How Fake is American Niceness? How Is American Niceness Fake?

Two chatty German Youtube girls who live in Texas discussing whether American niceness is fake.

Ask any European who's been to America (except New York, and sometimes even then) what their impressions are, and "niceness" will be one of the first things they mention. Strangers smile, ask how you're doing, sometimes call you "honey". Most Europeans instinctively find this insincere, and ascribe it to superficiality and/or with corporate pressure to present a chipper, eternally happy exterior. Others see it as hypocritical. An American English professor makes the argument in the Washington Post:

In fact, Trump epitomizes the conventional version of American niceness, which assumes that Americans are fundamentally decent and benevolent people with the best of intentions, whose acts of aggression are reluctant and defensive necessities designed to protect us. (Or, as the office of first lady Melania Trump put it in response to the president’s latest Twitter tirade: “When her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”)

In a sense, this is quintessential American niceness: a tendency to insist on one’s own affability and friendliness while dismissing all unwarranted or unnecessary acts of cruelty as necessary evils. This is the kind of amiability that obscures the shadowy side of American life. On the other hand, Americans have also historically attempted to transform our niceness into a national attitude rooted in justice and mutual respect by acknowledging American cruelty and using it as an impetus to live up to an ideal of moral integrity based on the courage to tell the truth.

In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first to comment on American amiability, comparing it with the “unsociable mood of the English.” In the 1840s, Charles Dickens, who couldn’t imagine an Englishman being happy living in the United States, nonetheless described Americans as “friendly, earnest, hospitable, kind.” By the end of the 19th century, the link between Americans and niceness had become accepted tradition, with Rudyard Kipling noting in 1891: “It is perfectly impossible to go to war with these people, whatever they may do. They are much too nice.”

Americans themselves regarded their famed niceness as the cornerstone of a democratic personality. The actress and writer Kate Field remarked in 1873: “To try to please everybody, is democratic; to be indifferent to everybody is aristocratic: consequently, Americans, men and women, are the best bred people in the world.” As a refreshing alternative to European stuffiness, American niceness conveys democratic informality while sustaining the myth of American exceptionalism: Americans are not just nice but the nicest people on earth. As Walt Whitman once put it, Americans are “the peaceablest and most good-natured race in the world.”

Since the 19th century, Americans’ belief in our own niceness has never wavered. Yet even then, American niceness obscured a tendency to refuse accountability for aggression and offense — and even unspeakable cruelty.

Europeans have two different "niceness" problems with the US.

The first is that the niceness is fake.

I don't think this problem is very important. American niceness is just being pleasant, friendly, and obliging to random people you meet. This is one of those common things, an accurate stereotype. Especially in really nice places, like the South, people are indeed damned friendly and helpful. 

This sort of ordinary, everyday niceness is, in my view, an unambiguously good thing. It just makes life easier for all concerned. Who cares if it's superficial? I take a consequentialist view of this kind of niceness: if it works, it's good.  A world in which everyone constantly expressed their deepest, most honest reactions would quickly drown in blood. Niceness is great social lubricant, every society should aspire to as much of it as possible.

That being said, the American advantage here isn't that great. When it comes to niceness, there is probably a bigger niceness gap between urban and rural people in any one country than there is between people in general in different countries. Berlin, New York, Paris, London -- you're not going to be showered in gooey, spontaneous affection in any of these places. But in rural Germany and France -- and even in fairly large cities  -- people are quite friendly, as long as you at least try to speak their language and observe common behavioral norms.

The other kind of niceness problem is not that the niceness itself is fake, but that it is somehow hypocritical or inconsistent. This is a somewhat more sophisticated niceness critique, and the one that's being made in this op-ed. This one goes: "Oh sure, Americans are nice and friendly to other Americans or to 'acceptable' kinds of strangers such as tourists, but this is just an attempt to paper over inequality, racism, and militarism. Who cares how nice Americans are in America while their government is dropping more explosives on Cambodia than all the Allies used during all of World War II? Who cares whether that guy in the truck gave you a ride to the next gas station when he supports capital punishment and has Trump stickers all over his bumpers?"

This is a more serious objection, but it's not really logically consistent. The bombing of Cambodia had nothing to do with being friendly and helpful to strangers. The bombing of Cambodia would not have been more or less acceptable if Americans had been ruder at home. What these Europeans are complaining about is not American "niceness", but American moral posturing as the "shining city on the hill" which is a beacon unto the nations and the most morally upright of countries, etc. And to that extent, they're on solid ground. Too many Americans swallow this sort of guff about their country.

The association comes from the fact that the people most likely to uncritically swallow (only positive) American exceptionalism also tend to be really nice. But they're not nice because they believe in an air-brushed version of American history. You can like them for being nice while rejecting their blinkered opinions.


On Immigration, "Ruthless" Canada > Germany and America Combined

The main point of my immigration posts has always been that German immigration policy is self-defeating because it's dominated by discussion of refugees and asylum-seekers. Any debate about an immigration policy geared toward skilled immigration immediately gets bogged down in discussions about the supposed absolute claims of refugees regardless of their qualifications and the supposed elitism of a policy which favors educated immigrants.

The result of this confused thinking is clear for all to see: German imports huge numbers of uneducated people who have no relevant job skills and no German language proficiency. As the dismal results in language acquisition and job training make clear, probably at least half of recent migrants will never acquire either of these things.

Not only that, these unsuitable migrants often display values and attitudes -- such as anti-Semitism, or a belief in strict sex segregation -- which clash directly with German mores. The presence of these misfits then creates a vicious circle: Germans associate immigration with crime, backwards social beliefs, and welfare dependence, because immigrants are, in fact, more likely to show these characteristics. The more unsuitable immigrants are let in, the more likely Germans are to associated immigration, as a whole, with instability, cost, and social tension. They've never seen it work in the past, so why should they hope it will work in the future?

With very few exceptions, those on the German left completely ignore these problems, aside from lip service about "challenges" presented by certain "attitudes" in certain "communities". Their overall attitude is one of almost sensual, hair-shirt masochism; they seem to enjoy the social damage immigration is doing to Germany, as if only a policy which harms the country can be seen as truly selfless. It's as if you went in to give blood, and afterward asked the nurse to hit you, since only charity which inflicts pain signifies true nobility.

