Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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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.)

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May 16, 2020 at 11:02 am

COVID-19 and state support

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As the COVID-19 crisis and restrictions are slowly ending in Germany, the calls for support from the state are increasing—everyone and his uncle wants to receive (or already does receive) support, be it unemployed workers, businesses on the verge of bankruptcy, an opportunistic automotive industry, or cities/municipalities/whatnot.

On the one hand, the damage done to the economy is mostly to blame on the government imposed counter-measures (rather than COVID-19, per se), which makes it hard to deny these requests from an ethical point of view. (Not that I expect e.g. the typical politician to understand this, however.)

On the other, who is actually eventually supposed to pay for this? When the demands for support are this large and wide-spread, the state cannot just fiddle a little with the budget and create space for handouts—and it certainly does not have an immense surplus to spread on the needy. Where will the money come from? Printing money ups inflation and, indirectly, destroys wealth. Borrowing money only postpones the problem. Increasing taxes just pushes money back and forth, while incurring waste. (Someone receives a support check from the state’s left hand and a new tax demand from the right.) Cutting in the existing expenses will be both hard to justify politically and take a long time, even when it comes to bureaucracy and waste.* Considering the strong Leftist tendencies in Germany, I fear that the “solution” will ultimately be that the “rich” must “show solidarity” with the “poor”, which is implemented e.g. by the government simply confiscating large portions of wealth (hypothetically, 20 % of all bank assets above 100.000 Euro). A perpetuation of the highly unethical and abused “Solidaritätszuschlag” seems likely—a “temporary” tax of the past thirty years, which, before COVID-19, finally seemed to approach the end of its life.

*And even here, the cuts will do damage somewhere, which might require additional intervention and/or reduce the beneficial effects of the handouts. (But, to avoid misunderstandings, apart from the political obstacles, I would consider this the best way to go, as those damaged will often lose an unfair benefit, e.g. that of being employed for life as a civil servant while being incompetent and lazy, and as the long-term societal effects are likely to be positive.)

The most that can be hoped for is some degree of redistribution of damage, but this hardly ever ends up fair either, and often implies that the smart, hard-working, economically prudent, whatnot pay for the dumb, lazy, wasteful, and/or you-name-it. The COVID-19 countermeasures have hit more randomly than, say, regular career or business success, but it has not resulted in a “negative lottery”. For instance, a business with a sounder original economy, greater buffers, less debt,* fewer unnecessary costs, …, will be less endangered than a less sound business—but which will receive more governmental support and which will tendentially be at risk for an additional tax payment? Similarly, the individual who has saved as little as 100 Euro a month during his working life will be more likely to come out of this without needing help than the one who has consistently spent the same 100 Euro in a bar or on a bigger apartment.

*In a bigger picture, this is a strong indication that running businesses in debt and deficit, even be it to achieve growth and in the hope of future profits, is a dangerous strategy. (Often for the individual business, even more often for society as a whole.) Here very considerable rethinking might be beneficial. Generally, everyone, individuals, businesses, municipalities, …, should strive to build buffers instead of living on credit.

Indeed, just like COVID-19 kills far more among the elderly and those already in poor health than among the young and healthy, the counter-measures will kill struggling business first. (But also, unfortunately and unfairly, small businesses, which could have very negative effects on the “demographics” of businesses.) Compensation then risks saving businesses that would have failed anyway comparatively soon and might well still fail despite the compensation within a year or two—and if they grab onto COVID-19 as an excuse, we might see a larger scale repetition of e.g. the decades long German coal-industry subventions. This amounts to a great waste of money and could additional skew competition in a manner that is harmful for society.

Then there are those who might fake or grossly exaggerate a crisis in order to get compensation that they do not at all deserve …

It would have been better, had there been fewer and/or less drastic countermeasures, with (a) less damage* and (b) a greater justification for letting business developments run their course without support. As is, the situation is extremely poor with no good answers. I do suspect, however, that erring on the side of too little compensation will be the better way to go.

*And note that even a comparatively small change in damage can have a large effect on the businesses (and more generally, persons, entities, whatnot) that are close to the border of failure, e.g. in that being closed one week less or one week more can be a make-or-break criterion, as can having a tenth of the normal revenue vs. being closed entirely.

