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Friday, 27 October 2017

Will Xi Jinping become the new Mao Zedong? And how worrisome is that for the rest of the world and especially Taiwan?

When you look at the face of Chinese President and Chairman of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, you don’t see the face of a potentate or a powerhungry epicure, in my humble opinion. It is rather the face of a friendly, somewhat shy and restrained, but nevertheless smart uncle, who knows a lot about life.

Yet, this man is responsible for arguably the greatest political revolution in recent Chinese history, since the days of legendary leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong. And also for the most aggressive Chinese foreign policy since decades.

In his recent speech as Chairman of the Communist Party, in the eve of his second term as Chinese President, President Xi has officially made his grand visions on the development of China part of the official lecture of this Communist Party. And that was something that no Chinese Chairman/President ever managed during life, since Chairman Mao. Not even Chairman Deng Xiaoping did that. Het Financieele Dagblad wrote the following snippets about this extraordinary event:

With a formerly unheard of anti-corruption campaign, Xi got rid of the culture of bribery and self-enrichment within the [Communist] Party. He also managed to get his opponents out of the way. Xi, who has shown himself as a strong advocate of free trade this year, has used his first five year stint as Chairman to get everybody on the same page again within the party. A strong party also offers him the chance to let China shine again on the global theatre.

Last week, Xi’s visions were recorded in the constitution of the party; an honour that was only granted to Mao during his government. Also his Silk Route initiative and his 'Theory of Reforms at the Supply Side' are now official part of the foundations of the party. And now that a large share of the seats in the 25-headed Politbureau is filled with confidants from the so-called ‘Zhejiang faction’, nothing stands in Xi’s way anymore to shape the future of the country to his image.

Xi Jinping, as a guardian of free trade. Will that be good news for the rest of the world?

Not per sé, when we have closely followed the events surrounding the Spratly Islands, quite recently occupied and confiscated by China, based upon the notion “that China has the biggest navy in the region and can kick anybody’s *ss at will”.

And we must also not forget the increasingly shrill tone-of-voice that China utters in the direction of Taiwan, the “renegade province”, eternally belonging to the Chinese motherland in China’s vision. Taiwan is also a very good example of China’s recently refound self-confidence and increasingly ‘assertive’ behaviour against the rest of the (Western) world.

Already for years now is China building upon their network of ‘vassal states’ in Africa, Latin America and even Europe (Greece!), via their (in)famous soft power and influence. With gifts in the form of ‘beads and mirrors’ for the local rulers, new roads and infrastructure (mostly in favour of China's mining companies and traders itself) and engineering and agricultural knowledge (again mostly to the advantage of China), they have put those local rulers in their debt. 

Through these vassal states and trading partners, the Chinese powers-that-be secured their own country of food, other agricultural produce and invaluable raw materials for their huge domestic “production apparatus”, that must keep on running to keep potential domestic unrest under control.

Even the most developed and civilized countries, like The Netherlands, fall for the tinsel that China has to offer. In the Dutch case this Chinese tinsel was formed by two giant pandas, that could be rented for a limited period of time and after meeting numerous constraints and (financial) conditions [i.e. link points to a Dutch-spoken documentary about the Dutch-Chinese Panda Lobby- EL].

Even though this black-and-white coloured ‘favour’ was disguised as a gift to celebrate the good mutual relations between China and The Netherlands, it is probably used as a bait to reel the Dutch hearts and minds in. We are your friend with great power and might. Don’t talk with us boldly and don’t criticize us for our human rights, or else we take your toy away...

One reason why especially the local rulers in Africa and Latin America love China so much, is that the country does not interfere in local politics. It does not lecture them about human rights, widespread corruption, violence and intimidation around elections or about excessive differences between the poor and the rich and other utterly annoying stuff for these rulers. 

You simply supply the goods and raw materials that we want and you let us lay down the infrastructure that we need to ship everything out. And you don't ask any hard question. We supply then the money, infrastructure and weapons that you want and need. That’s the whole deal...”. This seems to be China’s vision on foreign politics. 

And this works both ways: China loves doing business with these “dubious” regimes, because they don’t ask any questions about the very limited and even diminishing personal freedom in China or about the hampered human rights situation. 
This in contrary to Western governments and NGO’s, that constantly bang the drum about the human rights in many African and Latin American countries, but also about the human rights situation in China itself, with respect to the own population and also Tibet. 

In case of the Chinese visit to the United Kingdom in 2015, this 'blahblah' about freedom for the Tibetans and human rights almost led to a diplomatic ‘situation’, when Prince Charles refused to visit the official state banquet, offered by the Queen to honour the Chinese President Xi Jinping and his entourage. Such incidents could lead to loss of face for the Chinese leaders and must be avoided at all cost.

So both China and their vassal states in Latin America and Africa are probably very satisfied about the current diplomatic and political situation between them. However, what the rulers of these states might forget, is that China operates with solely one purpose in mind: China’s wellbeing, economic growth and secured future, via a leading role in the world. China has a long term vision in mind, in which China and China only prevails. All else is of less importance.

The soft way or the hard way, China always gets what it wants. 

