Previous month:
June 2009
Next month:
August 2009

A Fetid Fervor of Freedom!

Obscene Desserts links us to a recent video of Americans on a right-wing television station blathering on about Amsterdam, and a Dutch response to their calumnies:

I've always wondered why American conservatives feel the need to slag Europe. At first glance, it wouldn't seem a promising target: as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic remind us, America and Europe share "fundamental" values: democracy, free markets, similar cultural and religious traditions, etc. I can see why American conservatives would criticize European welfare states, or defend the superiority of the American approach to certain aspects of government regulation. But often, the critique morphs into a sort of frenzied scorn driven by unhinged exaggeration (see above).

I have two theories about this. First, right-wing Americans (truth be told, many other kinds as well) feel no compunction about opining on subjects they know absolutely nothing about. I remember turning on radio talk shows during a visit to Texas in early 2004, and hearing and endless succession of dentists, forklift operators, candle store owners, and accountants describing complex transactions by which Saddam Hussein shipped all of his weapons of mass destruction across the border to Syria. Or Iran (!). Or wherever. And then, they'd confidently predict the course of the remainder of the occupation -- "See, they're all gonna wanna get rich from all that oil, right? So they got every reason to compromise and stuff, even though they got different religions and all." Hundreds more recent examples can be found here. All the while, you're thinking: are these people joking? Who is going to take them seriously? The answers are (1) no; and (2) the other 10 million listeners to the radio show.

So that's factor number one: nobody cares whether these hacks are describing Amsterdam fairly, because neither they nor their audience knows enough to make that judgment. The station doesn't care; it will broadcast whatever gets ratings, and nothing does that like hypercharged moralizing.

Now to theory two. Conservatives slag Europe, I'm convinced, because they know that European policies -- clearly and straightforwardly explained -- might prove highly tempting to Americans. They haven't forgotten the end of World War II, when Britons threw out Churchill the war hero, voted in Labour, and erected a welfare state. One reason for that was the millions of British servicemen who had just returned from the Continent, where they'd been able to see functioning welfare states in person, and wondered why such things didn't exist on the island. U.S. politicians have already enacted many isolated bits of welfare state, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and unemployment insurance. Without exception, these programs prove highly popular once installed, even if they don't work perfectly. This recent New York Times article give a revealing first-person perspective of an American slowly coming to realize the benefits of a European-style welfare state:

[Y]ou don’t have to be a Fox News commentator [!] to sneer at what, in the midst of a global financial crisis, seems like Socialism Gone Wild. And stating it as I’ve done above — we’ll consume half your salary and every once in a while toss you a few euros in return — it seems like a pretty raw deal.

But there’s more to it. First, as in the United States, income tax in the Netherlands is a bendy concept: with a good accountant, you can rack up deductions and exploit loopholes. And while the top income-tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, the numbers are a bit misleading. “People coming from the U.S. to the Netherlands focus on that difference, and on that 52 percent,” said Constanze Woelfle, an American accountant based in the Netherlands whose clients are mostly American expats. “But consider that the Dutch rate includes social security, which in the U.S. is an additional 6.2 percent. Then in the U.S. you have state and local taxes, and much higher real estate taxes. If you were to add all those up, you would get close to the 52 percent.”

But to ponder relative tax rates is only to trace the surface of a deeper story. In fact, as my time abroad has coincided with the crumpling of basic elements of the American economic and social systems, and as politicians, commentators and ordinary Americans have cast about for remedies or potential new models, I have found myself not only giving the Dutch system a personal test drive but also wondering whether some form of it could be adopted by my country.

Especially in times of economic crisis, Americans could be quite open to programs that shift the risk of financial or medical catastrophe onto broader shoulders than theirs. Americans also increasingly find U.S. drug laws (especially those against marijuana) absurd and the 'war on drugs' unwinnable and not worth fighting. There are even indications of a vestigial debate about whether America's prohibition on prostitution is the best approach.

The only way to hold up the rear-guard against such wet thinking, American conservatives apparently have decided, is to paint Europe, the near and tempting example, in the blackest terms possible. Thus the hysterical finger-pointing, and ludicrously counter-factual claims.

P.S. The cultural trivia contest? Identify the source of the title of this post.

Quote of the Day: Mephistopheles on Professors

Many visitors to German universities puzzle at the tendency of many professors to 'lecture' by reading from their most recent textbook in a flat monotone, and ask themselves: 'Whoever thought this was the way to teach?'

