Monthly Archives: April 2002

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Another wall

I can understand why the Financial Times is transforming its FT.com to a largely subscription service. Its rival, The Wall Street Journal, has been conspicuously successful in charging for its site from the outset. The FT, in comparison, has muddled along online.

But the move is unfortunate for users. I think the FT is an important, different voice in world media. For most Web users, it will now be shut off, behind its subscription wall. In the overall context of the Internet, this is a microscopic deviation. But the more walls that are erected, the more retarded the promise of all information, available anywhere to everyone.

The principle is important, but the detail as well shouldn’t be ignored. A basic subscription will cost $110, a full subscription $300. By contrast, the superior WSJ site is $59 and only $29 if you are a subscriber to the print edition. Business users of the FT are largely price insensitive — they have to have it. There are a lot of us, however, who need to pay out of our own pockets. The announced rates are way too high.

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Look up from the gardening

“France, busily cultivating its garden, has belatedly discovered that there’s a poisonous snake in the grass.” Salman Rushdie provides an interesting perspective on the French elections. “The French way of life is still among the world’s most desirable and, yes, most civilized. But this comfortable continuity has bred some dangerous illusions, notably on the left.”

I didn’t realise that when Rushdie was in hiding because of Ayatollah Khomenei’s fatwa, he wasn’t able to vote (apparently those of “unknown address” can’t register to vote in the UK). “”he loss of my right to vote was one of the privations I felt most keenly.”

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Grow your own

Everyone should welcome Michael Skapinker’s plea for corporate executives to use clear language.

“Every time a chief executive utters the words [grow the company], we must leap up and say: ‘What do you mean you plan to “grow the company”? What is it, exactly, that you are planning to “grow”? Are you going to increase sales, do you intend to to raise profit margins, do you plan to employ more people, or what? You remind me of all those supposed dotcom millionaires. They had no idea what made companies prosper. They were the people who claimed companies did not even have to make profits. They, too, talked endlessly about “growing the company”. It was a sloppy phrase and it hid sloppy thinking. I fear the same applies to you. Tell us what you mean. Don’t try to bamboozle us with your meaningless words.’”

I fear, however, for the success of his crusade. Sloppy language is too deeply imprinted in many parts of society, with business the main offender.

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Not Whistler

Stéphane Perron has sent me the latest from Whistler, the ski resort near Vancouver long rumoured as a potential venue for the World Economic Forum. The local council voted yesterday to invite the Forum for 2004, but the conditions attached make it extremely unlikely, in my view, that the invitation would be accepted.

Most importantly, Whistler wants the Forum to come in the low season, rather than in the middle of the ski season. I can’t see Davos (wherever it is held) moving to a different time of the year, at least for many years to come. It seems improbable, but the congestion of the international meeting schedule is such that Davos has established a valuable little window when major political figures and leading CEOs can carve out some time. Even with a few years notice, it would be very hard to find another week that worked as well.

Stéphane’s email also attaches a comment from one of the leaders of Whistler’s “no” campaign.

Decision in Whistler

From Stéphane Perron, Whistler, Canada:

A decision was made last night [23 April 2002], and it was a conditional yes or a diplomatic no depending on how you look at it. They said yes but with conditions that the WEF will probably not be able to agree to. One condition in particular is about changing the date of their forum to correspond with our slow seasons in the spring or fall, something the WEF is unlikely to go for. Our politicians did a good job, and were actually influenced by the overwhelming community concern over the prospect of having the WEF here. Even the councillors who supported it found themselves voting in favour of moving the invitation date knowing it would probably kill it. So that’s the outcome. The WEF will probably go somewhere else then Whistler in 2004. Some people had problems with what the WEF actually accomplishes, most just felt it brings too much security concerns for a little town like ours. Some felt it is our duty to host the top business people along with artists and thinkers even with the security concerns because of the positive outcomes this could bring to the world, others just could not understand how we could say no to all that money.

I have attached below the email sent out today by one of the main organizers of the NO side. It explains what happened a little bit. Cheers and thank you all for communicating with me.

DEMOCRACY IS ALIVE AND WELL IN WHISTLER!

Hi everybody,

For those of you who missed the special WEF Council meeting
last night, it was an electric display of democracy in Whistler,
with passionate speakers making their points on both sides
of the issue.

At the end of the night (about 10:30), Council’s decision was to invite the WEF… but with severe conditions which include not coming in ski season, no onerous security issues, direct input of the issue of Sustainability into the agenda, and a few other points I can’t remember.

