Thursday, January 27, 2011

State of the Spanish

As an outer space explorer I descended on 2011 Spain expecting a country, as described in the US press, devastated by crisis, tottering in financial morass, beset by hordes of unemployed beggars in the streets.

Arriving in Barajas Airport, a messy collection of the super-modern and 1960s constructivism, nothing much felt changed from a year ago: the lights were dimmed to save energy, but the unending way from plane to baggage collection is speeded by extensive rolling walkways. Baggage carousels were all functional, and the bags arrived in a reasonable 10 minutes after passport controls. I was struck by a new sense of purposefulness: the usually sleepy police passport stampers were crisp and polite, almost no lines cluttered the vast halls. Customs were perfunctory and, once outside, taxis were immediately available, next to several municipal transportation buses. The weather was cold but sunny, some remnants of morning fog visibly melting away.

Traffic on the urban highways to downtown was brisk, the small cars buzzing along into their particular hive of business. At mid-morning the cafeterias did not lack their usual customers, as Spaniards are habitually imbibing small cups of coffee when they get fed-up with whatever they have started doing at 9 am.

All-in all, a picture of familiarity. But Madrid breathes a renewed air of efficient competency. The streets are well groomed, abundantly provided with urban furniture, well marked bike paths, glass bus shelters, freshly painted pedestrian crossings. Most buses run on natural gas. The extensive subway system is clean, on time and very affordable. Escalators, a frequent harbinger of disruption when non-functional, hummed contentedly moving 3 million travelers per day.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the landscape of a modern European city, Madrid is composed of residential high-rises, a product of fifty years of uninterrupted building activity, around the centuries-old city core. The spindly construction crane had become the landmark of post-Franco democratic Spain, and its disappearance has quieted the urban picture, signaling the most obvious symptom of recession. New construction, except for Government supported public works, has stopped.

The Socialist government, now eight years in power, has used all the capitalist tools on hand to sustain the economy, battered by the collapse of the real estate bubble and by the bond traders, in the wake of Greece’s and Portugal’s difficulties. Several stimulus programs, aimed at improving infrastructure, are visible in Madrid and outside of it. Sharp cuts in civil service salaries, reduction in elected officials’ entitlements, and, now underway, a broad dialogue between unions, business leaders and the Government with a view to raise the retirement age, entitling workers to full pensions after 40 years of work, in exchange for more flexible employment regulations.

Investments in the public health system are being increased. It is generally recognized that the present health care is almost on par with France’s and that the best equipped hospitals belong to the single-payer Government-run network. There is also a private health insurance system, but there seems to be agreement that the public system provides the best care available.

The result is an outward picture of normality. Last year 53 million visitors came to Spain, eight million to Madrid. Hotel prices have fallen by as much as 20%, and occupancy has increased as a result.

Restaurants and bars are full, and I am told that night-life is booming. Downtown, around the Puerta del Sol, the commercial and shopping hub of the city, the usual crowd of shoppers and layabouts commingle. This area tends to seediness, because of the very old buildings and the heavily used facilities. But now Apple is installing there their first retail store in downtown, and Galerias Preciados, the largest department store in Spain and the fourth largest retailer in Europe, holds increasing sway over the street that bears its name.

The present crisis seems to be providing impetus to rationalization and increased productivity, as well as diversification of the Spanish economy. The country looks better than it did a year ago, and although the mood in the street is gloomy, the average citizen does not seem overly depressed. Everybody talks about “the crisis” and their reduced spending power, but tries to carry on as usual.

Nevertheless, in spite of generally competent management of the crisis, the polls predict that the Socialist party seems headed for defeat in the 2012 elections. We shall see.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Mayor for our time

In Madrid, Spain, twenty five years ago, Dr. Enrique Tierno Galván died on January 19th. He was a Marxist scholar, university professor, sociologue, lawyer and writer. During the last years of the Franco regime he organized a political party, the Popular Socialist Party (or PSP) whose membership almost exclusively consisted of lawyers, civil servants and some businesspeople, all living in one of the most affluent districts of Madrid. Whether the irony was intentional, he did not say.

The PSP later was absorbed into the mainstream Socialist Party, and, in the first municipal elections in 40 years, in 1979 Dr. Tierno became the first Socialist mayor of Spain’s capital, Madrid, until his death of cancer in 1986.

During those six years he became the most beloved character in the new political firmament: among politicians who feigned gravitas and knowledge, he always addressed the people with a twinkle in his eye, and mischievousness on his lips. His public pronouncements, or “Bandos” announcing new regulations or just admonitions, are couched in high classical Spanish, cloaking the underlying informality of purpose. At a time when the fledgling democracy was hesitatingly and haltingly stepping out into the minefield of governance Dr. Tierno lovingly reminded his listeners to remain flexible in spirit and to remember to smile through the tribulations.

