Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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Follow-up III: Plastic bags, the environment, and dishonest companies

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Recently, I encountered a number of interesting articles on topics like plastic bags vs. paper bags, which has been of some prior interest to me (cf. at least [1], [2], [3]).

Below, I will go into some of these articles. First, however, I owe an update to an earlier claim (cf. [3]):

The intended-for-multiple-use bags are, paradoxically, inferior in this regard: they do last even longer [than the old bags], but are a much worse fit for a pocket and I doubt that they are better on e.g. a uses-per-quantity-of-plastic* basis. Moreover, of the two bags that I have so far tried to use for a prolonged time, one fell out of my pocket and was lost within less than a dozen uses, the other developed a tear within a dozen uses, which grew to the point that I did not dare use the bag within a total of two dozen uses.

*To illustrate the principle: If a regular bag can be used a dozen times and an intended-for-multiple-use bag uses ten times as much plastic, it would take 120 uses to reach the same level.

It has been a little more than 21 months since [3], and I have managed to use a single “intended-for-multiple-use bag” through the entire time interval, excepting only several occasions where I either forget to bring it or deliberately went for a paper bag to ease paper recycling.* A few times, it has fallen out of my pocket (but I have always noticed in time); a few times, I have forgotten it; and the greater bulk in my pocket often impedes my arm swing during walks. However, chances are that the “uses-per-quantity-of-plastic” metric has been much more favorable than anticipated, even when adjusting for the additional plastic needed for garbage bags (which tend to be quite thin). The old system was better, I still contend (cf. the older texts), but the specific “uses-per-quantity-of-plastic” argument is weakened by my experiences during these 20 months.

*Putting various papers and cartoons in a paper bag and putting the entire bag in the recycling is easier than filling and then emptying a plastic bag.

A complication that I have overlooked is the potential need to wash the bag (cf. below), which I have so far only done once, after some yoghurt leaked into the bag. It might be that this is unwise and/or that keeping proper hygiene might shorten the life-span of a bag below the life-span of my current bag, which would worsen the “uses-per-quantity-of-plastic” metric and/or add time, effort, and a negative environmental effect through washing.

(As a minor secondary update: To the best of my recollection, I have not been inside a Netto store since writing [3], where I say “Considering various other issues (cf. excursion), I will stay away from Netto indefinitely.”.)

On to selected quotes from and comments on the new encounters, most by one John Tierney:*

*In all cases, I stress that I do not vouch for the correctness of claims made. Some formatting might have been lost or altered through copy-and-paste or for technical reasons.

  1. On Second Thought, Just Throw Plastic Away:

    Even Greenpeace has finally acknowledged the truth: recycling plastic makes no sense.

    The Greenpeace report offers a wealth of statistics and an admirably succinct diagnosis: “Mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste has largely failed and will always fail because plastic waste is: (1) extremely difficult to collect, (2) virtually impossible to sort for recycling, (3) environmentally harmful to reprocess, (4) often made of and contaminated by toxic materials, and (5) not economical to recycle.” Greenpeace could have added a sixth reason: forcing people to sort and rinse their plastic garbage is a waste of everyone’s time. But then, making life more pleasant for humans has never been high on the green agenda.

    This might seem as a strong argument to avoid plastic, to begin with, but there are also factors like energy efficiency to consider. Cf. other parts of these articles. Moreover, 2–5 in the Greenpeace report are things that have a fair chance of being resolved with future technology. (The author’s case is not against plastic but recycling of plastics.)

    In New York City, recycling a ton of plastic costs at least six times more than sending it to a landfill, according to a 2020 Manhattan Institute study, which estimated that the city could save $340 million annually by sending all its trash to landfills.

    I am not enthusiastic about landfills, myself, and would like to see more information about the environmental impact and whatnot. I am certainly open to the possibility that it is better to pay more to keep a cleaner environment. However, as a counterpoint, the aforementioned 2–5 and improvements might, as with nuclear waste, make this a temporary storage solution with a happy ending, even should short-term problems exist.

    Virtually all the consumer plastics polluting the world’s oceans comes from “mismanaged waste” in developing countries. There’d be less plastic polluting the seas if Americans tossed their yogurt containers and water bottles into the trash, so that the plastic could be safely buried at the nearest landfill.

    As I have noted in the past, much of the ocean problem is a matter of incorrect treatment of, e.g., plastics—not of plastics per se.

    Banning single-use plastic grocery bags has added carbon to the atmosphere by forcing shoppers to use heavier paper bags and tote bags that require much more energy to manufacture and transport. The paper and cotton bags also take up more space in landfills and produce more greenhouse emissions as they decompose. The tote bags aren’t reused nearly often enough to offset their initial carbon footprint, and they’re breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses because they’re rarely washed properly.

    More indications that the switch from “single-use” (but, really, easily multiple use) plastic bags to other forms was a bad idea.

    Environmentalists’ zeal to ban plastic is far more destructive than their former passion to recycle it; it’s also harder to explain. […] Why ban products that are cheaper, sturdier, lighter, cleaner, healthier, and better for the environment? One reason: the plastic scare helps Greenpeace activists raise money and keep their jobs. Environmentalists need something to replace their failed recycling campaign.

    This fits well with how much of the world of politics and the Left works, especially with regard to the environment. Also note older texts on noble causes and noble distractions.

  2. Greening Our Way to Infection:

    The Covid-19 outbreak is giving new meaning to those “sustainable” shopping bags that politicians and environmentalists have been so eager to impose on the public. These reusable tote bags can sustain the Covid-19 and flu viruses—and spread the viruses throughout the store.

    This (and most of the below) is a longer version of an above paragraph, but is interesting in as far as COVID trumps other concerns—even concerns that seemed beyond trumping before COVID. (The fact that both COVID and many of the environmental concerns are misguided, and that the methods use to “solve” a problem often do more harm than good, makes the matter the more interesting.)

    Researchers have been warning for years about the risks of these bags spreading deadly viral and bacterial diseases, but public officials have ignored their concerns, determined to eliminate single-use bags and other plastic products despite their obvious advantages in reducing the spread of pathogens. […]

    Another example of the failure to perform e.g. cost–benefit analyses and to weigh advantages and disadvantages against each other.

    The Covid-19 virus is just one of many pathogens that shoppers can spread unless they wash the bags regularly, which few people bother to do. Viruses and bacteria can survive in the tote bags up to nine days, according to one study of coronaviruses.

    In a 2012 study, researchers analyzed the effects of San Francisco’s ban on single-use plastic grocery bags […] [researchers] reported a 25 percent increase in bacteria-related illnesses and deaths in San Francisco relative to the other counties.

    The [New York Department of Health] advises grocery shoppers to segregate different foods in different bags; to package meat and fish and poultry in small disposable plastic bags inside their tote bags; to wash and dry their tote bags carefully; to store the tote bags in a cool, dry place; and never to reuse the grocery tote bags for anything but food.

    So, in order to use the re-usable bags properly, we still need disposable bags? Then we have the massive manual effort involved, which is an example of another very common phenomenon—time spent, especially customer/citizen time spent, is not considered in cost–benefit analyses (if they take place at all). Indeed, it is often the case that time spent exceeds the other costs in a fair calculation, and certainly the extra effort involved here will vastly exceed both the price of a re-usable bag and of repeated “single-use” bags. (A text on disrespect for the time of others is in my backlog, but I do not know when I will get around to it. I have touched on the topic in the past, e.g. concerning delivery services.)