Excursion on Barmen:
I live in Barmen, a part of the German city of Wuppertal. Just a few hundred meters from my house is the local city center, once flowering. Even during my few years here, I have noticed a continual drop in stores, presumably driven by a mixture of the general brick-and-mortar crisis and the establishment of a major new mall in Elberfeld (another part of Wuppertal). This possibly aided by a drift towards shopping in nearby Düsseldorf. Of course, such decline leads to a vicious circle, where every store that closes makes it less attractive to shop in Barmen than in Elberfeld, shifting even more of the commerce away, which risks more store deaths, … Add in the negative consequences of the COVID-19 countermeasures and this could end badly.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 7, 2020 at 7:53 am

Exponential growth, the economy, and the damage of poor government

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Skimming through a recent article on UNZ, and with the topic of exponential growth on my mind through COVID-19, I cannot resist an item on my backlog: how poor politics and politicians harm economic growth—with dire long-term results.

As I try to keep my blogging down, I will not give this backlog item more than a fraction of the attention that it deserves, but:

Firstly, growth rates accumulate multiplicatively over time and, if constant, lead to an exponential growth. Ditto, if varying growth rates are replaced by a geometric* average. The implication is that even apparently small differences in growth rates can have enormous consequences over time. For example, compare two economies with a growth rate (fix or as geometric average) of respectively 2 and 2.5 percent. The yearly difference might seem like nothing, but look at the difference over e.g. 70 years, which could be viewed as more-or-less the experience span of a single individual. 1.02^70 ~ 4, while 1.025^70 ~ 5.6; giving a 4-fold “new” size of the economy compared to a 5.6-fold. The one with the marginally higher grow rates is then roughly 40 % larger than its competitor at the end of the 70 years; or, in absolute terms, 1.6-times-the-size-of-the-original-economy larger. Where would you like your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to grow up?

*As in multiply-and-take-the-nth-root, and as opposed to the add-and-divide-by-n used by the “regular” or arithmetic average.

With greater differences in growth rate, the end results explode apart. For instance, 1.04^70 ~ 15.6 or almost four (!) times as large as the “1.02 economy”. If growth rates remain even approximately as they are, originally-poor-but-fast-growing countries like the “tiger economies” will necessarily outdo originally-rich-but-slower-growing economies (like the US or Germany). The original richness can cover up the difference in growth rate for a long while, but sooner or later the advantage runs out and the tables turn.

Obviously, economies that are both poor and and low in growth will do disastrously—one reason why socialism and poverty is so dangerous, as the poverty leads to calls for socialist politics, which stunts growth, which keeps poverty going, … (cf. below).

Secondly, current economic policies in many Western countries do a lot, as a side-effect, to artificially keep economic growth back. This especially in countries that have a strongly Leftist take on policy, where the focus is on re-distributing the existing cake instead of making the cake larger. For instance, high taxes and bureaucracies keep enterprising individuals back; high employment costs* make it harder to be competitive and reduce the willingness to expand, especially taking the step from a one-man company to having even that first employee; attempts to compress differences in income/lower the GINI coefficient reduce the rewards for competence and hard work, make it harder to get the right employees in the right positions,**; etc.

*Which includes more than the actual salaries/wages/whatnot. These can be problematic enough, but then add half a fortune of additional taxes, fees, whatnot for the employer to pay …

**E.g. because someone who would have worked in field A due to a higher salary than in field B now chooses field B; because someone who would have put in extra overtime, if he kept the pay, does not when the government takes most of it; because someone would have taken extra responsibility for a significant earnings increase, but does not when the increase is small; and so on.

To this I note that there is considerable empirical evidence on this issue, as with China (discussed in the linked to article), the Venezuela of the last few decades, the old East vs. the old West Germany, etc.* Indeed, Germany’s likely greatest period of growth, the Wirtschaftswunder era, coincided with the likely most free-market-friendly politics of its history, while the current, slow growing, Germany has redistribution mechanisms, social security and health-insurance costs, whatnot, that might fit the Sweden of the 1970s.

*But I caution that looking at any given individual example is tricky, because a multitude of factors can play in, e.g. that West Germany received help from the US while East Germany was exploited by the USSR. Looking at the totality of examples, however, the picture is quite clear.

Could the current Germany or the current US reach and sustain “Chinese” growth rates? Possibly not—and even the Chinese have been having trouble doing so for quite a few years. However, they could easily do better, say in getting that 0.5 % of extra yearly growth. That they fail to do so could be seen as a crime against future generations to the same degree as undue pollution can.

In the long run, it really does pay better to get a fix proportion of the growing cake than a growing proportion of the fix cake. If in doubt, note that a growing cake can help everyone, while a growing proportion of a fix cake means that someone else has less.

