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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

While the chairman of the Dutch National Bank DNB pleads for a substantial raise in wages for the middle class and lower class workers, the employers remain focused on wage restraint.

A few weeks ago, there was a plea for higher wages from an unlikely, and therefore quite unsuspicious source:  chairman Klaas Knot of De Nederlandsche Bank (i.e. the Dutch  national bank).

While Knot’s political position is usually firmly based at the liberal-conservative side of the political spectrum, his plea for higher wages was heartfelt and ought to be taken serious, in my humble opinion.

Knot argued that the Dutch lower and middle class suffered from the circumstance that their average wages had been on a virtual stand-still since the start of the economic crisis in 2008, while their average expenses had soared since that date. This was due to the increase of taxes, (social) housing rent rates and general costs of living. The consequences for the general purchase power among these classes were predictable: it dropped!

This trend was confirmed through Mathijs Bouman’s column in Het Financieele Dagblad, about which I already reported yesterday:

In the meantime, the gross domestic product (GDP) [in The Netherlands – EL] has increased to levels slightly higher than before the crisis started. However, due to the population growth that took place in these eight crisis years, this is not true for the GDP per capita.

Consumer expenditure has been lagging since 2008. There was no 11% growth for private consumption in those eight years, but in fact a 2% decline between 2008Q1 and 2016Q1.

This had devastating consequences for many Small and Medium Enterprises in the Netherlands and especially for the retail industry: the ‘middle of the road’, store chains like V&D, C&A, Blokker, D&A and Hema, as well as the traditional, small 'mom & pop' stores, all went through rough times.

While this policy of wage restraint was more or less defensible during the tough first years of the crisis – roughly from 2009 until 2014 – it has not stopped since, in spite of the fact that the large employers already enjoy very good sales results and king sized profits.

Yesterday, I created a chart using the data from Statline, the online database of the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics. This chart was based upon the development of collective wages between 2008 and 2016, versus the indexed price level during the same time frame. The results were quite surprising for me:

The Harmonized Price Index, vs the
average collective labour income index
Chart by: Ernst's Economy for You
Data courtesy of:
Click to enlarge
During the timeframe from 2011 until roughly 2015, the rise of the harmonized price level exceeded the lackluster increases of the collective labour income, meaning that the general public in The Netherlands was in fact losing purchase power.

The surprising thing is, however, that – probably under influence of the dropping energy prices and the general deflatory forces within Europe, as well as the cautious rises of labour income since early 2016 – the harmonized price index and the labour income index are roughly at the same level now.

This does not mean at all that the purchase power has actually improved since 2008, but that it at least has not deteriorated since that year.

Nevertheless, the mindset of many people is still crisis-like and they will probably remain very cautious with spending their hard-earnt money, unless some dramatical happens with their purchase power. This is a message that Klaas Knot understands very well. Also to these eyes only a drastical improvement of the general purchase power for the middle and lower classes could solve this depression-like crisis, that has been lingering for more than seven years in a row.

Just like so many other countries in the world, The Netherlands has become a country of two speeds: the high velocity is represented by the large companies and multinationals, and also by the wealthiest people in the Dutch society. These parties all enjoyed massive profits and a dramatic rise of their income and they all have very good prospects in the next few years to come.

The lower and middle classes, including many small and medium enterprise companies and retail companies, represent the low velocity in Dutch society, as they still seem to suffer from the financial, as well as the psychological consequences of the crisis which does not seem to have ended yet.

Not only the income of many lower and middle class members has been on a virtual standstill since the start of the crisis; the certainty of receiving an monthly income at all has diminished dramatically too.

Especially countless youngsters do not have the luxury of getting a fixed contract against a decent salary, when applying for a job. Instead they are often forced to lead an uncertain life, while meandering from one temporary contract to another zero hour contract. Or they are only offered trainee jobs against a token salary, which they accept, hoping that they will be “promoted” to a fixed contract at the end of their traineeship.

This week it was in the news (BNR News Radio – in Dutch) that no less than 25% of all workers in The Netherland works on a flexible contract in 2016 and that 80% of these people (i.e. 1.3 million Dutch workers) is actually a ‘flexworker’ against his/her will.

And while jobless workers, slightly above fifty years of age, still have at least 15 years of working ahead in theory, there are unfortunately not so many companies who want to take the “risk” of hiring these older workers, for various reasons. A lot of these people will stay unemployed for a long time for exactly this reason.

