Spain: a lesson on democracy for all of us?

While everyone in Spain is tensely waiting for the outcome of today’s election, it is clear that regardless of the outcome, Spanish citizens have eventually learned what the most important element of democracy is.

Being Swiss and at that time politically limited from my ‘Alpentrauma’ (i.e. a limited view on the world), what most impressed me when I moved to Spain back in 2003 was the very limited number of political parties. Apart from Catalonia other provinces seemed to only know the parties PP (Partido Popular) and PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español). Accordingly, the political interest of citizens was very much limited and people voted either ‘right’ or ‘left’. Some of my friends preferred to say that there were no right-ish parties in Spain and PP was only a bit ‘less left’ than PSOE.

Although it has been shown that a two-party landscape can be a logical outcome of a democratic system and while some praise bipartisan states for their stability, I always had my difficulties to accept that view. There are many reasons for my position. One of the least political is maybe the observation that humans are lazy. In politics this leads to a situation in which politicians start to sit back and relax once they have achieved the peak of their careers, usually expressed in claiming government of that country. Once in power, they feel absolute and forget that they are only appointed by the peoples to lead their country, not to impose their view on them. I wonder what can be democratic about a government that–as Mariano Rajoy did in 2013–tells its citizens that it won’t step down even after found guilty in a huge corruption case? What difference is there between such government and a monarch?

Even less democratic than an absolute prime minister is the fact that people don’t have a choice for a political alternative when exercising their rights to vote. When before the last elections in 2011 my Spanish friends told me that they would vote again for PSOE “since it was the lesser of two evils” while others decided to “vote for PP in order for PSOE to pay the bill for a very bad economic situation in which Spain was at that time” despite of feeling politically pro-PSOE, I felt confirmed in my belief that two-party states are only slightly better compared to one-party states but had absolutely nothing in common with democracy. In both systems citizens lack the option of choice, a lack that is anti-democratic in itself, not to mention its absurdity. Just imagine how you would feel about a country that had one party for women and one party for men. Or another that had a party for meat-lover and one for vegetarian, while everyone else had to choose between the two of them. Is it possible to represent the peoples of any country in only two parties?

What makes a country democratic is neither the fact that it is listed as democracy in Wikipedia nor the observation that citizens have the right to vote. Democracy is a process and it can only exist where existing institutions allow or–even better–facilitate this process. In a country with only two parties this is most unlikely, because similar to one-party states, there is always one party dictating the course of inaction. Of course it can be questioned whether newcomers such as Cuidadanos or Podemos will do a better job than the established ones. However, in contrast to Rajoy I believe that what matters is having new ideas and also the necessity to discuss, negotiate and make compromises. A government that imposes itself on its citizens in the way PP did under Rajoy is not any more democratic than Italy under Berlusconi or Russia under Putin. However, Spanish citizens deserve better than that, as we all do!

The most important lesson of today’s election is that today, the Spanish people will put an end to 40 years of heteronomy disguised under a pseudo-democratic veil. Citizens have decided to taking ownership of democracy and the process that determines it. I hope that others will follow.

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Who shall pay for the climate debt of the rich?

As in earlier COPs the Paris talks are dominated by discussions around degrees Celsius and who will have to pay for what. In reality those issues are not relevant at all.

The climate talks in Paris have entered the second week and apart from delivering tiring speeches, attendees have also been busy drafting drafts, some shorter while others longer than before. All in all, nothing new in the West. A lot of lengthy documents that the world knows from earlier times. Having witnessed little or nothing delivered of what world leaders have promised during environmental summits, I wonder if we really need more papers defining degrees Celsius and tools to account and monitor. If earlier commitments such as the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights —which by the way was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the UN in the same Paris in December 1948—, the Rio Declaration of 1992, or the Millennium Development Goals would have taken and been implemented seriously, then we wouldn’t need to ever again renegotiate the same topics.

