Swedish gender paradise, or not?

According to the NYT, Sweden’s parental leave policies is something to be desired and imitated.  A thoroughly interesting and somewhat surprisingly read.  For some background on my previous thoughts on fertility rates and interventionist policies on getting women back into the work place full time, here.

But scrolling down to second half of the article, the rosy picture decidedly darkens.

Some, however, worry that as men and women both work and both stay home with kids, a gender identity crisis looms. “Manhood is being squeezed” by the sameness, argued Ingemar Gens, an author and self-described gender consultant.

So is the Swedish taxpayer. Taxes account for 47 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 27 percent in the United States and 40 percent in the European Union overall. The public sector, famous for family-friendly perks, employs one in three workers, including half of all working women. Family benefits cost 3.3 percent of G.D.P., the highest in the world along with Denmark and France, said Willem Adema, senior economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Bodil Sonesson Gallon, head of sales at Axis Communications, an IT company that specializes in video surveillance, admits that parental leave can be disruptive — for careers and companies. She laments that with preschools starting at 12 months and little alternative child care, there is huge pressure for parents to take at least a year off.

Small businesses find it particularly tricky to juggle absences, said Sofia Bergstrom, social insurance expert at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents 60,000 companies. Worse than parental leave, she says, is the 120-day annual allowance for parents to tend to sick children, which is impossible to plan and which is suspected of being widely abused.

When women and men used to be able to split their shared parental leave time however they wanted, women usually took the majority of allotted time off, because their pay was usually lower, thus the economic impact on the family unit as a whole was less.

For more dynamic businesses that want to avoid missing key personnels for too long, there’s a decided shift towards hiring men ahead of women so as to minimize the disruption of its workforce.

In effect, this sort of chess-play has resulted in women mostly confined in public-service works with lower pay and less exciting career trajectories than their husbands.

Fathers take on average only 20 percent of the 16 months of paid parental leave offered in Sweden to either mums or dads, according to Statistics Swede—a skimpy average that has sparked a broad debate over how to encourage more fathers to take the paid time off and reduce inequalities in the home. In most cases it is mothers who invoke their legal right and stay home with the kids.  Women are over-represented in low-income jobs, such as teachers or nurses, and on average earn 84 percent of the average male salary, according to Statistics Sweden.

Snark’s guide to the World Cup and other links

Mind over mass media
NY Times – The Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias.
Too big to fail? The BP bailout as corporatism
rushkoff.com – The BP crisis recapitulates the entirety of corporatism in real time, transparently enough for anyone to see.
The gulf oil spill: No end in sight
The Economist – The oil has been flooding out for more than seven weeks now. The damage is becoming more apparent. The solutions are not.

Dismantling factories in a dreamweaver nation
english.caing.com – Rising labor costs will ultimately force factories closer to labor sources, and working conditions will turn more humane. The biggest losers will be coastal governments that side with the factories to protect their revenues.
Americans: Let’s stop investing in our kids
blogs.law.harvard.edu – Just as we’ve produced a health care system so expensive that we’d be better off without doctors and hospitals, we’ve managed to create an education system so expensive and ineffective that we’d be better off not sending anyone to school.
Greed’s not good for shareholders
psyfitec.com– Wherever you find over-rewarded executives presiding over companies whose main aim is to increase their market capitalisation we should pick up our skirts and get the hell out of it.

The bright side of wrong
Boston.com– A better relationship with wrongness can lead to better relationships in general — whether between family members, colleagues, neighbors, or nations.
The science of gaydar
nymag.com– If sexual orientation is biological, are the traits that make people seem gay innate, too? The new research on everything from voice pitch to hair whorl.
Female teachers’ math anxiety negatively affects female students
brainblogger.com– It is possible that even with male teachers, a relation between teacher anxiety and female student achievement might occur.