On top of that there is also the growing army of (sometimes involuntary) freelance workers (i.e. ZZP’ers in Dutch), whose horizon of income certainty  lasts as long as their current contract does.

Therefore I was very pleased to hear this plea from particularly Klaas Knot as chairman of the Dutch national bank an influential, non-political figure  hoping that both politics and large employers would see his statement as a serious signal for change in the remuneration of their employees, as well as in the way that large companies employ their workers. That change should be in favour of more fixed contracts and less freelance contracts, flexible employment and zero hour-contracts.

Unfortunately, the employers’ organizations have managed to misunderstand this important signal by Klaas Knot. Their argumentation was again akin to the fixed mantra that has been used over and over again since the economic crisis started:

Higher wages have a negative influence on the competitive power of The Netherlands, as it makes Dutch products and agricultural produce more expensive. This hampers the Dutch export capabilities and is therefore bad for employment. Such a dramatical wage increase should therefore not be demanded by the labour unions or by Klaas Knot, as a matter of fact!

The diminished purchase power of the Dutch middle classes is all the fault of the income and wage taxes and thus the fault of Dutch politics: not the fault of the large employers in The Netherlands.

It is the same ol’, same ol’ as always and the perfect argument to kill every discussion about higher wages and remuneration for the Dutch workers and middle class representatives.

The following snippets come from Het Financieele Dagblad:

The plea of DNB to stronger increase the wages is ‘nonsense’, according to managing director Cees Oudshoorn of employers’ organization VNO-NCW. “Higher wages are just a recipe for higher unemployment”, he warns. “There is no underpayment in The Netherlands”.

VNO-NCW rejects this conclusion of DNB. According to Oudshoorn it is not right that the real wages have lagged. “If you want to judge the pace of the wage development, you have to compare it with the development of labour productivity”, he states. “The development of those two figures is remarkably similar.

The corporate lobby recognizes the fact that the purchase power has lagged in The Netherlands, but blames this on the excess difference between the wage expenses for the employer and the net wages for the employee. “That this wedge has developed over time is devastating for purchase power”, according to Oudhoorn. “Tax redemption is the only way, but that is in the hands of politics”.
According to labour federation FNV it is about time that the wages are increased drastically. “Employers and large principals have now much more room to increase wages and hourly rates for professionals”, according to Gijs van Dijk, vice-chairman of FNV. “Especially the underpayment of “ZZP’ers” (i.e.  freelance professionals) must stop.

It is now much too easy for employers to profit from the fiscal benefits that ZZP’ers currently enjoy, while hiring them, instead of contracting workers on a fixed contract.

“The fiscal benefits [of ZZP’ers - EL] are now used by employers as leverage in order to force their hourly rates down and that is a violation of the purpose of their fiscal advantage”, according to Van Dijk. “Hence, this way it becomes a subsidy on wages and in fact state support”.

VNO-NCW actually resists against the equalization of freelancers and normal employers. “The increase of the number of freelance professionals makes sense, when we look at the high wage expenses and inflexible labour contracts”, according to Oudshoorn. “When they make the rules for hiring freelance professionals just as rigid, as in case of normal workers, the government only creates more unemployment.”

According to the labour unions, it is indefensible that especially large corporations enjoyed soaring profits, but that professionals hardly profited from this development. According to the investigation of DNB, the shareholders did see their yields increase strongly over the last decade. At the same time, the government decreased the taxes on corporate profits, while workers paid more and more taxes.

Cees Oudshoorn is actually right with his remarks about the Dutch labour productivity, as the following chart shows. In this chart the average labour income is compared with the labour productivity [unfortunately, CBS did not have more recent data than 2014 available, so I extrapolated that at the same level through 2016 – EL]. 

The labour productivity index, vs the
average collective labour income index
Chart by: Ernst's Economy for You
Data courtesy of:
Click to enlarge
The question is: who is to blame for that?!

Especially the drop in labour productivity in 2009 is caused by the fact, that employers wanted to keep their workers under contract, in spite of the mounting crisis in those days. When a company has lower production figures to meet with an equal amount of people, every worker has to produce lower numbers in average. This has definitely a negative influence on labrou productivity. 

