Your vices are German unemployed’s rights

Drink, smokes, and drink at Spin
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There are euros enough to spare yet in the German budget yet.

The drug policy commissioner in Germany has has said that when it comes to continuing welfare allowances for smokes and beers, “clearly there is room for luxury items in benefits for the long-term unemployed”.  And that anyone whom doesn’t agree with her is simply populist. For good measure, however, she does adds moderation is important.

Good news for the smokers in Germany though, the government is keen to defend their rights to smoke and refuses to increase the taxes on cigarettes.  Poor Germans are now reduced to rolling their own smokes.

“Regarding the tobacco tax we first need to create a level playing field,” she said. “Many smokers have moved to fine-cut rolling tobacco and roll their own cigarettes now, because it’s cheaper due to the lower taxes.” Instead of raising the tax on a pack of smokes, the government should instead insure that cigarette smuggling is reduced to insure that they are paid at all, she told the paper.

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On pension reforms

Pension is such a boring topic that most people loathe to think about it within their own country/system.  But much of economic unrests in Europe in the coming decade might come from unreasonable pension guarantees and calculations.

In France, private pensions are almost unheard of for majority of the working population. The only group that has private pensions is the executive class. So post-retirement, most people would rely on state pension to get them through the rest of their lives, which is long if you are French.

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Most French are compelled to save for their retirement through their payroll in a pay-as-you-go fashion, contrary to the combination of work-place pension scheme and private tax-incentived savings we have in North America.  In the French national system, as it is in some large pubic pension funds – CalPERS come to mind – the money paid into the system today is used to fund those that are currently drawing from the pot.

Needlessly to say, as it is in most of Europe, France has a demographic problem and no private savings to back up the public coffers.  But thinking about the issue from a about-to-retire French’s perspective – they have paid into the system for most of their lives with the explicit guarantee that they will be taken care of.  So that’s perhaps why, out of “principle”, shaving a couple of years off their almost 3 decades of post-retirement bliss is something worth protesting about.

It’s probably a bit too easy to be universally dismissive of what’s been fought here.  The leftist obviously points to other figures getting unjustifiably shifted around in the budget in the riches’ favour, while the centre-right accuses the unions to call strikes just for for the sake of striking.

This video is from 2007, but you can run the story and interview word-for-word without edits today, and nobody would know the difference. Must be comforting to the French to know that nothing changes.

PS. Starting at around 9:40, note how comparably small the French unions are, but are somehow able to call on the general public for support.

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Eat cheese and be Dutch

When my now-fiancé first told his parents about his new girlfriend a couple years ago, me being Chinese-Canadian, the first question my now future father-in-law asked was, “does her family run a Chinese restaurant?”

Now, I love my father-in-law to pieces, who is a lovely man with not one drop of racist blood running through his veins.  But in his mind and through his experiences, perhaps the idea that a Chinese family can do anything other than running Chinese restaurants is a revelation. As far as I know, no members of my immediate family has ever ventured into the restaurant, grocer or laundry business.  So he might be disappointed that I’m not that good of a cook after all.

The point of the story is that when it comes to the issue of race, there’s a lot missing in the collective European psyche.  Through its own lack of experiences with multiculturalism – unlike in North American and other parts of the New World, where barriers and stereotypes get broken down and built up again, Europe is still stuck on Racial Issues 1.0.

I think this ad was meant to be funny, but is it?

Entitled “Ideal” – and to my eyes without the slightest sense of irony, the narrative goes to say that in an ideal world, the Netherlands is a small village, and then goes on to name various members of the farming community that produces the cheese in question.

After what feels like a great start to a propaganda film made for the Third Reich, where wholesome blonde girls and boys are contentedly occupied with various aspects of farm fun, the camera pans to an obviously dark-haired and ethnic girl – Fatima.

Slight pause, followed by the surprised but still jolly voiceover, oh, what the heck!  The implication being that as long as she’s making cheese – and playing by the rules of the farm, she’s part of the village.

