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Sunday, 11 October 2015

Are the US ‘Republican Party’ a doomed party that urgently needs to reinvent itself, if it does not want to implode totally and leave the country in a governmental chaos that would put Belgium to shame?!

Yesterday, I heard at the news that the leading Republican candidate for the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, voluntarily withdrew his candidacy. Even though he had a comfortable lead upon his adversaries, McCarthy decided to throw the towel.

Allegedly, the reason for McCarthy’s withdrawal was that he did not manage to get the full majority of the Grand Ole Party backing his candidacy. A radically conservative squadron in the House, closely affiliated  to the infamous Tea Party, demanded a much tougher opposition against the ongoing agenda of President Barrack Obama and judged the more moderate McCarthy as ‘being not fit for the job’.
Probably, McCarthy decided that he did not want to be a ‘lame duck’ speaker after his ballot and withdrew two days ago.

This event emphasized once more, how firm the grip of the extremely conservative and erratically religious Tea Party currently is on the Republican Party. This is something that never ceases to amaze the more secular Europeans and leaves them in ´shock and awe´.

How can it happen that arguably the most modern and economically forward country and global leader, the United States, is more and more sliding towards being the Christian pendant of a `fundamentalist nation´: utterly divided between modernty in the large cities at the East and West coast and the almost medieval habits and choices in the heartland of the nation?

A nation in which a very small part of the political caste is keeping the rest of their peers hostage with their policy of “demonizing their ’foes’  in the White House and in Washington as a whole, not listening to their allies and adversaries, not negotiating about anything and never deviating from their fundamentalist policies, which seem to be carved out in marble”.  The Tea Party seemingly stands “For God, Our Nation, Our Constitution, Mom’s Apple Pie and the Gun under our Cushion” and is arguably world record holder in its unworldly behaviour.

The effect of such popular and strong populist/extremist parties at the far ends of the political spectrum is always that they act as a magnet upon the more moderate political leaders,  with their success: `if you can´t beat them, join them... and if you really don´t want to join them, be as close to them as possible`.

For the Republicans, this unavoidable political behaviour turns cooperation with the Democrats, extremely necessary for the topics that really matter, into a mirage for the foreseeable future. Consequently, these effects and their consequences turn the nation more and more into an uncontrollable political monster.

And then there are the two most prominent Republican candidates for the next presidential elections, which will be held in November 2016: Donald Trump and Jeb ‘the brother of...’ Bush.  One is an extremely successful businessman, who wants to run the nation as one of his companies; the other is son and brother of two former American presidents and extremely rich businessmen and wants to claim his position in the political ‘family business’.

Although one cannot abnegate Donald Trump of being a smart and streetwise tough guy with undeniably a lot of pizazz and a “refreshing” lack of political correctness, the man is clearly an idiot, who started to believe in his own infallibility and greatness. A country is definitely not a large corporation and everybody who thinks it is, is going to do a lot of damage to the nation and especially to the rights and privileges of minorities. The fact that Trump really seems to have a chance next year is a tell-tale signal of the current sorry state of American politics.

And Jeb Bush? Well, what can we say about him from our position in remote Europe?! That he seems a smarter, but nevertheless much bleaker version of “George Dubya”?

A president, who made a travesty of his presidency and pushed the world in three terrible wars, of which the consequences last until this very day and probably much, much longer: the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and ‘the war on terrorism’.

The combination of George W. Bush naivety(?), his undeserved trust in and loyalty to his advisors (a.o. Scooter Libby and Karl Rove) and fellow government-members (i.e. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld), who mainly used the Iraq war as a cashcow for themselves (i.e. Halliburton, Blackwater), as well as his capability to tell the most gruesome lies with a face as if he believed his words himself, made him the epithomy of a dangerous leader.

By coincidence, Dutch television showed yesterday evening the movie ‘Fair Game’; this movie dealt with the betrayal against the former CIA Agent Valerie Plame  and former ambassador Howard Wilson, by former Chief of Staff of the President George W. Bush administration, Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby and neoconservative spindoctor of President Bush, Karl Rove.

