Thursday, September 16, 2010

But I'm Just Being Edgy!

I think the time has come to make a distinction between using "dark humor" and just being a dick. You see, one of the top news stories today is that lawyer Bragi Björnsson, addressing law students at the University of Iceland during a discussion on human trafficking, made a joke of sorts. When the discussion turned to the case of a Lithuanian woman who had been tricked into a life of prostitution in Iceland but managed to escape to the police, he quipped, "If I may use some dark humor, it's probably the dream of all women to get a free haircut, make-over, and be sent on a surprise vacation."

It's a pretty bad joke, and not just because it manages to belittle women and victims of human trafficking, but also because Bragi's excuse for making the joke is a really tired one that needs to be addressed: "We Icelanders often use irony and humor to deal with less than fun situations."

OK, well, first of all, this isn't his situation. It's hers. If she wants to make light of it and make fun of it, she's welcome to. Although she'd probably run the risk of offending others who are or have been slaves, she's at least a bit more entitled to laugh it off than a lawyer in a first-world country.

Second, he explained that it's hard for us, as Icelanders, to accept that these terrible things happen here. That's why he made the joke. Wait what? Then why did he make light of her situation; not Iceland's?

This is what's called "humor of privilege" - laughing down at people in worse situations than you are or ever will be. It's arrogant, cruel and snide. And when people who use humor of privilege are called out on it, the response is usually something like "I'm politically incorrect" or "I'm a dark and edgy person" or, my personal favorite, "You need a sense of humor."

This isn't humor, though. It's just mocking people who are worse off than you are. And if Bragi had any sense of integrity - especially as a lawyer who's defended human traffickers - he'd admit he misspoke and apologize accordingly.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Why Church and State Need to Separate in Iceland

For a long time, I've avoided this topic. Partly out of the fact that I grew up in a country with an official separation of church and state, but a great many churches actively involved in politics. One of the supposed upshots of a national church is that it sates the clergy with a sense of power, so they don't try to become activists. However, I think the national church of Iceland resides in a power limbo, exerting political influence and held together by a contradiction and a falsehood - that Icelanders want their taxes to pay for the church, but that they couldn't survive on donations alone.

About 65% of Icelanders are in favor of separation of church and state, according to a poll conducted by the Humanist Society in 2006. 43% said they never go to church. The next highest percentage - 17.4% - go two to three times a year. 15.9%, once a year [PowerPoint report]. The church would drastically shrink if it had to exist on donations alone. And when the bishop of Iceland alone makes nearly a million kronur per month, that's just not going to happen, even if registration has been steadily dropping.

And so the church fights to maintain the lifestyle that it's accustomed to. When the government says it intends to reduce their state revenues by 9%, the church makes a conditional counter-proposal of 5%. This is at a time when social programs across the board have had to take serious hits in the budget, so naturally, this makes people upset. For the church, which is given close to 5 billion ISK a year from the government, to say that they cannot handle a 9% decrease is ridiculous.

But the church contends that it is an independent body in a legal contract with the Icelandic government, and therefore has the right to negotiate terms. They also point out the charity work that's done under the church as another reason why taking a cut would be out of the question. And there's no question that the church does provide charity work.

But the state also provides the same social services the church does, so there's no reason why the funding of the church couldn't just be kept within government social services, which would in turn go directly towards the people who need them without an additional set of salaries subtracting funding from them. There'd still be nothing stopping the church from continuing to provide charities, as well as spiritual guidance (arguably the sole function of a church in a social democratic society).

And then there've been a few recent matters that've come up.

While the issue of gay marriage actually saw some clergy in full favor of the measure, it shouldn't be forgotten that the church still fought the passage of this law. Sure, that's fine. Not every Icelander has to fall in line and obey the word of the parliamentary majority. But it is odd for an organization, while living on tax money and declaring themselves to be a non-political body, to get politically involved in resisting the shaping of legislation. If it weren't for the billions the church gets from the state - if they were supported solely by their congregation - it's doubtful their opinion of gay marriage would carry as much weight.

Still, not a terribly extreme example. What is, however, disturbing is the church position when it comes to sexual assault within its walls. When a former bishop's daughter - with the support of the Feminist Society of Iceland - encouraged the church to come clean about cases of sexual assault involving clergy, church officials became very tight-lipped. Gunnar Rúnar Matthíasson, head of a special committee within the church that oversees incidences of sexual abuse within the congregation, would not disclose just how many instances of sexual abuse between clergy and members of the congregation have been reported, saying only that there has been more than one. Furthermore, the church's own self-made rule that it would keep such matters to itself is in direct violation of Icelandic law.

So basically, this is what we have:

An institution with little relevance to most Icelanders, whose second-greatest claim of importance (social assistance) is already covered by existing government offices, and costs us billions in precious revenue per year, has not only refused to agree to an exceedingly reasonable budget cut, but also flouts the law itself, despite the fact that most Icelanders no longer want this institution to be a part of their government.

Do understand that I am not anti-Christian. I'm not even anti-Lutheran. I understand that to many Icelanders, the church serves an important purpose in their spiritual lives. There's no reason why it couldn't continue to do that if it were cut free from the state. It is, in any event, what most Icelanders appear to want. The matter should be put to public referendum, and then parliamentary vote.

It's not just about the money. It's about the role of both the government and the church. The national church is an obsolete concept. It's time for the nation to decide where we go from here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Spin Spin Sugar

You may have noticed that there's been a bit of an e-mail malfunction in the Icelandic government. As the Grapevine reported, Political Adviser to the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs Elías Jón Guðjónsson accidentally sent an e-mail to an American journalist instead of to its intended recipient, which is speculated to be Minister of Finance and Leftist-Green chairman Steingrímur J. Sigfússon. This e-mail, in turn, was forwarded to Haukur, our editor.

Now, this has been one of the top stories of Vísir all day. The e-mail itself isn't particularly shocking, as Haukur points out. It's a political operative telling his bosses that he intends to hand a scoop to a journalist they know, in the hopes that the government can guide the discussion about the Magma Energy matter. There is absolutely nothing surprising about this, and you'd have to be pretty naive to think politicians don't plan on how to guide public discussion over an issue.

This leak isn't an indictment on the government, in other words. It's a little behind-the-scenes look at how politicians try to take part in public discourse. It is, however, an indictment on the media in this country.

Notice in the e-mail that Elías refers to a certain "Doddi", a journalist who's looking for a scoop. The fact is, every single political party in Iceland has contacts in every media outlet who are journalists sympathetic to their platform. Each party has "their guy" at Fréttablaðið, Rás 1, RÚV and so forth. They conveniently drop scoops in their laps in order to get the jump on other parties, or to get an advantageous position over an issue, sending press releases that their contacts happily copy/paste without the slightest examination of the facts in these communiques.

I should tell you, in the interests of full disclosure, that I know Elías. I like the guy. If he's guilty of anything in this, it's being not good with computers.

The e-mail is a blessing, in a way, as now you - if you didn't already know - can see how politicians have a very close relationship with journalists. I don't know who Doddi is or if he's in the Leftist-Greens, but journalists on a nickname-basis with politicians are often sympathetic to their platform. What's wrong with this is it invites the blatant and unexamined conveyance of party spin under cover of news. Politicians telling their side to journalists - fine. Journalists repeating what they were told, word for word, without digging a little deeper - not so fine.

The Magma Energy issue is one the Grapevine has been diligently reporting on. I think it's pretty obvious to everyone that we're rooting for the ruling coalition here, in the sense that they want to stop the deal, and we want it stopped. If you take anything away from this e-mail, let it be that whenever you see, hear or read a great scoop from a journalist concerning what this or that party says or plans to do, take it with a grain of salt. And read other sources.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Alltaf Fer Ég Suður

Welp, this is going to be the last post until 20 July, as I'm going on vacation. There's a chance I might post in the interim, but don't count on it. I tend to forget about Icelandic news when I'm laying on a beach at the Black Sea.

