Locust Capitalism Made in Germany

It seems appropriate now and then to remind everyone that the leaders of Germany– land of the gentle, caring social state (g)! protectress of human rights (g)! denouncer (g) of 'anglo-american' style turbo-capitalism! — continues to demand policies that have led to mass human suffering in countries in Southern Europe:

The Greek economy is in free fall, having shrunk by 20 percent in the
past five years. The unemployment rate is more than 27 percent, the
highest in Europe, and 6 of 10 job seekers say they have not worked in
more than a year. Those dry statistics are reshaping the lives of Greek
families with children, more of whom are arriving at schools hungry or
underfed, even malnourished, according to private groups and the
government itself.

Last year, an estimated 10 percent of Greek elementary and middle school
students suffered from what public health professionals call “food
insecurity,” meaning they faced hunger or the risk of it, said Dr.
Athena Linos, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School who
also heads a food assistance program at Prolepsis,
a nongovernmental public health group that has studied the situation.
“When it comes to food insecurity, Greece has now fallen to the level of
some African countries,” she said.

Oh, and the economic theory that German policymakers conveniently invoked as a fig leaf for their pursuit of Germany's economic interests cited as intellectual support has been largely debunked

see their enormous influence on the European debate, it is worth
quoting an extract from a speech by Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s
economic chief, to the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2011.
“Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have coined the ‘90 per cent rule’,”
he said. “That is, countries with public debt exceeding 90 per cent of
annual economic output grow more slowly. High debt levels can crowd out
economic activity and entrepreneurial dynamism, and thus hamper growth.
This conclusion is particularly relevant at a time when debt levels in
Europe are now approaching the 90 per cent threshold, which the US has
already passed.”

Mr Rehn presumably did not read the original papers, which were more
ambivalent in their conclusions, as academic papers tend to be. Policy
makers, such as Mr Rehn, are always on the lookout for economic theories
that seem plausible and accord with their deep beliefs. In Europe, most
of them have little exposure to macroeconomists who think out of the
box. Clearly, most policy makers find it counter-intuitive that
governments should spend money in a recession. It is against their own
experience, especially if they come from northern European countries.
They may have read the history of the Great Depression, and yet they
find that a Keynesian
response is less plausible than pro-cyclical austerity. If two of the
world’s most respected economists then come along and tell them that
their gut instincts have been right all along, this is the conservative
policy maker’s equivalent of birthday and Christmas coinciding. At last,
the message they always wanted to hear.

And, of course, is not even resulting in significantly lower debts, since austerity-driven economic contraction increases sovereign debt:

Though the cumulative level of government deficits fell last year,
mainly because of Germany swinging into a budget surplus, many countries
have continued to reel from the costs associated with recession.

Spending cuts and tax increases have helped to reduce deficits across the 17 EU countries that use the euro, but the region's debt burden rose after economic growth flatlined and fewer companies and households paid taxes.

the four countries that accepted financial assistance, Portugal and
Spain saw their deficits swell in value terms and in proportion to the
size of their economies. Portugal's deficit increased to 6.4% of GDP in
2012, from 4.4% the year before; Spain's jumped to 10.6% from 9.4%.

managed to make further inroads in cutting its borrowings, but the
deficit rose to 10% of its annual GDP from 9.5% as the country remained
mired in a deep recession. Only Ireland, widely viewed as the poster
child of austerity, saw its deficit fall under both criteria – it stood
at 7.6% of GDP against 13.4% the year before.

Of course, only those ranting, irresponsible…populists* (pronounce with scorn) feel the need to continuously draw attention to these facts.

History is not going to be kind to Angela Merkel. Wait, let me qualify that: Non-German historians are not going to be kind to Angela Merkel. But then again, hypocrisy is only human:

A Moral Principle met a Material Interest on a bridge wide enough for but one.

‘Down, you base thing!’ thundered the Moral Principle, ‘and let me pass over you!’

