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Locust Capitalism Made in Germany

It seems appropriate now and then to remind everyone that the leaders of Germany-- land of the gentle, caring social state (g)! protectress of human rights (g)! denouncer (g) of 'anglo-american' style turbo-capitalism! -- continues to demand policies that have led to mass human suffering in countries in Southern Europe:

The Greek economy is in free fall, having shrunk by 20 percent in the past five years. The unemployment rate is more than 27 percent, the highest in Europe, and 6 of 10 job seekers say they have not worked in more than a year. Those dry statistics are reshaping the lives of Greek families with children, more of whom are arriving at schools hungry or underfed, even malnourished, according to private groups and the government itself.

Last year, an estimated 10 percent of Greek elementary and middle school students suffered from what public health professionals call “food insecurity,” meaning they faced hunger or the risk of it, said Dr. Athena Linos, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School who also heads a food assistance program at Prolepsis, a nongovernmental public health group that has studied the situation. “When it comes to food insecurity, Greece has now fallen to the level of some African countries,” she said.

Oh, and the economic theory that German policymakers conveniently invoked as a fig leaf for their pursuit of Germany's economic interests cited as intellectual support has been largely debunked

To see their enormous influence on the European debate, it is worth quoting an extract from a speech by Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic chief, to the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2011. “Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have coined the ‘90 per cent rule’,” he said. “That is, countries with public debt exceeding 90 per cent of annual economic output grow more slowly. High debt levels can crowd out economic activity and entrepreneurial dynamism, and thus hamper growth. This conclusion is particularly relevant at a time when debt levels in Europe are now approaching the 90 per cent threshold, which the US has already passed.”

Mr Rehn presumably did not read the original papers, which were more ambivalent in their conclusions, as academic papers tend to be. Policy makers, such as Mr Rehn, are always on the lookout for economic theories that seem plausible and accord with their deep beliefs. In Europe, most of them have little exposure to macroeconomists who think out of the box. Clearly, most policy makers find it counter-intuitive that governments should spend money in a recession. It is against their own experience, especially if they come from northern European countries. They may have read the history of the Great Depression, and yet they find that a Keynesian response is less plausible than pro-cyclical austerity. If two of the world’s most respected economists then come along and tell them that their gut instincts have been right all along, this is the conservative policy maker’s equivalent of birthday and Christmas coinciding. At last, the message they always wanted to hear.

And, of course, is not even resulting in significantly lower debts, since austerity-driven economic contraction increases sovereign debt:

Though the cumulative level of government deficits fell last year, mainly because of Germany swinging into a budget surplus, many countries have continued to reel from the costs associated with recession.

Spending cuts and tax increases have helped to reduce deficits across the 17 EU countries that use the euro, but the region's debt burden rose after economic growth flatlined and fewer companies and households paid taxes.

Of the four countries that accepted financial assistance, Portugal and Spain saw their deficits swell in value terms and in proportion to the size of their economies. Portugal's deficit increased to 6.4% of GDP in 2012, from 4.4% the year before; Spain's jumped to 10.6% from 9.4%.

Greece managed to make further inroads in cutting its borrowings, but the deficit rose to 10% of its annual GDP from 9.5% as the country remained mired in a deep recession. Only Ireland, widely viewed as the poster child of austerity, saw its deficit fall under both criteria – it stood at 7.6% of GDP against 13.4% the year before.

Of course, only those ranting, irresponsible...populists* (pronounce with scorn) feel the need to continuously draw attention to these facts.

History is not going to be kind to Angela Merkel. Wait, let me qualify that: Non-German historians are not going to be kind to Angela Merkel. But then again, hypocrisy is only human:

A Moral Principle met a Material Interest on a bridge wide enough for but one.

‘Down, you base thing!’ thundered the Moral Principle, ‘and let me pass over you!’

The Material Interest merely looked in the other’s eyes without saying anything.

‘Ah,’ said the Moral Principle, hesitatingly, ‘let us draw lots to see which shall retire till the other has crossed.’

The Material Interest maintained an unbroken silence and an unwavering stare.