  3. Let’s Hold On to the Throwaway Society

    For half a century, it’s been a term of disdain: the “throwaway society,” uttered with disgust by the environmentally enlightened. But now that their reusable tote bags are taboo at grocery stores and Starbucks is refusing to refill their ceramic mugs, they’ve had to face some unpleasant realities. Disposable products aren’t merely more convenient than the alternative; they’re also safer, particularly during a pandemic but also at any other time. And they have other virtues: the throwaway society is healthier, cleaner, more economical, less wasteful, less environmentally damaging—and yes, more “sustainable” than the green vision of utopia.

    These are not new truths, even if it took the Covid-19 pandemic to reveal them again. The throwaway age began because of public-health campaigns a century ago to control the spread of pathogens. Disposable products were celebrated for decades for promoting hygiene and saving everyone time and money. It wasn’t until the 1970s that they became symbols of decadent excess, and then only because of economic and ecological fallacies repeated so often that they became conventional wisdom.

    (The rest of the article is mostly an expansion on this, including some historical background.)

    This is a very interesting perspective, although the forced restrictions through COVID are not something that I recognize from Germany.

    To look more in detail at forever- vs. single-use products and factors like “saving everyone time and money”, one of the main errors that e.g. the “death to plastic bags” movement has made is to assume that a single-use or just several-uses product is automatically* less environmentally friendly than other products. I have used plenty of alleged single-use products myself, like paper tellers, which are excellent for e.g. carrying a few pieces of bread on, and which can be used for several weeks (!) each for such purposes.** Compare this with habits that I have seen with others: take a porcelain teller from a cupboard, put the bread on it, eat the bread, put the teller in the dish-washer, and (at some later time, post-washing) put the teller back in the cupboard. My paper teller, in contrast, only goes back and forth between a counter and where ever I bring it, until, these several weeks later, it goes into the trash. Who comes out ahead environmentally? Who fares better on costs? Who has less effort? I suspect that I do on all counts. Then we have factors like what happens if a paper resp. porcelain teller is dropped on the floor.

    *It might or might not be, on closer inspection. The problem is the automatic and unreflecting conclusion, including the common failure to consider the possibility of multiple uses and to stubbornly count costs based on that single use.

    **In all fairness, this approach is a lot easier for someone living alone, but a very large proportion of the modern Western population does.

    As to costs and environmental impact, I first heard the, then unexpected to me, claim that even true single-use cups (?) were environmentally superior to ceramic machine-washed ones around 1990. The idea is not new. (But there is no guarantee that the same calculation holds today, as technology has improved on both sides of the comparison. I do not remember whether a comparison with hand-washing took place.)

  4. The Perverse Panic over Plastic

    Why do our political leaders want to take away our plastic bags and straws? This question is even more puzzling than a related one that I’ve been studying for decades: Why do they want us to recycle our garbage?

    The two obsessions have some common roots, but the moral panic over plastic is especially perverse. The recycling movement had a superficial logic, at least at the outset. Municipal officials expected to save money by recycling trash instead of burying or burning it. Now that recycling has turned out to be ruinously expensive while achieving little or no environmental benefit, some local officials—the pragmatic ones, anyway—are once again sending trash straight to landfills and incinerators.

    To add some own experiences/observations:

    One of my first contacts (late 1980s or early 1990s) with recycling was an article about a bright new future where machines would take our trash, sort it into various categories, recycle what could be recycled, and proceed sensibly with the remainder. Even in today’s Germany, thirty or more years later, the actual processes are based on a primary manual sorting by the consumers, which increases effort, requires more bags and garbage receptacles, etc.* Even so, about half of the allegedly to-be-recycled materials (glass and the like aside) are actually just burnt, for cost reasons, making most of the effort a waste of time (and a waste of waste).

    *A secondary sorting might take place by machine at a later stage, but not in a manner that reduces the existing burden on the consumers or avoids the extra costs through having multiple types of garbage containers, needing multiple bags, and whatnot.

    Another early contact was at Swedish McDonald’s, where everything should be separated according to type of garbage. We customers did, but for nothing: according to a newspaper article, a few months after the introduction of this system, the sorted garbage would be immediately thrown together into one category by the garbage company… In other words, there was a three-fold effect: more effort for the customers, more costs for the customers to pay for new receptacles and whatnot, and an image improvement for McDonald’s as “environmentally friendly”. Any actual effect on the environment is likely to have been negligible or, due to the pointless overheads, very slightly negative. (Whether McDonald’s or the garbage company was ultimately too blame, I leave unstated.)

    (The article continues with the history of the anti-plastic movement and its dubious and changing justifications, etc.)

    Like the recycling movement, the plastic panic has been sustained by popular misconceptions. Environmentalists and their champions in the media have ignored, skewed, and fabricated facts to create several pervasive myths.

    Your plastic straws and grocery bags are polluting the planet and killing marine animals. The growing amount of plastic debris in the seas is a genuine problem, but it’s not caused by our “throwaway society.” Environmental groups cite a statistic that 80 percent of the plastic debris in the oceans comes from land-based sources, but good evidence has never supported that estimate, and recent research paints a different picture.

    […] more than half the plastic came from fishing boats—mostly discarded nets and other gear. These discards are also the greatest threat to marine animals, who die not from plastic bags but from getting entangled in the nets. […] More than 80 percent of the bottles came from China and must have been tossed off boats from Asia traversing the Atlantic.

    (With further discussion and examples.)

    Here we see yet another example of how environmentalists and/or Leftists engage in distortions,* of how decisions by politicians are based on poor reasons and lack in cost-effectiveness, and of how Noble Causes and Distractions abound.

    *The overlap between the two groups is, of course, very large.

    Single-use plastic bags are the worst environmental choice at the supermarket. Wrong: they’re the best choice. These high-density polyethylene bags are a marvel of economic, engineering, and environmental efficiency: cheap and convenient, waterproof, strong enough to hold groceries but so thin and light that they require scant energy, water, or other natural resources to manufacture and transport. Though they’re called single-use, surveys show that most people reuse them, typically as trash-can liners.

    […]

    Every other grocery bag has a bigger environmental impact, as repeatedly demonstrated by environmental life-cycle analyses of the bags and by surveys of consumer behavior. […] To compensate for that bigger initial footprint of a paper bag, according to the United Kingdom’s environmental agency, you’d have to reuse it at least four times, which virtually no one does. […]

    (With more on tote bags, etc.)

    This is the money section from my point of view—that abandoning these plastic bags might have been a grave mistake, even from an environmental point of view. (Never mind the additional costs and efforts for the consumers.)

    […] when consumers are deprived of the bags they were using as bin liners, they start buying plastic substitutes that are thicker than the banned grocery bags—and thus have a bigger carbon footprint.

    Here there might or might not be a difference to Germany, but my replacement bin liners and whatnots are considerably thinner than the old grocery bags. (This also raises some concerns that other parts of the discussion does not apply in full to Germany.)

    If our goals are to reduce carbon emissions and plastic pollution, we can take some obvious steps. Stop forcing consumers to use [presumably, the new types of] grocery bags and other products that increase emissions. Stop exporting plastic waste to countries that allow it to leak into the ocean. Help those countries establish modern systems for collecting and processing their own plastic waste. Send plastic waste straight to landfills and incinerators. Step up the enforcement of laws and treaties that restrict nations from polluting the ocean and that prohibit mariners from littering the seas.

    Hear, hear.

    (The article continues with other ideas from politicians and environmentalists and why these are misguided, methods of environmentalists, etc. For reasons of time, I will not discuss the, still long, remainder.)

