I have a whole series of serious posts in draft about recent happenings in global finance, but I couldn’t resist sticking to frivolity for a moment to share these statistics with you.  In the 2008 presidential election, an astonishing 131 million Americans voted, the first time in more than 40 years that the turnout had topped 60% of registered voters.   Compare that to another election of sorts which took place this week, when America voted for their new “American Idol.”  100 million votes were case by text or telephone for this week’s finale, which paired a clean-cut, Christian and primarily accoustic musician from Arkansas (Kris Allen) against a gay goth-esque rocker wearing eye-liner from California (Adam Lambert). It set a record for direct voting for a television show, which is unsurprising as the vote total was insanely high.   To put it in further perspective: approximately the same number of votes were cast for Idol as the 2000 presidential election.

Of course, Idol has three advantages on turning out the numbers: you can vote as many times as you like, you can vote from your couch instead of standing in line at a school or church hall on a cold Tuesday morning in November, and any pre-teen with a cell phone can vote – no need to meet a pesky age requirement. You’d hope that the relative importance of the presidency would count for something in pushing up the totals, but you’d be hoping in vain.

And just in case you’re wondering who won, it was the clean-cut Arkansas hearthrob, despite the fact that there was a nearly universal opinion that the rocker was a better singer and entertainer (not that I spend my time reading about these things, of course). Interestingly, while America made the bold choice to elect a young, black man with relatively little legislative experience to the presidency, they made the conservative choice on American Idol. I’ll leave speculation that the Christian right turned out the vote against the gay idol aside, but as I’ve noted before, electing a gay man or woman is the next big challenge for the US (though I had in mind as president, not as idol). In any case,  it might have been those pre-teens in love with Kris who swung the pendulum in his favour despite his less impressive performance, which to me seems a good rationale not to lower the voting age, and certainly to prevent people from voting for the president by text.

Taxi Talk

May 21, 2009

In July 2006, I landed in Caracas, Venezuela around 10:00pm on a flight from Managua via Panama City. I was in Caracas to meet with some government officials, and the Ministry had arranged my hotel reservations and flights, and I had figured everything else would work itself out (my general travel philosophy).  I didn’t have any bolivars, so I went to the ATM, and then remembered that I was going to be paying a high premium on the money I was taking out: the Venezuelan exchange rate had been fixed against the dollar for a number of years at the same rate, and overtime had become artificially high.  As a result, there was the official exchange rate, and the unofficial one, which was of course much more favourable to holders of dollars.  But as I had forgotten to look up the latest black market rate, I didn’t want to risk my luck with the informal money changers on the street.

Armed with my expensive cash, I hoped in a cab, and immediately struck up a conversation to ask what the going rate for dollars was.  As anyone who’s been to a new city knows, a taxi driver is exactly the right person to ask this question, seeing as they always seem to be on top of all social, economic and political trends based on their unscientific sampling of the opinions that pass through their backseats.  On the long trip into the centre of town, we talked about the state of the Venezuelan economy, Bush and Chavez.  He had been an avid supporter, until a bridge connecting the city to the airport collapsed, increasing his journey time to and from by more than two hours, with no corresponding increase in fare.  The conversation was the perfect brief introduction into the realities of Venezuelan life that I needed to keep a critical eye on what I was to hear and discuss with the government the next day.

I mentioned in my last post that I was shocked to find out on my recent trip to the US that a not insignificant percentage of Americans are so unhappy with Obama’s economic policies they would prefer to succede from the United States.  Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to take the pulse of any cab drivers about this.  Not because I didn’t take any cabs while in the US – I took a number of them while I was in New York for a long weekend – but because every cab I got into was driven by someone who talked throughout the entire trip on their mobile phone… or more precisely, into their mobile phone earpieces.

There’s no more taxi talk in New York City.  I don’t know who all the cabbies are talking to (each other?), but the art of taxi banter is fading fast.  Not only are the Big Apple’s cabbies on the phone, there are small television screens built into the panel of the seat in front of you, like on an airplane.  The cabbie no longer wants to talk to the passenger, and the passenger is distracted by a replay of that morning’s “Regis and Kelly” (that is if they are not talking on their own phones).  No informal political or economic banter is exchanged, and thus everyone’s a bit poorer.

