Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Politics

“The Crimes of Grindelwald” and recognizing evil

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“The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a very disappointing* movie, but it does point to a few issues that I have addressed repeatedly in the past.

*My main criticisms: The otherwise weakish predecessor was carried by streaks of comedy and the dynamics between/charm of the four main protagonists, especially regarding wizard–muggle interaction. These aspects were largely lost. (The comedy aspect is even replaced by dread and dire and a too depressing visual tone.) The plot is unengaging, seems poorly though-through, and is confusing to boot. New characters and relationships are mostly too bland, boring, and/or unsympathetic to warrant interest and emotional investment, which is a particular negative for several “tragic characters”.

This includes the fact that there will be persons, usually very many, on both sides of a conflict who are convinced that they are “the good guys” and that their opponents are “the bad guys”—implying that even the strongest conviction of being right (that the opposing party is evil, whatnot) does not, in it self, justify extreme means. Indeed, looking at e.g. party programs from more-or-less any party, I can find a lot that makes sense in principle or, at least, is sufficiently plausible that I can understand that weak thinkers are swayed—thought, a knowledge/understanding of the issues, and/or insight into other positions is often needed to see why the program is flawed or would make a poor policy.* Calls for evil actions for “the greater good” tend to be particularly dangerous—it is no coincidence that this phrase is often used by madmen, terrorists, dictators, dystopian societies, whatnot in fiction. (But note that those who call for the greater good in real life rarely do so using the explicit phrase.)

*Consider e.g. a simplistic “women earn 77 cents on the dollar; ergo, the government must intervene to create justice”, which collapses on closer inspection. (See several older texts, including [1].)

It also includes that opinions (goals, ideals, …; I will use just “opinion[s]” below) must not be a primary factor when judging who is more or less evil in most* conflicts.** Instead, we have to consider the following (overlapping) issues:

*Exceptions are sufficiently rare that I cannot give a strong example of the top of my head. They are likely to exist, however. (Possibly, relating to a legally clear situation.)

**With the corollary that condemning an opinion as evil, because of evil methods used to enforce that opinion, is equally as bad as (cf. above) using an opinion perceived as good to justify evil methods.

  1. What methods are used? Do the methods include e.g. unprovoked violence, censorship of dissent, character assassination, …?

    Overlapping with the above, I would even replace the common, misguided, claim that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” with “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to use evil means”. (Where, at least, my “good” refers to self-perception, as demonstrated by many Soviet/Chinese/whatnot Communists and the Nazis.) Very many evils in this world go back to the use of evil means for purposes seen as good; and by refraining from evil means, such evils are considerably reduced or avoided altogether. Vice versa, a believer in the naive original might well take it as a reason to cause, not oppose, evil in the name of good.

  2. How do the counter-parts interact with opposing opinions? Are the opinions evaluated neutrally and with an open mind or are they rejected as wrong, or even evil, in a blanket manner? Are the counter-parts willing to adjust their own opinions, should the evidence call for it? Are arguments engaged with counter-arguments or with insults? Etc.

    I note that this is not just a matter of fairness. Two other important implications is that (a) those who are more open-minded tend to be right more often, (b) a destructive attitude threatens the right of others to develop their own opinions and can limit both societal and scientific progress.*

    *Note e.g. the destructive effects of how parts of the PC movement denounce scientifically supported claims around I.Q., the influence of “nature”, whatnot—to the point that some scientists avoid certain research topics for fear of repercussions. The problems are so large that a pseudonymous journal is in planning to alleviate it (the linked-to article also contains several good illustrations of the problem).

  3. What basis do the opinions originally have? Are they based in reason or wishful thinking, factual arguments or uncritical belief in what one is told, correct or incorrect interpretation of statistics, …?

    Again, those with a good reason tend to be right more often. I note that e.g. pushing policies based on faulty ideas or premises can do an enormous amount of harm to society, as with e.g. how an unduly positive belief in the benefits of school* and a wish for more school (to solve any number of problems) wastes enormous amounts of resources, takes large chunks out of the lives of the students, and often leads to only marginal improvements—or even has negative effects (e.g. through taking time away from self-studies among the bright or frustrating and over-taxing the dim).

    *As opposed to education—a very important differentiation. However, even more education is not always sensible, being dependent on the individuals interests, abilities, and goals in life.

  4. With what degree of honesty do the counter-parts push their opinions and agendas? Do they believe what they say and say what they believe, or do they e.g. have a hidden agenda or do they use arguments that they do not hold-up to scrutiny?

    As a specific example: Was Grindelwald a true believer—or did he rather create and manipulate true believers for his own personal gain? (I strongly suspect the latter to hold.)

(Additional issues might be worthy of consideration, e.g. whether an agenda is driven by partisan benefit* vs. ethical principles or the good of society as a whole.)

*Not to be confused with the above case of e.g. having a hidden agenda of personal power: Here the issue is e.g. wanting to benefit a certain partisan group (say with a laborers’ party, a farmers’ party, a make-our-region-independent party, whatnot).

A particular interesting overlap between the movie and some texts is that the use of evil or disproportionate methods can drive people into the enemy camp, cause radicalization, or similar. This through at least two mechanisms, (a) that “mild” opponents might be left with no where to go but the camp of the “rabid” opponents, (b) that the use of evil methods causes a negative reaction. This, incidentally, appears to have some parallels in other areas, e.g. in that anti-drug legislation often does more to cause crime and worsen the life of the drug-users than to improve matters, or ditto for anti-prostitution* laws. Particularly the (b) case appears to have been working to Grindelwald’s advantage, when the government(s) used evil methods of its own.

*As claimed in an article I encountered a few days ago (note several links to further discussion).

