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Saturday, 30 December 2017

Will the liberal-conservative VVD in 2018 throw off the veil of nihilism that has covered the party since the early 21st Century?

You know you live in a civilized country
When not only you and your political allies behave valiantly and fair,
But also your political opponents…
Ernst Labruyère

I am a social-democrat, I have always been one and I probably will always be one. It felt naturally for me to pay my taxes and share some of my wealth with people who were not so lucky as I was. I never had the intension to become really rich and to work so hard that I lost track of what was going in the world. Leisure time and nature were just as important as the time spent in the office.

Therefore, as a citizen living in The Netherlands, it always felt naturally to vote for the social-democrat Partij van de Arbeid (i.e. PvdA, the Dutch labour party). And even though I have been quite dissatisfied with this party over the last ten to fifteen years, I could not think of another party to vote for. Just because…

Nevertheless, the PvdA is nowadays not the pivotal party anymore that it was in the past. The steady decline of social-democracy during the last twenty years, in combination with the devastating effect that participating in Cabinet Rutte II had on the leftwing voter’s confidence in the party, made that the PvdA is currently at the edge of the cliff.

Will it rise again? Or will the PvdA definitely topple over into the abyss? It is anybody’s guess…

As also the Christian-Democrat CDA party is not the pivotal party anymore that it was in the past, there is only one party left that deserves this statement: the liberal-conservative VVD.

Even though I would never think one second about voting on the VVD, it has always been a quite dignified and worthy party. A party that represented people with above average wealth, but of which the representatives did not seem to forget that they lived and worked in a world in which people took care for each other. A party also that brought forward good officials, responsible civil servants, as well as excellent aldermen and governmental representatives inside and outside The Netherlands (i.e. in the Europe forae).

However, that changed since the emergence of the rightwing populists in The Netherlands – initially represented by the murdered Pim Fortuyn with his “Livable Netherlands” movement and at a later stage his Lijst Pim Fortuyn – at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Suddenly the VVD felt like a party that was overtaken at the right flank by the populists, whose real “moment of glory” came with the initially unstoppable rise of Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom: a former member of parliament for the VVD.  

Since then, the VVD has been torn between its more centrist leaders, who see the VVD as a broad, centrist ‘people’s party’, that brought numerous decent government officials in the past, and the people in the party who wanted to follow the footsteps of the populists closely, in order to not loose more votes to them. 

Especially during the heyday of Geert Wilders the voices of the right-wing semi-populists within the VVD started to sound louder and louder. The choice between these two parts of the party was in fact an impossible choice. Simply, because both goals  being a moderate liberal-conservative party vs a semi-populist, very conservative party  can hardly be combined under one roof, unless at least one share of the party members gives in to its goals and values.

This conundrum might explain the surprisingly quick, but nevertheless enduring success of party leader Mark Rutte, who came into power in 2006 as fraction leader and political chief and stayed at the top without ‘wearing out’ too much, in spite of already three periods as Prime Minister.

Mark Rutte is a thoroughbred bridge builder, seemingly without an own face or opinion, and an excellent manager, who can keep everybody more or less happy and can follow the agenda of the greatest common devisor, until the end of the cabinet period.

In a centre-rightwing cabinet with the Christian-Democrat CDA and the Party for Freedom, he followed the rightwing agenda with initially enough keystones to keep Geert Wilders and his extreme-rightwing party happy.

In the “leftwing-ish” cabinet with the social-democrat PvdA, he built up very good personal relations with his vice-PM Lodewijk Asscher, as well as a very tight and structured agenda, that he followed to a T. Therefore Rutte kept the cabinet afloat for the whole five year period, in the longest stint for a Dutch cabinet since the Second World War.

And at the end of every cabinet period with him at the helm, all the participating other parties suffered substantial losses in the national elections, but Rutte always survived with unchallenged confidence and his signature “stainless steel grin” glued to his face: the undisputed winner of the elections.  

These substantial losses of the popular vote happened to the CDA and especially to the PvdA (this party was almost annihilated in the last elections), but to a much lesser degree to the VVD itself: the party also suffered losses, but remained the largest party by far.

Therefore one could see Mark Rutte as a textbook example of a good leader and an excellent manager. Even I have to give him that.

The only thing that should bother his voters, however, is for what Mark Rutte himself stands in the elections. 

Mark Rutte has made so many statements and promises in the past that were either blatant lies or that he knew in advance he could not keep that people don’t have an idea what is the truth with him and what not. And he was also political friends with so many people with so many 180 degree different opinions, that he seems without any form of spine or conscience.

His greatest strenght is therefore also his greatest pitfall: he can be friends with anybody and seemingly never draws the line of decency, that other politicians would have drawn in the same situation.

This habit of the PM has not been bad per sé for the VVD as a party (i.e. in sheer number of voters, compared with the other parties), but the consequence is that the VVD is still a “schizophrenic” party with two incompatible sides in it, that might fall apart as soon as the leadership changes.

In my humble opinion, it must be worrisome for the more moderate (i.e. liberal) members of the party and for a list of decent ex-politicians, like Erica Terpstra, Frans Weisglas, Ed Nijpels, Joris Voorhoeve and Pieter Winsemius, that their party has turned into a hotbed for increasingly radical and populist politicians, with a very self-interested view on the world.