And China still do so from the position of ‘a benevolent, but misunderstood underdog with a good heart, but with a lot of enemies in the world’. In their own vision, China has a good heart, but the bad people in the rest of the (Western) world constantly force this ‘sleeping giant’ to defend itself in any which way.

The Financial Times wrotes the following upon Xi’s and China’s foreign policy for the imminent future:

Winning “hearts and minds” at home and abroad through United Front [the official Chinese organization charged with the execution of China’s foreign policy] work is crucial to realising the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”, Mr Xi has said. Yet the type of power exercised by the cadres who work behind the neoclassical façade of 135 Fuyou Street is often anything but soft.

A teaching manual for [United Front’s] cadres, obtained by the Financial Times, sets out at length and in detail the organisation’s global mission in language that is intended both to beguile and intimidate.

It exhorts cadres to be gracious and inclusive as they try to “unite all forces that can be united” around the world. But it also instructs them to be ruthless by building an “iron Great Wall” against “enemy forces abroad” who are intent on splitting China’s territory or hobbling its development.

“Enemy forces abroad do not want to see China rise and many of them see our country as a potential threat and rival, so they use a thousand ploys and a hundred strategies to frustrate and repress us,” according to the book, titled the “China United Front Course Book”.

Merriden Varrall, director at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank, says that under Mr Xi there has been a distinct toughening in China’s soft power focus. The former emphasis on reassuring others that China’s rise will be peaceful is giving way to a more forceful line. “There has been a definite shift in emphasis since Xi Jinping took over,” says Ms Varrall. “There is still a sense that reassuring others is important, but there is also a sense that China must dictate how it’s perceived and that the world is biased against China.”

The red and bold text says it all: “Reassuring others about China peaceful politics is still important, but not so important anymore. Most important is now that we get what we want and that other (non-Western) countries buy our story about good China versus the bad and hostile Western world”.

This new, more aggressive and slightly envious and frustrated foreign policy stands not on its own these days. 

To the contrary: it fits very well in the current, disturbing trend of the ‘political roosters’, that are nowadays leading the world’s largest and most influential nations. Leaders that seem to operate from an alleged inferiority complex within themselves or their country and don’t tolerate opposition from domestic sources, as well from abroad.

President Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillippines, Recep Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia are just a few textbook examples of such political roosters, just like 'spiritual leader' Lech Kaczynski of Poland, and President Viktor Órban of Hungary. 

President Xi Jinping, in spite of his soft, slightly aloof and shy appearance, has just become one of these roosters too. And the rest of the world will know this very soon...

What could be the consequences of this new Chinese policy for the rest of the world? I expect not only stronger bonds between China and its vassal states, but also between China and the aforementioned, like-minded leaders at the periphery of the Western world.

President Duterte of the Phillippines, President Erdoğan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia are among the leaders, with whom I expect China to want a stronger connection, just as with the leadership of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran and (perhaps also) Syria. 

Those are countries with (allegedly) a strong bias against the Western world and with the oil, gas or other raw materials that China needs. And very important: with the political influence in their region that makes them potentially important strongholds for China.

And in Europe I expect the same to happen with Greece, Hungary, Poland, the United Kingdom (i.e. in spite of ‘Charlesgate’) and perhaps even Spain and Ukraine. Those are all countries that have their ‘issues’ with the European Union, due to the domestic political situation or due to their exit from the EU, in case of the UK. There is nothing wrong with a good handshake, when this hand is filled with a fistful of dollars or yuans.

At the other side of the spectrum there are the countries that dare to oppose to China’s will and political ambitions. Taiwan, the United States (the Spratly Islands(!)), North Korea and Vietnam are all among the countries that could have to deal with China’s increased self-confidence and pizzaz soon.

Especially, when they refuse the Chinese need for ‘Lebensraum’ (i.e. the contaminated German word from the Second World War for ‘living space’) and unification of the mother land, with respect to Taiwan. Or when they don't listen to China closely enough (i.e. North Korea and especially its stubborn leader Kim Jung-Un). 

The first (luckily verbal) scrimmages between the American and Chinese navy, regarding the Spratly's, could act as a warning that China plays for keeps and does not draw back automatically anymore, when somebody shouts ‘stop’.

Together with the concealed forest fire, which is the North Korean situation and the tensions in the Middle East (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq) and Eastern Europe (Russia vs Ukraine and the Baltic States), the new Chinese ‘assertiveness’ could lead to an explosive mixture on a global scale. Especially now that the White House in Washington is inhabited by a short-fused, utterly inexperienced and impulsive political rookie in the form of American President Donald Trump.

There is, however, one big advantage: the Chinese empire thinks in a scale of hundreds, if not thousands of years. This means that Xi Jinping, as a true son of this empire, will probably not fall in the pitfalls of the unexperienced Western leaders, by wanting too much too soon. He and his country have time and can be patient.

Even the new “Mao Zedong Light” understands that his power is limited, when he doesn’t use it wisely and with restraint. I therefore expect that President Xi will be patient indeed, as he understands that he will have nothing left, if he blows up everything on a global scale. That is a sort of relief for Taiwan and for the United States.

