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Poisons and Explosives for Kids

While visiting someone else's office, I took out a random volume of a German commentary on the law of obligations (Schuldrecht) and found this sentence (my translation):

'Apothecaries and druggists are subject to a special duty of care when giving poisons and explosives to children.'

You can say that again! The citation for this actual quotation is the book Dauner-Lieb/Langen, BGB Schuldrecht, p. 4619 (!). The footnote -- footnote 2396! -- cites RGZ 152, 325. Law nerds, look it up.

Youtube Lectures on Medieval English History

I've recently moved offices, so as I set up my new crucible of habitual effectiveness (ha!) I've been looking for something to edutain me in the background. That's when I stumbled upon Gresham College's free lecture series, which started in 1597 and has been online since 1721.

Here are two most edifying lectures, one on the medieval hospital, one on the creation of illuminated manuscripts. Both are delivered in flawless received pronunciation by immaculately-coiffed English -- well, I want to say MILFs, but that's just the Yank crudeness in me. Let's call them gentlewomen.


By the Shark-Filled Rivers of Schwabylon


Berlin, they say, is being overrun by Swabians. 'Swabian', one of the most amusing words in English, denotes people from Swabia, a region in South Germany. According to native Berliners, the Swabians are  industrious, conformist yuppies. Above, you see the work of extremist Swabians, who have changed street signs into their (IMHO totally awesome) regional dialect. Under their baleful influence, Berlin is rapidly changing from a place where cafes serve breakfast until 4 PM to unwashed, still-hungover 'creative types' into yet another safe, sanitized, mind-shatteringly expensive, tourist-friendly playground for the upper-middle classes and above (you know, like New York, Paris, and London).

Those parts of Berlin which have suffered an unusually heavy infestation of Swabians are often referred to as Schwabylon, derived from the short-a German word for Swabians. Which brings me to the subject of this post. There once was an actual Schwabylon! The Voices of East Anglia describes it thus:

The colourful Schwabylon shopping and leisure centre had one hundred shops, a cinema, twelve restaurants, a beer garden, sports facilities, Roman spa, sauna, solarium, swimming pool and a skating rink. Located next door was a Holiday Inn which contained a three-story nightclub named after The Beatles song Yellow Submarine, which was surrounded by a 600,000 litre water tank with more than 30 sharks – What could possibly go wrong?

Schwabylon is a portmanteau word that blended together the name of the district in Munich, Germany and the word Babylon. The pyramid shaped shopping centre with it’s bright red, yellow and orange rising sun paint work was designed by architect Justus Dahinde and opened for business on November 9th in 1973.

Although the centre had many attractions it was (almost) windowless and had ramps instead of stairs, and just fourteen months later the retailers “shut up shop” and the Schwabylon closed. Parts of the building  were demolished in 1979, however the Holiday Inn and night club remained – Minus the sharks.


How Germany will Handle the Rise of the Robots

Kevin Drum has an insightful piece predicting that artifical intelligence will be here before you think and will radically change the economy:

We've moved from computers with a trillionth of the power of a human brain to computers with a billionth of the power. Then a millionth. And now a thousandth. Along the way, computers progressed from ballistics to accounting to word processing to speech recognition, and none of that really seemed like progress toward artificial intelligence. That's because even a thousandth of the power of a human brain is—let's be honest—a bit of a joke. Sure, it's a billion times more than the first computer had, but it's still not much more than the computing power of a hamster.

This is why, even with the IT industry barreling forward relentlessly, it has never seemed like we were making any real progress on the AI front. But there's another reason as well: Every time computers break some new barrier, we decide—or maybe just finally get it through our thick skulls—that we set the bar too low. At one point, for example, we thought that playing chess at a high level would be a mark of human-level intelligence. Then, in 1997, IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer beat world champion Garry Kasparov, and suddenly we decided that playing grandmaster-level chess didn't imply high intelligence after all.

So maybe translating human languages would be a fair test? Google Translate does a passable job of that these days. Recognizing human voices and responding appropriately? Siri mostly does that, and better systems are on the near horizon. Understanding the world well enough to win a round of Jeopardy! against human competition? A few years ago IBM's Watson supercomputer beat the two best human Jeopardy! champions of all time. Driving a car? Google has already logged more than 300,000 miles in its driverless cars, and in another decade they may be commercially available.

... True artificial intelligence will very likely be here within a couple of decades. Making it small, cheap, and ubiquitous might take a decade more.

