Madame Tussauds is like a safari, only it’s celebrity you’re stalking, and about halfway through you begin to feel more hunted than hunter. You are, after all, the only thing moving, unless you count the eyes that flick mechanically back and forth on the French revolutionary waxwork. And the revolutionary is hidden many, many famous faces away—past Brangelina, past Harry and Wills, past JFK and MLK—in a far-off “zone” devoted to the place’s own history.

But it is precisely the institution’s history that has brought me here. On 1st December, to little fanfare, Madame Tussauds passed a milestone: the 250th birthday of its founder and namesake. Born Marie Grosholtz in 1761, she learned the art of waxworks from Philippe Curtius, a Swiss doctor, and went on to found an institution that has become a museum empire, its outposts strung across the world from Amsterdam to Washington DC and Shanghai to (of course) Las Vegas.

Marie Tussaud made her name during the tumultuous years before and after the French revolution. A quarter of a millennium on, the institution she founded may yet be scuppered by another populist cultural force, this time one she helped to create: the idea that celebrity status is within the grasp of us all. If celebrity can be had by everyone, why splash out more than £20 to get close to a waxen imitation?

A trip to London’s legendary house of wax used to begin with the queue that snakes around its copper-topped home. Now, you can pre-book online and step fast-track into a lift to be swept directly up to the “A-list” zone.

“Everyone step this way and just beyond the doors the stars are very eagerly waiting to meet you today,” promises a tired-looking staffer on the afternoon of my visit.

Inside, there is no natural light, just a high-wattage glare, enhanced by the dazzle of glitter balls and camera flashes. To my left, Bollywood stars smoulder, oblivious of one another, indulgent of a middle-aged woman in sari and woolly scarf who wanders among them, beaming beside each in turn. To my right, Robert Downey Jr brings anachronistically tousled hair to the role of Sherlock Holmes. Then it’s on past Drew Barrymore, Marilyn Monroe, and a neglected Audrey Hepburn. Sat in the middle of the room is Shrek, vast and green and a little confusing. (Isn’t the thrill of Tussauds meant to derive from how human these wax sculptures are?)

Visitors to Madame Tussauds wind their way through 14 low-ceilinged zones, passing world leaders, sports stars, cultural figures, and an awful lot of Coca-Cola dispensers. This journey through space and time culminates, of course, with the gift shop. There are also more unexpected elements—SCREAM, a dark maze where actors dressed as ghouls leap out to surprise you, and the Spirit of London ride, which whisks you through the city’s past in a dodgem-like taxi.

Each zone has its own soundscape—cacophonous loops pieced together from catchphrases and music clips and soundbites of such brevity that you’re condemned to hear each over and over again, making you feel like you’ve been traipsing round Tussauds forever. It takes about two hours to process from start to finish, but real time is meaningless here: the displays fold chronologies on one another like a game of consequences, leaving Oscar Wilde admiring Isaac Newton’s corkscrew wig, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel glancing uncertainly at Einstein’s baggy pullover.

Every reigning British monarch since George III has sat for Tussauds, but its real clout rests in a sustained ability to crown celebrities as stars. The inherent impermanence of the medium—compare a waxwork to a brass star embedded in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, say—only enhances its appeal, making it one with the unstable merry-go-round of celebrity itself. Who knows how long each figure’s moment will last, but it’s a moment to be celebrated, and no matter how crowded their trophy cabinets, stars almost always show up to pose beside their newly completed wax doppelgangers. They aren’t the only ones. At Tussauds today, there is strikingly little looking and an awful lot of posturing for cameras, phones, even the obligatory iPad. Whereas in Marie’s day waxworks made celebrity and history real and relatable, Tussauds now makes the real fake by removing the red ropes around the exhibits and allowing visitors to pose with their arm around Rihanna or reshoot their smooch with Marilyn.

In another zone, a teenager wearing Justin Bieber-ish threads and an air of sleepy puzzlement is pointing to a waxwork of Andy Warhol. “Who’s that?” he asks. The kid is American but Tussauds attendants must hear the same question mumbled many times a day in multiple languages. Fame is fickle. None had a keener sense of this than the woman whose name lives on as the imprimatur of celebrity. Long before Warhol weighed in with his 15 minutes, Marie Tussaud helped to mould celebrity culture as we know it. The story of her life and career laid the foundations for Tussauds today, from its judgement-free insistence that notoriety is equal to celebrity in the fame stakes (you want to pose with your arm around Adolf Hitler? Sure!) to the relentless pace it sets for novelty and its tabloid devotion to giving the public precisely what they want.