Even though Taiwan may be put under more economic and political pressure to give up their ‘rogue nation’ attitude (i.e. in the eyes of the Chinese) and return to the lap of the People’s Republic of China, I expect that this is all what will happen within the coming years. 

The stakes of an armed (or even nuclear) conflict with the United States are simply too high for China to run this risk.

And that is slightly comforting in these roaring years...  

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

“You have to believe in us, because we say so! We are benevolent companies, that keep a keen eye on your interests, even if you can’t control us!”. Welcome in the Information Black Hole of Google and Facebook

What goes around, comes around!

A few days ago, my dear, hardworking neighbour Anita approached me. She was crying and at the brink of mental exhaustion.

Anita was a woman, who was struck hard when her husband divorced from her more than ten years ago. He left her behind with three (just) teenage children to care for, with no job and seemingly a grim future full of heartship ahead.

But when the going got tough, the tough kept going: Anita started an online company in sports lingerie, which she built into a success, due to excellent quality lingerie, working days of 15+ hours and a customerfriendliness that was second to none.

However, one year ago Google changed “the rules” regarding SEO (i.e. Search Engine Optimization). Her previously reliable website, that served her well and generated many satisfied customers, was suddenly obsolete meaning that she did not end high enough in the search results anymore. And everybody with a mom-and-pop online store knows what that means: no ranking means no customers!

She was forced to redesign her whole website to the tune of tens of thousands of Euro’s. And a lion share of this money was consumed by consultants for new and improved SEO, in order to get the good ranking back that would bring her new customers.

Already then she was complaining that the expenses for the new website were eating a large chunk off her annual sales. But when she would not have done it, she would have been out of business soon. Not due to failing quality of her products or dissatisfied customers, but for online invisibility, as no-one cares about the third page of the search results.

And then came last Friday, with our small meeting on the street 

Anita bursted into tears when we talked: she was still struggling with the new website and due to the continuing problems with SEO on her website, she had missed 40% in sales in one single month. A disaster… 

She would like to take a break, as she had worked so hard for such a long time, but she couldn’t do so, as there were so many things to do every day.

And Anita was bothered by the enormous influence that Google had on her company. Not only by changing the rules for SEO, forcing her to make vast investments, but also by putting the results of its own affiliated webshops in the top of the search results. Just because they can…

Personally, I have always wondered about Google and the products and services that it delivers:
  • Why are so many people – including yours truly – willing to offer free content on Blogger, turning it into a huge success and source of income for Google?
    • And why do none of the vast revenues coming from Blogger flow back towards their unpaid bloggers, except for income generated by the Adwords ads?
  • Why can Google charge so many bills for clicks to their advertizers, while I as a blogger got hardly any clicks in the time when I still had ads on my site? And that in spite of the fact that I wrote new, original content on a day-to-day basis (in those days)?!
    • Of course, I did not write clickbait and as a blogger I probably made every mistake in the 'successful writer’s book', which has cost me a lot of potential clicks. But still, where do all the clicks go and who gets them?! Am I just to suspicious about this and is everything fair and square?!
  • And last, but not least: Who controls Google as a near monopolist in the online advert business and checks if they indeed do what they promise to do to their countless corporate customers?!

The answer to the last question is that probably nobody and no company can ever check and control Google, except for Google itself. In other words: it is their Information Black Hole and every online writer, webshop, news media outlet and online storechain is trapped in it!

When – in the days before online –  normal persons and (SME) companies put an advert in a newspaper, they always got a free copy as proof that the advert indeed existed and was displayed according to the preliminary agreed conditions and formats.

The same was true for radio or TV commercials. These commercials were aired on radio or TV and every company could check itself if its commercial was broadcasted correctly and at the right time.

But with Google?

“Yes, we targeted your online advert to your target groups. We did that exactly as you wanted. You can’t check that, unless you belong to your own target group. Only then you can see your own adverts. That is the way we work!

You simply must believe us, because we say so! We are benevolent companies, that keep a keen eye on your interests, even if you can’t control us… at all! So please pay us our money and don’t bother to investigate things further. We are totally honest and the fact that we manage all the data at places and times invisible for you, does not say you can’t trust us”. 

Or something like that…

Even if you do feel confident about the trustworthiness and reliability of Google – which I use at this very moment, I admit – you must agree that near-monopoly positions seldomly lead to better quality, better service, more customerfriendliness and more confidence among its customers. Especially when such companies are hiding between walls of unapproachability and meaninglessness for the average Joe Sixpack, when it comes to their goals, targets and business model.

Sometimes companies are simply too big to NOT fail in the end and Google may very well be one of them!

And then there is the elephant in the room. A company that is so influential and so opaque in structure and modus operandi via its news feeds, pushed messages distribution and search possibilities, that even the company itself can hardly crack its own code: Facebook!

I always had a love/hate relation with Facebook: I loved to hate it very much, because of its mainly dull content (“I have boring friends, y’know”), the overflow of pictures and videos of shiny, happy and successful people having a ball every day and the manipulative way the news and messages from my friends were put (or not put) in my timeline.

I want to choose my news and interesting information myself and I don’t want my news and interesting information to choose me! 

That is why I stick to my online newspapers (at least six per day) and my mostly Dutch and British news outlet websites.