In other words, by about 2040 our robot paradise awaits.

...This isn't something that will happen overnight. It will happen slowly, as machines grow increasingly capable. We've already seen it in factories, where robots do work that used to be done by semiskilled assembly line workers. In a decade, driverless cars will start to put taxi hacks and truck drivers out of a job. And while it's easy to believe that some jobs can never be done by machines—do the elderly really want to be tended by robots?—that may not be true. Nearly 50 years ago, when MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum created a therapy simulation program named Eliza, he was astonished to discover just how addictive it was. Even though Eliza was almost laughably crude, it was endlessly patient and seemed interested in your problems. People liked talking to Eliza.

...Increasingly, then, robots will take over more and more jobs. And guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless. Those without money—most of us—will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us.

This is a grim prediction. But it's not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds. Economist Paul Krugman recently remarked that our long-standing belief in skills and education as the keys to financial success may well be outdated. In a blog post titled "Rise of the Robots," he reviewed some recent economic data and predicted that we're entering an era where the prime cause of income inequality will be something else entirely: capital vs. labor.

So, by 2040, we will have robots intelligent enough to perform hundreds of tasks that used to be performed by humans. Let me put on my heavy, black-framed armchair-sociologist glasses and predict how these developments will be received in Germany [snark]:

  • 2035: A spate of articles on American robots will all emerge at the same time in German mainstream publications with titles such as: 'A Terrifying Experiment in the "Land of Opportunity"', 'Alienation in the Post-Human Age: As American as Apple Pie', 'Turbocapitalism and the Terminator', and 'Racial Injustice, Robocop-Style'.
  • 2037: Germany's leading philosopher, Hans-Jürgen Quasselkasper, pens a 35,000-word essay in Die Zeit in which he denounces the introduction of robots as an 'assault on human dignity, the very fundamental value of our Constitutional order' and calls for strict limits on robot labor. It is hailed as a 'bold intervention' by all broadsheet newspapers, and is read in its entirety by 563 people. Pope Kevin II issues an encyclical denouncing the spread of robot labor. The Evangelical Church of Germany issues a statement setting out its 'profound concern' about robots.
  • 2041: German politicians from across the political spectrum, but especially the Greens, call for strict legislation regulating the use of robots and preserving 'humane values' in the workplace and society. The German parliament passes a law prohibiting the import of foreign-made robots into Germany.
  • 2043: To those who complain about the protectionist law passed in 2041, German politicians and elite journalists reply that Germany is 'not going to join the chorus of simple-minded people crying Halleluja! about this promising but dangerous new technology' and that 'countries who prematurely embrace these innovations without considering the risks will one day rue their short-sightedness'.
  • 2045: The European Union convenes a Working Group on Robotics and Society to draft a set of guidelines to 'harmonize the use of robots with European social values' and 'protect the dignity of the worker and patient'.
  • 2035-45: German manufacturers, realizing the staggering profit potential of robots and well-prepared to compete internationally, begin manufacturing robot nurses, robot factory workers, sexbots, robot soldiers, and robot schoolteachers for export to the rest of the world. They're about 10 years behind the U.S. but they establish their niche, and billions in profits flow to Germany.
  • 2043-47: The furor about robots dies down as German-made robots begin be used in Germany and Germans begin to realize just how profitable they are. The federal Parliament quietly revokes the 2041 law. Lobbying by German and other European high-tech firms ensures that the European Union Working Group's final recommendations are non-binding blather.
  • 2047: In Berlin, German Federal President Jimi Blue Ochsenknecht proudly opens the high-tech exposition: 'Germany: Leader in Robotic Innovation'.


Austerians' Next Target: Universal Healthcare

Adam Gaffney at Dissent reports on how austerity is being used to slowly kill the institutions of of universal healthcare, arguably the most important (positive) political innovation to emerge from Europe in the 20th century:

The truly universal health care system, however, was in general a post–Second World War development and was usually the consequence of the work of labor and left-wing parties. Most Western European nations took one of two paths: gradual expansion of coverage until the system could fairly be called universal or the more abrupt creation of a truly socialized national health service. In Great Britain, the 1946 passage of the National Health Service Act brought about the British National Health Service. Financed through general taxes, it provided health care as a right, with medical services free at the point of service.

