Anya Schiffrin

Police and the 15-M movement

Anya Schiffrin
Jul 29, 2011 17:04 UTC

The Spain of my childhood was a dictatorship. It was a country of  beggars, priests, old women in black, guardia civil in their ominous hats. It smelled of garlic, cologne,  dark tobacco and sometimes sewage. It was dangerous to speak of politics in public and  my grandfather, an officer in the Republican Army, died in exile.

I visited often throughout the Franco years and lived in Barcelona during the tail end of the chaotic days of the movida so I’ve almost stopped being surprised by how much Spain feels like another country now. It’s a model of peaceful transition and many Spanish politicians have been trying to help Egypt and Tunisia move toward democracy.

I was impressed all over again this week when we wound up staying in a Madrid hotel that was surrounded by the indignados of the 15-M movement. The movement was named after the date, May 15, when protestors set up camp in the center of the city, the Plaza del Sol. Most of them left after several weeks but last weekend they staged a protest and demonstrators from all over Spain converged on Madrid.

They set up tents on the grassy avenue in front of the Prado museum and the police were deployed to keep order. Several times a day we stopped by to see what was going on and to talk to police and the demonstrators. We sat in cafes near the protests and we watched.

Over several days we saw protestors carrying signs that called for bankers to be put on trial and that complained of injustice and the high cost of living. We stopped by a seminar on economics in Retiro Park and we watched late at night as the protestors teased the police and gently tried to get through the barricades set up to protect the parliament.

Can we please calm down about DSK?

Anya Schiffrin
May 23, 2011 00:08 UTC

The world seems to have gone sex mad this week:  the male libido dominates the news all across Europe and  even in Tunisia – where there is some local news of interest — the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the lead on the evening news when we got there. It’s a terrible story but a juicy one and I don’t blame my fellow scribes for going to town on it. It’s also confusing with the narrative in constant flux as new details have emerged. If DSK is guilty of this serious accusation then he must be punished, of course. But I am afraid that by trivializing the story with gratuitous details we are losing sight of the main point. Rape is not the same as sexual harassment, and these problems are totally different from affairs in the work place.

Many organizations employ jerks who harass woman and –if they are senior enough—the jerks often get away with it. Sometimes these harassers  are quietly forced to retire early but not always. Many organizations do not pay their women staffers on par with men and do not promote them into management jobs.  Unfortunately these two problems persist all over the place (not just at the IMF) and are worthy of a broader investigation than we’ve been seeing.

The fact that DSK’s wife is wealthy and loyal is interesting but also off the point. Also irrelevant are the constant references to DSK’s $3,000 a night suite at the Sofitel and his first class flight on Air France.   The NY Times pointed out on Tuesday that the suite was booked on travelocity.com and only cost $500 and that DSK used his own air miles to pay for an upgrade to first class.  But these new facts have been missing from most of the stories I’ve seen, and don’t exactly erase the image left by the earlier reports.

Tunisia’s spring

Anya Schiffrin
May 19, 2011 17:47 UTC

It turns out that starting a revolution in the age of social media is a full time occupation. After bringing down their government, launching dozens of new television and radio stations and about 70 new political parties and posting endless leaked documents on Facebook all the while working on rewriting their constitution, many Tunisians are now busy speaking at conferences, answering questions from journalists and politely agreeing to meet the endless flood of people coming to their country to learn more about the revolution.

Recent arrivals include Felipe Gonzalez, who led Spain in the tumultuous years after Franco died, and Lech Walesa, the trade union activist who went on a pro-democracy mission with a delegation from Poland’s foreign ministry to Tunisia in late April. They are excited to see someone else go through the transition they lived through in their own countries, and pass on some lessons they learned.

This week we were generously hosted by this nation that has been through an unimaginable upheaval and is still not at all sure where it will lead. The woman in the government who planned our visit was formerly a banker in New York. She is now working pro bono for the government. We met other Tunisians who dropped everything overseas and moved back home to do their part in building a new country.