The Material Interest merely looked in the other’s eyes without saying anything.

‘Ah,’ said the Moral Principle, hesitatingly, ‘let us draw lots to see which shall retire till the other has crossed.’

The Material Interest maintained an unbroken silence and an unwavering stare.

‘In order to avoid a conflict,’ the Moral Principle resumed, somewhat
uneasily, ‘I shall myself lie down and let you walk over me.’

Then the Material Interest found a tongue, and by a strange
coincidence it was its own tongue. ‘I don’t think you are very good
walking,’ it said. ‘I am a little particular about what I have
underfoot. Suppose you get off into the water.’

It occurred that way.

             — Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables, 1898

(Via Futility Closet.)

* Populist (n): In German political discourse: (a) a person who advocates policies favored by large numbers of Germans but opposed by political and journalistic elites; (b) any public figure who repeatedly draws attention to one or more spectacular policy failures of German elites; (c) an actual populist. See also dirty fucking hippie.

A Short Review of ‘Poem’

Poem, a 2004 movie by Ralf Schmerberg that I watched for the first time last night on DVD, consists of dramatized recitations of 19 German poems from Goethe onward. Some of the poems are quite famous, others moderately so, and some slightly obscure. The dramatizations aren't connected in any way, save for the framing device of a Tibetan man carrying another man on a handmade back-chair through the mountains, which intervenes every 30 minutes or so and culminates in a poem-accompanied religious ceremony. The poems are presented in utterly different ways: some as direct dramatic declamations; some as accompaniments to documentary-like records of child-rearing, weddings, or religious processions; some as theatrical mini-spectacles; some as accompaniment to scenes which involve no humans at all.

This is a very German movie, in the best way. The poems which are recited by characters on-screen (including David Bennent, Carmen Birk, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer), are recited with whacking great dollops of dramatic flair, in the tradition of German-speaking lands. Some English-speakers, who are accustomed to less stylized poetry recitation in which the 'words are supposed to do all the work', may find this a bit off-putting at first. Yet when this sort of dramatic declamation is done right (as with Brandauer above, rendering every other reading of this Heine poem — perhaps any Heine poem — superfluous), it is enthralling. (It's also worth keeping in mind that these poets wrote in a culture in which they would expect their poems to be dramatically declaimed by actors.)

The settings and accompaniment for the poems are never predictable, and, at their best, create a touching, ironic, or bizarre field of interference with the words of the poem itself, as when Ernst Jandl's bleak Believe and Confess (g) (in which he bluntly states that he knows he will never see his dead loved ones again and confesses that he hasn't the 'slightest wish' for this to happen) is accompanied by tear-stained, boozy, unstaged scenes from a very ordinary German wedding, or when Trakl's frothingly mystical Morgenlied (g) is recited by David Bennent, in full knightly armor, wandering down the median of a German highway.

'Poem' is by turns mesmerizing, pretentious, funny, moving, witty, ironic, and preposterous. A few of the musical choices have gotten a bit stale (the music of Arvo Pärt, for all its charm, has become an art-house cliche), and a few of the settings are in questionable taste. But that's what makes 'Poem' so lively — the filmmakers take risks, and sometimes the rewards are spectacular. Strongly recommended.

The Peter Sodann Library of East German Books is Now Open

Gestaltung des Lebens und sozialistische Erziehung im Kindergarten

After the collapse of East Germany, the question arose of what to do with all those East German books. East Germany had many publishing houses and a quite well-developed educational system. Nevertheless, a typical East German biography of Bismarck, say, was unlikely to be competitive with its West German (or non-socialist) counterpart. Not to mention the hundreds of university coursebooks on 'socialist' small-business management, town planning, early-childhood education, etc. Some of these books made their way to used booksellers, where I eagerly bought as many as I could, as I find them fascinating. Others, however, were unceremoniously dumped into the garbage or left to molder in storage.