These politicians steer the party in a more and more conservative, even xenophobic and anti-European direction, in order to not lose track to the PVV and to the also extreme-rightwing and xenophobic Forum for Democracy of the ‘new political talent’, Thierry Baudet.

Compassion with the less fortunate people in society, with the goals and foundations of the European Union and with the necessity for a fair tax payment for rich people and (large) companies have been exchanged for a “me first” politics. And Mark Rutte remained ‘on course’ as the perfect manager and never raised his voice to clearly draw the line, in order to stop this more and more conservative direction.

This is the reason that I – as a social-democrat person with respect for some past politicians of the VVD – think that it is time for the other leaders and pundits within the VVD to draw the line for Rutte in 2018:
  • either become more conservative, more anti-EU and selfish in your vision for the future and loose the other members of the party;
  • or again become the broad, liberal party with a great tradition of very good, moderate officials and leaders. A party that encloses all people and also encloses the European Union concept and the need for cooperation in Europe with respect to the global challenges of this time.

The latter undoubtedly means that the conservative and populist voters and politicians within the VVD will leave the party disappointed. But you really can’t have it all, even though the contrary seems to be true at this moment.

In my vision, Mark Rutte, in spite of his chameleontic characteristics and his excellent management skills, is not the leader that the VVD needs for the future. 

Too long he has held the party hostage with his failure to choose a sustainable road for the future and with his lack of choice for the party that he wants to lead.

The rumours of Mark Rutte aiming for an important position in the European Union are enduring, in spite of his categorical denial of these rumours. 

Nevertheless, his excellent management skills would make him a very good follow-up for current president of the European Council, Donald Tusk (i.e. “the other Donald”) and he did not make many enemies in Europe. 

On top of that, Rutte would be an excellent guy to keep up the good old Atlantic connection with the United Kingdom and the US, in spite of the Brexit.

After he would have left national politics in The Netherlands, it would give the VVD the time for a very thorough cleansing within the leadership and directions of the party. 

There have been simply too many scandals and too many politicians in distress within the VVD. This can’t go on and this should not go on! And then the VVD can finally make the important choice to become the party that they really want to be! 

So they can finally throw off the veil of nihilism that has covered the party since the beginning of the 21st Century!

Thursday, 28 December 2017

2018 should be year in which we throw away the shackles of fear and anger that keep us locked and just start to live with each other again, like we always did.

Fear is the path to the dark side.
Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate.
Hate leads to suffering…

Star Wars 1- The Phantom Menace was far from the best film in the Star Wars series. This was due to the fact that George Lucas paid so much for his computer equipment and computer artists, in order to develop all these extraterrestial cities, vehicles and creatures, that he had to save money otherwise spent on a real good script.

Nevertheless, the aforementioned quote by the wise Jedi Master Yoda in the movie, is spot on. How spot on it is, can be seen on a daily basis. 

People all over the world, often under the “inspired leadership” of their governments, are talking each other deep into a depression, based upon fear, anger and resentment against other groups of people: 
  • Fear for poverty and for losing their current lifestyle, caused by others;
  • Fear for an unbalanced budget and for “squandering tax money” on wasted social security;
  • Fear to lose one’s wealth, due to national taxes;
  • Fear that the multinational corporations either leave one's country or don’t want to establish themselves overthere;
  • Fear to lose the euro due to the Greek and Italian mountain of debt;
  • Fear to lose the battle for economic prosperity to the Chinese and Indian people;
  • Fear for the radical islam;
  • Fear for terrorism on people's home turf;
  • Fear that normal people might grow bad ideas regarding the government;
  • Fear for unfavourable climate change AND fear that saving the climate might come at the expense of the economy's health ;
  • Fear that someone else might have it better than ourselves.
In other words: there is a lot of fear in modern societies. A whole lot of fear… And that the fear leads to anger and resentment (even hatred) is also crystal clear. 

The leadership of for instance American president Donald Trump is largely based on fearmongering and protecting himself and his rich friends from dangers that are not really palpable, but attend to feelings of insecurity in American society.

In the process he makes promises to the average middle and lower class Americans that he won’t keep, while his promises to his wealthy friends and especially himself are rocksolid.

The same is true for the presidencies of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China. 

Both are extremely afraid for the forces in society that could end their presidency untimely, while at the same time they are robbing society from the money that it earned and deserved... Therefore they are using every trick in the book (and outside the book) to prevent anything – aimed against their position  from happening.

And even in the more moderate Europe a lot of decisions have been fear-based... 

Take the Brexit, which was based on fearmongering and longing for a imaginative situation, that in reality has never existed. Or take the South- and East-European leaders with their outrageous fear for the islamist immigrants and the societal unrest coming from dissidents within their own country.

They are closely followed by the cowardice and ignorant North- and West-European leaders, who are willingly shutting their eyes towards the deteriorating situation in Greece and Italy; countries which “have to keep their own pants up” (i.e. Dutch expression).

“Keeping the budget clean and being frugal” is their eternal mantra that should prevent the Northern and Western countries from showing a human face towards the countries that saved them from the “refugee influx”: Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. "Pity is good, as long as it doesn't cost us money!"

All of this is fear in disguise. And just like in the Star Wars movie, this fear leads to anger and – if we don’t look out very carefully – to hate and suffering. Just like it did during World War 1 and 2 and during the numerous other wars that have been fought in the meantime.