Anyways, see you all in July. Have a fun summer!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Big Top Packs the Tents

So today was parliament's last day. As to be expected on the last day of work before vacation begins, people were antsy. Plus the last few days of parliament always sees a flood of activity - for example, they were in the building until about six o' clock this morning, and reconvened at eleven the same morning. I'm guessing they napped in their chairs or something.

Anyway, what did they vote on?

Well, one good thing was a resolution calling for greater freedom of expression, and greater protection for so-called whistleblowers who do investigative journalist articles on the rich and powerful. It's a great idea, and one that will hopefully lay the foundation for media and print laws to come.

Also, they voted to create a constitutional committee. This is a Very Big Deal, because this fall, there's going to be a "citizen's parliament" voted in whose job it will be to write a new constitution. Current MPs, alternate MPs, ministers, and the president are all banned from running for a spot in this. The citizen's parliament will go over the constitution, debate, propose changes and such, and then the constitutional committee will draft a new constitution for the country, which could be ready as soon as 2013.

Seeing your country write up a new constitution is pretty huge. But it's also badly needed in Iceland - we can talk about change for the better until we're blue in the face, but if the basic structure of the political system stays the same, so will virtually everything else.

Not that it was all sunshine and roses today in parliament, oh no. It seems a bill to combine several ministries together in order to save money could be in trouble. Many conservatives and Progressives were against it, yes, but so were also three members of the Leftist-Green Party: Jón Bjarnason, Atli Gíslason and Ásmundur Einar Daðason. As the ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Leftist-Greens has 34 of parliament's 63 seats, this bill - despite the fact that it was a part of the government's agreement for working together - is not as solid as it first seemed.

Also, a number of MPs from the Independence Party, the Progressives, and again, Leftist-Green Ásmundur Einar Daðason called for Iceland's application into the European Union to be withdrawn. In fairness to Ásmundur, the original platform of the Leftist-Green Party includes strong opposition to joining the EU, but that changed when they teamed up with the Social Dems. Ásmundur is just old school like that.

Anyway, that's just a bit of what these ladies and gentlemen are up to today. As you can see, it's not an easy job, so if you see one of them outside tomorrow enjoying Independence Day celebrations, offer to buy them a beer or something. They could probably use it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

And Not a Drop to Drink

Parliament is currently drawing to a close, and as I type this, there are ten bills that still need to be voted on. One of them - a seemingly innocuous law on water rights submitted four years ago - has far-reaching ramifications on whether Iceland regards their natural resources as commodities or treasures.

The law, which was submitted in 2006 by the then-ruling coalition of the Independence Party and the Progressives, essentially gives land owners additional ownership of the water within their property boundaries. It's been delayed going into effect three times now and, if not withdrawn, was slated to go into effect at the end of this month. However, parliament voted just moments ago to put the law on ice until the fall, when they'll vote on it. And probably kill it.

As it is now, water belongs to the public, and it seems plenty of people want to keep it that way. A group of protesters gathered outside of parliament yesterday and used buckets to douse the building in water from a nearby pond in order to drive home their point that water should not be privatized. Public outrage over this has gotten to the point where one MP for the Social Democrats practically begged people via her blog to stop sending her emails about it.

Of course, not everyone is against the idea. The Federation of Icelandic River Owners are - surprise! - totally cool with privatizing water.

What's important to keep in mind here is that the very idea of privatizing water - which, to my mind, is sort of like privatizing air or sleep - goes against everything the Leftist-Greens stand for, as well as the Social Democrats. It is highly unlikely that they would support the law, especially with the large public outrage over it, and even the current Independence Party and Progressive MPs don't have the stones to outright support it, saying instead that they want to delay putting it into effect once again.

Which is pretty much delaying the inevitable. Parliament is going to axe this thing. If I'm wrong, I'll buy you a bottle of water.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Eat It, Haters!


So today was a pretty decent day over all. The sun was out, birds were singing, and hm ... what else? Oh yeah, that' right - Iceland's parliament passed a law creating one marriage law for all Icelanders, regardless of sexual orientation.

Yep, that's right. The bill that the national Church of Iceland was so terrified of is now a reality.

So what changed, exactly? Well, long story short, they basically took the existing marriage law that outlines all the goodies you get from being married, and replaced any mention of "man and woman" to "two individuals".

I really have nothing to add to this, except for a special message for the religious leaders of this country who enjoy our tax money while at the same time trying to restrict our human rights:

AHahahahahahahahahhaaahaahahahahhaaahaha!

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

This Is The Song That Does Not End

So today, Dutch financial smart guy Bert Heemskerk told reporters in Holland that they ought to forget about getting all their money back from Icesave.

As I typed this up, I heaved a sigh. You see, unlike most people who just had to hear every armchair economist in the country talk on and on about Icesave, I also had to read news about Icesave and then translate news about Icesave for like, a year or something. I don't know, it's all kind of a blur.

The last I'd heard, the president killed the law that was passed, a public referendum killed it further, and so the government pretty much said, "Welp, guess we better wait until elections in the UK and Holland." And then that was that.

I guess I was hoping we could all just forget about this and then get on with our lives, but apparently, some people get upset when their life savings and pension funds disappear overnight with little hope of seeing that money again.

You might've noticed there are two sides to this. On the one hand, you have people saying that Iceland is bound by international commerce and finance laws within the European Economic Area that compel us to cover a certain amount of those deposits. On the other hand, you have people asking why taxpayers should be covering the losses incurred by bank managers who are all currently walking free and livin' large.

Here's what will actually happen: Icesave negotiations are going to drag on for so long that eventually the UK and Holland are going to accept some sort of partial payment plan that will be like a thin, slow trickle from Iceland's treasury.

Ideally, every bank manager in Iceland should have their assets frozen and sold off, and the proceeds from that should be then given to all the Icesave depositors, but no one invited me to the negotiations table. I'm just one man, people.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sometimes, There Are No Good Decisions

Where Icesave used to be the topic that everyone loves to hate to talk about, it's now the economy. I can honestly say I am glad - no, delighted that I am not in parliament anymore, because whenever the subject of the economy comes up, you'll hear plenty of opinions about what this government is doing, and none of these opinions are good.

Forget the fact that Moody's raised Iceland's rank from Negative to Stable, or that unemployment is decreasing, or that inflation is dropping. It's been a little over a year since the Social Dems and Leftist-Greens took over, and these changes for the better are not enough to satiate most people. In fairness, most people aren't really feeling these changes in their daily lives, and there's still some complicated stuff going on with how to deal with personal loans. But worst of all, the government needs to make more cuts still.

Cue the latest decision from upstairs: Minister of Social Affairs Árni Páll Árnason announced yesterday a salary cap on public employees until the year 2013. His reasoning is it's either salary caps, or people getting fired.

I'm a public employee. My day job is working at an occupational center for disabled people. We're under the Ministry of Social Affairs. Come 2011, we're going to be under the command of the municipal government, and who knows how that's going to go. We've been told it won't be any worse than working for the state. Wow, awesome. That's reassuring.

Anyway, people at work today were pretty upset about the salary cap, and they wouldn't be alone - the Union of Public Servants is frankly furious about this right now.

And that's just the thing. Whenever the government needs to save money, there are two choices: make cuts or raise taxes. Everyone knows this. Yet neither decision is going to make anyone happy. Wherever you cut, or whoever has to pay more taxes, the government is going to get flack for it.

The worst part of all is that the Independence Party - the same guys who trashed our economy - are actually growing in popularity, while support for the ruling coalition is decreasing. The conservatives are still not as popular as the ruling coalition, but come on. It's been a year, people. We're not living the high life by any stretch and we still gotta long way to go, but why would you hand this country back to the people who bankrupted us?

It's like an abusive relationship or something. "He said he was sorry. Maybe this time, he means it." Snap out of it already!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Oh Goodness Me Am I Ever Surprised!

You know, whenever talk of Iceland's economic collapse comes up, sooner or later the name "Davíð Oddsson" is mentioned. This is because this guy was not only Prime Minister of Iceland from 1991 until 2004 - he was also Chairman of the Central Bank from 2005 to 2009. And we all know how that went.