Search hard enough through the labyrinth of Madame Tussauds and you will eventually find Marie herself. A slight, round-shouldered woman covered in black crêpe, she has fine hands and a face framed by a lace-trimmed bonnet. Oval spectacles obscure her eyes, but her mouth is expressive. Of what exactly, it’s hard to decide…

Read it all.

City Journal:

For decades, city fathers and academics have studied economic development, searching diligently for ways to make urban economies prosper. Surely this quest is understandable—as understandable as the search for success that so many people undertake in the personal-finance section of the local bookstore. But just as personal finance has yet to unlock the secret of how to get rich, no surefire government-led strategy exists that can turn around a troubled economy like Buffalo’s or Gary’s. Cities, like people, are too diverse to allow anything but fairly commonsense prescriptions. A lot of grand theories have been advanced—targeted tax incentives! bike paths!—but they have proven of little practical use.

The history of local economic development is a story of academic fads. The 1960s, when I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, were the heyday of growth poles and multipliers, of econometrics and mathematical modeling made possible by powerful mainframe computers. For a city, the key to generating jobs and income was to lure strategic industries by offering them tax breaks, loans at favorable rates, promises of infrastructure development that would benefit them, and so on. This approach would propel the entire local economy forward, the theory held, so long as the city picked the right industries. On a corridor wall in Penn’s Wharton School building was plastered a huge input-output table of the Philadelphia economy, which would help planners make the right choices. The direct and indirect employment effects of any investment could be precisely predicted. It was all very scientific.

The unfortunate results of that optimistic epoch were large industrial complexes, often in petrochemicals or steel, which created jobs but little subsequent growth. It turned out that input-output models were essentially static, limited to one-shot income and employment effects. Over the long term, in fact, investing in supposedly strategic industries frequently had anegative effect on growth; for example, those large plants tended to be unionized, which pushed up local labor costs and drove employers away. Take the Canadian province I hail from, Quebec, which in the 1960s proudly inaugurated a large steel complex in the city of Sorel, near Montreal. The story of Sorel since then has not been a happy one; employment there has long been stuck below the province’s average rate.

The next fad was high-tech industrial parks. Every city wanted its research park, equipped with all the latest frills and a billboard declaring it the high-tech capital of the region, the nation, the world. Accompanying the parks were goodies that cities offered firms to induce them to come. Some parks, such as North Carolina’s Research Triangle, were highly successful, but just as many weren’t. Many other conditions had to be in place for the approach to work, such as competitive costs, a propitious location, and the presence of major research universities.

In the 1980s, “clusters” came along, thanks in no small part to the marketing skills of Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter. Porter noted that related industries tended to bunch together. The key to success, then, was identifying a cluster—say, health or fashion or aerospace—in which a city purportedly held a competitive advantage and then building on it with targeted public investments. Though cluster-based strategies remain popular among economic-development strategists, they contain an inherent flaw: today’s winning clusters may be tomorrow’s losing clusters. Building an entire development strategy on one cluster is as risky as assembling an investment portfolio concentrated in one or two stocks. And history shows clearly that politicians are even worse at picking winners than investment bankers are, which these days is saying a lot.

The story of Montreal’s Multimedia City, launched in the 1990s, is illustrative. Montreal and Quebec decided to jump-start a “high-tech multimedia cluster” in a dilapidated city neighborhood—and to stimulate the wider local economy—by building a new high-tech complex and promising generous tax write-offs to firms that would locate there. The firms came. But Montreal’s most dynamic software companies flourished in a different part of the city, a gentrifying area with a lively street life and a long tradition of small business. Multimedia City had no such natural advantages; all it had was the dubious distinction of having been publicly anointed. Firms and communities elsewhere then began to demand equal treatment, and Quebec eventually extended the program to them, simultaneously making it even more costly and defeating its original intent. Montreal was left with a shiny new building filled with subsidized firms, but few visible economic spin-offs. Quebec has since ended the program—no newcomers need apply—and one may well ask what will happen to the current beneficiaries when their subsidies expire.

Another school of thought became popular in the eighties: “community economic development,” which arose in reaction to the failed smokestack-chasing, handout-bestowing strategies of the past. Communities watching plants move elsewhere—plants that they had generously provided with a new industrial park and assorted tax breaks—felt betrayed. Outside interests were inherently fickle, the communities concluded; the only reliable source of sustained economic growth was local. A community’s ultimate strength was its own people and their ability to nurture homegrown businesses. Who but the locals were best equipped to identify local investment opportunities?