Would it not be great when we could simply stop being afraid for all these useless fears?! And start to care for the things that are really important?

Personally, I don’t give a rat’s behind whether the headoffice of Shell and other (paper) headoffices would leave The Netherlands. We have already been too long taken hostage by these companies with their demands and lobby for customized regulation, that is eventually bad for the country; not good!  

The climate and the heating of the earth, however, decide whether my beloved city Almere will be threatened by the rising tides of the 21st Century. That would be a real threat for my wife and me and (especially) for my children and future grandchildren.

And the increasingly erratic behaviour of our world leaders is also a direct threat for world peace: after the devastating explosion happened, it is not so important anymore what caused the fatal spark. Now, however, it is important to prevent this spark from setting everything on fire.

Mass immigration, even though an important theme for the future, is never the fatal ingredient for riots and civil war to these eyes and especially not in the current situation with moderate immigration.

Look at for instance Jordan and Turkey and decide how much these countries are destabilized by the influx of the millions of refugees that they received. And then think how much the tens of thousands of refugees could destabilize Europe. You can do the math…

To name an important cause for the current fear in society and at the same time debunk its influence: islamic – or other kinds of – terrorism are painful and cruel for a country, but not a fatal cause of revolts either.

Look for instance at the United States, where domestic violence and even ‘involuntary manslaughter’ by toddlers(!), are causings many more deaths than (islamic) terrorism in 2017. If you are afraid to be killed in an attack, please be careful for your husband, your wife and your children. And for your own gun, of course!. As this is the sad truth in the United States.

Yet, worldwide governments are starting to treat all their citizens as possible suspects of dangerous crimes. People that need to be closely monitored by street cameras, eavesdropping of telephone, mobile channels and the internet, as well as all other kinds of vigilant pursuit.

Citizens are not trusted as good people that can be mostly left alone without governmental hindrance. 

No, they are seen as theoretically bad people that must be closely followed to prevent bad plans from happening. And the worst thing is: when intelligent and angry people have really bad plans, the governmental agents are in some cases not in time to stop them from fullfilling their plans. 

And after every (extremely rare) successful attack, the need for more vigilant pursuit is expressed by attention-hungry politicians, useless as it is to stop all bad things from happening. Thus millions of good people have to suffer for a few bad people, by losing their privacy and everything that is dear to them "for the greater good", which is bad in fact.

Let 2018 be the year in which the trust in each other returns. The year in which we take societal risks for what they are: sometimes dangerous, but seldomly fatal for society. 

The year in which we disclose populists and cynical demogogues for what they are: pathetic parasites that feed upon other people’s fear and misery in their daily cries for attention.

I know a lot of people, but I know very few really bad people. They do exist and they can be dangerous for myself and my loved ones. 

But probably the most dangerous people are politicians who see everywhere enemies of the country and who think they have the solution for every problem.  

They are people who are willing to sacrifice everything – except for themselves and their loved ones – for their ideas and solutions. Especially when they think that everyone, who does not agree with them, is a potential enemy of the country. We know already where this leads, as we saw this film before...

So let’s celebrate 2018 as the year of the return of common sense and friendship: in politics and in our daily lives. 

Let us have that, instead of hostility between people. Let us throw away the shackles of fear and anger that keep us locked up in ourselves and our self-destructive ideas. The pied pipers of fear will not guide the way to more prosperity and happiness. 

Life is beautiful and we should spend the short time that we are around on this earth to create things of beauty and joy for each other. Let us not spend our lifetimes in fear and anger, but in joy and amazement. 

That is my wish for the new year 2018. 

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

“We are people, not slaves or robots!” Companies should honour the needs and desires of their workers or pay the price for not doing so!

If one wonders whatever circumstances started the Russian Revolution in 1917 – exactly hundred years ago – or roughly 130 years earlier the French Revolution, he should look at the lower class and middle class workers and impoverished people in his country. And first and foremost to the way they are treated by the wealthy people and (large) companies in this country. 

Then this person should realize that most revolutions start because these simple workers and the non-working poor are utterly fed up with their living circumstances and want to make a drastical change, even if that might cost them their life eventually.

If the lower class workers and the poor in a country are treated humanely and are given chances to work themselves up towards a better life, no revolution will ever break out. 

However, if such workers are treated like poor, talentless and useless people, who are only good for one thing – for which they are not appreciated at all and paid very poorly too – revolution could be looming when the humiliation reaches its peak.

To this respect it is good to look at the grim developments at one of the largest and most popular companies in the world: Amazon. This company is extremely successful in both sales of food and non-food articles to the general public and rendering cloud services (i.e. the rental of broad computer services) to companies. Its status in the digital world is iconic, just as the status of its founder, Jeff Bezos.

Yet, this company seems well on its way to become one of those companies that is hated and despised by their personnel for the inhumane treatment of their workers, if the following story is indeed true.

This story, which was based upon research done by a reporter of the British newspaper Daily Mirror, was printed in the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad a few weeks ago:

Personnel of a British distribution centre of webgiant Amazon is severely underpaid for the long, long working days they have to make around the holidays. Some employees make working weeks of 55 hours for a minimum hourly wage of around UKP 8.20 (roughly € 9,16). This became clear from undercover research of British newspaper Daily Mirror.

