Gasp! Are the Dutch turning into Belgians?

Dutch people like to make fun of Belgians. Dutch jokes about Belgians tend to focus on their alleged stupidity. Naturally, the Belgians makes fun of the Dutch — mostly for their stinginess and lack of joie de vivre. For the Dutch, Belgians represent profligacy and irresponsibility of the highest order: their wildly extravagant Carnival parties, their obsession with fine (expensive) French cuisine, interior design and fashion, and on the political side, their inability to keep stable, long-lasting (3 years or more) governments or to even form a government (in 2011, Belgium had the dubious honor of running itself for more than year from election day without a government).

Geert Wilders, enfant terrible of Dutch politics

Unfortunately, the Dutch may be slowly turning into Belgians. A mere 2 years after the last election, the Dutch are once again without a government. The rickety coalition, which had been held together by a bizarre patchwork of “interests”, exemplified notably by the bottle-blond right-wing Geert Wilders (leader of the Dutch Freedom Party), a man who before 2010 had been the laughingstock of a vast majority of the Netherlands, fell apart over the question of how the Netherlands should meet the European Union’s 3 percent budget deficit limit. You can just see them in parliament arguing over budget cuts and tax increases: Increase VAT (which is already 19 percent)? Raise the retirement age (and stop 60-plussers from retiring at 65 to their homes in the Dordogne)? Raise taxes? Cut welfare payments? Trim school budgets? In the end, Geert Wilders’ party walked out on the coalition government after refusing to back an austerity budget that would have hit the pocketbooks of pensioners.

The Dutch obsess over their AAA rating, which has been threatened with a downgrade last week. And they are obsessed with meeting the EU’s rules because they consider themselves to be true “EUropeans” and keepers of the flame of fiscal responsibility and civilized governance. After years of looking down on those pesky, unreliable Mediterraneans (the Spanish, Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese) and the Irish (pseudo-Mediterraneans because of their Catholic faith), the Dutch cannot afford to lose face by failing to meet the very criterion (3 percent budget deficit ceiling) they’ve been foisting on other Europeans for decades.

For the Netherlands, the 3 percent ceiling represents the invisible line between the responsible, upstanding citizens of Europe (i.e. themselves and begrudgingly the Germans, whom they openly despise, but secretly admire, plus a few insignificant Nordic neighbors) versus the rest  (including French, who irritate the Dutch more than any other nation because they manage to have both joie de vivre and a powerful economy, and without whom there would be no high-speed trains connecting the country to civilisation (also known as Paris)).

Now as their political parties argue about when to hold elections, the Dutch are beginning to wonder whether they are turning into Belgians, a people so deeply divided that they agree only on one thing – Tom Boonen (currently no. 1 cyclist in the world after winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix).

The truth is that even though the Netherlands has had many political parties, they have, until the last decade, represented various flavours of the same bland ice cream – vanilla with hazelnuts, vanilla with cherries, vanilla with pistachio nuts, vanilla with chocolate chips. But this has changed.

Dutch society is no longer as homogeneous as it used to be, even among white Dutch people. Many have traveled overseas; many have lived abroad and have foreign partners, and many more refuse to conform to the traditional Dutch saying, “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg” (loose transation: even if you doing what everyone else is doing, you’re doing crazy things). It’s what the Dutch tell each other to force one another to conform. But today people can’t even agree on standards of behavior. The “pillars” of society have fallen – there used to be Catholic pillars and Protestant pillars to which people belonged and conformed. No more.

The last 20 years have brought immense changes to Dutch society and many Dutch people feel that the political establishment — those serious men and women who are supposed to run the country — have let them down terribly. Their politicians don’t represent them, they fight among themselves for power without regard to ordinary people’s sufferings, and then cave in to “outside powers”. Depending on the person’s political affiliation, these outside powers can be the European Union’s meddling, wasteful bureaucrats or the powerful monied interests represented by the banks or some vague international conspiracy of the IMF, the banks and the EU’s Brussels mafia.

What we are seeing today in the Netherlands is a society as deeply polarized as Belgium’s, not by a simple language barrier, but by religion, ethnicity, wealth, education and geography. It’s a country that is too small to be divided, unlike Belgium, which one could easily see being split up into Flanders and Wallonia. It’s a society violently whiplashed by the rapid changes of the past 20 years so that people agree less and less on fewer and fewer things.

Carol Bartz and the absence of dignity in public life

Don’t you expect better from people who are over the age of 18 and happen to be heads of publicly traded companies? Don’t you expect some measure of dignity and restraint? I do.

So when I see a public figure like Carol Bartz, who was fired by Yahoo the other day, whining all over the press like a 3-year old, I shake my head. She told Fortune: “These people fucked me over.” 

She claims she told the Yahoo chairman of the board, who had telephoned her to tell her that she did not have a job any longer, “Why don’t you have the balls to tell me yourself?… I thought you were classier.”

Classier in the eyes of Carol Bartz is something other people owe her, not something she owes to herself and to the world.

By bitching and moaning in public, Carol is just as unclassy as the person who fired her. And what is it about these CEOs who feel that they are owed a huge favour, a red carpet way of being fired, complete with champagne and orchestral music?

You know how CEOs fire employees in the US? Mere employees (aka wage slaves) get a few minutes to clear out their desks while being watched by security. They are not allowed to say goodbye to colleagues, and they are escorted out the door by security, as if they were criminals.