One of the biggest questions that dominate the empty talks in Paris is the old one related to ‘who should pay for the climate debts that the rich have accumulated?’ Yes, correct, we talk about money, not degrees Celsius. It’s all about money, as any global conference or meeting of whatever parties. Climate change is the consequence of environmental pollution, which in economic terms is an external cost, and thus a money matter. In an ideal world[1] there are no transactions with externalities and hence no social and environmental costs. However, such circumstances would have a significant impact on the world order.

In an ideal world without environmental pollution and climate change, big polluters wouldn’t be able to exploit natural resources at the speed they currently do. They wouldn’t be able to accumulate money and power and consequently, the long discussed inequality among world citizens would dissapear. Equal access and climate justice would mean that the rich could no longer steal at the expense of the poor. That would be fatal. Imagine that prime ministers could no longer fly in private jets or that the bosses of businesses engaged in human rights abuse would need to trade their SUV for food? A horror scenario. That would be Mad Max right here, right now, a thing none of us wants, do we?

Isn’t it much better to live in a world where terrorism dominates the lives of citizens whereas the rich have the means to isolate themselves from the realty? A world in which only elites have access to important conferences and in which those who try to sneak into elite circles are being arrested, put under house arrest or ignored by the masses. After all it’s not the degrees of Celsius that count, it’s the stability of the system. And this stability is under thread; more so by voices calling for equity than by climate change. Therefore our governments love to focus on and talk about climate. Needless to say that our very system has ever since been founded on the control of the masses which in earlier centuries and according to Marx was achieved by the sedative character of religion. As a consequence of the Enlightenment in the 18/19th centuries, religion had to be substituted by science in the late 20th century. Never tired of finding the right drugs for the people global leaders have successfully created scapegoats such as climate change and sustainable development. However, wrong interpretation of climate change is as much an excuse for the pseudo-Enlightened elites as is a wrong interpretation of the Koran by extremists from ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

After all, it is not the small letters that matter, nor the length of a paper – it’s their actions that make citizens. Thus, if we really want to work on a better world, then neither the costs of climate change nor the degrees Celsius are important. What matters is that we start with action now.

[1] And as a matter of fact compared to the one we know one closer to that proclaimed in the Human Rights, the Rio Declaration or the Millennium Development Goals

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We climate – they talk

Many of us experienced an ‚extreme weather‘-year, no matter where on the planet we live. In Vietnam, it has been dry and hot for most of the time, all of us wondering ‘when will the rain eventually come?’. Droughts and heat have caused severe damage to crops in many places. In Switzerland, winemakers were confronted with the fact that harvests were one month early but only half in volume compared to ‘normal’ years. The financial loss won’t be covered by anyone and in spite of prayers and positive support for climate change action by Pope Francis farmers are alone when it comes to adapting to ever changing production conditions. Climate change is a serious business for those who are dealing with it for survival purposes, be it farmers, coastal communities, indigenous peoples or other vulnerable groups.

Meanwhile and far from suffering what the most vulnerable among us are confronted with, PMs and other country officials headed to Paris to once again talk about climate. It’s not the first time they are meeting to talk climate, as those among us who follow climate politics know. If you wonder what these meetings are all about, then you might click here to listen or read Reuters’ news, who gives a nice overview of what country heads had to say during the opening speech in Paris. ‘A lot of hot air’ as Bruce Wallace correctly says, but then again: could we expect anything else? For decades scientists have told us what the effects of climate change will look like. Ignoring all the warnings, politicians have used the situation to negotiate the best deal for them and their supporters. In the best case this meant big concessions for major polluters such as the oil and coal industries, in the worst it was simply a one-man show taking advantage of the opportunity to show off in front of the world.