Then came Peter Sodann, a German actor and theater director who grew up in East Germany. He started collecting these books to preserve a part of German history and culture. The 'Peter Sodann' library is now open in the small town of Staucha, in Saxony. It even has an online catalog, which is quite extensive. Apparently much of the cost of the library is covered by donations and by volunteer catalogers. Many of the books, the website states, remain in banana crates, waiting to be catalogged.

Given my fascination with East Germany, I will be planning a pilgrimage there shortly, and will report…

The Best Reaction to Bombings: Nothing

Security expert Bruce Schneier, who has long mocked the pointless, expensive, and alienating displays of 'security theater' in airports after 9/11 (shoes, belts, fluids, fingerprints), adds his voice to the chorus of people saying that following the news is foolish and harmful:

Ezra Klein: What should people be thinking about in the aftermath of an attack like this?

Bruce Schneier: They should refuse to be terrorized. Terrorism is a
crime against the mind. What happened in Boston, horrific as it is, is
theater to make you scared. That’s the point. The message of terrorist
attacks is you’re not safe, and the government can’t protect you — that
the existing power structure can’t protect you.

I tell people if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. By
definition, news is something that almost never happens. The brain fools
you into thinking the news is what’s important. Our brains overreact to
this stuff. Terrorism just pegs the fear button.

EK: What should policymakers do in the aftermath of this kind of event? 

BS: Nothing. This is a singular event, and not something that should
drive policy. Unfortunately, you can’t prevent this sort of thing 100
percent. Luckily, terrorism is a lot harder than people think, and it
happens rarely. The question people asked after 9/11 is what if we had
three of these a year in the United States? Turns out there were none.
People get their ideas on terrorism from movies and television.

EK: What makes terrorism so difficult? After 9/11, lots of
people thought we’d see suicide bombers in malls across the country, or
crude chemical weapons unleashed in subway systems. Why were they wrong?

BS: Because there are a lot of steps to pulling it off, and if you
make mistakes in any of them, you go to jail. There’s not a lot of
practicing you can do. The criminal mastermind is an invention of comic
books; 9/11 just barely worked. They got unbelievably lucky; it was by
no means inevitable.

EK: So what should we be afraid of?

BS: Car crashes. Global warming. It feels insensitive to say it so
close to the tragedy, but it’s true. What people should worry about are
things so common that they’re no longer news. That’s what kills people.
Terrorism is so rare, it’s hardly a risk worth spending a lot of time
worrying about.

And on that note, I'm going to do some things that are worthwhile — stop by my local farmers' market and ride through the park to work. Spring is finally here, which means Germany has officially turned into heaven for the next 6 months.

No News is Good News

Rolf Dobelli makes a powerful argument that following the news compulsively isn't just a waste of time but is positively harmful. A few of his points:

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000
news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that –
because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a
serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The
point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find
it very difficult to recognise what's relevant. It's much easier to
recognise what's new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental
battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that
news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for
that. We get anxious when we're cut off from the flow of news. In
reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news
you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.

News makes us passive. News stories are
overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition
of news about things we can't act upon makes us passive. It grinds us
down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised,
sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is "learned helplessness".
It's a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news
consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of

News kills creativity. Finally,
things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that
mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce
their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide,
uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel
ideas. I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie –
not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist,
musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a
bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you
want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for
new solutions, don't.

I could hardly agree more. I follow the news much more than I should (the job requires a certain amount of this) but I try to limit it as much as possible, for precisely the reasons Dobelli indicates. It almost always turns out to be an utter waste of time. Because I myself don't follow the news very much, Dobelli was not on my radar screen, even though he's apparently a best-selling German-language author whose most recent book is now being translated into many languages, including English.

Shop at Natürlich Natürlich Organic Shop



Everyone should go visit the Natürlich Natürlich organic food store at Brunnenstr. 22. Neighborhood fixture Werner runs the place, which oozes laid-back charm. My picks are the 'Essener Brot' — Essene bread, allegedly made according to a recipe preserved by the Essenes. Ít's rather chewy in its raw state, but makes great toast. Natürlich Natürlich is also where I get my 'house wine' — 1 liter bottles of tasty Spanish red wine for the ridiculously low price of 4 Euro.

