Beyond Turkey 

Just in case you haven't read his comment, Young Fogey has kindly fulfilled my request to put together an argument on how Turkey's EU accession fits in the puzzle of accession of the wider mediterranean region, so please have a look at his post. I'm still looking for good arguments FOR Turkey's EU accession, rather than the easy to find bad arguments against it - suggestions always welcome.



In the end, everybody should represent himself or herself to the rest of the world. But of course that is not possible in many situations, and so representation of others and their opinions has a chance. In the developed representative democracies, political parties and their spokes-persons represent big slices of the population. How do they do it?

In a recent commentary ('Lob des Quereinstiegs' in Der Standard on 7 May 2004), Josef Broukal, former news-presenter turned "communication specialist" for SPÖ, wrote that journalists moving into politics have to learn this, among other things:
One has to learn to represent voters and not truths. Fortunately this is not always a contradiction, but sometimes it is. As a journalist, one is usually in the role of the judge, but as a politician one is always in the role of the lawyer.

(Man muss lernen, Wähler zu vertreten und nicht Wahrheiten. Das ist zum Glück nicht immer ein Gegensatz, aber manchmal doch. Man ist als Journalist meist in der Rolle des Richters, als Politiker aber immer in der Rolle des Anwalts.
This is worrying. So politicians are not responsible for acting in a truthful way, because they represent a clientele with narrow self-interests? Frankly, I think this is nonsense. If truth can be determined, it has to be upheld, even by the politician. In such situations there should not even be different opinions. But of course, in real life political questions, truth is very hard to determine because of lack of information. What is representation then when information is insufficient? Is it the attempt to see the world with the same bias that the fictitious average voter of one's party has? Or do parties recognise a number of distinct voter groups, and try to mediate between the different biases of these groups?

There are cases where parties start out from one bias, then find that their voters come also from groups that have a different background/outlook and in consequence shift their positions so as to be more representative. I believe the Austrian Greens over the last 20 years are an example of this. They started from a position on the left, found later that they get a fair number of bourgeois votes, and now try to appeal to two different constituencies at the same time.

Then there are those politicians with 'visions' (famously despised by former SPÖ-chancellor Franz Vranitzky, who said that people with visions needed to have their eyes checked), who want to be representatives of another group of voters than their current one - often of a bigger one. Jörg Haider had the vision to represent the dissatisfied lower middle-class instead of a bloodless and shrinking mix of liberals and German-nationalists, and so he redefined his political vehicle, the FPÖ, accordingly.

Then we have the avantgarde-concept, the party as elite that leads its clientele towards new shores, towards opinions and positions that the constituency is not yet aware of. Exciting but dangerous, as history has proven.

In sum, political representation is already a dynamic relationship. I would like it to become even more dynamic: new communication tools like the web will make communication ever more efficient, new representations should develop more quickly and easily. This could be a threat to the existing political representatives, unless they keep changing fast enough to keep their constituencies on board. The vision would be a landscape of parties and representatives that emerge and disappear again in a yearly rhythm, closely connected to constituencies by efficient means of communication, and motivated by common positions on current topics and issues. And now I'll go check my eyes.


[metablogging] Reading/Writing 

As this blog is getting a bit older, I am becoming aware of what a strange but interesting process blogging is. It sharpens my attention for things to read, leads to an increased hunger for information that can be processed in this daily rhythm. Short pieces of striking interest are needed for input. What about longer reads, such as books? They certainly don't fit in the daily rhythm very well. I believe literary critics write about one review per week, to the exclusion of much other work. So the reading here is leaning towards the breathless.
The writing is the really wild beast though. The Aardvark, with so much more experience, has a post about this. He and Gary Turner discuss the 'identity split' that arises as one constructs one's blog persona, something that may be easier to accept for the anonymous bloggers than for the identifiable ones. Gary Turner has just abandoned his blog for this reason. I have an idea that a solution is to set limits to the blog persona, which is allowed to cover only some well-defined aspects of one's whole range of interests and topics. The blog could then provide the framework for the continuous development of that aspect, which might even be one that receives too little attention otherwise.


Another day in Austria 

A 17-years old girl dies of anorexia [DE]. The youth welfare office had become aware of her problems 18 months ago, but the mother did not follow through with the recommended medical controls. A court enforced the medical treatment, but then the girl died before systematic treatment would start, and was lying dead in her bed for a couple of days before her mother called the ambulance and death was declared.

A 'Concert for Europe' [DE] was held in the park of the former imperial chateau Schönbrunn to welcome EU extension, with Bobby McFerrin conducting the Vienna Philharmonics. Among media frenzy, 90,000 people attended a program of popular classical top-hits. Ferromonte watched and was unimpressed [DE].

Wherever you go in Vienna, the power of the middle-class is overwhelming, both in their numbers and in their sense of ownership of society. A daily ride on the underground provides a good education in this matter. So many middle-class biographies, middle-class daily worries, middle-class triumphs. And you sense how well you fit in. So well cushioned against direct effects of most political decisions.


Caritas-president on poverty relief 

Franz Küberl, president of the influential catholic charity 'Caritas', has reiterated the demand for an individual social security minimum of EUR 653 in an interview [DE] for Die Presse.

According to Küberl, EUR 653 is higher in most cases than the 'emergency aid' received by long-term unemployed as a last resort. Küberl wants that everybody who is unemployed and looking for work, as well as every pensioner should be guaranteed this amount as a monthly minimum to prevent the slide into absolute poverty. The current emergency aid system is apparently not sufficient to achieve that.

