10░ 40' N, 61░ 30' W

Sunday, October 17, 2004

ReykjavÝk Diary: Day 3

My penultimate day in Iceland begins with pouring rain--worse than the previous two days. They say that if you don't like the weather in Iceland, wait a minute. Well, I waited an hour, and still no change. I was not looking forward to doing the Golden Circle tour in the rain.
I ordered a packed lunch from the hostel (I swapped one of my expensive breakfasts for it) and waited for my pickup. A small van comes for me and the other people going along, and I thought that was it. in stead, we were dropped off at a service station, nd told to go to the office (a converted London double-decker) hand over out tickets and board the Mercedes-Benz coach. All this without umbrellas, in the pouring rain. Not a good start. It took three minutes, though, and after a 10 minute wait off we went.

I did not get the name of our guide then, and beats me to try to remember it now. It sounded like Matti, to me, but I could be wrong. He--strangely--spoke English with an American accent. Anyway, he starts to talk about ReykjavÝk and how it spread over he years to now be home to over 40 % of Iceland's population--125,000 people. It is one sprawling place. Last night (in London) I was reading that Iceland is second only to California in the number of cars per capita, and they have their own motorsports to watch, like driving up a near-vertical cliff-face in a souped-up jeep, or driving across an unfrozen lake full throttle on a snowmobile (!). These people live is a strange land, and they have strange habits to match.

Our first stop was the geothermal power plant at Nesjasvellir. The rain had by then gone down to a drizzle. If this sounds boring, well, it wasn't--far from it. There was a visiting Chinese delegation, so we were not allowed to enter the plant. no matter. We were 300 metres above it--the plant, for one, does not look like a plant, more like a set of randomly placed steampipes in a valley. The valley, treeless as it was, was fantastic to look at. it overlooks Lake Thingvallavatn, and the views from the lookout were simply majestic.

The rain had stopped, and then it started again, then it stopped again; the aforementioned saying is true. That las less of a problem than the windchill--on top of the ridge, despite all the clothes I was wearing, I was freezing, and dying for a pair of gloves. We walked over some moss, which we were told takes 100 years to grow an inch. This moss was a foot thick, and the only this that would grown on the poor volcanic soils.

There's was a lot of technical stuff from Matti about high-temperature fields--Nesjasvellir is the third hottest place is Iceland. It's 27 kilometres from ReykjavÝk, and it supplies 25 percent of the city's hot water--the aboveground, earthquake-proof insulated pipeline loses only one degree of heat between the two places. (The insulation is so good that the snow on the pipeline does not melt.) The plant has walking trails for hikers, and the pipeline has overpasses built so that snowmobilers and off-roaders don't try to go over or under it. Nesjasvellir is one adventure park for the people of ReykjavÝk.

On to Lake Thingvallavatn. The largest lake is Iceland is not that big, but is beautiful, with two symmetric islands in the middle. (Lava domes, I think.) At most times of the year (like now) you could die of hypothermia if you fall in. Still, there were lots of holiday homes along the shoreline road, which isn't at all busy. Driving reminds you that Iceland is not a place to hitchhike--you'll die of cold waiting.

We arrived at the Ůingvellir (Thingvellir) information centre. No rain at first--then a minute passed. The centre is Scandinavian modernist in design, with clean, minimalist lines. This, suits the location, as any stucture pales in comparison with it's location and history.

Iceland has the world's oldest parliament, the Al■ing (Althing), established in 930 AD, just 60 years after settlement. The parliament was sited at Ůingvellir because of the abundance of freshwater and grazing land. When you see it, though, you can't help but wonder if the scenery had something to do with it. The American and European/African geologic plates are separating at this point, and what you see is four kilometres of no-man's land that is expanding at the rate of 4 centimetres a year. Ůingvellir is very hard to describe, and photos of a part of it fail to do it justice. It's like a part of granite literally split open--except that the split is miles wide, with a river running through it.

There is a hotel, a government guesthouse and the prime minister's summer home withing the national park. 20 years ago the prime minister's previous summer house here was destroyed in an earthquake, with him and his family inside. A memorial stands in his honour, and Matti told us the present incumbent holidays elsewhere.