In any event, the German left argues that specifically targeting educated immigrants who can contribute to society from day one is reactionary and elitist. Which raises the question: Is Canada reactionary and elitist? After all it has a "ruthlessly smart" immigration policy, as a recent New York Times op-ed puts it:

Yet when it comes to immigration, Canada’s policies are anything but effete. Instead, they’re ruthlessly rational, which is why Canada now claims the world’s most prosperous and successful immigrant population.

The numbers tell the tale. Last year, Canada admitted more than 320,000 newcomers — the most on record. Canada boasts one of the highest per-capita immigration rates in the world, about three times higher than the United States. More than 20 percent of Canadians are foreign-born; that’s almost twice the American total, even if you include undocumented migrants. And Ottawa plans to increase the number in the years ahead.Far from producing a backlash, Canadian voters couldn’t be happier about it. Recent polls show that 82 percent think immigration has a positive impact on the economy, and two-thirds see multiculturalism as one of Canada’s key positive features. (They rank it higher than hockey. Hockey!) Support for immigration has actually increased in recent years, despite a slow economy and the specter of terrorism. Today in Canada, the share of people who approve of the way their government handles the issue is twice as high as it is in the United States....

Canada’s foreign-born population is more educated than that of any other country on earth. Immigrants to Canada work harder, create more businesses and typically use fewer welfare dollars than do their native-born compatriots....

But Canada’s hospitable attitude is not innate; it is, rather, the product of very hardheaded government policies. Ever since the mid-1960s, the majority of immigrants to the country (about 65 percent in 2015) have been admitted on purely economic grounds, having been evaluated under a nine-point rubric that ignores their race, religion and ethnicity and instead looks at their age, education, job skills, language ability and other attributes that define their potential contribution to the national work force....

[A]bout half of all Canadian immigrants arrive with a college degree, while the figure in the United States is just 27 percent. Immigrant children in Canadian schools read at the same level as the native born, while the gap is huge in the United States. Canadian immigrants are almost 20 percent more likely to own their own homes and 7 percent less likely to live in poverty than their American equivalents.

No wonder this approach appeals to President Trump. He’s right to complain that America’s system makes no sense. The majority (about two-thirds in 2015) of immigrants to the United States are admitted under a program known as family reunification — in other words, their fate depends on whether they already have relatives in the country. Family reunification sounds nice on an emotional level (who doesn’t want to unite families?). But it’s a lousy basis for government policy, since it lets dumb luck — that is, whether some relative of yours had the good fortune to get here before you — shape the immigrant population.

Every critique of American immigration policy here applies with twice the force to German immigration policy. Perhaps even more, since German welfare benefits are drastically more generous than those in the United States, which means an immigrant who remains a welfare case all of his life costs that much more -- and generates that much more resentment among German taxpayers.

This is why you can have mass immigration or the welfare state, but not both.


In Which I Admire Millions of Tiny German Lawsuits And Annihilate Several Canards About the Law

The U.S. is famous in Germany for its 'runaway' juries which hand down zillion-dollar lawsuits against poor defenseless companies. Yet, as I told my dumbfounded students, Germany is a far more litigious society than the USA. In fact, according to a book-length 1998 study, Germany is the most lawsuit-happy country on earth:

Country Cases per 1,000 Population

• Germany 123.2
• Sweden 111.2
• Israel 96.8
• Austria 95.9
• U.S.A. 74.5
• UK/England & Wales 64.4
• Denmark 62.5
• Hungary 52.4
• Portugal 40.7
• France 40.3

My German students were dumbfounded by this fact. Most of them got their image of the world from the mainstream press. And, as usual, German journalists tended to obsess over the real or imagined failings of other countries, while remaining ignorant of what was going on in their backyard.

But aside from the good clean fun of this tu quoque response, it's interesting to think about why Germany is so litigious. I think there are 4 main reasons:

  • Legal insurance (Rechtschutzversicherung). Millions of Germans have legal insurance policies that pay for lawyers both to file claims and defend against them. This insurance is affordable because litigation costs in Germany are low. Legal insurance is actually an excellent idea, every country in the world could benefit from widespread legal insurance. What it means in Germany, though, is that if you have a policy, you don't have to think twice about filing a lawsuit. Granted, the lawyer is not supposed to file if you don't have a claim, but many do anyway. Legal insurance also provides a lifeline for many small-time lawyers -- they can patch together a decent livelihood by having a constant docket of 40-50 small time cases going on at any time. None of these cases will generate a huge verdict, but a steady stream of small payments is enough.
  • Lawsuits are a fact of life. Nobody really takes them seriously. If your landlord hikes your rent, you use your legal-insurance lawyer to fight it. The landlord uses their legal-insurance lawyer to defend. After all, if you don't sue, you'll certainly have to pay the extra 10% in rent. If you do sue, you might end up with a discount. The landlord would probably do the same thing in your position, and knows this.
  • Close neighbors make bad blood. Germany is a small country packed with people. Everything you do in public is going to have some effect on your neighbors. If a potted plant falls off your city balcony, it's going to hit someone or something below. If your cat likes to relieve themselves on your neighbor's lawn, they're going to notice. And might just take lethal action. Your barbecue smoke is going to trigger someone's asthma 5 houses down. The list goes on and on. Every German state has a long, complex "neighbor law" (here's the one (g) for my state), and many lawyers do nothing else. And once again, these petty squabbles are going to end up in court because it's so easy to go to court because of legal insurance. 

And finally, no lawsuit is too tiny. As Wagner once said, a German is someone who will always do something for its own sake. Which means Germans will file a suit over anything. Why, here's a story (g) from the excellent criminal-defense blog lawblog. Two retirees went fishing for deposit bottles in Munich, a favorite pastime of poor Germans, or just ones who need some way to fill their days in the fresh air.*

They approached a large man-sized glass-recycling container, whipped out their grabbers, and started fishing around inside the container. Recycling containers are supposed to be reserved for bottles which don't have a deposit on them, like wine bottles. But many people don't care or don't know how to tell a deposit from a non-deposit bottle, and just toss everything in.

Sure enough, our two hunters found 15 deposit bottles with a total value of € 1.44. Two other Germans, who were certainly feeling very German that day, called the police and reported the bottle-fishers for theft. Wait, what? Two people minding their own business, helping recycle glass, augmenting their puny incomes, harming nobody, and their fellow Germans report them to the cops? Welcome to Deutschland, my friends.