In those days, the government partly subsidized these excess workers by creating the so-called “part-time unemployment benefit”. This is what I wrote about it in 2011:

Especially the [manufacturing industry – EL] will (in my opinion) suffer from the fact that the part-time unemployment benefit, which was established in 2009, prevented companies from reducing overcapacity in numbers of jobs and production facilities. As a consequence of this special government subsidy, companies kept people under contract that otherwise would have been dismissed. How noble that may seem initially, it makes companies less competitive. Especially now a new crisis is looming, due to the continuing problems in the Euro zone.

In the years afterwards, the labour productivity improved somewhat, but not dramatically. It is easy to blame the workers in The Netherlands for that “lackluster” performance, but it is defensible as well to look at the employers themselves.

As the wages for fixed and flexible workers were restrained or even reduced during the crisis years, as well as the remuneration for ZZP’ers (i.e. freelancers), there were fewer incentives for employers to improve their labour productivity.

The ample availability of inexpensive, go-getting flexworkers and freelancers from inside and outside the European Union made the need for improved labour productivity diminish. People were relatively cheap, so a company could hire a few more quite easily without paying a whole lot of money, instead of trying to improve their labour productivity.

I also do agree with Cees Oudshoorn that the wedge between gross and net salary for many workers is quite high in The Netherlands (in some cases too high). 

However, that is the unfortunate price that our country has to pay for the fact that a large number of citizens and large companies has become very cunning in avoiding taxes through the usage of fiscal constructsWhen the need for tax money at central and local governments stays equal, but the number of tax payers diminishes, every tax payer and tax paying institution has to pay more tax money in any which way possible. The large employers know that all too well, just like Joe Sixpack does, as he feels it in his wallet.

Nevertheless, as long as the large corporations and the wealthy citizens, who live from their investments and dividends, refuse to pay more taxes on their annual income, the tax wedge for workers will remain substantial.

Personally, I think that the large employers and the government should lower their resistance against substantial wage increases for the lower and middle classes, as this would be very good for the Dutch economy as a whole. In that respect I fullheartedly agree with Klaas Knot and I fully endorse his message.

Instead the government and large companies should think about ways to increase their (labour) productivity and to lift their innovative powers, so that the competition on price with bulky export goods, agricultural produce and distribution could finally become a thing of the past.

I rather call The Netherlands “the land of innovation” than “the land of exports”!

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Are Dutch consumers disbanding their own floriculturists, by settling for cheaper Kenyan produce alone?!

Globalization can hurt sometimes and it can seem very unfair indeed...

A few days ago I was buying flowers for my beloved wife Olga. She was having her birthday that day and we were also celebrating our 12th wedding anniversary AND mother’s day earlier that week. So, it was the right time to indulge her with a really beautiful bouquet of the best roses that money can buy!

One of the perks of living in my city Almere is that one can buy the freshest, most exclusive and most beautiful roses, ‘straight from the motherlode’; in other words, from the floriculturists who grow these flowers in their massive greenhouses at the edge of our city.

For many floriculturists, having a small flower shop within their greenhouse is a welcome way to earn a few extra bucks, as times for such floriculturists are still very hard indeed. 

In the early weeks of this year, I already wrote an article about the sad demise of floriculturist Termeulen Roses in Almere:

Yesterday I learned from my beloved wife Olga that Termeulen Roses in Almere Buiten and a few other horticultural companies in my city had defaulted during 2015. This was very sad news for me.

Especially Termeulen Roses was one of those companies that make a person proud of his city. The enormous greenhouses of this one-man business, vibrant of life and with sizes as large as football fields,  were filled to the brim with beautiful, growing roses in all colours of the rainbow. And visitors were welcomed with the delicate fragrances, spread by the different sorts of roses that Termeulen produced. This all made the greenhouse such an inspirational environment.

The roses and plants in the greenhouses were litterally humming from the insects that acted as natural fertilizers (bees and bumblebees) or as environmentally friendly parasite exterminators (a.o. lady bugs), while the greenhouses themselves – in spite of their enormous energy consumption especially during  night – acted as huge energy cells, returning loads of excess energy to the energy grid.

The entrance part of the greenhouse complex was a sheer jungle of stainless steel, as a complex of assembly lines, rail systems, gathering machines, bundling machines and packaging machines turned the freshly cut roses into wrapped rose bouquets within minutes. After being packaged, the roses were sent to the cold store, in order to wait for the beginning of their – sometimes long – journey to someone’s house or office, as the ultimate token of appreciation and love.

