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Archive Monthly Archives: November 2017

Facebook’s satellite went up in smoke, but its developing world land grab goes on | Emily Reynolds

Im sure Mark Zuckerberg has noble intentions in democratising the web, but we should still be wary of private companies controlling the internets infrastructure

A rocket crashing into a satellite and cutting off the internet may sound somewhat like the start of an end-of-the-world blockbuster; surely such destruction, and lack of Wi-Fi, could only be a harbinger of doom?

Fortunately, the scenario that played out last week was slightly less portentous. A SpaceX rocket, part of Elon Musks fevered attempts to eventually colonise Mars, exploded on Thursday as part of a failed pre-launch test fire, destroying a Facebook-owned satellite in the process.

The satellite, which cost the company around 150m, was due to be used as part of Internet.org, a project designed to bring web connectivity to areas of the world with limited internet access. Free Basics, a program developed by Facebook with six internet service providers, is an onramp to the internet, designed to help those without the internet get online. Its latest iteration, in Nigeria, saw the launch of 85 free online services including healthcare offerings, job listings, education portals and, of course, Facebook itself.

So far so good, right? Well, kind of. Providing access to the internet is a noble cause, particularly in parts of the world where it is severely limited or even non-existent. But should this infrastructure belong to a private company like Facebook, or should it be state-owned and maintained? Far be it from me to question the true nature of CEO Mark Zuckerbergs philanthropy, but no matter how charitable a cause Facebook is championing, its primary aim is to make money often from monetising its users data.

Its not just an issue of infrastructure, either; the destruction of the satellite also raises important questions about net neutrality that internet service providers, be it Sky, BT, or Facebook, should enable equal access to all content and applications on the web without favouring any source over another. The narrative Facebook has given Internet.org is lofty and well-meaning enough it describes the difference a weather report could make for a farmer planting some crops, and talks of how free information could help a child without textbooks but look beyond the sleek website and humanitarian buzzwords and its a little more troubling.

Users of the service may be connected to the internet, but their browsing choices are severely limited the 85 services that are provided in Nigeria, for example, may be a good start for those getting to grips with the web, but are otherwise entirely inadequate. The whole point of the internet the joy of it, the endlessly radical possibilities that are part and parcel of it is that its open, that its neutral, that its users are free to say, do, and read almost anything they want on it.

Its not been without critics on this front, either; when Facebook attempted to launch the Free Basics initiative in India it met fierce opposition from net neutrality groups who felt that the entire internet should be accessible to users. Several campaigns were set up to lobby against the service, with one, Save the Internet (now the Internet Freedom Foundation), stating that one network provider should not have a competitive advantage for specific services.

Everybody should have an equal opportunity to use the sites and services they want, irrespective of which provider they use to connect to the internet, the campaign wrote in its mission statement. Evidently Indian regulators agreed: Free Basics was blocked in February until Facebook could provide more details about the terms of the service.

Theres obviously no immediate need to panic its not like Zuckerberg is holed up in a den somewhere laughing maniacally about his omnipotent control of the internet. State-controlled infrastructure isnt always safe or reliable either earlier this year, for example, the internet was effectively switched off in Iraq to prevent teenagers from cheating on their exams, and the internet is widely censored in countries such as China and North Korea. This, clearly, is not a favourable outcome.

But if were slightly more cynical about the whole endeavour, its not hard to see why Facebook might be so keen to provide these services beyond its possibly genuine desire to create a more connected world. Facebooks user base has reached near saturation point in the US and Europe, making countries such as Nigeria and India potential goldmines when it comes to new sign-ups. More users, and more user data, benefit Facebook in one extremely simple way financially.

Like it or not, this financial consideration is a significant factor in the way that the company both provides its services and limits access to others. Free and open access to information is a right and privately held companies should not be the ones who decide how, where, and to whom that right is bestowed.

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Indonesian Food Blogger: The Unifying Power Of Cuisine And Social Media – NPR


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Indonesian Food Blogger: The Unifying Power Of Cuisine And Social Media
NPR
My dad used to be very skeptical about my food blogging: "Why are you doing this? You are not making money. You are not doing good things." But as time passes, my dad is starting to see what I try to do. He's starting to understand that you can do

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Scouting the Falcons vs Panthers matchup with Cat Crave – Blogging Dirty (blog)


Blogging Dirty (blog)

Scouting the Falcons vs Panthers matchup with Cat Crave
Blogging Dirty (blog)
Blogging Dirty: With former Panthers star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin now playing for the Buffalo Bills and tight end Greg Olsen not being able to play this Sunday, which Panthers offensive player or players do you believe will carry the load against

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How a tax haven is leading the race to privatise space

The long read: Luxembourg has shown how far a tiny country can go by serving the needs of global capitalism. Now it has set its sights on outer space. By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

On a drizzly afternoon in April, Prince Guillaume, the hereditary grand duke of Luxembourg, and his wife, Princess Stéphanie, sailed through the front doors of an office building in the outskirts of Seattle and into the headquarters of an asteroid-mining startup called Planetary Resources, which plans to “expand the economy into space”.

The company’s engineers greeted the royals with hors d’oeuvres, craft beer and bottles upon bottles of Columbia Valley rieslings and syrahs. In the corner of the lounge stood a vintage Asteroids arcade game; on the wall hung an American flag alongside the grand duchy’s own red, white and blue stripes. Between the two flags was a prototype of a spacecraft designed to roam the galaxy, prospecting asteroids for precious natural resources that would someday – at least in theory – make the shareholders of Planetary Resources very wealthy earthlings indeed.

The nation of Luxembourg is one of Planetary Resources’ main boosters. The country’s pledge of €25m (£22.5m) – which includes both direct funding and state support for research and development – is just one element of its wildly ambitious campaign to become a terrestrial hub for the business of mining minerals, metals and other resources on celestial bodies. The tiny country enriched itself significantly over the past century by greasing the wheels of global finance; now, as companies such as Planetary Resources prepare for a cosmic land grab, Luxembourg wants to use its tiny terrestrial perch to help send capitalism into space.

Space exploration has historically been an arena for grand, nationalistic operations that were too costly, dangerous and complex for civilians to take up without state backing. But now, private companies want in, raising questions that, until recently, have seemed like mere thought experiments or hypotheticals: who can lay claim to an asteroid and all of its extractive wealth? Should space benefit “all of humankind”, as the international treaties signed in the 60s intended, or is that idealism outdated? How do you measure those benefits, anyway? Does trickle-down theory apply in zero-gravity conditions?

Space is becoming a testing ground for these thorny ethical and legal questions, and Luxembourg – a tiny country that has sustained itself off of regulatory intricacies and tax loopholes for decades – is positioning itself to help find the answers. While major nations such as China and India plough increasing sums of money into developing space programmes to rival Nasa, Luxembourg is making a different bet: that it can become home to a multinational cast of entrepreneurs who want to go into space not for just the sake of scientific progress or to strengthen their nation’s geopolitical hand, but also to make money.

It already has a keen clientele. Space entrepreneurs speak of a new “gold rush” and compare their mission to that of the frontiersmen, or the early industrialists. While planet Earth’s limited stock of natural resources is rapidly being depleted, asteroid miners see a solution in the vast quantities of untapped water, minerals and metals in outer space. And the fledgling “NewSpace” industry – an umbrella term for commercial spaceflight, asteroid mining and other private ventures – has found eager supporters in the investor class. In April, Goldman Sachs sent a note to clients claiming that asteroid mining “could be more realistic than perceived”, thanks to the falling cost of launching rockets and the vast quantities of platinum sitting on space rocks, just waiting to be exploited.

