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bubbles, growth limits and why lava candle holders are funny

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Economoholics
Icelandic economic culture dictates to cheer any bubble in the name of economic growth without thinking about such things as externalities, limits of growth or even basic planning. It is akin to the drinking culture, excessive to a point where any non-Icelander just stands by in confusion, wondering if the whole island has gone insane.
Any criticism is met in the same way as the suggestion that going horse riding after several bottles of vodka is not a good idea: with a laugh, a "þetta reddast" and the implication that you are a humourless spoil sport that just doesn't understand the Icelandic way.

Until the inevitable hangover the next day. But like any good addict, while stumbling through the mess, trying to peace together what happened the only reaction you have to the piercing headache is that you really need to find the next party.
At least this is my explanation for what happened in the last elections.

A tourist themed party
Last year there has been a record number of almost a million tourists in Iceland with an annual growth of 20%. The whole population is only around 340.000. These tourists required infrastructure, such as hotel rooms and hiked through fragile countryside to visit tourist attractions where they required services, such as bathrooms and left behind lots of waste.
Here the externalities of the tourist industries became apparent. The already ridiculously limited rental market basically collapsed, with thousands of flats taken out of it and changed to AirBnB.
Landowners watched as thousands of tourists trampled over their land to visit geysirs and waterfalls, destroying the vegetation and leaving waste behind for a lack of toilets. In the end some decided to charge entry fees. However the right to travel freely over other peoples land has been protected by law since the 13th century and the entry fees were deemed illegal. But the incident started a discussion on how to pay for the externalities of the tourist industry.

Financing the clean up
Two ideas were thrown around: increase the tax on hotel accommodation and other tourist industries or implement a "nature pass" akin to the National Park Pass in the US. The first would be relatively easy to implement and only affect tourists or tourist related industries. It would mean higher airfares and hotel prices, thus the number of tourists might decrease, yet they would spend more money. The second idea does not only go against the before mentioned Icelandic law of free travel, but it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to implement, considering the vastness of the Icelandic highlands. On a side note: I wonder if the farmers who go to father the sheep in the highlands in autumn will have to buy the nature pass to do so.
Here one can also see an ideological problem, nature as a communal resource or private property. Maybe it is not surprising that the proposal comes from a government traditionally representing landowners. Maybe the close ties of the government with airlines and hotel owners come into play as well. Maybe it is just a natural reflex from a neo-liberal government to try and avoid raising taxes against all reason.
It should be noted as well that a fee, such as a nature pass is regressive, while a tax, especially on luxury goods is progressive.

Tourists are cash cows
With almost a million coming to Iceland there has been a change in attitude towards tourists. From visitors they have been reduced to cashcows, herded through tours and tourist shops, with ridiculous articles such as below:



The key chain costs almost 10€. Lava is not a limited resource in Iceland, Holahraun, the fissure which has been erupting for the past 4 months has already produced a lava field of 81m². Enough lava candle holders for whole generations of tourists.

Two good articles on the topic:
http://grapevine.is/mag/column-opinion/2014/09/04/tourism-the-destruction-of-iceland/
http://grapevine.is/Home/ReadArticle/Less-Is-More



Sending from a squat

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This is like the nicest squat ever, we have heating (fortunately, this is Iceland), electricity, water, even internet. It is an office building, where our union had a space. It is a nice space, with a kitchen and a cool view.





We were kicked out because it is going to be turned into a hostel (surprise, surprise, Iceland is turning into Belgium sea side towns, tourist shops and hotel minus any life).
We decided to take a stand and stay and make art.
We brainstormed:

and I wrote it up to a manifesto, which can me found here.

We made some "art", so we would have something to show when the landlord comes by:



This is my "piece", death of an alien by bureaucracy (about Icelandic immigration policy)


There are a lot of empty rooms for people to get creative in:


We have been getting some real positive press. And have been organising events, like movie nights, a concert tomorrow and free painting. We have a free shop, taking care of a homeless cat and there is always food and music going on. The landlord was happy to let us stay for now, but obviously that might change any day, it all depends how fast he gets permissions from the city to turn it into a hostel. Then the question is: do we stand and fight or does our little community move on. One thing is clear, people have been meeting and collaborating here, who had not done so before. Ideas were born and plans made. This might turn into something good, in however form.



Welcome to the police state

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It is getting colder. This is not a metaphor, it has been snowing the last two days and the wind is ice cold. I made a mental note to get candles for our new home. Yes, new flat, finally, yay!

I feel the need to fortify, not only because of the weather. For no other reason than douchbaggery the police just acquired a shit load of automatic a semi-automatic weapons.

They way they were acquired is more than shady, first it was said it was a gift from Norway, then Norway said: "eh, no". Then it was said the coast guard bought it from Norway, which they denied and Norway said "sure you did!". I feel like were are dealing with third rate sleazy business men, rather than official government institutions.