The happily married couple Plame (a covert CIA agent heavily involved in the Middle East) and Wilson (a former ambassodor with assignments in Gabon and Niger) had a devastating encounter with the White House´s advisors, after Howard Wilson refused to confirm the blatant lie of George Bush Jr et al,  that Saddam Hoessein had try to buy uranium (‘yellow cake’) in Niger, in order to create his much-desired nuclear bomb.

Scooter Libby and (probably) Karl Rove publically leaked the identity of Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent, instantly ending her career, and tried to crush her and her husband Howard Wilson, when they justifiably denied the existence of WMD’s and production facilities for such weapons in Iraq.  

This supposed yellow-cake purchase order, as well as Iraq’s purchase of aluminium tubes – supposedly for the creation of nuclear ultra-centrifuges in combination with Colin Powell’s Razzie Award-worthy home video  specially created for the United Nations, showing supposed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ storages and production facilities in Iraq, acted as the ‘smoking gun’ that triggered the war in Iraq.

However, all this evidence – except for the purchase of the aluminium tubes itself – had been rigged and were later confirmed as being utterly untrue. But then it was already too late. Iraq was conquered and left in the total and utter political chaos that it is in today, due to an endless series of stupid actions, perfidious political choices and almost criminal miscalculations. And so is the whole Middle East left in a chaos, as a matter of fact, partially as a consequence of this utterly stupid war.

While objectively all this says nothing about the presidential qualities of Jeb Bush, it is nevertheless worrisome that Jeb Bush is the best candidate (i.e. the candidate with the deepest pockets from a financial point of view) that the Republican party can come up with. Personally, I would state that ‘two times a Bush, is more than enough!’

And last, but not least there is always the most prominent member of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, hanging as a black supercell cloud above the political landscape! Someone whose determination, political gutsiness and enormous influence is only surpassed by her dangerous stupidity and naivety.

Personally, I consider the Russian president Vladimir Putin as a ruthless, unscrupulous, corrupted and dangerous man, who is imperturbably following his own agenda for a new and great Russia and is willing to sacrifice a lot for his goals. Nevertheless, he is an intelligent and well-educated chess player, who bends the rules and plays tough, but undoubtedly knows where the point of no return lies that he should never pass. He is a battle-hardened professional, who will probably not scr*w up eventually.

However, when I look at some of the more ‘idealistic’, ideologically-driven and God-fearing members of the Republican party – like for instance the aforementioned Sarah Palin – I am not so sure that they will not push the world to the brink of a nuclear war, when push comes to shove. At times, these people act like a child with a loaded gun: nowhere near to comprehending what they are doing and what is at stake in (international) politics.

November will show another episode in the eternal soap around the US debt ceiling and the coming year will probably be full of raunchy and nearly lethal politics in the United States. Just like French strikers are willing to sacrifice their own future and the future of their company for their own goals, these Tea Party republicans – and probably some of the others too – are seemingly willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of their country and their people for their own political goals. That is a disturbing prospect. 

There is one tiny glimmer of hope that I have. That is that the more moderate and down-to-earth Republicans become so sick and tired of the erratic and dogmatic conceptions of the Tea Party squadron within their realm and of the Tea Party’s unwillingness to cooperate with the Democrats, that they decide to reform the party into a ‘Grand New Party’. That is the only way out of the political chaos and implosion that is seemingly looming in the United States, when the Republican Party does not find a way out of the political mess it created.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Is Ryanair that smart?! Or is Air France-KLM just that stupid?!

“Am I that smart?! Or are you just that stupid”

Louis van Gaal, the current head coach of Manchester United is a legendary trainer. Where already his achievements as a coach on the football field should have made him a legend, his long and troubled history with sports journalists is what really gave him fame/ notoriety.

And definetely the most famous quote in the eyes of the Dutch is the aforementioned outcry from 1996. It was uttered against two journalists, who did not want to understand his views and asked him impertinent questions – to the eyes of “beholder” Louis van Gaal, that is.

I had to think about this particular quote, when I learned today that two executive managers of Air France had to litterally run for their lives, after they announced involuntary mass lay-offs among the Air France personnel:

A scuffle broke out after demonstrators stormed a room at the group’s headquarters at Charles de Gaulle airport where Air France management was outlining 2,900 job cuts, or 5 per cent of total staff.

Xavier Broseta, head of human resources, had the shirt ripped from his back by an angry crowd as he made his way out. He was forced to climb a fence to escape, wearing only a pair of trousers and a tie.