Some might say it’s just the ad poking fun at itself for being too serious about the white picket-fence depiction.  Given the political situation in the country, where the far-right anti-immigration party is now projected to become the second-largest party in the country, and tempers are high on all fronts, is this really a sensible subject to joke around?

Call me hard-assed, but there are unspoken rules about what is appropriate to mock, and where. You don’t get to credibly make jokes about race unless your society has reached some level of racial harmony and mutual understanding on the subject.

So, dear misguided cheese company, until your supermarkets take those “negro kisses” off the shelf, your government starts to have some sensible conversations about immigrants and actually treat their children and grandchildren as your own citizens, those race jokes are not yet yours to make.

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Burnt out?

Work Stress
Image by GDS Infographics via Flickr

How do you use the term burn-out in a sentence?  Is it more like, I worked so hard I’m getting burnt out, I’m at the end of my ropes and feel kind of burnt out, or is it more like, another one of my colleague is burnt-out and going on disability leave?

If you are in western and northern Europe, it is likely that the latter is the case.

Are you surprised that countries with five weeks of vacations, solid job security, ample social security on all levels of life, can somehow also cause a significant portion of its working population to claim long-term medical disability because they’ve short-circuited themselves on the treadmill of life?

Must be nice to have a lifeline to cop out from.  Divorce getting to you, adolescent children raking havoc, running a household while working and can’t get your leisurely evening walks in, or just simply not liking your job and want to take some paid leave once in a while?  There’s always “burn-out”.

So it’s probably no wonder that in the Netherlands, a country of just under 16.5 million people, and a working population of around 7 million people (although this data’s from 1990, so the number might be slightly higher, around 8 million or so), at any given point in time, 950,000 of the working population is on long-term benefits.

A more extreme case?  Denmark. The highest-taxed country in the world with the fluffiest welfare schemes also has the highest percentage of its work force on long-term income transfer schemes.  Because those unemployed are always undergoing some kind of government-mandated “training”, they are not accounted for in the dreaded unemployment figures.

In a country with 5 million people, approximately half of which are capable of working, 850,000 people are on some kind of government benefit at any given point in time.  At its peak in 1995, that number was 963,000.  That’s to say, at its worst, just under 40% of the working adults are effectively not working, but subsidized by the other 60% of the population that is.  Approximately 1/5 of those in the group picks up and starts to work again.  That means 4/5 of the 850,000 are stuck in limbo either getting retrained in another profession, or just want to take it easy.

This peeves me in two ways.

One, figures like these are not taken into account when measuring unemployment figures.  So on paper, Scandinavia always has a miniscule percentage of unemployment, while in reality, something like 1 in 3 or 4 ably-bodied labour market participants are not active in the work force.  This is even taking into account the poor female labour market participation – because they are not even interested and looking, which is something like 55% in the Netherlands, and this accounts for both full and part-time work, with part-time work being the most prevalent case.  This is for another day.

On paying to pee

Frankfurt Station Pay Toilets
Image by Artbandito via Flickr

I used to think charging for toilets, and having up to two attendants sitting outside washroom facilities and collect coins in a little tray, ceremoniously spraying a whiff of air fresher in toilet stalls after each use, was an act relegated to developing countries with severe under-employment problems.  I was wrong.

On the European Continent, it is the rule rather than exception to have paid toilets.  Whether it’s in McDonald’s, department stores, highway rest stations, or sometime even museums, I always go forth with change in my pocket.

The newer automated paying toilet turnpike system adopted along the Germany highway is at least without attendants, generally well-lit, well-stocked and sanitary.  You also get a coupon back for the amount you inserted to get inside the washroom, which can be used in the chain of highway rest stop restaurants and shops.  So not all’s wasted.

In shopping areas and fast food outlets, I find it harder to justify installing paid bathrooms at 20 to 60 cents per use.  Why penny-pinch the customers that are buying things and keeping your business afloat?

However, the idea of keeping customer happy in Europe is still stuck at a level where YOU, and not THEM, are expected to pay for customer service.  The consumerist drive is still under check by relatively expensive goods and inconvenient shopping environments – expensive parking, spread out shopping areas, and a general indifference to the idea of comfort when shopping.