As I wrote in a recent post, there is a strong argument that such minimum payments should be contingent on actual need. In addition, if such a system was to be introduced, this should probably be done gradually so as to avoid inflation effects such as rent increases. The level would also have to be as low as possible to prevent problems in the jobmarket for low-paid jobs, while it should be high enough to guarantee a life without existentially threatening poverty. Immigrants should get only gradual access to this benefit, reaching full access only after a long period of residency such as twelve years.

If these requirements can be met, such a minimum security net would be an important element of a strategy to reduce the Austrian fear of economic competition, without hurting the competitiveness of the economy.



Read Susan Sontag's Regarding the Torture of Others
Added Body and Soul - 'the body politic, the human soul, and Billy Holiday' to the geographically concentric blogroll.


Swoboda's justice for Slovakia 

Call me a geek, but I listened to some of the appearance of Hannes Swoboda (top candidate of the Austrian social-democrats for the EU elections) in today's ORF Pressestunde. I lent him one ear only, since meanwhile our three years-old was working diligently towards detaching my second ear from its incomprehensible location on my head. Therefore my report has to stop at the point where three years-old came too close to succeeding and TV needed to be switched off.

It is generally unpleasant to witness relatively sober politicians turn into populists during election campaigns. Swoboda was no exception. He dug out that current continental European blockbuster, "the EU takes our net contribution and gives the money to the Eastern Europeans so that they can make our life harder." Swoboda said that Slovakia has

  1. lowered its tax rate to 19%,
  2. then suffered a budgetary crisis,
  3. therefore had to cut its social welfare net
  4. and social turmoil ensued, witness the Roma unrest in February.
  5. Now Slovakia takes EU money to repair social welfare.
  6. Because of the low tax rates, jobs move from Austria to Slovakia, instead of helping the creation of new jobs through active labour market policy.
(1) Swoboda is right about the tax rate, Slovakia has set a flat tax rate of 19% - for VAT, labour income and corporations. (2) It is wrong that Slovakia is suffering a budgetary crisis - latest projections [in German] are for a deficit of 3.8% at an equal growth rate - the deficit is therefore sustainable.

(3) Since there is no budget crisis, the cuts to the social welfare net were not forced, but an intentional measure of the economically liberal government, allegedly to provide a back-to-work incentive.

(4) It seems that the reasons for the Roma unrests [in German] were rather more complex, although the situation of the Roma minority is certainly oppressing and I agree that the Slovak government should probably do more to support them.

(5) As far as I know, Slovakia will get funds from the EU for infrastructure projects and economic stimulus programs rather than for propping up social welfare. Is Swoboda against these transfers, which amount to less than one percent of the relative transfers from Western Germany to Eastern Germany? A country like Slovakia has a GDP/head which is at one sixth of the Austrian level, a fact which can be almost entirely explained by the exact location of the iron curtain after WWII. Had it fallen a few hundred kilometres further to the west, the Austrian social-democrats could rejoice today about the equality of standards and absence of competition to the Austrian workforce. This is where I just cannot imagine the concept of justice that people like Swoboda seem to have - or are they just pretending to be so nationalistic?

(6) To believe that the economic situation of the Eurozone can be improved by raising the taxation level of the new EU members to German levels is astonishing. Would this remove any of the competition from the low wage countries in the rest of the world? All it would achieve would be to hurt the new members in their competition with low wage countries outside of the EU. And about active labour market policy: that may have merit for helping the weakest participants of the labour market, but it is not a program for reviving economic growth, which is unfortunately the only way to reduce unemployment.


Atrocities and famine in Sudan's Darfur region 

Still not enough attention by far. Mass starvation and severe human rights violations on a devastating scale. Delivery of aid must start now.

FT article by Emma Bonino and William Shawcross
German article in Der Standard
Dossier in The Scotsman:

The International Crisis Group says Darfur represents the "potential horror story in 2004". Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who is the ICG’s president, said: "Even if the war were to stop immediately, as many as 100,000 people will probably die in Darfur in the coming months because of the desperate humanitarian situation.

Raw and meandering post about poverty prevention 

Is it true that all politicians of the social-democrats believe that much more money should be spent on „active labour market policies“, such as training-programmes for the unemployed and various financial incentives to companies who hire unemployed people, whereas only some politicians of the greens share this belief, while others believe that rising unemployment is a fact to live with, which should be addressed by a generous ‘basic income’ policy that provides a living for everyone, including people without a job? And if there is such a difference between these parties, who is right and who is wrong?

To me it seems that unfortunately both approaches have serious drawbacks.

There are plenty of anecdotes about the inefficiency of obligatory training schemes mandated by the unemployment agency on its clients. For example, while IT is certainly a dynamic element of the economy, it is questionable whether a six weeks course on using a PC, a word-processor, a spread-sheet, email, and a web-browser will make somebody with little prior formal education much more employable. Even after the course, the person may be under-qualified for jobs where such skills are sought. Another cluster of anecdotes concerns trainings that are unnecessary, such as courses on how to write a job application that are mandated on unemployed academics.

Equally, if a company only hires a certain person because of a financial incentive, it will likely lay this person off as soon as it can, or otherwise assign tasks to that employee which do not provide new qualifications, and which lead into another dead end of the job market. On the positive side, I do believe that for many individuals who have been unemployed for a significant amount of time, any kind of normal employment will provide a boost of morale.

