How weblogs made me read the books I had always avoided 

I'm off for holidays until 15 August. I'll do my best to stay offline, so instead of reading your blog, I'll read the following titles on paper. I wanted to/should have read them earlier, but weblogs have recently reminded me. Here are my reviews before reading - another episode in my irregular series of predictions that never turn out right:

Hermann Hesse, Das Glasperlenspiel (The Music Bead Game). The disciplinatory reminder was this thread [DE] with comments by ferromonte on Alban Nikolai Herbst's literary weblog. I expect an uneasy reunion with Hegelian speculation, but I'm also looking forward to a pleasant re-examination of the musical quality of Hesse's prose, now that I may be a less easy prey for the metaphysical overshoot than as a Siddharta-devouring teenager. And does it have something to do with weblogs?

Josef Haslinger, Politik der Gefühle (The Politics of Sentiment[?]). An essay from 1987 about the decay of political discourse in Austria[?]. The guilty one here is the Aardvark, who reminded me to finally read this by describing it as 'brilliant'.

Frederic Beigbeder, "99 francs", which had to be re-titled "€13,90", and which I recently bought as a pocket-book with the title "€6". I'm looking forward to an absurdly exaggerated analysis of the destructive effects of marketing on our suffering souls. Beach-read and French-brush-up. Standard online had something about a reading of Beigbeder in Vienna a while ago.


Political witchmastery 

Josh Marshall, the Democrat-leaning A-list blogger, on the ability of the best public speakers to be completely present in a speech, not showing any distance or hesitation of self-consciousness:
In most politicians -- in most public speakers really -- you can always sense a sort of double motion. You can sense their constant awareness of what they should be doing before they do it, and their inability to get the two to match up. Perhaps this is simply another way of saying that you sense their consciousness of self, the visibility of their artifice, like an actor who looks like he's acting, even if the technical points are hit more or less on key.

Clinton was always different. Whether there was artifice or not, it was seldom visible. His rapport with crowds or individuals was (and is) intuitive. The mastery of voice, sound and expression was always complete. And you could see that Monday night.

As it happens, I don't think that quality in a public speaker is something that can be learned. And on a fundamental level, I don't think it's a matter of artifice, though clearly Clinton has a rhetorical bag of tricks he returns to again and again. It's an emotional quality, an element of personality -- part of that undefinable quality of personal charisma. And that was what was radiating from Obama last night.
Yet I was impressed by the speech only by reading it. Marshall links to this analysis of the strength of Obama's speech in the National Review Online, from an apparently Republican perspective. It illustrates how it is the originality of some ideas that makes the speech transcend 'garden-variety political rhetoric'. Coming back to my questions yesterday, some elements of the political pathos that are operating in Obama's speech would not work in Europe because they have become discredited, such as the religious references or maybe even references to a national vocation. Yet there remains a second quality of Obama's achievement, a freshness and vigor of thought, that is admirable and could certainly be implemented in Europe as well, political talent allowing.

The only European who comes to my mind in this context is Tony Blair on a good day, in his early years. With him, the charm seems to have worn off somewhat even though the talent is probably still there. Does charisma also have an expiry date?


Brilliant speech 

Barack Obama, the new star of the Democrats, a 42-year old African-American law professor and candidate for the Senate, delivered a breathtaking keynote speech yesterday at the Convention (which I inconsistently claimed doesn't interest me). It's the stuff that can bring tears to one's eyes if one is a bit of the sentimental kind, go and read the full text. Otherwise, here is the emotional peak close to the end (maybe it doesn't work so well if the tension hasn't been built up by the material before):
In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope? John Kerry calls on us to hope. John Edwards calls on us to hope. I'm not talking about blind optimism here-the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. No, I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. The audacity of hope!

In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead. I believe we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair. I believe that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices, and meet the challenges that face us. America!
And here is my question to you, dear readers. Why is it that this kind of speech that works on an almost existential level cannot be given in Austria, and possibly not in any other European country either? Is there a flaw in European political systems that detaches politics and political rhetoric from what is really important to each individual? Or could this detachment even be a good thing, a sign of political maturity that shields against fundamentalisms? After reading such a speech, I do feel a sense of loss, of being left behind in the cynical old world. I am suddenly reminded of the Polish emigrants in Susan Sontag's novel 'In America'.


