Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Jamón Ibérico

You´ll have to excuse the lack of activity of late, between posting on the wonderful new MATBlog and moving into a new house, I´ve been a bit busy. So here´s a post that appears there too:

Madrid is the roadworks capital of the world. The just keep digging the place up everywhere you go, without distinction between rich neighbourhoods or poor. They just absolutely love opening holes in the ground, producing endless old jokes about digging for treasure. After a six week working trip back home, I got back here to discover they´d changed roads after actually finishing something for once - Jacometrezo Street. After dodging construction teams every day on the way to work for 9 months, there was something weird about the street.

Not that it was finished. Not that I could sit outside at the cafe without an accompaniment of drills and wolf-whistling mustachioed Ecuadorians. But that the street was exactly the same. Same arrangement, same traffic lights, same underground parking. Everything exactly the same. I stood about trying to work out what they´d actually spent 12 months doing. Then it clicked. What they´d done was change it from a flat, pot-hole free, perfectly adequate tarmac road to a brick road. According to the sign the Ministry for Economic Stimulus put up, they´d spent 2 million euros, countless interruptions to residents and business to change the aesthetic of the place.

The more you walk around, the more you can see that the PSOE´s 11bn stimulus has just been thrown in the appropriate directions to keep people working. No attempt to do anything of any actual use with it. Just keeping the construction industry from entirely collapsing. There´s clearly some serious pork going on, something that occasionally gets the PSOE in trouble, like with the general strike it provoked in Lebrija this February. Basically people pissed off in a tiny town near Sevilla were protesting that the state money being distributed through the trade unions was only going to members of the CC.OO and the UGT (the PCE and PSOE´s pet unions respectively).

The weird thing though is that aside from this incident Spain despite suffering a bigger rise in unemployment than all of the other countries in Europe put together, now topping the Eurozone league with 18.1% (a combination of historical high levels in the South, and the complete collapse of the two major industries, auto manufacture and construction), has experienced virtually no significant unrest. A handful of small strikes, some very specific problems in the North (related to the PNV losing the last round of elections there - largely due to extensive gerrymandering), and that aside the government has basically got a pass on the state of the place.

I read an interesting article a little while ago that shed some light on why this was. Spanish people have much bigger social networks that are insulating them from the recession. When people lose their jobs they´ve got a wider safety net based on large interconnected families. Young people especially tend to live with their parents until they´re much older.

But the flipside of this is that it becomes self-defeating circle. Employers continuously abuse the internship/apprenticeship system by hiring people just to fill regular positions, paying salaries that are impossible to live off in urban areas (often 600-700 euros a month), which people accept, because they can, which in turn means they never have any motivation to leave home and demand good housing and decent paying jobs.

Additionally, Spain, a European frontier state these days, has managed to avoid problems related to its large immigrant population (the largest group in Madrid is Ecuadoreans and nationally Moroccans), large numbers of whom came over to work in the burgeoning construction industry. The report put this down to several things. Firstly, the tendency of migrants to pack up and go home when the work dries up (one of the rarely mentioned aspects of the economic migration phenomena is that it´s self-regulating, peak migration tends to coincide with high employment), and secondly Spain´s massive black market.

Far more so than the UK, which has a fringe black market economy, small enough to be mostly contained in small enclaves. Spain has a thriving, publicly unavoidable parallel economic system, which keeps millions of people without recourse to conventional economic means afloat during the recession. Walk through almost any major Spanish city and it´s obvious; movable bazaars dot the street, brothels dot otherwise respectable streets, people wander into bars with lighters, tissues (bizarrely) or a wide variety of flashing tat to sell.

Weirdly enough all of this was supposed to disappear with European integration and modernisation. But the Spanish miracle was based on housing prices, selling land all along that massive and beautiful coast of theirs, the Marbella-zation of the whole country. The export of land got to such a point that whole communities were dominated by ex-pats to the extent that they were electing ex-pat mayors and the DWP now has a big branch in Madrid.

With that market completely collapsing (see the ITV documentary on the subject recently), Spain has fallen back on old habits; patronage, kinships networks and black markets; to keep people´s head above water.

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