Journalist Alan Selby worked five weeks for a distribution centre in Tilbury, where he saw that the personnel was treated as ‘live stock’ and became so tired that they fell asleep standing. Some workers had to be treated by ambulance personnel. “The personnel receives a wage that is lower than the average cost of livelihood. One of them asked: ‘Why is it not allowed to sit for a moment when it is not busy? We are people, not slaves or robots’”, according to Selby.

The journalist, who runs marathons in his leisure time, experienced that himself: “The only times that I did not stand up, was during my breaks.  My body ached, I felt dizzy and was afraid that I would topple over. One of my colleagues told me she overstretched her hamstrings, but had to continue anyway”. Selby saw the managers screaming at those who dared to rest.

Also the daily targets would lie too high. It is expected from the packaging personnel that they prepare for shipment 120 products per hour. Those who did not make that number, were fired...

When asked, Amazon did not exactly experience the urgency behind the cause for this article. Again the Algemeen Dagblad:

Amazon informed us in a reaction that they ‘offered a safe and positive working place’. “We are proud upon having created thousands and thousands of job in the past years. The targets have been based upon earlier results of our personnel”.

“Nothing to see her, folks. Everything is cool! Carry on, as you were!”

There are roughly three possibilities with respect to this story:
  • a. Alan Selby is a stargazer and a liar who makes something out of nothing. Amazon personnel should simply shut up, enjoy their work and be glad that they have a job.
  • b. Amazon is a cynical club that doesn’t give a rat’s behind about the wellbeing of their personnel and only hunts for impossible targets and yet more efficiency on the way towards full robotization of their workforce.
  • c. Amazon is not aware of treating its personnel badly and truly believes that they offer a good job to their personnel. 

The first possibility of the three is not very plausible, as at the same time of the publication of this article in the UK, the personnel of Amazon in Germany and Italy was on strike to get improvement of their labour circumstances too.

Remain the two possibilities in which Amazon is either extremely naive or cynical...

Both possibilities are not favourable for the company. And looking at Amazon’s reaction when confronted with the news in the Daily Mirror (see red and bold text), I tend to think that Amazon is just extremely cynical.

Probably the company cannot wait for the moment that they can either move most of their operations to the low wage countries, where workers are less critical and too much strapped for cash to complain about labour circumstances, or fully robotize their operations so they don’t need human workers at all. 

Anyway, the result is shocking, to these eyes!

And unfortunately the situation around Amazon is not unique. A few weeks later, an article appeared in the Dutch online magazine The Correspondent, in which the situation for the workers at Schiphol airport had been put under scrutiny. 

Also this article was written by an investigative reporter, Dick Wittenberg, who spoke with workers in the lowest qualified jobs at Schiphol.

The tendency in this article was very much akin to the situation at Amazon: long working hours without toilet breaks, poor payment and uncertain situations around the prolongation of contracts:

At Schiphol I stumble upon uncertain workers and working poor. Masses of workers are running around. Labour Union FNV estimates that at least a quarter of the 65,000 people, who work at the roughly 450 companies, does not have a steady job. At some companies or departments of companies, their share rises above 70 per cent.

They run from one temp job to another, or from one temporary contract to another. They hardly earn the minimum wage. A large share does hardly build up a pension or does not get paid at all during sickness. And in the meantime they can always be ‘written off’ and be exchanged for more productive workers.

Everything at Schiphol is aimed at keeping the tariffs for the aviation companies as low as possible. This means that insufficient demands are made towards the companies that work on Schiphol. And that goes at the expense of the personnel of these companies.

Take for instance the luggage and passenger handling companies. In the battle for the goodwill of the over hundred aviation companies that land on Schiphol, these companies feel forced to work as cheap as possible, according to a spokesman of the FNV union, Leen vander List. “This simply means more production with less personnel involved and - as a consequence of this modus operandi - also more poorly renumerated and very insecure labour contracts”. 

In order to prevend that now insecure workers can claim a fixed contract after having three sequential, temporary contracts within two years, companies at Schiphol use a trick, making use of temporary labour organizations. 

After a number of contracts at one company, the temp agency places the worker at another company for a certain amount of time. After a while, the temp worker starts again at square one at the first company. Annually, over 10,000 uncertain workers are pumped around this way. FNV spokesman Van der List calls this the ‘merry-go-round of uncertain workers’.  

Both articles are either based upon first-hand experiences of the journalist (in case of Alan Selby) or testimonies of direct witnesses at these companies in The United Kingdom and The Netherlands. However, the tendency of both articles is fiercely denied by the main corporate protagonists in it.

Hence, the credibility of both stories is based upon the credibility of the reporters in question, who state things that are 180 degrees opposite of the image that both involved companies Amazon and Schiphol want to spread to the general public: an image of happy and satisfied workers being part of one happy family at their respective companies.

I believe these aforementioned stories, however. Personally, I see a disturbing trend towards the further dehumanization of workers over the last number of years. These are workers, who increasingly have to act like robots, in their quest for their nearly impossible targets. 

People, who are denied the simplest things like toilet and smoke breaks and a few minutes to put their feet to rest, outside the bare minimum of work breaks they are granted. Because this could harm their ability to meet those aforementioned targets.

