Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Politics

Follow-up II: The German 2017 election

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In October 2017 I wrote:

We are now two weeks past the last German parliament election, and there is still no certainty about who will rule with whom—however, there is a fair chance that we will be rid of the conservative CDU/CSU and social-democrat SPD coalition.

The current situation is depressing in (at least) two regards:

Firstly, even now, close to five months after the election, the issue has not yet been entirely settled, a renewal of the CDU/CSU and SPD coalition only now being finalized. At this tempo, it would have been faster to hold a re-election and settle the issue properly. Certainly, a re-election would have been a better solution for other reasons (cf. below).

Secondly, the result, this renewal, is the worst case scenario. (Among those with a realistic chance of occurring.) The only positive thing that might come of it is a further weakening of SPD. (Cf. my original post.) Sadly, this situation is partially the consequence of a more natural coalition partner doing the right thing—unlike SPD.

As I have written before, this type of coalition poses a major threat to democracy, grossly violating the trust given to these parties by their voters, and even eliminating the relevance of the voters’ will from the process: Any vote not given to CDU/CSU or SPD is effectively wasted—and any that was given to them only marginally affects who is the stronger party within the government that would have been anyway. At the same time, politicians often complain that too few people vote, sometimes even in an accusatory manner*. Why should people bother voting when their votes have so little effect? When they know that the politicians merely see them as a means to end or, worse, as a mere nuisance? To boot, such extremely long negotiations prior to forming an alliance ignores the will of the voters for an unconscionable amount of time, during which the old government, based on an election long past, continues to rule**.

*Along the lines of the non-voters not doing their civic duty.

**In this specific case, the harm is small, seeing that one constellation of an unholy alliance is replaced by another constellation of the same unholy alliance; however, this would not generally be the case.

Unfortunately, this problem of a Democracy Lost is not in anyway unique to Germany—it is a global phenomenon. It is, however, more tragic in Germany, where the awareness of the dangers rightfully should be larger than elsewhere, seeing both how the Nazi used and abused a democratic process to gain power and how a quarter of the country was stuck in a totalitarian pseudo-democracy for most of the post-war period.

As an excursion, while the current situation proves that the German election system is flawed, it does not necessarily prove the superiority of e.g. the U.S. (republic) or U.K. (parliamentary, first-past-the-pole) systems over an (almost) plain representational parliamentary system. The latter is used with considerably less problems (to-date, knock-on-wood) in e.g. Sweden, due to a small-but-crucial difference: The German system is geared at having a majority government; the Swedish at a plurality government—in rare cases even a (non-plurality) minority. Governing without a parliamentary majority does weaken the rulers, but it has so far worked well (in those case where no majority was reached). Furthermore, a plurality government is more democratic than a forced, unnatural majority of the type currently ruling Germany—it can even be argued that it does better than a majority government, since smaller parties are given more sway and a chance to influence at least some issues through actual voting (as opposed to debating and working on committees). I might even go as far as saying that a weaker government is often a positive in its own right, keeping the politicians (less dis-)honest and preventing too much damage to be caused by those incompetent or too driven by ideological agendas. An exception occurs, obviously, in times of great crises, notably wars, where a strong government can be imperative—but there is no such crisis. (For that matter, a government that does not yet exist, due to lengthy negotiations, is even weaker than a weak government that does exist…)

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Written by michaeleriksson

February 13, 2018 at 12:27 am

A few thoughts on the crisis in Venezuela (and the importance of incentives)

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With Venezuela hitting the spot-light again, I decided to read up a little, specifically with the Wikipedia pages on the economy of Venezuela and on the Venezuelan economic collapse of 2016, and at least skimming several other articles, e.g on the Economic policy of the Hugo Chávez administration and Economic policy of the Nicolás Maduro administration.

These are two simultaneously very disturbing and very enlightening reads, especially when combined with e.g. the experiences gathered in the Soviet Union or, more recently, in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Extreme government control, lack of respect for private ownership and the rights of the individual, the lack of incentives to create growth, …, appears to lead to economic disaster everywhere it is tried. (As, of course, predicted by many more free-market minded economists for a very long time.) If we want economic growth, it is central to give people a reason to try to build something for themselves or their families, to make their own lives better, to give those who want to work or start business easy opportunity to do so, etc.; at the same time, it is valuable to have a connection between benefit and cost, to avoid waste and poor resource use. The ideas of Ayn Rand are often naively optimistic or simplistic, but the core principles are the right one—and while human nature causes capitalism and free markets to fail to some degree, its effect on strongly socialist, communist, “central planning” societies is far greater. A sad twist is that poverty often breeds an (understandable) wish for e.g. greater redistribution between “haves” and “have nots”, greater government control, etc.—but that these very measures salt the earth and reduce economic growth. (At least when taken beyond some point. See also an excursion below.)

The starting observation is that Venezuela is one of the poorest countries on earth, and currently likely has the worst developing economy—when it should be a very rich country. Indeed, in the mid twentieth century, it was… Why? Because Venezuela is one of the world’s most oil-rich countries, and oil, now as then, is an immense source of richness. (As can readily be seen by some oil-rich Arab countries; or by how Norway went from trailing Sweden to outclassing it in wealth, after beginning to exploit its North-Sea oil.) Today, “poverty” is too weak a word for the problem: Venezuela is suffering the equivalent of a severe heart-attack—and cannot afford a physician…

To detail what went wrong from then till now would require far deeper studies, but much of it can simply be grouped under the heading “unsound politics”, largely of an extreme Leftist character. Partially overlapping, partially not, we have problems like corruption, crime, and violence. A cardinal error is the over-reliance on oil, making the country vulnerable to economic crisis when the oil price falls—and to over-spending when it rises. A strong, functioning economy would benefit considerably from oil, but oil would not be its only leg: Other industries and areas of business, be it cars, electronics, software, various services, …, would be additional sources of wealth and dampen the fluctuations caused by oil.

