Archive for October, 2010

The Latest from Dr. Doom

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

Never heard of him? No, I don’t mean Dr. Demento. “Dr. Doom” is the monniker borne (probably proudly) by NYU economics professor Nouriel Roubini, famous for foreseeing – among other things – the gigantic collapse in the US housing market beginning in 2007 that kicked off this worldwide Great Recession. Back then Roubini kept adding to his fame by forecasting further disastrous developments in one aspect of national or international economic performance after another; people would never believe him that things could get that bad, yet most times events proved him to be spot-on.

Now he has further comments which he contributed to the Financial Times. Unfortunately, that paper has a rather restrictive readership policy – i.e. it likes to force you to pay – but luckily we can resort to Denmark’s business newspaper Børsen instead. There it’s a brief piece, and Roubini’s message is clear, simple, and expressed in the title: The catastrophe commences on Tuesday.

Tuesday? That’s election day in the USA, of course, and according to Roubini that will unleash a new economic crisis because the Republicans are expected to make significant gains, recapturing control of the House of Representatives and maybe the US Senate as well. This will inaugurate paralysis in Congress as Democrats and Republicans block everything the other side tries to do, even as the US economic situation remains dire and in need of fiscal initiatives of one sort or another.

True, this insight is hardly blindingly original, and it has also certainly been advanced recently by other commentators, and then even rather more eloquently. (“In fact, future historians will probably look back at the 2010 election as a catastrophe for America, one that condemned the nation to years of political chaos and economic weakness.”)

Then again, everyone knows that Paul Krugman is a liberal (Nobel Prize-bearing) attack-dog. But this is the FT, BørsenDr. Doom, no less!

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Terror Threat Today in Sweden

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

While most of the world’s media is preoccupied today with the seemingly coordinated package-bombs shipped by air-freight from Yemen to the US and the UK, Sweden’s second-largest city, Göteborg on the country’s western coast, seems just barely to have escaped its own serious terrorist attack. This is according to reports appearing in the Danish press from the press-agency Ritzau, including in the opinion newspaper Information.

It’s all still very unclear, but the essence of the plot apparently involved setting off a massive truck bomb sometime today in the center of downtown Göteborg. “Several” suspects were arrested, this (Saturday) morning, but local police are not yet ready to say how many, who they are, or what lead to their being detained – only that a tip was received in time, from a trusted source, warning of the attack. That was enough to draw the Säpo – basically, the Swedish FBI – into the case as well, although it’s the local police who hold the suspects in custody and who are now beefing up their presence in town over the weekend.

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Retirement Reform – For Some

Friday, October 29th, 2010

As various forms of unrest continue to percolate throughout France – as always, the website of Humanité, the Communist Party newspaper is probably the best place to go for news about that – the fundamental fact remains true that the retirement reform at the center of contention is becoming law regardless. Yes, word is that it has to be formally approved a couple of times by the two houses of the French legislature and then signed by President Sarkozy, but there’s no indication that there will be any hitch in that process despite any strikes and demonstrations going on in the world outside.

The result: Even as the masses out on the streets shriek NO! the government goes ahead with “Yes” – and this in a liberal democracy. Of course, things are actually not quite so clear-cut as that. All the people out demonstrating often make an impressive sight, but do they really represent the political will of the majority of France’s citizens? And even if they do: France is not a direct democracy where the people vote directly on laws – no modern society is a direct democracy – but rather a representative democracy, where according to one section of the rules of the game (somewhere; I believe it’s in Aristotle) the elected law-makers do have the right to go against the will of their constituents if they believe doing so better serves the nation. And it would seem raising the retirement age from what is financially a completely unsustainable age to one slightly less unsustainable qualifies.

Ah, but even as the Assemblée Nationale and French Senate undertake to do so, they make a mess of it. For while they were passing this retirement reform, they chose not to pass amendment 249 – that’s the one that would have subjected their own even-more-generous lawmakers’ pension system to the same conditions they were about to impose on everyone else’s!