  5. Customers are stealing shopping baskets instead of buying bags, N.J. supermarkets say

    Shortly after New Jersey enacted a strict plastic bag ban three months ago,* employees at the Aberdeen ShopRite noticed something unusual — the store’s handheld plastic shopping baskets were vanishing.

    They soon realized brazen shoppers who didn’t bring their own bags and didn’t want to buy 33-cent** reusable bags were simply leaving the store with their groceries stuffed in the shopping baskets.

    *The article is “Published: Aug. 05, 2022, 7:31 a.m.”.

    **This is an interesting difference in price levels. In Germany, before abolishment, even the allegedly single-use bags went for around 20 (Euro-)cent, while the reusable ones are usually above one Euro. This might be a sign that German stores were more into ripping customers off to begin with, but might also be another indication that bags in different countries are not entirely comparable. (Pre-ban, free bags were often available, and these tended to be thinner, but they had not been available in specifically grocery stores for many years prior to the ban.)

    ShopRite isn’t the only grocer dealing with the thefts.

    An employee at the Midland Park Acme in Bergen County said her store didn’t have any shopping baskets in stock this week because people were taking them. When asked if baskets were available at an Acme in Woodbury in Gloucester County, an employee said “right now, no, because everybody steals them.”

    Over at the Bloomfield Stop and Shop, assistant manager Dan Adams said the Essex County store’s baskets have consistently been stolen since the store eliminated free plastic bags.

    Here we see a massive unintended consequence, which will (a) decrease shopping comfort and/or drive up costs*, (b) likely easily outweigh the intended environmental gains from removing bags—compare the amount of plastic in a bag with that in a shopping basket, consider the energy requirements, etc. In a next step, the question is what the long-term consequences will be and what effects this will have. Say, for instance, that a long-term switch is made to metal baskets, which are heavier and less attractive to carry home, but also less comfortable for shopping and might be worse than plastic in terms of environmental effects. (I am not aware of a similar issue in Germany, but this might relate to the great dominance of shopping carts over shopping baskets.)

    *Further than already is the case. Also note that these costs come at a time of already high inflation and when many stores are already hurt by the COVID-countermeasure era.

    We also see the danger of the typical everything-at-once (everyone-, everywhere-) approach of politicians. They want something done and they decree that it shall be done in one fell swoop, which makes it harder to catch side-effects in time, to adapt to side-effects, to see what actually works and what not, etc. A business might run a pilot project, see what happens, and then make adjustments and/or decide on whether to proceed on a larger scale. The government? Just pushes it through and expects everything to work as intended in a first attempt. (In all fairness, there is often a lengthy and expensive committee phase before that, but whether that does more good than harm is debatable.)

  6. The Declining Case for Municipal Recycling

    (Note: I limit myself to parts of the executive summary. The remainder is recommended, however.)

    […]Recycling has long been considered environmentally and financially beneficial. The materials would be reprocessed and used as newsprint, bottles, or cans, while the markets for such materials would make it possible to cover the costs of collection and reprocessing, or even to realize income. Even in periods of slack demand, the cost to dispose of recyclables was lower than that of mixed garbage—allowing cities to reap an economic benefit by paying less to get rid of some of their trash.

    This mostly to set the stage; however, I am far from certain that the claims hold true, when we look at somewhat generic garbage: that e.g. glass bottles can be profitably recycled seems plausible, but is this a representative case? A potential issue could be diminishing returns, that some recycling was profitable but that more was not.

    (In an interesting potential parallel, I once heard someone lament how paper recycling had changed for businesses: In the early days, they were paid to hand over their used paper; then payments ceased, but at least the used paper was collected free-of-charge; today, they have to pay for the collection.)

    This apparent win-win situation has changed dramatically. China, which was importing several billion dollars’ worth of U.S. recyclables in 2017, announced a new policy, Operation National Sword, under which it would no longer permit the import of what it called “foreign trash.” The government stopped taking in other nations’ garbage partly because much of the material was not recyclable, and this was partly because of contamination. […] As a result, much of the garbage that China imported was not recycled and ended up in landfills or incinerated. […]

    Which raises the question: What changed? Is today’s garbage worse than yesterday’s? (Unlikely.) Did the profitability within China change? (Hard for me to judge, but I doubt it.) Did the Chinese originally overestimate the profitability, which in turn led them to accept too much garbage and made recycling seem more profitable in the West than it actually was? (More likely.)

    (Of course, yet other explanations might exist, say, that the Chinese had some hidden agenda, which is now off the table.)

    Since then, newspapers and other materials that municipal sanitation departments (or private firms) had picked up from city residents, who had dutifully sorted the materials and placed them in blue boxes, have increasingly piled up in warehouses or have been sent to landfills.

    Here we again see the issue that manual effort, pushed onto the residents, is wasted.

    Meanwhile, the economics of municipal recycling has been turned upside down. Those city departments responsible for trash pickup now incur significant costs, over and above what they would have to pay in the absence of recycling.

    As a counterpoint, the purpose of recycling is not necessarily to be profitable. An actual environmental benefit, should one exist, might be worth some extra cost.

    This paper examines the financial impact of separately collecting waste materials for recycling in five jurisdictions: […] It finds that the cost-benefit trade-off is unfavorable and that suspending or adjusting recycling services could lead to significant budget savings. These savings are particularly relevant in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is expected to reduce tax revenues and lead to pressure to reduce public services.*

    *The paper is dated “June 23, 2020”, at a comparatively early stage of the pandemic, and work presumably started well before that date.

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 28, 2022 at 9:33 am

Servants in charge

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A recurring problem is that those supposed to perform work on behalf of someone else, after a sufficiently long time, end up being in charge of that someone else and/or that the authority vested in them takes on its on life and wanders from the vester to the vestee.

Consider a “democratic” state developing into one of the modern “we the politicians” (or, worse, “we the civil servants”) instead of the “we the people” that once was intended, or a true monarchy developing into a pro-forma monarchy with all power resting with the erstwhile advisors and executors.* Consider the shift of power from elected politicians to bureaucracies and government agencies. Consider how mere administrators often end up being those in charge, as with e.g. the typical college or university, or within many businesses or individual departments and teams within a business.** Consider staff at an old-people’s home behaving like they are in charge of the residents instead of being “the help”. Etc.

*Whether this development is a bad thing in the case of a monarchy is open to debate, and might well depend on the individuals involved at any given time, but it does fit the general pattern of gradually shifting power very well. (Also note some of the below and an excursion on etymology.)

**Here, unfortunately, the swing is so large that it is often taken for granted that the administrator is supposed to be in charge, and where a degree in e.g. business administration might be worth more than one relating to the field at hand for the chances of being put in charge.

To get some idea, even if in a highly over-simplified manner, assume that someone is given the authority in an office to make schedules, handle vacation requests, etc. These are basic tasks of coordination that do not require “true” decision making around how the business is conducted externally (e.g. with whom a contract is made on what conditions) or internally (e.g., for a software business, what features should be implemented and how). However, these tasks still bring some degree of decision-making power, increase the chance of meeting invitations and of having easy access to someone of true power, and also give indirect influence, in that the power can be abused to reward or punish. Moreover, an impression can easily arise that this type of administrator is a “somebody”, despite the choice often originally having been made on a “who can we spare from the real work” basis. Let time pass, and chances are that more influence will drift the way of the administrator, e.g. to pre-filter applicants for jobs and to perform performance evaluations—until such a point that the administrator determines that he is the boss. Worse, such situations can often arise when administrative tasks have rested with a “true” decision maker and are now divested to give him more time to focus on his true work.

