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April 2007
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Godwin's Law as a Governing Strategy

Nir Rosen catches Paul Bremer in a violation of Godwin's Law with, as Rosen argues, real-world consequences:

[Paul] Bremer claims that [Saddam] Hussein "modeled his regime after Adolf Hitler's" and compares the Baath Party to the Nazi Party. Set aside the desperation of the debater who reaches immediately for the Nazi analogy and remember that there is no mention of such "modeling" in any of the copious literature about Iraq. This ludicrous Nazi analogy permeates the entire article; it also permeated the proconsul's time in Baghdad, when Bremer imagined himself de-Nazifying postwar Germany, saving the Jews (the Shiites) from the Nazis (those evil Sunnis).

This thoughtless comparison is one of the main reasons why he performed so horribly in Iraq. (Remember, most Baath Party members were Shiites; so in Bremer's analogy, I suppose most of the Iraqi "Nazis" would be "Jews.")


Stork #17 has laid Egg #O-DE-3344554

Sometimes, a chain of mysterious conjunctions happens in your life, leading you to a deeper truth. For me, that deeper truth is that every discrete object found in nature in Germany has a number. 

Item No.1: A few weeks ago, we found out that every tree in Berlin has a number

Item No. 2: A few days ago, I found out that we know exactly how many storks there are in Germany.  I was doing some post-Ascension errands, and listening to the children's program Kakadu on Deutschland Radio Kultur.  Children were calling in from all over Germany to talk about storks. Many were extremely excited by one of the various live Internet webcams that show families of storks in Germany (The link is to a Stork Cam in Vetschau, Germany, which promises: " With the brood process, there will be categorically no interference!")

The guest was a woman from the German Nabu, or Nature Protection League (G). Each kid was asked what German state he or she lived in. Most of them didn't know, which I found cute. After they asked mom or dad which state they lived in, the woman from Nabu told them exactly how many stork breeding pairs were in that state. There are 275 in Saxony (if memory serves), and 128 in Bavaria, although the woman said "The number might not be accurate, because some of them haven't been reported yet."

At one point, the following exchange occurred, which I found even cuter:

Moderator: And what did you see when you saw the storks at the zoo?

Child: I saw them being fed!

Moderator: Ooh, so you saw the mother stork regurgitate food for the stork babies?

Child: No, a person did it!

Item No. 3: This weekend, I buy eggs at my local organic food store, Kraut & Rueben, at Brunnenstr. 9. They are, of course, organic. And each individual egg has been stamped with a special three-part code. Take a look:

Labelled_eggs

The code tells you that this egg came from the Hof Alpermuehle farm, in Germany, it was produced under completely organic conditions, and it came from stall number 01-12121.

It was delicious.


Europe's Multicolored Green Buildings

The New York Times' architecture critic observes that architects in northern Europe have moved past the first phase of green building design -- in which the building had to wear its ecological sensitivity on its sleeve -- to the second phase. Now, the technology and know-how have been so thoroughly mastered that a building can be efficient and pretty at the same time. And in the U.S.? The Times compares:

After more than a decade of tightening guidelines, Europe has made green architecture an everyday reality. In Germany and the Netherlands especially, a new generation of architects has expanded the definition of sustainable design beyond solar panels and sod roofs. As Matthias Sauerbruch put it to me: “The eco-friendly projects you saw in the 1970s, with solar panels and recycled materials: they were so self-conscious. We call this Birkenstock architecture. Now we don’t need to do this anymore. The basic technology is all pretty accepted.”

In the United States, architects cannot make the same claim with equal confidence. Despite the media attention showered on “green” issues, the federal government has yet to establish universal efficiency standards for buildings. Yet, according to some estimates, buildings consume nearly as much energy as industry and transportation combined. And the average building in the U.S. uses roughly a third more energy than its German counterpart.

Something else I hadn't thought about: "[A] building’s efficiency should be measured not just by its mechanical systems but also by how much energy it uses over its lifetime. More energy is expended in a building’s construction than at any other stage, so a structure that lasts 100 years will use far less energy than one that lasts 5, no matter how efficient."


Al Gore, Sounding Habermasian Themes

A few days ago I posted excerpts of an essay by Juergen Habermas in which he stressed the importance of reasoned, informed public discourse. Now comes Al Gore with a similar message. In an excerpt from a new book of his called The Assault on Reason, he argues that the "strangeness" of America's public sphere helps explain some of the mistakes my home country has made lately.

I think these two contributions make nice bookends. Pay attention to the quality of your discourse, says Habermas. It's critical to democracy, and it is subject to breakdowns. You must provide the people with the oatmeal of informed discussion before they get the dessert of celebrity gossip. Make sure you provide them with enough background information to allow reasonably informed decision-making. When the market won't do this on its own -- and there's little reason to think it will -- the state will need to step in and bring it about some other way.

Otherwise, you'll end up making terrible mistakes. After cataloging some of the self-inflicted wounds America now finds itself trying to bandage, Al Gore continues:

It is too easy—and too partisan—to simply place the blame on the policies of President George W. Bush. We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes. We have a Congress. We have an independent judiciary. We have checks and balances. We are a nation of laws. We have free speech. We have a free press. Have they all failed us? Why has America's public discourse become less focused and clear, less reasoned? Faith in the power of reason—the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly by resorting to logical debate on the basis of the best evidence available, instead of raw power—remains the central premise of American democracy. This premise is now under assault.

American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.

It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I am not alone in feeling that something has gone fundamentally wrong....

At first I thought the exhaustive, nonstop coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial was just an unfortunate excess—an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. Now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time: the Michael Jackson trial and the Robert Blake trial, the Laci Peterson tragedy and the Chandra Levy tragedy, Britney and KFed, Lindsay and Paris and Nicole.