After a few years in which I looked at Facebook very seldomly, but still got a more and more uncomfortable feeling from the company, I abandoned Facebook roughly two years ago. Since then I am careful to not be lured into another subscription, out of curiosity for certain information. Do I miss a lot of stuff? Probably, but it was worth it.

Yesterday I read an utterly disturbing and interesting article in The Atlantic, about the influence of Facebook on the last United States Presidential Elections. It was an absolute must-read and a reading hour very well spent. He are a few interesting snippets of this article:

The Trump campaign was working to suppress “idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans,” and they’d be doing it with targeted, “dark” Facebook ads. These ads are only visible to the buyer, the ad recipients, and Facebook. No one who hasn’t been targeted by then can see them. How was anyone supposed to know what was going on, when the key campaign terrain was literally invisible to outside observers?


But the point isn’t that a Republican beat a Democrat. The point is that the very roots of the electoral system—the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest—had been destabilized.

In the middle of the summer of the election, the former Facebook ad-targeting product manager, Antonio García Martínez, released an autobiography called Chaos Monkeys. He called his colleagues “chaos monkeys,” messing with industry after industry in their company-creating fervor. “The question for society,” he wrote, “is whether it can survive these entrepreneurial chaos monkeys intact, and at what human cost.” This is the real epitaph of the election.

The information systems that people use to process news have been rerouted through Facebook, and in the process, mostly broken and hidden from view. It wasn’t just liberal bias that kept the media from putting everything together. Much of the hundreds of millions of dollars that was spent during the election cycle came in the form of “dark ads.”

The truth is that while many reporters knew some things that were going on on Facebook, no one knew everything that was going on on Facebook, not even Facebook. And so, during the most significant shift in the technology of politics since the television, the first draft of history is filled with undecipherable whorls and empty pages. Meanwhile, the 2018 midterms loom.

The first red and bold text is to these eyes the million dollar question. A question that is just as applicable to Google with its own targeted ads, as it is to Facebook.

How can people know what is going on within the data warehouses of Facebook and Google, if nobody has control over the data flows that these companies process? And what about the protection of democracy and the truth in (Western) countries, when so much (deceptive) information is hidden and distributed below the radar to anonymous people that nobody knows?!

That brings us to the second red and bold tekst: will societies survive the way Facebook collects and distributes news, ads and (dis)information to unknown people and at what human cost will that be?!

Personally, I don’t care so much about the sheer fact that Russia and Russian agents have meddled into the US public opinion with (fake) news and targeted ads and, as such, have influenced the outcome of the American elections. 

What goes around, comes around!

It is hardly a secret that the United States via CIA, DEA, NSA and the whole alphabet soup of American secret services have meddled in countless elections in Latin America, Middle America, the Far East and Middle East and even Europe. 

And when the elections did not yield the preferred candidate after all, a small revolution was easily organized in the Fifties and Sixties of last century; especially in Latin America and the Middle East. All-in the name of the American defence against communism, aka the Domino Theory! 

So dear Americans: please stop with the whining and the crocodile tears about the interference of Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin into your presidential elections with your own ICT companies and simply cut your losses!

What was worrisome about the United States presidential elections, however, is the fact that a conspicuously deranged and dangerously narcissistic president like Donald Trump has been elected from it, due to both the alleged Russian disinformation campaign surrounding the elections and the extraordinary influence on the average, religious and conservative Joe Sixpack, that the alt-right site Breitbart had acquired via Facebook.

Of course the Americans have the legal right to choose their next president at will, even though people outside the United States would rather see that differently sometimes

Nevertheless, the fact that people have been (negatively) influenced and mis-/disinformed at such a scale is very dangerous. As if Pandora's Box has been opened. And it happened in a way that was totally invisible and out of grasp for other people and/or the authorities, due to Facebook's extremely targeted adverts and tailormade news, that are not disclosed to the general public. That's what makes this so bad.

When presidential candidates turn their opponents into black sheep by spreading blatant lies or disinformation in a public debate or publicly broadcasted commercials (e.g. think about the slanderous “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT)” group from the George Bush Jr. campaign), the opponents can publicly react and debunk such stories. In the worst case, they can go to court with a complaint for slander or libel done by their opponent.

However, when such influencing all takes place under “a cloak of invisibility ”, directly into the minds of common people sitting behind their computers and doing their stuff on Facebook, it can turn into an uncontrollable and dangerous phenomenon. The Russians and Steve Bannon’s Breitbart discovered that already during the Donald Trump campaign, just like a bunch of Macedonian kids (see the aforementioned articles).

Who will be next to pull the same tricks? Xi Jinping? Kim Jung Un? Ayatollah Khamenei? Benjamin Netanyahu? Or one of Saudi Arabia’s ethically backwarded kings or princes?! It’s your pick!

As that is the main risk that Facebook, and the filter bubble they created, form: that people become influenced and ‘brainwashed’ to a point of no return. 
Nobody and nothing can influence their opinions with different news and different opinions anymore, simply due to these people being out of reach, living in their Facebook filter bubble.

It is like a hamburger lover who is forced to eat at McDonalds every single day, because all other restaurants are closed for him. He may still like it after a while, but in the end it might kill him.