Pretty outrageous, no? (Then again, the US Congress also almost routinely exempts itself from the laws it passes for the rest of the country.) I heard about this little bit of chicanery in the first place from an editorial in today’s Le Monde: You’re making me take to the streets – me, a moderate! It’s written by one Gregory Kapustin, who calls himself an “entrepreneur” and “former moderate.” (Check out his public LinkedIn page!) His message is basically expressed in his title; the actual article fills in the details about how, yes, he understands why pensions must be reformed, and he wishes the French nation would grow up and face the real world of globalization – but really, in exempting themselves the legislators have simply gone too far with their cynicism and he’ll be off to join the nearest street-demonstration. (With gasoline, bottle, and rag-stuffing in hand? He doesn’t say; he still seems to be too much of a professional dude to go that far.)

One can gain a similar feel for what he is fed up with from another article, from Le Point: Sarkozy will take some time to reflect on the situation after retirement reform. The lede:

Nicolas Sarkozy declared on Friday that he will announce when “the time is ripe” for initiatives in response to the French people’s worries and that he first intends to “take some time” to reflect on them.

As becomes clear as the article goes on, however, don’t expect him to start that thinking anytime soon, he’s a busy man. The Chinese president will be visiting Paris soon, then it’s off to Seoul for the G20 summit. Sarkozy made it clear that, when it comes to addressing the concerns of his countrymen he won’t “confuse speed with haste” but will take “time to reflect serenely, calmly, profoundly.” Hey – merci bien, monsieur le président! I bet your own pension is rather more generous than that of the man-on-the-street as well!

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Schwarzenegger: “I’ll Be Back!”

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

As always, the electoral race for governor of the US’ largest state, California, is attracting considerable media attention both within the country and outside, what with the contest turning out to be a winner-take-all struggle between that state’s “Governor Moonbeam” of the 1970s, Jerry Brown, and the former eBay executive Meg Whitman. On the other hand, 2 November will also mark the beginning of the term’s end of the current California governor, a fairly interesting figure in his own right. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has himself been the subject of concentrated attention over the course of his original election campaign in 2003 (as a result of the recall of then-Governor Gray Davis) and then subsequently, particularly by the German-speaking press as the classic “local-boy-makes-good-in-Hollywood” story. And so we have this interesting piece in the German news-magazine Focus on the “Governator’s” possible follow-on acts.

(As you’ll see, if you’d like to click through, the piece’s title is “Hasta la vista, Governator!” and I can’t pretend to condemn that as trite or clichéd – actually, I had wanted to use just about the same phrase as the title for this post!)

Ah yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, survivor of two terms as California governor – meaning he did manage to win re-election, in 2006, although his current 28% approval rating means he wouldn’t be able to bet on doing it again, even if the law allowed – and the ultimate RINO. That’s “Republican in name only,” as he famously clashed with the Bush administration over environmental policies. Plus, it’s quite clear – even though he won’t admit it – that he’d prefer Democrat Brown to succeed him over Republican Whitman. The former is after all still his State Attorney General and in fact an enthusiastic fellow-warrior for a number of measures he advocates, most especially reform to the state budget process.

But anyway, where does the Governator go from here? What does the man say himself? He’d like to write “a book or two,” he has stated, but of course he’s already written a number of books, about body-building but also an autobiography. It so happens that someone else has a book out – entitled The Governator, natch, by Ian Halperin, in which he alleges that Arnold has long had a “master plan” to first persuade the American nation to amend the Constitution to allow the President to be foreign-born, and then of course to run for the office himself – not as a Republican, this time, but supposedly as an Independent appealing more to a right-wing Democratic political base. But the Focus piece is quick to add that the Governor’s official spokesperson was quick to dismiss The Governator as “trash.”

One thing does seem sure: He has long been interested in alternative energy, in particular his “Hydrogen Highway” project of bringing about a widespread automotive infrastructure based upon hydrogen-powered fuel cells, and this is something he has pledged to assist whether in or out of office. Otherwise, another clue to how he might occupy his time is contained in the recent Sylvester Stallone movie “The Expendables,” in which Schwarzenegger takes a cameo role as a mercenary-team leader. Then again, the Focus writer has clearly seen the film and was paying close attention: at one point Schwarzenegger’s character exclaims “only an idiot would take this job!”

