Bernard Grech’s jewels

▪️ Bernard Grech’s jewels ▪️ A flock of Swifties ▪️ Stem the drop

The Leader of the Opposition used the occasion of a meeting of the PN’s General Council to attack the Government on the cost of living.  It was to be expected and it’s certainly an issue on which the Opposition should speak.  “One of the ways the government has majorly failed the population is in cost of living,” Grech said, claiming the government is boasting cheaper living while no one believes it.  “They don’t go buy,” he added, “they don’t see the prices rising.”  Right, they (the people who run the government) are presumably surviving on the groceries bought at cheaper prices three years ago. 

This is where he brought in economics professor Lino Briguglio in an attempt to deliver the final blow.  It seems Dr Grech had little confidence that his economic spokesmen would do the trick.  Unfortunately   ̶   and here I have to rely on what was reported in the papers   ̶   Briguglio did nothing of the sort.  On the contrary, he unwittingly undermined Dr Grech’s case.

Briguglio’s described the price stabilisation programme announced by the Government in February as a political ploy to take credit for decreasing prices.  “Do you know that in Europe the prices have gone down over the past year without any such intervention?” Briguglio asked those present.  To me, this implies, that it hasn’t been the case in Malta.

Now, since the bread and butter of economists are statistics, I decided to look at what happened to the harmonised index of consumer prices (HICP) in the EU and Malta over the last three years.  Our chart plots the monthly annual rate of change in prices.  It clearly shows prices going up rapidly to a peak in October 2022 and then declining as rapidly in both the EU and Malta. We are still not at as low a level but it’s getting there.

What Dr Grech and Dr Briguglio didn’t tell the gathering   ̶   for obvious, uncomfortable reasons   ̶   was that for two whole years prices in the EU were increasing at a higher rate than in Malta: 70% more, in fact.  Neither did they say   ̶   because the truth can be inconvenient   ̶   that since June of last year the declining monthly rates of change in both the EU and Malta have converged, though Malta’s has been modestly higher.

You may be aware of the saying about statistics, damn statistics and lies.  Easy to slide to the lies bit, and in fact they did.  Briguglio, who assured the gathering that his speech was not a partisan one, then claimed that prices in the EU had come down without any government interventions.  Really?  According to the EU Commission, since the beginning of the energy crisis in September 2021, member states have spent €651 billion to shield consumers from rising energy costs.

Lino Briguglio.

Bernard Grech and Lino Briguglio must be living on another planet.  In June last year, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire secured a pledge from 75 food companies, including Unilever, to cut prices on hundreds of products. The companies, which together make 80% of what the French eat, were told they could face financial sanctions if they didn’t follow through.  No such threat in Malta.

In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s government signed off a deal with distributors’ associations to try to control the prices of essential goods. Participating supermarket chains and small retailers had to define a basket of food and non-food staples to which lowered prices would apply, with basic necessities also including childcare and personal care products.

Obviously, Le Maire and Meloni weren’t aware that such price-fixing agreements would be, as Dr Briguglio described them, a “dangerous measure” or that the Maltese economist thinks that ministers have no business in interfering in the market.  The non-partisan Briguglio even recalled that in the 1970s Malta’s finance minister had lowered the prices of tuna and sardines cans   ̶   only a PL government would do such a dreadful thing.  It seems, however, that other EU ministers are not immune to imitating one of the “dangerous measures” of the Labour Government of the 1970s!

I wrote at such length not to belittle the cost-of-living crisis, but because it is one that is definitely not of the government’s making.  In an open economy like Malta’s, we are at the mercy of global events and our governments have only very limited control on imported inflation. 

The chart above shows that, during the PN administrations of 2004-2013, we had some of the highest inflation rates ever, with average cumulative rates of around 12.7% every four years; again, most of that was because of inflation in our trading partners.  Inflation in food prices was even worse than overall inflation.  What did us in, though, was the high cost of energy.  That too was imported.  But the difference here was that the incoming Labour government in 2013 took the bull by the horns and reduced energy prices all round.

My point is that, while I fully expect politicians of whatever leaning to flog the horse as much as they can, I would expect something better of economists.  Being non-partisan means laying it down as it is and, if politicians do not like what you say, well then don’t accept invitations to speak at their meetings. 

A flock of Swifties

Taylor Swift is one of the most beloved pop icons of our time. So much so that 18 months ago, when pre-sale tickets went live for her Eras tour, two million tickets were sold in a day.  The tsunami of sales that day eventually led to the Ticketmaster booking site crashing and the general sale that was planned for the following day was cancelled. This makes you wonder   ̶   what is it about Swift and her music that creates such a loyal and passionate fan base?