Besides that, people are suffering from (too) low wages and from lack of certainty in the form of fair contracts for a longer period of time or – even better – fixed contracts. Contracts, that build up a fair pension and fair sickness money.

The same has happened in health care and home care were nurses and other health care workers are fighting their impossible targets of having to give so much aide in only a few minutes per patient. No more room for talking with patients and giving aide beyond the bare minimum. They have to work like emotionless machines, if they want to meet their targets. Nothing else is possible.

Many healthcare and homecare workers are so sick and tired of these impossible targets and the accompanying pressure that they gave up their jobs, according to the local newspaper Eindhovens Dagblad:

This is exactly where institutes for homecare warned for for a long time: it is simply impossible to take new clients in, irrespective of the urgency of the demand. They are seriously short-handed. There is no influx of new workers. To put it even stronger: healthcare and homecare workers are leaving their job by the dozen. Only in Brabant [i.e. Dutch province in the south] already 10,000 workers left their job this year [2017 - EL].

Also in the cleaning industry this development is underway, as cleaners have to clean a class room or an office in roughly five to ten minutes. This leaves them only enough time to do a poor job, as thoroughly cleaning a class room would take at least 30 minutes. 

No good job can be done in this minimum amount of time and thus no job satisfaction can be reached, due to a job well done. Everything is arranged for meeting the nearly impossible targets, to be able for their employer to offer the cheapest price at their principals.  

The biggest problem, to these eyes, is the ongoing dehumanization of workers. 

Workers are not seen as the living, intelligent, hardworking and curious people that they are, but as durable means of production that are only appreciated for their possibilities to meet their targets. Nothing else!

When the targets are not met, the appreciation for the workers is gone at the spot and the workers must be replaced by better, quicker and more successful workers. Their opinions, worries and ideas are not important for their employers; just their sheer output.

One reinforcing effect to their misfortune is that workers, when not sufficiently unionized and represented on higher levels in society, are often extremely poor represented in the political arenas. The large, successful companies and the rich citizens on the other hand are overly represented there, because of their money and (thus) their influence on the leading politicians.

This means that the needs of the lower class workers and the poor are often neglected, in favour of measures that are aimed at the rich people and the large companies: lowering taxes and rising subsidies for investments. And preparing more building ground for expensive owner-occupied housing than cheap rental housing for the lower and middle classes. 

These groups have the money and the influence to “buy” their opinion and their interests into the political arenas.

Perhaps, the United States political arena is the most blatant example of this phenomenon, due to the nearly unlimited amounts of payments that can be made to the political parties and their representatives, as well as the extremely costly election campaigns that cause that all parties and all representatives are strapped for cash with respect to their (re-)elections. 

Paying money in The United States means buying direct influence, via the carrot (the money) and the stick (no more money for the next re-elections) clause.

Nevertheless, my gutfeeling says that the emotions of the lower class workers could come to a boiling point within a few years, when the working circumstances do not further improve and serious payment rises are made for everybody in the company, instead of the top management alone.

The only problem is, that a lot of the current, lower class anger in society is now aimed at immigrants and (religious) minority groups, instead of at the people who are behind their financial backwardedness and disdain for their position. This is expressed in the misunderstanding and sometimes sheer hatred against the religious minorities and the immigrants from Africa and Asia, that are looking for a safe refuge. This is a dangerous development, that has led to extremely bloody wars in the last century.

When this will turn around, however, and the anger of the lower classes and poor people WILL be aimed at the leading classes and the companies who treated them poorly, these leading politicians, (large) companies and rich citizens could be in for a rough ride, just like it happened more often in the past.

I personally hope it will not come this far, but the signs are not exactly promising, given the aforementioned widespread examples of antisocial, corporate behaviour.

Nevertheless, the recipe to solve this issue is fairly simple: forget the impossible targets and forget the fairytale that the robots are ready to take over most jobs. 

Start to give the workers in the simpler, but nevertheless extremely important jobs the respect and the remuneration that they deserve. Make sure that their targets are feasible and that they have enough backup to do their job in a normal way. 

Make also sure they live in decent houses in decent areas and make sure they enjoy their jobs and get satisfied by it. Don't take their efforts simply for granted, as if they are slaves or robots.

Frits Philips, one of the leading entrepreneurs behind the expansion of the now world-famous Philips brand, understood this lesson very well and he acted accordingly. He built and bought good houses for his workers and gave them sports and leisure time and the means to do so. By doing so, he earned their eternal respect and gratitude.

I wonder if Jeff Bezos of Amazon has this grandness in himself or that he is one of the infamous American entrepreneurs that treats people like slaves… or robots, as a matter of fact. 

Even robots need some maintenance every now and then; just like people do!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Should we lay down more asphalt in The Netherlands? Or should we think about different, more efficient delivery methods for trucks and delivery vans in order to reduce the amount of traffic?!

The call for more asphalt in The Netherlands, in order to mitigate the damage caused by the current large traffic jams, is at least partially driven by the ubiquitous ‘Just In Time’ delivery method for factories and stores. Even though JIT is very successful as a way to reduce the safety stock for companies and stores, it should not be a logistical dogma, as it has some sturdy drawbacks that rear their ugly heads in this time of year.