World Cup preview
nplusonemag.com– A team-by-team analysis of the World Cup teams for a rough idea of what people will be talking about in the month ahead.
The ‘beauty bias’ at work, and what should be done about it
inthesetimes.com– The increasing prevalence of obesity in America has done nothing to curb virulent prejudice against fat people. Ironically, immobilizing obesity is protected as a disability, but discrimination based purely on cosmetic aversion to fat is totally legal.
Naughty by nature: Why has Britain become so rude?
independent.co.uk– How did we become addicted to rudeness – in the sense of fart-joke vulgarity as well as personal insult? Is it a phenomenon of British art history, a leitmotif of British popular culture, or something firmly engrained in the British character?

This Mercer quality of living survey business is highly suspect

Mercer has ranked Vienna as the city that offers the highest quality of living in 2010. In your humble blogger’s opinion, this list is useless at best, and misleading at worst. Having just gotten back from a trip from London, to say that London ranks at 39, Berlin at 17, Toronto at 16, Amsterdam at 13, versus Vienna at 1, sounds pretty unlikely to me.

By Mercer’s own fluffy standards, it is hard to say that any countries in the top 50 is better than the next when it comes to basic household ownership of appliances, or the availability of basic public transportation, or the availability of meet and vegetables.

I would guess that the reason why North American cities tend to rank rather poorly on those quality of living indexes is most likely due to the urban sprawl, relatively weaker public transportation system, increased chance of congestion and pollution due to higher ownership of cars, lower concentration of older and more prestigious art and cultural installations, and perhaps less care when it comes to more environmentally friendly and aesthetically pleasing urban infrastructure and architecture.

Here are some observations from my casual encounter with Vienna:

It does not feel as safe as most other western European cities. That’s not to say that is is dangerous, but seeing homeless-ish people and young thugs with muzzled pit bulls along with a high level of police presence around subways does little to paint a picture of peace and tranquility.

There  are visible signs of greater income inequality than what I’ve encountered elsewhere. With the possible exception of Berlin, I have seen little outward appearance of income inequality in western Europe, other than Vienna.  People tend to be more shoddily dressed, and looked less healthy.  But of course the latter could be attributable to its meat-heavy diet.

Vienna is not a particularly clean city. Lots of people have called London dirty.  London is not dirty compared to Vienna.

Vienna is not a well-maintained city. Next to a city like Amsterdam, you can say it is positively run down.  The subway system doesn’t look like it’s been updated in years, has no turnpikes, although it does work.

Vienna is not a modern city. I use the word modern to designate consumer and service industries that’s up to par, which in cities like London or Amsterdam, exist side-by-side with architectural remnants of centuries past.  Walking around Vienna, many shops look like they are props from an 80s movie, including bars that are supposedly trendy and shopping areas that are supposedly carrying the most cutting-edge products.  They do not.  Across the border in Germany, everything’s more shiny and better-presented.

Exam fever and why cats would need to chase mice if there’s plenty of fish


Chinese high school students went through the grueling university entrance exam called gaokao this week. This is one of the most important experiences in a young Chinese person’s life, and whole families and cities gear up for it.  Some of the more entertaining essay questions include:

National (I): Why chase mice when there are fish to eat?

National (II): What is light reading?

Beijing: Looking at the stars with your feet on the ground

Shanghai: Danish fishermen – “When Danes go fishing, they carry with them a ruler. When they catch a fish, they will measure it and toss it back if it is not long enough. They say, ‘Isn’t it better to let the little ones grow up?’ More than two thousand years ago in our country, Mencius said, ‘If fine nets do not enter the pools, there will be more fish and turtles than can be eaten.’ And in fact this principle runs throughout many areas of our lives.”

Tianjin: The world I live in

Chongqing: Tough problems

Jiangsu: Green Life – “Green is vibrant, visually pleasing. Green is intertwined in life and ecology. Today, there is a new concept of green, one that is closely connected to the lives of every person.”

Guangdong: Neighbors – “We are neighbors and rely on each other. You might be visible or invisible. It is impossible to avoid having neighbors, but you can make a choice.”

Shandong: Light and shadow – ‘”All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.’ – Leo Tolstoy.”