The basic income approach is partly motivated by such criticisms of active labour market policies. It may be more honest, cost-effective and humane to make a direct payout to people who are without a job for structural reasons of the economy, and at the same time stop the old pseudo-Marxist rhetoric that paid work is the only way of life that can generate meaning for the individual. Note that the European concept of minimum income is different from the minimum wage systems in place today: under the basic income approach the state would make up for the shortfall of any salary received, such as from marginal employment contracts, below a certain basic income level. Hence for employers there would not be any direct additional costs. In order to be humane, such a basic income must be high enough that one can live from it without hardship – for these reasons, numbers are usually given which are significantly higher than the minimum unemployment benefits. In Austria the amount of EUR 1000 per month is often mentioned.

In a second step, the basic income approach is then often reinterpreted as a tool of social engineering: not only people who cannot find a job, but also those who choose not to look for one should receive the basic income. Many tax-payers wince at the injustice it would be to pay from their work salaries for the cosy lifestyle of those who prefer EUR 1000 from the state, so this interpretation of basic income may never come close to finding a popular majority. However this reading could be excluded in a practical implementation of the approach.

But the problem persists that a generous basic income provides a disincentive to accept paid work. This may do damage to work productivity at the lower end of the salary scale, where income from paid work would be only marginally higher than the guaranteed basic income alternative.

On the other hand, basic income provides a strong incentive to be part of the system that grants it. This is where my most serious concern about it hooks in, namely the effects of basic income policy on immigration issues. The higher the level of basic income, the stricter would be the division between those who can rely on it and those who cannot. If any resident of Austria would have access to basic income, the current residents would have a strong incentive to prevent immigration, since new immigrants entering the system would make the already threatening tax-burden associated with it even heavier. Reciprocally, there would be a strong incentive to migrate to Austria for welfare tourism. If – and that would seem to be the more likely outcome – only people who have resided and worked in Austria for a certain amount of time would qualify, then the unsecured residents outside of the system would likely squeeze out the people inside the system from low-paying jobs, thus increasing the number of people on state subsidy, and thereby raising the cost of the system further as well as increasing unemployment among people in the system. Again, immigration would be economically undesirable.

..as I was left somewhat confused by these musings, I did a bit of research about a proposal from a group of Austrian political scientists led by Emmerich Talos [in German], which is called ‘need-oriented basic security’ (Bedarfsorientierte Grundsicherung, the title of a book edited by Talos et al., 2003). It represents a variant of a basic income model that excludes people with savings as well as those who are not willing to work. It also proposes a relatively low level of basic income, apparently around EUR 650. To achieve the selectiveness, the proposal relies on the mechanisms of the existing social policy network and its agencies, which means that one cannot expect cost savings from reduced administration (this is in an open break with the so-called ‘neo-liberal’ models of basic income – a term I wasn’t familiar with in my ignorance). Residents who do not hold the citizenship should get access to this system after some years. I also learnt [in German] that the number of people in Austria who receive ‘emergency aid’ (Notstandshilfe, the subsidy of around EUR 600 one can receive permanently once unemployment benefit expires after twelve months) is about one percent of the population, and that there is allegedly wide-spread concern in the social policy community that the current level of emergency aid is too low to prevent a slide into poverty.

From what I’ve read, it seems that the ‘need-oriented basic security’ model is superior to the ‘basic income’ model of the greens because it would be less disruptive to the labour market, but it is a disadvantage that it maintains the normative emphasis on paid work. I also have some problems with the fact that people who have savings are excluded – this seems to be a disincentive for people to make their own provisions for difficult times.

While my opinions about this issue are rather unstable these days, I’ll try to conclude like this:

There are two main reasons why state support for the poor is an important issue: One, because every society should pay special attention to its weakest members, and two, because it seems that economic changes are occurring which will push more people into structural unemployment or force them into low-paid work from which they cannot escape easily.

There are two goals which social policy with a domestic focus should support: One, a return to paid work as a normative goal, two, a life free of poverty even when that is not possible.

There is one additional goal which arises from social policy that is concerned about trans-national welfare: To enable economic migration that does not create political conflict through social frictions at the lower end of the domestic wealth scale.

There is one goal associated with the desire to establish an economic system in Europe in which both the richer and the poorer countries profit from collaboration.

To support all these goals, basic income security should be provided on two alternative tracks, among which clients can choose freely:

Back-to-work track. This would grantt access to training and placement programs of ‘active labour market policy’, for an indefinite amount of time. Clearly, the type of training program will have to be sensitive to the client’s profile and may also change as the duration of unemployment is getting longer and longer. There will be material support in the form of (rather limited) financial support, and support with unavoidable living costs such as rent.

Basic income track. This would grant less access to training and placement programs, while it still requires readiness to take up paid work from the individual. But during the period of unemployment, it provides a somewhat more generous level of material support than the back-to-work track (since costs associated with the program are lower; however, total expense for each client on the back-to-work program should be higher than for the basic income track). There should be some subsidy for programs structuring the daily life of clients, to prevent meaning deficits – but clients would still have to enrol to these programs and meet some of the costs themselves.

Both programs should contain a significant loan component that must be paid back (at a relatively low monthly rate) when the client returns to normal employment. The amount to be repaid should be higher on the basic income track.

Immigrants should initially not have access to either of these programs. Access to the back-to-work track should commence at reduced levels (something like 25% after 3 years, 50% after 6 years, 75% after 9 years); access to the basic income track should be limited to citizens.