To look at some more specific issues from the Wikipedia articles*:

*With the obvious reservation that I do not personally vouch for their correctness—and that I do not bring a great prior expertise on Venezuela. The contents do match my previous, more shallow, impressions both during the Chávez era and the last few years very well, however. Further, with the reservation that this is a very incomplete listing with few details; those interested really should read the original articles.

  1. Social programs* like the Bolivarian Missions have reduced incentives for the people to work and caused a massive cost burden, the harder to carry when oil prices were unfavorable.** At least one included land expropriations, disrupting existing production and giving land-owners great incentives to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Others have aimed at e.g. creating more cooperatives in lieu of regular businesses—despite the disputable or outright poor results such have had when attempted elsewhere (largely, in my opinion, due to poor incentives).

    *Apparently instituted more to gain political support among the poor than to actually improve their lives. Their effectiveness at the ostensible goals appears to have been limited. My take would have been far more positive, had the success rate been greater.

    **I stress that I do not rule out that there have been positive effects to counter-balance the negative; especially since Venezuela, even then, had people who actually were poor—not the “poor” people of today’s Germany or Sweden. However, this post is specifically about the development of the economy. Apart from those programs focusing on teaching, there is mostly negative or neutral effects to be found or expected.

  2. Property expropriations of various kinds (cf. also above) that give owners, including foreign companies and investors, incentives to leave.
  3. Price controls that reduce the incentives to produce and import (or increase the incentives to export) contributing to shortages and creating black markets. In the case of gas, effectively sold by the government, this also implied a missed income opportunity compared to selling the gas far more profitably abroad and finding other arrangements for the domestic situation. (This especially since the low gas price almost certainly led to wasteful use.)

    Of course, the help for the population is dubious: What good are lower prices when there is nothing to buy? What about the opportunity cost of standing in line, Soviet style, wasting time that could have gone towards earning money (usable to pay for more expensive goods)?

  4. Trying to keep the exchange rate to the U.S. dollar at an unrealistic level, reducing the country’s competitiveness, incurring additional costs, (again) creating black markets, … I also strongly suspect that this, contrary to intentions, has strongly contributed to the degree of inflation: Firstly, this type of dual rates could make the people lose faith in the currency and consider it worthless, rather than worth less. Secondly, it becomes a second choice for currency, seeing how much easier everything goes if one has a few dollars. That a price spiral (in the native Bolivares) then occurs is not the least surprising—and an actually usable currency with a single exchange rate would be preferable, even if this one exchange rate is far less favorable than the government prefers.
  5. Allowing* oil output to fall: This reduced the oil income even at times of high prices and made the fall in prices the more hurtful.

    *The word should be seen with some caution. This was likely a hard-to-prevent side-effect of other policies, and it might not have been in the power of e.g. Chávez to prevent. However, a government take-over certainly did not help…

Of course, these and other factors often interact negatively in vicious circles, e.g. in that poor living conditions and prospects make the best and the brightest leave the country, thereby reducing productivity and the attractiveness of Venezuela as a place of business, thereby worsening living conditions and prospects further. Or consider how poverty leads to more crime, which leads to less incentives to work and to run businesses, which leads to more poverty. There are also very often direct and indirect negative side-effects (in addition to the above), especially through the immense inflation of recent years—as well as, if to a lesser degree, the “merely” very high inflation of the decades preceding them.

What can be done to save the country? Barring a miraculous rise of oil prices followed by a complete turn-around in economic and other policy, I see little hope. The least bad resolution that is realistic might be a complete collapse and a fresh start—to build something new from the ashes, even if it means that the road is that much longer. Superficially reasonable analogies might be found in the German Weimar Republic or possibly the German or Japanese post-WWII economies—all instances of rapid recuperation from a disastrous situation. However, these situations differed in many regards, including that there was a strong tradition of successful industry and a great number of bright and educated people in the country, that the problems were largely caused by external events (own culpability notwithstanding), and that the state of the rest of the world made it far easier to become internationally competitive again. In the latter two cases, considerable external support have to be added.

Excursion on GINI and similar:
I deliberately do not include issues like “income inequality” or a high GINI* value, even though these can be common Leftist complaints. These are not normally problems per se; and might even, within limits, be positive. The real issue is something very different: Lack of social mobility, where our parents’ fortune or lack of fortune do more to determine our fortunes than do our own efforts. When the poor-but-bright-or-industrious can end up being wealthy, they are far more likely to have hope and to realize those hopes; and larger parts of society will strive to build something. On the other hand, when they have little chance of making themselves a good life, why should they bother?** (Be it because there is too little social mobility or because even a middle-class life is not very good, as has usually been the case in e.g. most Leftist dictatorships.) Similarly, I do not put that much stock in complaints about imperialism, foreign ownership, and other ever-recurring examples of Leftist scape-goats: Even if the actual profits were to leave the country, there are still positive effects in terms of local employees earning money, infrastructure improvements, foreigners spending money locally, … All other factors equal, local ownership is better for the locals; however, the factors seldom are equal—and experiences point to it being better to have foreign owners running a well-managed and profitable operation than, like in Venezuela, having locals running a disastrously mismanaged one.

*Another reason to consider GINI complete bullshit is that it is too simplistic a measure, not taking absolute wealth levels into account, potentially giving the same value for very different income distributions, and, above all, not considering why a certain situation has arisen (e.g. politics, demographics, high or low social mobility).