That is the same with the filter bubble that Facebook introduced: when people don’t hear news and opinions anymore that counter (and even might throw over) their own opinions and dogma’s, they become brainwashed by their own truths and opinions in the end and stop thinking for themselves at all. In the end they become sheep, all listening to and obeying their demagogue leaders and opinion makers.

Hence the story of the German people in the time before and during the Second World War. These people were not all per sé bad or murderous (i.e. most weren’t in fact), but they all lived in their own filter bubble, presented to them by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels and their utterly demagogue speeches and radio news. They all thought to fight for a good cause, as it was the only cause they had heard of.

It is a ‘blessing in disguise’ that Facebook at this moment is “only” hunting for your money via personalized ads and personalized services, as well as for all(!) your personal data and your deepest secrets, via your likes, your click and reading behaviour, the news feed that you like and via their sophisticated, deterministic software.

And it is a blessing in disguise too that Mark Zuckerberg – even though slightly creepy and robotic in his behaviour – is not a bad person (at least not now).

But we all should fear the day that Facebook ends up in the hands of people with less noble motives (i.e. like the Chinese or Russian goverment(?) or mob groups from all over the world). Then the massive stockpile of very personal information, coming from more than one billion people, might very well turn itself against us and threaten us in our very existence.

That is the reason that Facebook (and also Google) should perhaps been split up, like ITT and the Bell company in earlier years. And that for the simple reason that there is now too much information and too much power in only a few hands.

Competitors have only the slightest chance to survive the purchase and competitive power of Facebook and Google unharmed; when there is a new market, these companies will inevitably take it over. 

The fact that the global information and advertisement market is almost solely in these two hands and that Google and Facebook control the distribution of nearly all the ad money in the world(!), is eventually killing for the old ‘dead tree’ media, in their role as defenders of democracy and society of last resort.

And when there are no independent and unfiltered media anymore for the people of the world, all the truths and topical knowledge in the world will be sucked up into the Information Black Hole of Facebook and Google, to be distributed at their will.

And besides that: think about the small mom & pop webshops like the one of my neighbour Anita. All these webstores feel that their future is in the choking hands of the information supergiants Facebook and Google.

Think about that, when you entrust all your secrets to Facebook and Google...

Monday, 23 October 2017

Private companies and governmental bodies in The Netherlands should stop fooling around with the wages and just raise them!

Private companies and governmental bodies in The Netherlands should stop fooling around with the wages and give their workers some real wage increases, in order to fight their decades-long stand-still.

“Empty promises make empty hands”

One can ponder about the question whether the current Big Recession, which started in 2008, was in fact not the 2nd Big Depression? I have done so on a number of occasions.

The sheer duration of the current recession of (now) almost 10 years was already remarkable, as well as the truly lackluster recovery of the international economies after such a deep crisis. There has been no conspicuous period of wildfire growth and no infectious optimism in the global society to mark the end of the crisis.

To the contrary, the envy and sometimes sheer hatred against minority groups in various Western societies and the mounting tensions between countries all over the world are like a simmering forest fire, that could come to a blaze at any moment. 

International crises are still the order of the day and more and more countries have chosen for very authoritarian leaders, like Kim Jung Un, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There are hardly any signs that this trend is going to stop (outside the European Union).

Even the normal ‘beacon of stability’, the European Union, went through a rough period with mounting tensions and old, historic battles that need to be settled again.

See for instance the Scottish and Catalonian quest for independence and the exaggerated Spanish reaction to the latter. Or the emerging Brexit in Western Europe, seemingly based upon ridiculous economic expectations, fairytale politics and old allergies against the EU.

And in (Eastern) Europe there has been the emergence of increasingly authoritarian leaders in Poland and Hungary, while the continent also had to deal with the mounting success for alt-Right political parties, like the Alternative für Deutschland, the FPÖ in Austria or the Front National in France.

Many of these trends seem to have been fired up by the growing discontent of the average Joe and Jane Sixpack with their financial and economic situation. 

To these eyes, much of this discontent is caused by the circumstance that Joe and Jane have mainly footed the bill for this crisis, when they saved the international financial industry with a lot of hard-earnt money and received the biggest hits from the side-effects of the crisis. 

And now the crisis seems over and done with and national politicians are celebrating their successes, they don’t notice anything positive in their paycheck. “Empty promises make empty hands”, as the quote in the header of this article says.

That is arguably the most important factor of this depression (i.e. that is what I still call it): the benefits of the recovery are almost solely landing in the laps of the financial industry and their financial wizards, the large corporations and their executive managers and in the coffers of the central government. The common personnel and the lower civil servants are often still living from paycheck to paycheck, with always too much month for their wages.

And to make things worse: many countries saw the return of “mini-jobs” (in any shape or form), that pay so little wages that one job is not enough to survive the month and/or pay for the family. Many workers are thus forced to have more than one job to get through the month. Even older workers that should already have retired years ago, are sometimes still forced to work every day, to earn enough money to stay alive and have a decent life.