“[Mining asteroids] is not a new idea, but what’s new is state support of the idea,” says Chris Voorhees, the chief engineer of Planetary Resources. “Everyone thought it was inevitable but they weren’t sure when it would occur.” Now, he says, Luxembourg is “making it happen”.

The grand duchy – which has all the square footage of an asteroid and, with a population of half a million, not all that many more inhabitants – has earmarked €200m to fund NewSpace companies that join its new space sector; to date, six have taken it up on the offer. It has sent officials to Japan, China and the UAE to talk about space exploration partnerships, and appointed space industry veterans, including the ex-head of the European Space Agency, to advise them. In May, it took out a glossy supplement in Scientific American magazine to signal it is committed not just to helping businesses, but to advancing research as well.

And in July, the parliament passed its law – the first of its kind in Europe, and the most far-reaching in the world – asserting that if a Luxembourgish company launches a spacecraft that obtains water, silver, gold or any other valuable substance on a celestial body, the extracted materials will be considered the company’s legitimate private property by a legitimate sovereign nation.

The presence of royalty at Planetary Resources HQ ahead of the passing of the law was a canny part of the country’s space incursion. The young couple was there to dazzle, charm and lend gravitas to the operation – European aristocracy doesn’t show up in suburban office parks any old day – but the mission’s greater aim was to impress upon Silicon Valley executives, the bemused Luxembourgish press and space scientists around the world that mining asteroids was no longer science fiction. To that end, the royals were accompanied by about 40 of their subjects, all of whom had a role to play in this emerging industry.

Etienne Schneider, Luxembourg’s congenial deputy prime minister, led the delegation. With his easy manner, excellent English and penchant for fancy cars, he cuts a Macronian figure: a product of European socialist political parties, sure, and a social liberal to his core – Schneider is married to a man – but one who will willingly play handmaiden to global capitalist interests should the right opportunity arise. He announced recently that he would be running for the role of prime minister in 2018.

With Schneider came a delegation of scientists, trade attaches, bankers, lawyers and local journalists who switched between German, English, French and the local language, a consonant-heavy mix of Flemish and German with the occasional foreign word thrown in to supplement: “meeting”, “framework”, “brunch”. (“We don’t have all the words,” a member of the delegation told me sheepishly.) In French, the language is known as Luxembourgeois, which pretty much says it all; the duchy’s 500,000 citizens, who have a GDP per capita of $104,000 (£78,800), are the wealthiest in the world after Qatar’s, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The Planetary Resources team took their benefactors on a tour of the labs where its hardware is built. The company isn’t mining asteroids yet, but to benefit from Luxembourg’s concessions, it opened an office in the grand duchy this year. Up close, its Arkyd 6 spacecraft – which is ready for launch – looks just like satellites look in the movies, only smaller. It had multiple flaps and appendages, including an infrared sensor, a star tracker to orient the craft in space and a GPS unit, which works only in the earth’s orbit.

Once the tour was complete, cocktail hour began. Schneider, who owns a vineyard, bounced from one conversation to another, brimming with enthusiasm. To end the visit, Chris Lewicki, the CEO of the company, gave a toast praising Luxembourg’s contributions “to an abundant future for all of humanity”. As a parting gift, he presented her royal highness with a necklace. Instead of jewels, it was studded with tiny fragments of asteroids.


It is reasonable to wonder what, exactly, a marginal European monarchy, egged on by a vivacious gay socialist, was doing telling American entrepreneurs on the cutting edge of innovation that their hamlet-sized state could propel humanity – and capitalism – into deep space. The grand duchy has no national space agency, no launching sites, and only modest research capabilities. It opened its first and only university in 2003 and its military consists of 1,008 troops. Luxembourg does not fit the image of a spacefaring nation; in fact, some have questioned whether it should even be a nation at all.

Yet Luxembourg’s very essence – as a speck in the heart of Europe – allows, even requires, it to partake in such ambitious ventures. Its national motto is “We want to remain what we are” and, over the centuries, this independent spirit has endured occupations by the dukes of Burgundy, the kings of Spain and France, the emperors of Austria and the king of the Netherlands. Today, the state, which only gained full independence in 1867, occupies a curious position in the global imagination: a country with an outsized economic influence that everyone has heard of, but that no one can quite locate on a map.

According to Gabriel Zucman, assistant professor of economics at UC Berkeley, the country is hard to miss in the financial world. “Luxembourg has private banks like Switzerland, it has a big mutual fund industry like Ireland’s, it’s used for corporate tax avoidance like Bermuda or the Netherlands, and it also hosts one of the two international central depositories for securities, so it’s active in euro bonds,” he says. “It’s the tax haven of tax havens, present at all stages of the financial industry.” Tony Norfield, a former banker in the City of London who now writes on global finance, has described Luxembourg as “a paragon of parasitism”.

The story of how a marginal and relatively powerless country has survived world wars, economic crises and cataclysmic technological advances to become a banking and finance powerhouse tells us a lot about how far a small country can go if it devotes itself to anticipating and accommodating the needs of global capital. It’s a contentious business: for every happy shareholder praising Luxembourg’s business-friendly rules and money-saving loopholes, there’s a critic condemning Luxembourg’s willingness to expedite the regulatory “race to the bottom”.

Luxembourg
Luxembourg City. Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Rex/Shutterstock

Then again, there aren’t many options for a country like Luxembourg besides exploiting its most valuable resource: its national sovereignty. And Luxembourg has done this more and better than any other country in the world. By crafting innovative rules, laws and regulations that only it could (or would) put on offer, Luxembourg has attracted banks, telecommunications companies and consulting firms before any of these industries came to dominate the global economy. Now, by courting asteroid miners before anyone else takes them seriously, it may very well end up doing the same thing for the commercialisation of space.

Luxembourg’s first significant attempts at liberalisation began in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As radio grew popular, the grand duchy decided not to create a publicly funded radio service like its neighbours. Instead, it handed its airwaves to a private, commercial broadcasting company. That company – now known as RTL – became the first ad-supported commercial station to broadcast music, culture and entertainment programmes across Europe in multiple languages. “By handing the rights to a public good to a private company, the state commercialised, for the first time, its sovereign rights in a media context,” notes a 2000 book on Luxembourg’s economic history. The title of the book, published by a Luxembourgish bank, is, tellingly, The Fruits of National Sovereignty.

Then, just three months before the stock market collapsed in 1929, Luxembourg’s parliament passed legislation exempting holding companies – that is, parent firms that exist solely to own parts of or control other companies – from paying corporation taxes. In the first five years after the law’s passing, 700 holding companies were established; in 1960, there were 1,200, and by the turn of the century, some 15,000 “letterbox” firms – one for every 18 citizens – were incorporated in Luxembourg. (In 2006, the European commission found that this exemption violated EU rules, so Luxembourg promptly created a new designation, the “family estate management company”, that complied with the country’s EU treaty obligations while offering many of the same money-saving advantages.)

Throughout the first half of 20th century, Luxembourg’s main industry was steel, but by 1980, that business all but collapsed. Even before its iron ore mines shut down, though, the grand duchy came to represent a discreet but powerful regulatory freedom. A homegrown economic model began to take shape: over the next decades, it would make a name for itself by passing legislation “designed to tempt the world’s hot money,” notes the Tax Justice Network, an anti-tax-evasion advocacy group.