Now German prosecutors are obliged to investigate every credible accusation of crime that comes to their attention, the famous "Principle of Legality"**. This they did. The first thing they had to determine was what the value of the theft was. Technically, this was a theft -- once you throw a glass bottle into a recycling bin, it becomes the property of the recycling company. So you might think that the amount of the theft was the deposit value of the bottles. But no! It turns out that the recycling company does not separate out deposit bottles from other ones. Scandalous, I know. So all the bottles just get melted down. The prosecutor asked the recycling firm how much value the bottles would have as recycling material, and the firm said: basically, it's too small to even put a number on.

At this time, the prosecutor chose to halt the proceedings (einstellen) based on the idea that there was no public interest in prosecuting the offenders. The writer at lawblog thinks this was the wrong reason to stop the prosecution -- he thinks a better theory is to deny the people had any attempt to commit theft, because they had no intent to take possession of the bottles -- their ultimate goal was simply to transfer them to a different owner. 

Be that as it may, the main thing to notice here is that several different government employees spent hours of their time and used considerable resources to investigate an accusation of a crime which, at the very most, involved the lordly sum of € 1.44. It's probably only a slight exaggeration to say that the German state spent 1000 times more money investigating the theft than it was actually worth in the first place.

Now, am I going to snigger about this? Of course I am, and so are you. But at the same time, I'm not going to go too far. The most important thing to keep in mind about high numbers of lawsuits is that they are an important sign of social health. In the vast majority of societies, lawsuits are prohibitively expensive and courts are woefully underfunded and corrupt, so nobody trusts them. Germans and Americans trust courts to usually resolve legal disputes in a fair and equitable manner, otherwise they wouldn't seek them out so often. They're right to do so; both the USA and Germany have exceptionally fair and efficient legal systems, despite their imperfections. A fair, professional, and generally non-corrupt legal system is one of humanity's most important achievements, full stop. Most countries don't yet have one. If you happen to live in a country which does, take a moment and thank your lucky stars. 

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"Every Other American" Thinks Like the German Right

Der Spiegel interviews (g) the Israeli-American-German journalist Tuvia Tenenbom, who's been called the Jewish Hunter S. Thompson. He's a rubicund old Jewish kibitzer who travels the world and reports what he sees in blunt, unvarnished, politically-incorrect language that you'll either find crudely oversimplified or refreshingly direct.

He's written books about Germany, America (this one was called "brutal, irreverent, and cutting"), and just published in German a book called "Alone Among Refugees" (g), which recounts his travels through Germany visiting refugees and activists on all sides of the issue. A few of his thoughts on comparative freedom of the press and opinion: 

Spiegel: Mr. Tenenbom, what is your opinion on the media landscape and freedom of opinion here in Germany?

Tenenbom: There's no more journalism, especially in Germany. Instead there's activism. Journalism no longer just report what happens, but what we're supposed to think....

Spiegel: So to you, the best journalists are those who...

Tenenbom:  ... report facts. And don't tell us what's right and wrong.
The reporter asks him about positive comments he has made about the personalities of German right-wingers such as neo-nationalist intellectual Götz Kubitschek and anti-immigration activist Lutz Bachmann: 
Tenenbom: I'm not naive. I know very well what they say and think. But to treat someone respectfully or like them doesn't require that I share their opinions. And by the way: Every other American thinks the things which Götz Kubitschek says, and what Lutz Bachmann says.

Spiegel: Well, that hardly makes it better.

Tenenbom: I just want to say: Should we treat all Americans this way [i.e. ostracize them because of their views]? No. And you know what? Many Germans think the same way, they're just afraid to say it aloud. And so what? All these people are entitled to call themselves Europeans. There is simply a difference of opinion between one point of view which existed earlier, which is based on the preservation of one's own culture -- you could call that narrow-mindedness -- and another movement which doesn't want borders or nation-states and wants to see cultures mixed. Those are two valid arguments, two acceptable wishes. Let the voters decide! But don't call these people Nazis merely because they want to preserve German culture.


The Simple Joy of Bashing A Culture

Mystery of the Missing Million from Phil Rees on Vimeo.

Germans love Japan. I live in Düsseldorf, home to one of the largest Japanese expat communities in Europe, and it shows. There's an annual Japan Day, a cultural institute (the Eko-Haus) -- complete with temple, garden, bell, and a traditional Japanese house -- and excellent Japanese food everywhere you turn.

When I visited Japan, most of the other tourists seemed to be from Northern Europe. Like me, they all raved about the discreet hospitality, the cleanliness, the attention to detail, the love of traditional handicrafts, the organization, the quiet, the world-class museums, the excellent fresh food everywhere, and all the many other things that make Japan such an intense pleasure to visit (seriously, drop everything and go now). Northern Europeans have an instinctive preference for cleanliness, order, and discretion, and they immediately sense they are among kindred spirits in the Japanese. And if you think that's a crude generalization based on outdated national stereotypes, loosen up. We're not in a seminar room here.

But of course these are only surface impressions. They obscure two central facts: First, many of the things cultured Europeans love about Japan (the tea ceremony, Noh theatre, Kabuki) are like organ music in Europe: followed only by a tiny, graying minority of aficionados.

Second, Japanese society overall is in long, possibly near-terminal decline.

Which brings us to an interesting 2007 book about Japan written by an American journalist who spent years there: Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation (book excerpt and interview here). The first part of the book deals with the bizarre Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori: young people, 80% male, who simply drop out of society altogether. They cannot take the pressure to conform, the endless high-stakes testing, the cram schools, the bitter rivalry to get into the best colleges, and the myriad other pressures of Japanese life. 

So they simply drop out, like Bartleby. They retire to a room in their parents' house, and never leave. They usually change their sleep schedule to stay inside during the day and leave, if at all, only at night. They don't go to school, don't work, just sketch or read or play video games or watch porn. Their parents allow them to stay and provide them with food and other necessities, and often cover up the fact that their son or daughter has become a recluse to save face.

The defining factor of hikikomori is that they're not mentally ill. They are also usually of above-average intelligence, since it is these children who are under the most pressure to perform. Usually, their reclusion starts after some stinging failure (failed exam, university rejection, bullying) along the assembly-line route of school-college-job. These people have simply decided to reject a society which they see as forcing them through a bunch of meaningless and terrifying hoops, all in service to a failing and irrelevant social model which nobody seems to be able to change. Estimates are that there are between 500,000 and a million hikikomori in Japan. The consensus seems to be that this precise phenomenon happens only in Japan.