I’m only slightly exageratting when I say that I think that this is the largest loss social science has ever suffered.   If taxi talk vanished altogether in other cities across the globe, I’m pretty sure that political analysts would do less well in predicting electoral outcomes.  That economists would have fewer hunches about the differences between the official inflation statistics and the reality on the ground.  And at a stretch: maybe if New York City cabbies had been talking to the bankers, trader and investors who hoped into the back of their cabs over the past year, more people would have been aware that the financial system and the global economy was on the brink of collapse.

A funny thing happened on my way to Texas late last week:  I heard that an astonishing 30% of Texans want to secede from the Union (and more than 50% of those that are registered Republicans) and that Governor Rick Perry was encouraging this tomfoolery by sympathising with the rebels.  I learned this by reading the New Yorker I bought during my layover in Charlotte, while I was en route from London to Austin (the Texas state capital).  Having thus already cleared customs and immigration once when I landed in North Carolina, it was theoretically possible that I would have had to show a passport again to enter the sovereign state of Texas.

When the heck did this happen?  I live in a little Euro bubble, where everyone is ecstatic that Obama is the president, and is pursuing climate change and economic stimulus at the expense of the heath of the Federal budget.  But I can attest, based solely on the two gentleman sitting next to me on the plane from London to Charlotte and then from Charlotte to Austin, that not all Americans are equally pleased.  They are throwing “tea” parties: “taxed enough already”, they are talking about secession, they are worried about hyper-inflation (huh?) and think that Obama is “killing the innovation that makes America work.”   I tried to rationally talk these people down (mentioning my credentials at LSE helped somewhat – thankfully they didn’t know that the place was founded by a bunch of socialists), but they were convinced that Obama was running the country into ruin and that secession was a good alternative.

Never again will I just scan the domestic news reported in the New York Times.  My parents might end up living in another country while I’m not looking – and a petro-state at that.

Recently I learned that man is predisposed to imagine islands, to conjure small pieces of land that do not exist.  In the nineteenth century, maps of the sea drawn by the British Navy included more than 200 non-existent islands.  As the article I learned this in poetically described: “It’s easy to imagine how the mistakes were made. A dark band of sea fog is mistaken for an atoll. A distant alto-cumulus seen through heat is taken for a sea cliff, towering over a bronze sea. A hydrographer jots down the discovery, before the ship gets veered away by weather. The data is returned to Greenwich’s cartographers – and so the geological and the chimerical get mingled.”

Thanks to a family friend visiting London from the US via Fiji, I also recently learned about a very small equatorial island, moored in the South Pacific, 300km from the tiny country of Nauru, which itself is hundreds of kilometers from anything.  It’s history and present seem imagined as well: too complex to fit its tiny size – just 6.5 square kilometers.  The island has two names: Banaba and Ocean Island, the first meaning “stony” in the local language and the second (and contrasting) name given by the British.   Its remote location didn’t protect it or its people from the violent and material tendencies of the 20th century: the British discovered that it was rich in phosphate in the early 1900s and by 1980, 90% of its land surface stripped away through mining.  The Japanese colonised it during World War II, killing off a massive proportion of its population.  Those that survived were forcibly moved to a small island in Fiji, called Rabi, by the British at the end of the war.

So while the island is part of the nation of Kiribati (which my friend taught me is actually pronounced “Kiripas”), its people  live in Northern islands of Fiji, as an ethnic minority who enjoy limited political and economic rights.   Ocean Island sits there in the South Pacific, all but deserted, and with mountains of old mining equipment rusting on it.  The Banaban descendants in Rabi administer the island, and send money to support a population of about 200 people who still live there.  They spend an out-sized proportion of their limited income on Banaba because if they and their people leave the island completely, the government of Kiribati is likely to claim it as their own.

The question is why would Kiribati want a tiny, uninhabited, rocky island far from everything with no natural resources left to exploit? The answer is a side-effect of globalisation: climate change.  At 266ft above sea level, it is the highest island in the Gilbert Chain which forms Kiribati, a country which is at risk of being gobbled up by the Pacific if sea levels rise much more.  That makes Ocean Island an attractive place to imagine a Kiribati future, a place that is not at risk of becoming imaginary once again like the nation’s other atolls, dispersed over more than a million square miles of the South Pacific.