The country’s policymakers also realized that less could really be more. According to Georges Schmit, a lifelong civil servant who has played a big role in shaping the country’s economy since he joined the ministry of the economy in 1981, a key component of Luxembourg’s early success was the fact that it did not have its own central bank. The country had been in a monetary union with Belgium since 1921, and didn’t impose reserve requirements on financial firms. This meant banks could lend or spend the money that they would have had to keep on deposit in other jurisdictions. In Schmit’s words, Luxembourg’s biggest draw “wasn’t our doing; it was the lack of our doing anything”.

Over the years, the government managed to coax over foreign financial institutions, from complex securitisation vehicles to Islamic banks. And on the consumer level, the state’s low taxes drew Europe’s tax-averse petty bourgeoisie. Starting in the 1960s, “Belgian dentists” and “German butchers” – the prevailing stereotypes cited in the international financial press – began taking daytrips to the grand duchy to deposit money to avoid tax at home. The Luxembourgish state even lowered fuel costs to attract the daytrippers, and in 1981, introduced legally binding bank secrecy comparable to Switzerland’s.

In the next century, the dentists would give way to Qatari princes, Chinese princelings and other global members of the global super-rich – or at the very least, their investments. “When a country is small, the rest of the world is big,” says Schmit. “Since independence we needed to find larger economic spaces, be they regional or continental.” By serving as a hub for investors, companies and markets during decades of rapid deregulation and globalisation, Luxembourg turned itself into an indispensable cog in the machinery of international finance.


In 2009, Schmit embarked for California to continue his life’s work: finding new ways for his country to attract money, this time as the general consul and trade envoy in Silicon Valley.

Since he had joined the ministry of the economy to devise new innovation strategies almost three decades earlier, his country seemed to have defied all odds and made virtues of its apparent weaknesses. Its small size had not prevented it from becoming the largest centre for investment funds in the world after the US. Its tiny population had not deterred multinationals and EU institutions such as the court of justice from basing their headquarters there. It had parlayed its status as a neutral country and founding member of many European organisations into sending three of its politicians – more than any other country – to preside over the European commission. And by marketing its easy access to Europe, an educated workforce, bank secrecy (which it voted to end in 2014 under pressure from other countries and the OECD) and myriad regulatory advantages, the country built an outsized financial sector.

Crucially, Luxembourg never seemed to let an opportunity pass it by. Following its support for commercial radio 50 years prior, the country was the first in Europe to privatise satellite television. In 1985, the grand duchy granted a company called Société Européenne des Satellites (SES) the right to broadcast TV directly to viewers’ homes from a satellite positioned in space. “The big innovation is that this was a privatisation of space,” says Schmit, who served for 17 years on the SES board. “All the other operators were owned by governments through international agreements. This was the first commercial company that set out to use space for broadcasting.” When SES grew profitable, Luxembourg’s bet paid off: the tiny country became home to a telecoms giant, and, as an early investor, received a piece of the pie.

Prince
Prince Guillaume and Princess Stéphanie of Luxembourg. Photograph: Didier Baverel/WireImage

In the early 2000s, Luxembourg pounced at the chance to court retailers such as Amazon and Apple with tax incentives. There were the perks the state was happy to publicise – the lowest VAT in Europe, for instance – and there were case-by-case deals with large companies that it kept rather quieter. The companies flocked in, but in the aftermath of the financial crisis, with awareness of wealth inequality growing and austerity measures bruising ordinary Europeans across the continent, Luxembourg could only keep these arrangements under wraps for so long.

In late 2014, the grand duchy went from relative obscurity to complete infamy when the details of these “tax rulings” – versions of which were also carried out by Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands – were disclosed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Known as the “Lux leaks”, the massive trove of leaked data revealed that, from 2002 to 2010, the country’s tax agency approved a series of confidential deals that allowed AIG, Ikea, Deutsche Bank and more than 300 other large firms to save billions of dollars they might have otherwise owed to other countries.

The rulings weren’t necessarily illegal, and they weren’t unique to Luxembourg, but they did cause a scandal, provoking damning reports in the media, protests around Europe and promises for tighter regulation from within the EU. Investigations on both sides of the Atlantic on related matters followed, and lawsuits revealed information on more companies still. (One memorable detail: Amazon’s 28-step tax-restructuring arrangement in Luxembourg was named Project Goldcrest after the country’s national bird.)

Around this time, Zucman, a recent Paris School of Economics PhD who studied with Thomas Piketty, began looking into Luxembourg’s role in international tax avoidance and evasion. His focus was not on the multinationals, but on Luxembourg’s thriving fund industry, which through niche regulations and loopholes allowed investors to avoid certain taxes, too. Luxembourg was a well-known financial centre, but the statistics Zucman dug up while researching his book, The Hidden Wealth of Nations, took him aback: in 2015, national data showed $3.5tn worth of shares in Luxembourgish mutual funds were domiciled in the grand duchy, while data from other countries accounted for only two of those trillions. The missing $1.5tn suggested to him that the money – which, he notes, was probably accumulating interest by the day – had no identifiable owner. That meant the countries to whom tax was owed on these ungodly sums were unaware of their existence.

Globally, Zucman calculated almost $8tn in financial wealth – which does not include real estate, luxury goods, gold or other commodities – has been stolen from countries and taxpayers in this fashion thanks to “secrecy jurisdictions” such as Luxembourg, the Virgin Islands or Panama working “in symbiosis”. In his book, Zucman described Luxembourg as an “economic colony of the international financial industry” and challenged its right to its greatest asset: its sovereignty.

“Imagine an ocean platform where the inhabitants would meet during the day to produce and trade, free of any law or any tax, before being teleported in the evening back home to their families on the mainland,” he wrote, referring to the country’s unusual demographics: 47% of Luxembourg’s 500,000 residents are foreign, and 44% of the workforce commutes in across nation-state lines each day for work. “No one would dream of considering such a place, where 100% of its production is sent abroad, as a nation.

“The trade of sovereignty knows no limits,” Zucman continues. “Everything is bought; everything is negotiable. Luxembourg is not the only country that has sold its sovereignty, far from it … but it is the one that has gone the furthest.”


Scrutiny of Luxembourg’s tax practices – from the press, the public and the EU – spread at an awkward time. At the end of 2013, the country elected a new prime minister, Xavier Bettel, whose coalition government of democrats, socialists and greens wanted to distance themselves from the economic policies of former prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker and play by the EU’s rules. “Honestly, I am fed up with being accused of being a defender of a tax haven and a hotbed of sin,” Bettel said in a speech to the Luxembourg Bankers’ Association shortly after taking office. “We need to work on our image … we have much changed in the last years, now it is time to make sure that everybody knows.”

Etienne Schneider, then economy minister, was part of this effort, too. But instead of being applauded for breaking with the past, from the moment they took power the politicians were constantly reminded of their country’s indiscretions. The new government needed to square the Luxembourgish model of economic development with new political realities. It had to keep looking ahead. Most of all, it wanted to change the conversation.

A curious possibility had emerged the previous summer, when Georges Schmit visited Nasa’s Ames research centre in Palo Alto and found himself in conversation with Pete Worden, a former director of the centre. Over coffee, Worden told Schmit about the emerging NewSpace sector and about his dream of finding life on other stars and planets.