What about EU citizens from other countries? Obviously, they could not be discriminated against. What should help to prevent intra-EU welfare tourism here is the loan aspect; the concept of moving to a foreign country to live comfortably on a loan which one has to repay if one ever were to take up employment again seems not very inviting.

Usual disclaimers. I’m by no means an expert on these questions. Still, I’d be curious to know whether anybody has similar (or completely different) intuitions about these matters.


Irrationality about politics and animal protection 

I've come across Michael Huemer's philosophical essay, Why People Are Irrational about Politics (through comments at Crooked Timber). To put it in a nutshell - I know, very dangerous with philosophy - Huemer argues that for many people it is instrumentally rational to be epistemically irrational about their political beliefs.

"In general, just as I receive virtually none of the benefit of my collecting of political information, so I receive virtually none of the benefit of my thinking rationally about political issues."
So instead, a number of sources of belief preferences frequently operate in practice, such as: self-interested bias; beliefs as self-image constructors; beliefs as tools of social bonding; coherence bias. Note however that Huemer does not claim that it's not possible to be rational about politics, he only says that many people are not, most of the time.

While I think that little practical consequences follow if one adopts Huemer's position, it seems to fit well with blogging practice: in theory it would be possible to make sure that one can present convincing evidence before writing a single word about an issue, in practice there is not enough benefit associated with doing that to justify the big additional effort. So blogging often is debate on a shoestring.

Last night, for example, the parties in the Austrian parliament agreed on a new animal protection law [in German]. It provides a step in the direction of better treatment of chicken, horses, and goats in the food industry, does little for cows (they can still be kept in a manner where they are tied to a place for all their life), and disallows puppies from being kept in zoo shops. [Sorry for the clumsy English here :-) ] My reaction to this is broadly positive, and that's why I mention it here, but I have not followed the legislative process closely and I guess I'm also not planning to read the entire new law. I feel somehow that I should, because I think that animal rights are an issue in need of much further progress, but I cannot get myself to doing it because of time limitations. And then I tell myself that as long as global poverty has not been effectively relieved, my interest for animal welfare should remain limited. I guess that's self-interested bias in Huemer's system.


More profound argumentation about Turkey 

Hans-Christian Strache is the leader of the right-populist freedom party in the municipiality of Vienna. He is 34, full of ambition, pictured on hundreds of billboards in Vienna, has a personal website full of his portrait pictures (17 of them in a row at the bottom of every single page), and has been met with icy ridicule in this commentary [in German] from conservative daily Die Presse.

Among his muscle-driven press statements and campaign themes is his opposition to an EU-entry of Turkey. The respective page on his website sports a huge flying Turkish flag, but then flatly rejects Turkish EU-membership solely on the grounds that "if the European community of nations, with its basic coherence established through christian faith, makes a non-European, rapidly re-islamising country its member, then this would be the end of EU." Now nobody - and least of all Strache's targetted voters - will believe that an adherent of the 'national' wing of the freedom party has serious concerns for religion, so this reduces to the deeply philosophical issue of the allocation of the Turkish land mass to both sides of the Bosporus. And Strache is proud to point out that only "three percent" are on the European side. I hope that this profound argument represents only three percent of Strache's analytical capability.

For more serious discussion, please have a look at Randy McDonald's discussion of the Armenia issue today at Living in Europe.


Politician: Horror! Iraq moves into Austrian neighbourhood 

Ursula Stenzel, the top candidate of ÖVP (the governing Austrian conservative party) for the upcoming EU election has once again spoken out against allowing Turkey to become an EU member [in German]. This time her argument is that if Turkey was in the EU, Iraq and Syria would be EU-neighbours. The prospect of having Iraq as a neighbour she finds "horrifying" (grauenhaft). I must say, I have to agree that I can't see Iraq's 25 million people living in my current neighbour's two-room flat, and I prefer that they remain at the Persian Gulf. But serious politics this is not.

Mrs Stenzel also thinks that "Europe must take a deep breath", which means that no further countries must be allowed to join apart from Bulgaria and Romania (she even forgets Croatia here), namely "for the next 10 to 14 years by all means, maybe 20 years". Maybe Mrs Stenzel should not be the one who makes these decisions.


What happened and what next in Iraq 

If you have some time, I recommend reading the rather long New Yorker story about how a secret program of the Pentagon that was designed for use against high-ranking Al Qaeda operatives came to be applied to the general prison population in Iraq. There is some rather plausible discussion of a plan to use sexual humiliation against Arab males – I always had difficulties believing that the soldiers shown on those pictures had the sophistication to develop these arrangements. So far the Pentagon is denying the New Yorker story, but I don’t believe this will be the end of it.

What should be done now? I think that the US military control over Iraq, although illegitimate, is at this point unavoidable. But everything beyond the security aspect must be taken away from US control as quickly as possible, and handed over to the UN. I believe that a UN interim mediation role will have more credibility with Iraqis than the US-appointed “independent Iraqi government” that will be instituted on 1 July, wheras anything that is directly associated with the US government politically is completely discredited at this point, in the eyes of not only, but most importantly, the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi population. I don’t believe that the US would accept such a handover of political control to the UN, I’m only saying they should. The political control should be able to veto any measure that the US military control proposes, something that will not be the case after 1 July according to current plans. This would provide at least some chance to get the necessary message across to the muslim world, which the French/German camp has stressed from the beginning of the war against terror: that non-extremist muslims will get all support from the West – politically and economically - at the same time as extremists and supporters of violence or terrorism will be persecuted across the world.


Fantasy network 

You get 0 for reading this, and I get 0 for writing it.
Our compensation is immaterial.

