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. 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


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.