Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our universe, misbegotten.

We are fortunate to have in Saratoga Springs quite a few resources to enrich our lives. The Film Forum is one of them; formed sixteen years ago by a group of enthusiastic friends dismayed by the poverty of films on offer at the malls around the City, and by the lack of a downtown venue for movies, they started renting films from national distributors on 35 mm stock, and discussing what they had just seen in impromptu gatherings.

The miracle is that they are still active, they still show films at the Arts Center three times a week, and their audience is still engaged, interested and faithful.

On Sunday December 19th the Film Forum was showing an Israeli film, “Lebanon”, a first long feature by Samuel Maoz. It attracted an average of 30 people per showing on each of the frigid nights, and a discussion group on Sunday.

“Lebanon” shows the face of war that nobody wants to talk about. The war professionals insist on methodologies, tactics, technologies and leadership. The politicians see war as an instrument of policy and governance. Disdaining the tropes of glory this film brings it down to the individual in battle.

Four twenty year old kids are sitting in a tank, a steel behemoth identified as Rhino, a code name, an enclosure that binds them into a universe, an acting unit. It works out as a metaphor for our own lives: the radio crackles instructions and directions from unknown speakers, from time to time the hatch opens and admits an agent of the outside world, the local commander. Casualties are called angels in the war lingo and dead angels are lowered into their world through that hatch, captured terrified aliens descend into it. What the four soldiers see is limited by the electronic gun sight; unlike aircraft pilots they can see and amplify the faces of the people they have to shoot at, as well as the havoc that spreads from their fingertips on the trigger.

This universe is dark and dirty and self-contained. The steel enclosure provides its inhabitants with a measure of invulnerability. They carry with them, in cans or at their feet, all their bodily fluids. The floor of the tank is covered in dark liquids, of uncertain depth, punctuated by swaying cigarette butts. The certainty of death floats in the air they are breathing: a tank does not break down, it either burns up, or it drives.

And yet this universe, constrained, filthy, uncertain, and distorting is their home; their enemies, the world outside. The voice over the radio is their link to it; it is a lifeline over which they receive instructions, orders, information, from some unknown dimension, punctuated by an archangel’s arrival, often as confused as they are, but willing sense out of their chaotic situation.

During the few hours of transit through an unknown hell the boys forge themselves into a family, a squabbling, mourning and living world that includes us, the voyeurs watching them through the director’s camera view. The hostile outside world is impossible to decipher, the enemies look like themselves, the information given is of doubtful meaning, the value of their designated friends is uncertain.

A paradise is promised at the end or their ordeals, an objective at the end of the road suitably named St. Tropez. But to get there the tank has to rely on its own strengths, alive with hydraulic howls, steely grinds, jerks and uncertain responses to fingers pressing buttons, switches and triggers, the skill of the driver and the unkillable engine, pushed by their collective will to get there alive.

The big question that this film is asking: who has the right to place their own young people into such extreme situations? What doctrine, policy, ideology can justify such havoc, such personal apocalypses.?

War, they say, is hell. But it is a completely man-made hell. Dante could not imagine in his fifteen circles anything that compares to the catastrophes we humans have demonstrated the capability to manufacture.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How is the weather on your planet?

Just because you can do something, does not mean that you should. Just being secret does not make anything interesting.

I have been trying for some weeks to get my head around the Wikileaks thing, and all the furore being whipped up. The way that I see it, nothing that I have read is either unknown, intuited or not boring. The only titillation flowed from the fact that all this verbiage was classified, not meant for general consumption.

A declaration of secrecy very often does not correspond to the content of the document. The power to make anything secret can be irresistible to many, reinforcing their own sense of importance. Claiming to know secrets, and not sharing them, enhances your sense of self. If those secrets then get divulged, the holder feels diminished.

Now we all know that the diplomats’ views on their interlocutors diverged depending on whether their statements were made to the world at large or to their bosses. Is that lying? Who among us has not smiled on somebody that we really hate?. Such are the social compromises that lubricate human interactions. My grandmother used to demand that we do not speak ill of the absent, but who is able to live up to that exalted standard?

When we negotiate a deal among us, each of the parties hopes to have some asset that will ensure the other side’s compliance to our wishes. The whole crux of the matter is that this asset remain secret until the deal is clinched. Why should negotiations between governments be any different? They happen between humans after all.

Suddenly Julian Assange, unknown to most of us, is a celebrity on the strength of millions of words handed to his organization by other people in search of notoriety. Whether the crimes and misdemeanors that he is being charged with are real or manufactured he can hardly be seen as a victim. He must have known that he was making powerful enemies squirm.

To those of you who still believe that conspiracies have been unveiled, or that every last comma of government verbiage is sensational, please let me know how the weather in your planet is behaving at this time.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Should energy efficiency be found only in cars?

Say “carbon pricing” or “cap and trade” and you are likely to be run over with invective in this country.

But that does not mean that the world is standing still. Carbon, in the form of CO2, is priced at present at Euros 22 per ton, and trending upwards. I know of a Spanish company, with an office in Panama, that sells small co-generation energy plants, and smart garbage dumps to developing South American municipalities and governments, and finances the customer by taking over the emission credits earned with the new technologies; then turns around to sell them to electric utilities in Poland.

There is a growing international market for “clean development mechanisms” that enables developing markets around the world to adopt low-emission (carbon footprint) technologies in a variety of fields. Whatever the outcome of the CancĂșn climate conference, it is not expected that this market is going to slow down. The international financial community is actively investing in carbon trading markets. Point Carbon, a Thomson-Reuters company, has just published a report forecasting the continuing growth of demand for emission rights. It also reports that Poland has just sold four million units to the Japanese Government. The demand from Eastern European electrical companies is the main engine for continuing growth of this market.

