Friday, May 22, 2009

Epic *Facepalm*

As of yesterday, Estonia has a minority government. The Social Democrats are out, and the Reform-IRL axis is scrambling to work out a deal with Rahvaliit to get the necessary majority in the Riigikogu. Otherwise they will not be able to ensure that any of their measures get approved by the legislature; with SDE thoroughly ticked off and the Centrists naturally uncooperative, there is a very good chance that Ansip and Laar will not be able to get things done on their own.

By themselves, Reform+IRL have 50 seats, which is just one short of a plain majority in the 101-seat parliament. They could try to court the one independent candidate, Jaan Kundla, who left the Centrist fraction but didn't resign. I don't know much about him; his Wikipedia entry mentions a relatively modest assortment of scandals and no specific political leanings. He could probably be persuaded by the two big political parties, and I'm sure they're considering that option. The guy is also over 70 years old, which raises an interesting point: if he dies, who gets to replace him? Somebody from the party on whose list he got elected? Somebody from his constituency?

The most likely new coalition partner is Rahvaliit, the farmers' party. Their former leader, Villu Reiljan, was just convicted in a corruption case from his stint as minister in the previous government - he took bribes to arrange unusually profitable land-exchange deals. (If you own a piece of land whose use is restricted by nature reserves or some such thing, you could give it to the state, and get a piece of unrestricted state land in return. A reasonable system in theory, but people close to Reiljan were apparently exchanging swamps in Lahemaa for zoned plots in downtown Tallinn.) Last I heard, Reiljan hasn't resigned because he's still looking for an appeal and won't be forced to leave the parliament until that's done. But, assuming that he's on his way out, this would be a good opportunity for Rahvaliit to clean house and try to claw back some credibility.

A complete change of government is unlikely. As much as everyone is sick of Ansip's cabinet, pigs will fly before there is a stable alliance of Centrists, Social Democrats, Greens, farmers and that one independent.

Meanwhile the SDE ministers have been having fun on their way out the door. A few days ago, KAPO (the internal special service) arrested a top police official who is a close personal friend of Ansip. KAPO is part of the Interior Ministry, controlled by SDE's Jüri Pihl. As the papers pointed out, it's not likely to be a witch hunt and KAPO surely has enough good evidence, but one does wonder if Pihl wasn't keeping his men on a short leash to maintain good relations with his coalition partners. Ivari Padar, the SDE leader and also a top minister, had publically stated that he would be resigning after the Europarliament elections one way or the other. The Prime Minister was not amused by the theatrics, it seems.

The rump cabinet is still trying to keep to the Euro accession criteria, and it's getting a bit preposterous. I remember Padar going on TV and saying that he was absolutely sure that the initial budget cuts would be more than enough to stick to the Maastricht parameters. Now we've had another round of cuts, and even more may be necessary. The unemployment benefits muddle is still unresolved, but the premium has gone up. There's also new excise rates on fuel (about 2 eurocents per liter) and alcohol/tobacco. Childbirth benefits are likely to be cut. Student loan payments in government agencies have been stopped.

As much as I'd like Estonia to join the Eurozone, I'm unconvinced. The problems of a poor economy will not be solved by raising taxes, at least not in a flat-tax country like ours; the problem isn't that the government isn't getting enough money, it's that the people aren't earning any. We need public works, government subsidies for innovative and practical exporting businesses, investment in education and infrastructure. If we won't hit the Maastricht criteria before the crisis is over - and if the debt burden of the big Eurozone economies makes the future of the Euro seem unsteady as it is - then sod it. Let's take out loans and spend them on long-term stuff, like power stations and shale-to-fuel reprocessing factories. And if we're doomed, let's at least go out in a blaze of glory.

The government's actions are predicated on the assumption that once we join the Euro, it will all be rainbows and unicorns. I don't know that they're necessarily wrong, but I do know that they haven't done a good enough job of convincing me.

As for the coalition... anyone who's been paying attention will know that I have no love for Savisaar, quite the opposite. But in these desperate times, what I would really love to see is a national unity government.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I need more friends. My current set is cool, but not nearly social enough - among other things, most of them tend to be students who either can't afford to go out much, or have class in the morning. The others have small children and can't stay out long. What's a single 25-year-old to do?

So what the hell, let's try to get something tangible out of this whole blogging thing. Google Analytics tells me there have been over 200 visits to from Tartu in the last month. A bunch of those will be people I know already, but some may not be, and more might have the blog feed in RSS.

So if you're in Tartu, and you've been reading the blog and think I'm a half-way interesting person, give me a shout at I'll buy you a beer.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Thousand Dollar Car Theory Still Holds

The Mazda RX-8 was launched in the early 00s, and at the time, I really thought it was close to the perfect car. It was a rear-wheel drive sports coupe, looked really good, and was relatively practical; in fact there was an ad campaign for it saying that if you tried hard, you could actually justify it to your spouse as a family car.

I liked it so much at the time that I made myself a promise. Obviously I couldn't even come close to affording the RX-8, but others bought them, and of course new cars depreciate rapidly - especially expensive sportscars from non-prestigious brands. I told myself that when I was 25 - which seemed like a long way away - I would buy one. Even if it was used. Even if I would have to pay it off until I was 30.