The author, Michael Zielenziger (who speaks Japanese) interviews a number of hikikomori and the counselors and psychologists who try to help them. What's refreshing about his book is that Z pulls no punches. He obviously likes the Japanese, has enormous admiration for their many achievements as a society. He's not simply spewing a rant, he backs up many of his assertions with interviews, statistics, and other staples of good journalism. And many of the harshest indictments come from Japanese themselves. But still, to use an appropriately American phrase, he tears Japan a new asshole

American and Japanese psychologists have demonstrated that when faced with a social situation they do not like, Americans readily try to influence others to change their behavior. Japanese, by contrast, are far more likely to adjust their own behavior to the demands others make upon them, to accommodate the wishes of the collective....

The group harmony this homogeneous people struggled so obsessively to achieve—through the pressure to conform, the resistance to criticism, the repression of dissenters, and a desperate, almost pathological need to keep “outsiders” at bay—carried a dark and destructive seed. Not only did this system seriously constrain individuality to the point of “infantilizing” many of it own people, effectively robbing them of their own identities; it also stripped the nation of its ability to adjust to the unforeseen changes in the world and in business practices that the inexorable process of globalization was now stirring up. Until this moment, Japan had been able to appropriate the trappings of the modern world without creating for itself a critical consciousness, a truly democratic sensibility, or a vision of how a “unique” people might interact easily and equally with the rest of the world. “The essence of Japan is to have no essence,” one famous Japanese political scientist concluded, arguing Japanese had never learned to properly differentiate between the instrumental and the ideal. His society, he said, was like a pot crammed with octopus, unable to discern a world separate from its own outsized tentacles. By analogy, he suggested, Western societies, where Judeo-Christian values had taken hold, or the Chinese culture, where Confucianism remains central, more resembled the sort of whisk broom used in a traditional tea ceremony, in which a sturdy, unitary wooden base splays itself into a finely separated tip, with space for each long and articulated tine of bamboo fiber to stand free and apart from the others....

As I got to understand it better, I saw that, rather than a vibrant free market, Japan actually functions more like a highly controlled, quasi-socialist system where bureaucrats feel they know best how to organize the system of production, and have the power to make life unpleasant for those who don't agree....

Predictably, the book has stimulated as many howls of outrage as it has nods of understanding. Which is a good thing.

Polite society these days enforces an unspoken code of never criticizing other cultures. You wouldn't want to be accused of cultural imperialism, or Orientalism, or condescension, or any of the other mortal sins of orthodox politically-correct sensitivity. But these taboos do what taboos always do: reduce everything to mush.

Some cultures are just more successful at certain things than others. In fact, some cultures are more successful at almost everything than others (here's lookin' at you, Scandinavia!). Everyone who's lived abroad understands this. And a bracing, well-informed critique is more honest and useful than a bunch of feel-good pabulum. The book was published in Japan. Many of his interviewees told him, they would never have spoken to a Japanese journalist, since they would be ashamed to discuss embarrassing secrets with someone who shared the same complex social codes.

It's not the be-all and end-all, but is a refreshingly blunt and lively book. Perhaps one day I'll write something similar about Germany. Germany, I love you, but I know just about all of your dirty secrets....


Mark Blyth on The Origins of Neo-Nationalism

It's not often you stumble across some professor who says he's going to explain the world, and then watch him actually do it.

I stumbled across Mark Blyth via MetaFilter. Mark Blyth is political science professor at Brown University -- Wait! I know, you're thinking Brown University, the tiny, ultra-expensive US liberal arts college which is a hotbed of the most demented form of political correctness? Can any professor there be capable more than soft-focus P.C. pieties?

Well, Mark Blyth can. Perhaps because he's Scottish. Very Scottish, if you listen to him. In 2016, Blyth accomplished a pretty impressive trifecta in 2016: he accurately predicted Brexit, the Italian constitutional referendum, and Trump. His big idea is Global Trumpism, which involves defections both to the right and the left from the globalist neoliberal consensus. Whether it's Podemos in Spain or Trump in the U.S., middle-class voters in the West are reacting to 30 years of tectonic changes in the global political and economic landscape which have seen their quality of life being gradually eroded.

The end result is a sense of seething frustration in the middle and lower classes of Western countries. Unions have been crushed, more and more risk shifted onto the shoulders of individuals, job security is a thing of the past, international competition and automation are destroying millions of jobs which will never come back, the small luxuries of middle-class life are drifting out of reach, and each generation is seeing a decline in its standard of living compared to the last one.

All the while, the rich are getting almost exponentially richer, and mainstream politicians -- whether center-right or center-left, there is no meaningful difference -- seem at best helpless or disinterested at worst actively corrupt.

Here's some remarks he published in Foreign Policy (previous link), which are a bit heavy on the economics but still get the point across:

Back in 1943, [Michal Kalecki] he argued that once you target and sustain full employment over time, it basically becomes costless for labor to move from job to job. Wages in such a world will have to continually rise to hold onto labor, and the only way business can accommodate that is to push up prices. This mechanism, cost-push inflation, where wages and prices chase each other up, emerged in the 1970s and coincided with the end of the Bretton Woods regime and the subsequent oil shocks to produce high inflation in the rich countries of the West in the 1970s. In short, the system undermined itself, as both Goodhart and Kalecki predicted. As countries tried harder and harder to target full employment, the more inflation shot up while profits fell. The 1970s became a kind of “debtor’s paradise.” As inflation rose, debts fell in real terms, and labor’s share of national income rose to an all-time high, while corporate profits remained low and were pummeled by inflation. Unions were powerful and inequality plummeted....

But if it was a great time to be a debtor, it was a lousy time to be a creditor. Inflation acts as a tax on the returns on investment and lending. Unsurprisingly in response, employers and creditors mobilized and funded a market-friendly revolution where the goal of full employment was jettisoned for a new target—price stability, aka inflation—to restore the value of debt and discipline labor through unemployment. And it worked. The new order was called neoliberalism.

Over the next thirty years the world was transformed from a debtor’s paradise into a creditor’s paradise where capital’s share of national income rose to an all-time high as labor’s share fell as wages stagnated. Productivity rose, but the returns all went to capital. Unions were crushed while labor’s ability to push up wages collapsed due to the twin shocks of restrictive legislation and the globalization of production. Parliaments in turn were reduced to tweet-generating talking shops as central banks and policy technocrats wrested control of the economy away from those elected to govern.