Hunan: Morning

Jiangxi: Recovering childhood – “Why do we want to recover childhood? Because society it too utilitarian, children have too much pressure, and childhood ends too early. Society needs innocence and required a return to childhood.”

Fujian: The birth of Grimm’s Fairy Tales – “The brothers Grimm felt that there was a connection between folk tales and human history, but after collecting many of them without finding that connection, they gave up. Later on, a friend chanced across the things they had compiled, and arranged with a publisher to have it published, becoming what we know as Grimm’s Fairy Tales.”

Sichuan: Points and Life – “A point can form a line, can form a plane, can form a body. Life is like a few unregulated points which can be connected into countless lines, which can then form different planes, which can then form different geometric objects.”

Shaanxi: Success and the environment – (1) A tropical fish placed in a fishbowl will only grow three inches long; placed in a pond, it can grow quite large. (2) Wolves are so strong and powerful because they live in an outdoor environment. (3) A psychologist picked ten people and told them they had extraordinary talent. They then went on to find success. Later, the psychologist admitted that they were just ordinary people.

Hainan and Ningxia: Participation

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Morning links: Yep, that’s the sound of World Cup kicking off!

The rules of the game
blog.theparisreview.org – If you want to have a successful World Cup you have to have one team that you absolutely want to win. Three is even better. Five is fantastic. More than seven and you’ll start to have trouble keeping them straight.
Football is war
project-syndicate.org – Soccer wars are rare, but the notion that international sporting competitions inevitably inspire warm fraternity, is a romantic fiction.
Soccer and philosophy
WSJ – “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed in that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”
How did sport get so big?
moreintelligentlife.com – Once, it was only a game. Now sport is a never-ending drama, a soap opera watched all over the world. How did it happen?

Who’s spending again? The rich and the old
New York Times – The wealth effect related to stock market gains may also help explain why higher-income Americans have picked up their spending so much, too.
If Belgium struggles to pull of federalism, what hope does Europe have?
The Economist – Belgium has in one sense become a model for the European Union. Alas, a negative model. Belgium is a living proof that the cultural gulf between north and south Europe makes it agonizingly hard to pull off a single economic political union.
‘Just do it’ is no mantra for Japan
FT – Japan’s leaders have shirked hard choices. Also, their system is not conducive to producing strong leaders. But it is wrong to suggest the answers are obvious.
Seven constructive remarks about the Euro
Credit Write Downs – There are constructive things that can be said about the weak euro.
Britain and Europe: No laughing matter
The Economist – Vigilant Eurosceptics are usually keen to see conniving genius in European federalists. For once, the British may have underestimated their determination never to let a crisis go to waste.

South Korea blasts pop music, propaganda over the border
nydailynews.com – After the country formally accused North Korea of launching the torpedo that sunk their warship Cheonan, South Korea has declared psychological warfare in retaliation.
The end of men
theatlantic.com – Yes, women still do most of the child care. And yes, the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men. But given the power of the forces pushing at the economy, this setup feels like the last gasp of dying age.
How to write a “Malcolm Gladwell Bestseller”
blog.jgc.org – Gladwell’s books actually contain very few ideas. But these few ideas are chosen to be interesting to a general reader, and to be understandable by a layman. 

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North Korea, where more information is getting in

North Koreans have no access to Internet, nor outside TV or radio.  But despite censorship, information is getting through the Chinese and South Korean borders.

Slowly, however, information is seeping in. Traders return from China to report that people are richer and comparatively freer, and that South Koreans are supposedly even more so. Some of the traders have cellphones that are linked to the Chinese cellular network and can be surreptitiously borrowed for exorbitant fees.

Punishment for watching foreign films and television shows is stiff. The trader said a 35-year-old neighbor spent six months in a labor camp last year after he was caught watching “Twin Dragons,” a farcical Hong Kong action film starring Jackie Chan. Yet to the dismay of the former teacher, her 26-year-old son takes similar risks

At the same time, South Korea might be waging some form of psychological warfare against its northern hermit cousin/enemy.