**In a twist, countries like Sweden and Germany can suffer from the reverse problem with the same effect—if someone can have a materially great life without putting in an effort, then why bother with the effort?

Excursion on approaches to raising living standards:
Venezuela well exemplifies an ever-recurring difference between the approaches of the Left and and large parts of the non-Left—the former focuses on changing the division of the pie, even at the risk of making the pie smaller; the latter at making the pie larger, even at the risk of increasing the difference in pie slices. In most cases, even the poor seem to fair better with the second approach…

Written by michaeleriksson

January 11, 2018 at 12:35 am

Fire and Fury

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I am currently almost half-way through the controversial book Fire and Fury, discussing the early phases of Trumps presidency. After some internal back-and-forth, I have decided not to bother with the second half:

On the one hand, getting some insight into the Trump administration from someone who has seen it from the inside seems like a good idea, in light of both the extremes of Trump himself and the possible turning point in U.S. politics his presidency could (but need not) be.

On the other:

  1. The book is abysmally poorly written, be it with regard to grammar, style, structure, … My impression is that the author was told to have a certain word count ready by a certain date—and kept far more attention to that word count than anything else. If this is the work of an award-winning journalist, then I see my low opinion of journalists and journalism confirmed.
  2. The information density is quite low, and many of the claims are obvious speculation (including regarding the intents of others) or subjective opinions—often by someone else than the author.

    Much of the rest is off-topic. Indeed, to this point, a disturbingly large portion of the book has simply been very amateurish mini-biographies of various individuals related to Trump’s campaign or presidency. Now, these can have some justification, e.g. in order to understand who is who and what their places in the bigger scheme is, or what might motivate them—but is not justified to fill out most of the book in that manner and with this type of writing. Most of these biographies could be reduced to a single page.

    In the last chapter that I read, “CPAC”, pages are spent retelling events happening on stage…

  3. Much of the relevant information has long been common knowledge or easily predictable based on Trump’s history, making parts of the book less revelation and more reiteration.
  4. Books that fail to be informative can often compensate through being entertaining (and vice versa). This one does not…

The likely most worth-while point, in the parts read by me, is the take that Trump might not actually have wanted to be president, having instead seen the campaign as a publicity opportunity—and that this was something shared by some key figures in his campaign, who thought that they would lose but make themselves a name and improve their future opportunities. While I have heard somewhat similar speculation on a few occasions, it has never been on this scale. In a twist, this puts an earlier post of mine in a new light: What if a poor candidate, deliberately looking lose, is faced with so poor an opponent that he wins anyway?

A lot of the controversy around the book has arisen due to the reactions by Trump (and some other persons concerned) to it. Lacking own insider knowledge, I cannot judge to what degree the book’s portrayals of persons and events are accurate; however, even if we assume that the factual contents, per se, are correct, this book is bound to be seen as an insult: The way the book is written, the way virtually everyone is painted as stupid, naive, amoral, out of his depth, and/or otherwise unsuited for this-and-that, goes well beyond what is warranted in even a highly critical treatment.* Moreover, this must have been obvious to any even semi-qualified author, editor, and publisher. This leaves us with the question why this approach was chosen. In my current estimate, it is likely a deliberate attempt to provoke reactions and debate in order to drive up sales—which has, obviously, been quite successful. Other potential explanations include using existing** anti-Trump sentiments to … drive up sales; and an attempt to increase such sentiments for political purposes.

*A serious book would discuss the actual facts at hand and let them point the way for conclusions—and if the facts are bad this will be enough to achieve the right effect. Here we have a tendentious mixture of slights, speculation, negative angling, …, that falls only an inch short of literally calling people idiots. (In all fairness, my own writings have occasionally included even the remaining inch; however, this is a blog and not a best-selling book on politics—and I would rate the average level of diplomacy in my writings higher.)

**People tend to prefer to read things that confirm what they already believe—and there are millions of disappointed Hillary supporters (and other Democrats, and quite a few Republicans) who have extremely negative opinions of Trump.

Actually, there is one other very important question: Given how the author has proceeded, what degree of credibility can we give his book? It could be truth from cover to cover; it could be a pack of lies; it could be somewhere in between. (If the latter, what parts are true and what false?) Having no way of knowing which, my reasons for reading the book are largely voided: I wanted to gain some insights from within—and I am left with Trump might or might not be (or believe/have said/done/…) X, Bannon might or might not be Y, Kushner might or might not be Z, …

As an aside, Trump and I might share opinions about e.g. privacy and how house-keeping should behave (I have a few posts in the pipe-line that touch related topics), with the book saying things like:

In the first days he ordered […] a lock on the door, precipitating a brief standoff with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.”

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2018 at 11:44 pm

That noble cause

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One of the greatest problems with today’s democracies, possibly societies, is the over-focus on “noble causes” and populist single issues*, while firstly failing to provide a program that is suitable for society as a whole, secondly ignoring the negative effects of the solutions to these causes, thirdly often providing unrealistically easy solutions and measures, fourthly not bothering to truly find out whether these causes are just or at all relevant. To boot, the causes are often misrepresented or presented so simplistically that uninformed voters draw incorrect conclusions.** And, no, I am not talking about populist or one-item upstarts—I am talking about established main-stream parties and politicians.

*I will use “cause” to denote both below, for the sake of simplicity, but without an intended limitation in meaning. This especially since the border between the two can be hard to detect or depend strongly on perspective.

**Be it deliberately or because the politicians’/propagandists’ own understanding is too shallow. Both can apply, but I suspect that in the more strongly ideological movements the latter is the greater problem.

