Sunday, November 12, 2017

Look ma: virtually no East Germans in the country's elite

November seems to be Germany's "Quick, let's write about East Germany Month" for a couple of great reasons:

One, the Berlin Wall/Iron Curtain came down on 9 November 1989, signalling momentous change in Europe.

Two, 9 November 1989 made it so that the Nazi pogroms of Kristallnacht of 9/10 November 1938 were pushed back in public discourse and that the end of Word War I with the armistice of 11 November 1918 lost even more of what little import it had in Germany.

Just for the sake of completeness, the 11th minute of 11th hour of the 11th month is also the traditional start of the carnival season in large parts of Germany.

Obviously, the opening of the Wall is a convenient date to publish not just the trivial but also the thoughtful about the part of the country that is home to just under 20 percent of its population.

We all know about the crimes of the Stasi, the feared apparatus of state oppression, the doping in sports, the prison industry producing cheap goods for the West. We hear little about the fact that a full one third of businesses in East Germany were privately owned. And even less about the fact that some owners found out they were millionaires because they had hoarded so much inventory in the face of supply shortages.

This became part of the past on 9 November 1989. From thereon out, everything would be wonderful.

Freedom and blooming landscapes would be the future.

Many things happened, and books have been written about that. So, yes, the autobahns in the East are a driver's wet dream, as the blogster has pointed out before. You can tell even today where the border was because, going East, the freeways widen and straighten out.

But this year's main topic goes to the heart of the matter: the almost complete absence of East Germans at the top levels of leadership in Germany more than 25 years after the Wall fell.

This fact has been obscured because Angela Merkel, the country's chancellor for over a decade and going on two decades, grew up in the East. Germany even had a president from the East.

But outside of that, the elite is thoroughly Western, and there is no improvement in sight.
For example, 105 out of 109 department chiefs in the federal government are Westerners.

Sociologists are now accepting the marginalization of the East in the 1990s as a fact, attributing that period largely to the "lack of qualified personnel" in the aftermath of the fall of the Wall and the challenges of reunification.

Today, though, claims the continued marginalization is "self marginalization" misses the point.

Complaining that East Germans don't want to put in the hard work needed to advance into the top levels of power and industry ignores what the complete dissolution of a country does to its inhabitants, it ignores the resilience of power networks once entrenched.

What's left?

The rhetorical question asked by ZEIT whether a quota for East Germans should be established.



Friday, November 10, 2017

Germany's working poor: Almost 1 in 10 Germans cannot pay their bills anymore

In the 'stream of semi consciousness' that is the reporting in German daily news on economic issues, the country's working poor drift in an and out of focus.

Mostly, they remain out.

The frequent claim that the media are giving bad news too much attention does not seem to hold up when it comes to debating the problems of those who work full time and still are over their heads in debt.

The latest short blip that tells us 1 out of 10 German adults cannot pay their bills anymore is only days old. The data are interpreted in somewhat different ways, with the more liberal ZEIT online pointing out that overall increase in the number of indebted households has slowed down.

The conservative WELT, however, sounds the alarm, calling the phenomenon "the erosion of the German middle class" because almost all of the increase over the past year has occurred in what German economists call "the backbone of society", the quasi mythical had working middle.

The main reasons for getting trapped in unmanageable debt are unemployment, family crises (separation, child support), and loans. Unlike in the US, unpaid medical bills are not a cause of major debt.

According to experts, reckless consumption is also not a factor.

Oh, and the numbers are expected to continue to rise, so expect calls to reduce the tax burden on the middle class.

Very soon, the question what to do about rising household debt will be replaced with the usual arguments, for example, blaming poor immigrants for the woes of the German middle class.

Squabbling over what to do with the surplus tax revenue is a much sexier topic than asking why the poor in this country face the same relative tax burden as the wealthy. For those of you who don't know how this is done: indirect taxes, like high sales tax, and other speciality taxes, like taxes on electricity, insurance policies, and a slew of others accomplish this, while giving those who pay high income taxes the opportunity to feel oppressed and exploited.


Friday, November 3, 2017

Trump's Twitter outage - a reminder of social rank and the dreaded loss of control

Every now and then the blogster feels like telling teens that their impression that adults mainly muddle through in life is fundamentally correct.

It is also basically true that human societies have been trying to reduce the muddling through with some degree of success.

That's why we have formal education systems, accreditation, bar and board exams, and similar structures. Yes, the blogster is aware of the fine moral and philosophical underpinnings of schooling and training, but that was apparently not why mandatory schooling was introduced on a large scale in the 1800s.

Sporadically, we are reminded that control can be lost easily, that an unremarkable, lowly individual can press a single key on a computer keyboard with worldwide ramifications.

On 11/2/2017, a Twitter employee did just that. He or she deactivated the account of "realDonaldTrump" for a few minutes.