After the country formally accused North Korea of launching the torpedo that sunk their warship Cheonan, South Korea has declared psychological warfare in retaliation. Their first missive into the hermit kingdom was a pop song.  Ended a six-year suspension against state-sanctioned propaganda, the South sent the message across the border through the airwaves. Before airing a rebuke from South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the broadcast features K-pop girl group 4minute singing their song “HuH (Hit Your Heart).”

Out of curiosity, I looked up the group along with other big names in the S. Korean pop factory.  In the space of the last couple of decades, it is probably not implausible to say that South Korea is now challenging Japan in the quality and polished packaging of its pop exports.

Compare and contrast with North Korean fashion shows?
South Korea knows perfectly well from America’s experience that soft power in the form of cultural assaults can sometimes be far more corrosive and effective than long-range missiles and army built-ups.  The North Koreans have no idea what they are in for.
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Morning links: Blackwater for sale

How Zynga survived FarmVille
gigaom.com – With launches like Monday’s FarmVille for iPhone, there’s an increased emphasis on syncing one user’s experience between everywhere they play a game.
No refills
theatlantic.com – Why are new pharmaceuticals so hard to bring to market? Overcautious regulators and profit-hungry conglomerates make easy scapegoats, but they’re only partly to blame.
Social networks overtake Google in UK web hits
independent.co.uk – Facebook’s battle for internet supremacy with Google has intensified after social networks received more internet hits than search engines for the first time in the UK.
Wanted: A buyer for Blackwater and its baggage
CNN Money – Xe Services, what Blackwater became after civilian shootings, criminal indictments and civil lawsuits caused a rebranding push in 2009, wants someone to buy it.

India’s welfare gamble: Add 100 million to the rolls
WSJ – India is now embarking on a major reassessment of poverty levels. The review will determine how many struggling people across the world’s second-most populous nation.
Gold as inflation-proof deflation hedge
thereformedbroker.com – There is a line of reasoning out there that may be of help to those troubled by the inflation/deflation hedging potential of gold ownership.
‘The time we have is growing short’
nybooks.com – Has the contribution of the modern world of finance to economic growth become so critical as to support remuneration to its participants beyond any earlier experience and expectations?
Fear must not blind us to deflation’s dangers
FT – Premature fiscal tightening is, warns experience, as big a danger as delayed tightening would be. There are no certainties here.
Greece is tapping China’s deep pockets to help rebuild its economy
Washington Post – Spurred on by government incentives and bargain-basement prices, the Chinese are planning to pump hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of euros into Greece even as other investors run the other way.

How a soccer star is made
NY Times – The American approach is the more democratic view of sport. The aspirations of each member of the team are equally valid. Elsewhere, there is more comfort with singling out players for attention and individualized instruction.
Black market in dogs big business in Germany
spiegel.de – Lured by lower prices for pedigree puppies, German dog lovers are turning to Eastern Europe to find their Fido. But often the cut-price pooches come with diseases and behavioral problems, and sometimes die after just a few days.
Yoga heritage: don’t even think about stealing it, says Indian government
The Guardian – An Indian government body tasked with protecting the country’s rich heritage of medicinal and medical philosophy and practice has started filming hundreds of asanas in an attempt to make a rigid system out of this most flexible of meditative practices.

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Morning links: Future of education

Rivals secretly finance opposition to Wal-Mart
WSJ – Supermarkets that have funded campaigns to stop Wal-Mart are concerned about having to match the retailing giant’s low prices lest they lose market share.
Higher education’s bubble is about to burst
washingtonexaminer.com– Will traditional academic institutions will be able to keep up with the times, or will “edupunks” be able to find new ways of teaching and learning that challenge existing interests?
Good business
interacc.typepad.com– If you’re the vendor, would you rather the definition of success was in your hands or those of the people that hired you?
World-wide hiring set to pick up
blogs.wsj.com– Employers world-wide are more optimistic about hiring next quarter but the U.S. isn’t preparing for robust job growth.