Note on inflation, etc.:
Above, I have ignored topics like inflation, purchasing power, “per capita”, whatnot. They have no effect on the principles discussed, and, indeed, the exact same examples can be used if e.g. a growth rate is declared to be adjusted for this-and-that. However, they can lead to a different set of numbers that are realistic—and, in doing so, they will tend to increase the importance of higher growth (unless the higher growth is correlated with a higher inflation or whatnot). For instance, in the original economies, assume that the growth rates were “naive” and without considering inflation, and that inflation, in both cases, is 2 percent per year. The one economy will be more-or-less stagnated while the other will still grow, even be it considerably more slowly than before. In the one case, future generations are stuck on the level of past generations; in the other, they see still see significant improvement.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 28, 2020 at 11:55 am

Pinning the tail to the COVID-19 donkey

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Recently, I wrote that there “has been a very strong element of pin-the-tail-to-the-donkey so far”, regarding COVID-19.

Right now, we can see an excellent example of this in Germany: As the actual disease seemed to be easing up, there were signs that the counter-measures would to, including last weeks partial re-opening of stores. However, apparently, as of today, it is mandatory to use face masks in stores, which is an increased imposition* on the citizens. So, are we reducing or increasing impositions—and why? If it made sense to have most stores closed and without a face-mask imposition two weeks ago, how come it makes sense to have most stores opened but with a face-mask imposition today?

*I do not necessarily say that it is a disproportionate or ill-advised imposition. (In particular, face masks appear to bring little benefit to the wearer and more to other people, which implies that arguments relating to own choice, own risks, and citizens actually being adults are much less relevant than when it comes to closing stores.) However, it is an imposition and it is something hitherto not deemed necessary.

Possibly, a connection could be seen, that stores are opened now to cap the damage and that (mandatory) face masks are introduced to compensate for the perceived increase in risk. But if so: Why was there a delay between the opening of the stores and the face masks?

Possibly, vital new information concerning face masks has been discovered, but if so, I am not aware of it. On the contrary, the claims that I have heard so far seem to go in the direction that the benefit of face masks has been overestimated … (True, there were findings that infection through non-aerial means was less likely than originally thought, which could increase the relative benefit of face masks. However, these findings are not very recent and the change would have made more sense earlier, when the disease was growing faster.)

Possibly, the changing rate of infections and the number of known infected has led to a different situation,* and I could see that as strongly contributing to partial re-openings. It is a mystery to me, however, how a lower number of infected would lead to a greater need for face masks.

*Official statistics show a small and still shrinking percentage of newly infected and the number of currently infected is continually diminishing. (But I caution that these statistics could over- or under-estimate a number of aspects of the situation.)

That this face-mask decision appears to have come with very little warning makes the situation worse. There has been a debate about it, yes, and some individual Bundesländer (“states”) had already implemented mandatory face-masks. However, as late as yesterday, I had no idea that the this was coming today (or, necessarily, at all), be it in nationwide or in my own Bundesland.

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.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 27, 2020 at 9:26 am

COVID-19 and information harassment

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A particular annoyance with the COVID-19 situation is over-information, that entities that have no legitimate reason to speak on the topic do speak and that entities that should say something little instead bombard us with information. The result is that virtually nothing is achieved (except annoyance) while the ears and eyes are start to filter information to such a degree that something important might be missed. Of course, this type intrusive “information”, presumption to demand obedience from others without any true own expertise*, and the resulting annoyance, are all likely to contribute to recalcitrance—causing the opposite of what was intended** through psychological naivete. (This not to be confused with the extreme amount of information from e.g. newspapers, which can be similarly annoying and have similarly negative effects, but at least is a legitimate part of the business at hand. Too much, possibly, but basically legitimate.)

*What does (cf. below) a grocery store or my bank know about COVID-19 that goes beyond the informed citizen? (And: What gives it a reason to speak in addition to what e.g. governmental agencies say?) Little or nothing. A strong sign of this problem is the constant, highly misleading use of “corona” over the more specific “COVID-19” and “SARS-CoV-2”. Indeed, chances are that they are often outright misinformed through going strictly by “official channels” without applying critical thinking or considering the (legitimate, non-“fake news”) experts that have a dissenting opinion. The sad truth is that there has been a very strong element of pin-the-tail-to-the-donkey so far, even among experts, with an only slowly improving information situation.

**Unless the intention is just to fulfill some external requirement or to be able to show that something has been done, without regard to effectiveness and efficiency. Sadly, this is quite common, e.g. in politics.

