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2004-08-31

Dyslexia or admission of fatal error? 

Regarding George W. Bush's dyslexia, the common view is that although Bush is rather handicapped in expressing himself verbally, this inability only hides an underlying shrewdness and intelligence--sometimes to Bush's advantage, as opponents tend to underestimate him.

Now yesterday, George Bush made a rather surprising statement on TV, which makes it to a section headline in DerStandard, whereas the Washington Post has the following paragraphs hidden in an article about the Republican National Convention:
Bush stirred up fresh criticism of his leadership when he said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show that he doubted that the United States could actually win the war against terrorism. "I don't think you can win it," he said. "But I think you can create the conditions that those who used terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."

Bush's comment drew a swift reply from the Kerry campaign, with Edwards, the vice presidential candidate, accusing Bush of declaring defeat, saying the Democrats have a plan to win that war. White House officials moved just as quickly to explain that the president meant that the war on terrorism is unconventional and will produce no surrender ceremonies or treaties and that the United States must be prepared for a generation of vigilance.
For DerStandard, this amounts to "Policy Reversal by Bush: We cannot win the war against terror". In fact, as the New York Times points out, Bush's words are in stark contrast to earlier assertions:
As recently as July 14, Mr. Bush had drawn a far sunnier picture. "I have a clear vision and a strategy to win the war on terror," he said.

At a prime-time news conference in the East Room of the White House on April 13, Mr. Bush said: "One of the interesting things people ask me, now that we are asking questions, is, 'Can you ever win the war on terror?' Of course you can."

It was unclear if Mr. Bush had meant to make the remark to Mr. Lauer [the NBC-interviewer, ed.], or if he misspoke. But White House officials said the president was not signaling a change in policy, and they sought to explain his statement by saying he was emphasizing the long-term nature of the struggle.

Taken at face value, however, Mr. Bush's words would put him closer to the positions of the United States' European allies, who have considered Mr. Bush's talk of victory simplistic and unhelpful.
Simplistic and unhelpful, yes. Yet it is hard to believe that Bush would wipe away such a core piece of the justification of, among other things, his Iraq campaign in such a fleeting manner. Because the (European) alternative to military invasions in Arab countries was always a disciplined divide-and-conquer approach that would aim at isolating the violent extremists from the Arab mainstream so as to be able to persecute the terrorists with the support of the Arab masses. In contrast, the military approach chosen by the Bush administration was always bound to alienate the Arab mainstream. The only justification for this had to be a believe that a short-term turn for the worse in the Arab mainstream would be compensated by mid-term sweeping victory. If Bush gives up that pillar of justification, it amounts to admitting that yes, the US was wrong (killing tens of thousands of people in vain), and the Europeans were right.

Clearly, George W. Bush must have misspoken.

2004-08-30

Sober reality of political belief systems? 

The often impressive Eamonn Fitzgerald has a post summarising some points from an article by Louis Menand in the New Yorker, 'The Unpolitical Animal', about US presidential elections. For example, a bad weather season in several states has been calculated to have cost Al Gore 2.8 million votes in 2000, and thus the election. Based on survey research, Philip Converse is quoted to have written in 1964 that "only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system" and Converse concluded that "very substantial portions of the public" hold opinions that are essentially meaningless. Unashamed blockquote from Eamonn Fitzgerald's post:
Menand ends with an observation on US political campaigning that, although obvious, cannot be stressed enough. When it comes to winning voters, "…the things that help to convince them are likely to make ideologues sick — things like which candidate is more optimistic." And this lead him to conclude:

"For many liberals, it may have been dismaying to listen to John Kerry and John Edwards, in their speeches at the Democratic National Convention, utter impassioned bromides about how 'the sun is rising' and 'our best days are still to come.' But that is what a very large number of voters want to hear. If they believe it, then Kerry and Edwards will get their votes."