Excursion on necessary evil means:
There might be situations where the use of evil means can be necessary even in a good cause. (A widely accepted example is using reasonable amounts of violence in self-defense against an unprovoked attacker.) However, here great care must be taken to not overstep a reasonable minimum, to minimize the effect on third-parties, etc. A more thorough discussion would be well outside the scope of this text, might be impossible without stipulating a number of ethical principles, and might have to include considerable analysis of individual examples. Consider e.g. questions like when and to what degree it might be allowable to interfere with civic rights for fear of terrorism or to accept civilian casualties during warfare.

Excursion on Grindelwald:
Is Grindelwald evil? In my opinion, “yes”—because I have the impression that he does let the end justify the means, is callous of the rights of others, has hidden agendas, … (Then again, my impression might be incorrect, seeing that the movie was not always explicit, that I might misremember previous information, and that earlier books, which mention him as evil, might have predisposed me towards this interpretation.)

Note that my reasons do not (at least consciously) include that he “looked evil”, that the main protagonists opposed him, that he was condemned as evil by officials, … Consider Professor Snape (from earlier books/movies) for someone who gave many superficial signs of being evil, but who was actually* a great hero and an important ally—and contrast him with several good-seeming-but-evil other teachers.

*Notwithstanding that an accusation of “being a mean bastard”, “having an unfair personal dislike of Harry”, or similar might have been true.

Here, as elsewhere, it is important not just to draw the right conclusion (X is evil; Y is good; …), but to do so for the right reasons. Evil in the real world often has a friendly face; good often does not—much unlike in children’s cartoons.


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February 21, 2019 at 10:41 am

Hypocritical treatment of the Right and the Left / Yellow vests

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I have often touched on issues like the hypocritical treatment of the Right* compared to the Left, the uselessness of the Left–Right scale, and how often various derogatory and debate killing labels** are thrown around by the Left (the PC crowd, whatnot).

*One of the aspects of the uselessness of the Left–Right scale is that the “Right” is too heterogeneous to be a truly useful term (unlike “Left”). I use it here for consistency with typical discussions.

**For instance, (more often than not) unfounded accusations of someone or something being “Fascist”, “sexist”, “racist”, … I note e.g. the use of “Fascist” by Soviet Communists to refer to other Communists or the condemnation of the entire West-Germany and/or the “Western Bloc” as such by the East-German leaders (e.g. by referring to the Berlin Wall as “antifaschistischer Schutzwall”—“Anti-Fascist rampart”).

The treatment of the Yellow-Vest movement (in at least German and Swedish) media is a good example:

The movement is based on a mixture of general or politically neutral dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction of a Leftist type. It has a strong analog in preceding German movements that were built around general or politically neutral dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction (dubiously) considered “Rightist”.*

*Notably, regarding e.g. immigration, which I consider narrow-minded to not view as neutral on the Left–Right scale (and/or as further proof of its uselessness).

The latter have often been strongly condemned as “Rightist extremists” or “Rightist populist” (“rechtsextremistisch” resp. “rechtspopulistisch”), despite having comparatively little overlap with most Right-wing opinions. They are first (misleadingly) classified as “Right-wing” based almost solely on issues like migration—and then the debate focuses strongly on their being “Right-wing” and “populist” or “extremist”.

Not so with the Yellow Vests, however: I cannot recall seeing a single instance of them being labeled as “Left-wing” (let alone ‘Leftist extremist” or “Leftist populist”). Instead they are discussed in terms of their more specific complaints, issues, and behaviors. In it self, this is good—this is how it should be. But: Why is the same courtesy of issue-based description not extended to movements considered on the “Right”? Why are they blanketed away as “Right-this” and “Right-that” without looking at what they actually believe in detail? Why are they blanketed away as “dissatisfaction movements”* without taking their concerns seriously?

*I am unaware of a corresponding English family of words, but e.g. the Swedish “Missnöjesparti” (“dissatisfaction party”) is long established as a derogatory way of dismissing concerns by the implication that the party just populistically rides dissatisfaction without anything to offer, that its adherents complain about things that are no big deal, that the adherents project their own dissatisfaction in life onto external issues, or similar. Label something as “Missnöjes[something]” and it can be ignored in a blanket manner.

This is the odder as the Yellow Vests have been more prone to e.g. violent behavior than their German counter-parts and do not trail in terms of dissatisfaction mentality and whatnot.

I actually have some fear that the Yellow Vests will be paradoxically condemned as “Rightist” (!) whatnots at some future time, because someone will eventually make statements that are or can be misconstrued to sound e.g. nationalist, xenophobe, or anti-Islam during a major protest—which will allow a pseudo-classification as “Right”…

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February 9, 2019 at 5:08 pm

Democracy failure in Germany

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Shortly after a recent democracy failure in Sweden, following a German precedent, Germany is trying to pull ahead again:

Apparently, the Bundesland (“state”) of Brandenburg has pushed through a highly ill-advised law that parties must present alternating* male and female candidates on their election lists ([1]).

*As I read the source. It is possible, but less likely, that a 50–50 overall was intended.

This is negative and anti-democratic for at least two reasons:

Firstly, it is an illicit form of discrimination based on sex, which does not consider factors like appropriateness for the position, number of willing and suitable candidates available, how many supporters a party has of each sex, etc. I note in particular the complication that more men than women appear to have the interest/ambition and dedication to pursue a political career. The result on the state parliament is that the quality of the elected will take a hit through the smaller pool from which half the candidates come.* The effect on men is that many who would have made strong** members will be left out; the effect on women that many too weak will be forced in by necessity. The effect on parties is that they cannot pick the candidates they consider suitable, worthy, or attractive-to-voters freely, and those male-dominated will be particularly poorly off. Indeed, a party that is sufficiently dominated by women*** might see similar troubles.