The internet gets 0 for transferring this.

If we performed this communication by mobile phone, the network would get money, although the amount of that is falling rapidly (as are the numbers of employees of the telecom companies [in German]).

The fantasy network gets 0 for providing infinite hits, visits, and page impressions, and yet it is satisfied.

But it delivers news to me that is unsettling and offers no guidance for the future. Wasn't the idea that by being aware of the news, one would be better prepared for the events one will encounter in the future? Why do current news (Iraq) then swallow up the prospects of a global future I could contemplate? (Soldiers of the single global superpower torture prisoners in an invaded land that the superpower claims to liberate, and it's not an isolated incident.) I predict with confidence that I'll have nothing to predict today.

Mankind will scrape through, the majority will not be affected. The conscience of humanity is scarred by another black spot.


Instapundit, Sullivan, and a war that is lost 

Both Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan, the top two bloggers worldwide, congratulate themselves today on having set new daily visitors-records, and Reynolds wonders where they came from.

I can tell you, Sir. People are recognising that these last few days, the war in Iraq has been lost, and they are looking for clues what will happen next.

La Repubblica publishes contents of two CIA manuals on how to torture prisoners. Meanwhile, Lynndie England claims she was ordered to pose for the cameras in exactly the way she did by her superiors.

The Washington Post publishes results of a new poll on the attitude of Iraqis towards the occupation forces, which shows that over 80% of Iraqis had a negative attitude towards the coalition authorities. The paper quotes insiders from the military who confirm that these numbers have been deteriorating in recent months, rather than improving, as the US government has always claimed they would. Mind you, the poll was taken shortly BEFORE the release of the Abu Ghraib pictures.

There is now no way that the Iraqi population in a shiny democratic Iraq will provide a stronghold for the US in the fight against terrorism. Without that, the invasion remains unjustifiable, and all the invasion-related deaths of the last 14 months will have been in vain. Saddam's removal alone can never condone them.

EU like OECD? 

All four major Austrian parties are now against an EU-entry of Turkey. Chancellor Schüssel, who maybe still hopes to become the next president of the EU commission if the right wins the upcoming EU elections, has said that he is against an EU with 50 members like the OECD, because nobody would benefit from that.

Why? It would obviously mean that the national focus of EU decision making would become untenable, there is no way in which 50 prime ministers could sit around a table and have a meaningful discussion. But are such meetings needed? At the moment yes because the national governments cannot imagine to lose any more control to the EU, but I believe (as does TH) that the EU would benefit from the opposite.


Travel to Lithuania, 1: Descent 

Drowsy from one and a half hours of newspaper reading on the plane, my memory played a trick on me as the clouds below finally dissolved and the countryside around Vilnius airport became visible: „Wow, for the first time I’ll set my foot on the territory of the Soviet Union.” It was a pathetic moment, but I thought I’d let it happen and even save it for blogging – these things need to be worked out of my mind by acknowledging their occurrence, by hitting myself on the head, and by living on as a saner person ever after.

The airport is small and the black uniforms of the young and friendly female immigration officers are full of colourful ornaments, as if to say “Welcome to our fairy tale.”

Everything was organised, I was placed in a modern minibus to Kaunas, 100km from Vilnius. Pity that I couldn’t quite find the energy to break the wonderful organisation of my hosts and go to Vilnius for a few hours of sightseeing, but it was raining, and I found that weather quite adequate for the scenery.

And there they were, a few kilometres past the modern airport complex, the shabby residential building blocks from the communist legacy, although with a lot of lush spring-time greens between them they didn’t look offensive. Our driver was performing frighteningly aggressive manoeuvres on a narrow little road, I think he was angry because his passengers came to witness an embarrassing incident in which a big truck blocked the road. The truck had broken down on a thirty meter climb out of a tunnel – the country is full of soft hills, but to get stuck on a climb here really requires a rather serious technical deficiency. By the way, the receptionist in my hotel was the first person to speak English, so I was left completely alone with my observations until I got there, a useless stranger in a taxi driving through an unknown land.

You see change occurring, and it moves at different speeds. The stones don’t change – the old buildings continue to rot away slowly and they dominate the cities, although what’s built anew is inconspicuously modern. The vehicles are younger, slowly climbing up the wealth ladder. The smaller the vehicles, the easier they climb: We were overtaken by a group of three fat motorbikes, the first painted in screaming orange, the second in blue and the third in neon green. Each colour was repeated in the leather outfit and helmet of its driver. They were a ray of fierceness in the inconsistent landscape of the Vilnius suburbs. But what has changed fastest is the signs, the writing on the shops, the symbolism of capitalism. The most radical object was a dirty dark-blue Ford Sierra, dust coating the metal. The owner had written with his finger in the dust: www.savirainiai.lt – viral website marketing carried by the decay of the Lithuanian motorways (the link doesn't work unfortunately, I must have garbled it up).

Roadside observations:

1. On the dust road between the highway and the forests, a horse pulls a wooden cart in which a whole family is travelling through the rain. Towering above them, a billboard advertises tennis gear with a picture of Serena Williams.

2. In front of us a huge black limousine with a Russian number plate, must be a Russian patron on transit from Belarus to Kaliningrad: 12 hours time to complete the journey with a ‘simplified travel document’. At one place, the owner will pass by a huge, freshly renovated Russian orthodox church standing next to the highway in the open fields - in the distance, an equally big catholic church surrounded by some houses is hiding behind a row of trees. “Must have been renovated by some Russian businessman, there are no Russians living in that area”, our Lithuanian host will tell me later. When we finally overtake the limousine, it turns out to be a Kia model, made in Korea.