Something similar applies in politics, with the difference that a greater block of power is usually delegated—but with a critical point still coming when the helper decides that he is the one in charge. Consider e.g. the drift from monarchs as active rulers with mere helpers to, first, monarchs as passive rulers (still with the final word, but only involving themselves in rare circumstances) with ministers-of-this and lords-of-that to handle most of the actual ruling, and to, second, figureheads subordinate to the erstwhile helpers. Similarly, consider many situations from “Yes, Minister” where it is clear that “Sir Humphrey”, the civil servant, sees himself as in charge and “Jim Hacker”, the elected politician, as a mere unfortunate obstacle to work around. (Of course, neither cared that much for the will and the weal of the voters.)

A particularly perfidious case is when the influence of the individual is lost through an intermediary layer, as with a typical democracy, as with a share-holders’ meeting, or as with an organisation like the local PTA, home-owners association, or similar. Looking e.g. at my own situation with building management (BM) and Wohnungseigentümergemeinschaft* (WEG), which forms an excellent analogy for how democracy fails on a country level: The presence of the WEG makes each individual apartment owner powerless against the BM (which, in my case, happens to be incompetent and/or corrupt): the BM formally works for the WEG and is paid by the WEG, while we owners are members of the WEG and pay a monthly fee to the WEG. If I am dissatisfied, I cannot fire the BM, not even with regard to just my own apartment. I cannot shorten the monthly payments, because I nominally pay to the WEG, not the BM. I cannot, without considerable effort, lobby within the group, because there are no mailing lists, most members do not themselves live in the building,** and the yearly meeting is controlled by the BM, which invites, sets the agenda,*** chairs, and, very importantly, determines the location**** of the meeting. Then there is the issue that many owners do not bother to show up to the yearly meeting, at all, and merely give a signed power-of-attorney and some instructions to the BM… Of course, the BM also controls what information is given to the owners when it comes to voting and can angle the information so that the de-facto decision by the BM becomes the de-jure decision of the WEG. If in doubt, most of the other owners have so far appeared to be intellectually limited, poorly informed, and easily led by the BM—the BM sees the duty of the WEG as rubber-stamping BM decisions and too many of the owners appear to agree. For all practical purposes, the hired help, the BM, is in charge, while we owners are next to powerless. The similarity with the often highly un- or anti-democratic system used to rule a typical nominal democracy is almost spooky. On the upside, the BM has hitherto never tried to allow non-owners a vote; on the downside, there is no choice between different BM-candidates every few years, which makes it all that harder to replace a poor BM with another.

*Roughly, “apartment owner association”. All the owners of apartments in the house are members and it is nominally the decision making entity for the house.

**Instead, renting to others.

***This includes one-sidedly ignoring several suggestions made by me, which were thus never on the agenda and never put to a vote by the nominal decision maker, the WEG.

****No, the meeting is not held in the house, nor in the vicinity of the house, but, and likely deliberately, quite far away. The last time around, about an hour ahead of the meeting, I checked for the best way to get to the latest location—and found that it would take me around that hour, with a mixture of walking, train, and bus. In effect, I had the choice between missing the meeting and grabbing a taxi. (I chose the former. I grant that I should have checked this sooner, but it never occurred to me that such a ridiculous distance was on the table, even after prior years.)

Excursion on monarchy to democracy shifts:
The situation is often complicated by a shift from some form of monarchy to some form of democracy, often (as with some current European countries) leading to a half-and-half situation with a monarch as head of state and an elected (or “elected”) politician as head of government. Here, no-one might care about the monarch (in terms of politics) because the source of power is the people, and too few care about the people as the politicians and the civil servants were in charge long before the people became relevant.

Excursion on “nominal” and “nominally”:
Have I used these words often above? Not as often as they deserve to. The core of the overall problem is that X should be in charge but that Y is, and often in exactly the constellation that X holds the nominal power but the true power resides with Y. Indeed, in e.g. the previous excursion, I had to hold myself back not to say “nominal[ly]” once or twice per sentence.

Excursion on etymology and drifts over time:
Etymology can give many clues to things going wrong. The word “minister”, e.g., effectively means servant, while “administrator” goes back to the same root. In parallel, “secretary” is etymologically related to “secret” and likely implied someone within confidence, but has since often been used even for very powerful persons, including as an equivalent of “minister” in the governmental sense.* The root of “chancellor” goes back to something like a door-keeper. A marshal once took care of horses. Etc.

*While the old use as roughly “assistant” is disappearing, with exactly “assistant” taking its place. Even in the past, however, secretaries could be immensely powerful by granting or not granting access to the person assisted, by whispering the right things in his ear, etc.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 17, 2022 at 11:23 pm

The illusion of non-choice / Follow-up: The illusion of choice

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One of my many backlog items is a text that partially reverses The illusion of choice ([1]), namely a discussion of how some entities claim that they do not have a choice when they either do or when the non-choice has arisen through own manipulations. For reasons of time, I will just give a few examples and then drop the backlog item:

Many examples arise from government regulations or requirements on businesses. These sometimes* “force” a business to do something that is in the business’s best interest to begin with, often because of extensive consultations with or covert lobbying by business representatives. Consider, e.g., laws that ban free bags at grocery store check-outs. The grocery stores can now collect more money from the customers and/or reduce the overhead for providing bags, while blaming the government in order to avoid a loss of goodwill with the same customers.

*More often, I suspect, they are driven by ideology, voter manipulation, ignorance, or other harmful-to-the-business factors. Sometimes, of course, there are valid reasons and a societal/customer benefit.

A less obvious, but very similar, example is the introduction of new restrictions on e.g. cars for reasons like traffic safety and pollution, or refrigerators for reasons of energy efficiency. Yes, this usually makes the products more expensive to produce. However: Firstly, by not giving low-end producers the option of foregoing a voluntary product improvement in favor of a lower price, mid- and high-end producers have it easier. Ditto businesses with greater R-and-D investments/success versus businesses with lesser such. Secondly, as the government is blamed, customers will be somewhat willing to accept a corresponding price increase. Moreover, markup is usually a percentage of the price, meaning that more expensive products give a higher profit-per-unit and chances are that a disproportionate price increase can be passed off as “caused” by the new regulations, as the customers are not aware of the actual increase in production costs. Thirdly, chances are that the new regulations will shorten the life-cycle of already sold products, e.g. because customers feel the need to upgrade to be safe or environmentally friendly. Absent a grandfather rule, there might even be a legal mandate to upgrade well before the natural end-of-life of the already sold product.

(When it comes to the environment, even an official government intervention might not be needed, as a business can claim e.g. that “the climate crisis forces our hands”.)

However, examples exist in many other areas, as with a government who wants to push some unpopular-with-the-people policy, but fears the loss of votes. No problem! The EU, the UN, or whatever might apply, “forced” us do it (after we lobbied them to do so/voted in agreement). Or consider an individual who uses work as an excuse to avoid unpleasant family-related activities and vice versa. (“Sorry, honey, I have to work late tonight.” / “I would love to help, boss, but I promised my wife that X.”)

Excursion on electric cars:
Electric cars are a particularly interesting example, with the reservation that their effects on the car industry have been very varied from producer to producer: They are typically massively more expensive than corresponding “internal combustion” cars, which allows the industry to shift the price range of cars correspondingly far upwards, while, again, blaming the government or the climate. (Such attempts to shift the price range and/or get rid of products that have too low margins are comparatively common. I have another backlog entry on the topic, but, for now, just consider attempts to shift coffee consumption from drip-brews to capsule systems of various kinds, which come with a higher or much higher markup than drip-brews.)