*Even discounting a likely difference in ability distributions.

**Relatively speaking and using the word somewhat loosely: These are politicians, and the proportion of great thinkers will likely be on the low side either which way.

***The Swedish Feminist party “Fi” might be a candidate.

Secondly, this demonstrates a complete failure to understand and respect how a representative democracy works: The elected are not intended to be chosen to reflect the demographics of the people—they are intended to be chosen by the people, in order to best represent the interests of the people. Not only is this law a violation of the principles involved, but it also leaves the people worse off—if the people wants more women elected, it should vote for more women. Similarly, if it prefers to vote for men, people of a certain age or a certain background, whatnot, it is up to the people to do so. Limiting the people’s right to chose through such mechanisms is anti-democratic.* Further, the consequences of such “demography thinking” can easily be seen to be absurd: If sex is a valid quota criterion, then why not age, educational background, profession, country of origin, sexual orientation …? What about the demographics of the party?** How can we justify excluding those below (e.g.) eighteen, if demography is an important criterion? Etc.

*It could be argued that the list systems used in e.g. Germany and Sweden are themselves problematic for similar reasons, and it might be a good idea to move to another system entirely.

**Many parties (especially in multi-party systems) have a heavy tilt in several demographic directions and often see themselves as representing a particular group of people—how is that compatible with being forced to find candidates that reflect a different demographic?

If “demography thinking” is to be considered at all, a completely different system is needed, e.g. one based on random choice instead of election. Consider e.g. a pool of candidates consisting of the entirety of the population, or a portion of the population satisfying certain criteria*, and a computer picking out the “elected” based purely on chance from this pool.

*Notable possibilities are “is above eighteen” and “is a citizen”, but criteria that include e.g. a certain level of demonstrated accomplishment are conceivable. Great care must be taken, however, seeing that such criteria could easily lead to skew (“must be an Aryan”, “must not belong to the bourgeoisie”, “must be dedicated to diversity”). Indeed, even something as innocuous as “must be willing” could be problematic. On the other hand, having no additional criteria would lead to parliaments even less qualified and more easily manipulated than today’s.

Looking more in detail at the source, there are several disturbing claims made:

Personen, die sich weder dem männlichen noch dem weiblichen Geschlecht zuordnen, können frei entscheiden, ob sie für die Männer- oder die Frauenliste kandidieren.

Translation: Persons, who do not identify as male or female, can chose freely whether to candidate for the men’s or women’s list.*

*This in reference to internal lists, prescribed by the law, that are used as a basis for the final list of candidates presented to the voters.

This allows manipulation by dishonest candidates, e.g. in that a man claims to identify as a woman in order to be let in with less competition, or that some group (e.g. members of a Feminist faction) claim to identify as members of the “opposite” sex to skew the list away from 50–50 proportions.

(Quoting or paraphrasing the chair of the Leftist extremist “Die Linke”, Katja Kipping.)

Mindestens jeder zweite Platz bei der Listenaufstellung für die Bundestagswahl müsse von einer Frau besetzt werden

Translation: At least every second position on the lists for the (federal) parliament election must belong to a woman.

This demonstrates the typical hypocrisy and poorly hidden agenda: If more that every second position belongs to a woman (and by implication less belongs to a man) this is apparently not a problem at all.

(Quoting Ulle Schauws of the usually Left-leaning and often, without hyperbole, out-of-touch-with-reality Green Party.)

Das neue Gesetz sei “ein erster Schritt, um gleiche Zugangschancen für Frauen in der Politik herzustellen”.

Translation: The new law is “a first step towards equal opportunity for women in politics”.

Women already bloody well have equal opportunity in politics—by law. Furthermore, they have had so for a long time. Indeed, since more than half the voters are women, it would have been no problem for underrepresented women to turn things around, had they been blocked internally in some parties: Just vote for another party or found a new party. If too much of the female vote goes missing, any such recalcitrant party would be forced to adapt. The truth is that we have a long history of fewer qualified women being sufficiently interested and dedicated—if you want more women in politics, Frau Schauw, change that!

(Quoting Katerina Barley, member of the social-democrat SPD and current (federal) minister of justice.)

“Unser Ziel muss eine Reform des Wahlrechts* sein, die eine gerechte Beteiligung beider Geschlechter im Parlament unterstützt”

*Here and elsewhere, I translate with “election law”. It is possible that some other phrasing, e.g. “election legislation”, would be more accurate.

Translation: “Our goal must be a reform of the election law that supports a fair participation of both sexes in parliament”

The same as above applies, with an additional pointer to previous comments on representative democracy.

(Quoting Franziska Giffey, also a member of the social-democrat SPD and the current (federal) family minister.)

Auch [sie] plädierte dafür, […] Frauen verstärkt anzusprechen und für politische Beteiligung zu gewinnen. “Das Wahlrecht kann dabei ein wichtiger Hebel sein”

Translation: [She], too, pleaded* […]** that women be more strongly addressed and won for political participation. “Election law can be an important lever for this purpose”

*The English word might be stronger than its German cognate (“plädierte”).

**The deleted portion has only a marginal effect on meaning, but is hard to translate in context and consists of unnecessary political verbiage.

Unlike the preceding, Frau Giffey appears to have an eye on the ball—lack of female participation. However, this type of law is not suited to achieve an increase, and I doubt that there is any other law that would be suited. There can be a positive effect through women realizing that they would get a leg up compared to men,* should they participate, which might actually move some of them to do so. However, this comes as a cost to everyone else (cf. above) and I would view it as an abuse of law-making. If official measures are at all needed and/or justifiable,** better such would simply encourage women to participate, e.g. through pointing to how non-participation increases the risk of, in some sense, “too few” women being elected.

