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2 august 2013, part 2 with number 1

In a few short hours, the second part of the holiday starts, our regular week by the lake (balaton in hungary), but with a twist. Whilst my youngest and other half are already in budapest, my eldest and I are making a 6am start to get on all manner of manchester transport systems before boarding the 7.55 to london, where a short underground trip to st pancras awaits us, as does a rather longer eurostar one to paris. This will be followed in short order by the tgv to munich, the overnight railjet to budapest and then some central european intercity niceties too as we make our way to our night in the capital before heading off to the country. If nothing else, it will be an adventure, which it already is for the other member of the party, who can't get to sleep from sheer excitement. For me, it is a most wonderful opportunity to spend some one-to-one time with my small baby who before our eyes is becoming a fully-functioning young adult, with reasoned views, the enthusiasm of youth and a sharp wit and intelligence that others can find quite daunting, but I of course take incredible pride in. I just wish we didn't have to leave so very early ! Oh well, all in a good cause.

31 july 2013, madonna meets boney m

These days holidays are a compromise: "we" want to go to the british museum, "they" want to go to legoland. In the end of course we do both. However, while we (or actually "I" as other half heads off down oxford street) shlepp around lego star wars for the third time without too much complaint, just half an hour gazing at the wonders of pompeii leaves them moaning and seeking a bribe just to stay. My favourite quote was in the dining room, sage advice for any dinner party, "don't dirty the couch covers, keep your eyes off other people's partners and take your quarrels home with you." We ate well, visited siblings, good friends, covent garden and the london transport museum (good if you like that kind of thing), were total tourists watching "we will rock you" (awful, but the kids loved it) and swanned around hampton court palace (beautiful, and very well presented) for the best part of a day, before stopping off at the very sophisticated design of bicester village for the rest of it. Next stop, a quiet week by the lake in hungary, for me and my eldest, by train (see 25 may 2013)...

23 july 2013, nudge, nudge

A few years behind those really ahead of the curve, I am getting my head around the application of behavioural psychology in public policy, or the nudge as it is popularly known. Why go to the trouble, expense and civil rights borderlands of troublesome law or regulation when a gentle application of science can sometimes have an equal effect. I want to be a choice architect. The examples are many, such as the changed wording of a letter that raised success rates 15% (in that case by suggesting paying tax was the norm); restaurant menu items at the beginning or end became more than twice as popular when put in the middle. My favourite is probably the hershey bars (p15), which were sold for 1 cent, compared to lindt chocolate, for 15c; 73% chose lindt. However this revealed preference was turned on its head when both prices were dropped by 1c, i.e. the hershey became free. Then 69% went for hershey. "Most transactions have an upside and a downside, explains the author, dan ariely, but when something is FREE! We forget the downside." There may be big lessons here for our free public services. How would charging £1 to go and see the doctor affect demand ? Having said that, some people genuinely can't afford a pound.

13 july 2013, ever ending ?

The background noise is growing that the western powers are finally moving towards declassifying hamas as untouchable and making them part of the peace process. Indeed, what has been apparent for some time, not least in john kerry's invisible shuttling attempts, is that you can't have a two-state solution, indeed any peace process, without them. Europe, oddly, was always the swing voter that will make this happen, but until now has badly misjudged the call (you can read this thesis in full in how we made the fatal mistake of not talking to hamas), for fear of rocking the boat on more important things with the us, which israel succeeded in convincing the last american president was the price it needed to pay for that. The eu has always split on the conflict, and has very little influence over israel, although it has always strongly backed the (oslo-founded, plo/fatah-based) palestinian authority. Increasingly though, several member states are coming round to having more skin in the game by being the obama vanguard in ensuring that the ongoing big pragmatist-radical battle within hamas is won by the former. Ultimately that is the first stage of a sequence that needs to take place before anything can be achieved: hamas evidence a willingness to talk; the west recognises their right to be part of the process; america cajoles israel to do the same; the two palestinian factions unite; and israel and palestine (it's now a country) are put in a room under heavy international auspices until a process and a plan come out (we got there with oslo). Finally there then needs to be years of intense ongoing engagement to actually follow through until we have something like sustainable peace. If you will it, it is no dream.

