All entries for November 2010

November 26, 2010

On university fees

I signed, with a large number of colleagues, an open letter to last Monday's Guardian against the tripling of university fees in the UK (to 9,000 pounds/year - yes, 10,500 euros: ten-thousand-five-hundred-euros):

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/22/we-will-fight-with-students

Just a couple of additional personal thoughts, from a snowy Berlin where university education is free - but not bad at all.

On an economic note. All government calculations that university degrees make you earn fantastillions more, and therefore students should pay for them, are based on past data from times when very few (an elite) got university degrees. Now that university students approach 50% of their age group, by definition their future earnings cannot be, in most cases, much above average.

Anyway, the idea that a degree is worth fantastillions is immediately contradicted by the fact that fees will be payable starting from annual earnings of £19,000 (at today prices), which is well below average.

Even more, education is one of those fields where individual economic behaviour creates suboptimal results; if all is counted on money, all will choose the degrees with the highest expected earning, and as an effect they will overcrowd them and earn less. In addition, it neglects all positive externalities of university education, especially in sciences and humanities. A market of degrees is just a bad idea.

From the above, it follows that overinflating the prices of UK degrees is just a speculative bubble based on the irrational belief that those pieces of papers will make you lots of money. Can't we learn anything from previous speculation bubbles?

On a social note. The idea that working-class students will not be discouraged, to somebody who has interviewed hundreds of workers, is totally ludicrous. The psychological barriers to university access are huge for working-class kids: why should they now opt for a risky university route involving either failure or a £27,000 debt, instead of a safer job route involving no debt and the appreciation of peers/family?

On a comparative note. The much-invoked example of Swedish drastic budget-cutting in the early 1990s actually ring-fenced higher education. And anyway, Sweden had a very large public budget: you can have a more drastic diet if you have large fat reserves. The anomaly of the UK is not that public expenditure is too high, but that taxes are too low (same for Ireland by the way).

Finally, on a positive note. Maybe these mad fees will at least achieve something nothing else has done: raise British kids' interest in foreign languages. So they can then get a good degree on the continent, save 27,000 quid (or nearly that much), get unique life-enriching experience - and in the meanwhile even enjoy some sunshine, beach or skiing.


November 25, 2010

The European Parliament's film prize: great art, worrying politics

In Berlin, like in all EU capitals, three movies were shown to the public last week: the finalists of the European Parliament’s LUX film prize(you can see the trailers on the website). What does the European Parliament have to do with cinema? Not much, but cinema is very important in European culture, and it is a “good” that cannot be left to the market, as the trade liberalisation would like. No European country can compete, in terms of market size, with American producers: languages are natural barriers. This is why we would need, for a level playing ground, quotas on the number of American movies on TV, or at least, strong public support to European cinema. And the best way to do it is to create synergies among the different European countries, increasing mutual interest.

The European Parliament’s prize privileges, in particular, films about multicultural dialogue that are to some extent multilingual, to get the public more used to hearing different speaks in the cinema – just as it happens now in European streets, after all. It will also produce 27 versions of the three shortlisted films, with the subtitles for each EU language. Indeed multilinguism can be very powerful in cinema, even more than in novels. I loved the recent idea by Godard to present a multilingual movie (“Film socialisme”) with unintelligible subtitles at the last Cannes, for the anger of monolingual Anglophone reporters – a very good point, but in the meanwhile subtitles are already one step further than dubbing, monolinguism and English domination.

This year, the festival’s topic was particularly interesting for this blog: migration. The three finalists were the Belgian Illégal (by Masset-Depasse), the Greek “Akadimia Platonos” (by Tsitos) and the German “Die Fremde” (by Aladag). No space for three reviews here, but let’s just say that they are three masterpieces, making full justice on one clear superiority of European cinema above the American: the capacity to be about real life, instead of mere evasion from it. The three stories are very different and deserve to be summarised.