If you think about it for a minute, would you bring your children to the next bakery, if they had a flu? Would you ask your Samoan neighbour to help out with a written assignment in Greek history, with which your daughter struggles? I bet you wouldn’t. In challenging situations we need specialists and experts. For climate concerns this means environmental and social scientists, producers affected by climate change and all those suffering from it already.
Say you are not sure whether Prince Moulay Rachid of Morocco or Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung know more about climate change than a farmer in Uganda, you might still ask yourself ‘what qualities can country leaders have who can’t even stick to their time limit?’, while addressing millions of people hoping for the long expected change. What about the fact that many of them exceeded their time budget as much as two to three or even more times, the US president even by a factor 4.5? Is that proof of serious business practices?

Climate change is all about time and money. Economic deficiencies are the main reason why not more is being done to stop climate change and economic efficiency would be the cure. However, for that we need people who understand the maths, and such who care about the costs of their actions. True, these ladies and gentlemen who attend the climate talks in Paris in lieu of the experts for whom climate costs matter don’t care about budgets, because they are always on the spending side. This applies to members from the different governments as much as to many NGO representatives. All they really care about is how much money they will get from climate negotiations and –more importantly– where their clan members can reach best into the pot before the rest of the money is being used for some fictional climate change mitigation or adaptation project.

In my daily work as an environmental expert I have witnessed so much money being wasted on questionable development programs that I came to think that it would actually be much better for the climate, if the money would not be used at all. In countries where corruption dictates all and any transaction, the more money that flows into the economy means more corruption and hence more accumulation of power and wealth. In Vietnam, the result is evident everywhere one looks: while the country’s economy is booming and major cities boost with venues that compare to those of New York, Berlin or London, the poor remain poor. Many of them would need to work for months to be in the position to order a drink in one of the recent built establishments in District 1 of Saigon, where few years ago people could buy a whole meal for less than a dollar. Meanwhile, the rich and those with access to the lucrative overseas development pots achieve a wealth that allows them to consume and pollute as those in the West. Eventually, climate change related investment programs achieve everything but a better climate.

So, when Obama claims that ‘this is a turning point,…this is the moment we finally determined we would save our planet’, you should ask yourself two questions: first, ‘who is WE?’ and second, ‘what does Obama mean by saving OUR planet?’. Will they save us from their empty talks or did they decide that they use the momentum to make the planet their own?

 

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Why don’t you trade your political career against one in banking, Mr Obama?

In an act of revenge on Swiss banks facilitating tax crimes of US citizens, US president Obama reaches out to foreign governments, not realizing that all they do is punishing innocent individuals who have so little in common with the crimes of UBS as the US president with Bami Goreng.

When I moved overseas years ago, one of the first letters from Switzerland was that of my bank back home telling me that from now on I needed to pay five Swiss francs (approx. 5 USD) per month for costs that the bank incurred due to my new domicile. ‘Oh well’, I thought, ‘probably a thank you for doing e-banking ever since it existed’. It’s true that data transfer to overseas might take longer and will thus require a better subscription…
Time went by and instead of donating to some NGO I consequently contributed my yearly give-away to some Swiss bank. Not long ago I however received a letter from my bank explaining that the US 5.- per month would increase to US 30.- per month and that all Swiss living overseas would need to sign two letters confirming that the bank was allowed to share all my personal information and bank details with Mr Obama and his colleagues. Outrageous about the discrimination (the rules only apply to Swiss citizens with domicile overseas), I got in contact with my bank.

‘The reason’, so I was told, was all a consequence of some corrupt UBS employees facilitating tax crimes in the US. The US government, in an act to cash in on the situation[1], used the momentum to sign agreements with other governments that would allow them to steal whatever information their ‘secret’ services wouldn’t have already anyway. And some of the contacted governments, weak and lame enough not to protect the innocent, signed the agreements in order to safe UBS, Credit Swiss and all the criminals owning and governing those corrupt organizations (and of course also their savings in those banks). One of the first to appear in Washington and shake hands with Mr Obama was the Swiss federal minister Madame Widmer-Schlumpf. ‘We can live with it’, commented the finance minister her deal that would save the existence of UBS and Co. and thus prevented the criminal managers and banks from facing punishment.