And if Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudolph Giuliani say it even louder with more passion in Manhattan in the coming days, then Bush and Cheney will get their votes.
Recently I saw a few minutes of the 'Alltagsgeschichten' TV production 'Das kleine Glück im Schrebergarten', in which Elisabeth Spira interviewed the owners of several 'Schrebergärten' (tiny gardens in municipality-managed colonies within the outer city districts of Vienna). The political statements of several of Spira's interviewees were examples of such really meaningless political belief systems. But I want to remain sceptical whether this is indeed characteristic of a "very substantial portion of the public".

UPDATE: Econlog reports on research that found correlates of political affiliation in brain scans. What a relief.

2004-08-27

N'KISI TV presenta [sample issue] 

Only the most persistent readers of this blog will remember N'kisi, the grey parrot, who made it to the global media because of his fabulous language skills. It is not clear however whether he really understands the things he says or whether he just, well, parrots. This blog will from now on host reports syndicated from a previously unknown media outlet called N'KISI TV in irregular intervals. N'KISI TV claims that their feathered staff can write blog posts that are typical for any of the blogs on the Ostracised-blogroll. I don't believe that for a second, but they offered to produce a take on this very blog as a door-opener (see below), and based on this sample issue I gave them a contract, at least preliminarily. So if you are on my blogroll, be warned. If you aren't, be warned all the same.


[Ostracised from Österreich] I have noticed lately that nobody but me takes Austrian politics as seriously as it deserves to be taken, presumably for existential reasons that have to do with the most unbearable aspects of the human condition. This led me to a reevaluation of several principles of Western thought, and I am pleased to report that I have been able to achieve a number of important breakthroughs in amateur political thought, each of which can be sketched inconsistently in no more than thousand words apiece, a task which I have kindly taken on my shoulders for the benefit of you, yes you over there, dear interested reader. Take any historical period, say the 90’s, with which I am supremely familiar from first-hand experience because, importantly, I was already born then, and, let it be mentioned, I was younger and even smarter than today. In a spirit of utmost neutrality we can look at any political party during that period, say, the Greens, in an arbitrary country, say Austria, and deduce conclusions of universal and earth-shattering importance from our observations. Yet today I want to touch on an unusual topic for this blog, namely the issue of Austrian attitudes to the neighbouring countries. I can clearly remember the time in 1989 and early 1990 when tens of thousands of Romanians were waiting at the Austrian borders for entry into this country. Of course in retrospect I am in favor of their free and immediate entry. Yet when I equally take into consideration the understandable fears of the underpriviledged classes, I must say that a fair policy at that time would have been to deny entry to these would-be immigrants only on humanitarian grounds, and in a spirit of moral sorrow and Weltschmerz. A transparent communication of these deep and honourable feelings and sensibilities would have been of the highest importance back then, and no party met this test, although the Greens could and would have met it, if they hadn’t been, regrettably, corrupted by power and careerism. In that matter, the SPÖ with its brilliant interior ministers was an undefinable blob about which I know nothing, the ÖVP a black hole of conservativism that offends my idealism, and the FPÖ was an entity that I take great pains to avoid mentioning, in a cleverly devised strategy of strategic neglection. Were these Romanian immigrants heralding the things to come, or were they economic refugees, a term which was at the centre of the xenophobic debate at the time? I predicted incorrectly the outcome of an unimportant event, a fact that should make us sit down and meditate in awe.

2004-08-26

New political faces in Central Europe 

Since nobody else seems to cover (or comment on) these things any longer, let it be noted that the Hungarian ex-communists have elected a new prime minister designate. Ferenc Gyurcsany, 43, is a former leading figure of the communist youth organization who then became a millionaire in investment banking, before entering the government in 2002 in the role of a lesser minister. Der Standard has a number of useful articles:Gyurcsany vs. Orban will be an interesting electoral fight pitching two dynamic youngsters against each other, and it's also noteworthy how 30-40 year olds are taking over the political leadership not only in Hungary but also in the Czech Republic (the new prime minister Stanislav Gross is 34) and in the Slovak Republic, where the influential finance minister Ivan Miklos is 43 years old.