Seen this way, what we see is a reversal of power between creditors and debtors as the anti-inflationary regime of the past 30 years undermines itself—what we might call “Goodhart’s revenge.” In this world, yields compress and creditors fret about their earnings, demanding repayment of debt at all costs. Macro-economically, this makes the situation worse: the debtors can’t pay—but politically, and this is crucial—it empowers debtors since they can’t pay, won’t pay, and still have the right to vote....

The traditional parties of the center-left and center-right, the builders of this anti-inflationary order, get clobbered in such a world, since they are correctly identified by these debtors as the political backers of those demanding repayment in an already unequal system, and all from those with the least assets. This produces anti-creditor, pro-debtor coalitions-in-waiting that are ripe for the picking by insurgents of the left and the right, which is exactly what has happened.

In short, to understand the election of Donald Trump we need to listen to the trumpets blowing everywhere in the highly indebted developed countries and the people who vote for them. 

The global revolt against elites is not just driven by revulsion and loss and racism. It’s also driven by the global economy itself. This is a global phenomenon that marks one thing above all. The era of neoliberalism is over. The era of neonationalism has just begun.

Blyth actually shines in videos; he's an outstanding and engaging speaker. I switched this video on to run in the background while I did some housework, but found myself repeatedly rushing to the computer to replay something I didn't quite get. This video is the best exposition of his theory as a whole. You'll have to get used to his Scottish burr:



Although his main critique is aimed at the technocratic managers of national and international economic policy, he also directs withering critiques at center-left politicians, who hurl accusations of politically-incorrect thoughtcrime to appear "left" while simultaneously suckling at the teat of the financial and technological elite and doing nothing to improve the lot of the middle class.

Blyth thinks the U.S. will stumble through, but Blyth believes that the outlook for Europe is much bleaker (this discussion starts at about 41:00). The Euro is a disaster which cannot be fixed, but European technocrats still refused to understand this, and continue to inflict crippling austerity on the European South in a doomed attempt to save it.


I'm Big in Israel!

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a journalist from the Israeli business daily TheMarker, who wanted to know my views about German immigration policy. I thought that might be a reasonable way to sum up my thoughts all in one place, since the questions were quite wide-ranging. The article was just published. It's in Hebrew, but it seems to contain quite a bit of my interview, if Google Translate can be trusted.

Just to ensure nothing gets lost in translation, here are my original answers. I've edited a few parts for clarity, but no major changes.

There's not much happening on the immigration front right now, so I've largely moved on to other subjects. I'll let this stand here as my (quasi) last word on the subject.

You are an immigrant yourself, born in Brussels and grew up in the US. what differentiates you from Muslim immigrants? 

I’d say there’s not much difference between myself and a “culturally” but not especially religious Muslim immigrant who has an advanced degree, speaks fluent German, participates in community life, and is employed and pays taxes. In fact, I know quite a number of people like that here in Germany. Immigrants such as myself and my Muslim friends contribute positively to German society. We have never needed welfare or committed a serious crime, and have consistently been employed and paid our taxes.

The two question when it comes to immigration is: How many? Which ones? A manageable number of people like us is a benefit to any country.

But that’s not what Germany’s getting. Hundreds of thousands of young males (about 65-70% of the 2015 arrivals were males under 35) with little education and no job skills were allowed to enter Germany in 2015. Those people chose Germany not because of any affinity for the country or knowledge of its culture, but simply because they thought they might be able to find a place here, and had been told by smugglers that Germany ‘needed’ and ‘invited’ them.

The German borders should be open for all, shouldn't they?

Definitely not. There is a fraction of left-wing extremists who do not believe countries should be allowed to have borders, but they’re no more than 5% of the population of Germany, at most. A 2009 Pew poll found that 25 million people worldwide would like to permanently relocate to Germany. If that happened, Germany as we know it would vanish.

This is why no country in the world has ever voluntarily had unregulated open borders since the formation of the modern nation-state. Germany’s existing laws – including Article 16a of the Basic Law (Germany’s modern Constitution) and its Asylum Law set out a reasonable legal framework for who gets to enter the country. The problem was that Angela Merkel decided to order that these laws be ignored.

What is your main criticism against the German immigration policy, especially in the past couple of years?

The fundamental flaw in German immigration policy is that there is no overall German law for permitting the orderly migration of people with education, job skills, and motivation to adapt to German society. This means that much German immigration is regulated by asylum law: someone shows up in the country illegally, and then claims asylum. These are not people Germany has invited or whom whom Germany needs. Rather, they are people who happened to want to relocate to Germany and could afford the smugglers’ fees. Some have valid asylum claims, many do not.

That is the long-term background problem. The more recent problem is the government’s total failure to prepare for the migrant influx in 2015. Chancellor Merkel and other leading politicians sent out inviting signals of ‘welcome’ which induced over a million people – 65-70% of whom were young and male – to start on the path to Germany. The majority of the 2015 arrivals were not Syrians. They came from Albania, Afghanistan, Serbia, Georgia, Kosovo, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan, India, and dozens of other countries which are not at war, although they are poor and some have regional insurgencies. The proportion of Syrians went up in 2016, but the overall numbers (around 200,000) are much lower, since Germany has re-introduced some border controls.

This huge influx of people all at once in 2015 completely swamped the German immigration system. Hundreds of thousands of young males from the most unstable parts of the world flooded into Germany. There were no backgrounds checks, no fingerprint records, no attempt at verification of their identity or background. A majority of them claimed they had no identity papers or presented fake ones. Germany still has no reliable information about who thousands of these people are.

Can’t Germany just send them back? No. The slow, cumbersome German deportation laws have broken down completely: there are now about 500,000 people whose asylum claims have been rejected but who are still in the country. There are literally dozens of ways to avoid deportation: get a certificate of illness from a sympathetic doctor, argue your homeland is too unsafe, physically resist when you get on the deportation plane, claim asylum in a Christian church, or simply go underground. Some Afghans have even avoided deportation by claiming to be Taliban, absurdly enough. This claim automatically starts a complex legal process, during which the migrant is permitted to stay in Germany and move freely.

Another problem is that the countries from which these men come don’t want many of them back. Migrants from North Africa are committing crimes at such a high rate that it’s become clear that a large portion of the criminal underclass of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco came to Germany. Those countries can keep their undesirables in Germany by simply failing to issue the necessary deportation paperwork. Thousands of deportations are stalled for this reason alone. The Tunisian truck attacker, Anis Amri, was already known to be a criminal and dangerous radical Islamist, and was supposed to be deported, but Tunisia refused to issue the paperwork confirming his nationality -- until two days after the terror attack. Germany, by the way, provided € 215 million in development aid to Tunisia (g) in 2015.