Lunch with Saif Gaddafi

Anya Schiffrin
May 3, 2011 16:00 UTC

I don’t remember why we had lunch with Saif Gaddafi. The invitation came through an intermediary about five years ago.  It was him and a friend and Joe and me. We met at an old hotel in Rome and lunched in the rather formal dining room. He and Joe talked for a couple of hours about economic development and some of the different possibilities for a country like Libya. Nothing too exciting — irrigation and credit, the need to spend money on education, share the oil wealth, create jobs. He invited us to visit and someone from the Qaddafi Development Foundation followed up a few months later.

For obvious reasons (human rights, anyone?) we didn’t want to go and so never bothered to get back in touch. It was clear he was positioning himself for what he thought would be his eventual job of running the country one day and thinking about how he would do it. His last question was unforgettable: he bit his lip, looked perplexed and said to my husband, “tell me: does anyone still believe in Marxist economics anymore?”Joe said no and launched into a long explanation of why this was the case. Saif looked very relieved, unfurrowed his brow and exclaimed, “I knew it! I keep telling my father but he just won’t listen.”

Out of office … forever

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 25, 2011 20:33 UTC

I am so jealous. I wrote to Nassim Taleb this week. He is famous for writing The Black Swan and also has a section on his website devoted to his predictions of the 2008 economic crisis (which began in 2007 with the collapse of the mortgage market). Note the apt url if you decide to click on it. Anyway, the reason I am struck by admiration and envy is the auto reply I received:

(Please ignore this message if you are a regular correspondent).

Dear correspondent;
I am currently disengaged from the rest of the world (until September 2011).
 I had to stop replying to emails outside of the strictly personal (friends, 
family, citizens of Amioun, etc.), except for extremely important/urgent matters.
 Please note that, except for emergencies & appointments,  I reply to 
mails with an equivalent frequency to that of classical letters.

(REQUESTS: Also note that 1) I no longer do media interviews (except
 those scheduled by publishers), 2) can no longer endorse books, 3) do not  participate in documentary films, 4) will not give lectures in Asia,
 Australia, and other places entailing severe jetlag, etc. I apologize for the inconvenience.

from The Great Debate:

Does everyone have a price?

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 7, 2011 15:36 UTC


On Monday I went to Bloomingdales, the Gap and Starbucks but passed on a visit to Magnolia Bakery. Instead I  stopped by the St. Moritz bakery where you can order hot chocolate and sit by a video of a cozy winter  fire that overlooks the indoor ski slope and is just around the corner from the largest candy store in the world, which happens to face an aquarium that occupies an entire wall on one side of the world’s largest shopping malls. This by the way is opposite of what claims to be the world’s largest candystore whose mission statement is to make every day “happier’. Earlier, while exploring the watery depths of the bright Pink Atlantis Hotel (one of the white elephants of the property crash of 2007) I knew it was really the last kingdom because the fish swam around two cracked thrones and other kitschy stone artifacts.

Dubai is utterly overwhelming, the kind of  dystopia that blogger Evgeny Morozov sees in Huxley, a consumeristic paradise where mind-numbing shopping replaces real thought. Most of the I had no idea where I was except that my passport had been stamped Dubai  and many of the mall-going women were shrouded in black. After a few hours I sank into a state of ennuie. Given boatloads of oil money in the 1970s and the chance to build a whole new city, who on earth would decide to build a series of shopping malls?

It’s not like the developers didn’t have ambition, what with the architecture that demands superlatives -- the gondolas, medieval stone houses and soaring illuminated sky scrapers and islands built in absurd never-before-seen configurations. But why not build a museum with, say, the most incredible collection in the world or a university with the finest research laboratories? With so much money why build this Disneyland? And what about the workers who make up most of the population?

from The Great Debate:

A case of social-media identity theft

Anya Schiffrin
Mar 29, 2011 17:28 UTC

A few years ago I needed to reach the Central Bank governor of Nigeria (yes, I know that sounds like the beginning of an e-mail scam). I went on to Facebook and saw there were several profiles and finally chose the one that seemed the most likely, which included a smart photo of him speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos. I friended this man and duly received a reply. The next time I saw him I mentioned that we were friends on Facebook. His reply was “What is Facebook?”