Snowballing the arbitrary 

Oxblog is among the blogs invited to cover the Democratic National Convention. 'Thoughts on the Convention of the Blog' titles Patrick Belton on Sunday, faithfully. But on Monday, David Adesnik, another Oxblogger, asks, 'Why do big media suddenly care about blogs?', and he answers (along with some interesting links):
Last night, in a dark wooden corner of an Irish pub, he said to me that journalists now think bloggers are important because bloggers have been invited to cover an event -- the Democratic convention -- that journalists describe as inherently unimportant. Who was "he"? I wish I remember. The only name I remember from last night is Sam Adams. But the point is still valid. If the convention is a pseudo-event produced for the benefit of the media, then by virture of getting invited, bloggers have become newsworthy.
Echo chamber all over then? Frankly, apart from the boring cynicism that the event invites, the Convention doesn't interest me much, it's very 'over there'. Yet this seems to be an instructive example of how many-to-many journalism can go wrong - by snowballing the arbitrary, why not until it all blows up in a big bang of disillusioned collective fatigue. If only it wasn't all so entertaining...



At that event in France mentioned last week, I met a decent bloke who has more or less the same job as I, the same age, the same family situation, the same interest in politics and compatible opinions on it, is planning exactly the same purchases and has now just arrived for holidays in Vienna. It's unbelievable how much we have in common, except that he's originally from India whereas I'm from Austria.  Such discoveries are maybe not a mass phenomenon yet, but it is interesting how neighbourship can sometimes be experienced more intensely in global dimensions than in local ones. Another reason why the internet is needed.


Stock Upgrade 

This blog upgrades the European Union from 'Buy' to 'Strong Buy'.
Legal disclosure statement: Staff associated with this blog was recently invited by the organization in question to a four-course menu at a beach restaurant in Juan-les-Pins, Côte d'Azur. This may or may not have influenced this upgrade.


Summer weather at last 

and light blogging ahead for the next few days.


Racist prejudice and patriotism 

My patriotism is probably not typical. Yet it exists. On an underground train yesterday I saw for the first time an Austrian soldier in uniform who was black. I am unfortunately not free of racist prejudice. There were few black people living in Austria when I grew up (probably explained by the fact that it's a landlocked country that didn't have colonies, plus it's not famous for its hospitality to non-tourist foreigners), and only when I started travelling as a teenager, people with black skin ceased to look exotic to me. Still, as I became aware yesterday, somehow I must have always regarded blacks in Austria as foreign immigrants. Yet there was this man wearing the military symbols of the Austrian state, having been drafted as an Austrian citizen like all other males at age 18 who don't opt out to do civilian service. This guy was more in line with the traditional view of a good Austrian citizen than I (who chose the civilian option). This idea made me exuberantly happy and patriotic. Two fair-skinned underclass Austrian teenagers, effortfully dressed in mock-mafia style entered the train (prejudice: must have been political chauvinists). Their eyes almost popped out seeing the soldier, probably just like mine had done a few minutes earlier. They stared at him trying to match their conflicting biases, until finally they too were silently transformed for the better. [In the background the title of a short-story by Margit Schreiner [DE] fed to high-schoolers: Mein erster Neger - UPDATE: As moncay made me realise from a comment to this post, the story I meant is not by Margit Schreiner but by Alois Brandstetter.]


Leisure in the south 

Südwind, an Austrian magazine on 'international politics, culture, and development', to which I have a long-running, sentimental subscription, has a special focus on leisure this month. The attempt by Austrian philosopher Franz M. Wimmer to cope with the vagaries of the concept of leisure or 'Freizeit' (free-time) is online [DE], but not as enlightening as one might hope. Also online [DE] is a critique of the attempts to encroach on leisure under the pretext of globalisation pressures. If you want to read reports on leisure in Brasil and China you must buy the magazine, thereby giving some financial support to the Austrian development agency.

Meanwhile, one of the industrialist campaigners for longer working hours without increased pay has explained that the competitiveness advantages from this are sought for competition within the new EU-25, competition with countries like China or India is not considered. So Austrian workers are supposed to sacrifice leisure for a national goal of slowing down the catch-up of the former-communist neighbours. Nah, won't.


First speech of the new president 

Heinz Fischer was sworn in today as the new federal president of Austria for a period of six years. His speech to the parliament is online [DE]. It was prudent, balanced, integrative - and boring. It does not have freshness or new ideas. The only part that caught my interest is towards the end, when Fischer discusses a letter he got from a young citizen:
A few days ago I received the letter of a young Austrian, Stefan Herr, and he raised the bar for the office of the federal president rather high, by writing, "He who is elected federal president is in the fortunate situation of not having to care about the mechanisms of power any longer. He is in an enviable position, because he does not have to prove anything to anyone, because in his professional career there is nothing higher left to achieve. He is elected by the people and can afford to be responsible exclusively to the people.”