Schmit sensed Worden would hit it off with Schneider, so he introduced them. At first, asteroid mining struck Schneider as crazy. “I listened to him and wondered what this guy might have smoked this morning; it sounded like complete science fiction,” he recalled. But the more he listened, the more it made sense. Worden persuaded Schneider that “it’s not if it will happen, it’s when it’ll happen. And the countries who’ll be the pioneers will be the ones that’ll get the most out of it later on.”

From 2014 to 2016, a series of meetings between the Americans and the Luxembourgeois took place. If they resembled April’s trade mission, they will have involved tedious tours of technology companies, self-aggrandising speeches about how space would bring about Earth’s “third industrial revolution”, and many hours stuck in traffic – but also genuine wonder at what might happen if humankind made space their own.

Schneider hung his hopes – and his political future – on the stars. Here was a chance to change the conversation away from taxes and towards space; to establish an industry for Luxembourg’s future; to contribute to science and human knowledge, even. Besides, in such trying times, who didn’t like talking about the wonders of exploring the great unknown? NewSpace companies were certainly eager to work with Luxembourg. They were thirsty for funds and attention, and felt invisible in the US. Luxembourg was a place where they could get meetings with high-level politicians in minutes; where everyone spoke great English; where the bureaucracy was minimal, and the promise of low taxes remained. As one NewSpace executive told me this year: “We just want to work with a government who won’t get in the way.”

The only catch was the ambiguity of space law: companies wanted assurances that the fruits of their extraterrestrial labour would be recognised here on Earth. This is not a given. Unlike on Earth, where a country can grant a company a mining concession, or a person can sell the right to exploit their land, no one has an obvious legal claim to what’s outside our atmosphere. In fact, the Outer Space Treaty, signed by 107 countries at the UN in 1967, explicitly prohibits countries from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies. The question now is: if nobody owns or governs the great unknown, who is to say who gets to own a little piece of it?

Since the emergence of the NewSpace sector, individual countries have attempted to lend some clarity to eager entrepreneurs, reasoning that the prospect of private property in space will encourage hard work and innovation. The American Space Act, passed in 2015, is the first “finders, keepers” law that recognises ownership of space resources, but it only does so for companies owned by US citizens.

In October 2015, Luxembourg commissioned a study on whether it could fill that legal void. The report, completed in 2016, noted that “while legal uncertainty remains, under the current legal and regulatory framework, space mining activities are (at least) not prohibited” and concluded that Luxembourg should pass legislation that gives miners the right to keep the extraterrestrial bounty they extract.

Such a law was drafted shortly after the study’s completion, and on 1 August 2017, it went into effect. Luxembourg’s bill does not discriminate by nationality, or even by the location of a company’s headquarters. In fact, the law indicates the country’s willingness to serve as a sort of flag of convenience for spacecrafts, allowing them to play by one country’s futuristic rules in the absence of universal, binding agreements. Rick Tumlinson, of Deep Space Industries, another space exploration company in which Luxembourg has invested, told me that there was value in Luxembourg’s law because it saw no citizens and no borders: just one blue planet from high above.


Six weeks after the trade mission in California, I disembarked from a tiny plane on the runway of Luxembourg City’s airport in a melee of grey suits and black carry-on roller bags. I walked past large wealth-management and equity-fund advertisements into the car park, where I caught the bus into the city centre, passing dozens of huge new building projects, a tramline under construction and two enormous yellow towers that, in the afternoon light, resembled twin gold bars reaching for the sky.

Luxembourg
Luxembourg City. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Within an hour, I was sitting at a table outside a dive bar opposite the old city’s bathhouse with Lars Schmitz, 29, and Gabrielle Taillefert, 21, two members of a local theatre and art collective called Richtung22 (Direction22). Over the past few years, the group has staged a series of performances lampooning their country’s mercenary modus operandi. Instead of writing their own scripts from scratch, the collective makes dramatic collages almost entirely out of primary documents: laws, press releases, speeches, transcripts from parliament, promotional videos and so on.

One of Richtung22’s early works satirised Luxembourg’s nation branding committee, which was set up in March 2013 to promote the country abroad. The play, which was financed in part by the culture ministry, was entitled Lëtzebuerg, du hannerhältegt Stéck Schäiss (Luxembourg, Vicious Pile of Shit). Since then, Schmitz says, state funds for Richtung22’s work have dried up.

In his spare time, Schmitz, who is slight of build with cropped blonde hair, works on antifascist and anti-capitalist organising. He has the droll resignation of a leftwing activist operating in a country whose politics are so abstract and so global that grassroots resistance must necessarily come in the form of farce. Richtung22’s latest play savages the country’s efforts to attract the NewSpace industry. Its title is Luxembourg’s Private Space Explorevolutionary Superfancy Asteroid Tailoring. Schmitz sees space mining as a high-tech spin on an age-old scam: selling sovereignty. “The country’s business model is hidden,” he said. “It’s making laws that companies want, and taking a risk on those companies. But the government uses it to say ‘This is how modern we are! This is something new!”

Zucman shares Schmitz’s view. “Adapting this strategy to the business of space conquest is what being an offshore financial centre means,” he says. “It’s not diversification. It’s just extending the logic of being a tax haven to new area.”

On stage, the entire space enterprise is portrayed as a cynical, money-grubbing, reputation-redeeming debacle dictated by private-sector interests. “We feel bad that our country does this to the world, and no one else here talks about this stuff,” Schmitz told me. He ran off a dozen or so Luxembourgish transgressions, including but not limited to aiding and abetting tax evasion and weaseling its way out of EU banking regulations. In such a small country, it’s hard to be so outspoken against the national interest. “People think we’re traitors,” he said.

Was there anything good about his country, I asked. “It’s beautiful,” Schmitz conceded. He was right: Luxembourg is beautiful, and was particularly charming on that balmy May evening. The city rests on two levels; the smaller “low” city’s quaint little streets and sidewalk cafes skim the river, while the “high” city centre is home to a lively main drag with pricey boutiques, fancy chocolate shops and chains such as H&M. Cafes advertise crémant – a local bubbly wine – and local dishes that borrow their richness from the French and their stodginess from the Germans.

The next day, I went to meet Marc Baum, an MP from the democratic socialist party déi Lénk (the Left). He handed me a policy paper his party published criticising Schneider’s space-mining proposal: they believe his law is inconsistent with Luxembourg’s outer-space treaty obligations, that it creates opportunities for billionaires to further enrich themselves and could be harmful to the environment. Even worse, it enshrines the notion of “competition instead of cooperation” between states. “It’s infinite capitalism!” Baum exclaimed over a cold beer on a terrace.

Baum, as it happened, is an actor, too. When we met, he was preparing to perform Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, an absurdist play about a town whose protagonists speak exclusively in cliches and end up turning into rhinos on account of their unquestioning conformity. Over the course of the drama, the townspeople justify their decision to “go rhino” by declaring that “humanism is dead, those who follow it are just old sentimentalists”. The play’s sole hero, Berenger, resists succumbing to “rhinoceritis”, but fails to save anyone else: he ends up being the only person in the whole town who does not grow a horn. The analogy between that and Baum’s own predicament seems a little on the nose. He was one of just two politicians who voted against the space law in July.


In June, about a month before his signature legislation was passed by the parliament, Schneider and some of his associates flew to New York for yet another sales pitch – this time, for the benefit of venture capitalists on the east coast.