And the former employee was offered praise, pizza, and drinks.

6h6 hours ago
Ted Lieu Retweeted Katie Couric
Dear Twitter employee who shut down Trump's Twitter: You made America feel better for 11 minutes. DM me & I will buy you a Pizza Hut pizza.



Friday, October 13, 2017

Nicknames matter - the quiet change from "Rocket Man" to "Little Rocket Man"

We know that words matter, whether spoken, written, or even the unspoken ones.

Words matter so much that humans spend countless hours debating the "correct term" for something physical or abstract. Open any paper on a random page, including the sports section recently, and you find numerous examples. In case an article or opinion piece does not explicitly define or delimit terms and their meanings, you can be sure that the reader comments section will make up for it - unless the comments function is blocked, which in turn is an unspoken statement by the publisher.

For example, did the German governing Christian Democratic Party just agree with its Bavarian appendix Christian Social Union on a ceiling for refugees to be allowed into the country?

Well, they did agree on a recommended maximum number of refugees, allowing the Bavarian hardliners to claim victory while leaving the promise of "no ceiling" made by current and future Chancellor Merkel unbroken.

Some labels are less obviously damaging and require historians or economists to tease out the underlying reality. Take the chippy "gig economy" in all its independent glory and self-determination. As it turns out, pre-industrial work was very much like today's gig economy, and today's auto rickshaw drivers in India work in the same basic gig setup as the Uber or Lyft drivers. Minus the web company that funnels customers to them.

One of the common tools of the word fighter is nicknames and derogatory labels. An older example is the label "death tax" used by American conservatives for the estate tax.

The most in our face labels, very literally when you call an American president the Orange Thing, are nicknames attached to a specific person. All it takes is swapping out one word against another, like for the death tax, or adding a loaded adjective, as was done to stigmatize a candidate as Crooked Hillary. 

The more elaborate version removes the person and highlights one or more traits of the person, for example The Orange Thing. Readers in 2017 will easily recognize the person so labeled. "Thing" is, of course, a derogatory moniker, depersonalizing a human. 

In professions where brawn and heroism are common descriptors, mainly in law enforcement and the military, nicknames associated with a certain level of aggressiveness are a standard of praise. Take the example of James "Mad Dog" Mattis, general and US defense secretary. Mad Dog would probably not be considered praise if given as a nickname to, say, a librarian or a math teacher.

Sometimes, nicknames go wrong.

What happens next is a tribute to the power of nicknames and to the importance of quietly fixing a nickname gone wrong.

That's where Rocket Man comes in.

The nickname Rocket Man for the leader of North Korea burst onto the stage when US President Trump used it in a speech at the United Nations this September.

Rocket Man - the term, not the man - posed several problems in addition to reminding the older folks among us way too much of the Elton John hit (link to the official music video here). Fans of the song lyrics might well have been wondering if the president was doing a triple-meta-slam of Kim Jong Un by alluding to the song line "high as a kite".

To the blogster, the real issue with Rocket Man was that it missed its negativity target. Rocket Man has some positive connotations, and even the context of the speech could not make the positive vibe go away.

Within a week or so, the blunder was fixed: Rocket Man was replaced with Little Rocket Man throughout the media. "Little" put the North Korean leader in his place, thus rectifying the image.

Just for the sake of completeness, calling the North Korean strongman Rocket Man goes back to at least 2006, when the British Economist magazine featured Jong Un's father on the front page under the headline Rocket Man.






Friday, October 6, 2017

More major German media sites blocking ad blockers - good riddance

Over the past few years, major German news sites have moved to denying access to folks who use ad blockers.

The principle is as simple as it is German: Unblock or pay, or we give you no access.

Nasty German tabloid rag BILD was the first of the majors, the blogster recalls. This one was a godsend. Finally, no more late night peek at the latest screaming headlines designed to rile up readers and stir anger and divisiveness.

More respectable papers followed, such as Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and more recently Spiegel Online. The funny things about Spiegel Online is that its international, i.e. English language, section is still accessible to users with active ad blockers at the time of this post.

Maybe they don't want to seem provincial, maybe they haven't gotten around to modifying the site.

In a little over a week, Frankfurter Allgemeine will be next. To their credit, they are nice enough to notify readers of the upcoming policy change.

Die Welt has a free section and a "Plus" section.  Economics weekly Handelsblatt refuses active ad blockers too.

What does this mean to the blogster?

Should it* be worried about missing insightful discourse or crucial news?

Absolutely not. There are still freely available German news sites, both general and specialized ones. To be honest, only a few authors of all these papers will be missed. Much of the news is not just predictable but also almost indistinguishable at times anyway, no matter if you read Spiegel or Frankfurter Allgemeine,
The huge German public television system has been receiving the blogster's contribution for years, paid grudgingly, but the blogster's household has neither a TV nor a radio. So, why not finally use some of the 'services'?

