New economy 

The detailed story and thoughts about an economic model of the business of a US company that set up a sweat-shop in Mexico and employed low-paid workers to play multiplayer online computer games for money. The company then sold the game-items its workers acquired (such as game-weapons or game-money) on real auction sites like ebay.

Learning regions 

Interdisk, a Viennese network of institutions managing education, (un)employment, and the economy organised a small workshop in November with the title 'Learning in the Region' [DE].

Interesting materials for the two presentations at the workshop are online:

Rolf Dobischat (Univ. Duisburg) talks about "Beispiele für Lernende Region, Effekte für Arbeitsmarkt und Weiterbildung" [.pdf]. Dobischat presents examples from Germany and argues that Learning Regions as an important topic is the result of two trends: The trend towards regionalisation, as a reaction to state failure, increasing problem pressure, and 'homelessness in globalisation' (referring to Richard Sennett's book "The Corrosion of Character"); and secondly, the trend towards a Learning Society, "as a response to increasing insecurity and to the failure of technocratic paradigms".

Mario Steiner (IHS, Vienna), "Chancen und Hindernissen der Entwicklung zu einem lernenden Bezirk" [.pdf] distinguishes three pillars of life-long learning: the professional dimension/employability; the social dimension/basic education levels for everybody; and the democratic dimension/unfolding of individual talents. His case studies show overreliance on institutional setups and difficulties in engaging the targeted disfavoured population groups as major obstacles ecountered in three implemented projects.




I don't follow pessimists 

Here is the essence of what I find at fault with that economic program [DE] of the Viennese Green party I mentioned earlier. This is not based on the thorough analysis of the document I had planned, but maybe on a clarification of my uneasiness with it.

The analysis of the economic system in that paper seems to be roughly this: The market and the private sector are not flawed in principle, in some cases they produce good results. Yet, the world is suffering from widespread market failure and as a result the markets should not be trusted. The alternative is to shift responsibility from the private sector to the state. Yet, one needs to be sceptical about the state as well, because its activities are plagued by frequent state failures [Staatsversagen]. There is a third way, the non-profit sector, which seems to hold some promise. However, this third sector suffers from deficits of democratic accountability and intransparence, and therefore it also needs to be controlled carefully to avoid abuse.

All in all, the economic system is pretty horrible, each of the three sectors needs to be treated with suspicion, Green policies are required to keep all these evil forces and tendencies in check. It's a grim picture brought to you by us, the hardened forces of opposition.

Then, later in the document, there is a long chapter on the importance of life-long learning, of engaging the groups of the population who don't easily enrol in training programs [Bildungsferne], and so on. To engage them after all, the concept seems to be one of social workers moving into the neighbourhoods and actively approaching the individuals [aufsuchende Arbeit, p.50]. Recent readers of this blog will know that these are issues that are important to me. But I wonder: How will this big initiative for a learning society be motivated if the overall picture is as grim as the Green analysis suggests? "Come on friend, we know we have no chance, neither business, nor the state, nor the NGOs offer viable options, but you personally should still do everything you can to get educated in order to confront the forces of evil"?

Wouldn't it be slightly more motivating to hear something like: "You personally can make it. Take the initiative, help yourself with this training, and there is a world of opportunity opening up for you. In the meantime, Green policies will make sure that there are even more economic opportunities for someone like you in six months time".

The key point of this is that in order to be credible as a campaigner for change, you must convince me that you personally believe in a good future. In turn, if the future will be good, don't tell me that the present is horrible (when it obviously isn't*), because if it was it would be hard for me to believe that you can show me a way to the good future that is simple and riskless enough that I would enjoy walking it together with you.

And finally, since there is no alternative way of creating large numbers of jobs in sight, this means that the Greens must learn to love the markets and the private sector.

*a point made by Bjoern Staerk about liberal reforms that would have to operate cautiously and from within Norway's social democracy.

PS: Some passages are outright annoying, especially in the chapter 'Deconstruction and rejection of the neo-liberal economic paradigm'. The chapter title says a lot. May the author of the following paragraph (p.7) remain anonymous.
The neo-liberal claim that a high salary level and low competitiveness lead to slow growth and unemployment is wrong and can easily be falsified empirically. ... It turns out that the Austrian balance of payments is in balance inspite of the high salary level. The absurdity of the neo-liberal argument becomes even clearer when one considers that Germany achieves a higher export surplus than Austria, but nevertheless grows more slowly and has a higher unemployment rate than Austria.

Die neoliberale These, dass hohes Lohnniveau und geringe Wettbewerbsfähigkeit Wachstumsschwäche und Arbeitslosigkeit herbeiführen, ist falsch und empirisch leicht zu widerlegen. ... Es zeigt sich, dass die österreichische Leistungsbilanz trotz des hohen Lohnniveaus ausgeglichen ist. Die Absurdität der neoliberalen Argumentation wird noch klarer sichtbar, wenn man bedenkt, dass Deutschland trotz höherer Löhne höhere Exportüberschüsse erzielt als Österreich, aber dennoch langsamer wächst und eine höhere Arbeitslosenrate als Österreich hat.