1 july 2013, and now we’re 28

Its been a long wait, and some now doubt its wisdom, but finally, after many, many years of patiently knocking on the door, getting a foot in and gently pushing it open, croatia today became a member of the european union. I have several times mentioned my own experiences (25 may 2011) in this former yugoslav state, my friends there and its coloured history (26 may 2011). Today, croatia may mean festivals and holidays; but for my generation it will always mean bloody war. Yet, like central europe's accession in 2004, joining the eu really does end one chapter and confirm the page has been turned onto a new one, of sustainable independence in the european mainstream. There is no doubt that the enlargement process, in terms ensuring compliance with the war crimes tribunal, played a wholly positive role; and in a similar way croatia joining will remain a beacon to the rest of the balkans (22 july 2012) for the decade to come, even if the pace is tortuously slow and accession not quite assured. Nor for croatia is economic prosperity assured, far from it. Once upon a time joining the eu meant exactly that; today it is more throwing in problems with the rest of them. For all that though, there are a queue of countries still wanting to join, and a central core determined to go further, faster, and so apart from being a seminal moment in croatia's history, today is also a marker in the union's, showing how life goes on and nothing stands still.

28 june 2013, the delights of moscow airport

Though I can't quite claim the fugitive status of edward snowden, I did feel a hand on my shoulder when reading about him being holed up at sheremetyevo. While working in eastern europe in the early 90s, I blithely found that small dollars got you visa-lessly through borders in the baltics, balkans and bulgaria - but not mother russia. Niet visa, an incredulous and armed guard asked me. Problema. My passport and ticket were taken and I was led to my luggage and a dismal corner of what was then a dismal airport, where I can picture edward now. I was sat on a plastic seat with a black guy from zaire. He was full of the joys of spring, joking that I was sat on his bed. Actually he wasn't joking: customs had refused to believe his passport photo was him, confiscated it and ordered him on the next flight back to zaire. As this was fortnightly, he'd been there thirteen days. But its ok, he said, they bring me food & water. After three hours, the fun had rather gone out of the situation, but on cue, the guard returned, with a new resident for the pen, a besuited british businessman. He did have a visa, but one starting (some secretary in london was really going to know about this monday morning) the next day. The suit bawled out the soldier and refused to give up his passport, until finally he was taken to see the airport consul. $10 worse off, so was I. Having walked through the entirety of a massive airport, we arrived at a rather grand, modern portacabin-type structure. A secretary was busily hammering away on a monstrously-large typewriter with latin letters. Eventually the inner door opened and a red-faced russian in a terrible suit smiled sardonically, and walked off. When he returned we sensed permission to follow him in, which I did despite the angry glances of my compatriot, sitting down on a huge puffy green bench, facing an even larger desk. Suit turned from managing director to lamb, and begged to be let in. I should deport you, he was told. Erm, sorry, clerical error. After some moments he was allowed to buy a new visa - for $110 dollars, cash. The consul then took the old one, and, with his thick cigar shaped pen, changed the '1' on the visa to a '0', and stamped it, beckoning a soldier to walk off the now-fleeced lamb. He turned to me. Why you have no visa ? Excuse. You like us to deport you back to warsaw, where I'd come from, or london - at your expense of course. I asked, grovellingly if he couldn't perhaps, on this one occasion, buy a visa. Four hundred and fifty dollars. It took me a moment to compose my face, but really I had no choice given my round ticket back would be more, no doubt a calculation also made on the other side of the desk. Ten minutes hour later, I was through, as I'm sure edward will be too, eventually.

25 june 2013, the dragon of debt

Amidst calls across the western world to let loose the genie of growth through the tamed beast of borrowing (look how cheap it is !), I remain fixated about the dragon of debt. Our concept of spend comes from an utterly unsustainable pattern established as the norm during the working lifetime of most of today's policymakers. Like geese stuffed for foie gras (I'll credit that to john lancaster) consumers, companies and sovereigns gorged on cheap credit. I recall the ecb vice-president telling how he was alerted to the coming crash while having his haircut in new york and being regaled about how his stylist had just bought a third house. Most of us have simply got used to buying everything we want, an extreme and gross consumerism that enabled the "great moderation" of the period, when cheap credit-fuelled growth kept inflation low, employment high and pumped up asset prices. Companies took on vast new levels of debt too, oiled by the high-yield (junk) bond revolution, that made capital cheaper and penalised companies for keeping cash. This was a happy world, and low interest rates, implicit guarantees and the government's balance sheet kept it that way. No-one dared remove the punchbowl from the party. Borrowing though needs lending, and hence now we are all in hock to china and the oil exporters, whose reserves have grown to the dizzying heights of today's global imbalances. Whether the cause of this is their savings glut or our generational binge is irrelevant; the fact is it's here, and probably has a way to run, as many of its constraining factors - irrational confidence in the american economy, investors' difficulties in emerging markets, and their dwarfish levels of domestic demand - are now slipping away. That epochal perspective is the unavoidable backdrop of any decision today. We are not in control. The "debt supercycle" is finally at an end, and the great deleveraging is upon us, like it or not.