Excursion on the Sorting Hat:
Looking back at the beginning of [1], is the Sorting Hat an example? Not normally, as the misinterpretation by the children is of a very different nature than the misrepresentations above. However, if someone were to argue, e.g., “I am cool, and I really wanted to join Gryffindor! It is not my fault that the stupid Hat put me in Ravenclaw with all the nerds!”, then it would be an example. (Assuming that my interpretation is correct and that the choice of Ravenclaw ultimately reflected the true wish of the child.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 29, 2022 at 1:35 am

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Germany not free from COVID-restrictions, after all / Follow-up: More on my current situation (and complaints about politicians)

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A month ago, I wrote:

Yesterday, I read that Germany was finally caving and beginning to lift its destructive and scientifically unfounded restrictions of various kinds. This with the likely additional implication (knock on wood; there was no explicit mention) that the threatened forced vaccinations would be off the table for the time being.

Come Sunday (20th March), in a mere two days, things should have been almost back to normal, after a prolonged phase-out. This appears to not be the case anymore, as the individual states/Bundesländer have the option to use stricter guidelines—and have often chosen to do so. This includes, unfortunately, the state, NRW, in which I live. (And, as always, there is no direct information to the citizens, who have to search for information about what applies or does not apply at any given time.)

As I wrote close to a year ago:

[…] if the [German] federation does not screw something up, count on the Bundesländer to do so; if the Bundesländer do not, count on the municipalities.

To make matters worse, forced vaccinations are still on the table and currently under debate in the German parliament—this despite the current state of scientific knowledge and despite even Austria having backed off. The matter is further complicated/made the more absurd by a timeline that puts the beginning of these vaccinations (in my understanding and should they be decided) at some point in the autumn, when we might have a completely different situation in terms of COVID, vaccines, and/or knowledge of COVID and vaccines.

I am, in fact, contemplating outright leaving Germany, my home for close to 25 years—and have had this contemplation on and off for a long time. The problem? Where should I go? Too many of the obvious candidates in Western Europe and North America have proved themselves highly problematic too. Eastern Europe might be an option, but I do not know the languages and there are a great many uncertainties involved, which might require months of research. (The same applies to most of the non-Western world, while Australia and New Zealand, if anything, appear to be worse than Germany.) Back to Sweden? Maybe; however, while it has handled COVID much better, we still have the extreme dominance of PC and Feminist politics and propaganda.

Nevertheless, Germany has again and again, even before COVID, proven it self to not be a Rechtsstaat and its standing even as a democracy is extremely weak. Moreover, year by year, it has gone further and further towards the Left, forcing me to repeat my observation that today’s Germany has more in common with the DDR of the 1980s than with the BRD of that era. And to imagine that I once left Sweden partially to get away from the Left-dominated politics … Germany, at least, has the advantage that the Left is still tilted a bit more towards the “old” Left (compared to e.g. Sweden)—but how long will that last with the current trends?

(The old Left might be economically naive, entrenched in class thinking and the class-over-the-individual attitude, whatnot; however, the new Left is just insanity from beginning to end.)

The simple truth is that the world is in need of a Great Reset—in very dire need. The Great Reset actually being pushed by the likes of Klaus Schwab, however, is in many ways the exact opposite of what is needed, a taking of old misdevelopments and pushing them yet a few steps further, when a proper reset would push them back.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 18, 2022 at 7:35 pm

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Follow-up II: Pinning the tail to the COVID-19 donkey

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As I wrote last week ([1]), the German government has been jumping back-and-forth on the topic of an Easter ease-up, clamp-down, or business-as-usual (by the COVID standards).

It appeared that the last bid had been “business as usual”, but, as I learned a few days later,* this was not the case. The individual German Bundesländer (“states”), to some degree individual municipalities**, are allowed to set their own rules, within some limits, and it appears that they are doing so. In the case of Wuppertal, where I live, I have been unable to find a reasonable description of the exact rules that will apply, but it appears that stores may only be visited after a “rapid test” (“Schnelltest”) during the Easter days. I am taking the safe course and treating the situation as a five-day*** everything-will-be-closed. Correspondingly, despite having been grocery shopping yesterday, I went again today to load up a little.

*I had not originally looked into the details, but merely noted the repeated pin-the-tail attitude.

**With reservations for what exact word applies.

***There appears to be some unclarity over the time spam, but my impression is that the Sunday (everything closed anyway) and the two holidays (everything closed anyway) are complemented by restrictions for both tomorrow/April 1st (ha!) and Saturday (April 3rd).

Here we have two issues: Firstly, does it really matter from a COVID-POV whether I went to the store today or whether I had done so on Saturday (as originally planned)? I doubt it. Secondly, quite a few other people seemed to have had the same idea, making the store unusually full for the time of day (and likely to grew much worse as the day progresses). Considering the governmental obsession with keeping distance, would this not make matters worse from a governmental perspective than if the store visits had been spread over several days? It would not surprise me.

The bigger picture also raises at least two other issues:

Firstly, federalism and subsidiarity. Normally, I am in favor of this more often than not; however, here we see it backfire. One of the most important points behind these principles is to protect the citizens (and other entities, including individual states and municipalities) from too arbitrary, too undiscriminating, too self-serving, whatnot decisions “from above”. If we look at the U.S. and the COVID approach of e.g. Texas and Florida, we see how this can work well.* In Germany, however, there appears to only be two approaches—hard lockdowns and harder lockdowns. Here subsidiarity does not serve to protect the citizens from the federation but to screw them over even when the federation does not. (While I have not looked into the details on other issues, my general impression is similar: if the federation does not screw something up, count on the Bundesländer to do so; if the Bundesländer do not, count on the municipalities.)

*Generally, my fears of the complete corruption of the U.S. in the wake of Biden have been slightly reduced in light of my growing awareness of the power remaining with the individual states and that the GOP might have fared better on the local level than on the federal level. (Nevertheless, the picture is very, very bleak. By the next federal elections in 2022, the damage will be absolutely horrifying, if things continue down the current path—even COVID aside.)

Unfortunately, I have no good solution to offer that would also preserve the positive aspects of federalism and subsidiarity, but a general principle might be that a “lower” entity may only ever weaken restrictions and regulations, reduce taxes, and whatnot compared to what a “higher” entity suggests. (Possibly, with some exemptions for extraordinary circumstances, say a local natural disaster or local riots.)

Secondly, communication: It absolutely, positively, must be mandatory that the involved entities communicate various rules in an explicit, clear, and timely* manner. This, notably, not restricted to COVID but in general. For instance, I have had massive problems, because my (now de-installed) gas heater was subject to various obscure, counter-intuitive, internationally unusual laws and regulations, spread over several different texts, none of which I had even encountered during my twenty-something years in Germany—until a belligerent and incompetent piece-of-shit of a chimney-sweep sics the authorities on me.** Given these laws, even discounting that they are unreasonable to begin with, it should have been the governments responsibility to inform me that I had to pay attention to certain regulations—which would have been trivial in light of both the heater being on registry and my purchase of the apartment being registered. Given the extreme size and complexity of current laws, and how often they go against common sense and/or vary drastically from place to place, the principle of ignorantia juris non excusat simply is neither conscionable nor compatible with Rechtsstaatlichkeit when the government has not actively informed the citizens or when the need for citizen to inform himself is obvious.

*To the degree that the situation allows. That e.g. an explosion in the infection rates can force a short-term measure is understandable, but this is not the case here where politicians have just been pinning-the-tail, and often concurrently.