Now, I don't need to tell you Oddsson was featured pretty prominently in the Special Investigative Commission report, where he is shown - in his own words and others' - to be clueless at best and, at worst, in collusion with morals-free bank managers. Oddsson, of course, has always maintained his innocence, which is easy to do when you've been hired by one of the country's most respected newspapers at the behest of its conservative owners to be the new editor shortly after losing your Central Bank job, while dozens of journalists are purged from the ranks.

Anyway, I won't go into what an institution this guy is in Icelandic politics. Suffice it to say there are many people who are genuinely terrified of him. Which is probably why today, state prosecutor Björn L. Bergsson told a parliamentary committee that he sees no reason to initiate a criminal case against Oddsson for his part in the economic crash.

Well color me shocked. And here I am with my quaint notions that the guy in charge of the nation's banks, pre-collapse - whose economic libertarian policies not only shaped the Independence Party but the Icelandic business world, and who depicts himself in the SIC report as being genuinely negligent - ought to at least be brought before a judge.

When will I learn?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Meet Your New Mayor, Reykjavík

It's official now. Jón Gnarr is going to be the next mayor of Reykjavík, Social Democrat Dagur B. Eggertsson is going to be the chairman of city council and, most importantly of all, the conservatives of Reykjavík are going to be benched this term.

I just want to repeat that: the Independence Party are not going to be in the city council majority. They will, instead, be in the opposition. Just like in parliament.

Man that felt good to say. Almost makes me want a cigarette or something. Am I an immature schadenfreude addict? You bet I am.

So what is this going to mean for the city? We don't know yet. But what I can tell you is, the two parties are negotiating their plan for the city, and you can take part in it via the website Betri Reykajvík, and submit your own ideas for what the new majority coalition can do.

Don't understand Icelandic? Don't worry - submit your suggestions in English anyway. In Gnarr's most recent interview with the Grapevine, currently in our new issue, the new mayor not only said he's going to have the website translated into English, he added:

"Every good thing in Iceland has come from abroad. It’s always been like that—it’s what Icelandic culture is made up of, and it’s created a diversity within our society. Ever since the island was settled. Our forefathers most likely came from abroad, you know.

Foreign influence enriches our culture and contributes greatly to creating a harmonious, diverse and multi-layered community. Enriching our culture is a personal ambition of mine, I am a fan of diversity and I abhor uniformity. A diverse community makes for a mature society, which is what we should strive for. "

You hear that? Every good thing in Iceland has come from abroad. Chin up, foreigners - you improve the country!

I gotta say, I have a good feeling about this guy. He might be feeling his way through his tasks, but you can't deny the clarity of his convictions.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Good Idea, Bad Idea

I remember once when I was in parliament, I told a colleague of mine how brilliant I thought the idea would be of ministers not being members of parliament - that those MPs who get voted in, and subsequently appointed to ministerial positions, should surrender their seats in parliament to whoever was beneath them on the list. To me, this seemed like a fine separation of powers. My colleague sort of smirked and shook his head and said, "You know why the Progressives once proposed that? Because they were in the ruling coalition then. Doing that basically puts the ruling coalition in an even stronger position than they already are."

And I realized he was right. There are 63 seats in parliament, 12 of which are ministerial seats. Now imagine that two parties - X and Y - have 35 seats combined and are the ruling coalition. 12 of their 35 seats are ministerial seats. But now, change it so that they have 35 seats in addition to 12 ministerial seats. Even if the ministers cannot vote on legislation, you can't very well prevent them from speaking on submitted bills or otherwise having influence. You can see why any party in the ruling coalition would consider this a good idea.

Well, guess what new bill is being stressed must be made into law now? And hey, big surprise, it's being proposed by one of the parties in the ruling coalition. The Social Democrats are calling for this to be made into law this month.

Interestingly enough, the Progressives are also on board. Great expectations, eh?

Don't get me wrong. I like the ruling coalition and what they're trying to do. I certainly don't think the right would do it much better. But I also don't think adding the proposed ten new MPs, and their subsequent salaries and benefits, is a very good idea. Especially if the right should happen to win next election year, heaven help us.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

E-Government

Most of you are probably aware by now that The Best Party and the Social Democrats have set up this neat little website, Betri Reykjavík, which allows people to give the currently-forming city coalition suggestions and ideas about what matters should be addressed, and how. It's a great idea, in my opinion. But I think we can take this farther.

US president Barack Obama, back when he was running for office and everyone loved him, once proposed that new non-emergency legislation be posted for five days on a special website, where the general public could read and comment on the bills. It was a fine idea, but logistically speaking it was just impossible to execute. We're talking about over 300 million people, for one, and about 10,000 bills are introduced to Congress every year.

However, Iceland has just over 300,000 people, and parliament hardly ever sees more than 200 bills submitted in a given term. We could very feasibly set up such a website here.

Actually, submitted bills can already be viewed online, at the parliament's website. Provided you know how to navigate it, you can see what bills are on the floor, where they are in the committee process, and what members of parliament have put their names to them. The only problem is, the parliament's website is frankly a mess. Something simpler to use - more streamlined and easy to navigate - would be well advised.

In addition, it'd also be a good idea if the gang over at Reykjavík city hall found a way to translate their website into other languages. Or at least into English. Plenty of people living in this town who are working, paying taxes, and otherwise contributing to our community might not have the best grasp of Icelandic, but that doesn't mean they're less worthy of taking part in the discussion of what goes on here.

Anyways, just a thought for Gnarr and company.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pulling the Wool Over Your Own Eyes

While many other parties are now eating humble pie in the wake of last Saturday's elections, it's amazing to see some of the acrobatics politicians are willing to go through in order to make their dismal situation look like a day at Disneyworld.

The Progressives are comically guilty of this right now. Pretty much wiped out in the capital region altogether, with only one councilperson in Kópavogur and another in Álftanes, Progressive MP Guðmundur Steingrímsson recently very correctly asserted that party chairman Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson ought to shoulder at least some of the blame for the party's appalling numbers. And naturally, Sigmundur showed the type of classiness he's famous for.

First, he told reporters that the only explanation for Guðmundur's remarks is that "it must have been some kind of performance on his part", because he can't imagine what would possess him to say such a thing. Oh, certainly. Why should the party chairman himself bear any blame for the party's poor showings in the polls? There's got to be some other explanation.

And Sigmundur had one: the Best Party is to blame, everyone. In an e-mail he sent to party members, Sigmundur said that "the results in Reykjavík disappointed everyone, but when a new campaign upsets the history of elections in the city, other campaigns don't get a chance to be a part of it." Which is pretty weak. Yes, every party in Reykjavík lost support, but Sigmundur acts as though his party's low numbers began with the Best Party. In fact, the Progressives were projected way back in February to lose their one and only seat in Reykjavík city hall - at that time, the Best Party was polling at about, oh, nothing.

Sigmundur then engaged in some mathematical acrobatics, contending that "the Progressives aren't exactly unpopular in the capital area", citing a recent Gallup poll that showed that 25% of residents of one neighborhood in Reykjavík, Grafarvogur, said that they could conceivably see themselves voting for the Progressives. You know, when I was in high school, plenty of girls said they could conceivably see themselves going on a date with me. It almost never happened, which depressed me some, but Sigmundur has shown me that I was actually a very popular guy.

The cherry on top was him saying that plenty of people in the capital area that Progressive staffers spoke to expressed a willingness to vote for the party, but - once again - that darned Best Party got in the way, and they ended up not voting for them.

If Sigmundur saved the energy he spends on making excuses for failure, and used it instead to actually stop using empty populist rhetoric and start actually improving his party, they might get somewhere. I know a number of fine people in the Progressive Party, believe it or not. They have convictions, and a good head on their shoulders. Sigmundur would do well to listen to those who disagree with him, instead of dismissing them as "performers".

Monday, May 31, 2010

And the People Have Spoken

Welp, the results of the municipal elections are in, and as you might expect, all eyes were on Reykjavík. But the municipal elections around the country show some even more interesting trends.