The Al■ing met against a cliff face, the L÷gberg or law rock, where the speaker addressed the gathered lords of the Icelandic Commonwealth. The acoustics are reportedly fantastic, and he cliff reflects an amplify the sound. Further down the same trail there is a waterfall; you can't help but wonder if the Al■ing was not distracted, but apparently the waterfall was not there 100 years ago--there is so much tectonic activity here that watercourses change quickly in geologic terms. (There are over 24000 earthquakes a day in Iceland, though most are imperceptible; they're expecting a major one in 15-20 years, though.) We walked past the waterfall and across the river and back to the coach. Off we went to Geysir.

The Icelanders are very proud that Geysir gave its name to all such natural phenomena worldwide. The original one spouts irregularly, but it's neighbour, Strokkur, shoots up every 6-8 minutes. You have to make sure that you're not standing downwind, otherwise you'll get drenched with the sulphuric water. It's quite a site, though I was freezing, and, as expected, the rains came. After 25 minutes there, we were off across great countryside to Gullfoss.

If you've seen Niagara Falls (I must confess that I have not) you might think that Gullfoss is better, but not too much better. You'd be wrong. To start, you can get very, very close to it--there is a path that runs alongside and above the waterfall--and it gets louder as you get closer. The gorge is also more spectacular, like a narrow fissure in the earth. If you approach from on top you can almost miss it. Then you see it, a great waterfall.

I needed to get film, so I went to the visitor centre to buy an overpriced roll. (I had some excellent lamb stew as well while up there.) As I walked down to the fall it started to rain. First a drizzle, then harder. So far nothing I haven't seen before.

Then came the path to Gullfoss itself. Oy.

Gullfoss is not only loud; it also churns a lot of water, and produces spray--a LOT of spray. Before I knew it I was getting thoroughly soaked, both from the rain and from the spray. There was so much water I had to take off my now useless glasses. I began to fear that I would fall off the cliff face (there are no rails, believe it or not) and into the falls, and the fact that people were going in the other direction because of the rain was not comforting. At one point I was alone in the wet cloud--even the last three Japanese tourists fled. I took off my now useless glasses and groped my way from above Gullfoss, and walked up the path, past the memorial to the woman who walked the 100-plus kilometres on several occasions from here to Reykjavik to save this treasure for the nation after her father sold it to foreign investors.

Back in the visitor centre I had to take off my long underwear and just wear my water-resistant hiking trousers.I became reasonably dry, and sat down to chat with a young doctor from Tennessee who was also on my tour. He was very health conscious, though pleasant. I discovered that my camera was malfunctioning badly--my soaking wet trip behind Gullfoss, all to get photos, may have been in vain--and I changed rolls.

Off we were again. We stopped at a little waterfall, and "Matti" told us that there were lots of hidden waterfalls all over the place that people don't know about. For a hidden waterfall, this one was pretty damn big.

After that five-minute photo op--it ended prematurely because, as you know by now, the rain had started to fall--we continued to Skßlholt. This was one of the two historic centres of Iceland's Christianity (the other is a place called Hˇlar) and where a large part of it's violent Reformation happened. (The King of Norway, to whom Iceland became allegiant in 1262, became Lutheran, and forced his dominions to convert. Some resisted; guess how that ended.) The original church no longer stands, and the present-day modern replacement was built in the postwar period, with contributions from all Nordic countries. It's a pretty, modern wood-framed church--it's a cathedral no more--and the modern stained glass is particularly appealing.

Driving on, we stopped for 10 minutes at Keri­ (Kerith) which is an old volcano explosion crater, now filled with water. It's small, but no less spectacular for that, and if time and the trail had allowed it (and if the rain stayed away) I would have circumambulated the crater. We then drove on through boulder-strewn countryside to our last stop.

Hverager­i (don't ask me how to pronounce this; my best guess is hver-a-gerth-ee) is sited on a low temperature volcanic field at the base of a mountain, and the heat there is used to warm up greenhouses where the Icelanders grow bananas, flowers, and other tropical plants. It's this sounds spectacular, it wasn't; It was not a well-laid out place such as the one at the Keukenhof in the Netherlands. Also, at the entrance is the tackiest tourist shop in Iceland, with slot-machines, moderately overpriced souvenirs, and expensive snacks. I retreated to the coach for the return trip to Reykjavik.

On the way back to the hostel I saw the Catholic Cathedral (this in a place that is officially 96% Lutheran) and the house where Reagan and Gorbachev had their famous 1986 summit. I was tired, and I retreated to my room to lie down and warm up a bit. Feeling drained, I decided to go to the pool complex next door and sit in a hot pot for a while.