**I will not go into details of the overall situation, but as a for instance: portions of the regulations are buried in the “Schornsteinfeger-Handwerksgesetz” (“chimney-sweep trade law”). That a regular citizen would even contemplate investigating what appears to be regulations strictly for the chimney-sweep trade is highly unlikely. Would you bother to read a “dog-groomer trade law” in order to find out e.g. whether pets must be spayed and neutered? Hardly. Would you even be aware that one existed? I doubt it. (That there is a “chimney-sweep trade law”, at all, might be seen as proof of over-regulation, even if the justification is larger than for dog grooming.)

As a minor correction to [1], it appears that Merkel’s back-tracking was only partially caused by the public outcry. Another part came from a business outcry, a “we simply cannot reasonably shutdown with such short warning”. This is certainly a legitimate concern, but one that should have been obvious to the government and one which I assumed had been taking into consideration, e.g. through discussing this with relevant business organizations. Apparently, this was not the case, and that makes the approach the more amateurish. To take just one example from my own professional experiences: In my last project, the topic of bank holidays was important, e.g. to calculate payout dates, often a week or more in advance. Assume that such a date is calculated and communicated today, and arrangements are made for payouts and book-keeping, based on a certain set of bank holidays, possibly spanning several countries. Assume next that tomorrow someone adds a new holiday, retroactively making these dates incorrect. Now, how are we going to resolve this? Without massive additional effort and chain-reactions affecting other businesses, the best bet might be to just send apologies (“due to circumstances outside our control, blah blah”) and hope that no-one is sufficiently dissatisfied as to sue, shorten payments, or jump to another provider.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 31, 2021 at 12:36 pm

Follow-up: Pinning the tail to the COVID-19 donkey

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I have repeatedly compared government policy regarding COVID to pinning-the-tail, most notably in [1]. This especially regarding my local German situation.

This includes a statement that I considered hyperbole at the time:

Grab a pin-board. Pin notes with possible counter-measures on the board. Put on a blindfold. Throw darts at the board. See what counter-measures were hit. There we have this weeks policy. Next week? Who knows.

Today, I am wondering whether it actually was that hyperbolic: A few weeks ago, there was considerable talk of easing up on the restrictions over Easter, to allow this special-to-many occasion to actually take place in a reasonable manner. But, no, suddenly there was a drastic course reversal—the lockdown must be made even harsher than before, lest Easter turn into a major occasion for infections instead of celebrations. Cue public outcry—and suddenly the harsher lockdown is off the table again.

We still have a few days left. I wonder whether Frau Merkel will throw another dart …

Written by michaeleriksson

March 26, 2021 at 2:54 am

Follow-up II: Plastic bags, the environment, and dishonest companies

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To revisit the topic of plastic bags vs. paper bags (cf. at least [1], [2]), especially with an eye on irrational and environmentally counterproductive policies:

For quite some time, most grocery stores have offered only paper bags and/or only sturdy plastic bags intended for multiple use. The chain Netto has been a pleasant exception, offering “regular” plastic bags until quite recently.

Now, these regular plastic bags, the misleadingly called “one-time” or “disposable” bags, have been quite good for multiple use: they fit well in the pocket of a jacket; are sturdy enough to use half-a-dozen to a dozen times;* and when they are too worn out, they can be used for garbage.

*Possibly more, as the limiting factor in my case has been the need for garbage bags …

The intended-for-multiple-use bags are, paradoxically, inferior in this regard: they do last even longer, but are a much worse fit for a pocket and I doubt that they are better on e.g. a uses-per-quantity-of-plastic* basis. Moreover, of the two bags that I have so far tried to use for a prolonged time, one fell out of my pocket and was lost within less than a dozen uses, the other developed a tear within a dozen uses, which grew to the point that I did not dare use the bag within a total of two dozen uses.

*To illustrate the principle: If a regular bag can be used a dozen times and an intended-for-multiple-use bag uses ten times as much plastic, it would take 120 uses to reach the same level.

The paper bags are near useless for repeated use: (a) they do not take folding well; (b) they easily tear, often on first use (and once torn, they are exceptionally weak); (c) a simple rain, and Wuppertal is very rainy, can kill them even on a first use. Moreover, even on a first use, they are sufficiently much weaker than a plastic bag that care must be taken to not load them too heavily and to not have e.g. the corner of a carton in a position to poke a hole. (d) they are less useful for other purposes too, e.g. as garbage bags (vulnerable to moisture, not closeable in the manner of a plastic bag).

Looking at Netto, the first sign of trouble was in January: I visit(ed) Netto almost exclusively for the plastic bags (cf. excursion), typically loading up enough on groceries to justify two bags, which I then used while visiting other stores until the bags were re-purposed as garbage bags, after which I went back for a rare Netto visit, lather-rinse-repeat. My January visit was a disappointment, as no plastic bags were available. I had to resort to a big paper bag, which was highly impractical for repeated use, even if somewhat sturdier than most other paper bags. I was highly annoyed upon discovering the almost taunting presence of ten check-boxes on the bag, where the proud and environmentally friendly owner was supposed to mark off how many times he had used this unsuitable-for-multiple-use paper bag! Not only was this a virtual taunt, but it also displayed a customer despising attitude where the customer is considered an idiot and/or a pathological virtue signaler and/or is to be used to shame other customers into repeated use.

I gave Netto a second chance a little later, and indeed found plastic bags again.

But: Today, I was out of plastic bags again. I went to Netto—and again found only paper bags. I restricted myself to one bag’s worth of groceries, packed up and left. Barely out of the store, the bag tears to such a degree that I had to carry the remains, barely covering my groceries, in my arms. So much for the quasi-prescribed ten uses!

Considering various other issues (cf. excursion), I will stay away from Netto indefinitely.

Now, about pockets: Should it not be obvious that pockets make the regular plastic bags the preferred version? Apart from human stupidity and irrationality as an explanation why this is not the case, there seems to be a wide-spread assumption that grocery store visits are done by car. Certainly, someone traveling by car need be less concerned over what fits or does not fit well into his pockets, what might fit but fall out (cf. above), and similar. But would it not be better to remain with regular plastic bags and discourage car travel instead?

Excursion on the impact of German reductions:
In the time since my last text on the topic, I have encountered claims (but not kept references) that the number of plastic bags ending up in nature from Europe is dwarfed by the African and/or Asian numbers (to some part, because the recycling quota is much higher in Europe). If so, the bans become the more absurd, as the your-plastic-bag-is-polluting-the-oceans argument is weakened considerably, and as the first lesson of optimization is to optimize where the effect is the largest. Moreover, I have encountered claims that, contrary to propaganda, the overall environmental cost is dominated by the pre-purchase effects. If this is true, the emotional manipulation through claims about suffering animals becomes the harder to justify and the use of e.g. paper bags becomes the more disputable as they, in my understanding, have a higher pre-purchase impact on the environment than plastic bags do. As with e.g. the disgraceful attempts to banish nuclear power, even at the cost of increased use of fossil fuels, the environment might then be harmed by the very attempts to protect it.

Excursion on Netto and my reluctance to buy there:
Visiting Netto is often highly annoying, especially through a repeatedly displayed customer-despising attitude. The three most notable issues:

Firstly, advertising statements that go on ad nauseam. Where other stores, gratifyingly, appear to slowly move away from this annoying intrusion, Netto has begun to use them comparatively recently.* Indeed, I have no recollection of them occurring, or occurring more than rarely, before the first COVID-lockdown, about a year ago, when Netto began to blast the customers with ever-repeating, patronizing, and redundant messages that the customers should keep their distance, and so on, and so forth. I suspect that Netto abused the situation to push advertising through the same channel, after the COVID-related messages were phased out. This especially with an eye on the ad nauseam, which applied to the COVID messages and now applies to the advertising: other stores might play a pop song** over the loud speakers, broadcast one or two ads, play a pop song, etc. Netto has a period of silence** followed by an ad, followed by an ad, followed by an ad, followed by an ad, on and on and on for minutes at a time, before the next period of silence begins.