2004-08-25

European alliances 

The Yorkshire Ranter and Plastic Gangster take apart an article by John O'Sullivan in the National Review online. They--and this blog--are mainly interested in the use by O'Sullivan of that concept of a two-block EU, with France, Germany, and Spain on the one side, and 'Atlanticist' Britain, Italy, and Poland on the other. Both British blogs gleefully demonstrate why it would be foolish of UK eurosceptics to rely on a meaningful alliance with Italy and Poland in EU matters, because of the large differences in national interests among these countries.

I would only add that beyond objective national interests, another factor that influences the projection capability of national politics at the EU level is based on personal qualities of leaders. Chirac's unpopularity outside of France, for example, seems to hamper his ability to push French positions in the EU, whereas Blairs relative popularity and the respect he has earned among his peers are probably helping the UK. In that regard, Berlusconi's record is of course abysmal, and the Polish government seems to be half-way out the door anyway. The alliances that dominate the EU25 will be fleeting, dynamic and short-lived, more flexible than the old Franco-German axis, and potentially rather hard to predict.

2004-08-24

The haze surrounding the new economic program of SPÖ 

..is starting to dissolve slowly, but the question is whether what will emerge beneath will be something solid or just another, intentional haze for as long as the Austrian socialdemocrats remain in opposition. Party spokesman Darabos and budget spokesman Matznetter have given an interview [DE] to the Kurier newspaper (see also rather substantial discussion [DE] in the forum there. Wow, I didn't know that the Kurier online reader forums are at least equal to the ones at Standard.)

Less taxation of small salaries, also on the employer side, more taxation of capitals, more reliance on tax income to fund pensions and social insurance. Also, vague hints at a basic income system. The SPÖ website offers a preview in rosy colors [DE] of the tax proposals of the party. The new economic program is scheduled for release in mid September.

Most of the alluded cornerstones of the program can be either positive or negative depending on the details and on implementation. Unfortunately, in addition the party still trumpets its pet idea of European tax harmonisation "to prevent tax dumping", which I still find highly problematic.

2004-08-23

Emigrants: Departure for Greece Pushing the Cars  

(translated from Koha Jone [AL])

Kapshtica – The metallic barrier of the Albanian customs in Kapshtica cannot be passed these days unless you subject yourself to the consecutive procedures of inspection, ranging from documents, luggage and cars to travel bags. Before the barrier, at least 50 cars are waiting in line, and next to them a coach with travellers. An employee of the border police inside of a kiosk type cabin validates the passports of each Albanian citizen by computer, and in the adjacent cabin the customs stamp is fetched. The lined up cars proceed slowly, meter after meter, until the first of the caravan of small cars manages to complete all procedures, and after the final inspection it darts away, breathing in with relief, towards the Greek customs. As if they were exercising an absurd discipline of sports, almost all the drivers get out of their cars and push their vehicles along slowly, advancing immediately as a car passes the barrier. A driver who is overpowered by sleep, with his head supported on the open window of the car, is woken up by the honk of the following car, whose driver seems to wait impatiently to move. The emigrants start like this on their long journey to Greece pushing their cars, most of them with destinations in the neighbouring country, towards those cabins and windows that perform the task of the control point at the border.

The lines created during these last three days in Kapshtica only on the Albanian side have their reason both in the number of emigrants returning to Greece and in the new procedures for their verification, procedures which are dictated also by the security measures of the Olympic Games. “For the first time, the registration and data capture by computer of all the data of the Albanian citizens who enter Greece is accomplished”, explains one of the officers of the border police in Kapshtica. He emphasises that the emigrants have to wait not more than half an hour for completing the procedures and for being controlled entirely. The functioning of the computer system at the customs, the time which is needed for the entry of all data on the identity of the emigrant, and the not-so-quick operation of it by the employees who are not yet as skilled as they should be, has brought some delays for the departures to Greece. … More than 2,000 Albanian citizens have passed the border every 24 hours for the last three days in the direction of Greece, whereas since the beginning of August 27,000 persons of different age groups have returned to Greece in almost 6,500 vehicles. Also the Greek police continues the repatriation of persons caught without documents or residence permit on its territory. During this month, 884 Albanian citizens have been returned, but none of them has ended up mistreated.