All this happens in combination with the ongoing marginalization of the common workers, who are more and more treated as ‘durable means of production’ and increasingly have to compare themselves with computers and robots, which seemingly have a lot of advantages and not the drawbacks of real human workers:

And so, instead of being an asset of the utmost importance for the well-being and future success of the company that needs to be cherished, educated and elevated, workers are rather seen as a possible risk. A risk that needs to be contained and mitigated. As a matter of fact: distrust and risk mitigation seem the name of the labour game, currently...

In fact, many workers in large companies seem little more than a durable means of production with a limited preservability for the future, only tolerated and appreciated until the moment that someone or something better (i.e. “robotized systems”) comes along the way.

This is for instance expressed in unscrupulous slogans, like “Be up or be out” and the growing impatience of executive management with average ‘water carriers’ among the personnel of companies. Every worker must either be a passionate Olympic champion in his own working area or he will be replaced by someone who is! There are unfortunately quite a lot of companies, which see their personnel as ‘one trick ponies’, useful for the greater good of the company for as long as they master their trick

At the other end of the spectrum there are the successful entrepreneurs, captains of industry, successful sports stars and artists, who are cherished and pampered by many politicians and officials as the winners in society.

They are encountered with blind admiration, ubiquitous (financial) support, sometimes ridiculous pay-checks and on top of that tax breaks that increase their already high incomes, while the normal workers foot the bill of the missing tax payments with higher (in)direct tax payments and diminished subsidies on living and healthcare. 

All this has led to a widening wage gap between the winners and losers in the European and Western society as a whole.

Although much of this is not so bad in The Netherlands as in other countries,  like the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy or Spain, it is nevertheless a fact that common workers and civil servants have also in The Netherlands been on a decades-long standstill in wages.

If there has been one constant factor since the start of the Big Recession in 2008, it has been the fact that the Collective Labour Agreement Wages (i.e. in Dutch CAO-lonen) have been trailing the official inflation rate from a distance.

This is disclosed by this chart that I based upon the latest data by the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics. And even though this chart does not go farther back than 2010, the situation in earlier years has been equally poor or even poorer.

The average wage growth among private companies, subsidized companies
and governmental bodies, versus the inflation rate (i.e. consumer price index)
Chart created by Ernst's Economy for You
Data courtesy of Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics
Click to enlarge
People should consider that every year that the wage increases trail the annual inflation, the purchase power of workers diminishes. So after fifteen-odd years of reduced wage growth and sturdy inflation, the common workers are slowly getting poorer and poorer. 

And at the same time they see that the higher and executive management and financial investors are swimming in cash, coming from the good company results and successful investments. And when these workers make too much noise about that, they may be dismissed from the company, as still enough other workers are hungry for their job.

Of course these generally poor wage increases were defensible in the early years of the crisis, as many companies in many different industries were strapped for cash and running out of sales, new assignments and projects.

But now it seems that there is absolutely no reason for being frugal anymore, as the cash money is sometimes flowing up to the ceiling of the large and smaller corporations in 2017. To put it even stronger: most companies would be able to (and perhaps should) increase the wages of their common workers with at least the inflation rate + 2% or even 3%.

Hans de Boer, chairman of VNO/NCW
Picture copyright of: Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge
Nevertheless, even though Hans de Boer, the chairman of the Dutch association for large employers VNO/NCW, reluctantly admits that there is in many cases enough room for larger wage increases for common workers, he emphasizes that companies in some industries are yet struggling with the economic circumstances.

And the Dutch government still hides itself behind the mantra that the state’s cashbook needs to be maintained with the utmost caution, in order to meet the Dutch and European rules.

The consequence is that most companies – even the ones that could afford a substantial wage increase – are still dragging their feet, when it comes to bigger paychecks. They look at eachother and sigh slowly: ‘We are yet afraid to give our workers too much money, as the tides might turn again”.

On top of that, there is the Dutch government that hands out money with one hand (reduction of income taxes), while grabbing money back with the other hand: increase of the low VAT rate to 9% from 6% and another increase in the healthcare costs.

The inevitable effect is that the common workers – even in this situation of sturdy economic growth – look at their paychecks and wonder when they will receive THEIR slice of the economic pie.

Therefore I want to make a call to especially the large employers and the local and central government bodies, and to the Small and Medium Enterprises as well, to stop fooling around and give their common workers a substantial payment raise, when they can afford it.

The current economic crisis and the quite poor societal mood of this moment all over the Western World and in The Netherlands will only stop when the common workers can afford a little more luxury, better quality articles and better food than at this moment.

The enduring success of the extremely cheap store chains and thrift stores points to it that people are still extremely reluctant of spending more money and often even don’t have the money to spend, as a consequence of the abundance of taxes, rising healthcare expenses and environmental levies on basic supplies, like housing, transport, food and energy, in combination with their paycheck that is going nowhere.

It is time for the companies and the government to come into action and stop hiding themselves in the woods!

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The unreliable and uncredible government. Is it just a coincidence?

The unreliable and uncredible government. Is it just a coincidence? Or part of a disturbing trend in which the assertive and justifiably displeased citizen is deliberately ‘sent out into the forest’ with false claims and appeasements?!