Asset bubbles can’t be eliminated
blogs.hbr.org– Whatever your theory is about why bubbles originate, count on another one appearing sooner or later.
Hungary: (mis)managing market expectations
blogs.ft.com– Investors are seriously concerned about the Fidesz government’s readiness to stick to a tough economic programme without resorting to populist remedies.
Dutch parliamentary elections: The return of the bourgeoisie
spiegel.de– The Dutch go to the polls today. What’s driving the fears and anxieties of the Dutch constituents?
A failure of economic and environmental regulation
newyorker.com– Reforming the system isn’t about writing a host of new rules; it’s about elevating the status of regulation and regulators.

Israel’s Silicon Valley of beauty technology
time.com– Ultrashape’s technique involves high-intensity ultrasound waves guided by a sophisticated tracking and delivery system to explode unwanted fat cells — much the way heat-seeking missiles destroy enemy objects.
No comment
ajr.org– One good reason to end the practice of allowing unnamed comments is that it’s flat-out wrong. Another is that it is causing headaches for news outlets, headaches they seriously don’t need, and it will cause more in the future.
Don’t get stuck in Edu 2010
O’Reilly Radar– With investments being made now in education that may not be repeated for decades, the challenge presented to technology is one of developing platforms that will not require massive tech do-overs and reinvestment as new technologies coming online.

“Green consumerism” largely a myth
nakedcapitalism.com– Conventional measures of carbon emissions give consumers a free pass and ignore the greenhouse gas production resulting from global sourcing of consumer goods.
Costa Rica puts brakes on popular stem cell tourism
in.reuters.com– Costa Rica is cracking down on an unauthorized stem cell clinic that has attracted hundreds of foreigners seeking relief from degenerative diseases and serious injuries.
Neuroplasticity is a dirty word
mindhacks.com– Synaptic plasticity refers to changes in the strength of connections between synapses, the chemical or electrical connection points between brain cells.

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Morning links: How Canada did it

So, just what did Canada do?
blogs.wsj.com – Europe’s welfare system is as unsustainable as Canada’s was, only they managed to avoid doing anything about it for a long time.
Gulf Coast disaster: Will BP be bought or bankrupt?
CNN Money – Can BP afford to exist as a standalone company? Could it go bankrupt? Will BP have to cut dividends? Or will it survive intact, bruised a bit but otherwise just fine?
Euro ‘will be dead in five years’
telegraph.co.uk – Of the 25 leading City economists who took part in the Telegraph survey, 12 predicted that the euro would not survive in its current form this Parliamentary term, compared with eight who suspected it would.
Fiscal discipline alone will not overcome the eurozone’s troubles
blogs.ft.com – Whyte says, “deficits and surpluses are umbilically linked: one entails the other”. Alas, there appear to be very few policymakers in Germany willing to consider an alternative.
Jobs and kids: Female employment and fertility in rural China
Voxeu – Non-agricultural jobs for women reduce the number of children per woman by 0.64 and the probability of having more than one child by 54.8%.

Dear Hotmail: What the hell happened to you?
cracked.com – Somewhere along the line you stumbled. You got sloppy or you just gave up, and we drifted apart. Now you’ve been lapped by the technology and features of Gmail.
Behind Foursquare and Gowalla: The great check-in battle
wired.co.uk – All over the web, reward-based achievement games have begun to blossom as a means of encouraging specific behaviour.
Why I sold Zappos
inc.com – Tony Hsieh built his online shoe retailer into an e-commerce powerhouse. But with credit tightening and investors eyeing the exits, Hsieh was forced to ask: Was selling Zappos really the only way to save it?

The clash of sports civilizations
drezner.foreignpolicy.com – As in industry, the government picks national “winners” in sports and funnels cash to create champions and win medals. But the support typically goes to sports in which Chinese have traditionally excelled. Soccer teams here are left to look for private sponsorship.
An inside look at Bernie Madoff’s life in prison
nymag.com – From the day Madoffarrived at the softer of Butner’s two medium-security facilities in handcuffs and shackles, he was a celebrity, even if his admirers were now murderers and sex offenders.
There is no one either good or bad, but circumstances make them so
independent.co.uk – Moral character is fragile much more often than it is robust. Most people have no robust character at all.
Brain scans being misused as lie detectors, experts say
news.bbc.co.uk – Experts warn that measures are needed to stop brain scans being misused by courts, insurers and employers.