His speech focused on the financial aspects of Luxembourg’s space race, and the country’s intention to get in on the ground floor of commercial space exploration. “Under the US Space Act, your capital has to be majority US capital,” he said, referring to US willingness to recognise property rights in space for its citizens. “We don’t really care where the money comes from in our country, as long as the money is clean.”

On Schneider’s telling, Luxembourg could do for the space-resource trade what it had done for the eurodollar market, international holding companies and multinationals: provide a safe, reliable base where they could operate in tandem with a keen and cooperative – or, by his detractors’ assessment, pliable and sycophantic – state. Schneider announced that after passing its law, Luxembourg would create its own space agency. This would not be a copy of Nasa, but would instead “focus only on commercial space resources”. He told the audience that Luxembourg would solicit private funding to capitalise NewSpace companies, and seek the advice of venture capitalists to decide what companies to invest in. If asteroid mining does, in fact, take off, Luxembourg will be what Schneider’s friends in Silicon Valley might call an “early adopter”.

It’s a gamble, for sure. But it’s difficult to imagine where Luxembourg would be had it not deployed this ingenious development strategy continuously over the past century. The global economy offers few alternatives than to serve it, and rewards its enablers richly. Perhaps a mercenary spirit is what it takes to succeed as a small country in the world – and that “we want to remain what we are” is just Luxembourgeois for the old French saying: plus ça change.

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‘All of us will be victims at some point’: why Bishkek’s only gay club closed

The Kyrgyz capital was long a liberal beacon in Central Asia until a ban on LGBT propaganda. With attacks and rapes on the rise, the community is scared

Anara had never been in love before. Pacing nervously outside the house of the girl she’d just started seeing, overwhelmed by emotions, she forgot the need for caution.

Dating a member of the same sex can be dangerous in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek. Their budding relationship was already the subject of whisper and rumour.

Anara waited on that crisp winter’s afternoon for what felt like hours, but her date never emerged from the dour apartment block. A group of men who had been watching Anara from a neighbouring building invited the teenager inside for a cup of tea.

“They waited for me to finish my drink, then all eight of the men raped me,” she says, avoiding all eye contact. “It was a corrective gang rape – they were trying to fix me.”

Anara is not the only gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person to fall victim of hate crime in Kyrgyzstan.

A recent survey by the LGBT organisation Kyrgyz Indigo found that 84% of respondents had experienced physical violence, while 35% had been victims of sexual violence.

This was not always the case in Bishkek. With its dedicated gay clubs and largely indifferent population, the capital once served as a relatively safe haven for Kyrgyzstan’s LGBT community.

But in 2014, the government launched a series of legal reforms that marked a dramatic shift away from the western values that had earned Bishkek a reputation as Central Asia’s most socially liberal city.

In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, homosexual conduct is criminalised, carrying a maximum prison sentence of two and three years respectively. With it goes widespread and deep-rooted homophobia and discrimination, including among law enforcement officials and medical personnel. Turkmen people detained and charged with sodomy are forced to undergo examinations with the purported objective of finding “proof” of homosexual activity.

The situation is not much better in Kazakhstan, where many LGBT people choose to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity for fear of reprisal. In order to change their listed gender on identity documents, transgender people are forced to undergo invasive procedures, including coerced sterilisation.

Bishkek’s liberal attitudes are now under threat. In April last year the law, order and crime-fighting parliamentary committee returned Kyrgyzstan’s anti-LGBT bill for a second reading. Its proposed ban of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” appeared aimed at suppressing information about same-sex relations in Kyrgyzstan.

The bill is still awaiting its third and final reading before being enacted into law, but it emboldened radical nationalist movements such as Kalys and Kyrk Choro, who have adopted violent means to defend an ultraconservative concept of Kyrgyz values.

According to activists at the LGBT organisation Labrys, the political shift and proposed legislation led to a near 300% increase in attacks against LGBT people in the city and forced Bishkek’s gay community into the shadows.

“[This legislation] was the biggest propaganda of them all,” says one activist who, like most of the people interviewed by Guardian Cities, has asked to remain anonymous for fear of attack.

“You could be on public transport and talk about LGBT stuff and nobody would notice because they did not really know what it was,” he adds. “But since the legislation was introduced, a lot of the population knows what the LGBT community is. There is a lot of aggression toward us and we cannot be open in public any more.”

An
An anti-LGBT rally in Bishkek, against the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s call on Kyrgyzstan to withdraw its prohibition of ‘propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations’. Photograph: Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty

Against this backdrop of growing hostility, Bishkek’s LGBT community have struggled to find safe places to meet and socialise, with its younger members among those most affected.

“If you have your own place, or can rent an apartment, then it’s still safe to be gay here,” says one businessman, Kyrgyz and gay himself. “But if you are a teenager or a student, then you have to meet people wherever you can – in parks, forests, car parks. And then it’s not going to be safe.”

For a few months earlier this year, an inconspicuous car wash on the outskirts of the city offered the persecuted minority a rare opportunity for solace.

Every weekend scores of young people would knock on an old wooden door beside the empty forecourt, then disappear into the derelict building.

Occasionally a flash of purple light would break through a gap in the curtains, betraying the presence of Bishkek’s last remaining LGBT club night within.

“We decided to start the gay club as we saw the need for a space where the LGBT community felt safe and could really get to know each other,” says a co-founder of the event, who also requested anonymity.

Entrance to their club was dependent on a personal recommendation from one of the night’s regulars. New faces drew suspicion, and for good reason.

The event was forced to vacate its original venue after a mob of 30 men broke into the club and smashed the furniture, injuring some of the bar staff. On another occasion, an assailant hit one of the founders with a bottle.

Now the club has once again been forced to close its doors after the landlord discovered that his car wash was being used to host LGBT events.

“The problem is that people don’t understand what a gay club is,” says one of the co-founders. “They think we are doing something pornographic. But if they came and saw that it is just a normal club, where people dance and drink, then it would be OK.

“We will continue the night if we can find a safe space where we can run a sustainable business,” she adds. “After all, we have a responsibility – we are like mothers to this community.”

In the meantime, Bishkek’s LGBT community has turned to networking apps such as Grindr and Hornet to meet one another in private. The use of modern technology, though, has not eliminated the risk of attack.

In a worrying new trend, homophobic hate gangs and members of the police are using social networks to locate, film and then bribe members of the LGBT community. A number of YouTube videos featuring the desperate pleas of their early victims prove that their threats are not hollow.

LGBT organisations Labrys and Kyrgyz Indigo have set up a Rapid Response Unit offering immediate assistance to members of the community who fall victim to this form of abuse.

Earlier this year, Adilet – the unit’s only volunteer – attended to a group of transgender sex workers who, at the behest of the local police, were interrogated by a live TV crew while drinking in a local bar.

“Everyone has a smart phone, and because this case was broadcast on state TV, they now know they can make money by filming LGBT people and threatening to give their video to the television channels,” he says.

“But not everyone is after money, sometimes people demand sexual favours or even rape their victims using their footage as collateral.”

Asked for comment on these allegations, the Ministry of Internal Affairs did not respond.

Activists hope that the police will not be able to evade their responsibility to protect the LGBT community for much longer. Alongside the Open Society Foundation, Kyrgyz Indigo will soon be proposing new legislation that will render discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity a criminal offence.

But even if successful, these reforms will be too late for Anara who, like many of Bishkek’s persecuted LGBT minority, will carry the trauma of her attack for the rest of her life.

