Santa Claus, Liquefied

In January 1990, the American magazine Spy convened a panel of scientific experts to answer the question whether Santa Claus exists. 

Their conclusions, although somewhat dry and technical, have become a heart-warming Christmas classic.  I reprint it here to add a little dose of analytical objectivity to warm Christmas feelings:

1)    No known species of reindeer can fly. But there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not completely rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

2)    There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. Since Santa doesn’t (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there’s at least one good child in each.

3)    Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.

This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man- made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

4)    The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that "flying reindeer" (see point #1) could pull ten times the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload – not even counting the weight of the sleigh – to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison – this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.

5)    353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion – If Santa ever did deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.

Mannesmann, Prosecutorial Appeals, and the Search for Truth

Before I write a gigantic comment on the Mannesmann case, I just want to comment on the fact that my blog seems to have been mentioned on the pages of a university website.  I admit, it is true that I sometimes teach at a German university.  My colleagues are nice, dedicated people who tolerate my peculiarities.  They gave me a tiny little office and a tiny little salary, and I teach the students a few of the things I know.

Nevertheless, I grew up in Texas, where keeping your distance from institutions is regarded as necessary.  I want to make sure everyone understands that this blog is entirely my own private creation, and has nothing whatsoever to do with any university or other institution.  Nobody has any control or influence over what I say here except me.

Now enough with the legal disclaimers and declarations of independence.  Yesterday, the Bundesgerichtshof (sort of like the U.S. Supreme Court) did something interesting — they acted on an appeal by a prosecutor an reversed an acquittal in the trial court.  I thought this was worth a quick pre-holiday comment, since a "prosecutorial appeal" like this is impossible under American law.

The background is the sale of the German Mannesmann communications conglomerate to the British Vodafone company back in 2000.  During the negotiations, the Mannesmann board agreed to pay former directors of Mannesmann very large bonuses for their participation in the negotiations.  Klaus Esser, former CEO of Mannesmann, pocketed a cool €30 million. Someone filed a complaint with the Düsseldorf district attorney’s office, which started an investigation.

Esser and his co-defendants (including Josef Ackermann, who has since become CEO of Deutsche Bank) claimed the payments were proper.  The board approved the bonuses to key players on Mannesmann’s side to compensate them for the imminent loss of their jobs and for their critical negotiation skill, which resulted in the sale to Vodafone at a good premium and, thus, a benefit for all Mannesmann shareholders.  Nonsense, said the prosecutor.  The payments were far out of proportion to any services rendered and represented a waste of the shareholders’ money and a betrayal of the directors’ duties to Mannesmann shareholders.

A hugely-publicized trial was held in Düsseldorf in 2004.  The case was one of the the most important business-law trials in German history.  On 22 July 2004, the judge of the regional court acquitted all the defendants.  Although she found some of the defendants’ dealings questionable, they were lapses in judgment, not crimes.

In the United States, the case would end here. If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, that’s the end of the story, once and for all.  The prohibition on Double Jeopardy prevents the state from prosecuting the defendant for that crime again.  The rationale for this rule is that being put on trial itself is a major interruption in someone’s life, and the state must be prevented from using it to punish people against whom it does not have a genuine legal case.  The state gets one shot at convicting you, and one shot only.  If the jury does not agree, the state cannot appeal; the case is over.

In Germany, though, the prosecution can appeal judgments of acquittal, which it did in the Mannesmann case.  The German Supreme Court just reversed the acquittal, which means the defendants will be sent back to district court and tried again.  (The judgment, which I haven’t yet read, is apparently interesting and wide-ranging.  Perhaps I’ll comment on it later.)

The prosecution’s ability to appeal shows an interesting conceptual divide between American law and Germany’s civil-law system.  The American idea is highly procedural: the truth, whatever it might be, emerges only from the adversarial back-and-forth combat of the trial process.  Once the trial has been held, the result of the trial is the truth — or at least as close as we can humanly get to the truth.  There may be a real truth (did he really do it?) somewhere out there, but the only truth that counts for the purpose of the legal system is the jury’s verdict.  If the jury acquits the defendant (which is very rare, but can happen), the defendant can walk out of the courtroom, face the television cameras, and proudly confess to the very crime of which he was just acquitted.  He will face no legal consequences.