The Olympic Games in Greece have brought previously unseen control measures at the customs of Kapshtica. The border police with reinforced numbers, the customs, anti-contraband forces, anti-terror forces, secret service, the CAM mission Albania etc. reportedly all control on their own account the entries and exits of people, vehicles, and of goods at the customs of Kapshtica. The reinforcement of the inspections is said to have forced a part of the criminal elements to try until recently to enter Greece at the customs of Tre Urat. There are reports that one of the police officers at that border control was fired because it was believed that he favoured or did not stop the move of people with criminal records towards Greece. The authorities of the border police in Devoll seem like they want to avoid such an accusation by all means, and they present themselves in a rough manner to every Albanian who leaves for Greece. … The border police of both countries continue to have permanent contacts for coordination of the security measures and for the prevention of any act or deed that would threaten the normality of the Olympic Games.

2004-08-20

Profits from the poor - to help them 

The Economist has a positive review of a recent book by management guru C.K.Prahalad. I haven't read the book, but the idea seems interesting: Prahalad claims that big businesses can generate a lot of egoistic profits from the 4-5 billion poor in the world, and in the process help the poor to improve their lives more than top-down development aid programmes by governments or NGOs will achieve.

The reason is that the poor often pay higher prices for goods they consume than the well-off, for example because of risks associated with doing business in their vicinity, bad distribution networks and smaller package units. When businesses reengineer their products and distribution channels, they can reach these consumers, often by involving them in entrepreneurial roles, such as for the delivery of goods.

A small excerpt from the Economist-article to give you a flavour of these arguments:
Another challenge will be to persuade development experts to support a profit-driven strategy. Mr Prahalad worries that firms may be deterred from BOP [bottom-of-the-pyramid, ed.] strategies by fear of attracting criticism from activists. If a large international bank were to start lending to the poor at interest rates, reflecting higher risks and start-up costs, of say 20% (compared with around 10% in rich countries), “the whole anti-globalisation lobby would probably be against it. Yet the alternative is for the poor to borrow at 500% from a money lender. Whose side are the activists on?” If you are on the side of the poor, he says, “surely you need to help get rates down from 500% to 20%. After that, you can work on getting them from 20% to 10% like in the rich world.”
UPDATE: More details at Mahalanobis

2004-08-19

New political party in Vorarlberg 

A long, long time ago, when I was even more arrogant and omniscient than these days, I defended voting for the Greens as follows against people who considered voting useless because of ubiquitous careerism and corruption in politics: yes, there were first signs of corruption and nepotism settling in also among Green parties, but still the Greens were a relatively young movement with an explicit aim of abstaining from the old dirty practices of power politics. Eventually, when the Green movement would get older and more corrupted by power, there would emerge a new competing movement to take its place, which would then represent this appeal of cleanness and principle, but for the time being, people with a certain world-view and desire for morality in politics had to stick with the Greens.

I was reminded of that prediction this morning when I read the interview with Bernhard Amann [DE] in Der Standard. Amann is running with the new party vau-heute in the upcoming regional elections in Vorarlberg. The interview is fresh and vigorous, although it has to be said it's an email-interview, which of course makes it easier to formulate razor-sharp replies. Particularly interesting is the way in which he distances his leftish party from the Greens. Amann challenges the reduction of ecology to a difficult-to-grasp concept of sustainable capitalist development, emphasises the often neglected Green goals of radical direct democracy and pacifism, and chides the Greens for conservative moral imperatives like "Thou shalt separate your garbage properly" ("Du sollst den Müll säuberlich trennen"). Conclusion:
A qualititative change away from conservativism and towards the future -- they do not achieve it.
Most serious of these criticisms is probably the attack on the sustainability concept, concerning which the vau-heute website links to the paper by Saral Sarkar and Bruno Kern, Ökosozialismus oder Barbarei [DE]. I had a look at that paper but was left unconvinced by it, since its authors seem to discard the potential for economic growth in services and information all too easily. Still, the vau-heute platform seems viable, even more so with the support it is receiving from Hans-Peter Martin, the successful critic of the EU parliament.

