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A call for human decency

Monday there will be a debate about an emergency refugee center in Forssa. The number we are talking about here is 250 people. I expressly say people. Not refugees, not migrants. People! It’s good to emphasize this, because there is always a tendency to dehumanize people by putting them into a kind of system. You are this and I am that. This is not the way to deal with people. Not with your neighbor, not with friends, not with people you don’t know the last thing about.

kidsWhat is needed is to give the people that are coming here a chance. A chance on a normal life. A chance to prove that they can contribute to a society that is not shot to hell by local bandits and dictators. Do you think that Finland is doing it’s duty already? I am sorry to say but when it comes to giving people who have fled from violence a home Turkey is number 1 in the world. The country takes care of 1.6 million people from Syria. Turkey is big, but this a staggering number compared to the number of people that Finland takes in yearly.

What Forssa needs is to be practical about these things. Forssa is a graying town. Forssa “lost” 3000 children in the last 10 years. In order to reverse this process we new people. In this sense 250 people is not nearly enough. The strangers that come here need initially care that helps them deal with their troubles. This will bring employment in the form of doctors, nurses, psychologists and teachers. In the long run the people that come here can exercise their skills in return. Art, technology and language skills will provide a base for innovation and opening up new markets. Smart business people can make use of their skills. This is not the first time in history. Amsterdam only became a major town after it took in people fleeing from the south. There is no reason that Forssa can’t do the same.


The delicate sound of the lawn mower

redcurrantIts Monday morning. Beautiful weather. Time to pick the berries. We have a lot of red currant in the garden. Sun is shining, hat on and I go for it. It’s peaceful until I hear a lawn mower in the distance. It’s noise is dull. The distance muffles it. I tune it out. To the background where it belongs, but not long after a second noise starts. It’s the neighbor this time. She is a thoroughly anti-dust person so vacuum cleaning takes about 3 hours. A steady whine that cats hate so much comes from the house. I sigh, unwilling to give up yet. Should I stop berry picking? Chances are that some time later things will be better. I sigh again. Well there is enough to do inside. Let’s do it later!

Some time later I sit down again. The berries look good. Everything is peaceful. However my joy does not last long. Another neighbor discovered the joys of the lawn mower. Weather like this seems to attract it. My neighbor is half an hour into his job when another starts. It’s like epidemics. One noise begets another. There is also the gently whine of circle saw. The lovely brrruum of the carting races. You can have all these joyful sounds of activity right in your garden. The air force makes my joy complete. They put some stripes in a cloudless sky. I am going to inspect my lawn mower.


No milk today

CAPFor the past year I have heard a lot of complaints. Complaints of farmers about the prices they get for their goods. Whether it is milk, grains or meat it is too little. More subsidy please. While I sympathize with the farmers I don’t think that’s the whole story. I remember very well how the EU started. One of magic terms was CAP. CAP? Yes, Common Agricultural Policy. CAP in action meant subsidies for farmers with the object to provide them a reasonable income. As it happens the designer of this policy was Sicco Mansholt. A Dutch politician. CAP lead to a huge over production of everything. Mountains of butter and meat, lakes of wine and milk. It was obvious that such a situation could not continue and that’s why we are where we are at the moment.

One of the things that made lives for farmers better in the past was their ownership of transport and production facilities. Farms used to pool their resources and built a company that could process their milk into butter and cheese. They got a second income from that. The problem is now that these companies don’t exist any more in this form. Farmers have for a variety of reasons sold their shares. Maybe they bought a new tractor with it if they were wise or bought a mercedes if they were less wise, but the end result is the same. No income from the intermediate products. That’s a problem. When I buy blue mould cheese in the shop the margin is higher than that on pasteurized milk. Yet the producer of milk gets only the benefit of that raw product. No wonder farmers are in trouble!

Now I hear you say, “happy that I am not a farmer!”. And you are right. I am also happy not to be a farmer. But consider what our future economy will be like. We are facing a new wave of robotization. This is initially a good thing. Our grey fathers need their pension. However much we want it, they will not be able to extend their working life a lot. Robots will help in this.