The reason is easy to understand: Such causes are easier to sell to the broad masses, and promise greater gains in votes than a more responsible and nuanced approach. This especially since there is often a cost–benefit distribution that leaves a smaller group considerably better off and/or seeing its demands met, while the rest of the population takes a small hit and/or is unaware of the larger hit it does take: The smaller group sees enough benefit to influence its decision making; the larger group does not see enough detriment to be moved to opposition. Of course, while the cost of one cause might be small, the accumulated cost of a few dozen can be quite large…

In most cases, however, such approaches are at best irresponsible, at worst highly detrimental. A good example is the common “Green” drive to abolish nuclear power at all costs, especially exploiting the fears around nuclear accidents with a mixture of fear-mongering and misrepresentation. Look at what happened in Germany with its “Energiewende”*: At an enormous cost, a government intervention succeeded in considerably increasing the use of renewable energies; but this was all wasted, because the corresponding reductions in use of other sources were mostly limited to nuclear power—with the use of the far more problematic fossil fuels actually increasing**… Exaggerated fear of nuclear power left the environment worse off than before the Energiewende!

*Roughly, “energy turn-around” or “energy revolution” (“revolution” having unnecessarily strong connotations).

**At the time I last looked into numbers, possibly two years ago: In the long term, this will obviously be better. An improvement might or might not already have taken place, but I am not optimistic—and even if it has, it does not change my point: The brunt of the reduction should have been put on fossil fuels to begin with, with reduction of nuclear power being a mere nice-to-have.

Schooling* is another good example, even source of examples: Every now and then some nit-wit politicians insists that more schooling is needed to solve this-or-that societal problem, without considering consequences (cf. e.g. [1]). Every now and then some change is implemented to solve a problem with the current schooling that ends up making things worse (notably in math education). Every now and then disproportionate extra regulations are added (e.g. in that small children are suspended for a triviality, like using a hand as a pretend-gun or kissing someone on the cheek, because there is a fear of real gun use or sexual harassment among high schoolers). Etc.

*The recurring reader is aware that I am highly critical of schooling, as opposed to education, in general. Here, however, I do not deal with this overall problem, just with the additional problems caused by unwise new measures pushed through to solve some (perceived or real) problem in the guise of a “cause”.

Of course, sometimes the cause can be something more trivial, yet still have a downside not appropriately considered. For instance, recent regulations in NRW (my state/Bundesland of residence in Germany) require all apartments to have a smoke alarm; this smoke alarm has to be serviced by a professional once a year. Now, I could easily imagine that the installation of a smoke alarm has a net benefit: The one-time cost is not overly large and it can help with saving lives. However, an annual servicing? This is a recurring cost and forces tenants to take a significant chunk out of their workday*. And: It brings very little benefit… I note that the voluntary smoke alarms of old usually went entirely without service, barring a battery change every few years; that the likelihood of malfunction within a year is so small that the value added through the service is negligible; that even the requirement to have a smoke alarm is not universal, making the service requirement disproportional; that e.g. the chimney inspection for my gas heating (which can actually cause or contribute to a fire) is once every three years; and that the number of apartment fires in Germany has dropped very considerably over time anyway. (I also note that there are many who suspect that even the requirement to have a smoke alarm in the first place is driven mostly by manufacturer lobbyism… Cf. e.g. a German article.) Five years, for instance, might be an appropriate service interval with regard to costs and benefits—one year is not even remotely close.

*Based on my limited experience so far, the service company one-sidedly dictates the time and date, which then naturally tends to fall in the middle of the ordinary work-day. Combine this with a commute…

The problems do not end with the negative side-effects or the lack of benefit, however. Consider the relevance of a cause: For instance, many political causes of today are strongly rooted in the non-negotiable premise that any difference in outcome goes back to a difference in opportunity. With such a world-view, many problems are severely exaggerated or even created out of the blue. Is is a cause for government intervention (e.g. through affirmative action) if the proportion of women on a certain corporate or governmental level, or even within a certain field, is lower than roughly 50 %? No! We have to consider aspects like voluntary choices and life priorities, potentially differing skill sets and levels, differing interests, … Now, if we can determine that the same proportion of men and women want to do or be X, that they have the same skills, that they are willing to sacrifice as much to get there, …, then we might have a cause for government intervention. There is, however, no proof that this is the case—on the contrary, even the attempt to prove it is usually left out: We see a difference in outcome; ergo, it must be discrimination, indoctrination, Patriarchy, structures, …

A particularly insidious problem is that such causes are often insatiable: Once the original goal has been reached, the goal posts are moved further away; with the same thing happening again and again, every time the next goal is accomplished. In many cases, the point is exceeded where a fight for justice/equality/liberty/… is turned into its opposite, because the push has gone too far. Very often, the continual pushing of the goal posts is only possible through (typically intellectually dishonest) re-definitions, deliberate misinterpretation of statistic, “willful ignorance”, or similar means. A good example is poverty, which in modern Leftist rhetoric is usually taken to mean e.g. someone earning less than a percentage of the average—making people “poor”, who have in their lives never gone hungry or lacked a roof over their heads, and opening the doors for vote fishing with “childhood poverty” even in countries like Sweden and Germany.* How absurd such a measure is, is proved by the fact that it is possible for someone to grow “poor” when, all other factors equal, someone else becomes wealthier…

*In these countries, childhood poverty, in any real sense, is almost non-existent. Poverty, in general, does exist, but is rare and is mostly either limited to short times or caused by own negligence or laziness. Even the single mother working a minimum wage job, which is one the worst long-term and non-negligent situations that do occur, would be the envy of many of her ancestors—no matter how unfortunate her situation is compared to the current average. As for her children: I had a similar situation for several years of my own childhood—and grew fat and spoiled. In the roughly 35 years since, things have not changed for the worse.