This is what boards of directors need to do to CEOs and other executives in companies: treat them exactly the way they treat their employees.

Exercise is the key to staying young, at least among mice

NYT article about research on mice genetically programmed to grow old at an accelerated pace — the ones that did not exercise died right away, the ones that ran vigorously everyday lived much longer and looked younger, too:

The researchers were surprised by the magnitude of the impact that exercise had on the animals’ aging process, Dr. Tarnopolsky said. He and his colleagues had expected to find that exercise would affect mitochondrial health in muscles, including the heart, since past research had shown a connection. They had not expected that it would affect every tissue and bodily system studied.

Talented people leaving the US

Reverse brain drain: “More skilled immigrants are giving up their American dreams to pursue careers back home, raising concerns that the U.S. may lose its competitive edge in science, technology and other fields. “What was a trickle has become a flood,” says Duke University’s Vivek Wadhwa, who studies reverse immigration. Wadhwa projects that in the next five years, 100,000 immigrants will go back to India and 100,000 to China, countries that have had rapid economic growth. “For the first time in American history, we are experiencing the brain drain that other countries experienced,” he says.”

I read somewhere else that for the first time, the percentage of Chinese students studying outside China went to countries other than the US. In the past, the US got most of the students. I wonder if this trend can be found with students from other countries.

One American's experience of the British NHS

It’s funny how American conservatives get all it all wrong about the British NHS or any other country’s “socialized” medicine. They’ve been calling it a disaster but it works quite well, as Stephen Amidon, an American writer living in Britain, recently wrote in Salon:

“This, I learned, is what the NHS is about — common decency. It is about the shared belief that all the people who live in the United Kingdom constitute a society, and a decent society provides certain necessities for its members. Freedom from hunger is one. Police protection is another. Free healthcare from the cradle to the grave is simply one more item on this list.”

I’ve lived in the Netherlands for over a decade, My health insurance is fairly inexpensive and I have no complaints. The Netherlands does not have a “public” option; all health insurance is carried out by private insurers, but they are subject to very strict rules. They can’t just throw you out, they have to insure people with pre-existing conditions, and they compete with one another. It’s a single payer system.

I recently moved to San Francisco temporarily for business and my monthly health insurance premium here is three times what it was in the Netherlands, the care is no better, the copayments are outrageous, the prescription drugs much more expensive. That means ordinary people are getting ripped off big time and the US government is supporting the rip-off. That people have to go bankrupt because they can’t pay for healthcare is nothing short of barbaric.

Unfortunately the same rip-off artists lobby our federal and state legislators to pass laws that keep this unjust system in place. And ordinary people just let this happen because they’ve got their own nice little healthcare package and they don’t care what happens to others. Until of course, they get laid off. Suddenly the world does not seem so sunny anymore.

I don’t think much will change in the US until the mentality changes from “I’ve got mine, screw you” (which has been the dominant ethos for decades in this country) to “We need to make sure we take care of each other.”

10 worthwhile summer projects

It’s summer, the perfect time to embark on a project that will take two months. The idea is to nourish your creative and spiritual life, and integrate it with your physical health, not just this summer but throughout your existence. Here are my top 10 summer projects. I will talk about each one in greater detail over the next ten days.

(1) Meditate

(2) Do yoga

(3) Read great books

(4) Write poetry

(5) Finish a novella or a collection of short stories

(6) Learn HTML, CSS, PHP, Javascript, Ajax

(7) Swim (or run)

(8) Learn French (or any other language)

(9) Learn to cook delicious vegetarian food

(10) Learn to draw or paint

NYC mayor uses tax money to build stadium for richest sports team

It’s funny how things work in the US. They don’t want to spend public funds for health care, fiber-based high-speed broadband networks, repairing crumbling bridges, parks, schools and other important matters that serve the general public. But, when it comes to helping wealthy corporate sponsors and their investors suck money from the public, US politicians are heading the charge. This article in Salon by David Sirota says it all: The House That Taxpayers Built about NYC spending public funds to build a stadium for the richest sports team, the Yankees, thanks to the city’s mayor (excerpt):

“Nothing better captures the moment’s destructive greed than a billionaire politician using the municipal office he bought to defend charging $2,500 a ticket to a new Yankee Stadium he forced the public to finance. If there is a single act showing how kleptocracy and let-them-eat-cake-ism are systemic and local rather than momentary and exclusively federal, Bloomberg turning the House that Ruth Built into the House That Taxpayers Built is it. Foreign oligarchs use guns to confiscate citizens’ wages. American oligarchs rely on government to give theft the aura of legitimacy, and Manhattan’s richest man is no exception. As an investigation by Democratic Assemblyman Richard Brodsky documents, Bloomberg used various public agencies to extract between $1 billion and $4 billion from taxpayers and then spent the cash on a new stadium for the Yankees, the wealthiest corporation in sports.”

I run, a site about citywide wireless broadband projects and WiMAX, and for years, many people screamed, “oh don’t use public funds to build broadband networks!” Or “it’s a waste of public money to build fiber-based broadband that all ISPs can use as backhaul.” A waste? Building high-speed networks that benefit businesses and residents and are open to service providers?

Yet, when it comes to wasting money on a sports stadium, suddenly, the public purse is open and ready to be picked. The reason: politicians get lots of money for their campaigns from corporations and rich people, so they do what they are told by their benefactors. Corrupt is the only word for this.