RobotEvolutionAfter this happy phase problems will occur. Suddenly robots will do almost everything leaving our population with lots of free time. That’s all very nice if we have income to spend, but where does that come from? Not from work! We are in a situation where unemployment and labor productivity are sky high! The benefits of that work will go the capital that is put into it. In other words the share holders reap all the benefits. If you are not a shareholder you will be poor! Begin to feel like a farmer already? Sorry it will be worse.

It’s not hard to envisage a society with an elite that has all the wealth and the middle class nothing. Capital is fluid. Tax evasion schemes easily set up when governments compete for the favor of major companies. Only an agreement on EU level can put an end to this behaviour, but when all is said and done this is just a stop gap. What is needed is fundamental shift in economics.

Some of my socialist friends argue that we should (re)nationalize some major companies. That sounds nice, but lessons from former communist states indicate that this usually ends in disaster. Governments should ensure functioning markets, not be an active participant in them. Yet, if we don’t want an impoverished middle-class some changes have to be made. A solution might lie in the way that muslims do business! In the islam it’s forbidden to ask interest. Also tax is problematic. In order to compensate for this it is required to give the state or a local citizen a 51% share in your business with a yearly fee that can be negotiated. This way the people in the country get their income from economic activity that is generated. This is new kind of economics. Better suited to modern needs than neo-liberalism or socialistic models. It marks a new approach for a new age.


Three tragedies

This week Jeroen Dijsselbloem was reelected as leader of the Eurogroup (the name for the ministers of finance that are in the Euro zone). I suppose I should be proud about it. We are fellow Dutch people after all, but I think it’s essentially a tragedy.

Dijsselbloem was a rising star in the Dutch labor party not so long ago. End 2012 he became minister of Finance and was catapulted almost straight into becoming leader of the Eurogroup. That eurogroup was in trouble after Jean-Claude Juncker had left. Juncker had no clear successor. Germany did not want, southern countries were not acceptable, Finland had Jutta Urpilainen. Jutta Urpilainen was clearly not acceptable. Not because she was a woman, but because the first thing she did as a minister was going to Greece to seek collaterals for the loans Finland would give. The Greeks send away. Greece was a proud nation. They could not give an island as collateral, but here was some money. Back home it started to dawn. Money? Which money? German money? Dutch money? Finnish money? A cigar from your own box we call that. After that it was clear that Finland would not lead the Eurogroup. In this vacuum the Dutch government saw an opportunity to good to waste.

When Dijsselbloem was set to become leader of the Eurogroup he made himself acceptable for everyone by saying that his socialist background would assure that he would keep an eye out for the common man. Dijsselbloem made his first mistake in the Cyprus crisis (March 2013, he was 4 months in office as minister) when he said “that the Cyprus bail-in was a template for resolution of a bankruptcy”. He had to retract those words pretty quickly and the people who had been nice to him weeks before were suddenly not nice any more. It wasn’t much later that talk started that Germany would back a Spanish minister for the next term. It was obvious a stick to beat him with. Be good, or else. Back home Dijsselbloem had unruly bankers to deal with. The type that raise their bonuses while their bank is under state control. Dijsselbloem probably would have liked to shoot them, but he couldn’t. One day he could be one of them. If so, they made it clear, he better keep their bonuses around.

In the negotiations I have seen Dijsselbloem turning more sour and sour. Stress, exhaustion, sheer frustration, and maybe some sense that his heart is not at the right place anymore is eating at him. Success is dearly bought. Both Shakespeare and Goethe could write a tragedy out of it.

greek_fingersThe second tragedy is that of the Greeks, although it has turned several times to a comedy of errors, a drama, even a farce. The Tsipas government started as protest movement demanding an end to austerity. Even before the elections that brought it power the investors got scared. Markets paralyzed, interest went up. In months that followed were hectic. With every attempt to escape the austerity Greece put an even tighter rope around her neck. They pleaded with the Eurogroup, but they were unimpressed because they had seen such moves before. They turned to Russia, but without success. In better times Russia might have bought Greece, but this was not one of those times. Then threats to EU (we flood you with refugees), demands of war reparations from Germany, a call for a Marshall plan. There ain’t anything that the Greeks have not tried to lessen the burden that they carry. And yet, they also have failed to organize themselves in a good way that it would be effective. The constant drain of cash from the Greek banks made them on one hand dependent on the ECB, on the other hand it ensured that none of that money would go to the tax office.no

