Previous month:
April 2006
Next month:
June 2006

Fighting Poverty Costs Money, and Can Succeed

Picking up on a theme I posted about a few weeks ago, let me link to a few posts discussing a new study about income mobility in the U.S. and Europe. Income or class mobility refers to the likelihood that someone born into one class will reach another one. The rich generally stay rich over generations in any society, but how well does society do in lifting the poor into the middle-class? Americans, pointing to individual success stories, cling to a romantic notion that because of America's more fluid and dynamic class structure, "rags-to-riches" life histories are possible in the New World that just wouldn't be in Europe.

Turns out reality is more complex, and most reliable studies show it's not true. Scandinavian countries (and, to a lesser extent, other European countries) do especially well in combating inter-generational poverty, especially in comparison to the U.S.  A few recent studies, summarized by U.S. labor lawyer Nathan Newman point this out:

Contrary to many Americans' self-image, there is less social mobility from generation to generation in the United States than in supposedly class-bound Europe-- and the European states like Sweden and Norway with the highest welfare spending also had the most people born in poverty becoming middle class when they grew up [quoting a recent article ($) in the Economist]:

Around three-quarters of sons born into the poorest fifth of the population in Nordic countries in the late 1950s had moved out of that category by the time they were in their early 40s. In contrast, only just over half of American men born at the bottom later moved up. This is another respect in which Britain is more like the Nordics than like America: some 70% of its poorest sons escaped from poverty within a generation...

The obvious explanation for greater mobility in the Nordic countries is their tax and welfare systems, which (especially when compared with America's) deliberately try to help the children of the poor to do better than their the extent that redistribution is an explanation, it implies the opposite: that social mobility is a product of high public spending, a bit like the low incidence of poverty or longer life expectancy (on both of which Europe also does better than America).

The other advantage for the poor in Nordic countries seems to be a better education system that provides a more equal education for the poor compared to the United States.

The Institute for the Future of Labor study that forms the basis for Newman's post and the Economist article concludes, on p. 27: "Indeed, it is very noticeable that while for all of the other countries persistence is particularly high in the upper tails of the distribution, in the U.S. this is reversed - with a particularly high likelihood that sons of the poorest fathers in the U.S. will remain in the lowest earnings quintile."

The Flight-Data Decision and U.S. Diplomacy

The European Court of Justice struck down the agreement entered into by the Council of Europe and the United States which required member states to send 34 pieces of information about every airline passenger boarding a plance to the U.S. The judgment's here. The parties have 90 days to work out an alternate agreement. Many observers say the result will probably just be that there will be no Europe-wide regulation of the issue, and that member states will have to reach their own agreement with the U.S.

One thing worth noting is that the European Parliament filed the original complaint with the Court of Justice; thus the European legislative actually sued the rough equivalent of the executive branch, and the lawsuit was decided by the judicial branch. Another instance of the Parliament asserting its own profile; recently the Parliament also made headlines by taking an investigation of secret CIA overflights farther than most individual European governments (who secretly tolerated or approved the flights) were willing to do.

This brings into the headlines another example of tone-deaf U.S. policy and diplomacy. The flight data agreement was very big news all over Europe, where data privacy is taken seriously. "Why should I have to sacrifice my privacy to fly to the U.S. when I don't have to do that to fly to any other country? How would Americans react if they were forced to give their credit card numbers to the Russian (or worse, French) government just to fly there on business? And why is the U.S. singling out travelers from other countries, when every one of the 9/11 hijackers lived in the U.S. at the time of the hijackings, and got into planes in American airports?"

Continue reading "The Flight-Data Decision and U.S. Diplomacy" »

Joschka Fischer in the Washington Post

Joschka Fischer published an editorial yesterday in the Washington Post.  He makes three points. First, Iran's acquisition of the bomb "would call Europe's fundamental security into question." Second, Iran should not be lulled into thinking that high oil prices, and the "disastrous U.S.-led war in Iraq," have completely distracted the U.S. The question of whether Iran or the U.S. will dominate the Middle East is an "explosive" one for the U.S., and may lead to a confrontation that "Iran simply cannot win."

However, bombing Iran is not an option. It could well fail, and will certainly provoke a backlash: "[A]s a victim of foreign aggression, Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions would be fully legitimized...  [A] military attack on Iran would mark the beginning of a regional, and possibly global, military and terrorist escalation -- a nightmare for all concerned."

Fischer proposes a "grand bargain" in which the U.S. gives Iran the security guarantees and aid Iran wants:

The high price for refusing such a proposal has to be made absolutely clear to the Iranian leadership: Should no agreement be reached, the West would do everything in its power to isolate Iran economically, financially, technologically and diplomatically, with the full support of the international community. Iran's alternatives should be no less than recognition and security or total isolation.

Op-eds by retired diplomats are always interesting. On one level, the writer may well be stating his own position (Fischer's English is very good, so I have little doubt he wrote this piece himself). On another level, he's can take liberties which he couldn't while he was in office. The use of the word "disastrous" to describe the Iraq war wasn't necessary to make the point, but I'm sure Fischer couldn't help himself. Finally, he's probably sending a few messages across the Atlantic. From Europe to the U.S.: we understand a nuclear Iran is a threat, but bomb Iran? Are you nuts? From the U.S. to Europe: so if you want to take the military option off the table, there has to be some other meaningful threat, such as a cut-off of lucrative trade relations with EU members states.