Last Friday, the Dutch newspaper Telegraaf printed an alarming news message about the 'cost for society' of the daily traffic jams in 2016, with respect to the road transport. 

"Over one billion of euro’s in economic damage" was caused by these traffic jams in The Netherlands, according to a spokesman of Transport and Logistics The Netherlands (TLN) in The Telegraaf:

The economic damage, caused by delays in road transport, has [in 2016 - EL] increased by roughly €100 million to a record level of €1.2 billion. In order to turn the tides, more asphalt is very necessary.

This becames clear after research, executed by TNO and commissioned by Transport and Logistics The Netherlands (TLN). The data are presented on this Friday.

“These are alarming results and we therefore urge the Cabinet to carry through the mitigation of the traffic bottlenecks at the highest possible pace”, according to TLN chairman Arthur van Dijk.

“On a number of routes more asphalt is very necessary and at the same time we want a number of new roads to be added to the investment program of the State – MIRT”.

The rest of the article consists of a description of the presumed financial damage that is caused by overtime delivery. One snippet is standing out here:

In the so-called Economic Roadmap (i.e. Economische Wegwijzer), it has been calculated which were the most expensive traffic jams for companies  in The Netherlands. 

Van Dijk: “Traffic jams not only cause annoyance, but also substantial financial damages for the whole logistical chain. Delays during the shipping process cause the required supplies to arrive too late in the stores and factories. This strongly delays the whole production process”.

Before I will give my opinion about this plea for more asphalt in The Netherlands by Arthur van Dijk, I want to take ourselves back to 2011, when the mortgage crisis had just grown into the longlasting economic slump that we came to know as the Great Recession of the 21st Century. It was one of my early articles:

The combination of increased road transport and passenger traffic led to roads and highways that were constantly overcrowded.

After the beginning of the credit crisis (in The Netherlands mid-2008), however, one could notice a clear decrease in the number of trucks on the road. Less visible but probably even more important is the substantial decrease of the average number of driven kilometers per car since 2005.

As a consequence there has been a dramatic decrease of the number and length of traffic jams in 2009, that is not at all compensated in 2010. Although the official figures from the CBS about road transport in 2010 are only presented in December 2011, a prognosis based on the core data of SME (Small and Medium Enterprise) showed an increase of 3.5% for road transport (see graph 1). This is clearly growth, but the total is still well under the total of 2007, the last year before the credit crisis.

Looking at the transport growth figures over the last three years (see graph 4), it shows clearly why the highways were less crowded, with especially 2009 being a disastrous year.

This brief view back into the economic situation of 2011 shows that the current traffic jams – irrespective of how damaging and annoying they are for the chauffeurs, the logistical companies and the big retail and wholesale companies – are first and foremost a sign of the longlasting economic growth and resulting success for these same companies after the recession.  

This is shown by the following chart, based upon data of the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics. 

The development of truck transport and courier activity since 2005
Data courtesy of
Chart by Ernst's Economy
Click to enlarge
When the roads seemed much less crowded during the early crisis years (2008 – 2011), that came because they WERE much less crowded. 

Both the number of trucks and delivery vans, as the number of passenger cars were reduced in those difficult years. This happened as a consequence of the diminished economic activity, as well as the mounting unemployment in those years. 

Those crisis years are definitely over for the transport and logistics companies...

This is clearly shown by the growing numbers of trucks and other means of (goods) transport on the road (i.e. delivery vans and minivans of freelance construction workers). This in spite of the fact that it sometimes seems differently for the average lower and middle class people, who still not seem to be out of the crisis yet. 

Many lower and middle class workers are still struck by a challenging labour market and stable or even diminishing purchase power, due to the tax increases during the last 7 years. But for transport and logistics companies the acute economic crisis is already finished for years.

The question now at hand is, however, whether we should meet the desires of the transport and logistics companies – as expressed by the spokesman of TLN  to lay down enough asphalt to meet the growing road transport demands for the future.

Apart from the infrastructural, nature and environmental challenges (“Is this small and already densely populated and quite polluted country meant to be a country for the people to live in or solely for the companies to build their business upon?”), there is the following very important question:

Are we already close to ‘peak transport’ (i.e. a natural "ceiling" in the now growing need for transport and logistics) or are we only at the beginning of a longterm period of economic growth, that will lead to much, much more road transport in the foreseeable future?!

And also this question: Is it not bad infrastructural planning and execution to create a massive road grid in The Netherlands, especially for the (indeed traditionally disastrous) months September – December? Months that stand out, due to their difficult weather situation with much rain, snow and wind, alltogether causing dense traffic and hence traffic jams? Or with their upcoming national holidays (i.e. Sinterklaas and Christmas), that bring their own logistical challenges? 

This question is especially topical, as during the remaining months of the year (January - August) the traffic is normally far, far less problematic for both trucks and passenger cars. 

Everybody, who drives to his work in the spring and the summer, understands what I mean! Traffic jams are mostly non-existent and when there, they are mostly provoked by car accidents, police speed traps and road works!

I think ‘we’ (i.e.The Netherlands) should not create such a monstrous road grid in our country, as this inevitably leads to a deteriorating living situation for most Dutch citizens, due to the expansive traffic and the accompanying exhaust and noise pollution. According to myself, we should first and foremost look to the few notorious intersections, where the situation is dramatic throughout the year and can be improved quite easily.