PS. Apparently Paris is also subjected to a pay-for-use public toilet system, with some places literally robbing the tourists on one whole euro per use.

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Who’s feeling charitable today?

Canada and the US top the giving chart, coming up high on instances of money and time giving.  Although compared to the top performers of Europe, the difference is hardly noticeable.

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The interesting difference comes from how giving changes with age. In no other region in the world, does giving rise at quite the same consistent pace as age as in North America.  Given US (and Canada) hardly has the most “secure” welfare system for the old and presumably eventually sickly, it is interesting how the upward slope contrasts with that in Australasia and Western Europe.

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Do Americans just believe more in “giving it all away” when faced with the prospects of death, or are there more plausible, and perhaps cynical explanations out there?

source: Charities Aid Foundation

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City rivalries

Früh is a pretty famous brewery in Cologne, Germany.  On their website, they have archived all their billboard campaigns, organized by year.

At the very bottom of the list, there’s a separate category called Düsseldorf, which is a rival city.

Those ads poke fun at Düsseldorf, with taunting taglines like “Now also in small villages around Cologne”, “line up”, “for relief, now available in A3 (German highway outside Düsseldorf)”.

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Full archive here.

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Build roads, not bikes

Bicycle rush hour in Copenhagen, where 37% of ...
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London is spending a pretty penny in getting a bike-sharing scheme up and running in the centre of the city.  Sounds great in theory, but why do I have the idea that the focus on getting the science and logistics right on bike logistics will not go very far in promoting and fostering a mainstream biking culture?

The Netherlands is perhaps the most bike friendly country in the world, followed by countries such as Denmark (or at least Copenhagen).  The roles that bikes play in everyday life has little to do with the availability of bikes on the road, but the fact that there are roads to bike on.

Now, like most of North American cosmopolitan centres that are also trying to encourage more biking and less driving, London suffers from a number of infrastructural problems.  To put it simply: the roads are built for cars, and bikers – the minority, have to make do with minimal disruption to the drivers – the majority.

Having lived in a bike-centric country for more than two years, here are some problems I foresee with the London attempt:

  • Most of the bike lanes are either totally unmarked (you and your bicycle squeeze in however you can), or marked but only wide enough to accommodate one single bike that does not swerve.  This is unsafe.  Drivers swerve and hit bikers.  Sometimes bikers get killed.  After a couple of front-page headlines screaming “Biker get killed by speeding/drunk/careless drivers”, no mothers will want their kids try this.
  • Bikers get suited up.  With reflective markings on their backs, anti-scratch shirts and pants, specialty biking shoes, protective gloves and helmet.  Now going out by bike becomes more of an exercise in playing dress-up than anything else, relegated to the hardcore.  Who else would bother?
  • The anxiety of not having a dedicated lane to you, separated from BOTH car traffic and pedestrians, is a huge turn-off.  Imagine how feasible it would be to bike next to cars on a rainy day – the puddle splashes, on a foggy day – the fright! Some people talk about biking etiquette, but that is non-sense. Pedestrians are not told about walking etiquette, because they cannot be expected to share a paths with other moving vehicles.  Biking should be no different.  Separating all three types of lanes with barriers in between is the most sensible way to do this.

A few other things:

  • Doing this kind of scheme densely populated area is best.  People will most likely not mind biking for around 30 minutes to work, 5-10 to get groceries or pick up their kids.  Anything more than that, alternatives will be considered.  This bike scheme is only available in central London, because London is simply too large to bike from end to end.  So for everyday commuters, I’m just not sure that by tacking on a bike ride at either the beginning or the very end of someone’s already excruciating commute will appeal to many people.

What I’m reading today

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Cousin or nephew?

father in nuclear family
Image via Wikipedia

If language is in fact an artifact of culture, then what does the way we name family members say about us?

In Chinese, the naming conventions for every member of the family is dependent on their gender, whether the relationship stems from the father or the mother’s side, and their age in relation to you or your parents.

