where he claims that George W Bush's religious beliefs would make him unfit for European office (a claim which somewhat ignores Tony Blair's well-known religious devotion) - but makes some interesting arguments as well:
"we can expect... in Europe a change of attitudes within a comparatively short period of time. Our struggling economy and ageing society can survive and be modernized only if we recover at least some of the values of the past--among them the ethics of hardworking and caring fathers and mothers.
"This is difficult to accept in Europe because our intellectuals were always convinced that modernity brings with itself the extinction of religious faith. Now America, the most advanced country in the world, shows us that religion may be and indeed is a fundamental element of a free society and of a modern economy."
Smacks a bit of sour grapes, and the article isn't lengthy enough for Buttiglione to present detailed arguments so remains chock-full of generalisations and simplifications, but this could prove to be an interesting debate if he can maintain his current high profile and prompt a few responses. As I've said before, I can see his point, it's just he isn't yet arguing it very well.
Ashcroft II: Die Harder
So much for wishful thinking - I guess after last week's disappointments I should have learned my lesson by now, but I still keep hoping for some good news from the States. Instead, John Ashcroft is replaced as Attourney General by one of the few people in the world (bar Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Robert Mugabe) who seems to have an even lower regard for the notions of freedom and civil rights than he does.
Ignore the fact that Alberto Gonzales is hispanic, and that thus his appointment is a great step towards high-office recognition for one of America's largest minorities, the guy's a nutter with scant regard for either international or US domestic law.
There is more worrying stuff on Gonzales' poor judicial record at The Blue Bunny of Battle and Obsidian Wings (both links via Waffle).
This is not a promising development for Bush's second term, although some are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt for fear of worse alternatives. The US appears trapped between the Devil and the deep blue sea.
Thank you, American voters - Part the nth
Wall Street may have pinged its collective red braces in glee when Dubya was reinstated, but the rest of the world had better start watching the pennies.
Today, the dollar slumped to a new record low against the Euro, breaching the essential plumb line of $1.30.
America’s trade deficit — already in excess of $50 billion — continues to slump: a fleeting matter for Junior, but a fairly pressing issue for the rest of the world.
Today’s record low is the fourth month in a row that the dollar has slipped. Combined with a rise in oil prices of more than two-thirds this year alone, there’s a lot of worried macro-economists losing serious amounts of sleep tonight.
Ah, but why should we care? Well, for those of us fond of sleeping under a roof and eating two or three times a day, a weak dollar means the increased isolation of American import, which in turn, is a considerable blow to the rest of the world’s export trade.
European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet recently expressed concern about the impact of a weak dollar on European competitiveness describing the rise of the value of the euro as "brutal" — and if Trichet says it’s brutal, it probably is. You don’t get to be president of the ECB if you get a bit shaky about your share prices dipping slightly.
One of the major elements of Junior’s campaign — indeed, the issue which many would argue won him key manufacturing states — was his promise to tackle America’s spiralling trade deficit.
However, having spent four years doing bugger all about it, perhaps it’s time somebody pointed out that it’s hardly likely to be a trend reversed overnight.
In the meantime, European trade had better start looking at that lucrative Inuit market…
Cough, cough... what?
As expected, Jack McConnell's plans to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces were shooed through the Scottish Executive today.
Smokers all over the country are, unsurprisingly, tearing their hair out at the thought of not being able to have a fag and a pint and the anti-fag lobby are smugly patting themselves on the back for ridding Scotland of the evil weed. To hell, of course, with all those stuck in the middle who, quite reasonably, would prefer not to have fag ash flicked over their pasta, but really don't object all that much to the idea of smokers lighting up in clubs and bars.
The First Minister's argument is that not only will the ban improve the general health of Scots, but it will also encourage smokers to quit.
Really? Not according to statistics in countries across the world that have already limited or banned smoking.
Tobacco advertising has been banned in Norway for more than 30 years, smoking in public was banned in June, yet one in three people smoke - and there has been a recent rise in tobacco-related deaths. A packet of cigarettes in Norway, incidentally, costs £6.
The Australians made the decision to ban smoking on some of the country's beaches - out of doors, for heaven's sake - yet have made no effort to tackle the population's ever-increasing alcohol-related problems.
Even France - home of the stinkiest fags known to man - made no dent on their smoking statistics by raising the price of fags by 20%.
Ireland is the closest comparison to the Scottish situation - publicans admit that they've seen a heavy dent in trade. Yes, everyone goes outside to smoke - but that also means they drink more slowly and they're further away from the bar.*
While no-one could legitimately argue that smoking is a good, clean, healthy family past-time, isn't it time the government were honest about these bans? If politicians are really going to get tough on health issues, let's ban booze, cars, fireworks, E-numbers and those fizzy sweets with every chemical ever invented bunged in.
McConnell's on record about how hard he found it to quit - which makes Scotland's ban look like the ultimate revenge of the ex-smoker.
Smoking prohibitions have very little to do with public health - and a whole lot to do with getting the powerful medical lobby on board.
* Update in response to comment:
The Irish Brewers’ Association (IBA) claims sales of pints have dropped by 23 million in the last year.