Ok, so we can consider ourselves lucky to have witnessed in our lifetime The-End-of-History as well as The-End-of-Big-Theories. So let us take a happy look at some dominating issues of our current, post-End condition:

The likes of Michael Posner (introduced here recently) and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker are at odds how to interpret recent comments of Larry Summers to the effect that maybe men are more apt for mathematics than women after all. Posner, referring to another much debated product of present day intellectualism, Malcom Gladwell's "Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking", poses the provocative question whether snap judgements about people based on prejudice, while often not fair, may not nevertheless be efficient, and therefore rational. In contrast Pinker, while admitting that we are understanding more and more about the fact that innate individual differences do exist and play a significant role in our lives, argues that nevertheless people should be granted equal rights even if different. (The Posner - Pinker contrast established by the HedgeFundGuy at Mahalanobis). Outright sensational.

Meanwhile, at Crooked Timber, we can read about sociologist Emile Durkheim's (1858-1917) defense of marriage as the best solution for men, despite appearances. Fortunately for us post-Theory people, in the comments, a Conrad Barwa has a friend who used to talk about Lacan to him - nice line of defense, "my friend would like to know..".

Not to mention this [DE] on a popular Vienna-based blog (185 comments).

Big Issue for sale somebody? ANYbody?


Green candidates for Viennese municipality 

Last Sunday, the Viennese Greens who aspire to win second place in the next elections for the municipality established their list of candidates. DerStandard sees a move further to the left [DE]. From the list of elected candidates, my favourite unknown face is that of Ingrid Puller, streetcar driver, who doubts whether it is really possible that she is the only extra-terrestrian blue-collar worker who votes for the Greens, and asks for an approach to communication that has an appeal beyond academics.

Meanwhile, Johannes Hahn of the Viennese conservatives had much more wicked fun [DE] than I had when reading the new economic program [DE] of the Viennese Greens (edited by left-winger Martin Margulies). It is a profoundly weird document. I hope to come back to it when my time budget allows, to try and identify the various incompatible political belief systems and ideologies that seem to have cooked this up.


Some political questions 

Further on my last post, what communication channels could this political voice that tries to engage the educational underclass use? Forget about the internet. Forget about newly established print formats. TV and yellow press publications have the reach - but are the existing media in that class not soaked more with cynicism than even the worst of our politicians? So would the political voice have to take the form of a grassroots movement with the determination to walk the walk and talk the talk in the more unpleasant of our urban neighbourhoods? And would it, in that way, ever be strong enough to compete with the onslaught of TV and yellow press, see above? This is not the year 1910.

What would the content of its message be? Something like the various activities offered by the urban neighbourhood centers operated by the Wiener Hilfswerk-charity? These activity programs are attempts to engage the otherwise neglected in common action, and they are targeted for example at the old, the handicapped, the long-term unemployed etc. But the ideology there is that of the civil society that engages people who have fallen through the net of economic production. Is this good? Yes. Is this enough? No. The long-term unemployed need not only activity therapy, they need options for reintegration in the economy. A neighbourhood center cannot do this. A labour market programme would be required in parallel, and would have to be implemented in collaboration with such centres, which maybe would make the effort more political than these centres (which are backed by the conservative party) are supposed to be.


Soberness, tear-jerkers, and the modern underclass 

This is actually NOT another post about conservative Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, who has recently been compared unfavourably in the Austrian media to German top politicians Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer for his failure to empathise in public with the population and the victims of the tsunami disaster. Schüssel took the offensive yesterday, as reported and commented in DerStandard [DE] (via warteschlange [DE]), asserting that he was personally strictly opposed to playing some kind of messias on the public stage whose role was to moderate the universal hope for salvation. Schüssel's proclaimed alternative guideline was "sober professionalism".

One can see how this goes against the slightly tear-jerking aspects of politicians like Schröder, Fischer, but also Tony Blair for sure, or, on the local scale, SPÖ-leader Alfred Gusenbauer and his often ill-fated attempts at populist sentimentalism.

Yet, frankly, I cannot identify with either camp in this divide. As a political moralist, I believe that when enormous suffering occurs it should be given a representation in politics. But the current creed of European socialdemocrats does not seem sufficiently engaged with social evil to make their championing of such causes sound true. I have come to know them as banner-bearers for some segments of the materially underpriviledged, but all too often, especially when in opposition, the recipes modern socialdemocrats espouse to counter some material injustice are unsound, impracticable, and superficial - as the politicians themselves and their advisors are presumably well aware. In fact, their sense of social injustice is often selective and unduly influenced by voter demographics.

German magazine Der Stern recently published a (slightly sensationalist) report [DE] on the modern underclass in the German town of Essen (via Berlin Sprouts). The modern underclass, the report argues, does not suffer from poverty or material shortcomings. Its discrimination is therefore not touched by socialdemocrat taxing-and-spending. The distinguishing characteristic of the modern underclass is its lack of higher-level education (which it propagates to its children) and the resulting lack of viable options to integrate productively (as opposed to parasitically) in the post-industrial German society.

I would claim that there exists no major political force in Europe that seriously attempts to engage this modern underclass with realistic programmes for the present time. The most the underclass is offered is fuzzy emotional shoulder-patting (from the left) or the old poisons of prejudice and xenophobia (from the right). What is needed is a political voice that can communicate to this underclass in an authentic way, based on a set of realistic programmatic options. And yes, this is more important than Mr Schüssel's soberness.

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