And so the 1980s saw a flowering of local development corporations of all stripes. The concept appealed to both sides of the political spectrum. Backers on the left, where the word “community” evoked positive feelings, envisioned corporations that would stress such social objectives as poverty reduction. Backers on the right were drawn to the small-business, entrepreneurial ethos of community economic development, as well as to the implication that the responsibility for success (or failure) resided with the community, not with the state. That implication also made the community approach attractive to higher levels of government; the only thing needed was the occasional handout to community organizations (with appropriate photo ops), and the mechanics could be left to the locals, who would now be in charge of encouraging the right businesses to come by means of counseling or, again, tax breaks and attractive loans…

Read it all.

Russia: The Mafia State

December 27, 2011


How to characterise the Putin regime, a now shaken and besieged ruling group sometimes said to be the richest in the history of the world? ‘Soft authoritarianism’, ‘hybrid regime’, ‘managed democracy’: the labels reveal less about Russia than about the inability of commentators to loosen the Cold War’s lingering hold on their thinking.

Luke Harding was the Guardian correspondent in Russia between 2007 and 2011 who last February was turned back at Domodedovo Airport and told that his presence in the country was no longer welcome. An editorial in the Guardian described it as ‘the first removal of a British staff journalist from the country since the end of the Cold War’. Harding himself sees his account of Putin’s Russia as a kind of codicil to Malcolm Muggeridge’s denunciation of the Soviet Union when he was the Manchester Guardian’s correspondent in 1932-33. ‘Eight decades on,’ Harding writes, ‘not much has changed’: ‘Kremlinology is back’; Russia ‘has become the world’s foremost spy-state’; ‘KGB habits of secrecy’ have returned; ‘Russia’s state media are still stuck in Cold War battle mode.’ And so on. Harding is not alone in this view. But it’s wrong. Putin doesn’t represent a return to Soviet ways; it’s something very different and more anarchic.

Putin’s clumsily announced but not unexpected decision to have himself re-elected to the presidency provides a clue about the way the system works, or rather doesn’t. If you take it that a credible succession formula is one of the key components of any political system, Putin’s stage-managed self-coronation makes it clear that Russia doesn’t have one. To leave the decision about one’s successor to the unpredictable outcome of a genuinely competitive election is acceptable only when incumbents don’t expect to lose too much if they lose. In established democracies, soft landings await electorally ousted politicians. In non-democratic systems, former rulers can sidestep unwelcome surprises if the succession process is managed by a core group within a ruling party, as in the Soviet Union after Stalin and in China today. But this alternative is not available in Russia. For one thing, the increasingly unpopular Yedinaya Rossiya is not an organised governing party but a ramshackle vote-rigging machine run by Putin loyalists and opportunists whom no one, least of all Putin, would trust to choose the country’s next ruler.

Giving up power now would cost Putin too much. Once he leaves, he will be in the dock – it’s inevitable, Harding is told by Stanislav Belkovsky, a former speechwriter for Boris Berezovsky. That, Belkovsky said, is when he’ll face the question of how to legalise his funds, and all his friends’ funds and assets in the West. Yeltsin, too, might have prolonged his presidency had it not been for his ill-health, but he was lucky enough to have Putin in place, not to bury the Yeltsin system, but to save it. Dmitry Medvedev, the cardboard dauphin, obviously couldn’t do for Putin what Putin did for Yeltsin. Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin reveals not the strength but the weakness of the system he has built.

Putin’s remaining supporters constantly trumpet the ‘stability’ he has brought to Russia. But no system, much less this one, can be stable if it depends on the well-being and survival of one man. Even if his ‘physical capabilities’, as he boasts, far exceed those of any postwar Soviet leader, the regime’s principal institutions are hollow. The most striking illustration of the negligible role they play in Russian political life is not the rubber-stamp Duma but the presidency itself. Assigned nearly unchecked powers by the 1993 Yeltsin constitution, the office lost both its authority over foreign policy and the power to dismiss the prime minister when its shell was rented out for four years to Medvedev, whose inability to hold on to the job makes it clear that the presidency itself is not a source of power.

The Putin system has nothing to do with the ‘authoritarian DNA’ invoked by Sovietologists to explain the recurrent suppression of liberal developments. The singularity of Putin’s Russia is a consequence of the bureaucratic fragmentation that followed the break-up of the Party in 1991, the siphoning into foreign bank accounts of money from the state treasury and state-controlled firms by rival bureaucratic and business factions, the continuing absence of socially legitimate owners of what were once state properties, the corruption of officialdom at all levels, the gap between rich and poor, the anaemic sense of national identity among the country’s political and economic elite.

