From Iceland — Keening Lovely and Awful

Keening Lovely and Awful

Published February 23, 2011

Keening Lovely and Awful

Advice From The Master
Last month, Icelandic State TV broadcasted a programme about money and financial matters. Its goal was to explode common misconceptions about money and raise people’s consciousness about important facts of financial life and how they relate to everyday situations.
I’ll leave it to viewers to decide if the programme achieved its first goal, but, to quote C. Bradshaw: It got me thinking.
The show is based on a book intended for high-school students (‘Ferð til fjár’), which puts forth four basic tenets:
1. Spend less than you earn.
2. Let the money work for you.
3. Expect the unexpected.
4. Money isn’t everything.
Fair enough. Three out of four are sound advice, if not the most profound. Number one is reminiscent of the often overlooked but effective “consume less than you burn”-school of dieting and weight loss. Three is tricky, since (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld) there are expected unexpecteds and then there are unexpected unexpecteds. The latter can really sneak up on you.
Four applies to everything except everything. Although money isn’t everything, it’s definitely something. Kind of like oxygen: not “everything” but really useful now and then.
Snarky condescension aside, this is all good advice, and only wish I could stick to it as much as I should. It’s the second thing that’s bothering me. How can you get money to work for you? Simple, you just lend it to someone, with interest, and get back a little more than you had originally. Want more? Just rinse and repeat. But where does money come from? Where did the borrower get the interest from? Maybe he spent less than he earned. Maybe his money is also gainfully employed. Who knows?
I think it’s time that we put our inner children on our inner laps and tell them where money comes from. Like babies, it comes from places like India.
Derailed by disaster
There was an Icelandic child in the news recently, born of a surrogate mother in Maharashtra. We do not know much about the surrogate. Maybe its private information, who knows? Nobody has asked, and why should we care?
Indians, like us, are big fans of big dams, apparently. One of their biggest projects is the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the Narmada valley. “It is located in Gujarat, but most of the villages that will be submerged by its gigantic reservoir are in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.” “[T]he largest contract ever signed in the history of India” (also called “the most massive fraud in the country’s history”) was between the Maharashtra State Electricity Board and Enron. Interesting stuff, right? This is, by the way, from Arundhati Roy’s ‘Power Politics’. When wondering about the fates of the millions of Indians displaced by big dams (in ‘The Greater Common Good’), Roy mentions an article about the affected selling their babies to adoption agencies. Again, I don’t know anything about this surrogate mother, I just happened to read the name Maharashtra twice in the same week, never having heard of the place before.
First man hats, then Berlin?
In 2009, year one of The Crisis, people were looking around, trying to find ways for Iceland to get back on track. Our first lady had some ideas. In an interview, she suggested making Iceland “a cool version of Dubai.” Like Maharashtra, Dubai is a bit of a mystery to me. I rummaged around on Wikipedia and Google and discovered the following:
-Dubai is a monarchy (wouldn’t it be great to be married to monarch?). But we’re not into monarchs, we like our demos cratic.
-Dubai has a growing tourism industry, we could do that? According to Wikipedia, prostitution, “though illegal by law” in Dubai, is “conspicuously present […] because of an economy that is largely based on tourism and trade.” The “most common prostitutes” are “Russian and Ethiopian” women. That doesn’t sound too good.
-Dubai has huge construction projects. They built the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made thing ever. Just imagine a huge glass behemoth, completely empty of people, towering over Reykjavík. Maybe the South Asian workers who built it could be compelled to lend us a hand.
An interesting invention of the Emiratis (note that a majority of the people living in Dubai are expatriates from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, many of whom would like to leave but can’t) is the refrigerated beach. We also don’t like our beaches’ temperature; have they seen our heated beach? We do have a lot in common. Johann Hari (in ‘The Dark Side of Dubai’) even says that Dubai “looks less like Manhattan in the sun than Iceland in the desert,” with its “ubiquitous cranes [that] have paused on the skyline, as if stuck in time.”
Was there a point to all of this rambling? Well, our first lady correctly pointed out that our troubles pale in comparison with those of the poor people in Africa and Asia. She’s right; some of them have to toil at erecting a Burj in burgeoning tourist resort or worse, sell their bodies in to strangers in the United Arab Emirates. We can do better than that. We could be a cool new Dubai (insert joke about Icelanders being good at du-ing stuff and bai-ing stuff).
In the same interview, the first lady, mentioned selling horsehair and fish skin leather to wealthy foreigners (whose money “works for them”). Or, wait for it, have the best hatter in the world. Rather the worst than the second-best.
We should also (and plans about this are already underway) get into health tourism, where well-off foreigners could nip over for knee surgery or have their teeth looked at.
As for my inflammatory writ…
I seem to have trailed off a bit. I admit that a lot of what I referred to above is out of context (for effect). But all of the sources I mentioned are easily accessible and there’s much more interesting stuff there for those willing to check things out for themselves.
Now, some final points: First, let’s be wary of an educational show sponsored by a bank (named Arion, like the guy in Herodotus’ account of a miraculous, ancient bailout). Second, reporters in Iceland are few (about the same number as PR-agents, it’s been said) and their resources limited, so let’s get used to doing a bit of research on our own. Third, let’s think some things through, even if just a tiny bit. And fourth, money isn’t everything.

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