This fact stuns and disturbs many Continental observers, because in the civil-law context, it is assumed that the trial is only a vehicle for establishing the real truth.  The ability of the prosecution to appeal acquittals in Germany makes sense under this view.  In the U.S., the system lets defendants appeal to show their conviction was a mistake.  But under the German view, it is just as likely that some mistake was made at trial that led to the mistaken acquittal of the defendant. But the real question is not who the error benefited, the real question is whether the error led the trial court away from the "real" truth.  If the state can show such an error happened, the trial must start again.

I don’t have a strong opinion about this myself, but I think it highlights an interesting difference in mentality.  Other Americans do have strong opinions, though.  Conservative American legal scholars admire European criminal justice systems (it’s about the only thing American conservatives admire about Europe, except for the cars and the wine). 

These scholars see European criminal trials as a efficient, no-nonsense searches for truth, in comparison with American "circus" trials.  European trials, in these scholars’ view, feature no silly theatrics for the jury, or trivial fights about rules and procedures — just a search for the truth.  A good statement of this point of view can be found in the book Trials Without Truth, by Prof. Charles Pizzi, an American who has studied Continental criminal-justice systems, which he admires as "strong."  In these countries:

A defendant who has committed a serious crime knows that if the evidence against him is strong, he is likely to be convicted.  The chances of distracting the fact finders from the task at hand or of obtaining a mistrial by baiting a judge into error are very slim.  In this situation, if a defendant wishes to enter into an agreement that will assure him a somewhat lighter sentence in return for avoiding a full trial this makes sense, given the limited judicial resources in most countries.  While the defendant does receive a break in terms of the sentence, he admits to what he did and hopefully the sentence imposed is roughly appropriate to the crime. (185)

I am not in full agreement with Pizzi, but I thought it might be interesting to German Joys readers to know that there are people out there who’ve studied the German justice system and found much to admire. 

Well, with this long post I’ll probably shut up for a while, since the holidays are upon us and I will be flying back to the U.S.  I hope everyone’s holidays are safe and pleasant, and that you’ll come back for more German Joys in 2006…

That “Healthy Folkish Feeling”

Today on "Daily Discussion," the daily call-in show on my local public radio this morning, they discussed whether it was acceptable for German police and officials to rely on information that might have been obtained through torture, as German Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schaeble suggested on Sunday.  Most of the callers are saying soothing, nice things about how this raises serious questions, perhaps it’s wrong, of course German police and officials must never be permitted to use torture themselves, etc.

Then a guy called up who had a rather different perspective. " We’re not tough enough with all these damned criminals, he said.  I don’t care what the police have to do, ’cause after all the criminals sure weren’t respecting the law.  The only reason we don’t get tough with criminals is because a bunch of weenie lawyers make all the rules, and those lawyers get all their common sense trained out of them in law school… "  I’m sure you can imagine the rest yourself.

The funny thing, though, is that this caller used a rather odd phrase for "common sense."  He said gesundes Volksempfinden, (literally "healthy folk-feeling").

This phrase derives from the vague quasi-mystical concept of das Volk — the "nation" or "people."  Das Volk itself, according to German racialist thought, has a sort of collective soul and consciousness, which includes a healthy and natural urge to defend itself from danger posed by racial contamination.  The "healthy folk-feeling" is an expression of this urge.  The phrase occurs over and over in laws passed during the Third Reich.  Judges were allowed to essentially invent new crimes when they felt that a person’s conduct violated "healthy folk-feeling," but was not expressly prohibited by law. 

Using this phrase in public without irony is Not Done.  The moderator of the program actually interrupted the caller at this point and told him to use the politically neutral phrase gesunder Menschenverstand ("healthy human understanding").  The caller saw that he’d revealed a little too much of his psychic underbelly.  He corrected himself, and then continued his pro-torture tirade. 

Since we’re on the subject anyway, here is an anti-Nazi joke, from this page (German) of them:

The current Penal code is complicated and superfluous.  A new one should be enacted that has the following three provisions:

§1  Who ever does anything or fails to do anything will be punished.