‘In order to avoid a conflict,’ the Moral Principle resumed, somewhat uneasily, ‘I shall myself lie down and let you walk over me.’

Then the Material Interest found a tongue, and by a strange coincidence it was its own tongue. ‘I don’t think you are very good walking,’ it said. ‘I am a little particular about what I have underfoot. Suppose you get off into the water.’

It occurred that way.

             — Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables, 1898

(Via Futility Closet.)

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A Short Review of 'Poem'

Poem, a 2004 movie by Ralf Schmerberg that I watched for the first time last night on DVD, consists of dramatized recitations of 19 German poems from Goethe onward. Some of the poems are quite famous, others moderately so, and some slightly obscure. The dramatizations aren't connected in any way, save for the framing device of a Tibetan man carrying another man on a handmade back-chair through the mountains, which intervenes every 30 minutes or so and culminates in a poem-accompanied religious ceremony. The poems are presented in utterly different ways: some as direct dramatic declamations; some as accompaniments to documentary-like records of child-rearing, weddings, or religious processions; some as theatrical mini-spectacles; some as accompaniment to scenes which involve no humans at all.

This is a very German movie, in the best way. The poems which are recited by characters on-screen (including David Bennent, Carmen Birk, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer), are recited with whacking great dollops of dramatic flair, in the tradition of German-speaking lands. Some English-speakers, who are accustomed to less stylized poetry recitation in which the 'words are supposed to do all the work', may find this a bit off-putting at first. Yet when this sort of dramatic declamation is done right (as with Brandauer above, rendering every other reading of this Heine poem -- perhaps any Heine poem -- superfluous), it is enthralling. (It's also worth keeping in mind that these poets wrote in a culture in which they would expect their poems to be dramatically declaimed by actors.)

The settings and accompaniment for the poems are never predictable, and, at their best, create a touching, ironic, or bizarre field of interference with the words of the poem itself, as when Ernst Jandl's bleak Believe and Confess (g) (in which he bluntly states that he knows he will never see his dead loved ones again and confesses that he hasn't the 'slightest wish' for this to happen) is accompanied by tear-stained, boozy, unstaged scenes from a very ordinary German wedding, or when Trakl's frothingly mystical Morgenlied (g) is recited by David Bennent, in full knightly armor, wandering down the median of a German highway.

'Poem' is by turns mesmerizing, pretentious, funny, moving, witty, ironic, and preposterous. A few of the musical choices have gotten a bit stale (the music of Arvo Pärt, for all its charm, has become an art-house cliche), and a few of the settings are in questionable taste. But that's what makes 'Poem' so lively -- the filmmakers take risks, and sometimes the rewards are spectacular. Strongly recommended.


The Peter Sodann Library of East German Books is Now Open

Gestaltung des Lebens und sozialistische Erziehung im Kindergarten

After the collapse of East Germany, the question arose of what to do with all those East German books. East Germany had many publishing houses and a quite well-developed educational system. Nevertheless, a typical East German biography of Bismarck, say, was unlikely to be competitive with its West German (or non-socialist) counterpart. Not to mention the hundreds of university coursebooks on 'socialist' small-business management, town planning, early-childhood education, etc. Some of these books made their way to used booksellers, where I eagerly bought as many as I could, as I find them fascinating. Others, however, were unceremoniously dumped into the garbage or left to molder in storage.

Then came Peter Sodann, a German actor and theater director who grew up in East Germany. He started collecting these books to preserve a part of German history and culture. The 'Peter Sodann' library is now open in the small town of Staucha, in Saxony. It even has an online catalog, which is quite extensive. Apparently much of the cost of the library is covered by donations and by volunteer catalogers. Many of the books, the website states, remain in banana crates, waiting to be catalogged.

Given my fascination with East Germany, I will be planning a pilgrimage there shortly, and will report...


The Best Reaction to Bombings: Nothing

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Security expert Bruce Schneier, who has long mocked the pointless, expensive, and alienating displays of 'security theater' in airports after 9/11 (shoes, belts, fluids, fingerprints), adds his voice to the chorus of people saying that following the news is foolish and harmful:

Ezra Klein: What should people be thinking about in the aftermath of an attack like this?