When the Pope visited Madrid this Marxist stoic rationalist greeted him in latin. To define who had the right to be Madrileño, he said: “To live in Madrid is to be of Madrid.” His sense of humor oscillated from the surrealist to the streetwise laconic. Standing in front of the TV cameras next to a young actress suffering from a complete “wardrobe malfunction”, Tierno keeps a straight face with a broad guffaw in his eyes.

He was called “the old Professor” by the young cohorts who followed him with delight. His political enemies and some of his friends feared and envied his ready and wise tongue. As a journalist said recently: “He tickled us when we needed it badly.”

Dr. Tierno’s burial was a multitudinous affair. He was carried, again ironically, in a pompous black carriage, drawn by six black horses, carapaced and beplumed in black. Only the people surrounded his casket, no police or security were needed along the way, over three miles, to his resting place.

A man looks for the moment where he may best fit into the stream of life. Dr. Tierno found his avocation and filled a providential role at the exact time when he was needed. He is now timeless and an example to us all.

Education and the Saratoga Film Forum

Our local jewel, the Saratoga Film Forum recently screened the controversial film “Waiting for Superman”, that has been playing to ecstatic audiences all over the country. Authored by Davis Guggenheim who directed “An inconvenient truth”, in which Al Gore displays his findings in relation to man-made climatological and environmental change, this film tackles the insufficiencies of our education system. Fiercely dogmatic, after highlighting how our present system of public education fails our children, the film proposes various forms of charter schools as the remedy.

As it became known that the film would be shown, and that discussion forums would follow the screenings, demand for seats skyrocketed, and in addition to the usual three screenings in a week, an unusual Saturday screening and an extraordinary second screening on Sunday afternoon was added.

Over 500 people crowded the Dee Sarno theater over the week-end, and the panels had to address many questions thrown at them by passionate parents with children in the Saratoga Springs schools.

But what really struck me was the generally complacent responses of the panelists, from Janice White to David Patterson. They reassured the audience that the problems outlined in the film were not our problems, but inner-city dissonances that, thank Heaven, did not apply to our panglossian reality in Saratoga Springs.

The corporate world, the film seems to say, is willing to underwrite primary and secondary education, pouring oodles of money to subsidize desired results and unburdening the taxpayer. Bill Gates himself was interviewed several times to explain how the future of this nation as a first rate power is being undermined by the poor outcomes of our public education system.

Most remarkable were the facts that the film did not mention, as they might detract from the passionate attacks on teachers’ unions, school administrators and the tenure system.

In my opinion we are losing sight of the goal that a public system of education was meant to achieve. Bismarck, in the beginnings of the German empire in the 1840’s pointed to the need of bringing together the children of different classes, ethnicities and geographical areas to forge a sense of common purpose and destiny. This, more than ever, still applies today in these United States. “E pluribus unum”, out of many, one.

As Dr. Michael Stanford, of Suny Buffalo, in the audience on Sunday evening, reminded us: “Education is a revolutionary activity.” Forging unity and a civic discourse, embracing all components of our diverse and splintered nation into a coherent and forward looking entity, seem, in the present political climate, truly revolutionary endeavors.

This vision is not served if the educators are allowed to attend only to those communities that will be high-performing, abandoning the considerable percentage of children of deprivation to inferior financing and lackadaisical methodologies.

It may well be that in order to serve all needs more money will be needed than we have been so far willing to earmark for education. But are we really willing to abandon another slice of the civic realm to corporate money and interests.?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy 2011! a homily for the new year.

You, and I, have woken up today and are living in a year with a new label: 2011.
As the saying goes, the past is gone, the future is a mystery, we are left with only the present.

But we still believe that the future will become present, and that we can shape it by our actions and decisions. Hence the long lists of New Year resolutions, mostly forgotten come January 15th.

The most common resolution probably is to lose weight. Let me challenge you to be more ambitious. Forget changing your body, change your mind.

Open your mind to ideas that you have never before entertained: look at them, grasp them with your mind’s fingers, extract them from the context by which you know them, and look at them in the cold light of your reason.

Better still: talk to the people that you thought alien to you, with whom you think that you have nothing in common. Ask yourself why (and if) there is a distance between you and them. Ask them how they see you. Tell them how you perceive them.

At the end of the conversation you may still be apart, separated by custom and convention, by habits and outlook. But your will be enriched by new insights, by perceptions of their motives that you did not know before.

The Italians coined the word “sprezzatura”. It expresses the public image that we all want to project to others, the spreading of feathers by which we want to show how big and beautiful we are, how fearsome and admirable we are. Shed your own “sprezzatura”, look behind the others’ feathers, and try to understand that the other is moved by most of what moves you, and misunderstands you because of the show that you are putting on.

The Chinese say that your friends hate you for your qualities and successes, and love you for your failings. Try to take this with you into the new Year.