§2  The extent of the punishment shall be determined by healthy folk-feeling.

§3  The District Commander will decide what "healthy folk-feeling" is.

An Exhausting Evening with Karl Kraus

Volume Two of an English-language biography of the Austrian bellelettrist Karl Kraus has appeared.  Here is a section of a review of the biography by George Steiner:

Karl Kraus’s public readings quickly became legendary. They were integral to his persona and mission. They were dramatic in the highest degree, Kraus’s voice and mien miming the characters in the plays that he “enacted”. Among Shakespearean texts, he privileged Timon, as Karl Marx had done. His recitals of the great Austrian comic playwright Nestroy excelled anything the actual theatre could offer. He read formidably from his own works. Generations of auditors listened spellbound. Accounts of these dramas of the intellect, of these satyr-plays and verbal operettas, amount to a secondary literature of their own. The most eloquent report is Elias Canetti’s. He attended approximately one hundred of these soir饳, often mesmerized: “A hall that was packed to the aisles fell under the sway of a voice whose influence persisted even when it fell silent, but the dynamics of such an auditorium can no more be described than the Wild Hunt of ancient legend”.

At the end of the largely favorable review, Steiner notes: "Will this devoted monument to Kraus induce English-speaking readers to attempt his works (attention is growing in France)? If so, the debt to [author] Edward Timms will be considerable."  I had never heard of Karl Kraus before I came here, and assumed he was largely unknown in the English-speaking world.  I have the Karl-Kraus-Lesebuch, and find it fascinating, although I am surely not understanding many levels of wordplay and cultural context.  I wonder if it’s possible to bring the Baroque vituperation of Kraus into English?  Perhaps I’ll try in the coming weeks…

“Innocent” Victims and Stranger Homicides

First, sorry about the "service interruption."  I like the typepad service, but it does have a tendency to crash now and then.  I think everything’s up and running now.

Before I move on to happier topics, I thought I’d use one last post just to take up a point made by a commenter nobiz, who responded to my post about the Williams case:

A trifle, albeit one with implications. I quote: "Williams committed four horrifying murders of innocent victims".  I just can’t think of guilty victims. Maybe it was just a redundancy, but there is no point opposing death penalty when implicating degrees of "not deserving to be victim". Either he committed murders, or he didn’t. Either a country commits murders, or it doesn’t. Is there anywhere a middle way?

What I meant by "innocent" victims was that these were people who were working in a convenience store (1 victim), and three people who ran a hotel (a couple and their daughter).  These people weren’t breaking the law, weren’t doing anything extremely risky, and did nothing to provoke their deaths.  That’s what I meant by innocent.

But raises another issue that is worth mentioning — an important which that is almost never mentioned in German press coverage of the death penalty, and which helps explain differences in attitude toward the death penalty. 

Take, for instance, four drug dealers, human-smugglers or gangsters who are murdered.  Nothing excuses killing, but in the latter case, the victims were breaking the law, knew they were doing something extremely risky.  These crimes don’t provoke the same reaction in society, because everyone can reduce their risk of being murdered for these reasons by not becoming a mobster, drug-dealer, or human smuggler. 

Williams’ crimes, by contrast, were what are called "stranger-on-stranger" or just "stranger" homicides.  It surprises some people to learn that most murder victims know their killer, but it’s a fact.  This is so because most murders grow out of domestic disputes, drunken fights, or fights within an illegal underground organization (prostitution or drug rings, etc.).  It is much more rare for someone to be murdered by a person who’s a stranger to them. 

Especially in Europe.  America has a lot more stranger homicides than Europe does.  According to Gordon Hawkins and Franklin Zimring’s 1997 study Crime is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America, about 28% of killings in the U.S. are stranger-on-stranger homicides.  That’s 30 times the amoung in Great Britain and, judging by what I know, the pattern is roughly the same in the Continent.  That is, the vast majority of people who are murdered in a place like Germany knew the person who killed them.