And then there is the small matter of not being limited to German or English. French and Spanish work just as well, and over the next few years, they will have the distinct advantage of not covering the populist right AfD excessively, while it will dominate much of the German native news.
 
Lastly, exploring other German news sources may offer the opportunity to expand the blogster's view of country and culture.

So, thanks for all the fish.

* Gender neutrality rules!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The day they stopped the press for the blogster

It will come as a surprise to readers that the blogster has a few published articles to its* name. They appeared in trade journals, the kind of slender glossy print matter that comes with membership in an organization of like-trained and like-minded individuals and entities.

One of pieces even made it into a book**, which led to arguably one of the nicest phone calls ever by a friend who enthusiastically blurted out "you got published again" before she caught her breath.

But this was not the piece for which they stopped the press.

That one happened a couple of years earlier, and it taught the blogster a several lessons. The story of the article is unremarkable up until the call by the journal's editor. One day, the blogster sat down and wrote a five or six pager about the kind of work it was doing at the time. In a fit of uncharacteristic assertiveness, the blogster sent it to The Journal***. Then it went off to some class.
Upon returning, an agitated companion said: "You had a call from the editor of The Journal about the article. She said she stopped the press and needs you to call her back today."

Oh.

What's this about?

I wrote an article and sent it to them. 

You did what?

I wrote a piece and sent it to them.

Tense, the companion handed the blogster a post-it with a name and a number.

The blogster called, the editor answered and told the blogster how much fun the piece was. And yes, she liked it so much that she intended to bump another article to a future issue and print this one instead. Hence the urgency of the call. What regional chapter are you a member of, the editor asked.

I'm not a member of the organization.

Oh, you are not, the editor hesitated. The she added: Oh, well, I'll print it anyway if you sign the contract. As a member publication we don't pay authors, though.

The lessons came in the months following publication. The first one, closest to home, was that the blogster's companion never quite recovered from the episode, because, you see, the companion was supposed to be the super smart and assertive one.

The second lesson was peer feedback, which can be summarized in the perennial you can't please them all. Some in the field loved the iconoclastic take on aspects of the profession, others said it presented the field in a detrimental light. In other words, even experts take things personal.

Lesson number three would be: if you don't try you will never know if someone will stop the press for you.

* Gender neutrality is prized at the K-Landnews.
** Yes, there is some pride here.
*** We'll call it The Journal to avoid giving you details.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Deriding industrial policy when it saves jobs

In October 2016, the Financial Times wrote about French industrial policy using this example:


You can argue, as does the FT and as do many FT readers, that this is a perfect example of misguided government policy.

High-speed trains the country does not need is clear, and the point is reinforced with maximum speed is 200km an hour at best.

The FT may be right to invoke the mental background image of industrial policy we have learned to associate with old style socialist governments and backwards regimes in general.
One big problem, as the blogster sees it, is that government controlled economic activity in these systems tends is inextricably linked to corruption, laziness, and exploitation by a nomenklatura, or ruling clique.
These aspects do not seem to be in play in the example given by the FT, unless one is willing to claim that averting the shutdown of the plant signifies laziness in the face of the need for change. So, sure, you can go there, if you feel like it.

We are not told whether France needs new regional trains, or how much they would cost if not built to the "state-of-the-art TGV".

When it comes to "needs" in general, there is sometimes surprising leeway, as anyone who had the opportunity to ride the glorious old late weekend nights "hospital train" out of San Francisco will understand. The blogster nicknamed the train hospital train because the carriages were plain white on the outside with a definitely military-ish green interior.

They were old and quiet.

Unlike the newer ones, which must have been labeled "needed" at some point in order to justify their purchase.  

Yes, government money should be spent reasonably, but as long as France, or any other country for that matter, can afford the luxury of splurging billions upon billions upon producing stuff that is not meant to ever be used, buying a few new trains and keeping workers employed a little longer is not a big deal to the simple minded blogster.

Friday, September 15, 2017

German generals get themselves a seat upgrade on government planes through sheer serendipity

Note: The news reported in Frankfurter Allgemeine today can only surprise people who have never worked in large organizations where the RIP principle (Rank has Its Privileges) applies. So, enjoy.

The facts are simple enough:
1. The German government has a fleet of aircraft that members of the government, the German president, and high ranking members of the federal parliament use for official business.
2. The fleet belongs to the German defense department.
3. General officers (generals, admirals) are not entitled to using these aircraft, except when a craft conducts a training flight and a general officer happens to need to go where the plane flies.

In other words, item 3 makes German generals mere governmental hitchhikers.