The addition of new asphalt to the already vast and dense array of highways in The Netherlands is in most cases only a temporary solution for an eternal problem, as it only discloses the next bottleneck and congestion-prone spot on the roads. And more and better roads often provoke further growth in (fossile fueled) traffic, that in the process tends to drive with higher average speeds, due to wider and better roads.  

And there is something more...

In the Nineties, there has been the worldwide rise of Just In Time delivery (i.e. JIT), as the panacea for the logistical problems of factories, distribution centres and (large) stores.

Instead of factories and individual stores keeping up large warehouses and storages in order to maintain the necessary stock for their production and sales process, the stocks were minimized dramatically, thanks to Just In Time delivery.

Stocks were closely monitored by the Enterprise Resource Planning (computer) systems of such stores, distribution centres and factories and as soon as certain thresholds in the stocks were reached (i.e. below the established ‘safety stock level’), a purchase order was placed to replenish the stocks within an agreed, relatively short amount of time. A truck or delivery van came running in that brought the necessary parts in time to let the sales or production process run unhampered and without delays.

This JIT delivery method dramatically diminished the necessary safety stocks for factories and stores and henceforth moved the costs for maintaining storages and warehouses from the companies itself to their suppliers and logistical partners, that were bound by very strict contracts.

The factories, distribution centres and stores were extremely happy with JIT, as their safety stock diminished strongly and so did their risks with respect to stock challenges (a.o. theft, fire, loss and unsaleable out-of-fashion stock).

So all is well that ends well?! Not for every aspect... 

As JIT urged the delivery of products and semi-manufactured goods at exactly the right time and in exactly the right amount, this led to more traffic of trucks and delivery vans; much more traffic, as a matter of fact.

There is quite a difference between trucks loaded to the brim with products and semi-manufactured goods for one particular company (i.e. factory or store) at one particular spot (i.e. warehouse or storage) at one hand and trucks that are either loaded with only a few products or semifabricates for one company or with goods for twenty-odd delivery addresses at the other hand. 

In both latter cases, JIT is here less efficient than the first mentioned 'old fashioned' delivery method.

Fully loaded trucks for one particular delivery address, with only a limited number of kilometers to drive, are much more efficient than half-loaded trucks or trucks (delivery vans) that have to deal with a large number of delivery addresses.

To these eyes, this is the fatal flaw of Just In Time delivery: less efficient delivery per truck or delivery van requires more trucks and delivery vans for the same amount of goods and semi-fabricates delivery and hence to more traffic on the road.

So where JIT is the most efficient delivery method for the receiving parties, as it reduces their cost of stock, it is definitely not the most efficient delivery method for the shipping companies, as it increases their amount of trucks and delivery vans and thus the traffic in general.

Whether stores, distribution centres and factories should maintain their JIT as the most efficient delivery method for them, or should be pushed by politics to keep up larger stocks in their own warehouses and storages, in order to reduce the number of trucks on the roads, is a political question. But it is a very important question to these eyes.

It is an undeniable fact that the roads are (over)crowded with trucks and delivery vans during the last months of the year, especially when one takes the more difficult traffic situation on the roads into consideration.

However, it is much too easy to just throw down extra asphalt, in favour of the transport and logistics companies, in order to solve this problem the easy way.
This country and especially its citizens won’t really benefit from this extra asphalt at all.

To these eyes, it is much better to look at more efficient ways of delivery, that reduce the necessary number of trucks and delivery vans, while eventually maintaining the current service level for factories, distribution centres and stores. 

This is a social, political and economic problem that should be solved by politicians and economists. Not just by infratructural construction companies alone.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Impressions from India, Pt II: Forget the robotized office tools for the next ten years... the Indians are coming now!

Like I already mentioned in the previous article, I have spent two weeks with my colleagues on a business trip to India, on behalf of my supermarket chain. It was a truly wonderful experience and one that I hope to repeat in 2018.

During our stay in Noida, close to (New) Delhi, I was struck by the fact that – apart from the large European and American ICT companies that one would expect there – the globally operating audit firms had also opened large subsidiaries in Noida.

Accenture, EY and KPMG were only three of the audit and consultancy firms that I saw during a short car trip on the “Silicon Expressway” (i.e. the name I gave it) from Noida to Delhi.

Office of Accenture in Noida, India
Picture courtesy of Accenture India
Click to enlarge
For me this was a tell-tale sign that the danger for many American and European middle class knowledge workers in the audit and consultancy industry does not (yet) come from the robotization of their workplace. No, it are the extremely qualified, but nevertheless much cheaper chartered accountants/auditors and consultants in India that might pose an immediate threat to such jobs in the Western world. And they are far from science fiction.

Office of KPMG in Noida, India
Picture courtesy of KPMG India
Click to enlarge
Of course, I don’t close my eyes for the recent emergence of IBM’s Watson and other robotized administrative tools in the bullpens of modern offices. I am convinced that within roughly a decade such strategic tools have eaten away a substantial amount of the moderately complex administrative work from the people that do it now on a daily basis.

And perhaps these tools might then even execute a large share of the more complex and cautious assessment and advisory work, that is the very heart of strategic auditing nowadays.