*Or on the outside, through some women who used to (incorrectly) believe that they were disadvantaged now (and now incorrectly) believing in a fair playing field.

**Which I doubt: It is not the government’s decision what people do with their lives.

Notably, no-one who disagreed was quoted, no man was quoted, and no-one not on the Left was quoted, which raises the suspicion of partiality and poor journalism on behalf of the source. It does, however, note that two parties (CDU, AfD) voted against the law and consider it unconstitutional.

Oh, and by the way: The German Chancellor (highest elected politician) for the past thirteen years has been Angela Merkel—a woman. The current cabinet appears to contain 9 men and 7 women (including the Chancellor), according to Wikipedia on Merkel IV. Those poor powerless women…

Written by michaeleriksson

February 1, 2019 at 8:14 pm

Further damage to democracy / Follow-up: The 2018 Swedish parliamentary election

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As a further sign of how democracy is increasingly lost, Swedish politicians appear to be going down the same perfidious path that the Germans have pushed with their unholy CDU/CSU and SPD coalitions.

Shortly after the Swedish election, things seemed to point to a non-Leftist government, with the traditional non-Left alliance of parties being roughly on par with the Social-Democrats (S) and their support parties, and upstart SD being less likely to support S. Item 6 of the linked-to text is particularly interesting in light of actual developments…

However, just as in Germany, there were endless* delays and negotiations, with the added perfidy that two parties of the decades long non-Left alliance have decided that it is more important to keep SD without influence than it is to support the alliance and to be true to their voters.** This despite a very clear understanding among the typical alliance voters that a vote for any one of these parties was a vote for the alliance as a whole and against S. To boot, said two parties (according to current reporting) would not even get seats in the government as a part of their thirty silver pieces, which would have given some pseudo-justification to this move. They have received some promises of policy changes, but likely none that could not have been handled better with an alliance government to begin with. Of course, these concessions also potentially open S up to criticism, but a lesser one, seeing that it actually gets most of the cake…

*My first text on the election was published four months ago, to the day.

**SD is still, despite having the support of more than every fifth voter in some polls, treated as a pariah by some other parties, in entire disproportion to their actual opinions, and is seen as carrying some type of guilt by association. (Well in line with typical Leftist propaganda methods of condemn-everyone-insufficiently-PC-as-evil-to-the-core: SD is critical of immigration policies and rejects the gender-feminist world-view of “Patriarchy” and “constructs”.) For my part, I would consider S the more extreme and unbalanced of the two… Certainly, it is absurd when parties refuse to even risk winning a parliamentary vote through SD’s support. Consider, by analogy, if the U.S. Republicans (Democrats) would refuse their own bills and nominations if they needed the support from a handful of Democrats (Republicans) to push them through. See also several older texts, including e.g. [1] from before the 2010 election.

As far as I am concerned, the said two parties,“Centerpartiet”–“the center party” (C) and “Liberalerna”–“the liberals”* (L), have de-legitimized themselves entirely, and I cannot at this juncture consider either of Sweden and Germany a true democracy: Democracy is more than just formally having a democratic system—it also requires that the players behave democratically and do not just use the voters as a mere tool for their own purposes.

*I note that the Swedish word “liberal” kept its original meaning for a lot longer than in the U.S., whose “liberals” are often anti-liberals by older standards. Indeed, as late as when I was a teenager, I used the word to describe myself and was correctly understood. However, L has long flirted with the U.S. style of “liberalism”—the more so since a name change, a few years back, from the then “Folkpartiet” (“the People’s Party”).

Excursion on the election procedure:
A potentially severe flaw in the Swedish system is that the new government (resp. the prime minister who appoints the government) is elected within the parliament on a negative basis: Rather than picking whoever can get a majority (or plurality) behind him, the job goes to whoever is not explicitly rejected by a majority. This peculiar system has likely strongly contributed to the current problems, and was behind the absurd 1978 choice of L as sole government party—with 39 (!) out of 349 MPs and roughly one in nine of the (popular election) voters as a basis. (According to Swedish Wikipedia, the in-parliament vote showed 39 for, 66 against, and 215 abstaining, and since the 66 were well short of half… While I see nothing wrong with minority governments in principle, this is too much.) It might be time to experiment with e.g. a knock-candidates-out-until-one-has-a-majority system.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 11, 2019 at 8:50 pm

Thoughts around social class: Part II (prices etc.)

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As I have often remarked, the best way to create a society with a higher degree of wealth for those* with relatively little wealth and income, is not to redistribute the existing wealth (often at the risk of reducing it)—but to increase the overall wealth (even should it result in larger differences in distribution).

*I am troubled to find a good phrasing, with “poor” often being highly misleading, “disadvantaged” simultaneously a euphemism and (potentially) interpretable as a statement about opportunity (where the intended meaning relates to outcome), “lower class” too fixed in perspective, “less well off” either a euphemism or covering too large a group (depending on interpretation), …

The most obvious sub-topic is economic growth (e.g. in the rough GNP sense); however, for my current purposes, the area of prices and purchasing power is more relevant.* Trivially: If earnings rise faster than inflation** then every major group will (in real terms) earn more.*** This is, in turn, closely connected to factors that, directly or indirectly, relate to economic growth, including government policies, introduction of new or improvements to old technologies, energy prices, wastefulness or efficiency of business planning, …

*However, I have a text planned on some other aspects relating to growth.

**But note that inflation also has an effect on e.g. bank balances, which implies that not everyone will automatically grow wealthier in a stricter sense. These effects, however, will naturally hit people harder the more money they have—and might even be beneficial to those in debt.