Less spectacular crimes have also been committed by migrants. This is understandable: they are mostly young men, the group most likely to commit crime in any society. They have nothing to do all day, do not speak German or English, the majority do not have even the equivalent of a high-school education. They are now living in a culture where alcohol is cheap and available everywhere, women dress in a ‘revealing’ fashion, and the cultural controls of their community and family are gone. The predictable result has been an increase in crime near migrant shelters. Most of the crime has been nonviolent property offenses, but there have also been dozens of killings, thousands of assaults and sex crimes, three completed terrorist attacks, and one serious attempt (Jaber al Bakr, a radicalized Syrian who committed suicide in prison after being arrested for creating 1.5 kg of high explosive and planning to bomb a Berlin airport).

The federal government does not keep accurate statistics on the number of crimes committed by recent migrants, but claims that migrants do not commit crimes at a higher rate than Germans of a similar demographic background – i.e. disproportionately young and male. Backers of the political consensus see this as reassuring, critics of German policy point out that even if this assertion is true, it still means thousands of crimes are now happening in Germany because of the migrant influx. Further, migrants tend to commit different kinds of crimes than Germans. In particular, they have committed hundreds of sexual assaults in public against random strangers (including many against children), a type of crime that was much more uncommon before the migrants arrived, and which has a particularly strong impact on quality of life.

Since migrant shelters are located in poor and working-class neighborhoods (which lack the political power to oppose them), it is poorer Germans – including many established immigrants – who are bearing the brunt of migrant crime.

Do you think Islam the worst threat on Europe? If so, why?

I would distinguish between Islam and Islamism. I don’t see Islam itself as a threat to Europe. The vast majority of European Muslims are in fact peaceful and law-abiding, and don’t pose a ‘threat’.

However, if we talk about adapting successfully to European societies, there is a problem. Once again, it’s a question of how many? And which ones? Most Muslims in Germany were imported from Eastern Anatolia as factory labor in the 1960s, or as refugees during the Lebanese civil war. Their numbers then steadily expanded by chain migration and family reunification. These persons were originally intended to be temporary manual labor, and were not chosen because they were likely to adapt successfully to Europe. Muslims have come to shape the character many neighborhoods in Germany and France, and continue to gain both in numbers and political power. Some immigrant communities now effectively work according to their own rules.

This doesn’t mean they are a threat – the mere fact that someone may have conservative religious beliefs and wear a hijab is not a ‘threat’ to anyone. But the stubborn reality ias that Muslims in Germany and France do worse on most measures of social integration and flourishing than native populations. The existence of many individual success stories cannot hide the fact that Germans of Turkish descent are only half as likely to attend university as native Germans, or that France’s prisons are up to 70% Muslim. (We have only estimates, since France refuses to record the religion or ethnicity of prisoners). And although there is a taboo against mentioning it, statistics show that foreigners and those with a foreign background commit crimes at a much higher rate than ethnic Germans. Two things are true: the majority of Muslims in Germany are law-abiding, but the rate of crime among Muslims is higher than among ethnic Germans.

Muslims also face discrimination. European countries are not nations of immigrants. Each has its own unique cultural identity and heritage. They are not new, young nations such as Israel or the United States. Neither their people nor their culture is accustomed to embracing large numbers of culturally-foreign outsiders. Yet that is what many of these countries have tried to do. The result is social tension, discrimination, exclusion, and distrust.

Muslims will not ‘destroy’ or ‘take over’ Europe, that sort of rhetoric is irresponsible and not supported by the facts. But the results of past mistaken immigration policies will burden Europe for decades.

What type of immigration policy should Germany adopt?

As I’ve written before, I advocate a two-tier system inviting skilled workers and asylum-seekers. First, Germany should welcome a certain number skilled, educated workers a year by using a Canada-style point system, where you get credit for being educated, having a job offer, knowing some German, and being ready and willing to integrate. Because of past mistakes in immigration policy, many Germans associate immigrants with social dysfunction, crime, and menial labor. Only a plan to import skilled immigrants who will immediately contribute from day one can overcome this negative impression.

I would also certainly keep Germany’s asylum policy. Because of its notorious history, German has included a right to political asylum in its very constitution, and has one of the world’s most generous asylum policies, if not the most. This is appropriate. However, the current system is open to massive abuse: people sneak into the country illegally, file an asylum claim using a made-up story, and often disappear underground before the claim is even judged. As I pointed out above, the system for deporting failed asylum-seekers is broken.

Asylum claims should be processed outside German territory. Asylum seekers should be subjected to a thorough medical check and background investigation, and their identity determined through fingerprints and DNA. Their stories should be verified as thoroughly as possible. Destroying documents of lying about your identity will automatically result in exclusion. Asylum seekers should be chosen on the basis of greatest need and danger, not on current basis, which favors those healthy enough to travel and rich enough to bribe smugglers. There should be an annual upper limit decided by the legislature.

Most countries already manage asylum this way; Germany should follow suit.

What do you say to left-wingers who claim that almost an absolute majority of Muslims immigrant are good hard working people who want to assimilate in the German society, and that they are very important to the German economy as well, as cheap labour for jobs that local Germans are not willing to do?

As I’ve said, most Muslims who have lived in Germany for some time are indeed hard-working and law abiding, although their overall net economic contribution (minus social welfare benefits, which they collect at a higher rate) to German society is modest.

The 1.2 million (the numbers are still imprecise, because the sheer number of arrivals has swamped recordkeeping systems) who have arrived since the beginning of 2015 are another matter entirely. Almost none of them has the preconditions for integrating successfully into German society. They don’t speak the language, don’t understand the culture or customs, have very little education, and don’t have the kind of job skills Germany wants or needs. One recent study showed that only 34,000 have managed to find jobs so far, and most of those jobs are temporary menial labor.

If they are allowed to stay, these hundreds of thousands of new arrivals will compete directly with low-skilled German workers – cashiers, delivery drivers, nursing aides, warehouse workers, store clerks, gardeners, janitors and the like. This sector of the German economy has seen no growth in its real wages since decades, while prices and rents consistently rise. When financially-strapped Germans see a flood of cheap immigrant labor coming to compete for their jobs, they will be extremely angry. And they will vote accordingly. Already, studies show thousands of working-class Germans switching from the Social Democratic Party to the AfD. And this is happening during boom times with low unemployment in Germany. When the next business downturn hits, the resentment will only escalate.