“Dear Stefan”, I will write to him, “in your sentences there is a good piece of truth, and I respect the statement that the federal president is responsible to the people. But this truth is not the whole truth. The people is not or in any case not always a completely undivided unity with completely homogeneous interests. To find the ‘bonum commune’, the general best for the country and a society, is not only not simple, but basically the most difficult art of politics. And the high degree of freedom, which you mention, implies also an utmost of responsibility. Following Schopenhauer one could maybe ask the question: even if the federal president could do what he wants – could he also want what he wants?”
I find wisdom in this that I can appreciate. Over the last few days I have deliberated over another correction to my defense of leisure in the postings from last week. There is such a diversity of individual situations in that matter. Maybe there really are people who have too much leisure for their own good, while others have too little in almost the same material situation. In the experiments comparing attitudes to pay to those to leisure, the test subjects were students at Harvard, but the political debate is mainly about working time in less qualified jobs. Unions seem to have little sensitivity to such differences on the level of individuals, and I'm not sure where in the political process one would find the required readiness for differentiation. If the president is determined to advance such sensitivities in the political system then I'll be ready give him credit for that.


Austrian president Thomas Klestil has died 

The Austrian Federal President Thomas Klestil (71) died last night, 36 hours before the end of his term. Mr Klestil succumbed to multiple organ failure while being in intensive care after a cardiac arrest early Monday. [German-language reporting in dailies Standard, Presse, Salzburger Nachrichten]

Many Austrians will remember him mainly for three aspects of his twelve year term in office: Mr Klestil campaigned and was elected on the promise that he would be a 'strong' president who would interfere more actively with the government of the country, which is traditionally dominated by the chancellor. After EU accession in 1995, this almost led to a constitutional impasse over the question of who would represent Austria in EU meetings of the heads-of-state. In this conflict, President Klestil had to step back eventually in favour of Chancellor Franz Vranitzky and accept the traditional division of roles. This will have a lasting effect on the political system, since the constitution leaves some room for different interpretations in this respect. Since Klestil's failed attempt to change the status quo, the 'weak' role of the federal presidency is now finally established.

Secondly, Mr Klestil strongly opposed the formation of an ÖVP-FPÖ government in early 2000. Again, he eventually had to accept the participation of the internationally shunned right-wing FPÖ in government, but he expressed his indignation by making a famously stern face during the swearing-in ceremony of the government.

Due to this and other disagreements, Mr Klestil became more and more estranged to the conservative ÖVP which had originally nominated him, as well as to ÖVP-chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel. During his last years in office, marked also by Mr Klestil's worsening health, the presidency developed into a political voice that represented the old Austrian politics of consensus against the confrontational approach of the right-wing government. Also in this conflict, Mr Klestil picked a position that had no chance of winning.

The nation, an entity that seems to have briefly returned to existence over the 40 hours of Mr Klestil's heavily reported fight for his life, has witnessed the death of its top representative, despite all efforts of the top medical experts of the country. Yesterday evening the main figures of the political system attended a Roman catholic service at the cathedral, where they prayed for the president.

Heinz Fischer, Mr Klestil's elected successor, will be sworn in tomorrow, in what will be a very muted ceremony. Until then, the collective of the three presidents of parliament exercises the powers of the Federal Presidency.

There should be no cynicism over the amount of attention that Mr Klestil's struggle and his death have received. This is so not only because he was a human being like all of us and deserves our respect, but also because in such moments we become aware of just how fragile the human condition, our destiny, is. None of our attempts to erect unassailable systems of social order and power can afflict this bitter truth.


Strange Day 

Metaphors [DE] are what remains of the Blogtalk 2.0 conference. And then a look at the political news: a president [DE] fighting for his life under immediate threat of a multiple organ failure, while an energetic lawyer with a smile from a toothpaste advertisement [DE] aspires to become a vice-president somewhere else, it hits me over the head in oppressively moist summer heat under a cloudy sky. Abstract poetry, my head rings. No. Poetry is elsewhere. Here we are dealing with analytical wariness. 'Even the blogs which start out with hard-headed punditry tend to soften up over time, become more engaged in the dialogue.' Tend to melt away in the summer heat.


Blogtalk 2.0 

Blogtalk 2.0 conference: of the local blogroll, as far as I can see, Horst is there, Godany was there, and I'm in and out, in and out. In on a professional mission.