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Scatologist Alert! (German version)

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Those entrusted with supervising the Internet have in recent times made explicit efforts to keep it from being an exclusively Western/English/Latin alphabet phenomenon, resulting earlier this year in the acceptance of Cyrillic (e.g. Russian) and even Arabic words as Internet addresses, or URLs. Now the Süddeutsche Zeitung informs us (The “ß” becomes even sharper) that German has achieved its own mini-triumph for Internet inclusiveness: from 16 November a new character to be allowed in URLs will be the “ß” or “Eszett,” an historical letter in the German language that traditionally has denoted a double-s.

Ah, but note that “traditionally,” that “historical”: nowadays the ß is actually not used so much, ever since the spelling-reform agreed to in 1996 (implemented over the following ten years) that sharply restricted its approved cases for use. In olden days you would be sure to see it all the time when reading German if only for daß, which is the German “that” or “which,” i.e. the subordinate-clause conjunction (e.g. “I would have to conclude that . . .”), but all that you see anymore these days is of course dass instead. Often you don’t see it in Straße, or “street,” even when used as part of a street-name; and, indeed, in this same article announcing that one can use it in URLs the letter in question is barely used it all unless in direct reference to the “ß” itself: otherwise I find only a heißt and a ließe, and then a größten in the caption to the (rather irrelevant) accompanying illustration.

Well OK, I also found it somewhere else: in the “www.scheißhoppenheim.de” sort of URL which the piece’s author, Hermann Unterstöger, facetiously suggests it will now be possible to register. That word-construction is based upon Scheiße – a word proudly featuring its very-own “ß” but otherwise not very nice or polite; I assume its similarity to the corresponding English profanity allows me to decline giving you its meaning outright. But you have to wonder about the many other things German delegates to ICANN (in charge of internet addresses and protocol generally) should be addressing themselves to, instead of this barely-useful development which seems to offer scope to the flowering of the creative talents only of German dirty-words specialists.

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EU’s Hardline Serbia Stance Falters

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

In her new commentary on the EU and Serbia in Die Zeit (Europe threatened by Humiliation), Andrea Böhm posits the sort of counterfactual you would expect:

Suppose there were relevant indications that the leader of an Islamic terror-group, responsible for the murder of several thousand people, were hiding himself in a high-rise apartment in a European capital. How long would it take before a multinational army of secret services and investigators would come swarming to observe every garbage-dumpster, illuminate every floor, and if necessary evacuate half the building? Two months? Three weeks? Ten days?

But what is really at issue is not Islamic terrorists at all, it’s rather the high Serbian government officials responsible for war crimes in the Yugoslav Wars of some 15 years ago, in particular General Ratko Mladic. According to Ms. Böhm, he’s clearly somewhere in Belgrade and it shouldn’t be too difficult to find out exactly where. Yet not only is no one going after him (nor after the other wanted Serbian official, one Goran Hadzic, former leader of Serbs in Croatia – him I did not know about), but there has just been alarming signs of weakening in what had been the EU’s insistence that Serbia would be allowed no further progress along the road to becoming an EU member-state until these two fugitives were delivered up to the UN Yugoslavia Tribunal in The Hague.

Granted, the Serbs are still far from EU membership, just as they seem equally far from agreeing to do anything to deliver up Mladic and Hadzic. Nonetheless, EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg last Monday did agree to at least open Serbia’s formal application process. And that is the “humiliation” Ms. Böhm speaks of in her piece’s title – Europe once again exposing itself as a softy on the world stage by unilaterally climbing down from what had been it’s ironclad insistence on seeing the two fugitives in jail at The Hague (actually, at Scheveningen, if you want to be technical about it) before the Serb government would even be allowed inside the door. What happened to the Dutch? she wonders – they were the ones single-handedly (well, with occasional Belgian support) holding out on this insistence. She speculates that it all began to seem too much like some sort of Dutch “obsession” – an irrational thirst for revenge against the Serbs for the humiliation suffered by the “Dutchbat” troops who had been assigned to protect the civilians who were massacred at Srebrenica in 1995, so that the Netherlands government finally became self-conscious and too embarrassed to insist anymore.