Most other nations, however, took a more incremental path. France, for instance, built upon its 1928 National Health Insurance system, passing successive pieces of legislation that covered larger and larger proportions of the population until, in 2000, the remaining 1 percent of the nation that was uninsured received coverage. Germany likewise built upon its nineteenth-century Bismarckian system to create a system of truly universal coverage. Greece was relatively late to the game. In 1934, it established a Social Security Organization that covered urban and industrial workers, which was expanded to agricultural workers in 1961. But it was the 1983 legislation of the newly elected Socialist Party that put into place a National Health Service (NHS), founded on the principles of universal access. Along similar lines, Spain built upon a 1942 health insurance law with successive expansions of coverage. This culminated in the 1980s, when through a number of measures the Spanish Socialist Party converted the health care system to a tax-based system with universal access and a largely public provision of care.

No doubt, as they entered the twenty-first century, all of these systems had their own flaws, their own inefficiencies, even their own inequities and injustices. But for the first time in human history, the poorest individuals could avail themselves of some of the most advanced medical care in the world without worry that their illness would bankrupt their family, and without the stigma of charity. A true right to health care had been legislated into existence. Universal health care, from this perspective, represented a truly massive and historical achievement.


[Gaffney then recounts the staggering cuts to healthcare in European periphery countries]. Although universal health care was a relatively recent achievement, it quickly came to be considered an intrinsic feature of the European welfare state. It is not, however, immutable. Universal health care everywhere arose through the process of political struggle, and it can be similarly unmade. It was generally the creation of parties of the Left, and was more likely to emerge, and to emerge earlier, in those countries with a strong tradition of labor unionism. As the balance of power shifts, it is not only possible, but indeed probable, that those elements that were fundamentally opposed to universal health care from its very conception will emerge to challenge it.


The right wing uses the cause of cost-containment and deficit reduction, combined with allegations of inefficiency, to chip away at the margins of these programs, to promote privatization and reductions in benefits, while at the same time avoiding a frontal rhetorical attack. Similarly, those who would undo universal health care in Europe begin by increasing the barriers to access (such as increased user fees or the denial of care to illegal immigrants), by cutting expenditures and reducing quality, by subtly changing the system away from universalism with changes in financing or benefit eligibility. Not to recognize that such measures could amount to the first step in a long process of unwinding the right to health care would be a dangerous mistake.

The 'Appalling' Peer Steinbrück

In an article on the ideological history of austerity economics, Ruy Teixiera gives Peer Steinbrück the back of his hand while misspelling his last name:

Keynes’s anti-austerity ideas had their day of course—and a very successful day it was, lasting from the mid-’30s to the mid-’70s. But austerity ideas never went away because, as outlined above, they are rooted in an entire philosophy about the state and public debt that is not subject to disproof, especially among the conservative forces and big economic interests who embrace it. As a result, when Keynesian economics appeared to falter in the 1970s, austerity-based economics came roaring back and dominated economic thinking for decades.

Now, after a brief resurgence of Keynesian economics in 2008-2010, it is back again. (See this paper by Henry Farrell and John Quiggin for a blow-by-blow description of how this happened.) Austerity dominates today’s economic discussions, this time with the chimera of “expansionary fiscal austerity”—the idea that the way out of an economic slump is to cut spending which will lead to rising business confidence, more investment and strong growth.

It is not just in conservative circles that the austerity idea remains strong. The idea also has significant purchase in progressive circles. For example, in Germany, while the social democrats offer some criticisms of austerity, their standard-bearer in the coming election, Peer Steinbruck, played a key role in undermining the brief period of Keynesian ascendancy and re-establishing the hegemony of austerity economics. Steinbruck is a particularly appalling example, but the ranks of European social democrats are full of politicians who subscribe to some variant of austerity economics or at least find it expedient not to oppose it.


The effects of proceeding down the current path could be devastating. Without more growth, millions of people will suffer and unemployment will remain high.2 Compelling evidence of this suffering is collected in the new book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, written by epidemiologists David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu. Stuckler and Basu provide a capable summary of the basic problems with austerity economics as economics, but their signal contribution in this book is to focus on the health effects of austerity. Looking at data from states during the New Deal, Asian countries in the 1990s East Asian financial crisis, and European countries in the Great Financial Crisis that started in 2008, they find that, the more austerity was practiced in a state or country, the more people got sick and the more people died.3 In short, “Austerity Kills” is more than just a slogan. Austerity doesn’t work as economics, and it kills people in the bargain. It’s time we came up with an alternative.