But I suppose we don’t take social-media identity theft as seriously as it warrants until it hits closer to home. Recently, someone out there created a phony LinkedIn profile for my husband, the economist Joseph E. Stiglitz.

His friends are frustrated by the fact that he rarely reads or answers his e-mail so the idea that he would go to the trouble of  setting up a LinkedIn profile is laughable. Even more of a giveaway is the fact that the vandal who set up this account misspelled the phrase Nobel Prize as “Nobel Price.” Our friend Tina Rosenberg, who just published a book called Join the Club, laughed and said it must be a special spelling reserved for economists.

from The Great Debate:

Japan shows another side of the press

Anya Schiffrin
Mar 14, 2011 15:48 UTC


By Anya Schiffrin
The opinions expressed are her own.

Sitting in Japan in the days after the Friday earthquake and watching the official broadcaster NHK cover the disaster has been an unusual experience. There has been the typical blanket television coverage of this tragedy but the flavor of the reporting is different than it would be in the U.S. “Restrained” is how one friend described it. Over and over we’ve seen the same awful footage of the enormous dirty wave sweeping up cars and houses as it inches slowly along the land.

There are the inevitable interviews with displaced people and experts in their offices. But there are very few graphics or charts, no catchy logos and certainly no dead or injured on the screen. Just as U.S. presidents take off their ties when they visit the troops, Japanese officials appearing on television wear the blue uniforms of someone doing physical labor but with their logo of their ministry or office sewn on their pocket. “It’s theatre” a Japanese friend said dismissively as we watched television last night. But the purposefulness and determination of the government officials were evident — and even my skeptical friend agreed that this commitment would be well-received by the electorate.

At Columbia University we recently began a study with Professor Jairo Lugo in the UK comparing the New York Times and UK Guardian’s coverage of natural disasters. One thing that was immediately clear is how quickly newspaper coverage of natural disasters becomes coverage of the state. This is so even in the US where there is long standing skepticism about the state, and -- these days — a widespread view that the government should play a limited role.

from The Great Debate:

The known unknowns of business journalism

Anya Schiffrin
Feb 14, 2011 17:52 UTC

By Anya Schiffrin

Journalists love thinking about journalism so I was happy recently to spend some time reading 18th and 19th century Indian newspapers, part of the collection housed at the Jawaharal Nehru Library in New Delhi.   With my new book BAD NEWS: How America’s financial press missed the story of the century just published, I was looking at early examples of business and economics coverage.  In addition to its outdoor canteen that serves samosas and masala chai for 25 cents, the Nehru library has a formidable collection with everything from old communist party papers and the Bombay Spectator to the famous “Hickey’s Bengal Gazette or the  original Calcutta General Advertiferand the missionary newspaperFriend of India.These short papers carried all sorts of amusing advertisements on the front page. Instead of classified ads for cars, they advertised carriages imported from London, bolts of indigo and all sorts of scary medicines. There were also plenty of announcements for clipper ships bound for China and looking for cargo consisting of opium.

News dispatches came in the form of long letters from anonymous contributors and began with various disclaimers : “As the writer seems of considerable intelligence and well acquainted with  the subject, we give it insertion but by no means adopt the opinions which he advocates” or  “We have received no authentic accounts from Rangoon since our last issue but there are numerous letters and reports afloat amongst the Mughul merchants in the town indicative of a state of disquiet among the foreign traders.”

It was refreshing to see journalists admit that they weren’t really sure of the information they were providing.  Business journalism got its start in the 16th century with newspapers in several cities including Antwerp and London that largely consisted of lists of prices known as “currents” (which included prices of money, commodities and securities) and “bills of entry” which recorded the arrival and departure of cargo ships and the commodities they carried. John J. McCusker is an authority on these.