Germany needs skilled workers, not menial workers. Yet even if Germany wanted to import menial workers, the question arises: why from Muslim countries? There are millions of EU citizens from Eastern Europe who are eager for low-skilled jobs in Germany, and who come from nations which are culturally much closer to Germany than, say, Afghanistan.

Do you support Merkel? Where do you position yourself on the political map?

I support a strong social welfare state, so I would probably be a left-wing Social Democrat on this issue. I’d probably vote SPD if I voted in Germany. I am convinced, based on my review of the literature, that mass immigration poses a grave threat to the social welfare state: historically, support for welfare goes down the more diverse a society is -- or becomes.

Merkel has been a competent Chancellor overall, a sort of technical caretaker who governs by consensus. This no-drama approach is very popular among Germans. Merkel is a reasonable choice for times where everything is going well. However, I think she has made several critical mistakes, the most recent being the reckless migrant influx, and should step down. There will be little change in any case, since the German political landscape is so fractured that only a center consensus coalition has a chance of winning.

Do you fear that the terror attacks by Muslims and the hostility towards them in Germany would lead to the rise of the extreme right, represented particularly by the party ‘Alternative for Germany’?

This is already happening, all over Europe. In the Netherlands, France, the UK, Hungary, and Sweden, right-wing parties (or movements, such as Brexit) are gaining unprecedented support. Germany has long had a strong suspicion of nationalist conservative parties (for obvious reasons) which has kept the AfD’s support to under 15%, for now. But that is a very large number in Germany’s fracture political landscape, and represents a tripling in support from 2013.

The AfD currently easily outpolls the Green and Left parties. For years, the AfD profited by being the only party which clearly, openly opposed Chancellor Merkel’s open-borders policy. Many of its other positions are extreme by German standards, and unpopular among German voters. Now that many other politicians in Germany have basically copied many AfD positions on immigration, its support may drop. But right now, it is still climbing slowly in the polls, and may even soon pull equal to the collapsing Social Democratic Party, which would be a true milestone in German politics.

What are the changes you sense in the public discussion regarding Muslims in the past year? Do Germans feel more free to criticise Islam freely, or is it still considered a non P.C subject to talk about?

There has been a huge change. In mid-2015, an almost euphoric attitude of Willkommenskultur existed in the German media and public life. The entire mainstream press, including tabloids, referred to all the migrants as ‘refugees’. Volunteers arranged train convoys to carry them into Germany, often more than 10,000 refugees in one day. German volunteers distributed teddy bears to the children, food and clothes to the adults, and helped overburdened government agencies find a place for all the new arrivals to sleep. A prominent Green politician, Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, famously exclaimed: “We’ve suddenly been given the gift of people!” (Wir bekommen plötzlich Menschen geschenkt!). The press was full of ecstatic stories about Germany becoming a new kind of ‘moral’ superpower. Mainstream magazines and newspapers published dozens of profiles of ‘poster child’ refugees. There were so many profiles of Syrian doctors that the very phrase ‘Syrian doctor’ became a meme. Germany basked in praise from Obama, EU officials, the UN, refugee rights groups, and other liberal internationalists the world over. People who raised doubts about the policy were often denounced and attacked as xenophobes, racists, or worse.

Now, of course, we know that the majority of the 2015 arrivals were neither Syrians nor doctors. Costs are running somewhere around €2 billion per month, since virtually all the migrants are on welfare for asylum seekers, which includes rent, food, housing, medical care, education, and a monthly allowance of between €150 and €400, depending on circumstances. Shelters housing young male refugees are notoriously chaotic, spectacular crimes by immigrants have horrified observers, local governments are facing huge financial strain, the statistics on migrant participation in integration and language classes are disappointing.

Even migrants who wanted to learn German – and that certainly was not all of them – are finding it extremely difficult, and many have given up. German is a difficult language to learn, especially if you have never used the Latin alphabet and are illiterate in your own mother tongue, which is true of at least 30-40% of migrants. Most Germans who volunteered to teach German of help manage shelters have long since gone back to their normal jobs and lives. In February of 2016, two-thirds of Germans believed the refugees could be successfully integrated. Recent polls show only a minority – as low as 15% in some polls -- believes this. Politicians now routinely call for stepped-up deportations, a position that only the AfD held until recently.

The euphoria has worn off. Immigration and integration now top the list of concerns of German voters. The mood is hesitant and uncertain. Local communities continue to request billions from the federal government to provide for migrants, almost all of whom are still dependent on government welfare and charity. Nobody knows how the situation will turn out, but you don’t have to be a pessimist to see the potential for dark days ahead.


Melania Wasn't "Sad", She was Slavic

During Donald Trump's inauguration, his Slovene wife Melania looked sober and serious most of the time. This has led Americans to believe she was sad, depressed, horrified, anguished, perhaps even trapped in an abusive relationship.

What these slightly fatuous Americans don't understand is that the European conception of personal dignity and institutional respect demands that public figures taking part in official ceremonies look serious at all times. In Europe, there is no penalty for looking stiff, even scowling, during official ceremonies; that's expected. There can be a significant penalty for a smile, or for any sign of levity. So everyone plays it safe and refrains from all except fleeting smiles.

Let me make my point with pictures of Supreme Courts. First, the American:

US Supreme Court

By my count, we have a whopping six smiles: the entire back row (Sotomayor, Breyer, Alito, Kagan) and two in the front (Roberts and Kennedy). Justice Scalia, the balding Italian man sitting next to the black guy, is wearing a sort of half-smile. Justice Thomas, the black guy, is wearing an angry scowl, his resting face, which seems out of place in this photograph, but would be perfectly normal in Europe.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the far right, seems to be cringing in terror. In fact, she seems to be looking at the same thing which has attracted Justice Thomas' attention. Maybe this photo was taken just seconds after the naked knife-wielding maniac broke into the photo studio screaming about CIA mind control: so far, only Thomas and Ginsburg notice him. Fortunately, he was tased by security before he could reach the Legal Minds.