Acquaintance homicides have little impact on citizens’ fear of crime.  As Hawkins and Zimring put it: "Any citizen comfortable in the presence of his own circle of acquaintances need not be concerned about general statistical patterns of acquaintance homicide."  In plainer English: As long as your partner and the people you know are mentally stable, law-abiding people, you face practically zero risk of being murdered.  In the United States, however, every perfectly norman feels threatened by the small background risk of becoming the victim of a "random" killing, like the ones Williams committed.  In every big U.S. city, there are killers who could strike anyone, anywhere.  The risk is numerically still very small — the U.S. is a safe country — but its psychological impact is huge.  Studies confirm that people pay much more attention to stranger homicides, because they feel these crimes are a direct, personal threat to themselves and their family members.

"Random" stranger homicides do happen in Germany, but incredibly rarely — perhaps once a year in a place like Duesseldorf, which has about 20 murders a year.  Imagine how you would react if once a week, someone was pulled out of a car and shot by a car thief, or children were abducted from a playground and murdered, or a restaurant employee was shot after giving the robber the money.  You would think: "My God, that guy wasn’t doing anything wrong, but he was pulled out of his car and shot.  I could be next."  I guarantee you, German attitudes toward criminal justice would change.  Quickly.  People would demand guarantees of security from politicians, and politicians would deliver.  This reaction could conceivably include calls for the death penalty for these terrifying "random" killers.

Once again, my point here is not about the death penalty in principle.  I don’t want to see any country bring it back.  My point is about the tone of the discourse, specifically the insufferable preening of European journalists.  I have seen various attempts by German journalists to explain the popularity of the death penalty in the United States, but have never seen the above point about stranger homicides, even though it’s very important.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of laziness, but I think it’s more lack of curiosity.  European journalists don’t want to help readers understand the American approach to this issue, they want to push the reader to self-righteously condemn the "barbarians."

I am surprised more German readers aren’t offended by this insult to their intelligence.  The journalists are saying, after all: "We can’t present you with a balanced report that informs you about pro-death-penalty arguments, because you might — gasp — find them convincing.  You might then develop an opinion that is objectively wrong, because it is not our opinion.  So we will keep you in the dark."  As the old saying goes: "If I wanted to know your opinion, I would have told you what to think."

With that, I promise to move on from this grim subject, and into the calm glades of philosophy.

“It’s Herpeling”

Last weekend, Deutschland Radio Kultur broadcast a documentary about a man named Rainer Herpel called The Explorer of Bad Ems.  The webpage is here (German).  I’ll translate the first few lines for English-speaking readers:

At the beginning of the 1970s, Rainer Herpel stopped talking.  He was 21.  He dropped out and turned inwards.  He withdrew from the world, and moved silently about his parent’s home and the small town he lived in.  It was a time in which radical groups were the talk of the nation, alternative dreams bloomed, and drugs became respectable. 

He remained mute for 30 years.  That fact and his extraordinary lifestyle — he wore earmuffs, military clothes, and a chinese parasol — hit the small town of Bad Ems like an explosion.  What makes this outsider tick?  What drove the "General of Ems" into silence?  Two years ago, Herpel resumed talking, displayed his hand-painted oil paintings, and says "Silence is peace for the soul."

The maker of the documentary, Eva Lauterbach, interviews Herpel and his family members, as well as many people from Bad Ems.  We never find out exactly what "objective" factor drove Herpel to stop speaking.  Herpel became a minor celebrity in 2004, after a television documentary was made about him in which he delivered his opinions on art, fame, and Luderkram (literally, "bimbo-stuff"!).  Then, most news stories ascribed Herpel’s silence to conflict between Herpel and his father, who prevented him from going to art school. 

But The Explorer of Bad Ems is an hour-long radio documentary, and isn’t going to be satisfied with pat answers like this.  Perhaps it was that he had nothing more to say to his father; but there were also rumors of drugs.  The last theory was apparently the town’s favorite; parents in Bad Ems always pointed to the parasol-wielding weirdo as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when you experiment with drugs. 