Swift herself says that the one key thing that sets her apart from other musicians is her storytelling.  Fans engage with her songs because they see themselves in her lyrics. In her 2020 documentary, Miss Americana, Swift says that there’s an element to her fan base “where we feel like we grew up together. I’ll be going through something, write the album about it, and it’ll come out, and sometimes it’ll just coincide with what they’re going through. Kind of like they’re reading my diary.”

What excites Swift’s fans when she publishes a song or an album is the Easter eggs in it, that is hidden messages, images, or features which her fans search for.  Devoted Swifties have developed various theories about the meaning behind her songs.  But not only; now there are serious researchers who have published learned papers about how to decode the lyrics in her songs.

This time, the decoding attempts started even ahead of her latest oeuvre   ̶   a collection of 31 songs released across two versions of her 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department.  On 14th April, a hidden message started showing up in the lyrics of songs in five curated Apple Music playlists of Swift’s music, giving Swifties a code to decipher ahead of the upcoming album.  Apple added random capital letters to a song per day, spelling out a word so that on 18th April, a “secret” message appeared. The message read: “We hereby conduct this post mortem.”

Indeed, all of the 31 songs in the album refer to events or people in Swift’s life and her feelings and reactions at the time over the past two years.   Swift herself wrote on Instagram that the album would have much “tortured poetry” which she wanted to share with her fans.  The magazine Us has broken down all the theories that link The Tortured Poets Department songs to past Swift tracks.

Taylor’s obsession with Easter eggs is a true “there’s no limit” situation, and she’s only gotten more creative as the years have gone by.  Before, her Easter eggs used to merely be hidden in her liner notes; now she’s hiding clues in music videos, song lyrics, tour visuals, and Instagram captions. Even the outfits she wears on red carpets aren’t immune from fan analysis.

Taylor Swift. PHOTO: ARTWORK BY JANE PERKINS FOR TIME; PHOTOGRAPH BY FORMATRIX; SOURCE PHOTO: TERENCE RUSHIN TAS23/GETTY

This Easter eggs business is not new to Taylor.  In an interview with The Washington Post, she said: “When I was 15 and putting together my first album, […] I decided to encode the lyrics with hidden messages using capital letters. That’s how it started, and my fans and I have since descended into colour coding, numerology, word searches, elaborate hints, and Easter eggs.”

She also told Entertainment Weekly how she thinks up Easter eggs.  She prefers cryptic ones which she leaves on clothing or jewellery. This is one of her favourite ways to do this because she wears something that foreshadows something else   ̶   her fans realise she’s probably sending a message and they spend days or weeks trying to figure it out in time for her song releases.

The Easter eggs could mean a few things: hidden teasers for new albums or songs, subtle signs hinting at who a song might be about, callbacks to other eras, songs or albums that generate nostalgia among Swifties, and numbers (13 and 1989, mainly) hidden everywhere, just for the fun of it.

“It’s really about turning new music into an event for my fans and trying to entertain them in playful, mischievous, clever ways,” Taylor also told the Post. “As long as they still find it fun and exciting, I’ll keep doing it.”

Taylor Swift is not just a chart-topping artist; she’s also a master of marketing.  Her Easter eggs are simultaneously strategic and playful. By embedding these clues throughout her content, she creates a sense of mystery, intrigue and excitement, keeping fans guessing and ensuring that each announcement feels like a momentous event.

Toby Koenigsberg, Associate Professor and Chair of Popular Music at the Eastman School of Music and Dance, says that success in the music industry isn’t merely about music, it’s about business, and “Taylor’s business skills are prodigious”.  He hails her ability to expertly craft her brand to her strategic moves, proving to be both a successful artist and businesswoman.

Stem the drop

In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the representation of women in STEM education fields: natural sciences, mathematics and statistics, information and communication technologies, engineering, manufacturing and construction. Women are largely underrepresented in these fields. 

I have written about this before but can’t let the latest statistics go by.  According to Eurostat, in 2021, in the EU, women tertiary education graduates accounted for 32.8% of the total graduates, 0.5% less than in 2018.  The highest shares of women tertiary education graduates in STEM in 2021 were recorded in Romania (42.5%), Poland (41.5%), Greece (40.9%), and Italy (39.0%).

In Malta the percentage is 28.3% – the third lowest in the EU.  And if that isn’t bad enough, the percentage is even lower than it was six years ago, when 31.9% of our females graduated in STEM subjects.  Bad, bad, bad.

It augurs even worse for the future.  Women used to account for 50.4% of Maltese nationals a generation ago; now they represent 64.9% of us.  That therefore means that we will have even less workers with a STEM education in the future.  How can we attract higher-value-added industries to our shores when we are not equipping our future workforce with the right education and skills?

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