For me this company – and a few other horticultural companies in the same area as well – was the place to be when I wanted to buy the best and most beautiful roses for my wife and for other people, who deserved a special attention.

This week, I visited Stricker Rozen in Almere: a renowned grower of absolutely stunning roses and – together with the aforementioned Termeulen Roses who sadly defaulted in the beginning of this year – traditionally one of my skyhigh favorites for buying a nice bouquet, because of the impeccable quality and long-lasting beauty of their produce.

A stunning bouquet of roses, delivered by Stricker Rozen, Almere
Picture by: Ernst Labruyère
Click to enjoy!
Yet again, Stricker amazed me with a mindblowing new kind of roses that he developed and produced exclusively in his greenhouse: an exquisite flower that was based upon years of ennoblement and hard work.

I could not help asking Remco Stricker  the current owner of family business Stricker Rozen who had replaced his father Jan as main entrepreneur  how he managed to get their company through the crisis? This in the light of Termeulen’s default and that of some of his other competitors in Almere.

His answer surprised me slightly, as I expected him to complain about disappointing exports and the boycott of the EU against Russia and vice versa:

Stricker: “We have survived until now and we still manage to survive. Yet, times are very hard for us indeed. Of course, this boycott with Russia is a drag, but it is not our biggest problem. Actually, the exports of our flowers is the cork on which our company floats.

No, our biggest concern is the fact that the Dutch people themselves do not want to purchase Dutch flowers anymore. They settle for roses from Kenia, as these are much cheaper, because of the much, much lower labour expenses and the circumstance that labour regulations and other conditions are much looser than in The Netherlands.”

Ernst: “I thought it were only the supermarkets and large retailers of cheap flowers (i.e. mostly petrol stations), which bought the Kenian ‘stuff’ and not the specialized flower shops?!”

Stricker: “Oh no, everybody in The Netherlands is now settling for Kenyan roses! Supermarkets... Large retailers... But also the specialized flowershops. Our roses are now mainly produced for exports!”

This answer baffled me... 

Especially roses are a product built upon emotion. A product that people buy with their hearts and not only with their brains and wallets. A product of which the scent and the sheer beauty alone have to seduce people into buying.

Personally, I have very little to hold against Kenyan roses, but I thought that they were the kind of “mass-produced, slightly dull and somewhat ordinary stuff” that only cheapskates buy to indulge their wives, girlfriends or secretaries: not because they are very beautiful, but because they are 'good enough', cheap and amply available. Or the hurried customer, who does not have time to go to a specialized flower shop, but settles for a cheap, mass-produced bouquet from the gas station or the supermarket instead.

The sad truth is, however, that – probably without knowing / realizing it virtually everybody buys Kenyan roses in The Netherlands. The Dutch produce is exported to “greener pastures”, where people DO want to spend serious money, in exchange for having the best quality of roses. The Dutch settle for less, obviously.

Yet, I do understand this.

Myself, I almost always go straight to these floriculturists nowadays to buy flowers, as they are residing in my home town at only a few kilometers from my home. On top of that, they sell the best and longest lasting flowers in the business. 

But also before I discovered these growers in Almere, I often settled for the convenience of supermarket and petrol station; especially for their extended opening hours in the evening and on Sundays. Consequently, I seldomly visit(ed) a specialized flowershop anymore, to be honest. When I did once, on Valentine’s day a few years ago, I was unpleasantly surprised by the substantial price per flower: a price to which I was not used anymore.

Besides that, especially this category of retailers is struck very hard by the enduring economic crisis, as flowers – and especially the more expensive ones from a specialized flowershop – are merely a luxury good that people skip easily, when they can’t miss the money for it.

One should realize that the current consumer expenditure in The Netherlands is still lying below(!) the level of consumer spending as measured in early 2008, months before the crisis started. This is what economist and journalist Mathijs Bouman stated in his weekly column about the Dutch economy in Het Financieele Dagblad:

In the meantime, the gross domestic product (GDP) [in The Netherlands – EL] has increased to levels slightly higher than before the crisis started. However, due to the population growth that took place in these eight crisis years, this is not true for the GDP per capita.