Bruce Schneier: They should refuse to be terrorized. Terrorism is a crime against the mind. What happened in Boston, horrific as it is, is theater to make you scared. That’s the point. The message of terrorist attacks is you’re not safe, and the government can’t protect you — that the existing power structure can’t protect you.

I tell people if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. By definition, news is something that almost never happens. The brain fools you into thinking the news is what’s important. Our brains overreact to this stuff. Terrorism just pegs the fear button.

EK: What should policymakers do in the aftermath of this kind of event? 

BS: Nothing. This is a singular event, and not something that should drive policy. Unfortunately, you can’t prevent this sort of thing 100 percent. Luckily, terrorism is a lot harder than people think, and it happens rarely. The question people asked after 9/11 is what if we had three of these a year in the United States? Turns out there were none. People get their ideas on terrorism from movies and television.

EK: What makes terrorism so difficult? After 9/11, lots of people thought we’d see suicide bombers in malls across the country, or crude chemical weapons unleashed in subway systems. Why were they wrong?

BS: Because there are a lot of steps to pulling it off, and if you make mistakes in any of them, you go to jail. There’s not a lot of practicing you can do. The criminal mastermind is an invention of comic books; 9/11 just barely worked. They got unbelievably lucky; it was by no means inevitable.

...

EK: So what should we be afraid of?

BS: Car crashes. Global warming. It feels insensitive to say it so close to the tragedy, but it’s true. What people should worry about are things so common that they’re no longer news. That’s what kills people. Terrorism is so rare, it’s hardly a risk worth spending a lot of time worrying about.

And on that note, I'm going to do some things that are worthwhile -- stop by my local farmers' market and ride through the park to work. Spring is finally here, which means Germany has officially turned into heaven for the next 6 months.


No News is Good News

Rolf Dobelli makes a powerful argument that following the news compulsively isn't just a waste of time but is positively harmful. A few of his points:

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what's relevant. It's much easier to recognise what's new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we're cut off from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.

...

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can't act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is "learned helplessness". It's a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.

News kills creativity. Finally, things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas. I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don't.

I could hardly agree more. I follow the news much more than I should (the job requires a certain amount of this) but I try to limit it as much as possible, for precisely the reasons Dobelli indicates. It almost always turns out to be an utter waste of time. Because I myself don't follow the news very much, Dobelli was not on my radar screen, even though he's apparently a best-selling German-language author whose most recent book is now being translated into many languages, including English.


Another Report on the Bush Administration's Torture Program

The New York Times has a preview of a report which will shortly be released by the Constitution Project on the Bush Administration's systematic use of torture. Although the fact that the U.S. routinely tortured and killed prisoners is old news (pdf), the report will likely have more impact than a typical NGO report, as the authors come from both American political parties:

The use of torture, the report concludes, has “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” The task force found “no firm or persuasive evidence” that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. While “a person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information,” much of the information obtained by force was not reliable, the report says.

...The panel found that the United States violated its international legal obligations by engineering “enforced disappearances” and secret detentions. It questions recidivism figures published by the Defense Intelligence Agency for Guantánamo detainees who have been released, saying they conflict with independent reviews.

It describes in detail the ethical compromise of government lawyers who offered “acrobatic” advice to justify brutal interrogations and medical professionals who helped direct and monitor them.

...

While the Constitution Project report covers mainly the Bush years, it is critical of some Obama administration policies, especially what it calls excessive secrecy. It says that keeping the details of rendition and torture from the public “cannot continue to be justified on the basis of national security” and urges the administration to stop citing state secrets to block lawsuits by former detainees.

...

The core of the report, however, may be an appendix: a detailed 22-page legal and historical analysis that explains why the task force concluded that what the United States did was torture. It offers dozens of legal cases in which similar treatment was prosecuted in the United States or denounced as torture by American officials when used by other countries.

The report compares the torture of detainees to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “What was once generally taken to be understandable and justifiable behavior,” the report says, "can later become a case of historical regret."