There's also chocolates, pasta, fresh fruit and vegetables, oils, spreads, beer, juice, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, and plenty besides, all 100% organic.

* Just kidding. Werner's not paying me a cent. I just think everyone should shop at his store.

Germany is the Eurozone’s Most Unequal Country

An analysis of a recent ECB report debunks the notion that Germans are somehow 'poorer' than Spaniards or Greeks and also reveals, along the way:

A comparison of the median and mean wealth reveals something about
the distribution of wealth in each [Eurozone] country. If the largest difference is
between the mean and the median, the greater is the inequality in the
distribution of wealth. It now appears that the difference is highest in
Germany. We show this by presenting the ratios of the mean to the
median for the different countries in Figure 3. In Germany the mean
household wealth is almost four times larger than the median. In most
other countries this ratio is between 1.5 and 2. Thus household wealth
in Germany is concentrated in the richest households more so than in the
other Eurozone countries. Put differently, there is a lot of household
wealth in Germany but this is to be found mostly in the top of the
wealth distribution.

The inequality of the distribution of household wealth is made even
more vivid by comparing the wealth owned by the top 20% of the income
class to the wealth owned by the bottom 20% of the income class. This is
shown in Figure 4. We find that in Germany the top 20% of the income
class has 149 times more wealth than the bottom 20% of the income class.
Judged by this criterion, Germany has the most unequal distribution of
wealth in the Eurozone.

Wealth held by top 20%/bottom 20%:

h/t MTW.

Wagner’s ‘Fungal’ Genius

Nicholas Spice has a brilliant essay called 'Is Wagner Bad for Us?' on the LRB website, which includes this passage, one of the finest English-language descriptions of Wagner's innovations I've come across:

The state in which he found the art of opera in the middle of the
19th century didn’t please him. He deplored its tired routines and swept
them away. Where a traditional opera typically hauled itself along
through a series of arias, duets and ensemble pieces, strung along a
line of recitative, Wagner integrated words, drama and music into a
discourse of continuous gesture. This did a lot to dismantle the
structures which in traditional opera keep the audience at a distance
from the action. In an opera by Rossini or Donizetti, we hop from one
aria or duet or ensemble to another, negotiating an archipelago of
self-sufficient pieces of music, and this acts as a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt,
repeatedly ejecting us from the narrative, an effect the custom of
applauding individual numbers as though they were concert items made
even more pronounced. Wagner replaced this ‘singing of pieces of music’
with a free declamatory vocal style, embedding his singers in the fabric
of the drama and rarely permitting them to sing at the same time as
each other. In his mature operas, the ebb and flow of the action is
controlled by music (Wagner partly characterised it as ‘endless melody’)
which loosens the certainties of diatonic harmony and gives a wide
berth to effects of unwanted closure in the musical syntax. As a result,
the listener is given only rare opportunities to bail out of the
musical and dramatic argument.

It is a central aspect of Wagner’s
genius (Mann writes about it wonderfully) that he conceived a way to
draw the literary and musical components of his operas towards each
other. His understanding of the ideographic potential of music – the
capacity of music to suggest things, characteristics and ideas – was
something quite special to him, and it probably partly accounts for our
sense of his work as in certain fundamental respects different from most
other music in the classical canon….

As the works unfold, the listener moves
continuously and fluidly between the music on the one hand and the drama
on the other, holding them in a kind of dynamic equilibrium in the
mind. The patterned integration of the leitmotifs into the musical
fabric – like small marine fossils in certain kinds of sedimentary rock –
symbolises the accumulation of experience over time (it was this aspect
of Wagner that so excited Proust). And as a formal device, the
leitmotifs helped Wagner give coherence and unity to immense spans of
musical narrative. Wherever we surface in the onward stream of these
operas, whether listening to them or reading them in score, we see a
landscape of familiar forms, though always subtly evolving and combining
in a kaleidoscope of shifting permutations.