The answer: Mephistopheles -- who else? Jaroslav Pelikan's prose translation of a passage (g) in Faust in which the demon explains the facts of life to a prospective student:

For ... five hours a day, the student should be prepared to listen to the professor, in accordance with the pedagogical method of the universities, "in such a way that afterwards you will be able to recognize better that he is not saying anything except what is already in the book. But you must be writing it down, as thought the Holy Spirit himself were dictating it to you!"

Norton Critical Edition of Faust, p. 590.

Drafting Contracts for Rock Stars and Cancer Patients

The first four minutes of this episode ofThis American Life describes the wonder of contract riders, including Van Halen's famous 'no brown M&Ms' clause. About 36 minutes into the episode, there's an entertaining excerpt of a Congressional subcommittee hearing. They're looking into rescission, the practice of health insurers of combing through your health insurance policy once you become sick, looking for reasons to cancel your coverage.

Curbing Healthcare Costs the German Way

Uwe Reinhardt makes a case for one part of the German healthcare model:

An outside body of health policy specialists and stakeholders would be able to inform America’s health policy. It could provide insights from detached research and a consensus among experts and stakeholders, in place of the campaign contributions of powerful interest groups that now drive policy.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, for example, could serve as such a body.


To understand how such a body might function, Americans could learn from Germany’s experience with precisely such a body — Der Gemeinsame Bundesausschuss or, in English, the Joint Federal Committee.

Germany’s joint committee was established in 2004 and authorized to make binding regulations growing out of health reform bills passed by lawmakers, along with routine coverage decisions. The ministry of health reserves the right to review the regulations for final approval or modification. The joint committee has a permanent staff and an independent chairman.

...Its main tasks include making evidence-based coverage decisions for ambulatory and inpatient services and medical products and furthering disease-management programs.

To arrive at its coverage decisions, the committee seeks scientific input from its nonprofit subsidiary, the Institute of Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. It conducts cost-effectiveness analyses for particular procedures or medical products, mainly on the basis of research done by academic or other outside research institutes.

There's little question that this sort of centralized effectiveness-based review would probably make the U.S. healthcare system more orderly and efficient. What else would you expect from a German idea?

What I think Reinhardt seriously underestimates, however, are the cultural obstacles such a plan would face. Americans trust experts less than Germans, for one thing. People who want treatments the commission doesn't approve will form pressure groups, go on television, and call their congressmen. Americans also have a more decentralized, federalist mindset. I can already see the campaign commercials and Republican speeches: "Obama put a group of unelected bureacrats (or 'so-called experts') in Washington, D.C. in charge of your healthcare." (cue ominous music).  The typical German reacts with a shrug to such assertions, but Joe Sixpack regards them as powerful arguments. 

There may be some way to package this idea more palatably, perhaps by hiding it behind a bunch of sleep-inducing bureaucratic jargon. Whoever heard of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, after all? For that matter, how many Germans are even aware of the Gemeinsamer Bundesausschuss, which -- nota bene -- does not even mention health care in its own name? I'm all for Reinhardt's idea, but it would be a mistake to trumpet it out-front as a cost-saving measure. Better to slip it quietly into some omnibus bill.

Life in the Big City, Vol. XVII

A couple of weeks ago, the bicycle trip to work brought me a sweaty, desperate housewife. Today, it brought me a little garbage-dump surrealism: this elegant living-room ensemble (tv, table, and huge-ass couch), deposited inexplicably right before a local Catholic Church. I should perhaps mention that it was pouring rain this morning, as this picture was taken. By afternoon all this stuff had disappeared.

Couch Group

Celebrate Space with Somafm!

The indispensable has added a new channel just for the anniversary of the moon landing. Astronaut chatter has, of course, been a stable of dub and trip-hop for decades. Here's an example of the genre, Tranquility Bass' 'They Came in Peace', whose already-hypnotic effect can be even further potentiated by large doses of  ∆-9 tetrahydrocanabinol (g):

Somafm's Mission Control mixes rebroadcasts of Apollo 11 and Shuttle missions with new-fangled drone and trance. History mashed-up and remixed! Oddly soothing.

The link to the firewall/proxy stream is here.

And the page for donations to somafm, an entirely non-commercial service, is here. Donate early and often!

Power, Status, Achievement, and Inhibition on Campus


A few weeks ago, I read Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by Winifred Gallagher, which I'll review one of these days when I get around to it. (Preview: It's a bit breezily written and not very well-organized, but contains any number of fascinating observations). On page 177, I found the following quotation:

When University of Michigan psychologist Oliver Schultheiss compared American college students and their German peers, he found that the former are markedly more oriented to achievement than to power, as the latter are. Thus, he concludes, Americans tend to focus more on the goals of innovation and success, and Germans on dominance and status.