The Best Party - originally created by comedian Jón Gnarr as a parody of Icelandic politics, but then turned into some kind of serious campaign - secured six of Reykjavík city council's fifteen seats. Right now, they're in coalition talks with the Social Democrats, who won three seats. Now, there's been talk that they might be better off teaming up with the Independence Party, but that's really not likely to happen. Yes, the conservatives won five seats, and only garnered 660 fewer votes than the Best Party, but philosophically and ideologically, the conservatives are pretty much the exact opposite of the Best Party.

Which is what made flipping through Morgunblaðið at the bakery today pretty funny. Apart from the headline - "Preparing for Power Grab" - they made it a special point to emphasize that Jón Gnarr hasn't called the Independence Party for coalition talks yet. They emphasized the hell out of that. Why is Morgunblaðið even pretending to be a neutral media source, I wonder? They might as well go ahead and stamp a giant blue eagle on the top of the banner now. Or officially call themselves "Sjallablaðið", the way everyone else does.

Anyway, what's more fun to pay attention to is how things went in the rest of the country.

All of the "big four" parties - the Independence Party, the Social Democrats, the Progressives and the Leftist-Greens - took hits in towns and villages all over Iceland.

The Progressives are finished in the capital area. They're just done. They managed to squeeze one person into Kópavogur town council, and another in Álftanes, but that's it. Nationwide, they secured 10.9% of the vote - down from 14.8% in the 2009 parliamentary elections, and also down from 11.8% in the 2006 municipal elections. I think Einar Skúlason - the Progressives' best chance in Reykjavík - was right when he said trust is something it can take years to earn back. Maybe the Progressives ought to go back to being the agricultural collectivist party from whence they originally came. With anti-EU sentiment running high among Icelanders, that'd certainly have a foothold, especially in the countrside, where the Progressives tend to do better anyways.

The Leftist-Greens took a pretty massive hit this year, too. They lost a seat in Reykjavík city council, but nationwide, their support ranked in at 9.6%. That's right - more people voted for the Progressives than for one of the parties currently in power in parliament. Furthermore, this number is down from 12.6% in the last municipal elections, and also down from 21.7% in last year's parliamentary elections. Personally, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they are in power, but the economy is still crap - last year, when the economy was crappier, they were seen as the guys who were likely to do a better job of running things. And factually speaking, unemployment is slowly dropping, Moody's has raised Iceland's financial ranking to stable, and the International Monetary Fund predicts a balanced budget by 2014. That's pretty remarkable, but isn't yet touching Icelandic homes tangibly enough for people to feel that change is being made.

The Social Democrats also took on losses. While they got about 30% of the vote both in 2006 and 2009, last Saturday they came in at 22.1%. Again, if you want reasons, look no further than the economy.

Now, while the Social Democrat Prime Minister has said that these results indicate the sun setting on the "big four" system, and the Leftist-Green Foreign Affairs committee chairman said everyone should be doing some serious reflection of their platforms, one party was having none of that humility and self-examination talk: the Independence Party.

It's true that the conservatives finished with 37.4% of the vote last Saturday - more than any other party on a national level - and that this figure is up from 23.7% in 2009's parliamentary elections. But we're talking about the Independence Party here. They've been around forever. They're the party of the establishment, and so seeing them plummet to single-digit support within the span of a couple of years after literal decades of control just isn't going to happen.

They are firmly entrenched in a number of municipalities around the country; namely Ísafjörður, Garðabær, Reykjanesbæ and the Westman Islands. They either held or gained their position in all of these towns. However, they also lost Reykjavík, Kópavogur, Akranes, and Akureyri - all large to mid-sized Icelandic towns. Again, within the context of history, this is a real punch in the gut to the conservatives, and they'd do well to stop patting themselves on the back and start thinking up a new game plan.

In any event, in case you missed our election liveblog, you can check it out here. It was a fun night, I have to say. One of those times that makes me proud to be living in Iceland.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Party Animals

The magazine DV has always been one to ask the tough questions, and this election cycle was no exception - they asked all the leading candidates for Reykjavík city council if they've ever tried illegal drugs. Apparently, half of them have smoked hashish, and Jón Gnarr has, in his own words, "tried everything that Barack Obama tried."

Here are some of their responses to the question, "Have you ever tried any other drug apart from alcohol?" (I suppose because having tried alcohol is a given):

Dagur B. Eggertsson, mayoral candidate of the Social Democrats: "No, it's been a principle (of mine not to take drugs) from a young age."

Einar Skúlason, mayoral candidate for the Progressives: "I once tried hash. Did it during a graduation trip from college. Never smoked in my life, so this smoke was difficult. I coughed a lot."

Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, mayor of Reykjavík and mayoral candidate for the Independence Party: "No."

Helga Þórðardóttir, mayoral candidate for the Liberal Party: "No."

Jón Gnarr, mayoral candidate for The Best Party: "I've tried everything Barack Obama has tried," which would be marijuana and cocaine.

Ólafur F. Magnússon, mayoral candidate for the H-list: "Of course not."

Sóley Tómasdóttir, mayoral candidate for the Leftist-Green Party: "Yes, I tried to smoke hash once when I was 18. Don't recommend it."

Whoah! As you can see, we've got some seriously hardcore stoners running for city council right now. Don't be surprised if you see them on the roof of city hall on election night, blasting Cypress Hill and passing around a three-chamber purple bong.

Anyways, you're all going to vote, right? If you want to, but just don't know if you can or how to go about doing it, here's everything you need to know.

Get to the polls, people. And bring as many friends as you can. Seriously.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ain't No Party Like An East Side Party

Nothing gets my blood pumping quite like a good regional conflict, especially between neighboring towns. Troy and Athens, Baltimore and DC, Springfield and Shelbeyville - all good stuff. Iceland isn't immune to town rivalries, either.

Take for example the recent argument going on right now between Hafnarfjörður and Garðabær. The cause of the dispute is that many of Garðabær's businesses, including IKEA and other companies, have plumbing that empties into Hafnarfjörður's sewer system.

Ingimar Ingimarsson, a committee member of Hafnarfjörður's construction council, told Vísir that his town had actually been pressing Garðabær for the past four years now to start paying up for the use of the sewer system, to no avail. "Residents of Garðabær are going to the toilet at the expense of people from Hafnarfjörður," he told reporters, adding that the matter was starting to get annoying.

Well, I'd imagine so. Garðabær is a fairly wealthy community. Surely they can afford the tens of millions Hafnarfjörður is asking for. And why aren't they using their own sewers, anyway?

In any event, Garðabær town council sent a statement to the press that they actually haven't received any sort of complaint from Hafnarfjörður, but that the two towns are going to settle their differences.

It's comical, in a way, even if no one in Hafnarfjörður is laughing. But it also reminds me of Jón Gnarr's complaint that Seltjarnarnes - Iceland's wealthiest community - utilizes a lot of Reykjavík's services but doesn't really pay for them. Hence his toll booth idea.

Personally, I think all the communities surrounding Reykjavík should just be incorporated into one giant municipality. Politicians and the media are always talking about "the capital area" as one entity anyway, and trust me, if Reykjavík makes a decision on anything, it doesn't just ripple through surrounding communities; it washes over them.

We might as well make it official, and call the whole area Höfuðborgsvæðafjörður. Kinda rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? We could still keep the names of the communities around Reykjavík; they'd just be neighborhoods instead of separate towns.

Damn, I shoulda run for city council this year.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spare Change


So at work today, I managed to catch bits and pieces of a radio "debate" between current Reykjavík mayor Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir and Best Party chairman Jón Gnarr. Because my day job requires me to do actual work, and not just pretend to work while listening to the radio, I wasn't able to catch as much of it as I wanted to, but what I did hear kind of surprised me.

For one, Jón sounded like a politician, while Hanna Birna sounded frankly annoyed and defensive. I suppose that stands to reason, seeing how The Best Party has taken a huge bite out of every party, hers included.

Jón took issue with his campaign being called a "joke party", or actually, with anything he says or does being seen as comedy in some form or another.