In the Dutch polder of Flevoland, both Schiphol Amsterdam Airport and the Dutch government are involved in the development of a new airport, called Lelystad Airport.

Lelystad Airport, which is developed on the foundation of a local airfield for small airplanes, will become the new, designated charter airport of The Netherlands in 2019. Room (for expansion) is amply available in the polder around Lelystad, so it is not very hard to understand why this area is chosen by Schiphol Group as the location for the new charter airport.

The road between Schiphol Amsterdam
Airport and Lelystad Airport
Map courtesy of Google Maps
Click to enlarge
Lelystad Airport is meant for taking away the low-end charter flights from Schiphol Amsterdam Airport, which struggles with its expansion possibilities, and handling those in the polder near Lelystad, Flevoland. 

By doing this, Schiphol Group hopes to increase the number of ‘moneymaking’, high-end transit flights, in which Schiphol acts as a hub for long, intercontinental flights between the US and the Middle or Far East. Otherwise Schiphol fears to lose these rewarding flights to Dubai or Istanbul AirportThe opening of Lelystad Airport is therefore a very good opportunity to let Schiphol increase its number of ‘high quality’ travellers. 

Together with an already planned, autonomous expansion of 15,000+ flights per year (to roughly 515,000 per year from almost 500,000 now), Schiphol sees good opportunities to make more money, based upon more, as well as 'higher grade’ travellers. 

This happens, however, at the expense of the charter travellers, who are in fact treated as second-rate travellers and will be banished to Lelystad, which will be a very small and basic airport without many facilities at the time of opening. Nevertheless, Lelystad Airport has many economic advantages for Schiphol and The Netherlands, doesn't it?! 

As a matter of fact, it doesn't!

The circumstance that the new airport Lelystad Airport lies in the middle of some of the most beautiful nature parks in The Netherlands, like De Oostvaardersplassen, De Weerribben and De Veluwe is conveniently ‘forgotten’ by the government and municipality officials from Flevoland. These officials simply see the Euro-signs in their eyes from international air travelling and forget the undeniable (economic) value of beautiful nature for tourism and leisure.

The inevitable consequence of this particular location between all those nature parks is that countless large land and water birds, like geese, swans, storks, harriers, herons and ducks, are very close by. This is 'forgotten' too by the powers that be. And large water and land birds are all – by nature  quite hazardous for the jet engines of planes, due to their size and weight.  

Especially the emigration and immigration of wild geese twice per year, which are flying in their characteristic V-shape with groups of 20 – 30 birds and have their home in the polder of Lelystad, is a serious hazard for jet planes; these are big birds that could really demolish a jet engine, when two or three are sucked in at the same time.

But to cut a long story short: in the end the opening of Lelystad Airport was a government decision, which we as citizens have to respect.

One of the difficulties of the new airport is that the Dutch airspace is already very (over)crowded from the massive numbers of flights on and off Schiphol and the other large airports Rotterdam and Eindhoven. And now Lelystad Airport needs to be ‘squeezed in’ with a soon considerable number of flights per year.

To avoid interference between the air traffic taking off and landing on Schiphol and the charter traffic from Lelystad taking off and landing at the same time, the Dutch airspace has been divided in layers of different altitudes. The planes  coming from Schiphol directly move to the higher altitude layers after taking off, while the planes from Lelystad have to remain at a lower altitude for multiple kilometers to avoid the Schiphol airtraffic.

And that is where the problems start to emerge…

The lower altitude air traffic in a large perimeter around Lelystad is causing more noise pollution, air pollution and nuisance to the people and animals living beneath it, as the planes are much closer to the ground than normally.

To investigate the amount of noise pollution the Dutch government ordered a so-called ‘Environmental Effect Report’-investigation (i.e. MER in Dutch). And this investigation did not measure the amount of noise pollution close to Lelystad Airport, using microphones and other measuring equipment, but calculated (!) it based upon scientific models.

And as one of the main adversaries of Lelystad Airport – the very involved and driven ICT specialist Leon Adegeest (@LeonAdegeest1 on Twitter) – found out, those calculations that the government made were – deliberately(?) – full of fatal flaws, that made the value of the conclusions in fact null and void.

For instance, the calculation that the government made for the approach to Lelystad Airport, was based upon the jet engines running in stationary mode for most of the glide path within The Netherlands. One Tweep sighed that there was a name for this type of flight mode at this low altitude: “crashing down”!

And so there were many more assertions in the MER report that seemed rather based upon wishful thinking and ‘science fiction’, than upon sound engineering.

Leon Adegeest, who ran the gauntlet on behalf of the worried citizens, was initially mocked away by various governmental bodies on a number of occasions, calling him an amateur who dared to challenge the professionals with his simple Excel sheets. 

However, when Adegeest finally came in the picture on national TV with his own investigations about the amount of noise pollution, State Secretary Sharon Dijksma (Infrastructure & Environment) reluctantly admited that there had been flawed conclusions in the official government investigation, according to Het Financieele Dagblad.

Of course, in case of Lelystad Airport, it made sense to calculate the amount of noise pollution instead of measuring it, as planes will only fly there in the future (i.e. as of 2019) and current measurements are consequently not possible.