This cause obsession leads to poor decisions and poor policy, it raises taxes, introduces inefficiencies, limits personal freedom, worsens bureaucracy, … The positive effects are usually considerably smaller. I urge the politicians to be more responsible in their actions; the voters to never support a cause they have not understood.

(Many other examples than the discussed can be found, especially within the Left and the PC crowd, or looking at some charities, that reward the giver with a warm feeling, keep their employees paid, make the chairman and the odd middle-man wealthy, and achieve very little for the needy.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 10, 2017 at 2:01 am

Trump’s presidency so far

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We are now well past the 300th day of Trump’s presidency, and have correspondingly seen more than three times the customary 100-day grace period*. At the same time, Trump just made one of his more controversial decisions in acknowledging Jerusalem as the Israeli capital (discussed in an excursion below), which moves me to a short evaluation of the presidency so far. Currently, I have my thumb cautiously angled slightly upwards, where e.g. Obama saw it angled slightly downwards; and I note that there has yet to be any major disaster caused by him, any catastrophic misjudgment made, any war started, …—contrary to what some protesters seemed to predict, the world has not ended.

*Which, sadly, was not even remotely respected by many of his opponents, with significant protests taking place even before he began his presidency…

To look at some* more specific points on the upside (downside follows further down):

*To cover all possible issues would explode the size of this post and force me to do far more research than I have time for. In addition, some issues, e.g. economic and fiscal development, could only be judgable years from now. Of course, the point of this post is not to give a scholarly analysis—just to give a rough indication of why my thumb points the way it does.

  1. He provides a much needed shaking-up of the political establishment—and possibly in a way that few or no others could: His financial means, his weak support within his own party from day one, and his lack of “debt” to other politicians, allows him to follow his own mind without fear of repercussions; and his background gives him an “outsider view”. This was something that could be hoped for during his candidacy, but he is actually coming through in this regard.
  2. He actually tries to do the right* thing—not the popular thing. (As with Jerusalem.) This is something other politicians should use an example. Similarly, he has the audacity to speak the truth on matters where politicians are expected to lie (unless they are poorly informed). Notable cases include condemnation of the current press** and his statements around Charlottesville.

    *According to his own understanding and opinion. These are not necessarily shared by me.

    **However, Trump goes farther than I do and tends to be a little too driven by reactions to criticism, rather than the severe flaws displayed by much of the press (e.g. poor research, absent critical thinking, ideologically colored reporting).

  3. He has made significant attempts to cut-down on regulation, turning the long negative trend.
  4. He is committed to, if as yet not entirely successful in, removing or limiting the ObamaCare* regulations.

    *While ObamaCare might look good on paper, actual experiences, in my impression, has shown it to do more harm than good. To boot, massive government intervention and mandatory programs are rarely a good idea—and often very hard to get rid of once there. Certainly, ObamaCare, from the outset, failed to address the real problem in the U.S. health care system: Costs that are ridiculously high compared to what they should be and are in other countries. If anything, programs of the ObamaCare type serve to increase the cost further…

  5. He has a no nonsense attitude towards the PC crowd, its rhetoric, absurd ideas and demands, …—a welcome and much needed change.

On the down-side:

  1. His current lack of popularity could set the Republicans back in other elections, possibly severely. This could lead to a Democrat dominance in other areas, including the House; and it does not promise well for the next presidential election. Not only is it a bad thing in general when one party gains dominance, but with the current set of policies to be expected from the Democrat direction, and the strong tendencies of political correctness, feminism, equality of outcome, etc., a specifically Democrat dominance could turn out to be a very bad thing. (However, I note that I am not a Republican or Trump supporter—I just see them as the decidedly lesser evil compared to, respectively, the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.)
  2. He has, not entirely unexpectedly, proved to be too ego centric, even border-line dictatorial, in his leadership style. If he continues in this manner, especially in the unlikely event of his re-election, this can at some point have negative consequences—if nothing else, in the form of dissenting advisers being removed or ignored, with a resulting one-sidedness in the decision-making process.
  3. Restrictions on free-trade could do non-trivial harm to both the U.S. and rest of the world, even if the U.S. is likely a country with good potential* for doing well without free-trade. Then again, not very much has actually happened in this direction, leaving us mostly with the attitude against free trade that was already known from his campaign.

    *The U.S. combines vast natural resources, a great variation in climate and geography, a large population, a low population density, high R & D, a decent infrastructure, and a reasonably strong level of skill and education (a dropping standard notwithstanding). I doubt that even the U.S. would have a net-gain from restricting free trade (although individual industries might), but the damage to be expected is smaller than for e.g. Sweden, Germany, Japan, Canada, …, should they impose similar restrictions.

  4. There are several other areas, including “net neutrality” and privacy, where his influence might have strong negative effects.

One area that can be very hard to judge is appointments/nomination of officials, particularly for a non-specialist. Lacking the expertise and overview to make any reasonable judgment, I have left this area out above. However, I note that his possibly most criticized choice, Neil Gorsuch (on whom I did a bit of reading), appears to be very well qualified*, having not just a J.D., a pseudo-doctorate that all too often is the terminal degree of jurists, but additionally a real doctorate.* His opinions appear to be sensible and moderated, and he moved by reason. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the criticism was more due to him not being the “social justice warrior” so often craved by the dumb masses, or possibly through “guilt by association” (with Trump). In contrast, some of the darlings of the masses are much more problematic: Sonia Sotomayor, e.g., ended her academic career with a J.D. and appears to be a party-line Democrat; there is great reason to believe that Obama was motivated by her sex and ethnicity more than her competence.**

*While there is nothing wrong for e.g. a practicing lawyer or a lower-level judge to end with a J.D., I would set my standards higher for the Supreme Court. That a lack of a real doctorate is not a rare exception borders on a disgrace (as does the, likely connected, strong political/ideological aspect of the nominations).