After an hour or so, I went back to the hostel, dropped off my things and went off for a trip to the city centre to continue the Bj÷rk vigil. Rather than take the bus to the most central place, LŠjartorg, I stopped a little way out at Hjemmur, and decided to walk down the main drag, Laugavegur. While walking, a long-haired young man comes and starts to talk to me at a pace in Icelandic. I had to hold up my hands and say "Afsaki­ (excuse me), talar­o ensku?" He says, "Oh, Ensku, English" and then invited me to his band's free gig at Kaffi List down the street. I said sure, I'll check it out.

I proceeded to walk, though, to the end of Laugavegur and across to the main square. (It does not look all that main, to be quite honest.) There I had a New York boat sandwich, which turned out to be quite good. After eating half of it I walked back up Laugavegur.

Kaffi List literally translates as Art CafÚ. (This country sure does a lot of literal naming.) It looks posh inside and out, and I was kind of uncomfortable being there as I did not think that I was dressed for the occasion. (I did match the band, at least.) The funk jam session was quite good, but I did not stay long, and went out to go to Sirkus (Circus), which is recommended by the free English-Language Icelandic monthly newspaper, Grapevine.

I ended up staying two minutes. The music was the hard techno Europeans love, and the place, from my brief glance, didn't serve tea. The people all looked too cool for me too. I decanted to Kaffibarinn, where I also did not stay long. It was packed, and there was no place to sit. I went out for another walk down Laugavegur.

Close to the square, a drunk Icelander came up to me outside Apˇtek, a restaurant that used to be a pharmacy. When I protested in English, he told me that somebody was trying to kill him, then he laughed. I was not amused, but neither was i afraid; he annoyed me more than anything else. He begged to buy me a drink. I politely declined, and tried to move on. He followed me down the street until I decided to flee into Hverfisbarinn, where the bouncer (oddly, the first I say in Reykjavik) got rid of the guy for me. I was thirsty, and I had another tap water with lemon.

After a while I returned to Kaffi List and stayed 40 minutes or so to listen to the rest of the funk gig. Really good music. Afterwards the long-haired dude called me and asked me how I liked it, and I showed him my appreciation. I left for Kaffibarinn to close the night, having already missed the last bus back to the hostel.

I ordered tea and drank it standing up, the packed bar lacking seats. I got bored by myself, and moved to leave when a guy called me over. Turns out he was a hiking guide, and he invited me to sit at his table with his French charges. He was probably the most ebullient Icelander I spoke to, and it was a marked change. Among other things we talked about swimming pools, and told me the one where I could meet the prime minister. (Iceland had to be the only country where the prime minister and his cabinet have listed telephone numbers.) He clearly loved his country, and, given what I've seen, who could blame him?

At 1 am the lights came on. Few people moved, and the DJ still played on. These people really know how to have a good time, and closing time was not going to abruptly stop them . No sign of Bj÷rk, but no matter. (Another thing I noticed in the bar, Mike; a lot of the people do look like Bj÷rk after all.) When people started to leave, I said my farewells to the guide and his friends. In light rain I began my 40-minute walk in deserted streets back to the hostel. It was not a bad walk, but it was a bit saddening. The northern holiday would end the next day.

Monday, October 11, 2004

ReykjavÝk Diary: Day 2

Day two in ReykjavÝk began with my expensive (ú6.50) breakfast at the hostel, followed by a bus ride into the centre. My plan was to get as much sightseeing done as possible in ReykjavÝk, as I was doing a Golden Circle tour on my last full day in Iceland. I took the bus in steady rain to somewhere central, and then walked from there to Kjarvalssta­ir, the second (and main) part of the ReykjavÝk Art Museum. (I had been to the Hafnarhus the day before; I would give the Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum a miss, though it was only a 15 minute walk from where I was staying.)

Kjarvalssta­ir is named after Johannes Kjarval, Iceland's most celebrated painter; his work, mostly from the early 20th century, takes up an entire wing of the museum. His landscapes were a joy to discover--he has a good eye for painting Iceland's varying scenery, in particular the different colours of lava. The museum, though, mainly focuses on contemporary art, and the
other wing contained a retrospective of an Icelandic lava artist. I had tea, read London's Sunday Times (in the cafÚ) and left to look for Nordic House.