*Reservation: their presence or absence sometimes vary from store to store, even within the same chain. My local impressions need not reflect the German-wide situation.

**Whether pop songs or silence is preferable, I leave unstated, as these songs are often poor or even annoying in their own right. However, with music there is at least a nominal trade similar to the one of most radio stations—we give you music and in return you listen to our advertising.

Secondly, the particularly annoying and patronizing COVID statements. The aforementioned loudspeaker announcements have been largely phased out; however, the store is still plastered with signs, including the absurd message “Heute trägt man Verantwortung”—“Today one wears [or carries] responsibility”. (Presumably, as a failed joke on the wearing of masks.) The view of the customers that shines through is inexcusable, as are the attempts at cheap manipulation, shaming tactics, etc. (In contrast, a legitimate message would have been e.g. “Per city [or whatnot] ordinance, we must enforce the wearing of N95-masks. We ask for your understanding and cooperation.”.

Thirdly, there is usually only a single check-out line open, even during “rush hour”, which leads to a disproportionate risk of queuing, with the associated delays and, I strongly suspect, an increased risk of COVID spread. (Which makes the aforementioned COVID messages even more absurd.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 18, 2021 at 5:12 pm

Another bites the dust

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Almost exactly one year ago (15th vs. 17th of July 2020 resp. 2019), I discovered that my favorite store in all of Düsseldorf had been closed ([1]).

If I had made a list of private “must visit” stores in Düsseldorf before last year’s trip, it would have contained exactly two entries: Stern Verlag (books) and the local Conrad (electronics).

I am in Düsseldorf again, for the same reason (to avoid construction noise), and wanted to visit said Conrad. As you probably have guessed, it too has closed.

Looking up Conrad on German Wikipedia, it appears that there is a total of 20 German stores left (with an additional 9 internationally). Since 2017, no less than 6 (or almost one-in-four) have closed. The Düsseldorf store is the latest, on the 15th of February 2020. I doubt that the COVID restrictions will be helpful for the remaining stores.

On the positive side, there actually are other Conrads left, while Stern Verlag was a single store and likely the second best bookstore in Germany (after Dussmann in Berlin).

Excursion on my current “must visit”:
In my current situation, my list would only have one entry: the largest of the Mayersche, which by default has become Stern Verlag’s successor as best book store. The local Saturn as the largest electronics store is a close call, but fails on the presence of a decent size Saturn and a ditto Media Markt* in Wuppertal (where I live)—there is a major size difference here too, but the Wuppertal Saturn has at least reached a “critical mass”, much unlike the Wuppertal bookstores. (Conrad was smaller, but better priced and with a different product profile.)

*Another electronics chain, perversely under the same ownership as Saturn.

Excursion on cosmic jokes:
Add in that I actually picked* a hotel that is in the next parallel street to the former location, a literal stone’s throw away, and I cannot help suspecting another cosmic joke. Someone up there is having yet another big laugh at my expense …

*Not, admittedly, by design, but I did have a “Hey, its next to Conrad!” moment when I noticed.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 15, 2020 at 10:29 pm

Relativizing problems or doing something about them

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A few words on relativizing problems:

It might seem that too many* complain** about too much that is of relatively low importance. So, you did not receive your DHL delivery? Big deal—my car was stolen!***

*Yours truly included—I do more than my fair share of complaining. This text notwithstanding, I have also often pointed to it in others.

**Note that I am not just concerned with someone shaking his fists at the sky or complaining to a third party at the water cooler, but also, and more importantly, with making complaints to the offending party or, when the situation warrants it, e.g. the police, the press, a “better businesses bureau”, a relevant oversight committee, …

***Fictional example: I have never owned a car. (Or, cf. below, been married. I have, however, had problems with the DHL on virtually every occasion that I have expected a DHL delivery.)

In some cases, complaints can truly be too small to reasonably bother with and/or just be a sign that humans are never satisfied—and some complaints are not justifiable for other reasons.* However, in many, even a problem that might seem small compared to someone else’s might well be worth pursuing.

*Strong candidates for all three variations can often be found in the “social justice” area, a phrase which (today; not necessarily so a hundred years ago) is usually nothing but a code for “equality of outcome”, “I want to have A, B, and C, and I want someone else to pay for them”, “I don’t care how much I got as long as no-one else has more”, or similar.

If nothing else, there is always a bigger fish, which would imply that hardly any problem would ever be worthy of a complaint, if relative size was an all-or-nothing criterion: So, your car was stolen? Big deal—my wife died! Wife? Big deal—that plane crash killed two hundred passengers! Two hundred? Big deal—the Spanish Flu killed millions!

More importantly: if we do not complain about and take actions against the small problems, the small problems will not go away. On the contrary, they are likely to increase and they will feed an attitude that allows bigger problems to flourish. This is especially important with problems involving criminal, dishonest, negligent, or even merely incompetent behavior. For instance, if everyone who has been burned by DHL would refuse to buy from online shops that use DHL for, say, a year after the event, then DHL would be faced with the choice of changing its business practices and losing business. On the other hand, if hardly anyone does, then things will continue in the same manner—if anything, they will grow worse, because DHL executives will be tempted to increase DHL’s profit margin just a little further on the cost of its contractors (implying that they have to cut the already inexcusable service level in response), and then a little further, and then a little further, … Yes: an undelivered package is a triviality compared to a dead wife, let alone the Spanish Flu, but there is still reason to complain and to act.

Or consider the general attitude: For instance, if no-one complains about governmental privacy violations to catch child-pornographers, then chances are that few complain about the same violations against drug dealers or due process violations against child-pornographers. Lather rinse repeat, as privacy violations are extended to greater and greater groups and more and more civic rights are restricted—until such a point that sufficiently many do complain. If the process is slow enough, these violations might grow sufficiently established that the protests do not come in time. The earlier and the louder we complain, the greater the chance that the problem will be kept small.

(Make no mistake: civic rights, Rechtsstaatlichkeit, etc. lose value incredibly fast when exceptions are introduced. For instance, if due process is abolished in the case of rape accusations, then someone attempting to e.g. get rid of a political opponent by framing him will forego the murder/extortion/whatnot charge and go with rape instead. Mission accomplished.)

Similarly, if customers tolerate absurdly poor service from DHL, other businesses in other fields will work under the expectation that customers will tolerate absurdly poor service from them too.

And, yes, with regard to all of DHL, governmental privacy violations, and businesses with poor service, the time to first complain is long come and gone in many or most countries—certainly, in Germany. This makes it the more important to complain loudly today, because the development will be that much harder to stem.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 23, 2020 at 11:49 pm

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German department stores (and COVID-19)

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As a follow-up to an excursion in an earlier text ([1]):

Barmen’s is, obviously, not the only city center that risks severe damage or structural changes due to the COVID-19 counter-measures. A good example is the recent claim that about half of Germany’s department stores might close (cf. a German source [2])).

As historical background, for a large portion of the 20th century, Germany had a flowering department-store business, with a number of large* individual stores and a number of chains. Over time, these consolidated almost entirely into two chains, Karstadt and Kaufhof, which both ended up struggling.

*At least by the standard of the day. While some, like the famous KaDeWe, are large even by today’s standard, others need not have been.