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Monday morning links: Survival still in question

The pain in Spain
The Economist– in places like Spain, an unsackable bureaucracy now co-exists with 40% youth unemployment. That is a recipe for reform or revolt. Half measures will not do the trick.
Not dead yet
eureferendum.blogspot.com– In 2009, European countries borrowed more than €800 billion, partly to bail out banks, which in turn then bought public debt that had been driven up by the bail-outs.

The chimera of college brands
chronicle.com– The idea implicit in college brands, that every course reflects certain institutional values and standards, is mostly a fraud.
Hard times, bright futures
american.com– Many of those who joined the ranks of the self-employed last year will eventually become employer firms, however large or small.
Can a soda tax protect us from ourselves?
NY Times– We sometimes wish for parents to be looking over our shoulders and guiding us to the right decisions. The question is, do you trust the government enough to appoint it your guardian?
Where did all the executives go?
services.newsweek.com– Despite the so-called résumé tsunami, employers looking for managers with all the right soft skills are finding slim pickings.

No need for a drawdown drama
psyfitec.com– Understanding that market falls of 50%, or more, are normal – if rare – is an important element of a strong investor’s psyche. Unfortunately many understand this without understanding the corollary: when markets collapse weak companies get hammered.
From the oil spill to the financial crisis, why we don’t plan for the worst
Washington Post– There is a natural tendency to postpone preventive action against dangers that are likely to occur at some uncertain point in the future, especially if prevention is expensive, and especially because there is so much else to do in the here and now.
Declining Latin American inequality: Market forces or state action?
Voxeu– Both. The trend is driven by both a decrease in the earnings gap between high-skilled and low-skilled workers, and an increase in government transfers to the poor.

Sweet land of… conformity?
Boston.com– American-style individualism lies in the freedom to choose; American-style collectivism lies in the commitment to the group that freely choosing entails.
Does the Internet make you smarter?
WSJ– The case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we’ll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as we integrated literacy.
India’s rent-a-womb industry faces new restrictions
time.com– India has become the world capital of outsourced pregnancies, whereby surrogates are implanted with foreign embryos and paid to carry the resultant babies to term.
The enemy within – Who’s behind Conficker?
theatlantic.com– Imagining Conficker’s creators as a skilled group of illicit cyber entrepreneurs remains the prevailing theory.

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Media hype or trending violence in China?

Is China becoming more violent? Patrick Chovanec asks:


Yesterday, a 40 year-old woman went on a rampage onboard an overnight sleeper train in northeastern China, stabbing and wounding nine people as they slept before she was wrestled to the ground by fellow passengers.  The same day, a 46 year-old bank guard opened fire outside a courthouse in central Hunan province, shooting three judges dead and wounding three others before killing himself.  The man was reportedly upset about the division of assets in his divorce case.  These two incidents come on top of a series of bloody knife attacks aimed at schoolchildren that have left 17 people (including 15 children) dead, and dozens injured.

Certainly, the availability of online media has amplified the reach of random acts of violence, so that previously local acts of violence can now suddenly make the news around the country.

But the question remains whether random violence of this nature occurred previously at the current level of frequency.  Has the pressure of such rapid modernization over the past three decades, and the toxic byproduct issues in living environment, income inequality, corruption, housing, etc, driven more and more lower-income classes, in the words of one of the commentators, postal?

Some bloggers think so.

Han Han, one of the country’s most popular bloggers (and a huge irritant to the authorities), wrote that killing the weak was seen by the attackers as the most effective way of exacting revenge on a society “that has no way out”. He said that local governments should send the guards at official buildings to help protect schools, “because a government that can’t protect children doesn’t need so many people to protect itself”.

Others say a lack of mental health help compounds the problem.