Clairvoyance on the wings of experience 

Jonathan Vaughters predicts that Iban Mayo will win this year's Tour de France, the greatest sporting event of all in my humble opinion (via the excellent TDFblog). Plausible. Vaughters is a former Tour de France-rider, and I'm pretty sure my sentimental favourite, Lance Armstrong, is not going to make it this year. We're getting a tad old, Lance and I.

On the other hand, on 8 June Sodazitron had rather harsh words for Romanian disco-poppers O-Zone and their unavoidable 'Dragostea Tin Tei'. In the meantime, this happy-go-lucky bubbly nonsense by a superbly mixed Balkans boy-group singing in Romanian is a riskfree bet for this year's European summer tophit.

Leisure makes us happy 

The manager of an Austrian company who convinced his employees to work three hours more per week for the same pay, summarises his experience [DE] in the FORMAT-weekly, which leads with the topic this week:
Instead of taking away money from the people, I find it much more humane if they give up something that they have in abundance: namely leisure.
The new weekly working time in that factory is now 41.5 hours, not devilishly much for sure, but are the workers and the managers right when they think they have leisure in abundance (apparently the union agreed to the deal)?

Crooked Timber discusses WalMart:
...it’s a hole in popular psychology which WalMart drives through in a coach-and-four.

That particular psychological quirk is the tendency of people in industrial societies to:
a) put an irrationally low valuation on their leisure time, and
b) believe that they have more spare time than they actually do.

There is actually decent evidence for this thesis; Richard Layard (who is apparently calling himself “Lord Layard” these days, egad) summarises it well in his lectures on the subject. But the intuition is much clearer; I cite as empirical evidence the deathbed reflections of every single person who didn’t express the wish that they’d spent more time at the office. A bit motherhood-and-apple-pie, perhaps, but it’s an important point that economists ought to take more seriously.

In any case, as John pointed out a while ago, if you’re spending your “leisure” time driving to an out-of-town megastore, then it’s not leisure in any meaningful sense. If you end up doing more of this than you would, in a fully informed and reflective state, want to, then WalMart has successfully outsourced a proportion of its cost base to you...
I recommend to read the Layard lecture referenced by Crooked Timber, or this summary in the Economist [also via the Crooked Timber article].

Both texts mention a pair of intriguing experiments:
...students at Harvard University were asked whether they would prefer (a) $50,000 a year while others got half that or (b) $100,000 a year while others got twice as much. A majority chose (a). They were happy with less, as long as they were better off than others.
The same Harvard students were also asked to choose between (c) two weeks' holiday, while others have only one week and (d) four weeks' holiday while others get eight. This time a clear majority preferred (d). In other words, people's rivalry over income does not extend to leisure. The result of this, suggests Lord Layard, is that developed societies may tend to work too hard in order to consume more material goods, and so consume too little leisure.
Layard's conclusion is that high income taxes are good because they keep people from working too much. Working longer comes at a double cost: leisure is lost, and in addition as an individual earns more, leading to an only temporary gain in happiness, all other individuals become persistently less happy with their own pay - almost a zero sum game on the level of society as a whole.

Thus, the current campaign [DE] of the Austrian industrialists lobby to convince the public that increasing working hours brings gains in competitiveness at no cost is based on exploiting a psychological fallacy of the work-force. In addition, the size of the differences in cost structures to low income countries is so big that working the lever of working time will not bring noticeable shifts in the competitiveness balance.


Competition on pay vs competition on working time 

Beautiful summer weather outside, just the right day to return to that unpleasant question of working time regulation. I do remember having written here (and here) that economic competition is good, that motivated workers from poorer countries should be allowed to enter the local labor market etc. For decent jobs, I know that there are many who would be willing to take that job and work 60 or 70 hours a week on it for the same pay that the current job-holder gets for 45.

I said that international competition on salaries is a fact to live with in a globalised economy, and should therefore be accepted and taken as a chance. But now I'm saying that competition on readiness to work long and extra-long hours is not ok. A self-serving inconsistency?

If the electorate in a low-pay country chose that national working times should be 60 hours, I wouldn't complain. But if deregulation and an open labor market would lead to an increase of minimum expected working times in Austria to 60 hours, then I would object.

Maybe an argument should be construed like this: Pay is a strictly economic dimension, beyond basic survival it only determines certain types of discretionary spending, which itself is a purely economic subject matter and should be treated as such. Time for private activities however is something that transcends the realm of the economic, it has a social and existential importance. And therefore it could be consistent with a basically economically liberal perspective to protect private time on the level of a local social choice, which immigrants would have to adopt.

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