Consumer expenditure has been lagging since 2008. There was no 11% growth for private consumption in those eight years, but in fact a 2% decline between 2008Q1 and 2016Q1.

This is the sad truth for flower sales and flower cultivation in The Netherlands. 

Specialized flower shops are losing business, due to the fact that:

a. their customers settle for the convenience and lower sales prices of supermarkets and petrol stations with their inexpensive, Kenyan roses and

b. their private customers in general have much less money to spend on flowers in 2016 than they had in 2008. This is the consequence of an income that stayed almost equal during this whole timeframe, while the tax expenses are much higher now than eight years ago.

In order to compete with the large retailers and supermarkets, these flowershops themselves apparently have to settle for Kenyan roses nowadays, as these are still much more inexpensive than Dutch roses, in spite of the costs of air transport covering thousands of kilometers.

And so the Dutch involuntary help to disband their own floriculturists, by not buying their more expensive flowers, but settling for cheaper ones from abroad. 

The most beautiful roses in the world, in my not so humble opinion, are mostly sent to other people than the Dutch, who grow them but don’t see them bloom anymore.  This is the bitter taste of globalization going slightly awry.

Still, once you have looked at the sheer beauty and impeccable quality of Dutch roses, why would you settle for less?! I'm certain I will not do that anymore...

The new variety of roses by Stricker Rozen, Almere
Picture by: Ernst Labruyère
Click to enjoy!
And you go see for yourself by looking at this picture: did you ever see more beautiful flowers? Well, did you?!

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The unpleasant side of corporatism: “Everything is for sale and nothing is for free anymore”

Yesterday, I went with my wife and three children to the centre of my city Almere, by bike. The weather was fantastic and so were the moods.  We all love to bicycle and when the winds are low and the temperature is high, nothing can beat riding one’s bike.

Even though all our children had visited a toilet before leaving home, two had to go to the toilet again, once we had reached the city centre.

While you might expect a story about dirty and smelly public lavatories, that one only uses when really, really necessary, it will be the total opposite. We visited a small shop and for the price of €0,70 per capita, my two children could visit a clean and pleasantly smelling lavatory in the centre of the city, sponsored by Witte Reus (i.e. an inexpensive A-label detergent, fabricated by German cleaning behemoth Henkel).

And when you look carefully, you might notice that many more of such specialized lavatory shops have appeared in the centres of cities and small towns in The Netherlands and beyond, of which “2-the-loo” is probably the most famous one. This shopping chain aimes at turning a public toilet-visit into a ‘bathroom extravaganza experience’, including multiple kinds of bathroom soap, soft fabric towels and bathroom perfume and deodorizer (all for sale in these shops).

While such lavatory shops might seem a blessing in disguise for people in desperate need (hence: a clean and pleasant, public toilet in the city centre), the idea gives me nevertheless an itchy feeling.

Now I had to pay €1,40 for two children and that in a time, in which cash money is becoming more and more a thing of the past. If I wouldn’t have had this money at hand, my children could perhaps not have gone to the toilet at all.

And why did this large brand of washing detergent ‘Witte Reus’ sponsor this public lavatory?! Did Henkel not sell enough washing power anymore? Or was this the brilliant idea of the new marketing director, who thought that “differentiation was the key for success in the dog-eat-dog, Dutch cleaning landscape”?! Who will know?!

And the most itchy question: should offering and maintaining a quite clean, public toilet for ladies and gentlemen in the city centres not be a public task (i.e. a task for the local municipality)? And should public toilets not be accessible for free, as urinating against buildings, city trees and in small tunnels is forbidden and can be penalized with roughly €40, not even to mention the fact that it is virtually impossible for women?!

In retrospect, citizens of Dutch cities pay a substantial amount of money in taxes to their municipalities and provinces. In exchange, offering a good and complete community infrastructure is one of the major tasks, that should be achieved with this tax money. Free accessible, safe and quite clean, public toilets ought to be part of this city infrastructure and should – in my humble opinion – not be left to commercial companies and shop-owners, who need to make a living from this activity.

And one more thing: under the relentless pressure of their spoilt, profit-hungry shareholders, the large corporations and large store chains try to get an ever-larger influence on our daily lives, at the expense of small, independent shops and restaurants and also of free public services.

Not only the ‘Witte Reus’-sponsored lavatory is an example of this increasing influence.