“I could not believe it, they just started attacking,” said one person close to the unions, who was at the scene. “He looked really shocked as he was rushed out by security over a fence,” he said.

According to the same Financial Times article, the job cuts would apply to:
  • 300 pilots
  • 900 flight attendants
  • 1700 ground staff 

This is definitely terrible news for the employees of Air France to whom this news is applying, but one could hardly call it surprising news, after the events in recent years.

The mass lay-offs at Air France followed one month after the news that KLM – the Dutch subsidiary of Air France-KLM – could possibly be forced to lay off as much as 5000 people through involuntary lay-offs, after voluntary dismissals proved not to be sufficient anymore to make the Dutch AF-K subsidiary ‘lean and mean’ again. In other words: the message that Air France-KLM seems heading for some real bad weather in the near future could not be uttered more clear than with the current unrest in France and The Netherlands.

This very bad news about Air France-KLM is a blatant contradistinction with the soaring annual profits and the accompanying boasting of Ryanair. The following snippets came from Reuters:

Ryanair hiked its annual profit forecast by 25 percent on Wednesday after its summer performance was boosted by bad weather in northern Europe and the strength of the British pound.

The Irish airline, Europe's largest by international passenger numbers, said it now expects net profit for the 12 months through March 2016 to be between 1.175 billion euros ($1.3 billion) and 1.225 billion, up from an earlier forecast of 940 million to 970 million

And talking about ‘boasting’. In an interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sontag, Ryanairs chairman Michael O’Leary boasted that Ryanair is ‘planning to cut the prices in half’.

The following (translated) snippets were printed in Het Financieele Dagblad:

Chairman Michael O'Leary wants the consumer to profit from the lower oil prices. Earlier, the chairman promised the consumer already a “mother of all price wars”. In the German newspaper he gave a small peek at his hand of cards.

 O’Leary wants to increase Ryanair’s market share to 25% from the current 15%. This has to be achieved in 2025. [...] Ryanair’s attack plan accomodates a spectacular drop in ticket prices. ‘In the long run, we are aiming at a price of €0”, according to O’Leary in the interview. ‘We cannot put a term on that yet. Of course, there will be all kinds of additional expenses and surcharges for the consumer, outside the ticket price”.

And that’s that: Ryanair aims to make huge future profits by giving aways its tickets for free... but not really!

Enter the great Louis van Gaal;  in this case he could be personified by Michael O’Leary of Ryanair: “Are we that smart?! Or is the rest of the aviation industry and in particular Air France-KLM just that stupid?!” One can almost hear O’Leary think that.

Still, for me there is something extremely fishy about this blatant contrast between the slow demise of Air France-KLM at one hand and the unprecedented success stories of “class room bully” Ryanair and also long distance carriers like Turkish Airlines, Etihad and Emirates on the other hand.

Air France and KLM are decent airliners with a long, long history of safe flights, very good maintenance, good service on the ground and in the air and prices that are not particularly high anymore, even though they have never been among the cheapest airliners in the past.

Both airliners were traditionally among ‘the best of the breed’ and operated their core business in a quite decent and honest way. It could very well be that Air France and KLM are simply too decent and honest; they are perhaps outsmarted by their more seasoned competitors at both the low end and high end side of the aviation spectrum. 

As the Dutch say in one of their famous expressions, they could be “just too big for the napkin and too small for the table cloth”

Perhaps the main problem of Air France-KLM is that the other ‘teams’ in their line of business skim the edges of what is still decent behaviour among airliners and probably cut a few corners along the way.

Middle-Eastern airliners like Turkish Airlines, Etihad and Emirates have a reputation of (illegally) receiving billions in dollars in subsidies from their respective home countries. These are very rich and/or powerful countries, which see the aviation industry as a very good means to attract loads of tourists to the ‘pomp and circumstance’ in their ‘tinseltown’ cities, malls and hotels. Consequently they are willing to spend billions and billions in subsidies on behalf of their airliners and the airports which act as hubs for these airliners.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is obviously Ryanair; a company which has a reputation for flying with very low levels of fuel on international flights and which is also mentioned for hiring inexperienced or unemployed aviators, in order to fly for them at a bargain price, or perhaps even for free.