For example, the concept of an “aunt” is dependent on whether the aunt is directly related to either the mother’s or the father’s side, whether they are older or younger, and whether they are siblings to your parents or married into the family.

Another example, my dad’s younger sister’s son would have a different name (a variation of the concept of cousin), than if he was the son of my dad’s older sister.  And that would still be different than if he was the son of my dad’s older brother.

Still with me?

Anyway, when this is all too much, go Dutch.  In the lowlands, the words neefje and nichtje, which covers not only the ideas of nephew and niece, but also cousins of the same sex.  That’s to say, in a cross-generational sweep of generalization, a female cousin of yours bears the same concept as a niece, and a male cousin of yours is the same as a nephew.

As a result, most Dutch have trouble with the concept of cousins, which I suppose, in a familial sense, is probably just as remote as niece and nephews.

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History of guest workers

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-77050-0002, Berlin, tsch...
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A primer on the history of Germany’s guest workers.

Germany:

  • Picked up the most unskilled and educated labour from backward parts of Turkey, on purpose, to fuel its industrial expansion
  • Kept them in factory dormitories, isolated from mainstream German society
  • Idea was to keep them on rotation of a few years, send them back, and get another roster in
  • Industry rebelled at the high training costs of such interruptions, so same groups of workers were kept
  • Built schools and educated workers’ children for eventual “repatriation” back to Turkey
  • Even after an entire generation has elapsed, still refused to acknowledge the permanent nature of the migrants
  • Up until 10 years ago, had no skill-based, active immigration scheme

While the Turkish migrants:

  • Were from the most backwards parts of Turkey, mostly illiterate and highly religious
  • For decades, in states of limbo, many had bags packed to go home, but uncertainly over Turkey’s political situation kept them
  • Kids educated mostly in Turkish, although in reality had poor literacy skills in both languages
  • Lack of integration and education means little employment prospects for many second and third-generation Turkish immigrants children

So is it any surprise that a homogenous and rigid society has trouble incorporating another equally homogenous and rigid community?

It’s not just Germany, but to my knowledge, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and probably most of western and northern Europe, all had some version of the guest worker scheme.  All are now lying in the thorny beds they made themselves decades ago.

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Bad examples

of course all "houses" were built il...
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The Roma issue in Europe is complicated and very sensitive to all involved.  Lately, those in richer parts of Europe, such as France and Italy, are turning what is fundamentally a social problem into a rhetoric that is increasingly becoming all about criminality and domestic security.

It is no surprise that this is making the news at a time when Sarkozy and Berlusconi’s supports are at all-time lows.  Those countries are mired in a plethora of economic and social problems, least of which has anything to do with Roma.

But as any visitors to those countries well know, the roaming Roma are the ones that can potentially escalate your leisurely strolls in the windy streets and busy subways of Paris and Rome from one of annoyance, to paranoia and fear.  And any long-term residents of the countries know about the unsightly camps, poverty, abuse, and organized crimes that plague those communities.

Compare the issue of Roma immigration and integration, which has been a thorn in Europe’s eye for over 600 years, to ongoing discussions over Muslim immigration and integration Western Europe, which when you think about it, only surfaced no more than half a century ago, then the magnitude of the Roma problem looks really deep-rooted.

This is not the first time France has attempted to expel Roma from its borders.  But what is different now, are the bad examples the likes of France and Italy are setting Eastern Europe, where most of the Roma come from.  It is hard to maintain a position of moral superiority and lecture the new member state of the EU on human rights and due processes, when a founding member of the EU literally ships out an unwanted group of minorities, back to a country where they are even more despised and discriminated against – rightly or wrongly, has a lot to do with where you live and how you see the problem, but that’s for another day.

Back to France and the present time.  The question is amplified, because the construct and aspirations of the European Union ensure that such so-called “domestic affairs” are no longer domestic, but have consequences far beyond its borders.  The implications of Sarkozy’s calculated political machinations are now weighed with either worries or jubilation by government ministers and right-winged nationalists, in places like Sofia and Bucharest.  But that’s hardly Sarkozy’s problems at this very moment.

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