18 june 2013, mind the gap

This is the longest I've gone without writing up a paragraph on these pages since I started many years ago. The basic reason is that we have been in a highly internet-challenged exile for a couple of months while we had work done on the house, and that chaos and living from suitcases added too many extra layers to a too busy life. Once in that rut though, the reflex rather dulled and the creative muscles used in these lucid windows did somewhat dry up, as the steamroller of everything else in life just squeezed them out. We have been back more than a week now, but it is still hard to carve out the moment and settle again into the space: temporal, mental and indeed physical, as I have now moved into a new study, painted by my own fair hand. Here I am then, and here it is, a rather stolid rebirth, but at least its out and now I will try and get it to quickly regrow. Yes, this is a green shoot.

25 may 2013, in train

My elder son, 11, is a bit of a train enthusiast; we were in desolate crewe a few weeks ago, at a cobbled-together museum next to a tesco that used to be factories employing tens of thousands. He has been closely monitoring the growth of manchester's metrolink tram network as it doubles in size; likening it to the growth of london underground, 150 years ago. He has been particularly watching east didsbury get built over the last year, our closest stop; and over recent weeks we have cycled by to see test trains arrive at the terminus which stops about an inch before you enter stockport. Trying as ever to please and encourage my offspring in whatever their interests, I did forward on (yes, he has active email) the startling news that the line will start running 3 months earlier than expected, and then in a weak moment offered to go with him on the first train ever ("ever !!!") to leave east didsbury, which he was looking forward to for a week. I might sensibly have researched the actual times of these things before commiting, but as it was we got up at 4.50am on thursday to be nicely in time for the 5.49 to rochdale. We were not alone, as a buoyant crowd was there on a crisp, calm morning to welcome the latest addition to the line, as was radio manchester - so you can hear the whole thing live (listen at 46:35) and then afterwards on the news bulletin (listen at 2:23:45 and then 2:26:20), which I very highly recommend (go on, listen) as they interviewed a certain 11 year old. We then went for a walk and a slap-up breakfast in town. A grand start to a day !

19 may 2013, the mend of the project

When the french president even dares to talk about possibility of the end of the european project, you know it's in a hole. About time, most people would say, with half the population of what is often called the european demos confidently predicting the end of the eu for many years now. A far cry from five years ago, when I left the project in its strongest state ever, with consensus building around the appointment of a proper european president and the euro lining up the dollar in its sights. Looking forward to the last european elections (the quiet road to 2009) I broadly saw a lull after the last wave of constitutional change and stability underpinning faster progress in rather mundane areas like the energy market and the eu making mobile phone companies slash the costs of cross-border calls. This meat-and-potatoes stuff did actually happen, but in the economic tumult since 2008, no-one noticed. Instead the crash was accompanied by a wave of hostility to the eu being crystallised and driven forward, by scapegoating, by poor and disparate leadership and by a counter-productive retreat to national markets and politics that has both fed and fed by the bolstering of a series of anti-eu parties (26 march 2011), most recently joined by ukip in britain. This has merely made bolder the real choice europe has always faced, between retreating towards a trade-based association of countries (the model the uk has always favoured) and the ever closer union that, rather remarkably, is what hollande's speech was actually about. However you translate the "eurozone government" he called for as a solution to the recession and crisis of european identity, it is pretty clear which way he's pointing. The french eventually browbeating germany into greater european unity is exactly how we got to maastricht, and as its probably going to get worse (or at least the same) before it gets better, the urgency of "something must be done" does have some form for taking wings.

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