Alright, I thought, this is a bit like the Jón Gnarr in our latest issue's interview with him - a serious politician. I was surprised to learn, for example, that dude is actually serious about setting up a toll booth between Seltjarnarnes and Reykjavík, telling us, "I only think of it as normal that they would have to contribute to our city’s funds, as they use a lot of our services—we put out their fires, for instance. At a time when we have to cut back on our services due to lack of funds, they—the richest community in Iceland—brag about paying the lowest taxes in the country."

OK then! No more Jón Gnarr and His Whacky Parody Campaign; meet Jón Gnarr, Serious Mayoral Contender.

In the radio debate, the subject of city planning came up. Gnarr was asked for his thoughts. The first thing he mentioned was that he wanted to change the kinds of trees planted in the downtown area to trees that are nicer to look at. He also feels the bridge over the pond Tjörnin needs to be prettied up. And he wants to move Árbæjarsafn downtown.

Where have I heard this kinda stuff before?, I thought to myself. Oh right - this reminded me of when Independence Party candidate Gísli Marteinn Baldursson talked a couple years back about how nice it would be to have an outdoor ice skating rink downtown.

Meanwhile, we have a horrible mass transit system, no downtown bike paths, condemned houses standing empty, and construction projects half-finished. Yet the first thing this supposedly serious mayoral contender mentions with regards to city planning are the kinds of trees we have planted?

I've said before that I feel this is a celebrity campaign. I'm not really sure about that anymore. I really believe in Jón Gnarr's sincerity. He's an incredibly clever guy, and he seems very passionate about wanting to shake things up, foment cultural revolution, wipe the slate clean and start over. But how? And then what? I'm not even sure he really knows himself. His heart's in the right place, though, and I think people pick up on that.

Some food for thought, though: The Civic Movement (Borgarahreyfingin) was another party that wanted to shake things up and bring people closer to the government. They had a stronger platform, but didn't have nearly the star power that The Best Party has. The Civic Movement won four of parliament's 63 seats. The Best Party is projected to win half of city council's 15 seats.

The proportional difference is significant, and makes me wonder how many of The Best Party's supporters are voting for changing the system, and how many are just voting for Jón Gnarr.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

And the Eruption Bids Adieu

Well, it seems the geological event that we all love to hate - the Eyjafjallajökull eruption - has reached an at least informal conclusion. There is no ash plume, and no seismic activity. Roads into the area are still closed at the time of this writing, and air traffic is slowly returning to normal, but we've had nothing but blue skies for the past three days now, and my allergies have dialled down from "Incapacitated" to merely "Unable to Breathe".

Sure was a fun ride, though, wasn't it? We started with the "tourist volcano" of Fimmvörðuháls, whose photogenic lava plumes brought with it the promise of wheelbarrows full of cash from foreigners anxious to get close enough to the eruption to roast marshmallows by it.

But then the planet had to go ahead and troll us, ripping open the decidedly uninviting ash eruption at Eyjafjallajökull. That sure made life incredibly unpleasant for farmers in the south of Iceland, who were forced to either bring their livestock indoors or evacuate altogether, and who at the time of this writing are still shovelling themselves out from under a thick layer of ash.

Of course, their struggle was pretty much overwhelmed by the thousands upon thousands of air travellers who were grounded across Europe by our meandering plume, wafting over the continent like the laughing ghost of Icesave.

Ah, memories. Who can forget the "I Hate Iceland" guy? Or the "I Hate Iceland" guy dance remix? Or the "I Hate Iceland" guy Team Fortress 2 remix? Or the "I Hate Iceland" guy drum 'n' bass remix?

I get teary just watching those videos.

Well anyway, it seems it won't be long until everything's back to normal, air flight-wise, even if we're still getting people asking us when the mondo-devastation eruption is due. The answer: whenever we feel like it. All we gotta do is flip the switch on the side of the mountain. It's true. Look it up if you don't believe me.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Weekend Round-Up: Marriage Is For Breeding

As many of you are probably already aware, the Ministry of Justice has submitted a bill - currently in the parliamentary general committee - which would change the definition of "marriage" to saying "two individuals" as opposed to "a man and a woman". Should pretty much be a done deal, right? I mean, we have civil unions here already and all that, and Scandinavians are generally pretty liberal when it comes to sex issues.

True as that is, it seems the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland - the country's national church - is dead set against the idea. One would expect the few Westboro-style loonies here to rail hardest against this, and they have, but one of the written comments submitted to the parliamentary general committee - which comes from María Ágústsdóttir, a minister for the national church - has used a very familiar argument in her reasons for opposing the change:

"I feel it goes against the nature of marriage as an institution, which was created for the purpose of the propagation of mankind, within the framework of having and raising children."

Which is absurd, of course. Why marriage was created is neither here nor there. Even if we were to assume that María's history factoid is correct, there is no law - nor is there any such rule within the church - that forbids the infertile and sterile from marrying, nor is there anything forbidding couples who openly state that they will not have children from getting married, either.

This isn't about kids; it's about the church's hang-up with homosexuality. And they like to argue that passing this law would infringe upon their freedom of religion. To that I'd point out that churches have long been forbidden to establish "whites only" congregations and clergy. Is getting married any less a civil right than attending church or becoming a clergyman?

I think this conflict underlines the fact that the national church has been having its wedding cake and eating it, too. The Church of Iceland has simultaneously maintained, on the one hand, that Icelanders wouldn't stand to see separation of church and state, and on the other hand, that the church would not survive being separated from taxes. That's a pretty glaring contradiction, and also patently false. In fact, about 65% of Icelanders are in favor of separation of church and state, according to a poll conducted by the Humanist Society.

The Church of Iceland needs to see the writing on the wall. They cannot enjoy the tax revenues of a people whose civil rights they violate. It is inexcusable for them to be able to do so. But then again, I guess I'm old fashioned about the whole "keep religion out of politics" thing.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Why Magma Energy Needs to Leave Iceland

With recent news that the mayor of Reykjanes is considering doing further business with Magma Energy, I feel it necessary to point out that this company is operating in bad faith, and has done so from the beginning. They are a textbook example of a predatory corporation, and have consistently showed they cannot be trusted. As Grapevine journalist Catherine Fulton pointed out in her excellent article, Magma Energy Lied to Us, this is a company that says one thing, and then does something else.

Compare and contrast time!

What they said: “No, we do not plan on getting a majority [in HS Orka]. I have no interest in fighting Icelanders, particularly the government, over what is proper energy policy in the country. The government said they would accept Magma going to a 50.0 % interest so long as Icelandic interests had the other 50 %. So that’s neither minority or majority, it’s a rather awkward business position but certainly something that we feel can be workable and we certainly will be striving to achieve, but not increase beyond that. That’s something that we think should be acceptable to the Icelandic government and, we hope, the people of Iceland.” - Ross Beaty, CEO of Magma Energy, September 2009.

What happened instead: They went ahead and bought themselves Geysir Green Energy's 52% share in HS Orka earlier this month, putting their ownership at 98%.

What they said: “I would suggest that is ignorance and complete nonsense. It’s just because they don’t know what we’re all about and they don’t understand the world that we live in. We’re not in Iceland for any such reason. We’re in Iceland because it has opportunities for long-term benefit where we can deploy capital and we can improve the condition of an Icelandic company for the long term. We would be interested in Iceland under any circumstances, absolutely, even two years ago [in 2007] it would have been unchanged.” - Ross Beaty, again in September 2009, responding to concerns that his company was taking advantage of Iceland's weakened economic state due to the banking crisis.

What happened instead: As Catherine Fulton reports, Ross Beaty told online investment newsletter Hera Research Monthly earlier this month, “We would have been farther along had [the global economic crisis] not happened, although we may not have had opportunities that we took advantage of. For example, going into Iceland was strictly something that could only have happened because Iceland had a calamitous financial meltdown in 2008.”

Let's not forget that these guys are planning on doing some "geothermal exploration" around the mountain Kerlingafjöll, and have given every assurance that they're going to respect "the playing rules" in this country.