Herpel himself speaks in a halting monotone, and is described as looking 20 years younger than he actually is (photo from an earlier TV documentary here.  His appearance is probably due to extremely healthy eating habits and no stress).  Herpel comes across as an odd, thoughtful person, as you might expect.  He’s also egocentric; he thinks he has enormous talent that nobody recognized, and needed to take drastic steps to allow the talent to bloom.  But he is not obviously mentally ill.   

He says he stopped speaking because he noticed that his mother was constantly talking and saying nothing, and that all his caustic, demanding father (a former SS officer) seemed to be able to do was scream.  So he shut up.  Noise began to bother him, so he started wearing earmuffs.  The sun irritated him, so be locked himself away in the dark and never went out without his parasol.  Instead of creating a normal life, Herpel developed his drawing and painting talents.

He lived silently with his parents.  At first there were a few months of desperation, and some attempts to get him into therapy, without success.  Herpel has an IQ of 140, was not a danger to himself or others, and had no mental illness the doctors knew how to treat.  The parents gave up, and accepted their son.  He wasn’t hurting anybody, after all.  At first, he was a figure of scorn and fear in Bad Ems.  He was considered to be a confirmed drug abuser, and potential child molester.  Whenever he showed up, the children would say "es herpelt" — "it’s Herpeling." 

However, even the town grew to tolerate the silent figure, whose collar was always pulled up high and face smeared with sunscreen.  Herpel floated into stores, silently pointed at things he wanted, and silently paid for them.  He checked out lots of books from the local library, submitting written requests when necessary.  The librarians noted his intelligence and curiosity.  Gradually, the outside world began to take note of his paintings; they now sell for a few thousand Euro apiece.  After his father died, he began speaking again.  He just showed up at the breakfast table and said "Good morning." 

Lauterbach’s feature was in the grand tradition of probing, thoughtful, understated German documentaries.  There’s no finger-wagging, no sly jokes, no attempts to explain it all.  If there is a nation on the face of the earth that does this particular kind of documentary better, I’m not aware of it.  Everyon interviewed for the feature was allowed to speak at length, unedited, without intrusive commentary.  Herpel’s decision not to speak was treated not as a wacky peccadillo, but as a weighty decision which just might have been right for him, somehow.  How much more peaceful and sane the world would be, I caught myself thinking, if more people would just shut up.

Except me, of course.  For now, at least…

A Wave of Self-Righteous Moral Outrage Sweeps Europe! Again!

Below is a link to an Talking Points Memo post about the case of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams, but before that, I thought I’d deliver a little background.  Once again, let me make it clear at the outset: I oppose the death penalty, and so I certainly would have been happy to see Williams get clemency.  But the European outrage on this subject overblown.  I was reading an article by Bianca Jagger about the Williams case yesterday in the left-wing taz newspaper, andI literally burst out laughing several times at her pompous self-importance.

Williams’ execution was controversial in the United States, but not very.  Let me explain why.  Most people, including those on the moderate left, considered the decision whether to grant Williams clemency to be within Gov. Schwarzenegger’s scope of judgment.  The arguments Schwarzenegger used to deny clemency were accepted by most observers, because they’re not irrational.  Read them carefully.  Plenty of Europeans (this example is an editorial in German) believe they can read Schwarzenegger’s mind, and now explain that he denied clemency only out of ‘cowardice’ or ‘political pressure.’  Like all attempts at mind-reading, these are pure speculation. Schwarzenegger explains why he denied clemency in the memo I linked to above.  I would have given Williams clemency, but Schwarzenegger had his reasons. Schwarzenegger’s main point was that Williams committed four horrifying murders of innocent victims (including three fellow racial minorities), and his claim of redemption rang hollow, given that he would not confess his guilt.

Of course, this puts Williams in the uncomfortable position of having to either acknowledge his guilt (which might have affected his legal appeals) or maintain his innocence, in which case he would reduce his chances of clemency.  But this seems to be a cruel dilemma only if Williams actually was innocent.  If he committed the murders, it’s hardly unfair to expect him to confess that fact if we are going to take his claims of redemption seriously.