“The effects of that attack run a lot deeper than I first appreciated, but that’s just something we have to deal with if we are gay or transgender,” she says. “All of us will be a victim of rape or attack at some point.”

Anara’s name has been changed to protect her identity

Do you live in one of the Stans cities, or have you spent time there? We’re eager to hear your thoughts and experiences: follow us on Facebook and share stories and pictures using #SecretStans on Twitter and Instagram

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'Radical' motherhood focus of blog – Sioux City Catholic Globe


Sioux City Catholic Globe

'Radical' motherhood focus of blog
Sioux City Catholic Globe
Another part of the process is navigating social media to get the blog out there for people to see it. “We really haven't done a whole lot of promoting yet,” said Allison. “That is our next phase. We don't have any ads to make money off it.” Emily

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Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey ‘won’t use morally wrong Uber’ – BBC News

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Media captionRebecca Long-Bailey told Today Uber’s “not morally acceptable”

Labour’s shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has said she doesn’t use taxi app Uber because it is not “morally acceptable”.

“I don’t like the way they treat their workers,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Ms Long-Bailey claimed Uber drivers were being “exploited” and should have the same rights as workers with permanent jobs.

Uber said its drivers liked “being their own boss”.

Ms Long-Bailey told Today: “I don’t personally use Uber because I don’t feel that it is morally acceptable but that’s not to say they can’t reform their practices.”

She added: “I don’t want to see companies model their operations on the Uber model.”

The San Francisco-based company argues that its drivers are not employees but self-employed contractors.

Image copyright Reuters

An Uber spokesman said: “Millions of people rely on Uber to get around and tens of thousands of drivers use our app to make money on their own terms.

“Almost all taxi and private hire drivers have been self-employed for decades before our app existed and with Uber they have more control.

“Drivers are totally free to choose if, when and where they drive with no shifts or minimum hours. In fact the main reason people say they sign up to drive with Uber is so they can be their own boss.

“Drivers using Uber made average fares of 15 per hour last year after our service fee and, even after costs, the average driver took home well over the National Living Wage.

“We’re also proud to have moved things on from this industry’s cash-in-hand past since every fare is electronically recorded, traceable and transparent.”

‘Dependent contractor’

An employment tribunal last year ruled that Uber drivers were entitled to holiday pay, paid rest breaks and the national minimum wage.

The tribunal described Uber’s claim that its London operation was a network of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common technology platform as “faintly ridiculous”.

The company’s appeal against the employment tribunal decision will be heard later this year.

The tribunal said Uber drivers were not employees in the traditional sense, so were not entitled to the full range of employment rights, but could be classed as workers while they were using the Uber app and so were entitled to the minimum wage.

A government commissioned report by Tony Blair’s former adviser, Matthew Taylor, recommends creating a new category of worker called a “dependent contractor”, who should be given extra protections by firms such as Uber and Deliveroo.

‘Real benefits’

But Ms Long-Bailey said this would not necessarily help them.

“We don’t really need a new status, the court victories that we’ve far have proved that many of these so-called self-employed people who work for the likes of Uber, for example, are workers and should be given adequate protections.

“And I do worry that if this isn’t dealt with in sufficient detail, it could undermine the court rulings of Uber, for example, which it was hoped to have wide-ranging implications for the industry.”

Ms Long-Bailey’s deputy, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah, said she used Uber, but would have to reconsider if workers’ rights were not strengthened.

The Labour MP told Sky News: “These services bring real benefits to people. As a single woman leaving a meeting at 11 o’clock at night, being able to trace and see that your Uber is approaching is a benefit.

“We are not putting the blame on consumers and users of these applications.”

But, she added, “if the regulatory form doesn’t come through then I would find it very hard to use Uber or Deliveroo because it is important that we support strong working rights”.

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From architecture to cultural life: how would you design a city from scratch?

The governments plan for 14 garden villages across the country offers a fantastic opportunity to create ideal living spaces. But where do you start? Here, five writers set out their architectural, cultural, transport and political visions

Cities define modern life. They make more money than other places, demand more of the people who live in them, and provide more for them too. Except for the people who arent making money; and if you are the kind who does make money, you probably know little about them. Several million humans penned together in an unfeasibly small space, and compelled to make life work. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city, Jane Jacobs, the urban activist, once said. People make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.

Her words are pertinent given the governments intention to build up to 14 garden villages, plus larger garden towns across England, each created as a new discrete settlement. Here at last is a theoretical blank page that gives communities the chance to think about what a city or town should look like.

Cities developed in the UK as a result of the industrial revolution, and some things have changed surprisingly little. A traffic jam, that modern peril, could wreak havoc for hours in 1749. Nearly three centuries on, streets are still cleaned mostly by a human with a broom and there are still more people than places for them to live. But now stop the clock. Design a city from scratch.

Here is the necessary acreage, and here is a serviceable budget. Where would you start? Would you build roads straight or curved and how many coffee shops would your high street have? Come to think of it, does a city need a high street? Just for a minute, imagine what you would like to see. There could be community-owned pets that the lonely could walk or love, sheltered park benches that turn into divans for those in need of a bed, refuges and freecycle joints, vertical transport solutions (lifts) and universal stairlessness to render accessibility inarguable. And maybe the best answers would lie in small, simple considerations in evolving our own behaviour, laying new traditions to take care of ourselves, each other and our homes. And maybe, so that loneliness isnt stigmatised as antisocial, there could be a sign that reads: Its OK to feed the pigeons.

Paula Cocozza

Architecture

8
8 House in the restad quarter of Copenhagen, designed by the architect Bjarke Ingels. Photograph: Kim Petersen/Getty Images/imageBROKER RM

The garden cities of the early 20th century, and the new towns of 1945-1979, have followed the fortunes of the country, making it impossible to generalise about them Peterlee, Cumbernauld, Milton Keynes and Hatfield are not much alike.

A key concept of the original garden cities was collective ownership, with them owned and managed by some sort of community trust for the benefit of residents, rather than in the hands and for the benefit of developers such as Persimmon and Barratt. This was mostly honoured in the breach in the first generation such as Letchworth or Welwyn. But today, a garden city could be run as a Community Land Trust, a form of ownership that contains clauses against speculation, stopping cities becoming middle-class commuter towns and ensuring their original intention places without hierarchies, slums, luxury living colonies or class distinctions.

However, co-operative or community ownership is usually elective, favouring enthusiasts and those with time on their hands. The new city should aim for the universality that council housing once provided, through a system of housing allocation that would make housing accessible to anyone that wants it. The best model for this is still renting through the local authority.

The garden part of the garden city was not about private gardens though in the new towns, most people had these but about public spaces, whether the tree-lined Broadway of Letchworth or the free-flowing green spaces of residential Milton Keynes. These are the main things lacking in all new development in Britain, from the towering, stunning developments in London and Manchester to the looping, car-centred closes of the average suburban development, all of which take a steamroller approach to topography. Imaginative landscaping can give a place a distinctive identity, much more than the facile traditionalist application of Georgian pilasters and tiled roofs, creating compositions in the landscape that town planning here was once noted for, but has long since lost.