**Apart from the relative rarity of strong candidates that are both women and non-White, I can e.g. quote Obama’s campaign promise of a candidate with “the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it’s like to be a teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old.” (Quoted second hand from Sotomayor’s Wikipedia page.) In a twist, Gorsuch had his children as an adult male, and is very well-off, White, straight, without (as far as I know) disabilities—and quite young for a Supreme Court judge…

Another tricky area is environment: On the one hand, he appears to prioritize profit and competitiveness over the environment; on the other, other politicians can be too driven by panic or a wish to gain from panicking masses. His often criticized withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement need not be a big deal: I have seen several sources, including [1], arguing that this was even a positive move. (I have not dwelled deeply enough into the issue to have a strong own opinion, but I note that such agreements sometimes lead to positive changes, sometimes are nothing but empty words.)

Excursion on Jerusalem as capital of Israel: This has long been Israels own position, and considering that Jerusalem is a part of Israel (some de jure; all de facto), it borders on the idiotic for other states to not recognize the fact. (On the outside, it can be disputed whether Jerusalem as a whole should be considered the capital, as Israel claims, or just the internationally recognized Israeli parts. Using this to refuse recognition borders on sophistry, however.) By analogy, if West-Germany had chosen to keep its capital (West-)Berlin, who could have any reasonable legal or ideological objections?* One might argue that the choice by Israel is a provocation to the Arabs, but considering that Jerusalem is the largest city in Israel, that it is the historical capital, and that it has immense symbolic value to the Jews, deliberate provocation is certainly not needed to give Israel a strong motivation for the choice; an accidental provocation, on the other hand, would mostly reflect the unduly hostile and anti-Israel attitude of the provoked groups. Trump’s action, in turn, can only** legitimately be criticized for reducing the U.S. chances to contribute to diplomatic resolutions.

*Pragmatical and strategical objections abound, however: Having ones capital as an enclave in a hostile country is not a brilliant idea…

**Some criticism raised dealt with the claimed need for a two-state solution. I do not agree with this claimed need (and do not necessarily see it as threatened by the status of Jerusalem): Israel is a democracy where Jews and Muslims/Arabs/Palestinians/whatnots have equal rights—and the standards of living for non-Jews is higher than in neighboring countries. It is not Nazi-Germany, nor even the old South-Africa. Want to remove Israel as a Jewish state, Arabs? Recognize it, embrace it, and migrate there, until you have the majority of the citizens. Israel is, barring the violence, a good country to live in—and compared to Syria, Iraq, and a few other Arab/Muslim countries, there is less violence… A two-state solution is only needed to satisfy anti-Israel bigotry.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 8, 2017 at 8:17 am

Follow-up: The German 2017 election

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Six or seven weeks ago, I wrote “We are now two weeks past the last German parliament election, and there is still no certainty about who will rule with whom”.

This is now more true than it was back then, because the coalition talks between CDU/CSU, FDP, and the Greens have failed. There is great insecurity, and even the option of a new election is on the table.

To some degree, this is bad; to some, it gives me great hope, because of the motivation given by FDP leader Christian Lindner for why he terminated the talks. What I wrote in a footnote about the preceding CDU/CSU and SPD coalition was “[…]it had two parties in bed with each other that simply do not belong together. This type of coalition amounts to a breach of the voters trust and is by its nature not very democratic.”—and Lindner, highly unusually for a politician, appears to have an at least similar take on the ethics of coalition building.

To give some quotes from his speech (translations somewhat approximate due to idiom):

Nach Wochen liegt aber heute unverändert ein Papier mit zahllosen Widersprüchen, offenen Fragen und Zielkonflikten vor. Und dort, wo es Übereinkünfte gibt, sind diese Übereinkünfte erkauft mit viel Geld der Bürger oder mit Formelkompromissen.

(

After weeks we still have a document* with countless contradictions, open issues, and conflicting targets. And where there is consent, the consent is bought with large amounts of tax payers’** money or [formulaic compromise]***.

*Referring to the preliminary agreement, common statement, whatnot, which would have been the result of the negotiations and the base for the coalition.

**More literally, “citizen”.

**I am not aware of an English equivalent, and to boot this is one of the rare occasions where I learned a new German word. Wikipedia gives an explanation amounting to “we pretend to have reached a compromise, while actually leaving the issue open for the time being”.

)

Es hat sich gezeigt, dass die vier Gesprächspartner keine gemeinsame Vorstellung von der Modernisierung unseres Landes und vor allen Dingen keine gemeinsame Vertrauensbasis entwickeln konnten. Eine Vertrauensbasis und eine gemeinsam geteilte Idee, sie wären aber die Voraussetzung für stabiles Regieren.

(

It turned out that the four parties [to the negotiations] could not develop a common understanding for the modernization of our country and, above all, a mutual trust base. However, a trust base and a common understanding* would be necessary for a stable government.

*“Idee” is normally translated with the cognate “idea”; however, the use here appears to be more abstract and “understanding” matches the previous formulation better.

)

Unser Einsatz für die Freiheit des Einzelnen in einer dynamischen Gesellschaft, die auf sich vertraut, die war nicht hinreichend repräsentiert in diesem Papier.