2004-08-18

Benefits of Procrastination 

For months I've been too lazy to add a search function to this blog. One of my ambitious goals for the new season has been to finally get around to this. And what do I find upon return from my holidays? Blogger is replacing the google ads at the top of their free blogs with a nav bar - and that includes a google site search field. So there you are, happy searching.

Meanwhile in politics, reading around I find that people are more aggressive than usual. In the absence of substantive discussions, it seems to be the high season of personal attacks, ranging from political blog comments [DE] all the way to the federal chancellor having a go at deriding "minor political figures" in a recent "News Sommertalk" [DE, excerpt only]. A time to take it slow.

The difference between your typical holiday destination and the population of the Vienna underground: The range and number of different signs. "Let it be" is my first gut reaction. Do cities make us liberals?

2004-08-16

More on paying for residence 

Earlier I vented this seemingly crazy idea of a residence fee that intra-EU migrants would have to pay for some period when they move to a new location within the EU. The purpose would be to enable populations to express a social choice on how much immigration (with the associated economic efficiency) they want. Of course I don't really like the aspect of financially penalising poor migrants. Yet, I've returned to this idea for the reason that originally motivated it: The EU as it is now, and even more so with future rounds of enlargement that bring in less-developed economies, is a political programme to the economic benefit of the richer, better educated segments of society, whereas its overall effects on people with a weak standing in the labor market are less clear. To put it bluntly, there are segments of the Austrian work-force that would not benefit from increased competition and immigration of cheap labor. Is one not called, in thinking about politics, to have the benefit of the most disadvantaged members of society in mind first and foremost? Is it alright to neglect the local poor in favor of the European or global poorer (and the local rich)?

If we want to support internationalisation of political perspectives, as represented concretely by the EU in the case of Austria, we must develop political concepts that don't ignore the local poor and their economic interests. It is not enough to say that everybody will benefit from the lower prices and stronger labor market of a more competitive economy if we don't give people who have fears -- sometimes justified ones -- the opportunity to influence how much of these benefits they want to seek.

Here is a refined version of the original idea:

  1. Every region in the EU (smaller than a country, in Austria each Bundesland) determines the level of a flat fee that must be paid monthly by EU-citizens holding a job in that region, for the first 15 years of residence in the region. People without a job are exempt from the fee. The fee is deducted from salaries by employers.
  2. Proceeds from this fee must be transferred by the regions to an EU fund that disburses the money for structural development in the least developed regions of the EU.
  3. The level of the fee should be set as transparently as possible, e.g. subject to regional popular referendums that can be put up for revision upon popular petition.
  4. Restrictive 'transition rules' at enlargement that forbid employment in existing EU countries (like the seven-year rules imposed at the recent enlargement round) are disallowed as the new system is introduced.
Reason for 1.: Less developed regions that compete for immigration will drive the level of the fee lower. Free movement of people is preserved by linking the fee to employment (this also avoids incentives to leave families behind). The fee should be flat so that it slows down immigration at low salaries, while it will be insignificant at higher salaries.

Reason for 2.: Voters will be aware that a high level of the fee takes money out of their regional economy. Depopulation of marginal regions is countered with subsidies for development.

Reason for 3.: The incentive/disincentive structure for immigration should stop being a taboo decided upon by elite politicians (influenced by xenophobic demagogues). It becomes a simple social choice.

Reason for 4.: Everybody who is ambitious and determined enough can still migrate freely within the EU. No first- and second-class EU memberships.

The system would apply within the EU (think of an EU with 30-35 members), whereas citizens of non-EU countries would still need to apply for residence/work-permits.

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