Iceland has just been voted the most peaceful country in the world so there is 0 need for these kind of weapons. I think there is 1 gun crime every 5 years, most of the time some jealous lover killing their partner or rival or something.
Just for the heck of it I looked up Icelandic crime statistics on http://statice.is. Total offences from 1999 to 2012 have been steadily decreasing:

If you look at the different offences, one can see that violent crimes, such as assault have been going down. Funnily enough the rate of drug crimes seems to follow economic development. I guess in 2009 people did not really have money for drugs. Interestingly "offences against authorities" is the only thing that has increased. The police getting machine guns is not going to help here, rather aggravate people.

The data I used is here. My guess is, the police looked at Ferguson and decided "we want this too!".

In other news the Gálgahraun protestors have been sentenced to pay 100,000kr (700 Euros) or face 8 days in jail for refusing to follow police orders. They had been protesting road construction through a protected Lava field, which had been the inspiration for many of Kjarvals paintings.



Though their actions were completely legal the police had ordered them to leave as they were halting road constructions. When they refused they were forcefully evacuated by the police. By Icelandic law one is obliged to follow police orders, yet the law is not very clear what happens when the police orders you to stop doing something, which is well within your rights to do. This ruling might set a worrying precedent.
What happens now if the police wants to search your car and you refuse to comply? Or if they are trying to break up a meeting of activists? Or remove an "undesired" person from a public place? Next time protesters gather in front of the parliament with pots and pants will they be met by police with machine guns?

One thing is clear militarising the police and giving them more rights to harass people does not bode well.


An unexpected talk

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Today I went to a lecture from a friend about refugees, immigrants and labour rights in Iceland. A description of the lecture is here. She had organised for immigrants to talk after her lecture, but shortly before the lecture they had backed out because of time issues or because they were afraid to speak publicly as some were lacking documentation. She asked me if I want to talk about my (much less dramatic) experiences and I said sure why not, but we had not decided which topic I should speak about. I did not hear from her again, so I figured that one of the original speakers were going to speak. I went to the lecture and found out that she had planned for me to speak, so scribbled some thoughts down during her part.

This is more or less what I said (with a lot of "ums" and "ehms" taken out) :
As an immigrant from a European country I cannot talk a lot about my rights being abused, I can however talk about the inconveniences of being an immigrant. A lot of the inconveniences come from difficulties of finding information or finding someone who actually has the correct information. Even employers who employ a lot of immigrants often do not know. I was working in the hospital in Blönduós and after I had seen a lot of workers from the local slaughterhouse who had come to me, but were not insured I called their boss. He was unaware of the fact that according to Icelandic law people (Icelandic and immigrants alike) have to be registered for six months before they have health insurance coverage.
But not only employers, a lot of times people working in relevant institutions cannot answer questions relevant to immigrants.
For example, when I was working on a self-employed basis I had to pay into a private pension fund. As I already pay into a German private pension fund, I thought I might not have to pay into an Icelandic one as well. So I called everyone, from the Icelandic tax office to private pension funds to find the answer. No one could help me until I finally got a foreigner on the phone.
I also worked and lived in Iceland illegally by mistake for almost a year. When I registered in the town hall in Iceland they did not give me the correct registration form (I got the one for Icelandic citizens, not the one for citizens from the EEA/EFTA). Thus I never applied for a residence/work permit. I found out when I did my tax report and after a few calls to the þjóðskrá and directorate for immigration the matter was resolved. And this is where my experience is different from someone outside the EU. For me the reaction was basically "ups, my bad" while someone from outside the EU probably would have been deported.
The distinction between groups immigrants is not only made by institutions, but also by society. A lot of time I am told that I am the "good kind of foreigner". There is a kind of hierarchy on how foreigners are seen in Iceland, with western European on top, followed by eastern European and people from outside the EU, especially people from developing countries on bottom.


Chinese worker's strike update

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I got a reply from the Adidas Group concerning the situation in the Yue Yuen factory. It is a hilarious letter, some excerpts are below

We were closely monitoring the situation at the production site from the beginning. In order to minimise the impact on our operations, we reallocated some of the future orders originally allocated to Yue Yuen Dongguan to other suppliers. But we never intended to pull out of the Yue Yuen factory in Dongguan and we have no plans to do so.



And here is why we need an international labour movement, if companies can minimise the impact of a strike, what leverage do workers have to negotiate?

It is our understanding that the insurance contributions which YY had been providing, together with corresponding deductions from the workers, were in accordance with an agreement which they had reached with the Dongguan authorities and the local social insurance bureau.



Read corruption here. The letter fails to mention that the same local authorities used riot police against the protesting workers and incarcerated labour rights activists.

YY has now committed to achieve full compliance with the national requirements by May 1st 2014



Yay! The strike ended last week, additional to the contribution in the insurance funds, workers also got a pay raise and other benefits.

Some links:
https://www.chinalaborwatch.org/news/new-482.html
https://www.chinalaborwatch.org/news/new-484.html
https://www.chinalaborwatch.org/news/new-486.html


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