(Our efforts for the freedom of the individual in a dynamic society, which trusts [has confidence in?] it self, were not sufficiently represented in this document.)

Wir sind für die Trendwenden gewählt worden, aber sie waren nicht erreichbar, [list of sub-topics]

(

We were elected for course* changes, but these were not reachable, [list of sub-topics]

*Literal meaning closer to the English cognate “trend”.

)

Den Geist des Sondierungspapiers können und wollen wir nicht verantworten, viele der diskutierten Maßnahmen halten wir sogar für schädlich. Wir wären gezwungen, unsere Grundsätze aufzugeben und all das wofür wir Jahre gearbeitet haben. Wir werden unsere Wählerinnen und Wähler nicht im Stich lassen, indem wir eine Politik mittragen, von der wir im Kern nicht überzeugt sind. Es ist besser, nicht zu regieren, als falsch zu regieren.

(

The soul of the document we cannot and will not be responsible for [stand by?], many of the discussed measure we even consider harmful. We would be forced to relinquish our principles and all that for which we have worked for years. We will not abandon our voters, by signing off on a policy*, of which we are not truly** convinced. It is better not to rule, than to rule erroneously***.

*“Set of policies”, “political direction”, or something similar, might catch the intention better.

**Literally, “in the core”, which could conceivably and alternatively refer to the core of the policy, or possibly even FDP.

***“Falsely” or “wrongly” might be better translations when understood correctly; however, these words could introduce unintended connotations, e.g. two-facedness or moral wrongness. These would make sense it context, but do not match the normal intent of the German formulation.

)

Respekt, Herr Lindner! I would like to see a lot more of this attitude among modern politicians.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 21, 2017 at 1:45 am

Starting school too soon (Sweden wants reduce the start-of-school age)

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Earlier today, I had a brief talk with two colleagues on the problems of early schooling, including that it is largely a waste of time and that the large developmental differences between individual children makes it highly problematic.

I get home—and find that my native Sweden is about to lower the entry age for mandatory schooling from 7 years to 6… Generally, it is truly depressing how naive politicians, especially in Sweden, try to “solve” problems around schooling, competence levels, skill shortages in the labor force, …, by just throwing on more time, be it an extra early year, an extra later year, more hours per week, or more people directed towards college (irrespective of their suitability). The one hope is that the additional damage in this particular case will be comparatively small—for the simple reason that most Swedish children are already in non-mandatory school at age 6.

Before moving on, I stress that I am a great fan of education (including having earned two master’s degrees)—but that there is a very, very large difference between education and schooling. Understanding this difference is paramount. This post, obviously, deals mostly with schooling.

To now look at some of the issues involved:

  1. Waste of time (as above): The simple truth is that someone 6 (or 7…) years old is not a quick learner. Theoretical learning will be mostly fact based, without any understanding (let alone deeper understanding). The amount retained in memory will be far lower than for an older student, and the time available to forget it again longer (cf. the concept of a learning curve). Practical learning will be equally limited, e.g. in that the ability to write with a pen or pencil is not only dependent on training but also on pre-existing fine-motor skills*, or that it is fairly pointless to learn by rote what the hands of the clock imply when the child’s mind** lacks the ability to understand why and to extrapolate correspondingly.

    *To some degree the fine-motor skills can certainly be improved by e.g. learning hand-writing. However, at this age, the physical maturation is more important. What I took away from the early days of mindlessly repeating letters (which was the Swedish approach at the time), was a hatred of writing—nothing more. My handwriting remained a disaster through-out my entire school years. As an adult, when I had forgotten the hatred and I could draw on the fine-motor skills I had since developed, I easily learned how to write at least passably (when I wanted to…), and I fully assume that I had sufficiently strong motor skills years earlier—with the initial “training” sabotaging my use of them. Similarly, this hatred for writing (extended from the mere motorics to the overall intellectual process) set back other parts of my remaining development: Only as an adult, long after school ended, did I rediscover writing as something positive. (My current belief in the benefits of voluntary writing e.g. for developing my own thoughts and understanding should be manifestly clear.)

    **Not to mention the teacher’s mind… Now, very few teachers, even of first year students, are so dense that they have problems with comprehending the clock—but they do exist. More to the point, very many, even in the majority that does understand the clock, do not understand that understanding is important, that understanding is more valuable than knowledge, than understanding makes remembering that much easier, that someone who understands can take a special case (“when the little hand is on 3…”) and apply it more generally (“when the little hand is on X…”), etc. Notably, this problem is not in anyway limited to the first school years—even in high school I had a few teachers with severe problems in this regard (when dealing with more complex topics than the hands of the clock).

    Comparing the amount of material covered in various years of my own education is tricky, both due to my fallible memory and due to the very different contents and goals at various stages. However, I can say with certainty that I learned more in my last semester of high school than I did during the entire “lågstadiet” (the first three years). What if I had skipped lågstadiet and spent an extra semester in high school? (This suggestion is admittedly a bit simplistic, in that a later start could have slowed down the following stages. The general principle holds true, however, and this danger could have been reduced severely by ensuring that some core skills, notably reading, were still covered in a minimized hour plan covering, say, ten hours a week.) Similarly, why are some younger children allowed to “skip a grade”? Normally, it is not because they have already learned all the material of that grade, but because they are deemed to be sufficiently intelligent or sufficiently strong learners that they are better off in a higher grade. That they would “miss” some material (and that this is considered acceptable) and/or have to make up for it in parallel with their normal studies is a strong sign of how little ground is actually covered.