The tragedy is that behind the big numbers of the Greek debt is real poverty. The austerity measures that Dijsselbloem is imposing on Greece hit hard. They don’t hit the rich, they hit the common man who has pay for the problems at every turn. A Grexit would lower his purchasing power with 30%! A bail out, eats the pensions and the income in untold ways. The way out is as usual not based on money, it is reorganizing yourself in such way that you can cope with the problems that lie ahead of you. This Greece so far failed to do. I hope they find a way.

Cartoon-of-share-price-gr-009The third tragedy that occurred last week was the shock that went through the Chinese stock markets. In a matter of hours many small investors lost their savings. The total amount was about 15 times the debt of Greece. Eventually the Chinese government was able to put an end the fall, but the damage was already done. I have no idea how this going to affect the lives of people over there. That’s the trouble with big numbers. When they become too big you have no empathy to share.


Scylla and Charybdis

Greece-flag-LLet me first that I like Greece. I always loved Greece since I read the stories of Greek mythology when I was young. Greek hospitality is for me is the standard of civilized behavior. In short, I am quite a fan of Greece.

However Greek had always a weak economy. In earlier times when we only had an European Community the debt was already sky-high. Greece somehow got by but was always on shaky ground. The criteria for being in the Eurozone were strict. From beginning it was clear that Greece would have a big problem with that. However no alarms were ringing. That was strange to me. With a debt so big you would expect closer monitoring. Especially when the olympic games came to Greece (2004). It cost a huge amount of money and I was wondering how that was being paid for. But again no alarm bells went off. It was in the end George Papaconstantinou (october 2009) who had to confess about the true size of his country’s debt.

Ever since Europe has tried to keep Greece afloat. We have given the banks that owned Greek bonds a haircut (a nice word for you don’t get all your money back) and took the debt to ourselves. We have given them easy terms. The majority of the loans don’t need to be paid back yet. In fact most will not be paid back in my lifetime (assuming that everything goes well). The interest rates are super low because we are borrowing it to them and not the investors on the financial markets. I approve of all that even if it means cutting in budgets at home.

So much aid!! And still it is not enough. For months the eurogroup and the Greek government have been haggling over the terms. The Greeks want an end to austerity and we, yes we would like a prospect of getting our money back. Not at the end of century. Sometime sooner would be nice. Do we trust the Greeks to make good on their promises? The answer is sadly no. All Greek governments have tried since 2010 to wriggle themselves out of their obligations. The last government has tried it even more violently then others. It got them nowhere. When the debt is that big your room for independent decision making is rather limited.

What we want is that the Greeks put there house in order. No more corruption, no cheating with numbers, no tax exemptions for the rich. In fact when you actually bother to the read 10 pages of proposals that were on the table when the negotiations broke down, you get the impression that most of these proposals were sensible. Aimed at improving the efficiency of government, removing corruption and slack. In short at putting the house in order. The main problem seems to me the pension reform. That’s where it really hurts, but if the talks had continued such problems could have been solved. From reading the document I get the impression that those who said that a deal was close were right. It is very  disappointing, reading all this, when talks break down. It is the failure of politics.

We need to able to trust the Greeks. That trust has vanished and it will not return until Greeks have a government that is reliable and accountable for its deeds. When the trust is rebuild we can begin to think about forgiving part of the debt (again). Until that time the debt is a stick that Greece will be beaten with until someone with a sense of responsibility takes charge.

The Greeks will vote next Sunday on a package that has expired by Tuesday. It is a weird referendum. It’s a choice between Scylla and Charybdis. If I were a Greek I would stay home.


Economics in practice. It’s a mess.

It’s already quite a while I studied Mathematical Economics. I also never put my study into practice so don’t see me as a final authority on this, but watching the world as it turns I sometimes wonder about how we deal with economic issues. When it comes to our daily lives and in the planning our politicians and bankers do.