What we should expect of a new town planned in this way is that it doesnt look planned by developers, but for the public good. Stylistically, it would make little sense to be too prescriptive. It should somehow be able to combine a cohesive look so that it feels part of a wider whole (Newcastle and London do this with their transport networks, Milton Keynes with its stone underpasses, Cumbernauld with its rocky landscaping) with a certain amount of experiment. Probably the best approach to this is to let the various stylistic factions of the architecture schools have their own showcases neo-brutalists who want heroic complexes of walkways and streets in the sky, such as Bjarke Ingels recent work on the outskirts of Copenhagen; classicists who want Chipperfield-like colonnades around formal squares; self-build cultists who would prefer a scaled-up version of the homemade homes built by Lewisham residents in the 1980s, or in Almere in the Netherlands today all of them could, and should, be part of a new town. All of this would be made much easier through public ownership and, as John McDonnell recently suggested, publicly owned direct labour organisations, than under the yardsticks and value engineers of the volume builders.

One constant throughout should be a showcase of technological and ecological ingenuity. It is wasteful to build, as we currently do, from breezeblocks and concrete frames that are then clad in brick; saner methods of carbon-neutral construction have been available for some time.

All of these things are wholly possible, and elsewhere in Europe, rather conservative. And if the plan is to expand the south-east of England yet further, we need to do it, and fast. But in a country as imbalanced as ours, to build new towns from scratch in the south, when streets remain empty in a city as magnificent as Liverpool, is trivial.

Owen Hatherley

Culture

Residents
Residents need to be able to create their own culture a festival crowd in Berlin. Photograph: lechatnoir/Getty Images

Cultural planning usually involves exploiting the heritage and resources of existing urban areas, but a blank slate has its own advantages. A new city should begin by establishing flagship arts venues, whether publicly funded or in partnership with business. Obviously a museum, theatre, gallery, cinema and concert hall in the centre. Possibly an arena further out that could attract bigger artists and become a magnet for music fans in the region. These are the basics.

Equally important is the creation of a town-centre cultural quarter, perhaps near the university, where the clustering of smaller, cheaper venues such as arthouse cinemas, cutting-edge theatres and intimate performance spaces enables networking and collaboration as well as attracting tourists. In such areas, bars, cafes and clubs bring creative people together and lead to a city generating its own art. Official initiatives such as public artworks or a community festival can help to establish the quarters reputation as a hub of creativity and entertainment. As the city organically develops its own identity, new venues and cultural centres should cater to the needs of specific communities, ensuring diversity and social inclusion.

Cultural planning should be based on the broadest possible definition of culture, for example valuing nightclubs as highly as classical musical concert halls. With nightlife in particular, authorities and promoters should maximise the cultural and economic benefits by working as collaborators rather than foes. A liberal licensing regime should be baked into the planning process so that clubs cant be threatened with noise complaints from residents, while the canny location of loud venues would minimise friction in the first place. You could even create a specialised nightclub quarter.

The biggest challenge for cultural planners is how to sow the seeds for residents to produce their own work. Nothing is more beneficial to a citys cultural identity than the ability to foster its own scenes consider Manchester in the 80s and such efflorescences of creativity depend on the ability to survive cheaply. Without affordable flats to live in, studios to work in, and venues in which to socialise and showcase their work, young artists in any discipline cant grow.

A persistent irony in existing cities is that thriving cultural quarters tend to drive up residential and commercial rents, forcing out the young, creative people who made them what they are. In order to preserve existing areas from extreme gentrification and enable new ones to flourish, the new city needs to prioritise affordable housing, rent controls, community arts facilities, grants and progressive licensing laws. You cant manufacture an internationally famous music scene or visual arts boom from the top down, but you can remove many of the obstacles that make their evolution more difficult. Twenty years into the citys life, the most culturally dynamic area might be one that the planners never even considered, but one that their foresight ultimately made possible.

Dorian Lynskey

Transport

Vision
Vision of the future a family plays a board game in their self-drive electric car in a 1957 illustration. Photograph: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

On reaching the boundaries of a fantasy modern city, the first thing visitors should be required to do is check in their car keys at the gates. Electric vehicles are tolerated where mobility demands it; for families, the disabled, or for deliveries. Driverless pods are legion. But there is no place for the diesel car, or older gas-guzzlers. The air is clean and the streets uncongested. At least, for now.

Creating some sort of rail-based mass transit would be essential, according to David Metz of the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London, a former chief scientist at the Department for Transport. It gives you speedy travel in a city, where roads would quickly become congested.

A new, fully automated underground system just below the surface or even elevated for the views in places might be slightly more costly to build than a tram network, or an electric bus rapid transit system with dedicated lanes. But the latter, Metz says, requires wider streets. You want the good interaction between people, the buzz of city life, the social, financial and cultural agglomeration benefits. Boulevards create severance between people.

The city centre would have narrower streets, populated by pedestrians, cyclists and fleets of self-driving pods, free to use on set local routes, and cheaper than taxis when summoned on demand. The new citys streets are pre-mapped into autonomous vehicles, and its infrastructure built with them in mind. Manufacturers finally see a place where driverless technology can quickly embed and flourish, with grateful residents freed from the expense and hassle of car ownership.

On suburban roads, incentives for pooled, electric vehicles help reduce congestion. Buses run on electric, gas, or human waste, pioneered by Bristols poo bus. Commercial, construction and emergency vehicles are still needed, but with few private cars parked on roadsides, the city has ample room for dedicated, joined-up cycle lanes.

But the city needs variety and character too: lets have some inexplicably curvy roads, and for-the-hell-of-it expensive flourishes in station buildings, making them attractive places to meet and be. Should the new city be constructed in the kind of hilly landscape enjoyed by the likes of Sheffield, build funiculars, or even a cable car of the type championed by Boris Johnson; a concept, says Metz, that only failed in London by being in entirely the wrong place. In dense, high-rise parts of city, lifts will be the ultimate transport system for an ageing population.

Planners should heed the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, which counsels that the most sustainable form of transport planning is to persuade people not to travel in the first place. Now that most work no longer needs to be hived off into industrial estates, attempting to design a city that blends the residential and the workplace may help cut commutes.

Yet ending all traffic may be no utopia. Congestion is a mark of success, adds Metz. A booming metropolis, where more people want to work and live, will see ever more strain on the transport network. At some point, commuters to our ideal city may still have to suck it up.

Gwyn Topham

Politics

Bus
Bus shelters are needed and also places for young people that arent bus shelters. Photograph: Alessandro Rizzi/Getty Images

Any city built from scratch, with any ambition, assumes the participation of its inhabitants, assumes neighbourliness, a sense of community, as its raison detre. In architectural drawings, this is conveyed by a man on the street, mending a bike, plus a child carrying balloons. On the BBC, the community is religious leaders, plus or minus a do-gooder who runs marathons. None of these cut it: the only thing that meaningfully unites people who live alongside one another is wanting certain things improvements, activities, visual interventions into unloved spaces, places for young people that arent bus shelters, but also bus shelters for their area. This is politics.

The peculiarity of modern politics is that all central governments claim to want devolution, or its more fashionable, radical cousin, subsidiarity (the delegation of decision-making down to the lowest level at which it could be made), but then squeeze budgets so hard that local bodies are left with the choice of cutting all their childrens centres, or three-quarters of them, plus meals on wheels. For local democracy to be meaningful, its decisions have to be actionable and its statutory duties (providing housing for the low-waged, for instance) have to be doable. It cant just be lurching from one crisis to another on the back of some hokey PFI deal.