I believe this was a wise political compromise which effectively
tells the WEF “You can come in the future, maybe, but only on our
terms, if we decide it’s worth it.”

You should be very proud of the role you played in this issue!

On March 4th, many thought this was a closed-door, ‘done deal’
between politicians and special interest groups and that there was
nothing the community could do about it. You have proven them wrong.

Never doubt that your involvement in this issue has made a difference! In your own way, you have taken a stand for the democratic process everywhere, and set a model for others to copy.

In most places of the world, this never could have happened.

Some say we owed it to BC and Canada to host the WEF. I say we owed it to BC and Canada to set an example for how democracy can and should work. And we’ve done that.

Others fear this issue has been divisive and harmful for the
community. But I don’t see that either. In fact, I think we are stronger and more mature as a result of what we have gone through together.

And I think we have changed for many years to come how important
decisions like this are made in Whistler.

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Pervasive climate of cynicism

There are a lot of excellent analyses of the French political earthquake in today’s papers. But I found Dominique Moisi particularly on target:

“The poison of cohabitation and the stench of scandal might have been expected to bring calls for an ethical revolution or political renewal. Instead, the pervasive climate of cynicism has created a tolerance of the unacceptable and the quasi-normalisation of the extreme right.”

I’ve long thought cynicism one of the most dangerous of sentiments. Its results are now plain to see in Europe. (incidentally, too many people confuse cynicism with scepticism. Scepticism is healthy and good; cynicism is destructive.) Although Chirac is certain to win the second round vote in two weeks time, the politics of intolerance, nationalism and exclusion have gained immeasureably from Sunday’s result. And Le Pen now has two weeks to insinuate his poison into the general political realm.

As many observers have noted, Britain — with a hugely popular left-of-centre government — is increasingly looking like an exception in Europe (and the west, more broadly). I think it’s partly because of the near-collapse of the right in Britain after 18 years of government. But it’s also because of the policies constructed by the Labour party during its years in the wilderness. It accepted thoroughly liberal economics, and it also put in place policies to address concerns like law and order.

The success of this is graphically illustrated by the polls in today’s papers showing that chancellor Gordon Brown is even more popular than prime minister Tony Blair after delivering the most popular budget speech in 40 years. And the main message of that budget? We’re going to increase taxes to fund public services. In the prevailing political climate of the last 20 years, who would have thought that a resoundingly popular message?

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It’s even worse than it appears

Little did I know that my comment about French exceptionalism would be completely eclipsed by the reality of yesterday’s presidential election. I heard my friend Dominique Moisi on the radio this morning remark that “having shown their irresponsibility at the polls yesterday, the French will now show their responsibility through demonstrations in the streets”.

I hope the loathsome Jean-Marie Le Pen’s second place shocks France into political responsibility. It should also be a tocsin outside France. The far right is gaining ground in many European countries, coincident with a seeming decline in democratic political involvement (Britain, except for some disturbing pockets of National Front support, remains a salutary island of non-racist politics). Let’s hope the primary lesson from the democratic disaster in France is that the values of pluralist, anti-racist democracy requires active support both in the ballot boxes and in the street.

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Exceptionalism

It’s getting increasingly difficult to list the ways in which France is different. It’s a commonplace to say that one of the consequences of globalisation is that policy differences — and to some extent cultural differences — get squeezed. But no one can look at Sunday’s first round of the French election from outside the hexagon with anything other than amazement.

Consider that the leading candidate, incumbent president Jacques Chirac, faces jail on corruption charges if he doesn’t retain his presidential immunity. This isn’t sex in the Oval Office (we already knew the French didn’t care about that sort of behaviour). These charges involve very large sums of money. But Chirac isn’t the only astounding figure in the election.

There’s Arlette Laguiller, from Lutte Ouvrière, or Arlette the Starlette as she has apparently been dubbed. She may take 10% of the first round vote. Oh, and she’s for the violent overthrow of parliamentary democracy, and belongs to a secret party whose leaders are known even to activists only by pseudonyms. I liked this line: “Born in 1940, Laguiller has been, in the words of one former colleague, ‘a committed revolutionary since roughly 1939′.”

But despite this colour, the real contest between the soiled Chirac and the boring Lionel Jospin (he has, they say, “all the charisma of a Swedish professor of religious studies”) has been terminally dull. As long-time front runners, both are terrified of making some election-losing error. So they say nothing other than platitudes, and seem to have few ideas on policy or vision. The likelihood, whichever wins in the second round of voting next month is more of the same from France.

And the curious thing is that by most standards, France continues to prosper on this diet.