It's worth noting that the United States is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Torture, which requires prompt investigation of claims of torture and compensation for victims. So far, none of the dozens of official architects of the torture program has been prosecuted, and that will probably remain the case, since Obama has shown no interest in accountability.

The whole thing will shortly be released on the Constitution Project's webpage.


Shop at Natürlich Natürlich Organic Shop

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Everyone should go visit the Natürlich Natürlich organic food store at Brunnenstr. 22. Neighborhood fixture Werner runs the place, which oozes laid-back charm. My picks are the 'Essener Brot' -- Essene bread, allegedly made according to a recipe preserved by the Essenes. Ít's rather chewy in its raw state, but makes great toast. Natürlich Natürlich is also where I get my 'house wine' -- 1 liter bottles of tasty Spanish red wine for the ridiculously low price of 4 Euro.

There's also chocolates, pasta, fresh fruit and vegetables, oils, spreads, beer, juice, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, and plenty besides, all 100% organic.

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Germany is the Eurozone's Most Unequal Country

An analysis of a recent ECB report debunks the notion that Germans are somehow 'poorer' than Spaniards or Greeks and also reveals, along the way:

A comparison of the median and mean wealth reveals something about the distribution of wealth in each [Eurozone] country. If the largest difference is between the mean and the median, the greater is the inequality in the distribution of wealth. It now appears that the difference is highest in Germany. We show this by presenting the ratios of the mean to the median for the different countries in Figure 3. In Germany the mean household wealth is almost four times larger than the median. In most other countries this ratio is between 1.5 and 2. Thus household wealth in Germany is concentrated in the richest households more so than in the other Eurozone countries. Put differently, there is a lot of household wealth in Germany but this is to be found mostly in the top of the wealth distribution.

The inequality of the distribution of household wealth is made even more vivid by comparing the wealth owned by the top 20% of the income class to the wealth owned by the bottom 20% of the income class. This is shown in Figure 4. We find that in Germany the top 20% of the income class has 149 times more wealth than the bottom 20% of the income class. Judged by this criterion, Germany has the most unequal distribution of wealth in the Eurozone.

Wealth held by top 20%/bottom 20%:

h/t MTW.


Wagner's 'Fungal' Genius

Nicholas Spice has a brilliant essay called 'Is Wagner Bad for Us?' on the LRB website, which includes this passage, one of the finest English-language descriptions of Wagner's innovations I've come across:

The state in which he found the art of opera in the middle of the 19th century didn’t please him. He deplored its tired routines and swept them away. Where a traditional opera typically hauled itself along through a series of arias, duets and ensemble pieces, strung along a line of recitative, Wagner integrated words, drama and music into a discourse of continuous gesture. This did a lot to dismantle the structures which in traditional opera keep the audience at a distance from the action. In an opera by Rossini or Donizetti, we hop from one aria or duet or ensemble to another, negotiating an archipelago of self-sufficient pieces of music, and this acts as a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, repeatedly ejecting us from the narrative, an effect the custom of applauding individual numbers as though they were concert items made even more pronounced. Wagner replaced this ‘singing of pieces of music’ with a free declamatory vocal style, embedding his singers in the fabric of the drama and rarely permitting them to sing at the same time as each other. In his mature operas, the ebb and flow of the action is controlled by music (Wagner partly characterised it as ‘endless melody’) which loosens the certainties of diatonic harmony and gives a wide berth to effects of unwanted closure in the musical syntax. As a result, the listener is given only rare opportunities to bail out of the musical and dramatic argument.

It is a central aspect of Wagner’s genius (Mann writes about it wonderfully) that he conceived a way to draw the literary and musical components of his operas towards each other. His understanding of the ideographic potential of music – the capacity of music to suggest things, characteristics and ideas – was something quite special to him, and it probably partly accounts for our sense of his work as in certain fundamental respects different from most other music in the classical canon....

As the works unfold, the listener moves continuously and fluidly between the music on the one hand and the drama on the other, holding them in a kind of dynamic equilibrium in the mind. The patterned integration of the leitmotifs into the musical fabric – like small marine fossils in certain kinds of sedimentary rock – symbolises the accumulation of experience over time (it was this aspect of Wagner that so excited Proust). And as a formal device, the leitmotifs helped Wagner give coherence and unity to immense spans of musical narrative. Wherever we surface in the onward stream of these operas, whether listening to them or reading them in score, we see a landscape of familiar forms, though always subtly evolving and combining in a kaleidoscope of shifting permutations.