I turned 25 a little less than two weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the RX-8 has a serious flaw. Its engine is unusual, a completely different engineering solution to regular piston motors. It's called a rotary engine, or a Wankel after the German who invented it. I won't go into detail, but basically it is smaller and lighter than a piston engine, but produces more power. The downside is that because of some inherent problems with Wankel's design, it's not terribly reliable. Reports from RX-8 owners suggest that the engine tends to break down catastrophically after 100,000km, even with careful maintenance. If the RX-8 had come with a regular engine, such as Mazda's 2.3-liter turbo from the MPS line of cars, it would be perfect; but it doesn't. An RX-8 that has done around 30,000km costs about twelve thousand Euro in Estonia today; not completely outside the realms of my budget, but not the sort of money I'd feel comfortable spending on an inherently unreliable machine, despite the fact that I don't drive that much. (My current car has done around 25,000km in two and a half years, and the bulk of that has been on the Tallinn-Tartu freeway.)

However, I would still like to keep the promise to myself. And it appears that the Estonian Volkswagen dealer got an unusually large shipment of the new Sciroccos. Now, I like the Scirocco: it looks good, and it's based on the VW Golf GTI, which is considered one of the most fun cars this side of something fundamentally impractical. (People who write for car magazines have repeatedly stated that on real-world roads, a Golf GTI will certainly be able to keep up with a Ferrari.) In Estonia, today, VW will sell you a Scirocco with all the equipment you need for less than 20,000 Euro. For a car in this class, that's bloody cheap, and VWs keep their value quite well as used cars, and hey, my mortgage interest rate dropped like a brick in April, didn't it?

I was in Tallinn this Friday on other business anyway, so I went to the main VW dealership and test-drove the Scirocco. The one they had was the top-end model, with the turbocharged engine and DSG gearbox - the best automatic gearbox in the world right now, by general consensus of people who know about these things.

My first reaction was that I was right to aim for the cheapest model, with the less powerful 1.4 twin-charged engine (which is still powerful enough to force me to contribute to Estonia's ailing budget), and manual gearbox. I've had the argument with Mingus, who dismisses the common argument of manuals giving better control, because with an automatic you always have both hands on the steering wheel - and that's safer. Honestly, I can't refute it, and the DSG was really awesome. I simply enjoy driving a stick shift more.

But honestly, even while I drove the Scirocco down the back roads of Tabasalu, I couldn't feel it. I wasn't experiencing that wonder, that sense of do want that I would need to justify the purchase. I spent over eight thousand kroons on my little aluminium HP laptop, which was more than the competition, and I didn't strictly need it - but the satisfaction from owning something genuinely awesome was worth it.

It's the same thing, every time I drive a new car. It's great, sure, but it's not mind-boggling; it's not an order of magnitude better than whatever I am driving myself at the time. I had the same experience with a Suzuki Grand Vitara, back when I had a 1988 Honda Accord; the Suzuki was quiet and comfortable, but dog-slow in comparison. Modern cars are just too heavy to take advantage of the power, and neither do they have the ability to filter out the imperfections of our roads - certainly they don't provide the difference to match the price increase compared to a ten-year-old car. Yes, a new one will be more reliable - but, if you choose your ride carefully, a used one will not be more expensive to run than the maintenance costs of something that still has to be serviced at the dealership to keep the warranty.

It's odd that, for such a gearhead, I am having such trouble getting properly excited about something as nice as the new Scirocco.

PS. The guy I talked to at the dealership was a real pleasure. Friendly, active and competent. I feel like an asshole for deciding against the Scirocco, so if you're looking for a new car these days and have been disappointed with the customer service levels at most dealerships, go to Saksa Auto Pluss in Tartu (corner of Aardla and Ringtee) and ask for Allan Ainson. And I think there are some really good discounts on most VW models these days.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Lazy Person's Vote

New article on Th!nk About It - this time, with video!

Not particularly bothered if you vote or not, but I would appreciate it if you commented. Oh, and this is a video post. Be gentle - it's more or less my first experience in editing video.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


From a forum discussion... I reaffirmed my long-held belief that while there are aspects of a society that must be managed centrally and provided universally - such as healthcare, education etc. - the state's involvement should be limited to safety nets, ensuring minimum sustenance, but certainly not a comfortable living standard. Society is not obligated to support those who choose not to contribute, and highly developed welfare states do tend to produce that type of mentality, at least in some parts of the population.

The inevitable and, I'll admit, reasonable response to that was, Hardly surprising that an economically self sufficient 20-something with a high disposable income thinks that, is it?

Uh-huh, but I grew up as the child of a newspaper editor in a postsoviet economy. I'm not a trustafarian, so I get to say things like that.

Wow, you really don't have any idea how privileged you are, do you? You actually earned everything you have on your own accord?

I was lucky enough to be born in a country that became part of the Western world within my lifetime. Other than that - my education was paid for by the state (which is why I consistently say that education should be state-sponsored), and my healthcare costs were covered by the state as well (and I absolutely believe that universal healthcare is a non-negotiable human right).

My parents supported me in university, but didn't completely pay my way - I worked starting from the second semester until I graduated. I have never claimed any sort of unemployment benefit from the state. I got a state-sponsored cheap student loan, which is a system that I like and recommend, but it wasn't vital. I got my job by putting up a CV on a website, it had nothing to do with family connections or university old-boy networking (but, I suppose, everything to do with living in a country whose government found a way to attract massive amounts of foreign direct investment). My apartment was bought using inheritance as a down payment, but I'm covering the mortgage.

So - a question to both regular readers and people who know me in real life - exactly how hypocritical am I?


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