***With a number of caveats and reservations when we look at the gritty details, e.g. that the distribution of increases is sufficiently reasonable, that there are no upsetting changes in (un-)employment patterns, and similar. Discussing such complications would lead to a far longer text.

A few observations relating to this sub-topic:

  1. The current “economic power” of e.g. a well-todo (but not outright rich) German is quite great in some areas, e.g. relating to food; however, it is quite poor in others, notably where the government or major businesses tend to be involved. For instance, laying a single meter of Autobahn costs roughly six thousand Euro—under ideal circumstance. In extreme cases, it can be more than twenty times as much. (Cf. [1], in German.) A clear majority of all Germans could not afford to build a single meter of Autobahn out of their monthly income—even taxes and living expenses aside… Looking at “discretionary income”, most would need to work for several months for this single meter—and real low-earners might need years.

    Through such examples, we can see a clear difference between living in a wealthy/well-fare/whatnot state and actually being wealthy. Indeed, as will be argued in a later installment, the vast majority of people are still (and might permanently remain) second- or third-class citizens in a bigger picture. (While, I stress, having far less to complain about than their grand-parents.) This includes very many who typically consider themselves successes in life, e.g. middle managers, most upper managers, professionals in good employment or running small businesses, …

    The Autobahn example also raises some questions on the effective use of tax-payer’s money: Chances are that these costs could be a lot lower with a greater efficiency—but when the politicians pay with someone else’s money, there is little need for efficiency.

  2. A particularly troublesome issue is rent, prices of apartments/houses/land, and building costs: Looking at the vast improvements in most other areas (in terms of better products and lower prices) we might expect even relatively poor earners to affordably live in their own houses or large apartments. The reality, excepting some unattractive areas, is very different. In booming areas, prices can even be preventative for many. Even in non-booming areas, the monthly rent or mortgage payment is often the single largest expense. To further increase the economic well-being of the people, reducing these prices should be a priority.

    To some part, these prices are caused by high localized population growth that is hard to work around in a timely manner—and lack of land can be a long-term issue for the duration. (Someone happy with an apartment can be accommodated e.g. by building higher; someone looking for a large garden either has to be loaded or live somewhere else.) However, there are other issues, including too long delays in building new apartments, building* costs, taxes**, luxury renovations***, “unnecessary”**** and temporary***** rentals, and undue realtor fees (see also several older texts, e.g. [2]).

    *For one thing, these are generally quite high in Germany, for reasons that include great demand, personnel costs (taxes and the employment construct; cf. a later installment), VAT, and a mentality with a disconnect between the value delivered and the price. For another, building methods, materials, “pre-fabrication”, …, have not advanced at the rate that they should have—possibly, because the building industry has little incentive for progress.

    **If a landlord makes a profit, he must pay taxes. Even if he does not make a profit, VAT will often be an issue. (Generally, note that taxes do not just hit an employee when he earns his money—they also hit him when he spends it, although usually in less obvious manners than income tax etc.)

    ***German law allows landlords to make many renovations, with a corresponding rent increase, even against the will of the tenant and in alteration of the terms of the contract. This is often used to artificially increase the rents considerably, and often with the side-effect that old tenants are forced to move out to be replaced by better earners.

    ****A common investment strategy in Germany is to buy a single apartment for the purpose of letting it for rent. This does increase the number of available rentals, but it also decreases the number of apartments available to those purchasing for own living, which (a) drives the prices up unnecessarily, (b) forces some people to rent who otherwise would buy.

    *****In times of project work, temporary assignments, and whatnot, increasing numbers work in cities for so short times that it does not pay to rent or buy a regular apartment, but still long enough that living in a hotel is unnecessarily expensive. This has led to a market of furnished apartments that are rented for weeks or months at a considerably higher than ordinary rent—and each of these apartments is removed from the regular market, increasing the deficit.

  3. A drop in prices is increasingly countered by product alternatives, product improvements, and product “improvements”, that partially or wholly move inexpensive products of the market in favor of more expensive ones. Consider e.g. the boom around various coffee machines, like Nespresso, Dolce Gusto, Senseo, which allows the sale of coffee grounds with an immense increase in markup.* Another good example is the continual replacement of computer models with more powerful and pricey versions. This is to some degree good, however, the simple truth is that, for most people, a modern computer already is more powerful than it needs to be, and that the average customer would be better off if technological advancements were directed at lowering costs. A particularly perfidious** example is toilet paper, which becomes more and more expensive the more plies it has, even at the same overall quantity***—and where even two-ply paper has been artificially removed from the B2C market.

    *This is an example where the customer still has the option to use the older and cheaper versions—and often are better off doing so. For instance, I have repeatedly had a Nespresso in temporary (furnished) apartments, but actually grew tired of the taste and tended to prefer drip brews. In my own apartment, I have a Dolce Gusto, which I used on a daily basis for a while, enjoying the greater variety, but I ultimately returned to drinking drip brews almost exclusively—I have not used the Dolce Gusto in months, despite having a dozen capsules still lying around. A Senseo that I owned some ten or fifteen years ago produced outright poor coffee, having a shorter preparation time as the sole benefit compared to a drip brew.

    **In the other discussed cases, I pass no moral judgment: That businesses try to gear customers towards more profitable products is only natural, while the customer does gets something in return and often still has a choice. The result might or not might not be unfortunate for the customer, but at least there is only rarely an ethical wrong-doing. With examples like toilet paper, the customer is left with no improvement and no choice—and is forced to pay the additional and unnecessary cost.

    ***One segment of four-ply is more expensive than two segments of two-ply, etc., even though the overall weight and volume is virtually the same, and even though the customer could just fold the two two-ply segments over another for what amounts to four-ply.

    Without such artificial market alterations, life could be a whole lot cheaper.