The words often used to describe the effect of Wagner’s work – ‘seduction’, ‘irresistibility’, ‘enchantment’ – and the way Wagner is spoken of as a magician or sorcerer or trickster, suggest dark and inscrutable arts; and, given that the stories he tells and the music through which he tells them, are full of emotional drama, at times extreme, we might assume that his power derives from his passion, and that if we feel a loss of will in the face of his work, it is because we have been overwhelmed and swept away by a lava stream of expression or irradiated by a blast of psycho-spiritual energy, or – and this is perhaps the most common trope of all – drugged. Echoing an observation of Mann’s, Boulez has said of Wagner that ‘his genius was both hot-headed – even irrational – and extremely analytical.’ Brecht said that Wagner’s art ‘creates fog’ and Tolstoy thought you could achieve the same effect more quickly by getting drunk or smoking opium. But what has always struck me about Wagner’s work – certainly, the seven mature operas – is not that they enthral us through bewilderment or narcosis, but how unnervingly intelligible they are, and how, in being so intelligible, they hold our attention, and, in holding our attention, draw us ineluctably in.

Later, Spice notes the commentary of English composer Thomas Adès:

Only last year, Thomas Adès described Wagner’s music as ‘fungal’, lamenting his influence on the composers who followed him: ‘his grubby fingerprints’ are ‘everywhere’. ‘Fungal’ is in one sense rather a good image for the modular patterning of Wagner’s music, but it also suggests infestation, decay, sickness and a tendency to spread uncontrollably, while the phrase ‘grubby fingerprints’ brings to mind something insalubrious, if not criminal.

 


A Quaint Little Cottage in Thatcher Bashing

There's all sorts of rejoicing going on about Margaret Thatcher, with people celebrating in the streets and linking to hate-ditties either calling for her to be killed or relishing the thought of her dying. I find it all rather tasteless. Rejoicing at the death of a frail old woman who was no longer capable of doing anyone harm is churlish at best and inhuman at worst.

I've always been suspicious of this carefully-advertised Thatcher-hatred. I assume that, like so much political activity, it's mainly a kind of signaling -- a convenient way of showing other like-minded people that you're part of their in-group. Julian Barnes once said that one of the things that made English literary life in the 1980s so dull was the inevitable scene in which bien-pensants at a dinner party bitched about Maggie for several pages.

I myself witnessed a lot of Thatcher-bashing from fragrant, hirsute, not-very-bright English and Welsh people, ususally delivered in defiantly non-posh accents (think of the couple in High Hopes, but all too real). Privately, I would think to myself: 'Thatcher may be tinny and irritating, but you, you self-consciously prolish British lefty, are boring me shitless. And your ideas for running Britain, assuming you have any, are probably as half-baked as you are'. To this day, I associate non-posh British accents with plodding self-righteousness, which I admit is unfair, but what are you gonna do?

I disagree with Thatcher's policies as much as the next guy, but the fact remains that she was an outstanding public speaker, knew how to appeal to the middle class, and won three terms as Prime Minister while the British left fumed impotently, pointed fingers, and escalated their outrage to a keening pitch -- when they weren't raging against middle-class voters for not understanding their own interests. In other words, engaging in precisely the sort of sour navel-gazing that deservedly loses elections.

UPDATE: Always reassuring to be on the same side of an issue as Johnny Rotten (h/t TG):

When someone dies, give them respect. Enemy or not. I can't be listening to folk who do that.
'What kind of politics are they offering me? You dance on another person's grave? That's loathsome.'

He added: 'Her politics were really dreadful and derisive and caused a great many issues for me when I was young, for all of us trying to go through that.

'But that don't mean I am gonna dance on her grave, as they say. I'm not that kind of person.

'I was her enemy in her life but I will not be her enemy in her death. I am not a coward.'