Nevertheless, as a seasoned ICT consultant and software tester with over 25 years of working experience, I know how darn hard it is to deploy new and extremely complex information management tools in organizations that are not yet familiar with them. Especially when the managers and normal employees don’t understand how they must use these tools in the most beneficial way.

Office of EY in Delhi, India
Picture courtesy of EY, India
Click to enlarge
Even though IBM advertises Watson as “the answer to all future questions”, I suspect that the first strategic implementation programmes and projects for Watson might become an expensive failure. Just for the reason that many new and extremely complex ICT projects tend to fail initially, due to a lack of experience among the contractors and lack of focus, as well as massive resistance, among the people that should use such systems and tools.

Only in a decade or more, there is probably enough experience and confidence available to bring such projects to a successful end, as then seasoned consultants will know about the challenges and pitfalls in such complex, strategic information projects.

So for now... perhaps you should forget the robotized office tools and think about the Indians first. They are smart and very well educated and trained... and they can be deployed immediately for all kinds of administrative and assessment labour. At least, that is my idea after seeing all these Western audit firms in Noida and elsewhere in India.

Of course these Western audit firms in India will probably also have more than enough assignments within the Indian domestic market itself; assignments that will undoubtedly yield a substantial share of their annual sales figures in India.

Nevertheless, in India there is ample availability of very high qualified workers, with a profound – close to native – knowledge of English and very good education and skills. Therefore, to these eyes, it is already a sound strategy for the large audit firms  to outsource a large share of their moderately complex, routine assessment work to India.

New housing facilities for the emerging
middle classes in Noida, India

Picture copyright of Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge
By doing so these companies strongly increase the audit capacity of their branches in Europe and the United States and it saves them roughly 50% in cost and expenses to do so.

Yesterday, I spoke with the (Indian) capacity manager of a large, Dutch ICT consultancy firm and he told me how hard it was to find sufficient qualified personnel in The Netherlands at this moment. And even though this capacity problem is most imminent for the Dutch and European ICT industries, this will also apply to complex administrative work, like auditing and accountancy. Hence, India...

The availability of sufficiently qualified and well-trained personnel is never a problem in India, with its population of roughly 1.3 billion people, among others existing of countless well-educated and very eager male and female professionals, with a strong desire for a better life for them and their loved ones.

In the past many outsourcing projects had to deal with huge setbacks and tough challenges, caused by cultural differences and mutual misunderstanding between the Indian knowledge workers and their Western principals. Nowadays, the number of knowledge workers with sufficient, hands-on experience in European and American companies, is growing. This strongly increases the success rate for large and complex projects in Europe and the United States, that are partially or fully executed on Indian turf.

Picture of shops in Delhi, India
Picture copyright of Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge
There is, however, a dark side about the success of the Indian knowledge workers in the ICT, consultancy and audit industry... A dark side for which the Indian consultants cannot be blamed at all, but that has nevertheless much influence upon the chances of the Western knowledge workers.

Many middle class workers in the Western world have dealt with stagnating or dropping purchase power during the last fifteen years, under pressure of the enduring economic crisis and earlier the popping of the dotcom bubble.

While the costs and expenses of most middle class workers have been rising by the year in especially Europe, due to inflation and tax hikes, their salary increases remained (close to) nought for many years in a row. Eventually this led to a stable, even dropping purchase power for many, many middle class workers.

But now the crisis has finally ended in the Western world and there is ample money at hand within the larger, profitable companies and the government. Therefore it would be the perfect time for such companies and government bodies to administer a sturdy wage hike, in order to get the middle class – as the motor of modern society – back on its feet again.

However, many large consultancy and audit firms – just like the ICT firms did twenty years before them – are now trying to cut their expenses (in my humble opinion), by deploying large numbers of knowledge workers in India. They do so in order to perform routine assessment activities overthere against lower costs, which were formerly done in the Western countries themselves. I don’t think this development is solely prompted by the lack of qualified workers in the Western world, even though this might have been a trigger initially.

Personally, I suspect it to be an ordinary austerity measure, that could have far-reaching impact on employment in the Western world. Especially as the costs for securely storing and shipping large packages (i.e. Terabytes) of classified data all over the world have dropped to almost nought and the possibilities for international video conferencing and other forms of direct communication are nearly endless and of excellent quality against low cost.

This whole development will inevitably lead to enduring downward pressure on the salaries of the middle class workers in the Western world and could hamper the oh so necessary wage hike that many Western workers are craving for. And of course this will also apply to the lower qualified workers in the Western world, who are already in a very awkward situation.

This is the reason that this development gives me mixed feelings. I am happy for the wonderful people in India, who have a good chance to rise above poverty and lead a prosperous and decent life with their relatives and friends. All these people do very well deserve to have good jobs and a good life and future ahead.

New housing facilities for the emerging
middle classes in Noida, India

Picture copyright of Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge
Nevertheless, I have some worries about the middle and lower classes in Europe and the United States. They are already suffering from the ongoing decrease in administrative and non-administrative routine jobs at their employers and from their slowly diminishing purchase power over the last fifteen years.

The current developments in India could have additional negative impact on their direct labour situation and their immediate future, in contrary to the robotization of their workplace. The latter seems only an issue for the more distant future (say, ten years), in my opinion. 

So please don’t worry too much about the robots yet... as the people that might take over your jobs in the near future are still very human and very well qualified for the job.