For instance, earlier today, I went to buy groceries. The store was (still!) plastered with identical notices about corona-this and keep-distance-that, while every few minutes a patronizing and overly loud keep-your-distance announcement was repeated on the PA system. Why?!? Post a big sign on the entry door and be done with it! For instance, when I last logged into my Internet banking I was not allow to proceed without dealing with an intrusive blocking pop-up that requested whether I wanted to be informed about “corona” now, later, or not at all. There should have been absolutely no information on the general topic at all—and to more specifically relevant information, e.g. changes to opening hours due to COVID-19, a regular notification that “We have restricted our opening hours.” with a link to details would have been appropriate.

The general attitude seems to be that “everyone else is an uninformed idiot and we, specifically we, must inform and save the day”.

That the information/instructions provided are often contradictory from entity to entity does not help, e.g. that the one store requires a distance of 1.5 meters between customers and the other 2 meters. Sometimes even the same entity is contradictory (and/or redundant), as with the very small newspaper-and-whatnot store that I visited a few days ago to buy stamps: on the one hand, customers must keep a distance of at least two meters; on the other, only one customers was allowed in the store at any given time. And, yes, the store was large enough that a distance of two meters was possible. (Except when passing each other, but that applies to supermarkets too.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 25, 2020 at 9:29 am

A few further observations around COVID-19

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Some random items:

  1. Sweden is regularly cited as going its own road in the fight against COVID-19, as being more permissive and giving the citizens a greater own choice and responsibility than most other countries.

    That Sweden chooses its own road is not new, but: Sweden is historically, likely, the non-dictatorship most strongly associated with the “nanny state” mentality, having treated its population as dummies to be led by the hand for many decades of Social-Democrat rule. Indeed, the current government is a Social-Democrat one.

    It might be that attitudes in Sweden and/or the Social-Democrats have changed, it might be that this is some type of vote fishing, it might be incompetence, …

    However, it might also be a sign that attitudes in other countries have degenerated to a Swedish level. For instance, in Germany, even outside of COVID-19, there are currently strong tendencies for the state to “educate” the population into having the right opinions (something thoroughly anti-democratic) or for political parties to put themselves beyond the will of the voters, as with the absurd events in (the state of) Thüringen after AfD successes (while a near third of the vote for an extreme-Left party went without comment) or the repeated “great coalitions” on the federal level, which form a government of two parties that, on paper, should be greater enemies than the U.S. Republican and Democrat parties. (Cf. e.g. [1], [2].)

    This is a threat far worse than COVID-19.

  2. There have been absurd developments around Beate Bahner, a German lawyer specializing in medicine and a vocal critic of the current German COVID-19 measure. The linked to (German) article is a bit on the confused side, and exactly what has happened why seems unclear in other sources too, but to look at a few key points:

    Allegedly, she appeared so confused in the public that the police decided to bring her in for psychiatric treatment/observation/whatnot. She spent several days locked up in a hospital and is now also under investigation for physically resisting the police during the event. If there is any connection between her COVID-19 protests, this would be an absolute horror, an act so inexcusable that the actor must be thrown in jail. I do not, however, believe this to have been the case, based on the limited data* available to me—a more likely scenario is that the police, rightly or wrongly, judged her behavior to be sufficiently erratic as to warrant involuntary measures. However, even then, the situation is quite negative. It implies e.g. that anyone living in Germany could be put into temporary psychiatric custody** on the word of a few policemen, without consultation with a judge. The stay might then be brief, but it could still cause severe problems for the victim. Here we have a somewhat public figure with a potential reputation of “being crazy”, which might damage both her credibility as a debater and her ability to gain new clients as a lawyer. In another scenario, we might have someone miss work or an important appointment and being unable to give a satisfactory explanation without risking a similar reputation. In yet another, we might have young children traumatized because of mysterious events around a parent—and for a single parent, the result might include the children being temporarily confiscated by Social Services, with yet more trauma involved, and possible negative strikes in e.g. a custody hearing. This might be acceptable, if there is some genuine psychiatric issue involved, but the same result would arise even from e.g. poor judgment or malice from the police.***

    *Consider statements apparently made by Bahner that could point to confusion or paranoia, e.g. that the physicians might be receiving instructions from the U.S.; or how the original incident is more parsimoniously explained by not assuming that the police had been deliberately out to get her. Of course, with more information, the picture might change.

    **Take the terminology with some caution. I am uncertain what good English translations of this-and-that would be, and the sources are confused on exactly what German terminology would have applied.