The words often used
to describe the effect of Wagner’s work – ‘seduction’,
‘irresistibility’, ‘enchantment’ – and the way Wagner is spoken of as a
magician or sorcerer or trickster, suggest dark and inscrutable arts;
and, given that the stories he tells and the music through which he
tells them, are full of emotional drama, at times extreme, we might
assume that his power derives from his passion, and that if we feel a
loss of will in the face of his work, it is because we have been
overwhelmed and swept away by a lava stream of expression or irradiated
by a blast of psycho-spiritual energy, or – and this is perhaps the most
common trope of all – drugged. Echoing an observation of Mann’s, Boulez
has said of Wagner that ‘his genius was both hot-headed – even
irrational – and extremely analytical.’ Brecht said that Wagner’s art
‘creates fog’ and Tolstoy thought you could achieve the same effect more
quickly by getting drunk or smoking opium. But what has always struck
me about Wagner’s work – certainly, the seven mature operas – is not
that they enthral us through bewilderment or narcosis, but how
unnervingly intelligible they are, and how, in being so intelligible,
they hold our attention, and, in holding our attention, draw us
ineluctably in.

Later, Spice notes the commentary of English composer Thomas Adès:

Only last year, Thomas Adès described Wagner’s music as ‘fungal’,
lamenting his influence on the composers who followed him: ‘his grubby
fingerprints’ are ‘everywhere’. ‘Fungal’ is in one sense rather a good
image for the modular patterning of Wagner’s music, but it also suggests
infestation, decay, sickness and a tendency to spread uncontrollably,
while the phrase ‘grubby fingerprints’ brings to mind something
insalubrious, if not criminal.


A Quaint Little Cottage in Thatcher Bashing

There's all sorts of rejoicing going on about Margaret Thatcher, with people celebrating in the streets and linking to hate-ditties either calling for her to be killed or relishing the thought of her dying. I find it all rather tasteless. Rejoicing at the death of a frail old woman who was no longer capable of doing anyone harm is churlish at best and inhuman at worst.

I've always been suspicious of this carefully-advertised Thatcher-hatred. I assume that, like so much political activity, it's mainly a kind of signaling — a convenient way of showing other like-minded people that you're part of their in-group. Julian Barnes once said that one of the things that made English literary life in the 1980s so dull was the inevitable scene in which bien-pensants at a dinner party bitched about Maggie for several pages.

I myself witnessed a lot of Thatcher-bashing from fragrant, hirsute, not-very-bright English and Welsh people, ususally delivered in defiantly non-posh accents (think of the couple in High Hopes, but all too real). Privately, I would think to myself: 'Thatcher may be tinny and irritating, but you, you self-consciously prolish British lefty, are boring me shitless. And your ideas for running Britain, assuming you have any, are probably as half-baked as you are'. To this day, I associate non-posh British accents with plodding self-righteousness, which I admit is unfair, but what are you gonna do?

I disagree with Thatcher's policies as much as the next guy, but the fact remains that she was an outstanding public speaker, knew how to appeal to the middle class, and won three terms as Prime Minister while the British left fumed impotently, pointed fingers, and escalated their outrage to a keening pitch — when they weren't raging against middle-class voters for not understanding their own interests. In other words, engaging in precisely the sort of sour navel-gazing that deservedly loses elections.

UPDATE: Always reassuring to be on the same side of an issue as Johnny Rotten (h/t TG):

someone dies, give them respect. Enemy or not. I can't be listening to
folk who do that.
'What kind of politics are they offering me? You dance
on another person's grave? That's loathsome.'

He added: 'Her politics were really
dreadful and derisive and caused a great many issues for me when I was
young, for all of us trying to go through that.