Allow me to quote Björk Guðmundsdóttir on this subject, who puts my feelings pretty succintly:

"I hereby challenge the government of Iceland to do everything in its power to revoke the contracts with Magma Energy that entitle the Canadian firm complete ownership of HS Orka. These are abhorrable deals, and they create a dangerous precedent for the future. They directly go against necessary and oft-repeated attempts to create a new policy in the energy- and resource management of this nation."

These are hard times. People are going to approach us with all kinds of offers. Not all of them are going to be honest. We need to be especially vigilant with regards to who we let do business in this country.

Magma Energy needs to leave Iceland. They have proven that they cannot be trusted, and when that happens, it's time to walk away from the table. The government of Iceland needs to send Magma Energy packing.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Politics Is Serious Business

As many of you know, The Best Party - a joke party created by comedian Jón Gnarr - has been kicking the tar out of every other party running for city council. Up until now, his opponents have offered vague platitudes in response. Well, today the gloves came off.

Ármann Jakobsson, who has worked closely within the Leftist-Green Party, recently posted a blog entry detailing all the reasons why he believes Jón Gnarr is largely more sympathetic with the right than the left.

He mentions, among other things, that Gnarr was one of Independence Party MP Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson's supporters. He also told the Grapevine in 2006 that he supported former Independence Party mayoral candidate Gísli Marteinn Baldursson. Ármann also brings up the long string of conservative Christian columns Gnarr wrote for the newspaper Fréttablaðið a few years back.

OK, that's certainly notable. And it would give Ármann's article more weight if he stuck to facts like this. Instead, he adds to his point that Gnarr spends more time making fun of leftists than he does conservatives, the main example being his Georg Bjarnfreðarson character. That seems like reaching a bit to me, to be honest. It makes the leftists look, frankly, scared and defensive. And they certainly have reason to be scared.

Gnarr also granted The Grapevine a new interview in our latest issue. Among other things, he talks about his punk rock past and his anarchist tendencies. This I find interesting in context with the above mentioned facts.

I had a friend who used to call libertarians "closeted Republicans", and there's definitely a kernel of truth to that. Anarchists, libertarians, conservatives - many of them derive from the same ideology of personal freedom over the needs of the collective, a distrust of regulation and law, and the belief that the smaller the government the better. It's not very difficult, ideologically speaking, to shift gears between being an anarchist and being a rightist.

Now, I say all this knowing full well that there are many, many different schools of anarchist, libertarian and conservative thought. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have next to nothing in common with, say, Steve Ignorant. My point is solely that what Ármann is pointing out isn't that hard to believe, really, and doesn't necessarily contradict anarchist leanings.

Having said that, I think Gnarr is not very easy to pin down politically. He doesn't hail from the right or the left, and seems to have contempt for both. His ideas stem rather from wanting to fight against what he sees as the biggest problem with politics in this country: stagnation and nepotism. But in any event, you can read the interview in the latest issue and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lemons and Lemonade

Today brought with it tears of rage, and then tears of laughter.

First, the lemons.

As reported this morning, Magma Energy is planning on exploring for geothermal activity around Kerlingafjöll. In case you don't know, Kerlingafjöll is considered one of Iceland's natural treasures. If they find geothermal activity in the mountain, they could start drilling bore holes there. Which would sorta mess up the whole natural beauty thing the area has going on.

Of course, Magma Iceland chairman Ásgeir Margeirsson made some vague statement to reporters about how they plan to "play by the rules" or whatever, but you know what? Don't trust these guys. Why? Because they're all liars.

Magma Energy already lied about not wanting more than 50% of HS Orka. CEO Ross Beaty told the Grapevine last fall, "No, we do not plan on getting a majority [in HS Orka]. I have no interest in fighting Icelanders, particularly the government, over what is proper energy policy in the country, the government said they would accept Magma going to a 50.0 % interest so long as Icelandic interests had the other 50 %. So that’s neither minority or majority, it’s a rather awkward business position but certainly something that we feel can be workable and we certainly will be striving to achieve, but not increase beyond that."

And we all know how that went. If the CEO of Magma Energy told me the sky was blue, I'd look out my window to double-check. More examples of Magma's policy of disingenuousness to come in the next issue of Grapevine, penned by the journalist who brought you the first story, Catherine Fulton.

As for the lemonade, former Kaupthing chairman Sigurður Einarsson was denied his appeal in Icelandic Supreme Court to have charges against him dropped. OK, so that's schaudenfreude on my part, I realize. And the only reason why the court rejected the appeal was because they don't have the power to do make the charges go away. But hey, chalk one up for justice, right?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In Cops We Trust

Ah, polls. You can always count on polls to neatly condense complex issues into simple, snappy numbers. And they also happen to make great copy - easy to write, easy to read. Nothing perks up an otherwise slow news day like a nice poll.

Two recent polls grabbed my attention. The first, as most of you know, is that comedian Jón Gnarr's joke party Besti flokkurinn ( lit. "The Best Party") is now polling high enough to win six of Reykjavík city council's 15 seats.

This news was followed by some strong reactions from the party's opponents - that there's nothing funny about playing with the future of our children, that the joke has gone too far, and so forth.

It's unfortunate that reacting in this manner to The Best Party makes you look like a humorless square. After all, The Best Party is packed with actors, comedians, musicians and artists on the list. They are decidedly cooler than parties who actually have platforms.

A lot of people are saying that The Best Party has proved that people are unsatisfied with "The Four Parties", as they are known - the conservatives, the Progressives, the Social Democrats and the Leftist-Greens. This is wrong. What the groundswell of support for the Best Party largely means is that being an entertainer with no platform trumps being a politician who has one. There are actually eight parties running for city council right now, none of them polling nearly as well as The Best Party, and all of them have platforms.

On the other hand, I have to admit, the Four Parties have done an excellent job on their own in utterly ruining the trust of this town's residents. These past few years have seen the majority coalition swing from right to left to right again, and the in-fighting within some parties has been facepalm-inducing. I personally prefer parties who have platforms. It means you can hold them accountable. The Best Party is hedging their bets - by offering nothing, you can't say they never followed through if you're disappointed with their performance.

But I can understand why people would want to see Jón Gnarr as our next mayor. It's an admittedly tempting thought - I think he's a brilliant and genuinely all-around nice guy. Let's just hope he can actually deliver if it happens.

Speaking of trust, a new poll from Market and Media Research shows that, apparently, we trust cops a whole lot more than we trust the government, the media, and the ruling parties. 78.9% said they trust the police a great deal, with only 7.4% distrusting them. At the same time, 19.3% trust the ruling coalition a great deal while 58.9% don't trust it much; 15.4% trust the media a lot while 46.9% trust it very little, and only 10.5% trust parliament as a whole, with 56.4% saying they do not trust it much at all.

Here's my amateur, absolutely-no-schooling-in-psychology explanation of these numbers:

Just as the instability within city hall has helped contribute to support for The Best Party, politicians on the national level have changed hands due to early elections brought on by public protests. Today, the economy is still weak, but getting better - which is why the ruling coalition polls slightly better than the house of parliament in general - but people still associate parliament with insecurity and, with the release of the SIC report, even more so with corruption. Policemen, on the other hand, are always policemen. That you can count on.

Yep, polls are fun. Always great copy.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Weekend Round-Up: True Grit

This weekend was quite the homage to cowboys the world over.

To start things off, former chairman of Kaupthing Sigurður Einarsson hired himself Ian Burton as his attorney, a man who is apparently the go-to lawyer for millionaires being investigated for fraud.

In a brief interview with Vísir, Burton had some choice words for special prosecutor Ólafur Þór Hauksson:

"It seems to me that this prosecutor wants to show the public that he's a tough guy and he can lock people up. This prosecutor isn't interested in discussion. He wants to behave like John Wayne in a cowboy movie."

Comparisons to John Wayne are pretty interesting. It's similar to Sigurður's remark that the prosecutor's recent arrests were "a drama ... being put on to soothe the anger of the nation." In both cases, it's hyperbolic language saying that Ólafur Þór is reckless and not behaving realisitically.