3. Why yellow-green-red as the colours of a flag? The highway passes through endless fields in fertile green. On top of the green, large clouds of shining yellow dandelions are kept afloat by the gusts of rainy wind, and below them the soil is reddish brown. Nature here is strong and good.

Travel to Lithuania, 2: Saturday Night Heartbreak 

After hours of rain, the weather dried up just in time for a Saturday evening walk on the search for food. I confess: one of my original ideas for this series was to comment on how the trips of business travellers lead to more or less the same experiences wherever they go, that the specialness of each place is filtered out of their experience. But here I was and looked intently for the familiar, for legible signs and landmarks that would prevent me from getting lost. Signs with street names were sparse, I didn’t have a city map, and my confidence in finding people who would speak English had decreased (in the end orientation turned out to be rather easy).

Kaunas has long, wide boulevards, and on this Saturday evening they were full of people walking in couples or in larger groups up and down the whole length of this track, seeing and being seen, glancing and evaluating here and there, and chatting the hours away. I didn’t meet a single other person who looked like a tourist, and people walking alone were also in low numbers.

It was mostly a pastime of the young, and many of them were following fashion styles unfamiliar to me, mixing sports clothes of the old eastern type with jeans wear and leather, and with the odd H&M element. The broadest boulevard was getting ready to look like any European high-street, with glitzy chain-stores and cafes in between, yet it began to dawn on me that these shops were not just shut because it was Saturday evening; rather, their stock of goods was also not representative of the clothes of the people promenading in front of them, quite different from the situation you’d find in most places where such crowds parrot the shopping windows behind them. Even the cafes were half empty and visited mainly by people above 25. Closer to my hotel and off the main streets, there were noisy places with ‘beer’ in their name that seemed to be the more affordable meeting points of the teenagers. I saw surprisingly few restaurants, and the ones that were there were even emptier than the cafes. There was, miracle of miracles, no McDonalds (at least where I walked). Apparently these generally handsome youngsters who seemed so conscious of what they wore and how they combined fashion items were too poor to buy the things designed and displayed for their consumption, not to mention the billboards with their faces and subjects from ‘Bold and Beautiful’. Frequently, a café would play loud pop music, the latest stuff tastefully mixed.

This young generation is as versed in global pop culture as any in the world; they know the contents, the style, and the aesthetics. On average they had surprisingly good looks, with high cheek-bones and often slim, athletic body-shapes. What they lack for a happy life of pop is but one thing: an economy that spits out the money to be able to afford this culture. They are consumerist but can’t afford to. They talk the talk and walk they walk – but the stupid, cruel money machine is not there. Their perspective seems to be the one of a post-industrial society with its emphasis on self-design and expensive consumer goods, except that the economic fundamentals haven’t come along.

It’s a brutal situation and it broke my heart, once again. I sat down in one of the quiet pizza restaurants and watched, drank Kalnapilis beer and slowly started to feel comfortable again. But there is no reason for complacency. The waitresses were too good for their job, yet I preferred not to imagine how low their salaries would be. Now from my hotel room, from memory I guess that salaries here are at around 30% of the EU average, while the price of my meal was at maybe 80%.

I’m trying to console myself with stories of fast economic development, thinking that once the skills and motivation of the people are comparable, the level of wealth will eventually equal out. But there is no reason why this must be so. Equally possible, because of the uneven distribution of capital, and the entrenched positions of multinational corporations, catching up of the former communist countries might take place only in niches and only up to a certain level. In the end, these national economies might get locked in at a point where the ever increasing amount of consumption prescribed by pop culture is still unattainable for most individuals. I don’t know how these societies would react to such a result. Politically, it sounds like a recipe for trouble.

I can accept that global pop culture is the medium for massive commercial interest of the music, movie, and fashion industries. But I want that this culture becomes more sensitive to wealth differences of its target audiences. It should be equally possible to live a satisfying consumerist pop lifestyle (whatever that is) as a heavy-spending brat of a Hamburg lawyer and as an average young person in Kaunas. I believe that even from the egoistic perspective of a global fashion brand this must make sense – a bit more ‘glocalisation’ is in order.

Second, and this is where I really have no clue what should be done, the desire to buy has been exported much faster than the economic development that is required to fulfil this desire. As a consequence, these young people full of consumerist desire are working very hard and are bending themselves to the limits of ‘flexibility’. In the interest of the whole of Europe, they should not get disappointed.

Travel to Lithuania, 3: If I could see 

More rain on Sunday, I nearly did not find the nerves to go out for a walk, but in the end I did, and soon I held fast to my umbrella as small rivers of rainwater were dashing down the deserted boulevards from yesterday. The town looked at peace with itself, so I walked up a hill to a place that in my little tourist map was marked as a panoramic viewpoint. Hundred meters past the boulevard a wild mix of family homes took control of the town. Many of them must have been built by their owners themselves, the walls were made of raw bricks and supported a lot of savage wooden structures and roofs, or of large sheets of painted iron wielded together in amateurish arrangements. Other buildings were modern residential complexes, apparently from the last three or five years, with flats that would cost 200 thousand euro and more in Vienna. Then there were decaying properties, such as the little park around the viewpoint, which could be accessed on this Sunday afternoon by climbing through an iron fence in a place where helpful citizens had cut out some of the black rods. The whole scenery was wildly romantic, people with a talent for photography could have given you a spectacular photo essay about this. Yet, as groups of men were standing in the doorways and eyeing me suspiciously, I felt quite relieved that I had no serious camera with me. I took one picture with the camera of my mobile phone from the viewpoint.