According to industry figures revealed after an IBA survey, the number of pints sold between March and September this year stood at 339 million compared to 362 million in the same period in 2003.
The IBA has blamed the smoking ban for the decline of six per cent in sales.
“The harsh fact of the matter is the figures are down,” said Paddy Jordan, the director of IBA, which represents beer producers such as Heineken and Diageo. “The trend is likely to be 10 percent down for the year.”
The healing continues, part the second
Fuck the South.
Beautiful, just beautiful...
(Link via Bloggerheads)
Update: It seems there's some agreement...
Update 2: More irate Democrats, but do they have a reason to feel ripped off?
Update 3: A very good - if long - article on the voter appeal of George W Bush and another (not as good, but worth a read) on the problem of Post Election Stress and Trauma Syndrome (PESTS.
Update 4: The real American voter division maps - perhaps a new civil war isn't necessary quite yet...
Church and State
In a shock move, the King-Emperor Henry IV of Germany was today appointed to replace John Ashcroft, who has reluctantly resigned his post as US Attourney General. The move is seen as an unusual one, as it had been thought that the Bush administration would be keen to keep their allies in the Church onside. Appointing such a vocal champion of the separation of Church and State to such an important post, especially following the ultra-religious Ashcroft's tenure, may be an olive branch to the Democrats, still smarting from their defeat at the hands of the US evangelical voters.
Speaking from his palace of Goslar in Saxony in a move hailed by the left as a great blow for in the fight for freedom and the salvation of the Constitution, Henry re-applied his words to the tyrannous Pope Gregory VII, first written on 24th January 1274, to his new boss, President George W Bush:
"Thou hast won favour from the common herd by crushing them; thou hast looked upon all of them as knowing nothing, upon thy sole self, moreover, as knowing all things. This knowledge, however, thou hast used not for edification but for destruction... Let another ascend the Oval Office, who shall not practise violence under the cloak of religion, but shall teach the sound doctrine of St. Peter. I Henry, king by the grace of God, do say unto thee, together with all our bishops: Descend, descend, to be damned throughout the ages."
The departing Ashcroft, in turn, repeated his words from December 2001, used to justify the US PATRIOT Act, "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends."
He then seemingly denounced the more secular approach of his successor, implying America may be less safe with a less religious man in the post, stating that "Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain."
Today, America breathes more easily.
Rocco and Religion
The ex-candidate commissioner Rocco Buttiglione, who resigned after MEPs took his comments about single mothers and homosexuals somewhat badly, is launching a crusade for Catholicism and Christianity, claiming the EU is being taken over by a political correctness which effectively discriminates against traditional religious beliefs.
He's a got a point, although methinks his campaign may be somewhat less selfless than he is making out. Following Bush's election and the first steps towards admitting the primarily Islamic Turkey into the primarily Christian European Union, there has been much speculation about the future role of religion in politics. Some in Europe seem to have started wondering whether this continent - which was, after all, where Christianity got its first foothold - might benefit from some religiously-tinged politics. This approach hasn't worked too well in Northern Ireland, but there seems to be a drive to ignore the Protestant/Catholic division (and all the little subsects of those major Christian sects) and instead focus on an all-encompassing notion of "Christianity" - which I imagine could end up being somewhat offensive to the regular practitioners to which such a move would be designed to appeal...
Could old Rocco be hoping that he could become a secular European religious figurehead, setting himself up in opposition to namby-pamby liberal political correctness in the same way Bush managed to? I doubt he's stupid enough to think this is a possibility, but it could do him some good on a smaller, domestic scale - after all, Berlusconi has got to vacate the Italian premiership sooner or later (voluntarily, democratically or through impeachment), and his hugely raised international profile following this latest spat between the Commission and European Parliament could put him in a good position to take over if and when - especially with the similarly-minded Bush in the White House.
Either way, there's a good interview with Buttiglione here.
(Oh, and sorry for the decline in posts over the last few days - I had a weekend in the country, narrowly avoiding being in a train crash - I luckily took an earlier train - and then got delayed by the aftermath on the way back...)
The healing continues
The healing continues (link to Taegan Goddard's Political Wire)
The New Colonialism?
French military involvement in Ivory Coast escalates, with very little impact on a world focussed on Iraq and the middle east. But like Iraq, this involvement has not secured the unanimous support of the effected country.
Comparisons with British involvement in Sierra Leone are inevitable - in both cases the European countries involved were former colonial powers. Is this the face of Tony Blair's EU/African task force?
Africa has highly complex internal politics partially because of the colonial legacy (tribal and ethnic groupings divided almost arbitrarily into countries on the basis of colonial frontiers) and equally complex and potentially volatile relationships with the European countries which ran these territories and decided on these borders.
As America discovered in Somalia in the early '90s, even intervention conducted with the best of intentions can falter. This is not to say that such intervention is unnecessary - the situation in Sudan could collapse at any time with horrific consequences, more that great care is needed that force is employed in the right way, with proper planning and with great care to avoid the perception that the Imperial mapmakers of the 18th and 19th century have returned.