In point of fact, the situation seems quite a bit more subtle than all that, as explained in a recent entry on the Economist’s “Charlemagne” weblog (in English, of course). Why did the EU foreign ministers budge in the first place? Because they wanted to reward the Serbian government for recently agreeing to meet with leaders of Kosovo, which ordinarily Serbia regards as a renegade break-away province (much as the People’s Republic of China views Taiwan). More to the point, it seems that they made that concession yet at the same time they didn’t: at least according to the Economist analysis, unanimity among governments (meaning the renewed potential for a Dutch veto) will be necessary again soon for Serbia to make any further forward progress.

EU officials are skillful at this sort of sleigh-of-hand, whereby they seem to give something away while in reality doing nothing of the sort (while still retaining the option of giving it away again sometime in the future, should that be viewed as necessary). But all this is hardly to Ms. Böhm’s taste. The EU needs to remember, she writes, that it bears a share of the blame for the horrors of the Yugoslav War; it happened in its own backyard, it was Europe’s big geopolitical test – and, of course, it failed it, having to rely in the end on American diplomacy and military power to rein in both Serb depredations in Bosnia and Croatia and the Milosevic government’s attempt to ethnically cleanse Kosovo. So fancy procedural games for her won’t cut it – much better a full-court military/police press, as if tracking down some Islamic terrorist-leader were what was at issue.

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France: Annoying Neighbor

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Tired of hearing about all the French strikes (even if you haven’t been living/traveling there and so had to deal with them directly)? Finding it hard not to snort when you recall that the main point at issue is a raising of the official retirement age from 60 to 62? Consider it rather too convenient that that month-long wave of street-demonstrations has now dovetailed nicely with the week of Autumn vacation for French students?

Well then, you’re not alone, for much of the Fifth Republic’s recent behavior is attracting unfavorable notice among its neighbors, including that big one across the Eastern frontier marking the area of so many of the 19th and 20th centuries’ great battles. The lede paragraph of a recent article in the German newsmagazine Focus (Always annoyed with the French) sums things up well:

They strike like there’s no tomorrow, provoke Siemens with unfair attacks and undercut the German European Central Bank candidate behind his back. Is France doing away with herself?

Well, it sums things up well with a little unpacking:

  • Provoke Siemens: The French government reacted rather badly to news of a few weeks ago that Eurostar, which runs high-speed trains from Paris and from Brussels to London, had decided to buy new equipment from the German firm Siemens rather than – as usual – the French firm Alstom. Of course, public procurement contracts such as this within the EU are supposed to be awarded based purely on cost/quality considerations, not nationality – but the French Transport Minister, Dominique Bussereau, did conveniently mention that the Siemens trains were not long enough and posed other safety risks, as he made his announcement that he was using his authority to invalidate the sale.
  • Undercut the German ECB candidate: Everybody knows (doesn’t everybody?) that the successor next year to Jean-Claude Trichet at the head of the ECB is supposed to be Axel Weber, currently president of the German Central Bank, the Bundesbank. Actually, regardless of whether that really is the consensus among EU officials and European politicians who decide these things, it’s particularly important these days to elevate the Bundesbank president to ECB president, for political reasons: the Germans have been those mostly called-upon to come up with the money to bail out Greece and the whole Eurozone monetary system, and the same would be true if help were to be needed for Portugal, Ireland, and the rest. They know that, they’re getting tired of it, so it’s a very good idea at least to put one of their own in a banking/monetary decision-making position as vital as that of ECB president. Then again, nowadays French authorities profess to know nothing about any “consensus”; they have started pushing for the current head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), to succeed Trichet. This might also have something to do with the fact that, if DSK is not immobilized in a new job at the ECB, he may well challenge Nicolas Sarkozy for the French presidency in 2012.
  • Oh, and there’s one remaining bit: Focus writer Uli Dönch finishes that lede-paragraph I’ve quoted with the question Schafft Frankreich sich selbst ab? and that’s a clever allusion to Deutschland schafft sich ab, which is the title of a current raging best-seller in Germany (written by a former member of the Board of the Bundesbank, Thilo Sarrazin) which posits that Germany is weakening itself fatally through a combination of its low birth-rate and readiness to accept non-Western immigrants (with their high birth-rates).