I don't see much new here, though. Fischer's position seems to be just a beefed-up version of the current German government's approach, but perhaps I'm missing something.

German Joys Review: Das Leben der Anderen

The former East Germany, a relatively small country of 16 million people, was controlled by the most sophisticated, cunning, and thorough secret police the world has ever seen, the East German Ministerium für Staatsicherheit, or "Stasi." The Stasi had about 90,000 employees -- a staggering number for such a small population -- but even more importantly, recruited a network of hundreds of thousands of "unofficial employees," who submitted secret reports on their co-workers, bosses, friends, neighbors, and even family members. Some did so voluntarily, but many were bribed or blackmailed into collaboration.

In a totalitarian country plagued by shortages, the State lavished funds and training on Stasi agents. They did sometimes resort to physical violence and torture, especially in the basement of the infamous Hohenschönhausen prison in Berlin. However, such drastic measures were rarely necessary -- the Stasi could usually get the information it obsessively sought from a meek and terrorized population by doling out (or withholding) State favors: university slots for parents of teenage children, painkillers for closet addicts, or perhaps a visa to visit relatives in the West.

Das Leben der Anderen, ("The Life of Others") German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's debut, builds this painful legacy into a fascinating, moving film. In its moral seriousness, artistic refinement, and depth, Das Leben der Anderen simply towers over other recent German movies, and urgently deserves a wide international release. The fulcrum of  the movie (but probably not its most important character) is Georg Dreyman, an up-and-coming East German playwright in his late 30s. Played by the square-jawed Sebastian Koch, Dreyman is an (apparently) convinced socialist who's made his peace with the regime. His plays are either ideologically neutral or acceptable, and he's even received State honors.

Although he is a collaborator, he is also a Mensch. He uses his ideological "cleanliness" to intervene on behalf of dissidents such as his journalist friend Paul Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer). These unfortunates must contend with every humiliation a totalitarian state can invent: their apartments are bugged, friends and family are recuited to inform on them, and chances to publish or perform can be extinguished by one stray comment from a Central Committee member. The most recalcitrant can be kicked out of the country and stripped of their citizenship, like the singer songwriter Wolf Biermann.

Continue reading "German Joys Review: Das Leben der Anderen" »

Screaming at Philip Roth's Casket

A while ago, I was talking with a French friend of mine who did a one-year research stint in the U.S. The people seemed so strangely, robotically cheerful, he thought he was "living in Disneyland." As a corrective, here are excerpts of a recent interview with Philip Roth, who actually is American:

[Interviewer Martin Krasnik] "Are you satisfied with your life?" I ask.

P: "Eight years ago I attended a memorial ceremony for an author," he says. "An incredible man full of life and humour, curiosity. He worked for a magazine here in New York. He had girlfriends, mistresses. And at this memorial ceremony there were all these women. Of all ages. And they all cried and left the room, because they couldn't stand it. That was the greatest tribute ..."

M: "What will the women do at your funeral?"

P. "If they even show up ... they will probably be screaming at the casket."

Blame Canada!

Recently, a European sent me an email petition about the Pascua Lama mining project in Chile and Argentina. If you want to read a fuller version of the petition, a link is here. The petition deals with a gold mining project called the Pascua Lama project, in a remote region near the border of Argentina and Chile.

A mining company wants to tear apart the mountains to retrieve huge stores of gold. To get at the gold, the petition assures us, "it would be necessary to break, to destroy the glaciers - something never conceived of in the history of the world - and to make two huge holes, each as big as a whole mountain, one for extraction and one for the mine's rubbish tip." Gad! Sounds horrible, doesn't it? I can already hear the ominous string music in the background. But it just gets worse. The mine

will permanently contaminate the 2 rivers so they will never again be fit for human or animal consumption because of the use of cyanide and sulphuric acid in the extraction process.

Every last gram of gold will go abroad to the multinational company and not one will be left with the people whose land it is. They will only be left with the poisoned water and the resulting illnesses.

Gadzooks! Where's Bono when you need him? Assuming all of these assertions -- for which no proof at all is delivered -- are true, the next question is: Who could possibly be behind this nightmare? The petition says only the following: "The company is called Barrick Gold. The operation is planned by a multi-national company, one of whose members is George Bush Senior." Aha! American capitalist locusts. If "George Bush Senior" (otherwise known as George H.W. Bush) is somehow involved in it, it's just got to be evil. Sounds like it's time to get into our vans, strap on our armbands, and protest in front of Barrick Gold's headquarters.

But, hmm, where exactly are those headquarters? How strange that the petition does not tell us, even thought it's desperately eager to let us know that "George Bush Senior" is involved. Barrick Gold's headquarters are actually in...Toronto. Barrick Gold is a Canadian mining giant. Yes, Canada, that U.N. supporting, Iraq-war criticizing, Kyoto-protocol-signing model of good world citizenship. How could they?