Anyhoo, where was I? Oh right, facial expressions. Since Melania is Slovene, here's the Slovenian Supreme Constitutional Court:

Slovene

The first thing you notice about this official picture from the Court's website is how shitty it is. It's only 71 KB in size, and 60% of that is the surroundings. The picture is so crappy that if you zoom in to try to see whether any of the Justices are smiling, their faces devolve into pixelblurs. You get the definite impression that the Justices probably thought the entire idea of having their picture taken is a ridiculous waste of time, and tried to make it as unrevealing as possible. Nevertheless, I think we can still safely say: no open-mouthed smiles, possibly a mild expression of amusement on the woman in the center's face. That's all.

Bundesverfassungsgericht-senat_2

Here's the Second Senate of the German Federal Constitutional Court. Two open-mouthed smiles, the rest tight-lipped neutral expressions. Here's the First Senate:

Bvg_senat_1_2010

One open-mouthed grin. I can't even find a decent group photo of the French Court de Cassation (which has 85 members divided into a bunch of different groups), but the individual photos of the group leaders here (f) feature no open-mouthed smiles I can find.

And just to round things out, the European Court of Justice:

RTEmagicC_European-Court-of-Justice-Members-2013.jpg

A few smiles, a few scowls, but mostly neutral, purposeful expressions.

And in this particular respect, Slavs seem to be even more serious and scowly than Western Europeans. Here's the Polish Constitutional Tribunal:

Members-of-Polands-Supreme-Court

Being a Slav, as they say, is serious business.

So Melania wasn't "sad", you chirpy, fleering American flibbertygibberts. She was just showing respect by adopting a serious Slavic scowl.


Shiny Happy Dutch People Make Shiny Happy Dutch Babies

Dutch children are the happiest in the developed world. A Brit and an American raising children in the Netherlands ask why:

When it came to Dutch children rating their own happiness levels, more than 95 per cent considered themselves happy. Several other research surveys have likewise highlighted the positive benefits of growing up in the Netherlands – Britain’s Child Poverty Action Group and the World Health Organisation, for example. The Unicef report was a follow- up to one conducted in 2007, in which the Netherlands were first heralded as a prime example of childhood prosperity. The UK and the US ranked in the two lowest positions.

In addition, new research also suggests that Dutch babies are happier than their American counterparts. After examining the temperamental differences between babies born in the US and the Netherlands, Dutch babies were found to be more contented – laughing, smiling and cuddling more – than American babies. Dutch babies were also easier to soothe, while American babies displayed more fear, sadness and frustration. Psychologists attribute this discrepancy to the different cultural mores of child-rearing in the two countries. It’s quite astonishing to us that no one seems to be making more of a fuss about this.

  • Dutch babies get more sleep.
  • Dutch kids have little or no homework at primary school.
  •  Are not just seen but also heard.
  • Are trusted to ride their bikes to school on their own.
  • Are allowed to play outside unsupervised.
  • Have regular family meals.
  • Get to spend more time with their mothers and fathers.
  • Enjoy simple pleasures and are happy with second-hand toys.
  • And last but not least, get to eat chocolate sprinkles (hagelslag) for breakfast.

The Netherlands have a reputation for being a liberal country with a tolerance of sex, drugs and alcohol, yet beneath this lies a closely guarded secret: the Dutch are actually fairly conservative people. At the heart of Dutch culture is a society of home-loving people who place the child firmly at the centre. Parents have a healthy attitude towards their kids, seeing them as individuals rather than as extensions of themselves. They understand that achievement doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness, but that happiness can cultivate achievement. The Dutch have reined in the anxiety, stress and expectations of modern-day parenting, redefining the meaning of success and wellbeing. For them, success starts with happiness – that of their children and themselves.

The first caveat is, as always, genetic confounds. The main reason Dutch children are happier is that they were born to Dutch parents. The Netherlands has been one of the most successful societies on earth -- often the most successful -- for 5-6 centuries now. The Dutch are tall, good-looking, smart, happy, healthy, and have moderate, prudent, sensible habits. They avoid unnecessary risk, have strong sense of social responsibility, accept limits on their freedom (such as high taxes or bicycle lanes crowding out cars) to enhance overall flourishing, and take care of each other. These are all hallmarks of societies made up of people with high general levels of intelligence, risk-avoidance, ability to delay gratification, and impulse control. As this landmark 2015 study (whose lead authors are Dutch!) shows, all of these traits are heritable to a certain extent, usually between 30 and 50%.

But still, I'd be willing to bet there's a pretty big environmental component. There are hundreds of thousands of non-Dutch babies being raised in the Netherlands. My guess would be that they tend to do worse than ethnically Dutch children, but better than children in their own home cultures. We can safely assume that their own home cultures are more chaotic and less prosperous than the Netherlands, because almost every other country on earth is more chaotic and less prosperous than the Netherlands.

If anyone knows any good studies on this, I'd be interested to learn of them.


"Arabs Enjoy the Suffering of Others"

Almost every day, something happens which reminds me of an interview (g) the Rheinische Post newspaper did with a Swiss woman, Gaby Zweng, in January of 2016. She has lived in Egypt for 17 years, and has had relationships with both Christian and Muslim men. She stressed that she herself felt safe in Egypt, and that the vast majority of Egyptians condemned the sort of sexual harassment that happened in Cologne.

But she also had a few other things to say:

You have surely heard of the attacks on New Years' Eve in Cologne. Does it surprise you that Muslims did something like that?

Zweng: Let's just say that it doesn't surprise me that men from Arab countries could do something like that. 

Why not?

Zweng: I am constantly aware here that events which are ascribed to Islam by the West happen just as often among Christians as among Muslims. Both religions live here alongside one another, and I think it's more a question of mentality than religion.

So the problem is not Islam but Arabic culture?

Zweng: Yes.

...

Could you imagine that something like what happened in Cologne might also happen in Cairo?

Zweng: Yes, that happened during the revolution in Cairo in Tahrir Square. Women went onto the streets and protested. I think that such things happen so that Arabic people can enjoy the suffering of other people, and that men especially want to raise their profile, especially in a group

Why do you think that Arabs, in particular, enjoy the suffering of others?

Zweng: Arabs love videos in which other people have accidents and suffer misfortunes. They find it funny. This has caught my attention, as well as that of some of my friends.

You mean videos of silly accidents and pratfalls like ones in Germany, or ones in which people are seriously injured?

Zweng: No, these are certainly serious videos. This is probably a result of the fact that here, you teach children what's right and wrong by hitting them, and people as a whole are much more likely to resort to violence than we are. That's how they are raised.

The latest incident that made me think of this interview was the arrest of seven young men -- six from Iraq, one from Libya -- for setting a homeless man on fire in a Berlin subway station.