There you have it: this Uli Dönch hepcat manages to compress just about all he has to remark on into his one, short leading paragraph. I mean, is this journalism or is it poetry? All that remain to be considered are some speculations as to why unsere Lieblingsnachbarn – that is, “our favorite neighbors,” expressed with an ironic tone – would be acting this way.

This comes at the end, in a section headlined “Arrogance or Inferiority Complex?” Here Herr Dönch drops the ball, yielding to rhetoric better-suited to the dueling of rival fans on football commentary websites. It can’t be arrogance, he proclaims, because the times are long gone when France was “the clearly dominating Power on the European mainland. But now? La Grande Nation? Like how. La Grande Illusion! Only: who’s going to tell them?”

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Senators for Sale (Euros Accepted)?

Monday, October 25th, 2010

(This blogpost has been slightly revised from the form in which it first appeared in response to a useful suggestion e-mailed in from a reader.)

Let’s say you’re a big European polluter, content with the status quo you’ve been used to for decades that allows you to pump out as much CO2 into the atmosphere as you like at virtually no cost to your bottom-line. In 2010, though, it’s easy to see how this sort of laissez-faire is not long for a world ever-more aware and convinced of the detrimental effects of such emissions on the global climate. And while local/national measures to make you pay for your pollution are always unwelcome, the authorities who impose them will always be constrained by the fact that hampering companies under their jurisdiction this way raises their costs and so cuts down on their international competitiveness as long as other countries refrain from doing anything similar. No, the real threat to pollution-as-usual is any global anti-climate change accord.

What to do? Launching an appeal to your national or EU-level representatives – “Hey, could you slow it down a bit with the climate change stuff?” – isn’t going to work, since their job-description is the furthering of common interests over the parochial, and you and your CO2-emitting technology are definitely on the wrong side of History. But maybe there are some more imaginative measures available . . .

Consider today’s report from the French press-agency AFP (discussed among other places on the Swiss news website 24heures), on some innovative lobbying efforts being undertaken on the part of a consortium of leading European industrial firms – within the US federal government! Specifically, the article details how representatives in their employ have approached four US Senators famous for being global warming deniers to contribute money to their political funds, totalling $306,000 this year, to support their anti-climate change efforts – in the first instance their fight against any sort of “cap-and-trade” pollution-control regime. And then, in a nice cynical twist, these companies have then turned around to argue to European authorities that it makes no sense to push for any global climate-change measures now, because it is by no means certain that the US government will come on board!

Naturally, these firms – among which the largest monetary contributions come from the German companies Bayer and BASF – wanted to do this all secretly, but their dastardly deeds have now been exposed by the Climate Action Network (CAN), a international umbrella-organization encompassing around 500 climate/ecology NGOs, whose researchers took the trouble simply to read the mid-October report from the US Federal Election Commission that details which candidates got how much money from whom, and then to do a little arithmetic. The CAN report even pins the blame for the failure of the COP15 climate summit last December in Copenhagen on a reluctance for any accord on the part of President Obama and his administration that supposedly had been cultivated by these underhanded lobbying efforts.

That last assertion, of course, is rather doubtful; I’ll need much further proof than that before I’ll start believing that Obama was, in effect, on the take at that Copenhagen summit. Beyond that, though, these CAN charges as publicized by the AFP ultimately fall rather flat under any sort of closer examination. For starters, that alleged amount of $306,000 in combined campaign contributions to four Senators in 2010 (an average of $76,500 per Senator) is rather low on the Washington political-contribution scale. It’s highly doubtful that they really got much in exchange for that amount, besides maybe a brief visit to the lawmaker’s Capitol Hill office, a post-on-your-wall photo shaking hands with the politico, and maybe a set of state-seal-embossed ink-pens. (Admittedly, there’s no mention in the article of the amounts they may have paid in previous years.)