"But he said he was innocent Europeans protest.  Would he lie about that?"  Of course he might.  Criminals in the U.S. lie about their innocence all the time.  There’s a reason for that.  Suspects have little incentive to confess their guilt in most American states.  They will not automatically receive a lighter sentence for doing so, and they will hurt their legal defense.  American criminal-defense attorneys always tell their clients not to confess or even talk to the police.  The system does not reward true confessions, but does not punish false claims of innocence. 

I have no idea whether Williams was lying or not, and neither do any other outside observers –certainly not Europeans whose only information about the case comes from a few news articles.  The important question is not whether Williams was telling the truth, which we can never know.  The question is whether he had a fair trial.  Not a perfect one, but a fair one.  And the system has answered this question yes.  Several people testified in detail that they helped him commit these crimes.  This testimony came primarily from fellow criminals, but one reason for that is that all the non-criminal witnesses to the crimes were, uh, murdered with close-range shotgun blasts.

This testimony was legally admissible, convinced the jury, and withstood years of appeals.  One factor that is relevant to a sophisticated American observer is that this is a California case.  California is not Texas; it executes people very rarely, has probably the best reputation in the nation for providing resources and appeals to death-row inmates during their trials and appeals.  California appeals courts were, at the time Tookie’s appeals went through them, quite sympathetic to death-row inmates, and did not hesitate to reverse death penalty cases that were affected by severe legal error.

That is why most American observers weren’t particularly outraged.  Sure, Williams appears to have changed his life in recent years, and that’s to his credit.  However, it is simply not credible to claim that you have made restitution for your violent past if you will not admit what you did, apologize to the families of the people you murdered, and make amends to them.  Thus, Williams got support only from left-wing fringe figures.  Jesse Jackson or Bianca Jagger have no credibility with the mainstream, because they always protest every execution.  These folks are the equivalent of Gregor Gysi on the German scene — publicity-seeking and often eloquent, but not someone whose views seriously influence mainstream discourse.

To the extent Americans paid any attention to the howls of outrage from Europe, they generally regarded them as mildly interesting, nothing more.  Here’s a good example of the reaction of a mainstream liberal (Joshua Micah Marshall) to the execution:

Here’s is an AP article just out over the wire with the headline "Europeans outraged at Schwarzenegger". The point of course is that they are outraged at Schwarzenegger for not intervening to stop the execution last night of Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Let me preface this by saying that I am what I would call a reluctant or ambivalent opponent of capital punishment. Having said that, I think the thrust of the article linked above contains a signficant misapprehension about the different views of capital punishment in the US and Europe. The conventional wisdom, as the AP article shows, is that Americans are hold-outs in favor of capital punishment while Europeans have turned against the practice as barbaric. But in an article I wrote in 2000 in The New Republic I was able to make a pretty good case that this just isn’t so. I collected public opinion data from various European countries over the previous decade or so. And what the data showed was that the difference in public support for capital punishment really wasn’t that great on either side of the Atlantic. ….


Capital punishment continued to enjoy majority support in France, for instance, long after it was abolished in 1981. Only in the late 1990s did a poll finally show that fewer than 50% of the population wanted it restored. As of the time I wrote, between 60% and 70% of Canadians said they wanted the death penalty reinstated.


One more factor, I suspect, is that over time, opposition to capital punishment has become a form of European self-identification. And that has had a further depressing effect on support for capital punishment.

Marshall’s doesn’t mention the German-speaking parts of Europe, in which there has been a firm anti-death-penalty majority for quite a while.  But he feels only amused curiosity about exactly why Europeans allow themselves to get so self-righteously outraged about this execution, and other bloggers registered impatience with all the sentimental hero-worship of Williams.  Marshall started a discussion on a liberal Internet forum on the question of why the United States still has the death penalty; the participants are thoughtful U.S. liberals, and you can read what they have to say here.

Kevin Drum, another moderate death-penalty opponent, reacts here: although Drum is against the death penalty, he observes, "if anyone does deserve the death penalty, Tookie Williams is surely it. Regardless of what he’s done since, the man was a gangster and a thug and hardly deserving of our sympathy."  Drum advises his readers that if they want to know about a death penalty injustice, there are many better candidates than Tookie Williams out there.