A report by Ernst and Young, the international management consultants, based on interviews with more than 700 executives, points to a continuity of investment in sustainability processes.

A new website, Shippingefficiency.org, tracks the energy efficiency of more than 65,000 ships the world over. Shipping, as an industry, emits more CO2 than Germany, but is unregulated. The website will make information available to enable shippers to choose the most energy efficient vessels, or some Port Authorities may ban the most contaminating ships from docking. Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, supports such increased market transparency, that could lead to penalize the most contaminating practices of the industry.

The US Congress may want carbon pricing to go away, but the rest of the world is not listening. And money is being made elsewhere.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Upcoming: Black Friday

Black Friday is fast approaching, and the mood in Saratoga Springs is cautiously optimistic. Yesterday I briefly chatted with Marc Strauss, of Mabou memory, while strolling through the Downtown Marketplace, the closest thing to a department store in the city. He owns the place, and the largest retailer in it, Pangea. Marc commented that business was picking up, and if the next six weeks held up as expected, it would be a good year. This sentiments were echoed by other merchants on Broadway.

The rate of sales tax collections as presented by the Finance Commissioner last week are also pointing to a steady pace of business.

Is this extensive to the whole of the Capital area? Not according to Mr. Strauss: “We have built a moat around Saratoga Springs.”

The metaphor is bit too defensive for my taste, redolent of Maginot line rhetoric. But it points to the fact that Saratoga Springs downtown has built a business model that seems to hold up in these lean times. Residents complain that nothing of their everyday needs is being offered on Broadway, that the trade is geared towards the tourist, the transient, the visitor. Still we meet acquaintances and friends every day strolling on Broadway, either to do banking, sip coffee, have a meal or on the way to somewhere else.

Maybe Saratoga Springs can be modeled on what Germany has been doing in the world economy. With strong unions, high labor costs and an extensive social network Germany has outcompeted its way to becoming the second exporter in the world (after China). How? By concentrating of educating its population, and enabling them to produce real material goods known by quality and advanced design that can command a premium in world markets. Can Saratoga become a premium destination by offering a unique shopping experience in quality and design?

Parking is still mainly a summer issue. Nowadays open slots along Broadway’s sidewalks are easy to find, sometimes even right in front of our destinations. Should the City move to some form of paid parking? This is not a question that should be deferred, because any finite resource in growing demand needs some form of allocation method. It can be done intelligently and the Downtown Business Association should participate in its design and administration. Surely offering parking facilities close to their storefronts is in the merchants’ interest.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Budget debate in Saratoga Springs

You would think that budgets are about money. Really?. Last Sunday the New York Times put online a new game. It asked the players to become politicians and slash the deficit, enumerating their preferred places to cut or increase budgets by filling in little squares, grouped in chunks of 100 billion dollars.This game invites us common mortals to step into the minefield of our convictions. Now we are asked to play like the big boys.

During the election campaign -now, thank God, behind us- the goading MLM (main line media) journalists liked to embarrass candidates by pressing them to state where they would cut the local, state and federal budgets to flesh out their assertions. Then they feigned surprise at hearing back generalities, platitudes and impossibilities.

A budget is an edifice of assumptions and choices; the assumptions evaluate the present state of affairs and its evolution (try to do that eschewing ideology!), and then make the choices of resources that have to be employed to achieve the overarching desired results. Which goes to show that there is no such thing as a non-political budget. We have to rewrite the slogan into “it is the politics of the economy, stupid.”

At our local level most of us will look at the one figure: what decisions have been made about the property tax rate. We call it “the bottom line”, a distillation of magnitudes into one simple, understandable number; we disregard the rest, the steps that lead to that result, as chaff and at our own peril.

Because the budget is above all a statement of intentions, a program, a blueprint of where the imagination of the people putting the figures together aims to take the community. Fleshed out, it should provide a narrative of the future.

In Saratoga Springs there is only one budget officer: the Finance Commissioner. The agents of the 2001 Charter Revision, no doubt in thrall to the continued failure of the Albany legislators to provide the State of New York with a timely budget, inserted the requirement that if the five Commissioners could not reach an agreement on the yearly budget before November 30th, the budget presented by the Finance Commissioner would become law, making him the most powerful person on the City Council. This escape clause did provide last year a spending blueprints without the approval of the full Council. The legislators refused to legislate.

So the City’s finances have been in default mode, freeing each Commissioner from the disciplined constraint of a negotiated agreement, and leading to piecemeal ad-hoc discrete decisions that will, in time, come home to haunt us.

It is also true that a very large part of the City’s expenditures are determined by State and Federal mandates, some of them unfunded, as well as by New York State procedural requirements.

Previous administrations had worked to write procedural manuals with detailed handbooks and nomenclatures with a view to create a bedrock of consensus on which to build each year’s budget; this excellent work seems to have been set aside, replaced by obfuscation and short term reaction-ary short term poultices. Deficits are announced and disappear at will, money is found in unexpected places, rainy-day funds are raided repeatedly and exhausted. The Finance Commissioner emerges as an all-conquering hero, wrestling with intractabilities like Laocoon and his serpents.

On the other hand, modest man that he is, never boasting of “the vision thing”, he has been filing all along with the State Comptroller a long term budget projection, as required by law and common sense.

Who knew?