Secondly, it’s clear that the lobbyists in the employ of these European companies are behind the times, that they have not kept up with the new political rules resulting from last January’s Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that declared corporations equivalent to private persons when it comes to political speech, and thereby enabled unlimited and anonymous contributions to political campaigns – if not directly to candidates, then to “independent” political advocacy organizations ready to spend money and advertise on specific candidates’ behalf. The European companies could have given as much as they wanted to their favorite US senators, albeit indirectly, and would never have had to worry about anyone from the general public (European or American) hearing about it, if they only had been better-advised. For heavens’ sake, gentlemen, call Karl Rove!

The impact these CAN revelations should ultimately have is therefore much like watching a youngster steal from the Church collection-plate: it’s a trivial offense in itself, but does indicate in the perpetrator the sort of crooked disposition and intent that definitely bear further monitoring.

UPDATE: Look, Europolluters, let me help you out – or rather let former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson do so (in Foreign Money, National Security, and the Midterm Elections). He’s writing here about the Citizens United decision, of course; here are some extracts to give you a flavor:

We have effectively enfranchised foreigners in US elections. This is clearly and absolutely not what the drafters of the Constitutions [sic] had in mind. . . . And however you prefer to define our legitimate national security interests, how are they consistent with letting foreign citizens influence or even determine the outcome of our elections?

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Enjoy Novaya Gazeta While You Can

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

The Berliner Zeitung tipped us off a few days ago: Last Warning for Novaya Gazeta. “Whazzat?” you may ask. Oh, it’s just about the only remaining Russian newspaper worth taking seriously. By this point Vladimir Putin has had 10 years to snuff out independent voices among the country’s government and media, so that now only a handful of outlets remain which still resist singing along with the party line. There are actually none such when it comes to TV broadcasters (naturally, the medium with the greatest reach by far); on the radio there is still Echo Moscow; and among newspapers the most prominent independent name has been Novaya Gazeta (“new newspaper”), which among other things had been the employer of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative reporter murdered four years ago in a still-unsolved case.

At least up until now. But now BZ reporter Daria Afonina (definitely a Russian female name) tells us how the paper just received it’s “first warning” from the Ministry for Communication for allegedly spreading “fascist propaganda” through a piece it published back in January on extreme-right nationalists from an organization whose name translates to “The Russian Way.” A second warning means that the paper will have to shut down.

What Editor-in-Chief Sergey Sokolov thinks he sees in this development – if not sheer stupidity from a rogue bureaucrat, always a possibility – is an effort by the authorities to finish Putin’s work by rubbing out such independent media voices as remain. But he also vows to appeal any close-down order to “Strasbourg,” presumably meaning to the European Court of Human Rights located there (of which Russia is a member, not that that means there is much to hope for any such move).

Those still interested in the paper – while it is still a going concern – should realize that it does have an accompanying English-language version. Don’t expect a full-blown English translation of the Russian website, by any means, as the English material is much scarcer and generally out-of-date. When I visited today the left side of the homepage was dominated by an interview with Russian President Medvedev entitled “Medvedev’s declaration, 2009 year” which, yes, bore the dateline “18.04.2009.” But the tone of the questioning directed at the head-of-state was refreshingly challenging, and the rest of the slim pickings available on that homepage similarly showed why the state apparatus of which he is the head may not be too fond of the newspaper. There were namely two pieces on the Politovskaya murder case (“‘The State is showing a complete lack of interest in solving the murder of our mother,’ Vera and Ilya Politkovsky [yes, her children],” and “Second time around: The Politkovskaya murder case.”

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French Strike Violence: A View from the Left

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Back now to the French strikes and street-demonstrations, still ongoing, in protest at the raise in the French national retirement age – and this time we’re off to L’Humanité, official organ of the French Communist Party.