    ***As I keep repeating: The Rechtsstaat can only work if the rules are made in awareness of the possibility of incompetence, abuse, “evil”, whatnot.

    The legal charges for resisting are absurd, even if we assume that the custody was legal and even if we agree that such custody should be a legal option: If she was indeed so confused that she needed psychiatric custody against her own will, then she cannot reasonably be considered accountable for her behavior during the incident. If she was not, then the police was sufficiently out of line that she should not have had to accept their behavior.

    Moreover, it might well be justified to institute some type of exemption to such rules in order to prevent both abuse to silence or harass political (or other*) opponents and the accidental silencing of someone with an unlikely but true story. Consider the Martha Mitchell effect or the case of Gustl Mollath.

    *I note that I once had an, apparently mentally ill, landlord sic the police on me in the middle of the night because I allegedly held a woman captive in my apartment—such abuse of the legal system does happen. (One illegal and warrantless search of my apartment later, I was free of that accusation. However, he also made various other libelous allegations with lesser consequences.)

    Prior to this, she was already in the cross hairs of law enforcement for calling for criminals actions (it self a crime in Germany). What actions? To demonstrate against the COVID-19 measures and their (in her eyes; I have not looked into this, myself) illegality and/or unconstitutionality, including the ban on demonstrations. If this ban on demonstrations is indeed illegal/whatnot, this is, obviously, a gross and dictatorial measure, worthy of the old GDR. However, even if it is not, it would be extremely unfortunate to apply this ban even on demonstrations against the ban, as this would create an Orwellian and Kafkaesque deficit in the Rechtsstaat, where attempts to question the legality of governmental actions becomes illegal, per se. Here some type of exemption must be present to protect the right to demonstrate against, or otherwise protest or criticize, governmental behavior. (Here we have only one special case of protest, but note in parallel the massive drive to e.g. mark unconventional opinions as “fake news” or otherwise silence them. Indeed, Bahner’s own website was apparently offline for hours for just such reasons.) I am reminded of a passage in one of Terry Pratchett’s books, where a religious dictatorship practiced human sacrifice, but was limited to volunteers and those condemned to death—and where not volunteering was a crime punishable by death.

  3. As an excursion to the previous item, the step from branding someone as a spreader of “fake news” (or “racism”, “hate speech”, whatnot) to naming someone insane is not that large. I do not believe that this is what happened above, but I could easily imagine portions of the current U.S. pseudo-academia pushing for “racism” to be classified as a psychiatric condition or for having ideas contrary to what they preach considered signs of impaired judgment or delusion.* The abuse of psychiatry to hamper political opponents is certainly not unheard of in dictatorships.

    *Note that this would a very dangerous road to go down, even if the assessment was broadly correct (while, here, the reverse is more likely to hold—that the pseudo-academians have mental issues). For instance, it might well be that most people who have pet-theories about the JFK assassination are a little off, but if we were to silence them on that charge, there might be false positives among the individuals silenced, there might be a “chilling effect” in other areas of discourse, and we could continue to believe in something false—the chance that they are correct might be quite small, but it is not zero. Of course, if we take sufficiently many highly unlikely hypotheses, some of them will turn out to be true—and we cannot know which in advance, implying that a pre-mature stifling is dangerous. (Note again the cases of Martha Mitchell and Gustl Mollath, as specific examples.)

  4. There is a lot of talk about “corona apps” that would e.g. allow someone on the street to keep a sufficient distance to the infected. This could be extremely problematic, due to obvious future extensions, as with an inclusion of further and/or future diseases, of political support, of sexual orientation, or, obviously, of Jewishness—that little yellow star making a come back.

    Far fetched or impossible, due to laws of data protection? No. Consider e.g. the situation in many U.S. colleges. It would be very easy to imagine someone writing an app that indicates who in a certain college has and has not registered with said app to indicate support for e.g. “diversity” or opposition to e.g. Donald Trump. (Which would be unproblematic from a data protection point of view, because the registration is voluntary.) The app is widely published around the college, might even be pushed by the administrators or recommended by some professors, and soon anyone who has not registered is deemed as a deliberate case of non-registeration, aka a “racist”. Then it spreads to other colleges.

    Those who do not register would stand a non-trivial risk of being avoided or harassed, receiving worse grades, and/or falling victim to some other type of negative treatment.

    (Read Minding the Campus, if you have doubts.)

    Then there is the issue of what happens to those who do not have a smartphone, whose batteries have run out, or similar, …

Written by michaeleriksson

April 18, 2020 at 2:13 pm