Later I almost got a cardiac arrest when amid some screaming a teenage male came running out on the pavement a few meters behind me. It was another pathetic moment. In fact, I have hardly ever been treated more politely than by the locals in this town. (Much later, a Lithuanian told me that at least in the evening, as a tourist I should be scared.)

Yet, apparently I continued to walk through Kaunas as a blind man. The things I kept seeing were in my head rather than in the streets. Today, the people were dressed in unnoticeable, but certainly western clothes, and the cafes were full of people. My whole Saturday Heartbreak experience seemed completely ridiculous. In the evening, I had dinner with a colleague in a modern, tastefully furnished restaurant specialising on game (unfortunately the beaver and wild boar on the menu were not available, so we settled for elk ham and venison on thyme). The neighbouring tables were full of relaxed middle-class Lithuanians.

Travel to Lithuania, 4: Workday 

From the restaurant of the Monday work lunch, I watched affable people walking by on the still rainy street. Right below the window, a series-5 BMW with Lithuanian number-plate was parking. When I told the story about the mix of different buildings to our Lithuanian host, he agreed and said that the situation in Vilnius, the capital, was different – there, there was large demand for urban property, whereas in Kaunas a significant number of buildings up for sale did not find buyers.

Finally, I spent a dinner with English-talking Lithuanians, and some of my ignorance was mercifully lifted.

When the professor once visited Austria, he said, he had explained to an Austrian professor the glorious past of Lithuania, which in old times had been a large empire. The Austrian had replied: “That’s just like here, this country also once was a large empire. But I think that today people live better.” We laughed light-heartedly. Ten minutes later I found the witty remark of the Austrian professor quite shallow. There is no causal relationship between his two correct observations. People are better off because of economic and political progress, not because small countries are inherently more benign than big countries. It’s the condescending ways of the West is what it is.

Back in Vienna I had read about the fate of the Jews in Lithuania. After the First World War they had represented almost twenty percent of Lithuania’s population, Vilnius was called ‘the Jerusalem of the North’. Over ninety percent of the Lithuanian Jews perished during the Second World War, a higher percentage than in any other country, they were systematically murdered by the Nazis and by their willing Lithuanian henchmen. Being an Austrian, eventually I did not confront my hosts with this topic over dinner. Neither had I felt strong enough to visit the ninth fort of Kaunas, where thousands of Jews were brought from their death row, the ghetto of Kaunas, to be executed. In the ghetto, a Jewish academic had tried to develop a pedagogy to prepare children for imminent certain death. In the course of the political dinner discussion the topic was touched only briefly by my Lithuanian colleague, who said that Lithuania had always had twenty percent foreigners – during the second world war the minorities were changed: before there were Jews and Germans, afterwards Poles and Russians.

The old decrepit buildings right behind the façade of the main boulevard are spooky, especially at night. On my way to the restaurant, I had walked by a dead pigeon lying on the pavement that looked small and fragile with its wings folded. The blood that had dripped from its neck was still liquid.


Travel to Lithuania 

I'm leaving for a trip to Kaunas, Lithuania, just a week after the EU enlargement - quite a happy coincidence. Characteristically, what takes me there is a professional networking activity sponsored by, guess, the EU. Be that as it may, given the significance of the date, I'll try to make a small blogging project out of this. I hope to be back with results around the middle of next week.

I guess my ignorance of the country where I'm going is also characteristic. It amounts to a print-out of some 15 pages of Lithuanian history from rather modest internet sources, I hope I'll find some more once I'm there. Just trying to be aware of what the starting conditions are.



The scourge of the EU-parliament, Hans-Peter Martin MEP (English-language primer here), who will run for the EU-elections even though his former faction (the social democrats) kicked him out, has now declared that will found a party, and that Karin Resetarits will be on the number two spot of his list (in German) - meaning she will go to Brussels if his effort is as successful as I predicted earlier. (UPDATE: the magazine News has a poll: SPÖ 33 - ÖVP 29 - Grüne 15 - HP Martin 15 - FPÖ 9)

Karin Resetarits is a TV moderator who has also been active relentlessly in many diverse cultural ventures, more and less successful, with an implied claim to celebrity status. She has at least managed an enormous presence on all kinds of local gossip- and celebrity talk-outlets (such as now this one), for reasons that are very hard to understand. Politically she seems to be somehow leftish in a fuzzy way, but this is clearly overshadowed by her controversial fame as an attention-junkie. And this is her role here: She may have some fans, but isn't the risk much higher that she will turn away many voters initially sympathetic to Martin alone? First signs of this here (in German). But of course, Martin did need a number two, otherwise he could have been killed by an argument saying: He may be a deserving chap, but your vote for him is wasted, since he'll manage to get elected anyway and for any more votes there are no candidates...

In a way, although the case in point is quite unimportant, it's interesting. Many ventures (in business, blogging, art and elsewhere) have to make this hard decision: is this about one authentic person, who can credibly carry a certain content, or is this story strong enough that I can make it social and intersubjective, so that the cause can be represented by a collective. In this case, my guess is that the net balance for Martin will be negative.