Long-time readers of EuroSavant (Hi Mom!) will recall that this blog has certainly not been averse in the past to checking out what L’Humanité has to say from time to time – after all, the paper has a constituency to represent (one whose political views I do find hard to understand, particularly in light of the failure of Communism towards the end of the preceding century), and it represents that political cohort consistently and well. But now is a particularly good time to check out their site – well, if you’re comfortable reading French. For while the national powers-that-be might want to give off an impression that the demonstrations are petering out, with maybe a little police intervention here and there mainly to unblock the oil refineries, this Communist paper gives quite a different view, with its headline article at the present time a bona fide hour-by-hour, blow-by-blow listing of various violent demonstrator-police confrontations happening throughout the country.

Typical is this account of such a confrontation at an industrial-zone near the Northern French city of Amiens, which apparently doesn’t even have any sort of refinery facility (but was at the center of violence of a different sort almost a century ago when it was on the front lines of the Western Front during World War I). From L’Humanité correspondent Jean-Marie Faucillon:

The forces of repression were sent to the industrial zone north of Amiens, on Thursday, 21 October at 23.00 hours, to brutally charge the demonstrators. . . . The charge was brutal with the firing-off of tear-gas at more than 100 meters, whereupon the demonstrators left the premises. “It’s truly a punitive expedition,” declared an official for the Somme departmental [i.e. local] union of the CGT [that's the Communist-run trade union confederation].

But that’s not all! Attached to that piece with a link is a picture-series of the late-night confrontation. To be sure, there’s nothing nice and bloody here that would draw those interested in that sort of thing away from their World Wrestling Federation TV broadcasts, but it’s interesting to see the policemen marching up along the highway, and in the later pictures there is certainly a thick fog of what must be tear-gas seemingly everywhere.

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Money vs. Happiness in China

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

One piece of news now much in circulation is the “slowdown” in GDP growth for the (mainland) Chinese economy. “Slowdown” in quotes, because statistics still showed an annualized 9.6% rate of third-quarter growth (year-on-year) – still impressive, if a bit less than the 10.3% y/y growth recorded for QII. This news-item’s appeal to those reporting it is clear, as it enables them to combine that “slowdown” irony with an underlying concern that it might turn out to be a serious matter after all, if most of the rest of the world is mired in recession and waiting on eventual Chinese demand to pull it out.

Typically, though, most news outlets fail to carry the story through to its deeper layer of meaning, in this case the fact that such a slowing of economic growth is actually a good thing and precisely what the Chinese authorities hope to achieve. For a more profound level of sophistication such as that one has to resort to publications such as the New York Times to read how, in fact, Beijing is concerned about runaway inflation and maybe even a property-price crash, so that if anything they were disappointed not in the slackening of third-quarter growth but rather the smallish magnitude of that slackening, and in fact recently went so far as to raise interest rates to gain more of precisely that result. (For the ultimate in detailed analysis of this predicament, from a Chinese professor at Peking [sic] University no less, the blog Naked Capitalism graciously provides us with this.)

Then there is an even deeper treatment of the phenomenon, brought to us today in the FT Deutschland: The Chinese cannot grab hold of their happiness. Sure, for decades now the Chinese economy has consistently shown explosive growth, is this piece’s message (written – note well! – by a journalist named Luo Xu), but it seems clear that this has failed to make the Chinese any happier.

Since he writes for the FTD, Luo is naturally far too intelligent to base such a contention merely upon any set of anecdotal impressions – from a population in excess of 1.3 billion! – that he and his acquaintances may foster. No, he has academic reports to cite:

  • The Erasmus University study, using a “People’s Happiness Index” on a 1 (most unhappy) to 10 (most happy) scale, that returns 6.64 in 1990, 7.08 in 1995, but then 6.60 in 2001. (Nothing more recent mentioned);
  • The University of Michigan study of 2009, which doesn’t provide numbers but merely concludes that yes, the Chinese are on the whole unhappier now (i.e. 2009) than they were ten years before;
  • The study published just last August at the Conference for Positive Psychology that took place in China, according to which 90% of respondents to a survey described themselves as lonely, 46.9% were dissatisfied with their lives and 19.1% were very dissatisfied.