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A synthesis of Keynesian and classical theory

Basic classical economics tells you that you should keep your books balanced. Never spend more than you have, but also spend what you have. Keynesian economics seemed the opposite. Never keep your books balanced. Stimulate the economy when it operates under it’s potential output, dampen it when it’s well over it’s potential output. Both theories had their merits (I don’t want to go into detail, this is not a lecture on basic economics), but the odd thing I noticed was that neither theory was ever applied.

During my studies in the eighties Reagan and Thatcher were in power. And while being both ultra conservative they did not follow the rules of classical economics. Especially Reagan was a big spender who kept borrowing money to finance the arms race with Russia (which he eventually won). Other republican presidents did more or less the same. Were they Keynesians by heart then?

Nope, they did not follow the rules of Keynesian theory either for they did not increase taxes when the economy seemed overheating and it looked like everything was going well. Instead the US debt climbed to the enormous height it is today. Now faced with a recession the government of the US should actually spend money to stimulate the economy. However it has no space to do it. On the other hand the US should increase taxes to combat the debt. Also impossible. In a situation like this it would make matters worse. So we can be assured that the US debt will stay more or less where it is.

The EU is more or less in the same kind of dilemma. Faced with actual deflation economies should be stimulated by actually spending government money. However this is not happening because of the debts that were incurred in the banking crisis. Austerity is the motto of many governments. It’s a call for many to return the paradigm of classical economics (which seems safe). We have to balance our books! So a Keynesian stimulus is right out of the window. For Finland that is odd stance to take. The economy is clearly in a situation of underspending, yet the new government wants to cut. It sounds nice! It sounds macho! But it will not be the positive stimulus that Finland clearly needs.

Enter the European Central Bank (ECB). One of the problems in any economic crisis is that the money circulation slows down. The money circulation can be stimulated by lowering interest rates, but in the current situation these rates are already almost zero. That means that the ECB has lost an instrument to control the amount of money in economy. So they have now resorted to the one thing they can do. It is called Quantitative Easing (QE) and it is simply a way to bring more money into economy on a massive scale. If everything goes well it should be enough to cause some inflation. Enough to get the economy going without additional help of our governments.

This program was initiated some months ago. It’s a gamble. I hope it works out well, because if does not we are in deep trouble. And when this over I hope that politicians realize that they can’t ignore basic economics unpunished. There are limitations to growth. Limitations to the strain you can put on the environment. And limitations on the ability for markets to regulate themselves. A bit more modesty, a bit more prudence and a bit more realism on all sides will profitable to us all.

 


Dutch tolerance

A recurring theme in both the Netherlands and in Finland is country branding. As we all know Dutch people walk on wooden shoes, build windmills, put their fingers in dykes and use hash and marijuana every day.

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The destruction of church statues in the Netherlands (1566)

Sometimes I like to do some myth debunking. One is about Dutch tolerance. Dutch tolerance is an ancient tradition that goes back a long way. To be more precise, back to the eighty year (1568–1648) when the Netherlands fought it’s independence war with Spain. In the course of the war all kinds of religious feuds were fought. The fighting only stopped when the treaty of Westphalia was signed. After that we learned to respect each others religion. That was not easy. Dutch protestantism is full of split-offs because one priest was disagreeing with another about the interpretation of some text in the bible.

In many cases it was a volatile situation only mitigated by the fact that everyone knew the price of making quarrels. Communities lived side-by-side, not mingled. It kind of reminded about towns in the middle east where you had a Muslim quarter, Christian quarter and a Jewish quarter. So catholics and protestants did not mingle and also some protestants groups were living on their own island.

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A catholic kid (media) is not allowed to play with the others

This gave eventually rise to what we call in the Netherlands the pillars of society. We had in the beginning of last century four pillars. Protestant, Catholic, Socialist, Liberal/Neutral. In this armed peace everyone had their own political parties, own unions, own newspapers, own broad casting companies, own schools, own insurance companies and even hospitals!! We lived together by creating different worlds. It was not easy to cross the lines. As a protestant you were expected to buy your stuff in protestant shops. As a socialist you better not visit a catholic cinema etc. The tolerance was based on not crossing the lines between communities. Romeo and Julia would be as dead in the Netherlands as when they were now in Verona. When I tell Finns this they look at me uncomprehending. The myth of Dutch tolerance is such that everyone thinks we were freely living side-by-side, but a hundred years ago that was hardly the case.