  4. A partially overlapping area is convenience products that reduce the work-load for the customer at an increase in monetary costs. This is most notable when it comes to food, where e.g. very few people bake their own breads and whatnots today, because the convenience of store-bought alternatives almost always outweighs the additional* costs—and despite own baking once being almost a given.** Indeed, most bread loaves appear to be sold even pre-sliced today—unlike just a few decades ago.*** Coffee was regularly ground by hand in earlier days; today, it is mostly**** bought pre-ground. “TV dinners” can reduce effort considerably, but are a lot more expensive than own cooking. Etc.

    *In this specific area, we might have reached a point where even the monetary cost of own baking exceeds the price of ready-made products; however, if so, this is not generally true and it was not originally true in this area either.

    **Indeed, further back, even more elementary steps (e.g. grinding flour) might have taken place at home; while subsistence farmers might even have provided most of the ingredients.

    ***Here the additional cost in the process is likely to be very small; however, the customers are potentially hit from another angle: Pre-slicing reduces the expected “best before” date.

    ****And the exceptions are likely almost exclusively for use in coffee machines that automatically grind beans.

    As an aside, these convenience products do not only bring a money–effort trade-off, but often result in less choice and/or suboptimal products. Consider e.g. the German pre-sliced cheese vs. the block cheese for manual slicing that is common in Sweden—to me, the former slices are too thick, simultaneously reducing how long a given quantity of cheese lasts and making sandwiches less healthy. Or consider the often quite poor nutritional profiles of TV dinners compared to own cooking.

  5. Luxury and brand products is an area bordering on the perfidious: Often these come with a value added; often they do not; and only very rarely is the value added comparable to the price hike. For the rich, this is not much of an issue; however, even the “middle class” is often well-advised to stay away from brand products without a plausible real* value added. Unfortunately, a liking for brand, or even luxury, products is quite common even among those who earn little—and here the effects can be outright dire, e.g. when a low-earner spends most off a small yearly surplus on shoes** instead of putting it in the bank for a rainy day.

    *As opposed to e.g. one that is explicitly or implicitly claimed in advertising, or one that only applies to other groups than the actual buyer: If, hypothetically, Nike brings a value-added to an Olympic runner, it is not a given that a junior-high student taking physical education also benefits.

    **To take an extreme fictional example, the infamous Carrie Bradshaw once discovered that she (a) could not afford her apartment, (b) had spent forty-or-so thousand USD on shoes over the years. Generally, she might be a good example in that she likely was not that low-earning, instead creating her recurring economic problems through wasteful living.

    In particular, it is a very great fallacy to assume that “more expensive” also implies “better”.

  6. Attempts to gain through large scale salary/wage increases, as attempted by unions, will not be overly successful without a simultaneous and independent trend towards lower prices (relative earnings). Not only will people with more money have a tendency to spend more,* which drives prices upwards, but the additional cost of work will also have an effect on product prices. Notably, there are often chain effects, e.g. that a wage hike in the mining industry increases metal prices, which increases costs in e.g. the machine industry, both metal prices and machine prices affect the tin-can industry, etc. If we, hypothetically, were to increase wages and salaries with a blanket ten percent, the individual businesses would not just see a ten-percent increase of cost of work—they would also see an increase of almost all other costs. While these other increases might fall well short of the full ten percent, they can still be sizable—and they will lead to a greater price increase on a business’ products than would a similar cost-of-work increase limited to only that business. (Also note e.g. that a three percent wage increase at two percent inflation is slightly better than a ten percent increase at nine percent inflation.)

    *Or e.g. work less to keep income roughly constant with an increase in spare time. Similarly, an employer who must pay his workers more might opt to employ fewer of them, e.g. through use of more automation. Such aspects will be largely left out, for the sake of simplicity.

    To some part, such increases can even amount to a competition between different unions and their members, in that any increase drives prices upwards, and that those with smaller increases will see a larger part killed by the resulting increase in prices. At least in theory, there could even be a net decrease in purchasing power for one union/member connected to the net increase seen by another.

  7. For similar reasons, naive sometime suggestions from the radical Left that everyone should earn the same, that the fortunes of Billy Gates et al. should be confiscated and divided among the people, and similar, will work poorly (even questions like ethics aside): Give people more money and they will (a) buy more, which drives prices up, and/or (b) work less, which forces businesses to page higher wages/salaries, which drives prices up. After a period of fluctuation, the lower earning/less wealthy would be back at roughly* the same purchasing power as before, and little would be gained. At the same time, the incentives to start businesses, come up with inventions, earn money, whatnot would be reduced, which would harm economic growth…

    *It would probably be a bit higher, but by nowhere near as much as expected in a naive calculation. Indeed, in some scenarios, the prices of lower-priced goods are likely to see unusually large increases, which would be particularly harmful. Consider e.g. a simplistic world of poor peasants and rich noblemen, of which the former live on bread and the latter on cake. Turn the noblemen into peasants and divide their money in equal shares among the population—and watch cake prices drop while bread prices increase. Either cake has to grow cheaper, or no-one will now be able to afford it. Bread, meanwhile, will be eaten by more people than before (unless the price decline for cake is very sharp) and the increased competition for this traditionally scarce resource will drive prices up.

As an aside, some of these items allow the customers a degree of own choice and prioritization, and quite a lot of money can be saved by making the more frugal choice.

Excursion on myself and brand products, etc.:
While I do not take frugality to an extreme, I have almost always tried to avoid expenses without a corresponding practical value to me. This includes avoiding brands that are “famous for being famous”, buying lamps* at hardware stores instead of department and pure lamp stores, having no qualms** about going into a “one euro” store, usually preferring the cheaper hotel to the hotel with more stars, and having never owned a car***. Outright luxury items have been quite rare and restricted to times of high income.