Man with weak intelligence 

This is a relatively new blog, so my own guidelines for it are slowly emerging. One seems to be: Daily (well, almost) analysis, even where the amount of facts presented to support the analysis is quite moderate due to lack of time for research and presentation. I'm a bit concerned that the result may look arrogant at times - but I am quite aware of the places where more facts would be beneficial, yet what interests me most is to move forward in discussing the topics that I'm thinking about, maybe the facts could be collected later when required to defend a position.

Today I'm worried about unemployment. I saw this TV program yesterday which presented a back-to-work project for the longterm unemployed. It portrayed a middle-aged man. We are told that this guy has been through a multiyear period of unemployment, during which he became homeless and developed an alcohol addiction. Now, with the help of social workers of the back-to-work project, he has his own place to live in and works in a garage of the fire brigade. The program showed him washing a vehicle with a water hose and handing screws from a table to a mechanic who was doing maintenance work. The man also answered two questions, but I could barely understand a word he said because of his slur. From the superficial impression I got, it looked as if this man would be only marginally employable outside of the protected environment of a social work project. He seemed to have a weak intelligence that must make it tough for him to compete on a free labor market.

I could not help but think of the costs of keeping this man employed - there are the social workers' salaries, there is potentially an inefficiency in the work process of the garage, there is the overhead in the unemployment agency for finding (mostly public?) institutions that would take such employees on board. The benefits are also clear, the clients of such projects will find a new purpose and stability in life, and this will help them to overcome problems such as, in this case, alcohol addiction.

Morally I believe that society should accept some costs to help its weakest members lead a fulfilled life. I am however not entirely convinced that this must involve inclusion in the free labor market - and to be honest, I don't even know whether the project in question is aiming at reintegration in the free labor market, or rather in some kind of protected system of labor for the public sector. The latter may well be good enough. Also, I don't see why everybody must work for money. In practice it's not the case anyway - it is mostly women who stay home to look after kids or sick or old relatives, and some people don't work by choice, because they can somehow afford it financially. Still, the man from the program is clearly in a different situation.

I guess what troubles me is that I have argued that financial support for the unemployed should be reduced (to remove national welfare borders), but now I feel that the man from the program will very likely prefer his current situation to one where he would be on one of those voluntary programs for structuring daily life without being employed that I thought about earlier. Well, actually I called it "multidimensional support and incentives during periods of unemployment", which does not sound so bad really. Ok, so now I believe that 1) anything that does not lead back to paid employment must be strictly voluntary 2) everybody should be given the option to have his "support and incentives" directed at reintegration in the labor market, if they want to. But those fulfilling certain conditions should still be given the option to receive some level of financial support even outside the labor market, and still be respected as full and worthy members of the community.


EU extension: and further.. 

Croatia will join soon, I hear in 2007. Romania and Bulgaria. Turkey, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia/Kosovo, Albania. All this will not be easy.

On the accession of Turkey, apart from the religious opposition, which needs to be overcome, there remain many doubts and concerns. Certainly, there must be continued pressure for improved respect of human rights and civilian rule. Another argument advocated by Johannes Voggenhuber (an Austrian Green EU-politician) is that Turkey should wait until the accession of the western Balkan countries has been achieved, by which he means not before ten years time. Voggenhuber's motivation seems to be rather his desire to see a "deepened" EU with common social policies than some weak-sounding appeal to geographic proximity.

But how fast can and should accession of the remaining Balkan countries proceed? Croatia seems relatively straightforward today, but all of the other countries seem to be weaker economically than the weakest economies in the latest accession round. On top of this, a number of them have weak political and judicial systems, and in some cases, very complex interconnections between the political elite and organised crime. Sauseschritt, which has been blogging at high intensity and quality these days, mentions the situation in Serbia and provides a link to an older article by Alexander Jovanovic at heise which gives a detailed snapshot at one point in time of the landscape of gangs there. From the information I have been given, the situation is quite similar in a fair number of the other countries.

High-level corruption, and political systems collaborating with organised crime are phenomena that IMHO cross the line of what an EU member country can be like. This is not to say that the current EU countries are free of corruption, but there do seem to be significant quantitative differences. So I think the EU must exert credible pressure on countries where such phenomena are well-established, on the theme that the existing situation disqualifies them from membership, and that only serious progress in cleaning up the political systems paves the way for accession. This should also include a major initiative within the current EU member states to free their own political systems from corruption, nepotism and unjustified influence of political parties, otherwise such pressure would be neither legitimate nor credible.

On the other hand, this will in most cases imply time frames for preparatory measures that suffice for the economies to stabilise, and so morally there should be no multi-year adjournments of entry negotiations on economic criteria by the EU. Once the countries feel fit enough on the economic level, they should be given the right to decide themselves whether they want to join the competitive EU markets. This however again will require relatively non-corrupt political systems, because otherwise there will always be a corrupt elite who can and will want to profit handsomely from EU accession, even if it destroys the national economy in the process.

Given the difficulty of the extension task in the Balkans, I do not see why Turkey should wait longer than the Balkan countries, provided it fulfills the requirements. Let Verheugen work on a second "big bang", he likes it.


Change in the blogroll 

Bill Dawson has renamed his English-language blog from Vienna for the second time in a few weeks. The title originally included "Danubian Utopia" - the way Danubians see the world -, was then changed to "Danubian Dystopia" - maybe to reflect how Bill thinks of their attitude - and is now, maybe the most appropriate title, "Dawson's Danube" - a sign of further reflection :-)

Dawson's Danube also has two recent posts of high quality and moral rectitude that must have been difficult to write, considering the author's support for the US invasion of Iraq: One commenting the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers, and another commenting the killing of Iraqi civilians.

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