It is not like there have not been changes. The churches have been in slow, but steady decline since world war II. This has undermined the pillars of society a lot. Suddenly Romeo and Julia are getting married. What’s more Mohammed comes along and brings Scheherazade and the kids. He does not belong to one of the already crumbling pillars. He wants his own Islamic island. He comes 100 years too late. The people of that time might have understood his desire for an own island. Now he simply will not get it. Dutch tolerance has changed. It now includes respect for women, rights for homosexuals, lesbians, trans genders, etc. It embraces the right to be different. If you don’t like you are not welcome. That’s not tolerant. That’s setting norms. It is redefining the world between us and them. For Mustafa and Elske it will be difficult to live together when they have the weight of their communities on their shoulders. I hope that they can manage it and bring worlds together, because in this day and age mixing of cultures is our only hope to create a harmoniously integrated, pluralistic society.

PS: I recommend this article for further reading.

Amsterdam Pride Parade

Amsterdam Pride Parade


The unwritten rules

One of fascinating things about other cultures is the exploration of different habits. This can be either fun or terrifying depending on how you experience it. More often than not it’s both. Today I like to compare the Dutch and Finnish ways. Although we have much in common there is some things that are simply different.

Kahvia ja Pulla

One of things I had to get used to in Finland was that in Finland you can’t drink coffee just like that. Something good (Pulla) always has to be accompany it. When offered a variety of goodies you are kind of expected to sample everything. That can lead to strange combinations. At parties a salmon cake with sweet strawberry cookies are no exception. Personally I would not think of offering both at the same time. In the Netherlands one does not offer salty things with coffee at all. Instead we ask another question to the guest.

Kahvia vai teeta?

Cookies

Cookies

Coffee or tea? You are expected to choose either one. You can also refuse, but that’s not a good option if you do that out of modesty. Your host will not ask again and you will not get your coffee. (this really happened at Utrecht university to a Peruvian girl. In her culture you are rude when you answer yes immediately. After several times being left without coffee she decided she could be rude among these barbarians herself). Also when you are offered coffee or tea you are not expected to ask for something (like beer or snapsi). Finns usually take the coffee, as do the Dutch. In fact both countries are competing for the honor of being world’s biggest coffee consumer. The Dutch being on top with just a slight margin. After coffee and tea are served your host will around with a bowl of cookies. These are usually of better quality you find in Finnish shops. You are expected to take only one (except when you are a kid). When ready, the bowl is put on the table. You can take another after a while with your second coffee if you feel like it.

Rude or straight forward?

The diplomatic scale

The diplomatic scale

So many unwritten rules for drinking coffee or tea. And that while the Dutch usually pride themselves in being straight forward. The Finns usually don’t have a problem with that although the orientation is a bit different. Finns don’t pretend. If they feel lousy, they are not putting on their best smile. We Dutch value that. But when discussion erupts we behave differently. Finns usually are shying away in order to avoid conflict. Dutch people revel in it. In Finland you don’t let yourself being provoked when you are provoked, but the Dutch take that to another level. In the Netherlands you don’t take it as insult when you are insulted. From the Dutch you get immediate feedback when your speech stinks, your choice of clothes is lousy or the hair color you took is really for those under age. Finns are often scared off, when this happens to them. It is one thing to speak your mind in Finland, it’s another to say something negative to someone else. It is to the Dutch living here awkward when their straight forwardness is not met a similar response. They expect feedback in whatever form like they would get from another Dutchie. Then it does not come. The Finn is not provoked (or at least very hard trying not to). Lack of feedback. That’s something we in the Netherlands are not used to. In Finland you might take it as a hint you have gone too far. Stepped on the wrong toe. But reading that sign takes some practice. You can do a lot of damage before you notice the consequences. By that time you are excluded from the group. People have made arrangements without you knowing. You are out! That’s not beneficial. Neither to the Finns as to the Dutchie in question. It’s for reasons like this that migrants have clubs which brings people like themselves together. It is not meant to separate them from society. It is meant to make integration smoother.