It seems, then, that the Chinese have finally bumped up against the folk-wisdom that money does not (always) make you happy. But why exactly is that? And what, if anything, can be done about it? Remember, though, that this is but an article in a business newspaper and not the detailed psychological study – or, better, Nobel Prize-winning novel – that would be a more-appropriate means for addressing this dilemma. Mr. Luo is game to do the best he can to explain, though, and that turns out to be the following summary of seven factors behind this mysterious society-wide gloom, as compiled from the studies already-cited and others:

  • Competition: The old, familiar comparative motive: you might be sitting happy, but that can swiftly change once your neighbor buys a fancy car which you don’t have.
  • Lack of ideals: That is, when people discover that money is not enough to give life a true purpose.
  • Negative thinking: Looking on the cloudy side, not the sunny side, of life.
  • Fading altruism: Apparently, helping other people is one key to happiness, but modern Chinese society is steadily forgetting this.
  • Dissatisfaction: With what one already has, that is. Luo cites a Chinese proverb – “The satisfied man is usually happy” – and observes that there are ever-fewer truly satisfied Chinese left, because of what they see is available if they just had more money, because of what they see their neighbors have, etc.
  • Distrust: People are increasingly estranged from each other.
  • Worry: Also known as stress, resulting from a host of new concerns originating from work, children, old-age provision, and the like.

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Tracking Down France’s Essence

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

As anyone following European news knows, a wave of strikes has afflicted France for the last couple weeks.* Today in particular is the sixth in a (non-consecutive) series of days meant to heighten protest on the country’s streets to a nationwide level, all with the general aim of putting a stop to a planned raising of the national retirement age from 60 to 62 – a measure which nonetheless continues its procedural way through the two houses of the French national legislature despite the turmoil in the rest of the country.

For France, certainly, such an outbreak of widespread strikes and demonstrations is certainly nothing new, although the current spate does feature a couple of intriguing aspects. One is the relatively recent outpouring into the protestors’ ranks by both secondary-school and university students, even as the relevance to them of the retirement age issue remains questionable. (I suppose that, if anything, it involves moving their elders out of jobs and into retirement sooner rather than later, so that those positions can open up for them – but is that really even a remotely-accurate description of how the employment market works there? In a static economy like that of the USSR, maybe; in modern France, certainly not.)

More engaging to this observer is the way the strikes are shutting down the country’s petroleum distribution system, swiftly leading to the sort of ugly petrol station-mobbing and hoarding behavior by motorists seeking precious essence (French for “gasoline”) of the kind last seen in the West way back at the time of the second great “oil shock” (occasioned by the Iranian Revolution) of 1979. Indeed, it’s precisely this (and seemingly not, say, the half-million people marching through the streets of Paris) which so far has really engaged the French leadership. President Nicholas Sarkozy had to issue a statement from his summit with German and Russian leaders that he would make sure that the blockades of the oil refineries end, and his prime minister, François Fillon, is in fact meeting with key fuel sector executives at his palace, the Matignon, later today.

It’s now a very different world than back in 1979, although you might be fooled considering the similar sort of manic craze that can be raised in today’s society by uncertainty in gasoline supplies. But today we have the Internet, and greatly-expanded communications possibilities generally, and Le Figaro (the President’s newspaper, essentially) has stepped into the breach with a new article detailing how those savvy on-line can gain an advantage to filling up, or at least avoiding empty stations. You can follow along yourself at home for your own amusement (but it does help to know French): at this discussion-board, for example, or with this map of empty stations or maybe this one here.

What’s intriguing to me is that smartphone penetration among French consumers is assuredly nowhere near high enough to result in panicked motorists careening around to find an open gas station guided by the telephone-screen they hold in one hand as they hold the steering-wheel in the other. Not yet, at least; but that day will surely come.

*To those who have already sent inquiries or might become so inclined: NO, EuroSavant has not been participating in this strike, and in fact we hold absolutely no sympathy for it or its aims.

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