It was pouring, and windy. I had to take of my glasses to make my way through the rain, and the fact that I was not sure where I was going did not help. I walked uphill until I got to the highest point in central ReykjavÝk, a hill atop which sits a church,
Hallgrimskirkja. This church was built in 1932, and it's clean, austere lines could make it right at home in a Fritz Lang movie. There was a cool sculpture display in front, and after taking a couple of pictures I went inside and lit a candle for the Beslan victims.

Exiting the church, the rain had temporarily abated, and I surveyed ReykjavÝk from on high. The city is definitely not photogenic. The skyline looks nice, but when you get close to see the wood buildings cladded in brightly-painted galvanised iron or pebblestone, you realise that the harsh North Atlantic weather has not exactly allowed for great aesthetics. ReykjavÝk was founded 1000 years ago, and the Danes moved the Al■ing here from Ůingvellir in the late 18th century, but there are few nice old buildings like you see in other Nordic capitals. (Well, there is Helsinki, which I'm told is Soviet-looking in parts.) Most of the buildings don't look much older than 40. Don't get me wrong. ReykjavÝk is far from ugly, and is in fact quite charming; all the same, it can't compare to, say, Gamla Stan in Stockholm. Then again, few places do, and ReykjavÝk should, and does, stand on its own.

It turned out that Nordic House was on the university campus, so I walked downhill towards it. I thought about getting a bus, but it was too close, and the buses too infrequent, for me to bother. It started to pour again, and I took refuge in the
university bookstore. Courses at the university are mostly taught in Icelandic, but most of the textbooks were in English or Danish. The American influence was evident in that a lot of the books were American, and not British, editions. More tea, and an overpriced danish.

I finally walked across in a light drizzle to
Nordic House. I wanted to see it because it was designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and I had never seen any of his buildings. it's small, and most of it was shut. It's a place for Scandinavian cultural exchange, though it's oddly located right next to the domestic airport, as if the Icelanders were kind of trying to send a message by the location.

In there, among other things, I found leaflets for learning Finnish. Now, Icelanders already have a language that nobody, and I mean nobody, else speaks. What is the value to them of learning another? (Then again, as a speaker of
Trinidadian Creole English, I want to learn Swedish after I finish with French.) I went towards the exhibition hall, and a man told me, in English, that is was closed. I said takk firir (thank you) and he started talking to me in Icelandic. I had to beg him to stop, and he laughed at himself.

Making my way back to the city centre--it had stopped raining, I made briefly for the AS═ Art Museum, where I spent all fo 10 minutes, and then I went off to look for a place where I could have pylsur for lunch. I stopped by a hot dog stand, and when I walked in I had this exchange with the nice old woman there.

"Talar­o Ensku?"
"A little. Talar­o ═slenska?"
"Nej. (Pause.) Pylsur?" (holding up two fingers)

This is the only conversation I had that was mostly in Icelandic. Still, I felt very proud.

After my late lunch I set out to catch a bus to Perlan (the Pearl), an observatory dome built on top of the city's hot water storage tanks, and the other place from which you can see all of ReykjavÝk. I was reluctant--it did not look like much from below--but there was a free photo exhibition on there, and there was the Saga Museum (my guidebook said it was the best museum in Iceland) and entry was free. I took the bus, then walked up hill, the rain having stopped a while ago.

Contrary to my earlier impressions,
Perlan was very nice. There's a geyser simulator inside (which becomes annoying after a while, to be quite honest). The Saga Museum was 800 kr,
(about ú7), a bit steep for what seemed to me to be a dispaly of wax Vikings set up to fleece gullible tourists. The cafÚ was good, though, and the photo exhibition, A Day in the Life of Sweden, was excellent.

None of this, though, compared to the views. The skies were clearing, and the view of late-afternoon Reykjavik were stunning in every direction; even the domestic airport at the base of the hill looked good. I knew i had to go out onto the observation deck to take photos. Then, on the other side of the revolving doors, the windchill hit.

Ground-level Iceland is way better than Iceland at altitude. The windchill out atop these tanks on the hill was murder. I rushed back inside, put on my rain jacket, and went back out to take
photos. I should have brought gloves.

Out on the observation deck I asked two teenage girls to take my picture. It turned out they were Latvians who were now living there. They told me they liked life there, though they thought that Icelanders were racist as they did not like Russians. (The girls were part-ethnic Russian.) When I could take the cold no more, I bid them farewell, went inside for more tea, and got off the hill to catch a bus downtown.