Child abuse?

It’s a nice day in Forssa when I visit the Vesihelmi spa. After a 40 minute swim I relax in the jacuzzi. Opposite to where I sit a 5 year old boy is playing with his sister. He is obviously enjoying himself. And while I don’t have kids myself I like to see a happy child. It would not have caught my attention otherwise, but now that I take a closer look at the boy I see spots on his skin in several places. Studying the spots I begin slowly to realize that they look a lot like cigarette burns. My stomach begins to turn itself around. Is it possible?

business man shrugThe boy’s mother is also sitting in the jacuzzi overlooking the things her kids do. She is a bit fat and ugly, but that’s not a crime as far as I know. I can’t really talk to her. Even if I knew Finnish well enough what would I say? Should I notify the personnel in Vesihelmi? That could take some time. The only one who speaks English well enough to understand me is the Thai woman who sells food. A quick look through the window tells me she is not on duty.

What can I do? Is the situation as I think it is? Is the woman really the boy’s mother as I assume or a substitute care giver? The boy is happy. There is no doubt it, but what about the marks on his body? I realize I feel pretty helpless in this situation. Star trek prime directive tells me “Don’t meddle in situations you don’t know anything about”, but is that not a lame excuse for doing nothing?

I decide to talk to a friend in sauna. He knows at least enough English to know what I am talking about. But when I try to talk it over he shuts down. At first it’s like he really does understand what I mean, but when he does, he makes me understand that I should do nothing. None of my business. It is not a very satisfying answer. I try to swim and clear my head. The only conclusion I reach is that without means to talk to someone in authority there is really nothing I can do.

At home I read about cases in the press where child abuse has led to torture or murder. The authorities are to blame of course. They have to judge on daily basis if some case warrants action or not. I wonder if I had that kind of power and training I would have made the right decision. Also now I still don’t know that. Did I do the right thing by not acting? There is no evidence that says I did the wrong thing. Let’s hope for the boy’s sake that I don’t read about him in the newspaper.


Today is a special day!

Vappu in the Netherlands

Vappu in the Netherlands

Today Finns are celebrating Vappu. Not only in Finland. For Finns abroad it is also a special day. The Finnish Association in the Netherlands always celebrates Vappu with great enthusiasm. Just like Juhannus and independence day. For the Dutch people the first of may was always less important I am sorry to say. The reason was that between 1948 and 2013, the 30th of April was Queen’s day in the Netherlands. The 30th of April was Queen Juliana’s birthday and when she stepped down (in 1980) her daughter Beatrix continued the tradition. A smart move because she was born on the 31st of January. A cold day, even in the Netherlands.

bitterballen

Bitterballen

For the Dutch in Finland celebrating Queen’s day was not easy. After all the 30th is Vappuaatto. No services available after 18:00, so our embassy usually threw a party a couple of days before hand. No problem for many local Dutchies. Free drink, cheese, bitterballen and herring. A good preparation for Vappu!

In 2013 Queen Beatrix stepped down on her last Queen’s day. It was then decided that King’s day would be on King Willem-Alexander’s birthday (27th of April). In Finland this is veteran’s day. So both countries had a reason to put the flag in top this week. I suppose that will continue for some time to come although you never when a King kicks the bucket. Veteran’s day is important day. Veteran’s day is in the Netherlands on last Saturday of June (It used to be on the birthday of Prince Bernard – 29th of June).

The Netherlands remembers the dead of the second world war (and other conflicts we were engaged in) on the 4th of may. The flag goes half down and at 20:00 we observe two minutes silence. Radio and TV stop broadcasting. Trains stop wherever they are. Traffic stops wherever it is. It is a kind of holy moment in the Netherlands. It’s like the world stops turning.

After such a serious moment there can only be a party. The 5th of may is party time. This is day that the Netherlands was liberated from German occupation. This is day when came an end to a terrible hunger winter. Flags out!! Rock concerts in every major town! Dance parties everywhere! On the 5th of may the Netherlands celebrates it’s freedom much like the Finns celebrate Vappu. We both have our special days this week. Cherish them!!!

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Amsterdam on the 5th of May