This is despite the fact that the Special Investigative Commission (SIC) report on the economic collapse was pretty damning when it came to Kaupthing, and Ólafur Þór would be negligent not to go after them. And if anything, Kaupthing's actually the safer bet, prosecution wise. A political investigation, which could begin this fall if the parliamentary committee decides to press charges against anyone, is going to be fairly protracted and possibly ugly, as political trials anywhere often are.

To imply that Ólafur Þór is somehow acting recklessly right now is transparently comical. But Burton also told Vísir that he could send Sigurður to Iceland with just one call from Ólafur Þór, and added that the special prosecutor was welcome to question Sigurður in London. Of course, the Minister of Justice contends that Britain and Iceland do have an extradition treaty, so Burton's offers might go unheeded.

My laughter then turned to blind rage when it was announced that Magma Energy - the Canadian company that already owns 46% of Iceland's third largest energy company, HS Orka, is set to buy the 52% stake that another Icelandic company - Geysir Green Energy - already has of HS Orka. This means Magma Energy will own 98% of the company.

It also means that Magma Energy CEO Ross Beaty pretty much lied when he told the Grapevine last fall: "I went to Iceland earlier this year and looked at opportunities and it seemed that HS Orka could benefit from capital infusion, reorganisation of its shareholding to stronger positions and it looked like there was an opportunity to do something that would help us and help HS Orka and, in the big picture, help the country of Iceland."

Because what helps a country more than moving a public utility into the private sector, where 98% of revenues leave the country altogether? That's right - Iceland is pretty much set to make the exact same mistake California made when it comes to privatizing energy, only the owners won't even live in this country.

Right now, the government is reviewing the sale, spurred on by Leftist-Green MP Ögmundur Jónasson, who quite correctly pointed out that selling natural resources is sorta kinda, you know, completely contradictory to the entire Leftist-Green raison d'etre. We'll see how that goes.

The cherry on top of this weekend was to wake up this morning and see the front page of Fréttablaðið, where it was reported that pharmaceutical giant Roche is considering boycotting the sale of medication to Iceland. The reason? Apparently we don't charge people enough money for their medication. Roche CEO Robin Turner said, in part, "It is obvious that if drug prices go below a certain limit, my company will have no other choice but to stop selling medication in Iceland."

Keep in mind that Roche made about $49 billion in 2009 alone, and Iceland's pharmaceutical market is about 300,000 people, so even if Turner's complaint was true, it's not like Iceland is exactly bleeding out Roche. Roche also makes a lot of cancer medication. But hey, you can't let people in a depressed economy have a bit of a break and get well if it means your profits might take a miniscule dip that probably totals the amount of money Turner spends on vacation.

Weekends are supposed to be relaxing. I demand a refund!

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Eruption Giveth, The Eruption Taketh Away

It's hard to believe that barely two months ago a volcanic eruption in Fimmvörðuháls, in south Iceland, seemed like a goose dropping fat golden eggs. That's because the initial eruption was the pretty, Hollywood kind: lots of lava plumes, set against a stark, Nordic background, and relatively safe enough to walk right up to the thing and take photos and videos of it.

It's that last point, in fact, that gave many people here hope. And for good reason: in early April, some 200 tourists a day were heading up to the volcano. March was, in fact, a record-breaking month for tourism in Iceland. We were optimistic that this eruption could be a great boost to our economy.

And that's when Mother Earth decided to troll us.

When the photogenic Fimmvörðuháls was replaced by the decidedly unattractive ash eruption at Eyjafjallajökull, things took a turn for the worse. Apart from making life extremely difficult for people who live in the region, this ash cloud shut down plane traffic across Europe, resulting in multiple flight and hotel cancellations here at home. Matters weren't helped when the president told BBC that the real doom-and-gloom eruption was on its way. He would later add that this isn't likely to happen for decades, but by then, the damage had been done.

And that's basically where we're at now. Summer is almost here, and flights in and out of Iceland can be cancelled at the drop of a hat. Hardworking and dedicated volunteers are in the south, helping to clean up the farms that have had to put up with the heaviest ashfall, and that's heartwarming, certainly. But we're stuck with this ash machine that doesn't seem to be nearing a conclusion anytime soon.

I guess the lesson in all this is: don't expect unpredictable geological phenomenae to rescue your economy. I've also learned that volcanic ash mist apparently kicks my spring allergies into overdrive. Christ I hate this volcano.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Let's Get This Party Started


So, the local news has been more or less updating various minutae about Jón Ásgeir. It really hasn't been dude's week. First, he gets his assets frozen by the people now taking care of Glitnir, as they investigate him for tax fraud. Then, he gets hit with a lawsuit. He's been fairly unflappable so far, though. And with good reason - very little sticks to this guy, and what does hardly leaves a scratch.

If you want some idea of just how powerful this guy was when he was at the top of his game, start here, then go here, and read the relevant articles. Don't be surprised if you get a nosebleed trying to visualize just how far and wide the octopus of this man's grip extends across this country and beyond.

The roughest thing this guy has had to go through up until recently was a June 2008 conviction for breaking accounting laws that compelled him to step down from the chairmanship of the investment company FL Group. In his place, his wife Ingibjörg Stefanía Pálmadóttir was elected. The company changed its name to Stodir, and then bought a 39% stake in Baugur Group - which is owned by Jón Ásgeir.

Well, a lot has happened since 2008, of course. With the grip tightening on the Kaupthing guys, and the general spirit of vengence in the air, he's probably starting to feel a little nervous. Or maybe he isn't. Just look at those jazz hands. Does this look like a man who's easily rattled?

(Photo credit: Chris Casaburi)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Holy Wow

As most of you know by now, former Kaupthing chairman of the board Sigurður Einarsson is now wanted by Interpol. Yes, that's a big story. I honestly can't remember an Icelander who's ever been wanted by Interpol. Then again, I'm American by birth, and our concept of Interpol is this shadowy secret police that hunts down international jewel thieves with underground lairs. Maybe this sort of thing is more common than I know.

However, what I found particularly stunning is that the newspaper Fréttablaðið not only got an interview with him, but just how clueless and arrogant his responses were.

For example: his take on the special prosecutor seeking out the bankers and investors who played Vegas with other people's money and ruined the nation is "I am absolutely flabbergast at recent events. It really surprises me that men are being arrested upon their arrival in Iceland."

Of course it surprises him. White collar criminals don't get arrested; they get escorted. They don't get put in prison; they're slapped with a flight ban. They can still roll up to court in their Land Rovers, and strut into the building in their finest clothes, sipping their bottled water. Real criminals - you know, people who steal cash the old fashioned way - they're the ones who get cuffs and jailcells, who get led into court with their jackets over their heads. In other words, crooks steal thousands; businessmen steal billions.

But my favorite quote from this guy would have to be this:

"I find these arrests and jailings absolutely unnecessary, and will not at least take any part in this drama, which I believe is being put on to soothe the anger of the nation."

You see? He's the victim here, people. The decent, hard-working former bank managers of Kaupthing are being scapegoated to placate us angry peasants. It's all just one big circus to distract us from the real culprits behind the economic collapse: plain ol' bad luck! Or the Rosicrucians. I don't think anyone's mentioned them yet, which I think is very suspicious.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

William Black for Central Bank Chairman!

One of the things that can be frustrating about interviewing Icelandic politicians or other officials is that they can, and often do, guard their words very closely. Can't say I necessarily blame them. It's a small country, and you never know who you might anger, or what door you might permanently shut, by saying the wrong thing. You ask a question, and you can see them trying to carefully construct their response. Of course that's a boon in many ways. You want someone to be sure that they mean what they say, and to speak with certainty. On the other hand, this also leads to requests to pre-read an interview, where they then attempt to redact this or that. And of course, there's my own selfish motivation of wanting, just once, for someone to be outspoken, speak plainly, and say what's exactly on their minds. It happens, don't get me wrong, but only once in a blue moon.

That's why it was a pleasure to interview William Black. In case you don't know the guy's background, he's essentially been an economic pit bull in the US for many years now. When everyone else was tossing around the "too big to fail" meme, and Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme hedge fund overshadowed the everyday wrongdoings elsewhere in the country, Black was one of few people willing to call a spade a spade and say that the banks involved in the economic collapse were themselves a Ponzi scheme.