In the end I walked to Laugavegur; I don't have the patience to wait for twice-hourly buses. I got downtown in just over a half-hour. I found a late-opening bookshop-cum-coffeeshop, and went in. I didn't buy anything, not even tea; the barista has dropped her mobile phone and I put it back together for her, and she was very nice to me after that. I drank tap water with lemon--nobody drinks the bottled stuff here, and they're proud of it--and read Foreign Policy. I asked her where I could get a Bj÷rk postcard and she gave me a free Bj÷rk poster, from her new album. (No postcards were forthcoming, though.)

I made my way to Kaffeebarinn. (Literal translation on name: "Coffee Bar".) I had a cappuccino there the day before, and I decided to see if Bj÷rk would show up at "the coolest bar in all of Iceland." At 10:30 pm, I sat at a table by myself drinking earl grey tea. (The barman later gave me a free cafÚtiere refill.) I later shared my table with some art students, who had to do a project on minimalist art. I gave them an idea--a tape playing a constant sound in a uniform-dimensioned room--and they, surprisingly went with it. Minimalism is not my favourite art movement, but to these students I seemed to be an expert. Unfortunately before they could buy me some super-expensive alcohol I had to leave them to catch the last bus back to the hostel .

So. That was Day 2. The third day brings the Golden Circle tour, with the majestic Ůingvellir, the view of which alone is worth a return trip. I have not seen even a photograph of anything else
like it, and I could spend days hiking all over it. Anyway, all of you must be tired of me by now, so I'll scurry off.

Friday, October 08, 2004

ReykjavÝk Diary: Day 1

The introductory video on Icelandair flights begins with telling you that their service begins when you buy your ticket. Well, Iceland sort-of began for me on the aircraft, when I noticed how mature the flight attendants were. As a sort-of analogy, British Esquire writer Tim Moore says that in other countries getting on TV involves years of slaving before you get an entry-level break, whereas in Iceland, because of the small population, all you have to do is fix your hair, walk down the street and you're set. On this flight was somewhat similar. Flight attendants are expensive to train, and given the requirements (e.g. speaking Icelandic) are probably hard to replace. Because of this, regardless of what turmoil hits the airline industry Icelandair staff probably have little reason to fear for their jobs, and some clearly could work into their fifties. The flight attendants were pleasant, but they seemed distant, like a lot of Icelanders I was to meet over the next four days.

I was unable to sleep on the flight (I am almost never able to sleep while flying) and I saw the rain begin on the approach into Keflavik airport; it barely stopped for the next three-and-a-half days. This may be diificult to conceive, but Keflavik's terminal is beautiful, with stone cladding and nice wood finishing--very good Nordic design. It's a pleasant place to wait on a flight, as I understand many Scandinavian airports are.

The coach into ReykjavÝk is expensive, though it dropped me at the youth hostel, my home for the next three nights. Nice building, good facilities, expensive breakfast. I couldn't check in until 2 pm (it was just after 9 am), so, in order to fight jet lag I bought a 48-hour tourist card at reception and ventured downtown in search of museums; the rain made me not want to walk around outdoors much.

On the bus to downtown I asked for directions to the National Gallery. They thought I was asking for the National Museum so we went straight past it. I ended up at the University of Iceland--down the street. At the National and University Library, which, despite its austere exterior was very nice inside (a recurring theme in the capital), I sent email to friends, had my second cup of tea for the day and bought a poster. I then departed for the National Museum, across the street.

The first thing to be said about ReykjavÝk is that it looks (but is not quite) very, very spaced out, and the dearth of trees does not help. The university campus does not look like much, and being right next to the domestic airport does not help. The never-ending rain also did not help brighten things as you move from building to building. In addition, in the vast windswept streets I did not notice any umbrellas; later on I would only see tourists with them, and they quickly learnt their lesson.

The National Museum was impressive, though I was only able to face it after drinking a large pot of tea in its cafe. (Oddly, coffee does not keep me up, but tea does.) The interactive displays were almost more interesting than the artifacts, telling you about the history of Iceland and how it became united and then submitted itself to the authority of the Norwegian (later Danish) king, and later on about the violent Reformation and later independence from Denmark. For a small, underpopulated place, Iceland has a lot of history, a lot of it very, very violent. If you look at them today, though, Icelanders seem to be so reticent as to be incapable of it.