“Illégal” is about a Russian woman living illegally in Belgium with her 10-yo son. One day is she found without documents and interned. To avoid expulsion, she refuses to reveal her identity and origin, knowing that after six months they will have to release her, and she will be able to reunite with her son. But life in a detention centre alongside other similarly desperate souls proves much more inhuman than she expects – can she endure what amounts to psychological torture for so long? Those who appreciate, and can stomach, tough claustrophobic movies about prisons (for instance two recent worthy European additions to the genre: “Hunger” by Steve McQueen, on Northern Ireland, and “Un prophète” by Jacques Audiard, on France), this is for you. I personally found the choice of a well-educated educated Russian as victim slightly over-the-top: if her desperate refusal to return to Russia is not totally implausible (she wants the son to stay, and the son will need her), it feels like a trick to get the viewers’ sympathy, as if more “average” illegal immigrants were less deserving. But indeed it is another powerful denunciation of the inhumane treatment of “illegal” immigrants.akadimia_platonos.jpg

The second movie is, instead, extremely funny. It portrays the middle-aged Stevros, spending day after day sitting outside his kiosk with his three friends on a little Athene’s square, drinking coffee (the picture of the four make a perfect image of the state of the Greek economy and of Greek gender relations). With no much else to do, a privileged discussion topic is commenting on the Albanian and Chinese workers (who of them works more? why do they do it?), and rewarding their “Patriot” dog for barking at any Albanian passing by. But one day, Stevros’s old mother, who sits equally motionless nearby, stands up and hugs an Albanian worker, speaking to him in Albanian and calling him her son. It appears that she had left him behind in Albania, when fleeing with newborn Stevros… Poor Stevros tries to minimise the event and to confirm, first of all to himself, his Hellenicity ("ok, my mother speaks Albanian, but it's because she had a heart attack"), but his friends start doubting he is still one of them… The first hour makes unstoppable laughing. After then, the joke starts running out, and some sentimentalism creeps him, but overall the film is a very good way for Europe to laugh at itself (not just Greeks; Italians too saw the Albanians as the source of all evils in the 1990s, but now that Albanians have integrated so well into Italy, they shifted their target to the Romanians; to some extent, all other European countries have their favourite targets, be it Moroccans, Pakistanis, Turks or Russians: there could be 26 EU remakes of this movie).

The final movie, “Die Fremde” (The stranger), tells of a Turkish young woman from Berlin, escaping with her little son from her violent husband in Turkey, searching refuge with her family in Berlin, but being then rejected by them too for bring shame on the house. In terms of structure, it is the most coherent and accomplished of the three, and the Kreuzberg district is very well portrayed. It dramatically says what I have heard often in Berlin: "I am not German for the Germans, I am not Turkish for the Turks".

The European Parliament chose the winner this week. As MEPs do not know anything about cinema (and some do not know anything about anything, as the UKIP Godfrey Bloom who yesterday was ejected for shouting “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer"), I expected their choice to be not on artistic merit, but on political calculation. Leftwingers should prefer the social denunciation of “Illégal”; liberals should like the ridiculing of the bigot masses in “Akadimia Platonos”; and the populist Right would fall for the topic of Muslim honour killing in “Die Fremde”. But the Christian- and social-democrats, i.e. the largest groups? Eventually, “Die Fremde” won, which is a sad political sign about the feelings in the European Parliament. For MEPs, honour killing is a more urgent problem than the human treatment of undocumented migrants and of xenophobia - and probably just because for honour killing they can blame somebody else. I wish "Die Fremde"  had won the artistic prize it deserves, instead of a political one.


November 24, 2010

The Germans on terrorist alerts and Irish alarms

Since last week there is in Germany one of those unspecified terrorist alerts that Michael Moore ridiculed in his "Fahrenheit 9/11". Possible targets are airports, stations and Christmas markets in the big cities. Reichstag’s dome by Normal Foster has been closed to tourists, and there are scary pictures in the press of armed police with their German Shepherd dogs in front of the Brandenburger Tor. And we are continuously reminded that the 9/11 terrorists came from Hamburg and there is a good share of Taliban fighters with German passports.