The company is also infamous among passengers for offering its customers an extremely low basic ticket price, but afterwards charging the customer with all kinds of peculiar surcharges and extra expenses for even the most basic services. This makes an initially very cheap ticket in the end not so cheap anymore, but then the customer has already booked and paid the ticket. 

And perhaps Ryanair’s biggest profit maker is the bedazzling number of seats that fits in a Ryanair 737-800; ideal for people who only look for the lowest ticket prices and don’t mind having virtually no space for their legs at all. And indeed: for short flights at a bargain price many people  including yours truly are willing to abolish their need for some comfort and service on flights. Just like they don't mind standing on short trips by bus or train.

On top of that, there is one risk that every passenger should keep in mind, while flying: especially with the cheap airliners, which always try to save a few bucks on anything that they do. That is the substantial risk for excessive (and perhaps even dangerous) cost cuts on maintenance activities. Read here for instance the integral interview that I held with the distinguished aircraft engineer Fred Bruggeman in March of 2015.

This all leads to one simple conclusion: neither Air France-KLM nor its low-cost subsidiary Transavia can beat Ryanair on price with their current modus operandi. That is just impossible! They are simply not lean and mean enough!

All in all it seems that Air France-KLM is fighting a losing battle, when something does not change very quickly and dramatically in its way of doing business. And – except for the seemingly non-level playing field in the aviation industry – perhaps that something has also to do with the personnel numbers working at this company in distress and the salaries and remunerations that its personnel receives for doing their jobs. 

So, it can very well be that the aggressive outburst of especially the Air France personnel yesterday is yet another example of 'striking and protesting as French weapon of mass self-destruction', as I wrote in 2014.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

While the economic crisis might be over in The Netherlands and abroad, it seems that the mood crisis has only started “to rear its ugly head”. Perhaps exactly that is what emphasizes the real depression that we are all in.

At this moment, I am coping with having seen the picture of a life-threateningly wounded motor agent in The Netherlands.

This police agent was (seemingly deliberately) run over by a rogue truck driver, who obviously did not want to stop, when he was ordered to do so by the agent [the picture was so shocking that I simply can’t put a link towards it in this article - EL]. While the agent will fortunately live to tell the tale, his right arm was so badly hurt that it had to be largely amputated.

Uninformed readers might perhaps think that the agent had acted like one of those testosteron-laden, overly aggressive ‘coppers’ that they know from ‘reality-series’ like C.O.P.S, but that is by all means not the modus operandi of Dutch police agents. In general, the Dutch police agents are the friendliest, calmest and politest police agents that one could encounter: always looking for a dialogue first with traffic violators and (petty) crime suspects and extremely restrained in their usage of power and (lethal) force.

While people always have the unintentional habit of  softening up their past – so do I undoubtedly – I can still hardly remember individuals and small groups having used so much brutal and murderous violence against police agents and other officials in function, as sometimes happens nowadays.

Only in the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, I can recall longer periods of intense, mindless aggression against officials; for instance when squatters and football hooligans used very brutal violence against police agents, in respectively their “struggle for housing freedom” or their battles for the sake of their football club. However, those were often more or less “organized” battles between such groups and the police and hardly on-the-spot actions of individuals or very small groups of unorganized people.

Unfortunately, I did not manage to find long-term statistics about the subject of violence against government officials (for instance 50 year data), and ‘hunches’ and emotional feelings are notoriously unreliable sources of information. The following chart with data over the last three years paints a picture of slightly rising violence against officials, of which I truly can’t say that the level is strongly elevated, in comparison with ten years ago.

The number of  incidents against government officials
Picture courtesy of: De Correspondent.
Click to enlarge
Nevertheless, I would be surprised when the level would NOT be elevated, in comparison with f.i. 1995 or 2005. Can I be wrong? I can be wrong!

Too often since the great economic crisis started in 2008, police agents, traffic controllers and ambulance staff have turned into targets for overly aggressive people, who use these civil servants to vent their excessive frustrations upon.

Woe to the traffic controller or police agent, who stands in the way of the frustrated businessman in his German luxury car, the testosteron-laden youngster or the delayed truck driver on his way to an angry customer. He can become the target of a murderous attack, without even noticing it.

And that is not all...