When I moved to Germany, in 1997, this consolidation was already mostly completed, but older names were often still in use. For instance, the big Karstadt store in Frankfurt still carried the “Hertie” name. Since then, I have seen these names disappearing, more and more stores closing, and an endless stream of news about Kaufhof and its poor profitability (including repeated owner changes and almost-bankruptcies*).

*Reminding me of the German saying “totgesagte leben länger” (roughly, “those believed dead live longer”), as it has come back from apparent death more often than Michael Myers.

About a year ago, these two chains began a merger process, which automatically would imply a reduction of business, e.g. to avoid having two large department stores from the same chain in close vicinity to each other.

Now, factor in the damage done by the COVID-19 counter-measures and we have the situation discussed in [2], where about 80 of the remaining 170-or-so stores might close.

Even apart from the drop in the level of competition and the risk that the overall “shopping opportunities” (I know of no good word) are reduced, this is highly unfortunate, because there has been a long drift towards small stores that are almost pointless to visit. For instance, a typical German* mall has just a few decent-size stores and then a barrage of “hole in the wall” stores, often with a strongly overlapping set of products, often differentiated only by what brand or which few brands are offered. (This particularly when it comes to clothes.) Effectively, a customer can take a few steps inside the store, look left and right, and determine that there is nothing to bother with. Alternatively, there is one thing to look at, which in nine cases out of ten turns out to be a waste of time, e.g. because of an excessively high price.

*I suspect that this is not limited to Germany, but my experiences from other countries are much more limited.

With a larger store, the chance of finding something worthwhile are larger, the product and price ranges are wider, it is easier to make price comparisons, …

These problems are artificially made worse, because even the larger stores (department stores included) often sort products by brand instead of e.g. type. Let us say that I want to buy a pair of trousers: in a good store, I would find wherever the dark, somewhat business-like trousers were, go to the right size grouping, and look through the various item with an eye at aspects like looks, price, and quality. In a typical larger store, as is, I have to go to section for brand 1, find the right product type, find the right size grouping, look through it, then go to brand 2, lather-rinse-repeat. In a small store, I would go to the one brand, find the right product type, find the right size grouping, look through the mere handful of candidates, and then make a decision whether to (a) buy from this particular store, (b) go to a different store, hoping to find something better, (c) go to several stores, try to make comparisons, and then go back to the best alternative. No wonder that eCommerce is beating brick-and-mortar …

Of course, in a larger store, ideal or actual, I would also stand a good chance of making several purchases at once: if I need a new pair of trousers, I can also pick up a few shirts. Not so with a smaller store, because it is unlikely that I would find both in the same store. (Sometimes, they are not both present at all in a non-trivial scope; but, even when they are, I am unlikely to find a good match for both in a single store.) In a big department store, I could find not only trousers and shirts but also e.g. a lamp and a few DVDs.

To discuss the reasons behind these developments goes beyond the scope of this text, and would likely require a lot of research, but I do note the push towards shopping-as-an-experience (rather than shopping-to-get-a-needed-product), the increased influence of the individual brands in the trade and the brand obsession of many irrational customers, and a deliberate tactic by at least some stores and/or brands to make comparisons harder, as they know that they would not come off well in these comparisons.

From another angle, chances are that increasing costs of business (notably, rent) in the more attractive city centers has favored high-markup articles, implying e.g. that the generic clothing store has been closed in favor of a Prada store.

This, in turn, could be a contributor to the failure of the department stores, as they have often stuck to a high-markup* strategy, making it unnecessarily expensive to buy there and forcing entire product ranges out. (For instance, many department stores do not sell lamps.) Now, I understand the wish to optimize profitability, but this type of action has often amounted to cutting off the branch one sits on. In particular, from my point of view, the attraction of a department store is rooted in the idea of “everything under one roof”—that I can go to one store and get all my purchases done in one go. This ideal, however, was only weakly adhered to even in 1997—today, not at all. When I do not have “everything under one roof”, when I still have to visit several different stores, and I have to pay a considerable markup for what I do buy, why should I bother? There we have one customer less, less revenue, a need to optimize profitability even further, and the vicious circle continues.

*Notably, department stores often come with a double markup: one for the brand, as highly over-priced brand products are favored, and one for the store.

As is, the likes of Walmart are closer to the department store ideal than department stores are—and at much better prices. But: the likes* of Walmart are rarely found in city-centers, requiring use of a car to reach some far off, obscure location … Sadly, I had one of these just a few kilometers away, when I first came to Barmen, but it has since closed—incidentally, leaving the (otherwise very small) mall that it anchored almost dead.

*Specifically Walmart is likely not present in Germany anymore, but stores with a similar “hyper market” concept are, if likely not to the degree of e.g. the U.S.

Excursion on suicidal optimization:
The aforementioned type of optimization, which damages long-term business development, is quite common, even to the point that the net-effect might be negative* or that a niche for upstart competitors is accidentally created. One of the first examples that I encountered was the railway connection between the very small town of Kopparberg, where I lived for most of my pre-adult life, and the rest of the world. Early on, the train had a number of halts at even smaller places. Every know and then, one of them was cut from the schedule—presumably,** because too few passengers traveled to and from them. Possibly, in any given case, this was a rational decision, but it had the effect that overall passenger load was reduced and that fewer passengers used the other stations, making the next cut that more tempting.*** The result was a continual deterioration of both revenue for the business and service for the population—and the creation of a niche for a competitor, who has by now been trafficking quite a few of these stations since the 1990s.

*Which is by no means a given, as the optimization presumably also has positive effects. It is, e.g., conceivable that the German department stores would have failed even faster without them, that the vicious circle resulted from a damned-if-do-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma.

**Likely helped by a wish to reduce travel times on the main line.

***I note that this was deep in the country-side, where almost everyone had a car, and that it was rarely worth the trouble to take the car to the next station: unless the intended train travel was very long, one might just as well go the entire distance by car as go to a further-away station by car and then taking the train from there.

Excursion on the main topics:
As to the main topics of [1], and with a strong connection to e.g. [3], I note that there have been several interesting political decisions recently, e.g. the new, insanely large, and hopefully-to-be-blocked-by-the-senate U.S. COVID-19 rescue package, or the recently finalized German pension increase. In the latter, the monthly payout is hiked for many former low earners*, the increases are, so far, unfinanced, will almost certainly come from tax hikes for the rest of the population, and they are implemented despite the extra expenditures through COVID-19. Apart from the boost in working-class votes, would it not be better to put it on ice until we know what happens with the economy and what resources will actually be available? Of course, the extra costs to finance this reform will leave others with less money available, a lesser ability to secure their own future, and a greater need for government support, be it now or in the future.**

*This also raises questions of fairness, incentives, etc.: On the one hand, many of those benefiting have done the best that they could, and might deserve a leg up in their old age; on the other, many have not. They will also have paid in much less in the pension system than most others, many will already have received considerable handouts during their working years, and this might make future generations the less likely to work hard to secure their own future, as they are taught to rely on the government to put food on the table.

**This particular reform, alone, is unlikely to have much of an effect, but the overall pressure on the citizens is enormous: a major reason why the current level of pensions, social security, health insurance, … is “needed” is simply that the population pays so much in taxes, pension fees, social-security fees, health-insurance fees, …, that their ability to build own buffers and to pay running costs through earnings is limited. In a twist, this is a partial parallel to the previous excursion, as every change makes the situation worse for the population. (But it is, arguably, an anti-parallel when comparing the train company and the government, as the government benefits from the increased reliance of the population on the government.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 16, 2020 at 11:02 am