On the other side, I have been through the airport at the week-end, and yesterday I was at a very big event with the economic and political elite, including Angela Merkel. In both cases extra security measures were clearly visible, but rather low-key and unobstrutive – any British airport without alert is more fussy than the German ones during the alert. Which begs the question: if these alerts are for political consumption, why does not Merkel use it to the full? Is somebody else behind it? Who, the media who don’t have anything else to show to sell? Or worse of all, if it is not for political consumption, should we then start worrying for real?

Not that the Germans seem to worry much. But with a self-deprecating attitude that seems to characterize all European nations, they blame themselves not to worrying enough, rather than congratulating themselves for non panicking. In the news they even report that in Britain they know much better how to behave in case of terrorist alert because the government informs everybody and people have been trained for any event. I can’t remember anything of this kind: it must be that the neighbor’s terrorist alert is always greener.

More seriously are taken the financial alerts: the Euro is not as loved and looked after as the DM but it is still something very important. Yet the reactions to the Irish crisis are very different from those to the Greek crisis at the beginning of the year (on which I recommend this working paper by Dorothee Bohle). When it was Greece needing bailing-out, all the German media were scandalized by the breaching of the Growth and Stability Pact and by the immorality of saving the undeserving, undisciplined Greeks. Now, while in the English speaking media (Guardian, Financial Times) there are articles criticizing German strictness and self-righteousness, actually, the Germans this time are being very quiet and condescending, back to the old motto "a good German is a good European". Merkel has expressed a little obligatory concern with fiscal discipline (well, she can't say the Irish are free to use the 85bn Euro as they like, can she? there is not enough Guinness on the island) but basically nobody objects to saving Ireland, and there is very little fuss about it.

Why the different treatment of the Irish and the Greeks? Certainly, you can lose virginity only once, and once the Growth and Stability Pact’s article on national debts being non-transferable has been violated once, the following violations make little news. Also, there are objective differences between the nature of the debt of Ireland and that of Greece: while Greece has been in chronic debt since independence, Ireland was running, until the crisis, a clean budget. Germans still remember, with a little shame, how just a few years ago Ireland had a budget surplus while Germany itself (tu quoque!) was breaching the deficit limit – and how the Council criticized Ireland for planning tax cuts, while it closed an eye or two on Germany. Beside these objective differences, there may well be a little bias: it is undoubtedly easier, in Germany, to despise the Southern Europeans (I know something about it), than it is despising the Irish.

But more important than the national bias may be the economic bias. That is, falling into debt because of unbalanced, “over-generous” social welfare and subsidies to a frail economy, as in Greece, is morally unacceptable. But falling into debt in order to save disastrously-behaving banks, in which incidentally the Germans have invested so much, is morally OK.


November 14, 2010

In praise of the Turkish ambassador in Vienna

There is a little of Schadenfreude, in Berlin, in the fact that in Austria the discussion has fallen to even lower levels than in Germany. The quite depressing, intellectually sloppy German debate on the alleged "parallel society" of “integration-objecting” Turkish immigrants was triggered in August by the over-million-selling book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” by Thilo Sarrazin, then Socialdemocratic member of the Bundesbank’s board. It rarely happens for a near 500-page long quasi-scientific book on the labour market to sell so much and to have so much ‘impact’ (lots of REF points for him – which also proves that instant impact and good research are unlikely to go together). Commenting on it was one of my priority tasks when arrived to Germany but I still have not read the whole book: I can’t bring myself to buy it and there is a queue of dozens reservations on the library copies. Fortunately, Berlin’s bookshops are very relaxed, comfortable spaces so I could easily read a few core chapters while immersed in an armchair for an hour or so, before putting the book back on the shelve and cleaning my hands. So I probably know the book better than most people who comment on it, but still I prefer to wait before a real review, and I limit myself to point at the striking similarities between Sarrazin’s charts on comparative fertility and the Nazi ones.

