a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Georgia on their minds

Posted on the February 23rd, 2010

Today, in the first video of a series, TOL showcases a cross-section of citizens of the country of Georgia. Each one talks about his or her idea of what civil society actually is. May seem dull fare but, as usual, when people speak from their hearts in ordinary language about something important, it isn’t (“The View from Tbilisi: Change from the ‘Bottom Up'” by Tako Paradashvili and Nia Kurtishvili, Feb 22, 2010).

TOL is a non-profit organization focusing on the post-communist countries of Europe and the former Soviet Union. Intro to video:

As democracy in Georgia continues to develop 19 years after independence, how do Georgian citizens view their personal and collective responsibilities? Is civil society capable of fighting for people’s rights, and how well has it succeeded? To what extent do Georgians recognize and capitalize on the power they have to monitor their government and take part in building the country’s future?

(Perhaps it will occur to you, as it immediately did to me, that these same questions apply as well to the older democracies — to the United States at more than 200 years old, and to those of Western Europe — especially as some are facing a critical and defining turning point in their development –see here and here.)

What Is Civil Society? from Elene Asatiani on Vimeo.

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We can fix our broken system: Lawrence Lessig talks to Ezra Klein

Posted on the February 19th, 2010

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A British novelist argues that you and I can speak Wall Street if we try

Posted on the February 19th, 2010

John Lanchester’s newly-released book “Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay” is getting raves from critics. One reviewer described it as “Acidic, frightening, and sharply funny.”

The subject of the nonfiction book is the craziness of the world of contemporary finance, and how the lunacy came to be.

Earlier this month, Lanchester offered a peek into the material of his book when he spoke at an event sponsored by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London. I’m especially taken by Lanchester’s ideas because his thesis — my own favorite one — is that we as citizens can and must become informed.

The video is below and I hope you will watch it. As an inducement, I’ve excerpted a few comments.

In his opening remarks, Lanchester alludes to the longstanding idea of the two cultures of arts and science and the gap between them. He suggests that this gap no longer exists, but another one does:

It seems that there’s a much bigger gap between the world of finance and the general public, and that there’s a need to narrow that gap if the financial industry aren’t to become a kind of priesthood administering to its own mysteries and feared and resented by the rest of us. Lots of bright, literate, functioning well-educated people… have no idea about all sorts of economic basics of a type that financial insiders take as elementary knowledge about how the world works…

To people who don’t, as it were, speak finance the language can seem impenetrable and the interlocking ideas too complex to grasp or unpack. I’ve become very preoccupied by this gap which seems to me a real problem not least because the idea of a democracy implies an informed electorate. If you don’t have an informed electorate, which I would argue that we don’t really in this area, then the democracy is thinner, and I tried to do my bit in addressing that gap by writing about it.

Lanchester goes on to describe the faulty mathematical models used by those in today’s finance world. He details their persistent refusal to acknowledge the undeniable proof during recent decades that these models were broken. And, after describing the magnitude of the errors that occurred in 2008, he adds:

That is so wrong you just can’t put it into words. It shouldn’t be humanly possible to be that wrong. We’re talking about a drop in house prices causing people with bad credit to have trouble paying back their mortgages. And they managed to turn that into literally the most unlikely thing in the history of the universe.

And the really outrageous thing is that the banks are still talking about it as if they were unlucky.  As if it were some sort of freak, perfect storm or 100 year event, which is what the bank chairman in the U.S., has just been telling Congress. That’s absolute rubbish — it’s like closing your eyes and trying to run down the strand without opening them and then complaining that you’re unlucky when you get hit by a bus.

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