*For instance, when new in Wuppertal, I wanted to buy an uplight (?). Asking around, I was directed to a lamp store where prices started around three hundred Euro. I spent the extra time to find a hardware store and bought a perfectly satisfactory specimen at (possibly) sixty Euro. To boot, I found the visual design of the latter to be superior…

**These days, I suspect, few people are hesitant, but in earlier days I have heard strong negative opinions expressed towards these and similar stores, both in terms of perceived product quality and the risk of being seen as a pauper for visiting them. (Quality can be a legitimate concern for some products, but mostly the products are fine enough.)

***I have mostly lived in major cities with decent public transportation, and I prefer to walk when it is reasonably possible. Having a car would rarely have been worth the cost.

This, however, does not mean that I am skimpy when I see a benefit. Most notably, I have repeatedly taken sabbaticals to spend time on studies/writing and to enjoy life—while a year-or-so off work is very expensive, it really brings me something. (I strongly recommend it to those fortunate enough to have the opportunity.) However, I have also had no qualms about living in hotels or temporary apartments when working in other cities, even at distances where most others commute. If I can afford to cut out that extra one-to-two hours a day, with all that extra stress, having to go up earlier in the morning, having to wait longer before I can relax in the evening, etc., then I have a very real benefit. At the same time, I have always adapted to my income, e.g. in that I spend considerably less money on food, eating out, clothes, whatnot today (on a sabbatical) than I did a year ago (working full-time).

Written by michaeleriksson

November 12, 2018 at 1:15 am

Follow-up: Abuse of political power in Germany

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As a follow-up to an older text on Maaßen’s “resignation”:

Recent news is that the firing-by-promotion that was originally claimed has been replaced by an outright firing, the new job disappearing due to further Leftist criticism.

Specifically, his resignation speech appears to have been too much for them to swallow—never mind freedom of speech and whatnot.

I have read this speech (in German), and cannot agree with their reaction. Yes, I can see how some might see themselves slighted; no, it does not go beyond a reasonable expression of personal opinion, and is mostly cloaked in “diplomat speak”. It is certainly far more diplomatic than some of the statements directed against Maaßen… I lack the detail knowledge to judge the truthfulness/correctness of some claims (that require inside knowledge or even are a matter of interpretation or perspective); however, the general trend well matches my own view of German society. I also note that this is one of those cases where similar attacks would have been highly likely even if Maaßen was entirely truthful throughout—there are some claims that the Left does not tolerate even when they are both truthful and factually correct.

A core claim:

Am folgenden Tag und an den darauffolgenden Tagen stand nicht das Tötungsdelikt im politischen und medialen Interesse, sondern rechtsextremistische “Hetzjagden gegen Ausländer”. Diese “Hetzjagden” hatten nach Erkenntnissen der lokalen Polizei, der Staatsanwaltschaft, der Lokalpresse, des Ministerpräsidenten des Landes und meiner Mitarbeiter nicht stattgefunden. Sie waren frei erfunden.

Ich habe bereits viel an deutscher Medienmanipulation und russischer Desinformation erlebt. Dass aber Politiker und Medien “Hetzjagden” frei erfinden oder zumindest ungeprüft diese Falschinformation verbreiten, war für mich eine neue Qualität von Falschberichterstattung in Deutschland.

Gist in English:

After a murder (by a foreigner), the attention of politicians and media was not directed towards the murder, but towards alleged extreme-Right Hetzjagden* of foreigners. However, according to the local police, the DA, local press, the state president, and Maaßen’s own co-workers, these Hetzjagden had not taken place.** In his interpretation, politicians and media had either invented the alleged Hetzjagden or (re-)distributed misinformation without fact checking.

*I am unable to find a reasonable translation into English. Indeed, even the meaning in German is open to interpretation based on context. The literal meaning is a type of hunt (persistence hunt?), and could at an extreme be taken to involve e.g. foreigners being chased through the streets. A more metaphorical interpretation could include e.g. the type of negative political and media attention directed towards Maaßen, himself. Some overlap with a (metaphorical) witch-hunt could be present; however, that would be “Hexenjagd” in German.

**Note that much of the original criticism against Maaßen was based on his denial of these Hetzjagden. If his claims here are truthful, he was drawing on (mostly) independent sources that he had legitimate reason to consider both well informed and credible. This as opposed to just making a claim based on superficial knowledge from TV or prior prejudice.

Generally, German media, main stream politics, etc., does not seem to be aware of how much unreasonable Leftism there is. SPD (second largest party and member of the current coalition government) is to the Left of the U.S. Democrats; Die Linke, a direct descendant of GDR’s ruling communist party, is represented in parliament; and Die Grüne, a Left-dominated “green” party, also sits in parliament, and is at least partially* Left of the Democrats. In total, the Left-of-the-Democrat forces make up roughly forty percent of parliament… Despite this, the Left is ever again complaining about Rechtsruck** this and Rechtsruck that, trying to cause an anti-Right panic—despite concerns about undue and long-standing far Left influence being much more justified. (Not limited to parliament, but also including e.g. long traditions of “Autonomous” organizations, the Antifa, and other sources of hatred, violence, and the-end-justifies-the-means actions; and a strong dominance of media, with Die Linke and the Leftist part of Die Grüne being considerably stronger than even in the general population.)

*For natural reasons, it is heterogeneous when it comes to non-environmental issues and a blanket classification going beyond “Left-dominated” would be unfair.