This guy had absolutely no qualms with telling me that accountability for Iceland's economic collapse begins with the political parties that created the environment for it. As you can see in the interview, he's sharp, insightful and candid. He has no problems speaking his mind, and has both the education and the experience to back it up.

I believe - and I don't think I'm being hyperbolic here - that William Black should be awarded Icelandic citizenship and immediately hired as chairman of the Central Bank. Yes, he's already pretty busy with that teaching gig, and no, he doesn't speak nor understand Icelandic. But these are trifling details that could be worked around.

I'm not asking for the moon here. And who would possibly object? Surely parliament can make it happen.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Cat Herding


As a leftist myself (and by that I mean, I am a registered member of the Leftist-Green Party), it pains me to say this, but I've noticed that the right wing seems to have an easier time sticking together and being in general agreement than the left wing does. Leftists argue and splinter off; righties grumble in mild disagreement, but stick together. Why this is would be a subject for a whole other article - what makes me think of this today is the outcome of yesterday's cabinet meeting.

In a nutshell, the government needs to make more cuts. Now, being leftist, this government doesn't possess the sort of merciless bloodlust for slashing social programs that comes so easily to the right. And so in order to avoid that as much as possible, the Social Democrats have proposed combining a few existing ministries: the ministries of social affairs and health would become one, and the ministries of fishing, agriculture and industry would become the tentatively-titled-but-catchy-sounding Ministry of Employment. This would take the number of ministries down from 12 to 9, which would mean it's reducing the size of the government, and thus, reducing spending. 9 is less than 12, after all, right?

Well, not everyone's on board with this idea, even within the ruling coalition itself. Eyjan.is is reporting that the Leftist-Greens are against the idea. The reasoning appears to be due to primarily to ego. Leftist-Green MP Ögmundur Jónasson used to be Minister of Health, but resigned from that position due to disagreements over Icesave. He's got a lot of supporters who'd like to see him back as some sort of minister. At the same time, current Minister of Fishing and Agriculture Jón Bjarnason has his share of fans who want to see him stay on in his capacity. Among them is Leftist-Green MP Ásmundur Einar Daðason, who has been dead set against the Ministry of Employment idea. Rather than combine ministries together, they would rather do away with the only two non-party-affilliated ministers - Minister of Business Gylfi Magnússon and Minister of Justice Ragna Árnadóttir - and replace them with politicians.

Now, as you can imagine, this caused a firestorm in the Icelandic blog world, the general sentiment being that the Leftist-Greens are willing to stand in the way of reducing the budget in order to get their own people into positions of power, they are all self-serving communists, they probably hate rainbows and puppies, and so on.*

The whole argument between the two parties is pretty much part and parcel of their relationship with each other. The Social Dems and the Leftist-Greens sprang forth around the same time, and are derived from similar ideologies. They're pretty much like siblings. They get along, sure, but occassionally they have little dramatic hissy-fits - such as the one sparked when Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir likened getting the Leftist-Greens to agree with each other to herding cats - going back and forth with snippy, passive-aggressive verbal barbs until they get bored with it and make up.

Every time they fight, conservatives chortle and chin-stroke, speculating that this time for sure the government is really on shakey ground. Inevitably, someone will pose the question to the parties, "Oh wow guys I can't believe you're fighting - are you breaking up???", and the response is always the same: "It's perfectly natural for two separate political parties to disagree from time to time. This government is sticking together." It'll stick together this time, too. If for no other reason than to keep conservatives out of power.

It's not like they argue all the time or anything. Just on minor, trifling issues such as Icesave, allowing a private military contractor to set up shop here, and how to organize the government. Other than that they're like BFFs.

*On the other hand, would combining ministries really reduce the budget? Assuming a best case scenario, where the upper-management of the combined ministries take a big ol' cut, and then have to oversee double the staff, what sort of workload would the new management be looking at? Delays in ministerial procedures themselves cost money. So does hiring assistants to take care of the backlog. Nine is less than twelve, sure. But is the answer to budget problems within the government really to give the already-overburdened management even more stuff to manage? I don't get invited to cabinet meetings, so I really have no idea just how concrete or well-thought-out these proposals are.

Friday, May 7, 2010

FIRST

Most of what I do for the Grapevine is translate domestic news into English. And because it was the economic collapse in fall 2008 that got me posting news again, it's made a red thread of itself through most of the news I post. So naturally, when I heard that Former Kaupthing manager Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson, along with former Kaupthing bank manager in Luxembourg and current director of Banque Havilland, Magnús Guðmundsson, had been arrested for financial wrongdoing in light of a report from the Special Investigative Commission (SIC), this caused a certain sense of relief. When I'd read Vísir disclosing where the men were being held after their arrest, the police station by Hlemmur, I imagined for a moment a mob descending on the place.

However, at work the following day most everyone was decidedly cautious about celebrating just yet. This is entirely new territory for Iceland, after all. White collar crime is notoriously underprosecuted. All the same, when Reykjavík District Court denied the men immediate release, and instead sent them to custody at the prison Litla-Hraun - where they'll be in solitary - for twelve and seven days respectively, This gave me a bit of hope. The judicial system, it seems, is willing to act.

But even if there aren't any convictions - and I'd be surprised if there weren't - to go from collapse, change of government, investigation and then arrests within about 18 months is quite a feat.

My biggest worry right now is that special prosecutor Ólafur Hauksson will stay focused on the banks alone. As professor of Economics and Law William Black told me during his visit to Iceland, "the Icelandic government at the time [leading up to the bank collapse] was an almost literal cheerleader for the industry. ... That included the prime minister [Geir H. Haarde], that included the Central Bank chairman [Davíð Oddsson], and that included the regulatory agency."

It's not illegal to be a libertarian, of course. Oddsson and Haarde are welcome to believe in the invisible hand. But what Black points out is that the government did not exert the kind of vigorous supervision that is necessary for a healthy economy: "You have to be more objective. For financial institutions to work well, you need trust, and the paradox is, you need somebody who is skeptical. And there was nobody. Nobody in the senior ranks that was skeptical. ... the ruling political parties at that time, if you had to start with accountability, that's where you would start."

Negligence or collusion, there's enough to bring charges on both Haarde and Oddsson. Whether they'd stick is another matter. In the SIC report, Oddsson depicts himself as being constantly lied to by bank managers. He related a story of yelling in the face of an Financial Supervisory official when presented with Glitnir's numbers shortly before the government took it over. He paints himself to be a decent man surrounded by liars. Even the front page of the newspaper he edits, Morgunblaðið, saw fit to run "The Banks Are Responsible" as their banner headline the day after the report was released, while Oddsson himself was recusing himself from his chair for the week. Making charges stick on Oddsson will necessitate proving that he either purposefully turned a blind eye or was in cahoots.

Haarde, for his part, comes out as more clueless than anything else and, unsurprisingly, terrified of Davíð Oddsson. He wouldn't be alone. Oddsson has a strong grip on the old guard of the conservatives especially. But fear carries with it resentment, of course, and some of his own party members have turned a cold shoulder to him.

Even the President has been brought into this. The SIC report basically said the guy was the PR man for the "outvasion vikings", and used his office to gain favors for some of them. The President's denied any wrongdoing, and said the report has numerous inaccuracies regarding him. It's moot either way, because no one is arresting the President of Iceland. It's just not gonna happen.

Right now, there are two men in solitary confinement in prison, essentially charged with helping to ruin Iceland. We're off to a good start. But none of it will mean anything until the apparatus of government itself is changed.

The banks were allowed to grow ten times the size of the GDP not just because the government was whistling as it drove along, the bolts flying off the wheels. There's never been a real financial supervisory force in place. Privatizing the banks - which was finalized in 2003 - was done on the belief that it was more freedom the banks needed, that this would stimulate growth. The pendulum had swung from one side, to straight through the opposite wall.

Until an active, powerful and politically neutral institution that can and does monitor and calibrate the economy is established, nothing in this country is going to change.