The reaction to Tookie Williams’ execution is, thus,  just another example of how far apart American and European discourse is on these issues.  When it comes to the death penalty, not even most people on the American left got very upset about Tookie.  And when it comes to European moral outrage, well, that’s the subject of amusement and or curiosity, not concern.

German Social Democracy Redux

Well, the commenters seem unconvinced by my brainstorm, and make many good points that I hadn’t really thought of.  There’s also this, from a review of a book by Tony Judt about modern Europe:

Western Europe became a place of social planning, nationalized economies, and strong states not because democratic socialism was in the Continental genes but because there were no reserves of private capital and few viable non-governmental institutions around to put the world back together again. The “European model,” Judt says, was mostly an accident. There was no great political vision; necessity and pragmatism ruled the day. As [Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote in 1947], you cannot eat ideology. A lot of what Americans take to be traditionally European is simply an artifact of the postwar scramble for survival—for example, national branding.

So, to sum up points made by the commenters and Tony Judt, the idea that Germany was in something like an original condition after WWII seems implausible, and the social-democratic consensus seems to have emerged out of various groups asserting their interests after their positions in society were known, not as a result of some hypothetical across-the-board advance arrangement. 

One thing might be left standing, though — I wonder if there’s any proof that the condition of European post-war societies might have helped inspire Rawls.  Maybe he thought something like an "original condition" actually played out in Europe, and that got him thinking.  Perhaps I’ll crack open some Rawls and try to get to the bottom of this.

If you’re interested in Rawls, be warned — his prose is notoriously plodding and dull.  I’d suggest an introduction, perhaps like this one.  After that, you can decide where you want to dip into Rawls himself. 

Consider the Bourgeoisie shocked

The magisterial diva Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who defined the role of the Marschallin in the 1957 Karajan production of Der Rosenkavalier, is not pleased with what she’s seen at the opera lately:

What I hear and have seen — in Vienna, I’m told, there was recently a production of "Cosi fan tutte" in which all the roles were played by gay men — leaves me with only one option, to run away, and look to the Japanese and Chinese for example.  They have a sense for the music and not the whole production "magic" that we see around us.  The "magic" — perhaps at my age I might be allowed to use some sharp words — is a criminal delusion.  It’s really a sickness which will one day destroy German art, of that I am certain.  In fact, very soon.  I myself had to run out of the theater recently during the Salzburg festival — I could just barely last until the intermission. 

[FAS, 4 December, p. 27]

Germany: Rawlsian Nation?

I was just reading my friend Marcos’ doctoral dissertation, which looks at human nature as conceived by various contemporary political philosophers, when a thought struck me.

The thought’s half-baked and probably not original, but that’s never stopped me before, so here goes.  The American political philosopher John Rawls is most famous for his book A Theory of Justice, which proposes a contracts-based approach to the question of political participation and equality.  One of the most famous ideas in the book is Rawls’ thought-experiment concerning the "original position" and the veil of ignorance.  It goes like this, crudely oversimplified (here it is, just plain simplified):

  • The point of the exercise is to develop a basic social contract that will provide the optimal level of rights protection;
  • The first step of the exercise is to imagine a society in the "original position": that is, a collection of individuals who have not yet formed a society, and are bargaining fairly and rationally about what rules that society will have;
  • They stand behind a veil of ignorance: that is they cannot predict which position they will ultimately have in this society.  When they "step through the door" into the society they created, they do not know whether they will end up being a doctor, a banker, a janitor, or unemployed.

The last assumption is necessary to avoid the distorting effects caused by personal interest (i.e. someone who is already rich will favor low taxes, someone who is unemployed will want lavish government benefits, etc.). 

According to Rawls, when you perform this thought experiment, a consensus will emerge for a welfare-state model.  Because everyone who’s deciding society’s basic rules is at risk of ending up in a very low social position, they will agree on fair social principles.  That means, generally speaking (1) civil rights for everyone; (2) and protection for the weakest members of society have access to the essentials of a dignified, secure life; and (3) opportunities to rise in society for the talented.  The rules will tolerate inequality between citizens, because some inequality is necessary to make society run efficiently.  However, they will only tolerate that level of inequality that actually achieves efficiency goals; other kinds (such as hereditary privileges, etc.) will be eliminated.