The study itself is available here (pdf). Students had to write descriptions of drawings of various kinds of social situations, and their short essays were then ranked according to 'implicit motivation.' on scales Power, Achievement, Affiliation, and Inhibition. There are plenty of interesting cultural and gender differences in the results, but for this blog, the conclusions about Americans and Germans are the most relevant. Here's the key paragraph, from pp. 290-91: 

We ound that our U.S. student sample differed from their German sample on three out of four PSE measures: U.S. students showed higher levels of implicit achievement but lower levels of implicit power motivation and activity inhibition than Germans. They were not significantly different from Germans on the n Affiliation measure. The observed differences seem to be consistent with cultural comparisons that highlight a strong prevalence of the Protestant work ethic, which is associated with high levels of n Achievement, in the United States relative to European countries and paint U.S. Americans as more friendly, outgoing, and impulsive than Germans, which may reflect their lower inhibition and n Power levels. However, they also raise the question whether it is appropriate to generalize from samples that are not representative of a country (i.e., college students) to between-country differences at the collective level. However, the pattern of differences in motivational needs and restraints we observed in our U.S. sample and Schultheiss and Brunstein’s (2001) German sample are consistent with data presented by McClelland (1961, 1975). Using content coding of stories in children’s readers from countries around the world, McClelland (1961, 1975) found Germany to be below the international average in Achievement but above the international average in n Power in 1925. At the same time, children’s readers from the United States contained above average levels of imagery related to n Achievement and below-average levels of imagery related to n Power. The difference between the two countries persisted when a similar analysis was repeated based on children’s readers collected in 1950: The United States had h igher levels on n Achievement and lower levels of n Power than Germany. The United States was also lower in activity inhibition than Germany. Thus, despite different data collection methods, samples, and historic contexts, our data corroborate those that have been presented by McClelland (1961, 1975), suggesting that Americans continue to have a stronger concern with achievement and a weaker concern with power than Germans and that they are less inhibited in the expression of their motivational needs than Germans.

Lots to digest! Two observations. First, this would seem to help explain the emphasis on titles one finds in Germany. Whenever you give a major speech here, your first obligation is to identify the VIPs, and greet them, in order of prominence, according to their correct official title. This often strikes Americans as outdated and obsequious, but most (not all!) Germans find it perfectly natural. This is pure respect for power: the person carrying the title may or may not have done something noteworthy to achieve it. In the case of the nobility, of course, the person carrying the title has done nothing to earn it. Even in the case of 'earned' titles (doctor, professor, civil servant etc.), the person is to be referred to by title even if everyone knows he is sheer deadwood whose last major contribution happened decades ago.

Second, this would seem to go a long way to explaining the puzzling tolerance for cheating at German (and, for that matter, most European) universities. A significant minority of students will definitely try to cheat on every exam. (Remember the words of the German professor who went to teach in the USA; the best students are great in both places, but in the USA, the 'bottom third' of the student body that would be present in Germany is missing). They show up having never attended a single lecture, and then try to copy answers from someone who has a reputation as one of the despised Streber (overachievers). They may also copy large sections of their seminar papers from books. What's amazing to an American is that these attempts are so frequent, and so clumsy. When they're caught, the students generally protest and file appeals, as if giving them a well-deserved zero were cruel persecution.

Of course, it would be unfair to single out lack of motivation and commitment among the students without pointing to the same flaw on the professors' side. For every engaged, innovative German professor, there is (at least) one lazy, disillusioned one, whose lectures consist of monotone recitals from the professor's latest book or article. As Jeffrey Peck once put it, the relationship between professors and students in Germany often resembles a failed marriage in which distrust and disillusionment have eaten away all that is precious, and each side simply goes through the motions from force of habit. The students often reason: why should I put any particular effort into this class when the professor so obviously hasn't done so himself? I hardly need to point out the effects this poisonous dynamic has on the reputation of Germany's universities. According to one influential ranking, no German university even makes it into the top 50 worldwide, and every single German university is outranked by the likes of the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Manchester, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Of course, rankings are often crap, and there are many reasons for Germany's academic mediocrity, but I happen to think the dysfunctional student-professor relationship is one of them. And that, in turn, is based on a power (as opposed to achievement) mindset. When (a) you're the sort of person who has no innate drive to work extra hard and achieve; and (b) you get to enjoy the full perks of your title -- and students will (have to) show you deference no matter what you actually accomplish --then (c) you might just be tempted to relax into the soft, cushiony beanbag of mediocrity.

What say you, gentle readers?