Continue reading "Blame Canada!" »

The Case Against Kyoto

I'm a green guy, and I admire German environmental policies, which are some of the most forward-looking and responsible in the world. I separate my garbage and recycle everything that can be recycled. I even sold my car and go almost everywhere on my beloved bicycle Heinrich. Man, am I virtuous or what? Somebody please give me an award!

However, I've never really been convinced by Item Number One in the European press' indictment of U.S. environmental policy.  No article about the United States in the European press is complete, it seems, without a mention of the fact that the U.S. never ratified the Kyoto Protocols, and that George W. Bush, shortly after he took office, "kicked them into the waste-bin" (G). The coverage in Europe often focusses on atmospherics and symbolism: Should Bush have been so rude and direct in disposing of the Kyoto Accords? Weren't the accords, which were worked out after millions of hours of international effort, a rare and heartening symbol of international cooperation?

All good questions, but there's another question. Do they work?  Gregg Easterbrook makes the case that most signatory countries aren't observing them now, and they probably wouldn't have caused a significant change in greenhouse gases even if the U.S. had signed up to them:

Continue reading "The Case Against Kyoto" »

Getting Tired of Sir Simon

As a complement to my previous post, more anti-Rattle backlash here. The (rather opaque) summary: "But he also induces mild despair in the experts by essentially failing to expand, blithely diversifying instead of specializing. For him, Berlin is always a bit like Birmingham. In working with this venerable orchestra, he neglects the great German symphonic tradition, in particular the works of Anton Bruckner. Nor does he set out for distant lands."

Public Service Post: Watch What You Say in Germany

With this post, I am going to take the controversial step of actually posting something containing useful information. I know, it's a break with GJ tradition, but something that recently occurred got me thinking.

The other day someone who shall remain nameless, an expat living in Germany, contacted me privately. The person had hired a professional -- let's say a plumber -- and wasn't satisfied with the service he provided. The person described the service on their blog, and apparently identified the plumber by name. Next thing you know, the person's gotten a letter from the plumber's lawyer. He's suing the blogger for all sorts of scary-sounding things.

This says a few things worth knowing about Germany. First of all, the German cocktail-party stereotype of Americans as litigation-happy is pure, 100% Freudian projection. In fact, what stands out when you look at German cases is the sheer, mind-boggling triviality of the complaints. People will sue over an ugly comment, a negative customer evaluation, and, of course, over their beloved package vacations. A list of the "vacation defects" and the corresponding price reductions can be found here (G). Examples: "too little furniture" in your hotel room gets you a 5-15% percent discount; too much noise gets you between 5 and 40%; "no mini-golf" gets you a 3-5% deduction; "no nude beach" gets you a 10-20 percent discount!

Continue reading "Public Service Post: Watch What You Say in Germany" »

Who'll Take Over the Berlin Philharmonic?

That Eurovision contest was fun.  I'm putting it on my calendar for the rest of my life.

But now to classical music. This weekend's FAZ [newspaper] has an entertaining piece on the behind-the-scenes positioning to replace Sir Simon Rattle as the Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle's tenure has been a little rocky: in 2004, he got a taste of German criticism (which can be even more caustic and unsparing than its British counterpart), when Axel Brüggemann wrote in the Welt am Sonntag that "while Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband."

That storm blew over, but the rumors continue that after having a few non-
Germans at the helm (Claudio Abbado and Rattle) for the past sixteen years, the orchestra feels it's time to pick a German, or at least someone with a more Romantic sensibility. According to Fabian Bremer in Sunday's FAZ (21.5.2006, p.27), "The initial excitement about the British new-music specialist has blown over. The longing for a new Karajan is growing in these neo-romantic times." Rattle, for all his gifts, is apparently just a little too crisp, too user-friendly and too modern. 

The two front-runners to replace Rattle are Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann, the last Karajan's German protege and currently Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic. Thielemann's by far the younger of the two, but has already established a reputation with his Bavarians; his recording of Bruckner's No. 5, which I've heard, is pretty glorious Bruckner, alternately primeval and mist-shrouded and blazing.

One doesn't openly campaign for this post, of course. That would be Vulgar, and is Not Done. Instead, you limit your present musical engagements, just so everyone knows you'd be able to take over the post if you had to. You also arrange your current programs and engagements to highlight your strengths. If there's an opportunity to show up yourself against your closest competitor, don't miss it (such as when Thielemann took over during rehearsals for Barenboim during Bayreuth preparations, during which he showed that he, unlike Barenboim, knew the score of Tristan by heart).

Bremer ends the story with this lovely anecdote:

Daniel Barenboim recently performed a guest engagement in Munich, performing Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." Christian Thielemann was also in the city, and, as always, had rented the five-star suit in the Palace hotel. The hotel piano was also in the suite. When Barenboim wanted to practice, the hotel director went to Thielemann and began to ask him, but Thielemann cut him off: "Mr. Barenboim can have whatever he pleases from me." The instrument was then pushed across the corridor. The next evening, both of the men cancelled their engagements and sat together at the hotel bar.