I got lost in the rain looking for the National Gallery, and when I finally found it there was a function in progress. Joy. So I walked around Lake Tj÷rnin to the modern Rňdhus, or City Hall. Nice building, with an amateur photo exhibition and a very large relief map of Iceland in the foyer. It was here that I started to realise that Iceland has, in large part, surrendered itself to tourism. Every tourist destination has racks of very informative free leaflets, guidebooks and maps not of where you are (there were none of those) but of ReykjavÝk and all ofIceland. As you walk around more it seems as if you could book tours from any little shop. It was not tacky, but made the place seem a little less exclusive.

After another 2 cups of tea I left the Rňdhus and took a walk to the Hafnarhus, part of the ReykjavÝk Art Museum, stopping for a pylsur (hot dog) on the way. The stuff in there mostly did not impress me--Icelandic artist Errˇ's political works were an exception. The posters in the shop were cool, though. (To the uninitiated, I collect museum exhibition posters, even for shows I haven't seen.) I then made my way back to the National Gallery, having another pylsur along the way. On the way I walked past an excellent outdoor photo exhibition on contemporary Icelanders as well as the Al■ing (parliament--pronounced Althing). Unlike its previous location at Ůingvellir, the present day Al■ing, while pretty, does not look like a great seat of power.

The National Gallery is very small, with only four exhibition rooms. The art was quite good, though; the shop less so. It was in that shop that I bought the single most expensive poster I have ever gotten--1500 kron˙r, about US$20. Exhibit posters are normally good bargains, and Iceland was proving to be an exception.

After leaving the gallery I made my way to the main street, Laugavegur, which was kind of quiet. I returned to the hostel after buying postcards and stamps. (in this small country, stamps are more expensive than postcards, it must be said.) In my hostel room I met Marco, a German who was in Iceland for 4 weeks to, well, teach German. Marco was typical Deutsch--very fastidious and precise. He was nice, though, and he accompanied me to the swimming pool next door. Unlike him, I had no intention of swimming; I just wanted to sit in a hot tub, and the public pools are one of the new cheap things to do Iceland. (Free entry, as for the museums and for bus travel earlier, was included with my tourist card.)

First, though, you had to shower.

I had read about this in my (excellent) Footprint guide, and experienced it both in Stockholm and at the Blue Lagoon on the way out, but you still have to prepare yourself for stripping and bathing naked in front of others. No one pays attention (well, almost no one; more shortly) but it takes some getting used to, especially as there are attendants to make sure that you used the (free) body shampoo and cleansed the designated areas on your body. (Water is untreated and unclorinated inIceland--everyone boasts about how pure it is--and that's why you must bathe with shampoo.) Still, the pool was nice, with the heat compensating for the rainy, cold day.

While sitting in the hot pot, a man entered and started to watch me intensely, not with interest, but sort of like a scientist examining a new and previously unseen specimen. I paid it no mind, really. Later on, after the post-pool shower, the man walks up to me and starts talking in Icelandic. I protest in English that I don't speak the language, and then he asks me in English where I am from. I tell him the Caribbean. "Ah!" he says. He tells me of his visit to West Africa, and that I look very different to them. I explain that, with some mixing and adaptation I am the descendant of West Africans. "How can that be," he days, "you look so different". I repeat explanation. Then he starts getting nostalgic about a time years ago when Iceland had few tourists. (?)

He was sort-of pleasant, but I was tired of being an anthropological specimen. I fled to the hostel in a light drizzle, to read and sleep. It had been a long 36 hours.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Redirect . . .

Since January I've been posting over at Bonoboland with the result that I've been neglecting this blog. I've tried to do it as a clean break, with more emphansis on good writing. I am sorry that I've been deliquent in informing you all.

Friday, December 26, 2003

God Jul
G÷tt Nyar ┼r

Happy Christmas to all, and all the best for 2004.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The Autumn of Our Discontent

We interrupt the silence for this unscheduled announcement by, of all people, George Monbiot:

In Paris, some of us tried to tackle this question in a session called "life after capitalism". By the end of it, I was as unconvinced by my own answers as I was by everyone else's. While I was speaking, the words died in my mouth, as it struck me with horrible clarity that as long as incentives to cheat exist (and they always will) none of our alternatives could be applied universally without totalitarianism. The only coherent programme presented in the meeting was the one proposed by the man from the "League for the Fifth International", who called for the destruction of the capitalist class and the establishment of a command economy. I searched the pamphlet he gave me for any recognition of the fact that something like this had been tried before and hadn't worked out very well, but without success. (Instead I learned that, come the revolution, the members of the Fourth International will be the first against the wall, as they have "obscured the differences" between Marxism and its opponents.)