Modern Germany looks a lot like the sort of society that would be produced in such a condition.  A thorough social safety net, plenty of protection for the poor, economic policies that tolerate private property and wealth accumulation while ensuring that the gap between rich and poor doesn’t become too extreme, etc.

I thought to myself as I read: Germany has actually lived Rawls’ thought-experiment.  After World War II, Germany’s cities and factories were in ruins, many of its institutions had been destroyed or contaminated by National Socialism, and its very future as an industrial society was uncertain.  Given the vast social upheavals that took place after the war, many people probably were uncertain exactly where they would end up in society. 

Rawls believes humans behave, or would behave in his thought-experiment, in a risk-averse way.  Because they would not know what place they occupied in society, they would ensure a thorough system of social insurance, in case they ended up in the "unemployed" or "mentally ill" spot.  They would therefore be willing to give up a certain amount of freedom and opportunities for private gain in return for this security.   This idea of human nature mirrors the psyche of mainstream Germans so closely, it’s almost scary.

I wonder if there is evidence that Rawls was using post-war Germany as an example when he wrote ATOJ.  I wonder also whether a German author has noticed the close correspondence between Rawls’ vision and the outlines of contemporary German social policy.  Unfortunately, I can’t answer these questions, but perhaps a clever commenter can…

How Much did Germany Know, and When did Germany Know It?

Via Washington Monthly, here’s a little excerpt of Washington Post national security blogger William M. Arkin’s recent post:

This week, while in Amsterdam, I’ve gotten an earful of Euro-weenies whining about U.S. law-breaking and American hegemony….

Poor Europeans! Behind closed doors, I suspect this is what is really happening: Elected officials from Berlin to Kiev are being informed by Ms. Rice of an incredibly uncomfortable truth. Little if nothing occurs on their soil — no CIA flights, no secret bases, no interrogations, no renditions — without some secret affiliate in their government being informed of the U.S. (or joint U.S.-local government) action.

Kevin Drum thinks this is a bit unfair (especially "euro-weenies"), but Arkin is an experienced correspondent with pretty good sources.  And there are increasing signs of German participation in the case.  Al-Masri himself recalls being interrogated by someone named "Sam" who spoke perfect German with "a North German accent," and that he was asked questions about the Islamist scene in New Ulm that seem to have come from German intelligence sources.

For the record, I agree that the kidnapping of al-Masri was, if current news accounts are to be believed, a serious problem.  But Germany’s grand coalition government, although they’ve promised a full report, displays less interest in the issue with every passing day.  This does not necessarily indicate a cover-up — the affair has already embarrassed a lot of prominent politicians, even without proof that German secutiry services knew in advance about the al-Masri case.  But still, it’s interesting to see that the federal government’s press agents are saying nothing more (German) about the case, and the two major parties in Germany, who now form a Grand Coalition government, are officially telling prominent members to shut up (German) about it.

The message is loud and clear: "Move along here, nothing to see.  No investigative commission will be necessary.  It was an unfortunate occurrence, we will be sure to perform and adequate, reasonable investigation, to the extent that proves desirable or necessary.  And now I’d like to make a statement about the Ferrero Company’s outrageous decision to change the face of the smiling young boy on its children’s chocolate bars, which will only add to the fear and insecurity of our nation’s vulnerable consumers, just when we need them to start spending…"

UPDATE:  And in yesterday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine am Sonntag, we have Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warning that terrorists are "world-wide active murderers" and that combatting them requires "those responsible to make the most difficult decisions," therefore people should avoid making hasty judgments.  Germans should not react to the United States in a "morally patronizing" way.  American, said Steinmeier, might be overreacting to the threat of terrorism, but Germans may be underestimating it themselves. 

It seems as if Condi Rice’s trip indeed changed the tone of German reaction to recent United States missteps, as well as the tone of other European leaders.  Her performance at press conferences wasn’t particulary revelatory.  Perhaps, as Arkin muses, she had something to say in private that gave the European leaders she met with some food for thought…