While American television watchers were collectively devoting 100 million hours of their lives each week to these and other similar stories, our nation was in the process of more quietly making what future historians will certainly describe as a series of catastrophically mistaken decisions on issues of war and peace, the global climate and human survival, freedom and barbarity, justice and fairness. For example, hardly anyone now disagrees that the choice to invade Iraq was a grievous mistake. Yet, incredibly, all of the evidence and arguments necessary to have made the right decision were available at the time and in hindsight are glaringly obvious.


France: Not Crumbling, Says Chazelle

Over at Rootless Cosmopolitan, Bernard Chazelle comments intelligently on the election of Nicolas Sarkozy . France isn't doomed for any of the reasons people say it is, but it does have problems, and Sarko -- who, by the way, is neither a racist nor a free-market conservative -- might just have some solutions.

On a personal note, I can never forgive Mitterrand for intentionally boosting Le Pen’s fortunes at the ballot box in a Machiavellian divide-and-rule strategy. On the other hand, as someone who did not vote for Sarko, I am still grateful to him for dealing Le Pen his biggest electoral blow. I also note that while other politicians regurgitate the same tired “solutions” to the crisis of the banlieues—namely, building more community centers named after great poets—Sarko has suggested somewhat more adventurous ideas, such as a restructuring of labor relations, a more flexible labor market, hiring incentives, and even that big French bugaboo, affirmative action, all the while reaffirming France’s traditional rejection of communautarisme.

Chazelle takes down at least one myth per paragraph. As they say on the Internets, go read the whole thing.


Vacation Policies in Europe and the USA

A recent report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. compared government policy on paid vacation time among OECD nations. No surprises here; the chart says it all:

Vacation_time_chart

A couple caveats here: the report's authors don't seem to have considered U.S. state law. I suspect that that more liberal U.S. states probably do provide mandated paid vacation, and it might be helpful to know which ones do. Nevertheless, as the authors correctly note, there's no federal regulation on the subject, so states are free to act as they please. As for Germany, the authors note: "[T]here is only one national public holiday, German Unity Day. Other public holidays are determined on the state level, and vary between 0 and 16."

Of course, American workers do get holidays. As usual, though, the amount of vacation you get will vary with your social power:

On average, private-sector workers in the United States have about nine days of paid vacation per year, plus about six paid holidays. . . . .  [P]art-time workers, low earners, and workers in small establishments (fewer than 100 workers) are less likely to receive paid vacation and paid holidays, and when they do, these workers receive fewer paid days off. Lower-wage workers are less likely (69 percent) than higher-wage workers (88 percent) to have paid vacations.

Mandatory paid vacation is a classic welfare-state policy. Policies like these serve at least three functions. First, they ensure that everybody gets some vacation. Second, they 'signal' that leisure time is an important social value and policy goal. As the report notes, most European employers actually go above the minimum requirements voluntarily. Third, they ensure that the gap between rich and poor in vacation time does not become too large.

In any society, the highly-qualified or well-connected have a lot of autonomy concerning how much they choose to work. Of course, many choose to work extremely hard, but they don't have to; they can bargain away money and prestige in favor of leisure time (or time with the family) whenever they wish. It's the less-qualified, 'interchangeable' workers that get the short end when there are no policies to protect them. Put another way, if you're a low-skilled employee in Europe, you're not more likely than an American low-skilled employee to get more than the legal minimum of paid vacation. But, as we see, that legal minimum is very different...


The Not Making of the Language Mutilations

As a connoisseur of non-standard English, I encourage every non-native speaker to sign up for English classes with this person (seen in Duesseldorf in mid-April):

Language_training_2

I note that the, err, German sub-heading of this poster, "Wiederhole deine Sprache", means "Repeat your Language."

Looks like English is not the only language whose mutilations our friend has experience with.   


Habermas on the Press and the Market

In the Sueddeutsche Zeitung today, Juergen Habermas sounds the alarm (G) about excessive market influence on Germany's quality daily newspapers. In the United States -- once the home of aggressive investigative reporting -- troubling signs have emerged at some of the nation's top newspapers. The Los Angeles Times has been ruthlessly re-organized, and the Boston Globe has closed all of its overseas bureaus. At a time when the U.S. is fighting two wars.

Habermas, whose 1962 Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is considered a classic of modern sociology, warns of a similar process on the horizon in Germany. News and information, he warns, cannot be treated as consumer products.

I note that Habermas does not mention blogs or other online information sources even once during the entire piece. Yes, blogs are still in their infancy and, and their influence is often exaggerated by fans. Still, Habermas' lack of curiosity about this looming transformation is disappointing. That caveat aside, Habermas, as usual, makes interesintg points. Excerpts, translated by yours truly:

TV as “Toaster”

This argument about the special character of the product “education” and “information” reminds one of the slogan that was heard in the USA when television was introduced: This new medium, it was said, was nothing more than a "toaster with pictures." This implied that there was nothing wrong with leaving the production and consumption of television programs exclusively to the marketplace. Since then in the USA, media enterprises create television programs for viewers and sell the attention of their audiences to advertising buyers.

Wherever it has been generally introduced, however, this organizing principle has inflicted political and cultural devastation. Our [German] “dual” television system is an attempt at damage control. The media laws of the various German states, the relevant decisions of the Federal Constitutional Court, and the programming guidelines of the public broadcasting agencies reflect the idea that the electronic mass media should not merely satisfy the consumer’s easily-commercialized need for entertainment and distraction.

Listeners and viewers are not only consumers -- not only market participants – but also citizens with a right to participate in cultural life, observe political events, and contribute to the process of opinion formation. On the basis of this legal framework, programs which secure the population a relevant “basic package” of information cannot be made dependent on advertiser-friendliness and their ability to attract sponsored support.

...

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