The most common misapprehension about post-Communist Russia, accepted by both the regime’s supporters and its critics, is that Putin has created a military-style structure of command. In fact, he has had neither the capacity nor the ambition to rebuild a Soviet-style hierarchy. Harding writes of the transition ‘from the chaos but relative freedoms of the Yeltsin years to the “managed democracy” of the vertical Putin epoch’ and cites Valter Litvinenko, Aleksandr Litvinenko’s father: ‘Russia is a vertical system. It’s like the Soviet Union. Only Putin can decide these questions, just like Stalin. Without Putin’s approval it’ – his son’s poisoning – ‘could not have happened.’ But although it’s undeniable that ‘state irritants are murdered as a direct result of their professional activities,’ it’s far from clear that the killing of journalists and lawyers with a social conscience requires Putin’s initiative.

That the much publicised vertical power structure is a ‘fiction’, as it was called by Aleksei Navalny, one of the instigators of the massive anti-regime demonstrations that took place on 10 December, is evident from the corruption which, according to Harding, ‘has increased sixfold under Putin’s rule’. Escaping the draft, registering a company, buying an apartment, getting into school, passing an exam, being acquitted of criminal charges, trumped up or valid, receiving medical treatment may all require the bribery of public officials. The kickback plague is endemic, inflating by as much as 50 per cent the cost to the state of everything from weapons to highway construction. That the principal players in ‘the greatest corruption story in human history’, as the economist Anders Aslund puts it, include the fabled siloviki – the ‘heavies’: the army, the intelligence agencies etc – is the strongest sign of the absence of a hierarchy. In a hierarchy, local officials would answer to their Moscow superiors: but they don’t.

If there is a vertical in Putin’s Russia, it is a vertical of impunity. If you are an officer in the FSB moonlighting as a hired hitman you can kill someone and nothing will happen. The routine failure to solve homicide cases and prosecute murderers, far from signalling overwhelming state power, reveals quite the opposite. ‘Putin’s system of loyalty is highly dependent on the ability of his army of bureaucrats to embezzle and take bribes,’ says the editor of the Moscow Times, quoted by Harding. Putin can’t compel public sector employees to stop embezzling and extorting, any more than he can force government officials to put their departmental responsibilities before their personal cupidity and commit themselves to their community’s well-being.

As one of the authors of the Guardian’s book on the WikiLeaks trove, Harding was nicely positioned to cull material about ‘the corrupt nexus at the heart of the Russian state’. He cites a report by John Beyrle, the US ambassador to Moscow, who wrote that ‘police and MVD collect money from small businesses while the FSB collects from big businesses.’ But even when they amiably divide up the turf, the members of various agencies are doing so for their own individual purposes, not as part of a common project. The leaked cables also include the allegation that ‘the government operates more as a kleptocracy than a government.’ As Harding summarises it, the Kremlin is ‘a private-sector money-making business in which stealing is a pathological habit’, standing at the head of ‘a dysfunctional political system … in which it is often hard to distinguish between the activities of government and organised crime’. The FSB is described as ‘in essence, a criminal organisation, offering protection to gangsters and extorting bribes from large businesses’.

None of this is entirely wrong, but the historically unprecedented nature of the Putin system comes into focus only when we remember, as Harding himself urges us to, that ‘the Soviet-era KGB was subordinate to the political will of the Communist Party.’ When the CPSU collapsed, it left behind not only the FSB and its associated agencies but a constellation of other ‘orphans’, highly developed and now essentially autonomous fragments of a defunct state. In a desperate but ultimately successful endeavour to survive in an unforgiving environment, various former subsidiaries went in search of new sponsors. Soviet psychiatric facilities, for example, that were once used to torment dissidents, now receive cash-filled envelopes from younger Russians eager to dislodge elderly in-laws from desirable apartments. More significant politically are entities like Gazprom, the former Soviet Ministry of Gas, now a huge non-transparent corporation in which the Russian government holds a controlling stake, and the Procuracy, which retains its formal prosecutorial functions but no longer has to answer to a ranking organisation – appropriate payment by private parties can be enough to initiate or suspend a prosecution…

Read it all.

Santa’s Troubled Year

December 27, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Change in North Korea?

December 27, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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