However, Schiphol Airport Group and the Dutch government, which are all perfectly capable of measuring the amount of noise pollution around Schiphol, also use this arbitrary calculation method for finding out the amount of noise pollution, air pollution and general nuisance for the people living close to the airport. And also in this situation Leon Adegeest found out that the same flawed calculation methods had been used, making the sheer value of the MER for Schiphol also null and void.

To make things worse, every time when the boundaries for the number of flights towards and from Schiphol came close in the past, there came a new noise pollution calculation method or new standards and constraints for the tolerable amount of noise and air pollution and for air traffic safety. All these measures led to only one inevitable conclusion: Schiphol can grow further and nobody will be hurt by this!

While doing this, the Schiphol lobby was mostly followed by the average Dutch citizen, who believed in the fairytale of the ‘Schiphol mainport’ concept, that would offer economic growth and additional jobs for eternity without any drawbacks. 

The ‘few people living in close range to Schiphol’ just had tough luck! It had been their own choice to live so close to an airport anyway. Too bad for them!

A former minister for the environment, Pieter Winsemius of the liberal-conservative VVD, called this modus operandi of Schiphol with one, new Dutch verb: “Schiphollen”. 

He meant with this quite offensive word that when the constraints and standards did not fit Schiphol anymore, Schiphol would come up with new and more convenient ones. Ones, that would leave ample room for growth under all circumstances. 

Schiphol has done so in the past on many occasions and will continue to do so, bending and distorting the truth at will. National and local politicians will swallow this over and over again, like they always did.

This can only lead to two fundamental questions:
  • Are the Dutch government, as well as Dutch stateowned corporations really fair and honest to the Dutch citizens living under their sphere of influence?
  • How serious does the Dutch government take its role of protecting the Dutch population against hazards from inside and outside the country.

And the expansion of Schiphol is not the only situation in which the Dutch government seems not fair and even dishonest to the Dutch people, quite often on behalf of large corporations:

The Netherlands is a tax haven for large multinationals and has already been that for many, many years. Not so much due to the rate of its corporate tax (i.e. that is currently 25%), but especially for enabling the nearly free transfer of money coming from foreign dividends, foreign sources of income and legal fees (f.i. in the music and video industry), towards the tax havens in the Carribean. 

By doing this, The Netherlands has become a pivot point for many multinationals and internationally operative institutions that want to dodge paying taxes.

And now the future Dutch Cabinet Rutte III has decided to decrease the corporate tax to 21% from the aforementioned 25% and bring the dividend tax down to nought from 15%, to the tune of roughly €2 billion in diminished national income. Not that the large multinationals really need this money – they don’t with the current stockpiles of cash money(!) everywhere – but just to lure them even more into our tax-friendly kingdom.

And the Dutch citizen will foot the bill for this negative tax hike for corporations; in this case by an increase of 3% on the low VAT rate of currently 6%, bringing it to 9% on all basic food supplies and necessities for all households. That does not seem fair at all.

On top of this, the new Dutch government agreement of Rutte III contained a ‘hidden’ increase in income expenses. In a small paragraph, stashed away in an attachment, the government announced another austerity measure to the tune of €2.1 billion on healthcare costs. 

As the healthcare expenses themselves will hardly drop under the current circumstances, it is clear that the Dutch citizens have to pony up this extra austerity, by either paying more money for their healthcare or getting less healthcare offered for the same amount of money. The fact that this austerity measure was not presented openly, but only disguised in the government agreement, makes clear that the intentions of the new government are not so clean cut as one would hope.

And a few months ago, a devastatingly explosive report about lethally unsave situations in the Dutch military apparatus causing at least three casualties, sat for nearly three months at the Defence Ministery without anyone taking any clear action, including the Minister and the chief of staff. 

At the same time the Minister – who later resigned due to this report being discussed in the Second Chamber of Parliament – shamelessly pondered upon a new Minister’s position in the new cabinet Rutte III, seemingly not aware of the explosive contents of the report.

Until roughly one year ago there had been the continuing soap opera around allegedly lost bills and invoices on the Security and Justice department. These bills would shed a unfavourable light on the State Secretary, who had worked as a public prosecutor in an earlier life and had struck a very favourable deal with a drugs criminal, leaving the latter with roughly €5 million in cash.

Both the State Secretary and Minister stated that these bills could not be found… until they were found after all by a smart ICT specialist. In the aftermath of these events, that continued even longer, two Ministers of Security and Justice and one state secretary had lost their jobs. And the Dutch population lost a large share of their trust in the government.

All these incidents together raise the question whether “the unreliable and uncredible government” is just a coincidence or a very disturbing trend of the last years.

The cases of Schiphol Amsterdam Airport and Lelystad Airport prove that an uncredible government is not only inconvenient, but can put the lives and wellbeing of people under jeopardy. Especially in a crowded country like The Netherlands, where noise and air pollution are serious, health-threatening problems and where a plane crash can cause havoc and massive loss of lives.

As long as the Dutch people cannot trust the Dutch government to defend their interests and safety in the end, the situation is opaque and dangerous. So I ask the Dutch government: please tell the truth when you can, even if it is inconvenient for the powers that be and the large stakeholders involved.