A newspaper in the central province of Henan said that while the West had many NGOs that could help people suffering from mental distress, in China there were very few. This, it said, led to problems becoming bottled up and eventually erupting in violence.

When politicians don’t play ball

Last weekend the NYT weekend magazine edition published a feature on Job Cohen, one of the frontrunners in the Dutch national election in the coming week.

An interest in him is expected and entirely logical: he’s Jewish, an academic and highly intelligent, a moderate integrationist in a country increasingly mired in populism rooted in anti-Muslim rhetoric.

In recent weeks however, Job Cohen’s status has dimmed with each intensely scrutinized TV debate.  The well-regarded former major of Amsterdam has stammered, stuttered, said no to questions that could have demonstrated his knowledge of everyday life, as well as generally refusing to engage in political banter with his opponents.

[A]ccording to the criteria of the modern mediacracy, Cohen is failing spectacularly. When he doesn’t have an answer to a question, he admits it honestly instead of dancing around it peddling half-truths. The effects register in the following day’s headlines. When other politicians interrupt him, he lets them speak for minutes, and only resumes his answer after they have finished. The camera zooms out and the organised applause cuts through his answer. He shrugs helplessly when interviewers persist in stirring things up with trivialities. “I don’t play those kinds of games,” he says.

End of the day, Cohen seems to operate on a separate plane than the other players in the pen, which begs the question: when a politician refuses to play the game, does that make him more admirable or just a bad politician?

The NRC thinks this particular affliction strikes those on the left often, and hard.

Left-wing politicians are, in their thoughts and actions, primarily indebted to what one could call the Platonic tradition. The characteristic of this tradition is that all its representatives – from René Descartes to Immanuel Kant – start from a philosophical distinction introduced by Plato: the contrast between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’. The starting point of this is, to put it concisely, that two sorts of ‘reality’ can be identified. One is reality as we experience it, mediated by our emotions, language, culture and interests. Behind that, these thinkers say, is objective reality: reality ‘as it is’, the ‘facts’ that we all share.

On the other extreme is the tradition which, broadly put, runs from Thomas Hobbes via Friedrich Nietzsche to Richard Rorty. Their philosophies differ widely, but they share a criticism of the Platonic differentiation between appearance and reality. Reality, they argue, is just as it appears – mediated by emotions, language, culture and, most importantly, our competing interests. There is no ‘objective’ reality beyond this; human being can’t go beyond their ‘perspective’ on the world. Right-wing politicians generally feel much more at home in this tradition. Thus they regard the business of politics as an issue of rhetoric. What matters is the image of reality you want to create, not whether that reality corresponds with ‘reality’.

Interesting theory, but true?  Only to a limited extent, in my opinion. In both the UK and US, the Labour Party in the last decade, and the Democrats in this one, triumphed despite their (relativist) left-leaning policies.

Passive citizenship bears bitter fruit

Culture is one of these double-edged swords.  Certain aspects of a culture might help a country during one period of economic and political development.  The same traits will hinder development, if not outright self-destruction, during another period.

I enter Japan as exhibit number one.

On the heels of Japan’s latest prime ministerial resignation, the following seems especially relevant.

Dogged resignation to the status quo is inculcated from an early age here. There is next to no education in civics and no attempt to make children aware of their democratic rights. Children are not encouraged to express an opinion at school, where classes are large and taught by rote. The energies of pushy children are channeled into sports clubs where they learn how to fit into a hierarchy, first learning how to stoically endure discipline from older members, and then, as they get older, learning how to discipline their juniors. Less pushy children, meanwhile, can sleep in class and go unnoticed.

There is also great emphasis placed on the individual’s ability to gaman (put up stoically with suffering), rather than on problem-solving skills, and children are taught to fear the censure or ridicule of others, which makes them unwilling to stand out. In fact, the education system, with its songs, uniforms, rituals and group-focused activities, has achieved an almost perfectly Foucauldian model of passive citizenship. It’s an achievement, of sorts.

What helped to propel Japan to economic stardom post WWII is now dogging both its political and economic systems.  A lesson for China perhaps?

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