'But that don't mean I am gonna dance on her grave, as they say. I'm not that kind of person.

'I was her enemy in her life but I will not be her enemy in her death. I am not a coward.'

What Made the Black Death so Deadly

Maggie Koerth-Baker reports the pretty amazing fact that if you happened to get infected with Yersinia pestis — the bacterium that caused the Black Plague — today, you would have a 97% chance of surviving even without modern medical care. So why did it kill between 30-50% of Europeans in the 14th century? To find out, scientsts have been looking for ancient plague DNA:


In 2011, a team led by McMaster University paleogeneticist Hendrik
Poinar became the first to reconstruct a full genome for Black Death era
Yersinia pestis.

This was not a full and complete genome drawn from a single
bacterium inhabiting the body of a single victim. Instead, the genome
was patched together from bits and pieces of DNA in remains taken from London's East Smithfield cemetery.
The small chunks were lined up to create a whole, similar to the way
you make a panoramic photo by combining a series of different shots.
Hendrik Poinar calls it a "draft" of the genome, rather than a smooth,
polished work of biology.

The draft tells us a couple of things. First, the Y. pestis of the
Black Death era is related to modern Y. pestis. In fact, it's probably
the ancestor of all the strains of Y. pestis that exist today. Second —
and this is the weird part — there is really not much difference between
the old Y. pestis and the new. It boils down to about 100 genetic
changes, few of which seem to have given the bacteria enough of an
evolutionary advantage that they spread widely through the population.

Genetically, Y. pestis has barely changed. Its infection profile in
the real world, though, has changed massively. That suggests that at
least some of those small alterations in the genome must have been
extremely important. But which ones? And why? To answer those questions,
you could reverse-engineer the evolution of Y. pestis in the
lab. "We'd have an opportunity to test those changes, one at a time, and
find out," Poinar said. "… If we could do it in a form or fashion
that wouldn't terrify people."

So, who's going to join me in volunteering to be infected with ancient plague for Science? After all, with modern medical care, there's probably at least an 80% chance of survival. I like those odds!

Surströmming: Horror in a Can

One of mankind's more regrettable discoveries is that you can eat fish at a certain stage of decomposition and survive. Confusing ought with is, some people then decided that because it was possible to do this, it should be done. If you were ever to be transported back to ancient Rome, you would immediately be confronted with the omnipresence of garum, the fermented fish sauce that was used as a seasoning and widely mocked as repulsive even in Roman times. The Vietnamese also use fish sauce to this day.

But the Swedes take it one step back, refusing to wait until the fish liquefied. A friend recently brought back from Sweden a bulging tin can of 'fermented' (that is, half-rotten) chunks of herring, a Swedish specialty called 'surströmming'. A genteel Swiss food critic described this dish as 'horror in a can' (g) and described a tasting 'party' thus:

The biggest challenge when eating strömming is to vomit only after the first bite, not before. The word 'bestial' aptly describes the odor, the taste is just plain disgusting. Spicy, bitter, tangy, and sour. No-one in the group was able to take more than 5 grams into their mouths.

My friend, who staged a tasting party of his own, reached deep into his richly-stocked clearinghouse of metaphors to describe it:

Unspeakably vile. I managed one bite without throwing up and
couldn’t get down any more than that. It was a taste that resembled a rotting
corpse in a plastic bag left in an alley behind an Indian restaurant in the sun
for a few days. It was like what I imagine it would taste like blowing a
syphilitic homeless man who has pissed himself for the past three days
straight. It wasn’t pungent or offensive in smell beyond a ripe fart, it wasn’t
sharp, or tangy at all, but dear lord – in the mouth, it was like licking the
worst thing imaginable. The sheer sickly putrefaction taste just conjured up
dead flies in the bottom of a cheap beer bottle in a deserted crack house.

In the following video, the indomitable Aussie Louis barely manages to choke down some surströmming, which is really something, seeing as he has no problem eating roadkill and live scorpions