It seems to me that the questions we urgently need to ask ourselves are these: is totalitarianism the only means of eliminating capitalism? If so, and if, as almost all of us profess to do, we abhor totalitarianism, can we continue to call ourselves anti-capitalists? If there is no humane and democratic answer to the question of what a world without capitalism would look like, then should we not abandon the pursuit of unicorns, and concentrate on capturing and taming the beast whose den we already inhabit?

Well, at least he's thinking.

In somewhat related news, Birkbeck, my humble college, is on Malet Street--protest central. SOAS, right across Torrington Square, is the London student antiwar/anti-Bush HQ. The question of the week is "Are you marching on Thursday?" Bloomsbury is generally a quiet part of the city, but today there were a lot of police about, outnumbered by protestors, who have already begun to gather.

Nevertheless, I wonder what the point of it all is. Maybe I am just being consequentialist, but, given that the theme of the protest is "Stop Bush", what outcome are the protestors seeking? I am not questioning the right to protest, but, given that the "biggest protest in history" in February did not work (it was supposed to stop the war, was it not?) what can the protestors achieve other than registering their disapproval, something the powers that be already take as given? Maybe the security cordon, the resources spent on it, the disruption to the lives of Londoners and the cancellation of events count for something, but does that really affect the outcomes they say they care about? To my mind, the protestors are getting fulfilment by protesting, irrespective of whether that makes a difference.

Given my general dissapproval of what the aforementioned Monbiot calls the "global justice" movement, I'm avoiding Malet street until 6pm, when I have an econometrics lecture. (I'll be at work in Islington all day anyway.) The protestors will have long left by then.

Friday, October 31, 2003


Burning the candle at both ends, I'm afraid. Among other things I've had the flu for the past week, which is not helped by working all of my scheduled shifts compounded by the four hour nights of sleep that I have to do to fit all of my reading in. (I am a slow reader.) Anyway, no one wants to hear this; they'd rather have something substantive. Here goes.

In June of this year Britain's main competition regulator, the Office of Fair Trading, launched an inquiry into an alleged tuition-fee cartel at independent (i.e. private) schools. An odd choice of target, perhaps, but the OFT has a wide remit, and can look into any market activity. The investigation is still ongoing, and it reminds me about some thoughts I had on school vouchers. I first read about vouchers in Milton Friedman seminal book Capitalism and Freedom, and I since then I've thought they are a fantastic idea. The questions I have relate to the process of their implemetation. Unless educational outcomes decline appreciably, vouchers are unlikely to be implemented in anything approaching an economist's ideal. What happens if the political/bureaucratic process falls short?

Incentives matter in any market; under a full voucher system, what incentive will there be for parents to the get the best value for money in their children's education? How "fungible" would a voucher be? In the limited voucher schemes that have been tried in the US, the problems are partly dealt with by partly by eligibility restrictions ("failing" schools, for instance) and incomplete funding. Incomplete funding looks to be the main solution to this, similar to the moral hazard problem with insurance contracts, but even with a compensating tax cut a political argument would develop against this on equity grounds. Such criticism has already been levelled against a current British Conservative Party proposal for a "School's Passport" (vouchers in all but name). As with current British university tuition fees, would there be pressure for the government to set a price cap on education? If the voucher is set at a sufficiently high level, but the vouchers are not fungible to some degree, what incentive will parents have to balance value with cost?

There is unlikely to be an entirely free education "market": schools in a voucher scheme are likely to be heavily regulated, with minimum standards to be met and legal requirements to fulfil for disbursement. Administrators are likely, for instance, to impose a form of rationing besides price, on the grounds of preventing parents of being "priced out" of a particular school. Other areas, especially in rural localities, won't have much scope for choice other than home schooling; how will they handle such a case of monopoly? Parent's could always exit and set up an alternative, for instance, but that depends on fungbility again; how easy will it be for a new school to be recognised? Balancing the civil rights issues (say, for instance, that some parents want to set up a madrassa with state funding) and the procedural hurdles could make this process a long one, making the costs of exit higher.

All of the above are mere thoughts, and I have yet to think about a solution to them and the other issues that could arise. There is a voluminous literature on this, relatively little of which I've read, and there are few real-world experiments on the ground. Vouchers are a beautifullly simple idea, but I can't help but think that if instituted there is likely to be a cat's cradle of complexity.