**Roughly, “pull/move/scooch to the Right”—a vague and (intended to be) ominous slogan used by the Left whenever they fear that non-Leftist opinions are spoken too freely, that some people who “should” vote Left are suddenly not, or similar. Notably, it is not followed by arguments, being used instead of arguments.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 5, 2018 at 8:56 pm

Thoughts around social class: Addendum Part I

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Re-reading Thoughts around social class: Part I, I notice two (or three) points that benefit from expansion:

Firstly, I discussed socio-economic status just in terms of income and education, forgetting that profession/job/whatnot is normally a separate third leg.* I suspect that this third leg is not that important to my discussion, having less practical potential effects and, indeed, being more a matter of status for most people (after adjusting for income and education as separate factors). However, for the sake of completeness, this third leg goes the same way as the other two in my anecdotal examples: Contrasting me and my sister, I worked in various qualified positions in software development, including several variations of developer** (often as “senior”), architect, business analyst, and consultant, while she has spent a significant part of her life unemployed and (if I understood my step-father correctly) has finally found work as a personal-care assistant—with the same parents, we differ considerably on all three legs. My father’s mother was a nurse***, while my mother’s mother was some type of hospital orderly, which puts them in the approximate same area of work, but at different levels of competence, of status, and in the hierarchy; my father’s father was a teacher**** and even substitute principal, while my mother’s father was an ambulance driver*****—with parents differing on all three legs, my parents landed on roughly the same level.

*Which is not to say that these three legs are necessarily a universal definition. The concept is inherently ambiguous.

**There is a lot of title confusion in the world of IT, so take the title with a grain of salt. For instance, I once, switching employers, went from being a “software engineer” to being a “software developer”, with virtually no change in my actual work.

***Due to the difference in country and time, I am uncertain how her role compared in detail to that of a modern nurse with a certain qualification, e.g. a U.S. “registered nurse”. However, she had the title (“sjuksköterska”) and the formal education of the day to go with it. Also: Bear in mind that the career paths available to women of her (born 1914) generation were more restricted than today, implying that being a nurse was close to the ceiling for a woman in medicine. (Whereas a nurse of either sex, today, is implicitly someone short of being a physician.)

****Here too, the profession was more prestigious than today, albeit for other reasons than with women and nursing.

*****Had he been working today, he would probably have been qualified and classified as some type of EMT; however, in my understanding, these roles were not very developed at the time and the actual “loading” of patients and driving of the ambulance were the core tasks. It should be added, however, that he was active both with the Salvation Army and some type of union work (I am unaware of the details), appears to have been highly regarded in both roles, and might have scored well on a “fourth leg”.

Secondly, in my excursion on children, I discuss the degree of assistance that is appropriate. The topic of education is not relevant to that discussion; however, without mentioning education, the text is potentially misleading: An important overall theme is a reasonable degree of equality of opportunity and a high degree of social mobility. A wide availability of reasonably priced and reasonably high-quality education is vital to this—anyone with the right brain* should be able to get whatever level of education he desires. This could require additional measures, e.g. free or cheap state** schools of various kind, subsidized student loans, encouragement of scholarships, and similar.***

*This is an important restriction: Common ideas like that everyone needs more education, that anyone with the right degree can do the job well, that it is college that creates the great mind, whatnot are highly misguided. It would be in the best interest of both society and the individual to reduce the college-going proportion of the population, restore the quality of the education, and make a diploma the type of proof of ability that it should be. Similarly, chances are that e.g. the “no child left behind” attitude has done more harm than good to the overall school system, trying to force an impossible improvement on the untalented and reducing opportunities for the talented in the process.

**Private institutions must be allowed to set their own prices and admission criteria. This will cause some remaining inequality of opportunity, e.g. in that the rich can afford to pay for Harvard and the poor cannot. Still, this is far less negative than a situation in which only the rich can afford college at all. (And must be put in relation to the rights of the private colleges and the people behind it.) Further, without the right brain, money is not enough. (Of course, a high-reputation college that admits and graduates students mostly based on money is not inconceivable—but how long would its reputation remain high?)

***Assuming that we work within something resembling the current system. I am very open to changes, and like to note that education already is available at a low cost even in the U.S.—the diploma is the expensive part… Some restriction on type of education might be sensible, e.g. in that studies for professional qualification are subsidized, whereas other studies are not, seeing that the former (a) are more important for equality of opportunity, (b) bring more value to society; while the latter is more of a personal satisfaction/development/whatnot issue. The latter does not require a diploma and can be taken care of outside of college. Indeed, my own “extra-mural” studies would easily cover a (sufficiently tailored) B.A. in “liberal arts”/“general studies”. (However, more detailed thought on the restrictions might be necessary, both with an eye on those who target an academic career and the difficulty of judging what education has what benefit. For instance, I have heard claimed that English is a better major than journalism for those who want to be journalists, despite the difference in professional orientation.)

Thirdly, parenthetically, a more explicit comparison between my parents might be beneficial. However, due to the great differences in choices and developments, going beyond “roughly the same level” is tricky. The one is an orange and the other an apple—but neither one is a grape or a melon.

Excursion on the changing status of professions:
Re-reading the early footnotes, I am struck with the change of status of professions (over-lapping with one sub-topic I intend to include later). My aforementioned move from “software engineer” to “software developer” is coincidental in this regard, but it does illustrate an on-going devaluation of software development: With the great need for developers, too many incompetents have been let in, and the idea of a software engineer seems to have gone down the drain, be it with regard to status, qualifications, or approach. Following current trends, I would not be surprised to see the profession move to a similarly low status position as teaching within one or two decades—this especially as teaching still tends to be a regulated profession, while software development is not. (The other way around would have been better…)

Remark on the rest of this series:
I suspect that there will be some delay with the remaining parts, because I have problems finding a reasonable structure for what I want to say—to the point that I cannot even tell whether there will be two, three, or four parts in all…

Written by michaeleriksson

October 23, 2018 at 5:14 am