Money is necessary but insufficient: the appetite is there for civic congregation as you can see when a hospital is threatened with closure but what alienates people is threefold. First, cliqueyness, jargon, the fear of arriving at a conversation thats already been going on for 15 years, and looking foolish. The second is the joylessness of civic space. The third, the sense that the invited conversations are usually boosterish, anodyne (tell us whats great about your borough!), deter rather than invite change, have no route to change anyway and avoid difficult topics.

Urban utopias take time: you cant participate civically if youre spending half your wages on rent, and this is ultimately about land value. But, deeper than that, theres a question that slipped out of all political language at around the time the language of opportunity came in: what are conditions like at the bottom? Leave aside: How easy is it to escape poverty? How is life in poverty? Are you working 18-hour days? Are you atomised by your own tiredness? Is participation on a list of impossibilities a long way below a holiday? Its important that civic spaces are not only open to a leisure class, or they lose their lustre for everyone.

Zoe Williams

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Sir Philip Green: From ‘King of the High Street’ to ‘Unacceptable Face of Capitalism’ – BBC News

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sir Philip Green: still ‘King of the High Street’?

Just four years ago Sir Philip Green was dubbed King of the High Street by BBC Radio 4’s Profile programme.

Now he is being branded the “Unacceptable Face of Capitalism” by a Conservative MP, as BHS, the retail chain he sold just a year ago for 1, goes into administration leaving a 571m hole in its pension fund.

Richard Fuller MP, a member of parliament’s Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, says the retail tycoon’s reputation should be questioned.

It is a reputation rich in character and anecdote from his failed attempts to takeover Marks and Spencer to the lavish lifestyle that has attracted accusations of tax avoidance.

Will to win

Despite being born into a well-to-do family in South London, Philip Green prided himself on having worked his way to the top.

His competitive streak was apparent from an early age, noticed by school mates at Carmel College, his exclusive boarding school, nicknamed the “Jewish Eton”.

School friend Tony Rauch recalls Philip making a beeline for the table tennis table at break time, tussling with another boy to get hold of the bat that was in best condition.

“Unfortunately the other kid was a bit bigger than Philip and won,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Profile programme in 2012.

“He got very angry; cried a little bit,” says Mr Rauch. “He wasn’t physically hurt, I think he was just very angry at having lost.”

Sir Philip never lost his will to win. Profile reported that even when playing a game with his own children he played to win and quoted him as saying: “Why do you want to do something and not win – to not succeed at something?”

He left school aged 15, and began working on the forecourt of the petrol station his mother managed.

Early ventures

He then went on to learn business basics as an apprentice in a shoe warehouse and at 23-years-old he set up his own business importing and selling jeans.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Staff leave the BHS headquarters after being told the company will go into administration

Stuart Lansley, the author of an unauthorised biography of Sir Philip described those early days for Radio 4.

“He had a very mixed track record of starting up companies, and closing them down, working with other people, falling out with people.

“He travelled a lot, learning a lot about the supply chain, who the cheaper suppliers were and so on – but he certainly wasn’t a household name. “

Ironically it was BHS, known then as British Home Stores, that marked the moment Sir Philip Green finally “arrived” in 2000.

He paid 200m for what was already a slightly faded, dowdy chain. According to Stuart Lansley, his restless mind had spotted a beguiling new way to make money from the High Street:

“Philip Green moved from having a few million, to a few billion, in the space of a few years.

“He learned the way to make big bucks was essentially to do what’s known in the trade as a ‘leveraged buy-out’.

“He borrowed very large sums of money, invested a little bit himself, and bought up companies that were relatively cheap, because they weren’t doing very well. He turned them around, paying-off his debt, and then tripling – quadrupling – the money he put in, in a matter of a couple of years.”

Two years later he copied that model of the leveraged buyout when he bought the giant retail empire Arcadia, which owns brands such as Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, and of course Topshop and Topman.

Marks and Spencer bid

Sir Philip Green’s most ambitious move came in 2004, when he put together 10bn ($16.1bn), much of it from investment banks, to make an offer for Marks and Spencer.

Even Sir Stuart Rose – then his rival and at the helm of Marks at the time – was impressed.

“Philip is not only a first-class retailer, he is absolutely pre-eminent in his generation in terms of his financial nous and ability,” Sir Stuart told Profile.

“If I wanted to be slightly uncharitable, I could say that he came to the market to raise a very, very large sum of money at a time when money was cheap and freely available – but only Philip could have put that together. It was a pretty amazing achievement.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption As chairman of Marks and Spencer, Sir Stuart Rose (L) faced two takeover bids from Sir Philip Green (R)

Famous temper

Sir Philip’s business skills may not be in doubt – but his interpersonal skills are another matter, and he reportedly has a very short fuse.

Sir Stuart Rose has first-hand experience of this, with Sir Philip reportedly grabbing the then Marks and Spencer boss by the lapels during his second unsuccessful takeover bid in 2004.

“There was a fairly physical occasion one morning, yes. I think tension had got quite high during the bid and Philip got upset about something,” said Sir Stuart.

“He wasn’t above ringing me up during the height of the bid and singing ‘if I were a rich man’ down the telephone to me, trying to point out the error of my ways [for not selling]… that I would make more money.

“He used to say ‘the only jet you know is Easyjet’.”

Lavish lifestyle

Sir Philip Green is not shy about enjoying the trappings of his success – his personal fortune is estimated at somewhere between 3bn and 4bn and he enjoys spending it.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The high life: Sir Philip Green with Beyonc (L) and model, Cara Delevingne

He commutes into London from Monaco in a private jet, has a super-yacht called Lionheart, and is famous for throwing extravagant parties for friends and family in exotic places, with entertainment from the likes of Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, and George Michael.

He has also forged a business partnership with supermodel Kate Moss, whose line of clothes helped raise Topshop’s profile in the world of high fashion.

But what has attracted the most controversy is not the lavish lifestyle – but his tax affairs.

In 2005 his company paid a 1.2bn dividend to the owner of Arcadia – Sir Philip’s wife, Tina. Since she is a resident of Monaco, she paid no tax in the UK.

In 2010 activists demonstrated outside the flagship Topshop and BHS stores in central London after Sir Philip was chosen by Prime Minister David Cameron to conduct a government efficiency review.

They thought his tax arrangements made him the wrong choice. Despite their anger, however, Arcadia has paid significant sums in corporation tax.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Activists targeted BHS, Topshop and Topman in 2010

But some of Arcadia’s glamour has waned in recent years. Critics say that Green, notoriously averse to electronic gadgets, has not embraced online shopping as aggressively as his competitors.

While sales remained steady through the group, BHS was seen as the weakest link, and was sold for 1 to Retail Acquisitions, a group of investors including a Formula 3000 racing driver, bankers and entrepreneurs.

Now questions are being asked over just how much money Sir Philip had taken out of the company in the years before that sale.

Angela Eagle, the shadow business secretary, said: “In this situation it appears this owner extracted hundreds of millions of pounds from the business and walked away to his favourite tax haven, leaving the Pension Protection Scheme to pick up the bill.”

Business Editor Simon Jack said: “In his defence he ran this company for 15 years, he employed thousands and thousands of people, and he was a great force for UK fashion retail, and made it a great force here and in the US.

“It doesn’t look good as he jumps on his yacht to go back to Monaco leaving pensioners and employees worried about it, but he is not a natural corporate raider. He’s not necessarily the vulture type of capitalist that people have portrayed him in the last couple of days.”

This edition of Profile was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 8 December 2012. Listen again via the Radio 4 website or the Profile podcast.

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