Think about all sponsored TV-programs or all TV-channels, owned by large corporations... And think about the genuine carpet bombing of commercials  that especially our children have to endure: not only around the children’s holidays, like ‘Sinterklaas” (i.e. Dutch Santa Clause), Easter and Christmas, but every day. This carpet bombing happens on the Dutch national children’s TV-channel and even more on the commercial channels, like Disney, Jetix and Nickelodeon.

Children are small, but influential consumers – through their parents’ wallets – that allegedly need to be mesmerized by the tinsel of the big corporations.

This commercial carpet bombardment makes my children think – especially my oldest son is very vulnerable for the message of the big corporations – that Lipton Icetea is much better than homemade icetea. And that Fanta is much tastier than house brand orange soda, which sells at less than half the price. Or that life without Lego, Play-Doh, Star Wars action puppets and the latest digital gadgets from China, is useless.

Where in the past the simple title ‘sausage roll’ sufficed for a breadroll with smoked sausage, sold at cafeteria’s and in amusement parks, this is nowadays called a “Unox” Breadroll, after the biggest Dutch brand of canned and processed meat owned by Unilever. And its sauce – probably a simple mixture of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup – is now sold separately as Unox Breadroll sauce.

This is the result of the fact that Unilever took over / endorsed large parts of the snack sales in large amusement parks and on public fairs. Independent snack sellers, with often excellent, artisanal quality chips (i.e. French fries), hamburgers and smoked sausages, are in fact expelled by the financial power and supply chain of the large corporations.

Philips (household appliances) worked together with Douwe Egberts (coffee), Nestlé works together with Krups (Nespresso coffee) and McDonalds works together with Mars and Unilever, on behalf of its icecream products, as one big, corporate, happy family.

Teenagers in this century might wonder how their parents ever drank coffee without having a Starbucks shop around and ate chips, sausage and hamburgers without McDonalds and Burger King in the neighbourhood. And last, but not least: what did their parents do without “free” online games and endless amounts of videos on the broadband internet? “Were you not bored to death, without all these possibilities?!”

A few weeks ago, I was having a reunion with a few friends and neighbours from the old neighbourhood where I grew up in my youth (see picture). While musing about the past and our childhood, we noted that we hardly spent time IN house in those years in the Seventies and early Eighties. There were no home computers yet, there was no daytime children’s television and no internet.

Reunion of old friends, living in Castricum
Picture courtesy of: De Zeehelden
Click to enlarged
So when you read all your books and didn’t want to go to the library again, you had to spend your time playing outside: playing football, street tennis, ‘kerbstoning’ (i.e. a Dutch game of throwing a football against the kerbstones of the street), shooting marbles, blowing paper arrows with pvc tubes and doing all kinds of gymnastic tricks with some spare clothes’ elastic of your mum. Or perhaps with doing some monkey business and (very) small mischief.

With the risk of being slightly nostalgic, life in those days was not bad at all and it was especially not so in the grasp of the large multinationals and corporations, like nowadays.

There were already large brands like Philips, Mars, Coca Cola, Unilever, Sony, Adidas and Puma, but these brands did just what they had to do and were not so forcefully incorporated in the hearts and minds of the people yet.

In those days Unox still made canned soup, canned meat and smoked sausages alone, Witte Reus produced relatively cheap detergent (and nothing more), Philips and Sony made televisions and radios, while Adidas and Puma made sports clothes and shoewear for about every sport there was, without making a fuzz about it.

Sports stars were not yet the living mannequins-with-technical-hairdo’s, that they are now today, advertising football shoes and sports clothes in every colour of the rainbow. And most American food, beverage and coffee chains were still a thing of the future in The Netherlands and beyond, without ever giving us the idea that we really missed something.

In those days, private shareholders were either old ladies with a nest egg or rentiers and retirees, who were happy and pleased with every dividend payment, without spurring the management for 20+% annual growth rates.

And urinating in public places? As a women, one could either go to a public loo, where it smelled like hell, or to a small café or pub, with the obligation to order something. And a man could always find a thick tree to candidly do his thing, as the police did not care so much about peeing in public in those days. It was not as nice and clean as today, but it was mostly free. 

Perhaps the current days offer more possibilities, but those days seemed to offer more really free choice, as a matter of fact, as the commercialization, “corporization” and “chainization” of The Netherlands did not go so far yet.