For example, one of the valiant defenders of German freedom, as well as ours as part of NATO, wakes up in the morning and finds he needs to go to Afghanistan, he calls up the fleet people to find if a government plane just happens to go there.

Or to Paris, or London, or some similar remote fighting location.

If so, he can hitch a ride.

And if not?

Well, that's where "RIP" comes in.

Of course, you have already figured out what the hitchhiking provision really achieves, right? 

Say, a German general, let's call him Alert for the sake of a cheap joke, needs to fly to New York. General Alert asks his ADC to organize the flight. The ADC will send an email to fleet management to ask if they would like to schedule a training flight to New York.

Fleet management, knowing full well that any email which starts with "the General would be happy if" is really an order, will do its best to make the improbable happen.

Oh, the general needs to leave on July 3rd at 8 AM and return on July 12th at 5 PM?*

Yes.

What a coincidence, we will have a training flight to New York on July 3rd at 8, with the return on July 12th at 5. Will that be convenient?

This is how German generals roll, or fly, for that matter.

Now, a pesky newspaper finds out that German general officers routinely arrange "training flights" to satisfy their airborne needs.

And also to overcome the feeling of being the underlings of civilians, who - let's face it - shouldn't get to fly for free on planes that really belong to the military anyway, right?

Will Germany's brave heroes have to revert to hitchhiking after being outed by the press?

Most certainly not. This news will be forgotten in 24 hours, and Germany's finest will get to enjoy the privileges that come with their rank.

* Please note that this is not a literal quote. Germans don't use AM and PM.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Data - or why birds strike military aircraft and civilian ones different ways

This is another cautionary tale about data. It is also a plea to listen to what experts say about data despite headline news that show efforts by experts to manipulate data in various areas of life.

The diesel emissions scandal that has damaged the reputation of German automaker VW is a case in point. It took experts to develop the cheat system, and it took other experts to prove the company had circumvented emissions regulations for years.

And that does not include the frequent examples that show people believing in the correctness of their data, only to be proven wrong by some new discovery or method. 

The blogster tries hard to avoid being duped, but has fallen for bad data many times - not counting the times it* has not realized having been suckered.

One aspect of events, and the data (or facts) they are based on, is whether they impact your life.

Which brings us to the exotic example of bird strikes. You may have heard of the birds that brought down a passenger aircraft in New York and made a hero of the pilot, Mr. Sullenberger.

So, birds striking a plane you are on can be life changing.

Collisions between birds and a military plane are generally considered part of the job and make few, if any, headlines.

So, it makes perfect sense that we don't know one interesting aspect of data on bird collisions with military planes.

Which is: military planes collide with birds much more frequently near the airfields than do civilian planes. The greater the distance of a fighter jet to its base, the fewer collisions are counted.

Why could that be?

There are many things that can come to mind, for example, whether military airfields are more frequently located in areas with more wildlife. Or maybe there is a correlation with the intensity of use of a base.

As the blogster learned, while this may influence the number of incidents, there was one other aspect that stood out: military pilots tended to report bird strikes close to the home base but ported fewer when they were far away.

As it turned out, protocol required pilots to find an airfield and have their bird inspected before taking to the air again. Which frequently meant the valiant fliers would not make it home for dinner.

Pilots and ground personnel felt protocols did not adequately handle bird strikes that caused no obvious serious damage to the plane. 

They found a way around it, and in the process created "incorrect" data because collection was based on the two variables "bird strike" and "plane location", ignoring a third variable "extent of damage".

Friday, September 1, 2017

When that super expensive worker costs less than the fuel for a truck

In every election cycle and with every annual report by economics think tanks, someone is bound to complain about the high cost of labor.

For German workers, this has meant various measures aimed at making the labor market more competitive and cutting costs. The traditional 50/50 split of payroll taxes and was abolished with the result of shifting costs to workers; a pre-tax regime for social security contributions was introduced concurrently with income tax on all retirement income, and companies were offered generous subsidies for hiring long term unemployed.

All of this led to a small reduction of the unemployment figures projected by economists some 40 years ago. In other words, demographics is a bitch, and automation and productivity gains are the whips.

The other day at a gas station, the blogster saw a truck driver pay just under 600 Euros for diesel.

"I use about one thousand Euros worth of fuel a week", explained one driver.

Sheepishly, the blogster said: "So, you burn more in fuel than you make in wages?"

"For sure", the driver replied.

"And your boss still complains about high labor cost?"

"No, our company owner doesn't. We have five drivers, and the government pays half of the wages for three of them."

"What?"

"Yes, the boss is an expert at finding government subsidy programs", he smiled.

As the truck driver went back to his job of supporting the booming German economy, the blogster absentmindedly paid for the four-pack of butane cartridges needed for an upcoming short camping trip.

It* will carefully look at industries and sectors next time someone complains about excessive labor costs.

* Quality gender neutral reporting.