By contrast, I have read the whole interview in die Presse given on the 9th November by the Turkish ambassador in Vienna, Kadri Ecved Tezcan, which caused so much furore and offense in Austria. Of course, he has not been “diplomatic” and therefore he has probably stepped outside of his role (although it may have all been calculated as a warning to Austria to stop sabotaging EU-Turkey talks). But apart that I remember the German ambassador to the UK, on a visit to Warwick, being also quite undiplomatic about the Turks, this blog does not have to be diplomatic so I will take Tezcan’s words at face value. Anatolia

His sentence “except holidays, Austrians have no interest in foreign cultures” was indeed an undue generalisation. But it was largely justified by the preceding and following points, for instance that no Austrians, except politicians looking for votes, bother popping in at the large Turkish Kermes fest in Vienna. Beside the generalisation, the sentence actually sounds to me as too kind towards the Austrians: I would have said that even during their holidays abroad, Austrians [replace with the name of your western nation of choice, especially if England] have no interest in foreign cultures. Let’s be more frank than the ambassador: the crowds of half-naked, pork-eating, money-flashing drunk burping western tourists in Muslim countries are worse than the worst Muslim immigrants to Europe (I have seen some in Morocco, Egypt, Malaysia, and run away as far as possible from them).

For the rest, the ambassador only said things that are either well-known to migration specialists, or just good sense. That placing migration policies under the Home Office (Innenministerium), rather than for instance Social affairs, calls for police solutions instead of social policies. That the Austrian home secretary, Maria Fekter, just like Angela Markel are not giving good examples of tolerance when arguing against multiculturalism (all the more that they stop short of proposing any alternative model). That failed education and social integration stems from the ghettoes produced by housing policies and by Austrian parents’ unwillingness to mix their children with Turks (many Turkish children in Austria are segregated in schools where they make 60-70% of the class). That the presence of Turkish teachers could help Turkish children gain self-esteem and reading and writing skills. That pre-school education for migrants’ children should be enhanced. That if nude bathing is allowed, then headscarves could be allowed too. That forced headscarf-wearing, and forced marriage, should be prosecuted as crimes regardless of religion. That the Austrian social-democrats are so scared of the populist Right to say a word about the treatment of immigrants. That if the Viennese don’t want foreigners (26% of them just voted for the extreme-right FPÖ), also the international organisations that crowd (and enrich) the city (UN, OSCE, OPEC…) should leave. And that it is a pity this happens in a country heir of the most multicultural of modern European states, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

All this can be summarised with a point: integration is a social and political process, much more than a minority’s choice. Much is said in both Germany and Austria about an alleged 10-15% of Muslim Integrationsverweigenerer, or ‘integration objectors’. This much-repeated number comes from some surveys saying that this is the share of Muslim migrants who are very religious and/or have no regular contacts with Germans or Austrians. Now, this has nothing to do with refusing integration, nor even with integration itself. It is a basic sociological finding, since the times of the Chicago School, that involvement in a minority association or cultural life, is associated with higher, not lower integration with the rest of society – because those associations provide social capital, information, trust and self-esteem that are needed to integrate. As to the last question, in order to have contacts with German/Austrian neighbours, first you need to have German/Austrian neighbours, and second you need them not to refuse you. Ambassador Tezcan, in his first year in Austria, has only been invited once into an Austrian home, out of Vienna. Similarly, the most frequently repeated example of integration refusal in Germany is not attendance of the "integration courses", compulsory for non-working immigrants. But actually, there is a long waiting list for these course as it is the supply, not the demand, to be insufficient: who is denying the integration whom, then?