  2. Developmental differences (as above): Not only do children develop at different rates, including a somewhat consistent boy–girl difference*, but they are also born at different points of the year—and the younger the children, the larger is the relative difference, possibly even absolute difference. In typical systems**, there can be close to a year’s age difference between the oldest and youngest child in a group, to which the development rates must be added. How do we sensibly, effectively, and efficiently teach a class where the one child is on the intellectual level of an eight y.o. and the other of a five y.o.? It might be possible to do—but the one-size-fits-all schooling that is normally attempted will fail.

    *It is possible, however, that this is of little relevance for this specific age group. Overall, it remains a very important issue.

    **Here and elsewhere some problems could conceivably be reduced through alternate approaches (although often with new side-effects). For instance, by grouping children by the half-year they are born in, instead of the year, the above problem would shrink. I will not explicitly discuss such alternate approaches elsewhere, but I encourage the reader to keep the possibilities in mind.

  3. Taking in younger children increases the risk of a harmful uniformization and indoctrination (cf. e.g. parts of [1]. Note that this is not primarily a matter of being in school for a longer period—the main problem is the lower ability to analyze arguments, think critically, etc. I point specifically to the risk of a deliberate abuse: We do not have to worry about just individual teachers with an agenda or a distorted world view. We also have to consider more systematic abuse from above—even in Sweden, I have heard the claim that school should be used to raise good social-democrat citizens… (Consider also the situation in many U.S. colleges.)

    I note that a Swedish source cites the minister of education (Gustav Fridolin, whom I have considered a complete idiot for years…) as saying “Vi vill ge barnen en jämlik start”—“We want to give the children an equal* start”.

    *“Equal” does not catch exactly the right nuisances. “Jämlik[het]” historically started in an “equal rights”/“equal opportunity” sense, but is not very often used in an “equal outcome” sense and/or has strong implications of “social justice”, where the playing field is leveled at all cost, even if it means making the situation worse for one person without improving it for anyone else. Depending on who uses it, other implications are possible, e.g. as with a sport reporter who considered it a sign of increasing jämlikhet that the number of female competitors in a city run had almost caught up with the number of male competitors… Use often goes hand in hand with extreme and out-dated “tabula rasa” opinions of human development. (While I cannot speak for the exact intentions of Fridolin, his previous history points in the direction of these interpretations.)

  4. An extra year of school is not free: teachers cost money, facilities cost money, stationary costs money, school books cost money, … Someone has to foot the bill. In Sweden, this most likely means the tax payers—irrespective of how many, few, or any children they have. This, of course, unless the new expenses are offset with cost-cuts for older children… (With potential effects similar to the next item.)
  5. More schooling almost necessarily implies a lower quality of tuition: The number of people who are suitable* to be teachers is limited. If more schooling is needed, then we have to take in more people not suited, and/or let those suited work longer hours, and/or cut the hours spent per child, and/or yank up class sizes even further.** In all cases an extra year implies choosing quantity over quality, which is entirely the wrong way to go about education.

    *I note that, contrary to what many naive politicians believe, just ensuring that someone has the appropriate degree (as a teacher, engineer, physician, …) does not automatically make him good at the job—people are not fungible! Just increasing the number of graduates with a degree in teaching will not remove the underlying problem.

    **Some relief might be available through directing candidates from other areas into teaching. However, this comes with at least two problems: Firstly, this will not remove the resource problem, just move it from one area to another. Secondly, these people did not go into teaching for a reason, and they might not be willing to reconsider, or they might require more money, or they might make the switch only to later grow dissatisfied, …

  6. The more time is spent in school, the greater the risk that the will to learn, natural curiosity, and the like, are diminished. (Cf. e.g. an earlier footnote.) This is a big enough problem as it is. We should not make the problem larger.
  7. The result of an extra school year is more time spent with age peers and less with adults, yet more time with adults will give the children better examples, better opportunities to learn, etc. More time with other children will, if anything, be harmful. This holds already for fairly average children—when we move on to those who are highly introverted, sensitive, and/or on the autistic spectrum, it holds ten times over. “Hell is other children” to us.

    I note that people favoring more time with other children tend to use the “they learn social skills” argument (as more-or-less their only argument). There is little or no support for this from research, and both common sense and my own experiences clearly indicate that social skills are best learned in interaction with adults or considerably older children—not same-age children.

  8. More early-years schooling is arguably a theft of childhood. Life is long and filled with duties. Let children be children.

    By all means, give them skills, teach them how to read (and encourage reading!), give them every opportunity to learn when they want to learn, … But: Do so in a reasonable manner that does not entail hours a day of being force fed information.

Some of the above points apply generally to increased schooling, others specifically to increased early-years schooling. However, there are also points that would apply to a discussion of the high-school or college years, but not the early years. Consider e.g. that someone in college is not available to the job market. True, once done with college, he might be “a better product”, but it is not a given that this will outweigh the opportunity costs caused by the earlier absence from a societal point of view. This especially, since it is possible that he will be able to improve the skill set relevant for the job better on the job than in school. Also note that one of the greatest benefits with hiring a college graduate in the past was that he had been filtered more strongly (than e.g. a high-school graduate) on criteria like intelligence, work ethic, ability to work independently, … With the current strong trends towards dumbing-down college and ever more people entering and graduating college, this filter effect is more-or-less gone.

I note that there are many other points of criticism towards the school system in e.g. Sweden. The above deals with a specific sub-issue and is not intended as a complete analysis of the problems. Consider e.g. the ineffectiveness of school in that I learned more English from watching TV than I did in the class room, or that I learned things about physics from educational television at age seven that impressed a few class-mates when we were in seventh grade.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 16, 2017 at 1:08 am