Next to these outbursts of on-the-spot violence by individuals, the unhealthy nationalism as well as the anger against moderate politicians, other countries and the whole European Union seem still very much on the rise.

Although among professional politicians the political debate about the soaring influx of refugees is mostly held on a quite civilized level – especially when you leave the parties at the outer rims of the political spectrum out of the equasion –  this is definitely not true in other parts of society.

The expressions of disapproval, contempt and even utter indifference,  straightforward rejection or disgust about these refugees are very widespread: in the open spaces (f.i. swastikas and utterly insulting punchlines on walls of refuge centres), as well as among writers on public, online news media forums.

The opinions of many respondents to these forums are so injured, bleak and gloomy, that such respondents are nowadays known as `reaguurders’. A bad translation of this untranslatable, Dutch expression would be “bleakspondents”. And that is only in The Netherlands: one of the most tranquil, safe, wealthy and peace-loving countries in the world. Everybody who has followed the discussions and events in some East-European countries, like Hungary for instance, knows that things can be far worse overthere.

In only 10-12 years, the open, globalized and optimistical society of the end of last century has been replaced for a closed, regionalized, gloomy and introverted society. A society in which refugees are discarded like human trash by many people and in which the European Union is seen as a burden for the development of the own country or region, instead of the stabilizing and hope-bringing institution that is traditionally has been.

Extremist politicians speak with such disdain about other people and countries that one sometimes feels back in the 1930’s, while one popular pop-star cries ‘wolf’ about the – still very moderate – flow of refugees that reached Dutch shores. Populists and demagogues rule and the moderate opinion is discarded as weak and dishonest.

And on top of that, there is the suffocating influence of intolerant believers from various religions: people who judge others from their own misplaced feelings of superiority (or is it inferiority) and threaten them with fire and brimstone or, even worse, with death... Sometimes this desire is even turned into reality.

While at one hand the churches and other religious buildings run more and more vacant, the claim for power and influence –  and especially the power to judge others – of the intolerant believers is mounting to untolerable levels. Most of these people seem to long for a ‘fata morganish’ situation that has never existed in reality: their private Utopia of homogenous groups of strong, undoubting believers without adversaries and without people that just don’t buy their kind of religion. Tolerance for people with other habits and opinions is out, while ‘live and let die’ seems in fashion.

And then I always wonder: how can a depression-like crisis be over, when so many people world-wide still seem to suffer from a depression?! When there is so much distrust in society?! So little trust in our politicians and our most sacred institutions... And most important: in ourselves!

Why do governments think that almost the whole world population should be tracked and traced on the internet?! Why is The Netherlands the country with arguably the most phone and internet taps in the world, when it is also such a tranquil and peaceful country?! Why do representatives of the Dutch government make 3 billion(!!!) license plate scans per year, when the whole Dutch population is about 8 million cars (plus incoming tourists)?

What did I do wrong that my government is allegedly treating me like a suspect of hideous crimes, by tracking everything that I do and say?! These days that same government is boasting about having solved the economic crisis with their policy of mindless austerity, as well as kicking the can down the road at most national and supranational occasions. And it is bragging that we should start to spend again, as the crisis is over now.

Is it then too much to ask from my government that they simply start to trust me again?! And my fellow citizens,  of which probably around 99,99% are decent, honest and hardworking citizens? Or people that don’t have a job, but are just as honest and decent anyway?! Almost nobody of these people deserves to land in the enormous dragnet of the evermore curious and distrustful government, but yet, they do. 

And so the economic crisis might be over in The Netherlands and abroad, but the crisis in our heads certainly isn’t!

Update 5 October 2015: 

This morning I learned that the truck driver mentioned in the first paragraphs of this article had not hit the motor agent on purpose

According to the district attorney in charge, it had been proven by footage from dashboard cameras of other drivers that the incident happened unintentionally and thus indeed by accident. Although this does not change anything about the gravity of the accident and the grave consequences of it for the agent himself, it felt like a relief for me personally to learn this.

Of course, this means that my paragraphs about aggression against government officials and traffic regulators do NOT apply to this particular accident. As far as that is concerned, I am sorry for stating such in the opening lines of my article.

Yet, this does not change much about the tenor of my article, which dealt with the mood in The Netherlands being still well below par in many, many ways.