Of course, integration refusal is a serious problem. But not with regard to Muslim minorities. Even if that 10-15% were a serious number, 10-15% of 5% of the population makes some 0.5-0.7%: is this the invading army, the submerging flood we should be panicking about? A little de-segregating housing and education policies would be enough to dissolve it. The real, dangerous integration deniers are the native upper classes: who lock themselves in gated communities, socialise in their own clubs, send their children to private schools (or elite state schools), threaten to leave the country if taxes are raised, and undermine the democratic texture of society. That's a parallel society. I am all in favour of ‘forced integration’ policies, as long as we start from them.

The only Austrian party to express appreciation of Tezcan’s words are the Greens. They got 13% in last month’s Viennese elections and they now joined the city government in coalition with the socialdemocrats (the Green deputy mayor Maria Vassilakou is of Greek descent). In Berlin, the Greens are leading in the opinion polls and their leader Renate Künast may become mayor in 2011. Some fresh air?


November 01, 2010

Warsaw's Brave New World

Nowy Świat (New World) is the most representative shopping street of Warsaw’s (rebuilt) city centre. The most famous outlet is still probably the Blika patisserie, one of the very few private family shops under communism, famous for its doughnuts. At the corner with Świętokrzyska there used to be a historic café with the same name Nowy Świat. Opened in 1883, it was for over a century a favourite meeting place for artists, intellectuals and, increasingly, dignitaries and agents. I was there often in the early-mid 1990s. As a western student I could easily afford its inflated prices, and wait for the hyper-slow state-sector service. Even without liking its decadent stuccoes & decor, nor the occasional fraudsters trying to lure foreigners into the most improbable ventures, at a stone's throw from the University it was then one of the very few quiet places one could use for meetings and interviews, as well as to catch up with the western press. But like many other state-owned addresses, it shut down. For a decade or so, the landlord, i.e. the city council, did not know what to do with it.

Nowy Wspanialy SwiatFinally, last year, the council called a contest for opening a non-profit cultural centre in it. Out of 15 competitors, this was won by the leftwing group Krytyka Polityczna, for its proposal of a multi-function bar + cultural centre focusing on photography, cinema, literature, music and politics. The café-cum-cultural centre is called “Nowy Wspaniały Świat” (Brave New World), in a double-edged irony of the previous place and of Huxley’s dystopia, and it has been a successful bet. Its varied program is very attractive and the place has become very popular and crowded. To the point of annoying part of the establishment. No less than Jarosław Kaczyński, the former prime minister and narrowly-defeated presidential candidate, complained recently that Warsaw’s mayor could offer such a prestigious address to a leftist group who can use it to corrupt the Polish youth attending the nearby university. Warsaw’s mayor is the liberal-conservative Hanna Gronkiewitz-Waltz, herself very traditional, but not as much as her predecessor, Jarosław’s twin Lech, who must be turning in his grave. A good share of Nowy Wspaniały Świat’s program is taken by LGBT initiatives – Lech used to ban gay events, and now these are not just tolerated but even indirectly sponsored by the city (to complicate things, according to the twins’ former friend and now enemy Lech Wałesa, the ever-bachelor Jarosław used to hang around with a ‘husband’).

Palac Kultury i Nauk: chains' postocommunist takeoverOn the 21st of November Poles will vote in the local elections and Warsaw’s citizens will probably confirm Hanna Gronkiewitz-Waltz. Nowy Wspaniały Świat will then survive as a brilliant exception in the otherwise hyper-consumerist Warsaw’s City Centre flooded with bars’ and restaurants’ chains, and the populist right will endure a severe fourth consecutive electoral defeat. Kaczyński may not be helped by his candid admission that during the presidential campaign he was under the effect of strong painkillers to cope with his brother’s loss, and did not really know what he was saying – the reason why he had actually seemed quite human to my blog, but imagine a US presidential candidate admitting that he was on drugs during the campaign.


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