By Steve Kelman

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A frontline dispatch from Spain, a country in crisis

I have been in Barcelona for a few days at an academic conference, just as Spain is in the daily headlines with new crisis stories about possible bank runs, bailouts, and the collapse of the euro. I don’t want to say that the streets of the city show no evidence that the place is in the middle of a crisis, but you do have to look and ask to find the signs.

The banks are all open, with no lines or visible signs of panic. Despite a 25 percent unemployment rate, there are traffic jams at rush hour on the highways. There are some musicians asking for money in subway stations and on the trains themselves, but not noticeably more than in New York, and almost no beggars on the streets.

In Catalonia (of which Barcelona is the capital), the regional government has imposed a 5 percent wage cut for all civil servants, which includes professors at the (mostly public) universities, though this has not yet occurred at the national level or in many other regional governments. At a private business school where a friend teaches, the signs of crisis are more subtle: the faculty has been told to take economy class on the high-speed rail instead of first class, and the university has seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of people applying for junior-level positions as research assistants (that means lots of overqualified unemployed people are applying). Most people with jobs have received no pay increase for several years.

People I asked all said they had at least one, and sometimes several, friends who were unemployed, though with two-career couples, there was usually still one income. Somebody told me they were surprised recently to see a middle-aged person doing a pizza home delivery, rather than a teenager as would typically have been the case. Restaurant prices are noticeably lower than in sky-high London and Paris, with lots of meal combo specials at quite reasonable prices, and again apparently have stayed stable for several years; at the airport, I was surprised at the number of discounted items in the duty free stores (lots and lots of 20 percent off specials).

I guess one way of thinking about this is that standards of living have gotten high enough in rich countries that a fairly substantial belt-tightening can occur before the average person starts significantly suffering. It is still surprising that the level of unrest is, in spite of everything, so low with so many people unemployed.

Of course, the crisis could get much worse – say, if the Spanish government is shut off from debt markets or if the Euro collapses. What we see now might then be mild compared to that possible future.

In my free time, I have been looking a lot at the work of one of the most amazing architects ever, Antoni Gaudi. I am still amazed at how his mind conceived the concoction of strange shapes, wild colors, and asymmetries his architecture represents – there is nothing like this anywhere in the world. Here’s a link to some pictures of his work. Perhaps as amazing is that many of his buildings were private homes built for rich businessmen. My initial reaction was to wonder how these staid wealthy textile barons supported such unconventional architecture, but I got it when somebody said to me it was a way for the ultra-rich of Barcelona to show off.

Gaudi was very religious, and I spent an afternoon at his unfinished masterpiece the Sagrada Familia church, his take on Gothic. I knew the church was unfinished, and the derricks around it make clear that an attempt is underway almost a century later to complete it (using private contributions). But I was surprised at just how unfinished Sagrada Familia was at the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926. He had been working on it for 42 years; for the last 12 years of his life, it was the only project he was working on. Gaudi was a master of the change order -- I had assumed “unfinished” meant a few touches left to go, but in fact the building was about 10 percent complete when he died. They are estimating the church will be completed in 2035!

In short, a project management disaster…

In the square around the church there are a Burger King, KFC, Subway, and Starbucks.

Posted on May 21, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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