The Swiss government had all interest to save UBS. A few years before, in 2008, it had pumped 6 billion Swiss francs into the giant, supporting it when the bank had liquidity problems due to other dirty deals and unjustified speculations. Widmer-Schlumpf didn’t think it was wrong to use tax payer money to support a filthy bank. Not in Switzerland, where ‘everyone’ has a nice home and a good job due to the lovely banks, as the myth goes[2]. A look into the shareholder list of UBS shows that only 18.7% of shares are hold by Swiss citizens or entities, later probably holding most of it. Nevertheless we tax payers had to support the rotten bank that regularly pays big bonuses to its management – most of it tax free, of course.

No doubt, there are many more crimes that UBS and Co. have committed against the interests of Switzerland and the majority of its citizens. However, all that doesn’t count. Not for Obama and not for the Swiss government. What really counts for them is that the US cashed in on the crimes and that both governments can create employment, best in the form of more bureaucratic institutions. Given that Obama, Widmer-Schlumpf and Co. don’t pay for the bill and in light of the fact that government employees will not be affected from the consequences of these lovely new rules[3], trading country and its citizens against the possibility to further bank in offshore accounts, as the rich and members of the Swiss government prefer to do, was as easy as bailing out UBS with tax payer money.

The moral of the story is that criminals never pay for their crimes, that banks always blame others for the mistakes they committed and that our governments are so far from meeting their commitments in regards to sustainable development and citizens’ rights, that it would be better if they did what they are best at. Alternatively they might still become bankers, Mr Obama, where the burden of short-minded actions will be carried by others.

[1] Right, wasn’t capitalism the panacea for all US struggles ever since the republic has been established?

[2] Which in quality is no better and no worse than that of William Tell.

[3] Swiss government representatives overseas such as employees of embassies and consulates are not affected and won’t need to provide any information on their bank accounts.

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UNFCCC COP21 in Paris, economics and why the planet is heating up regardless of climate talks

The world gets more and more divided into believer and those who have replaced religion by science. While both seem to be stuck in light of different global crises, economics can’t change an imperfect world either.

Being a nihilist with a rather pessimistic view on current world politics, I often have my doubts about what I’m doing and where I should be heading. From friends I learn that I’m not alone in this. Interestingly enough, I found one of the best answers to a rather pessimistic situation in economics. Reading what James M. Buchanan famously said in 1966 [1], namely that the art of the economist was not to lean to judgements of right or wrong, win or lose, all or nothing, or yes and no, but to adjust, coordinate conflicts and thus to achieve mutual gain, I recognized a concept that has guided environmental management in face of uncertainty for decades and one that sounds right to me: that of doing, observing, analyzing and eventually adapting.

Toasting to the victims of war and terror? President Obama and Putin at the UN General Assembly (Source: Source http://www.businessinsider.com/obama-putin-un-toast-photo)

Toasting to the victims of war and terror? President Obama and Putin at the UN General Assembly (Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/obama-putin-un-toast-photo)

Not long ago, a picture made its way around newspapers. It showed US president Obama toasting with Russia’s patriarch and suppressor Putin. Somewhat surprisingly, the comments to this picture all concerned the expression on Obama’s face. Now, I don’t know how much about economics journalists know, nor if Mr Obama and Mr Putin are experts in the art of economics. What is clear is that if they applied them, their focus would be on other issues than on sipping champagne and making faces.
Dear readers, seeing that picture didn’t you wonder what representatives at the US General Assembly have to toast to, in times that see millions of people on this planet fleeing from war and terror, many of them dying on a ship, drowning in the Mediterranean or suffocating to death in a truck in Austria? Well, the fact is that world leaders most likely don’t give a sh?!* for the lives of the victims. Rather, Putin and Obama toasted to the next meeting in Paris, where they will meet with thousands of representatives of all color and rank to discuss climate warming.

I don’t know whether climate change refugees or any other refugees will be present at the UNFCCC COP21 in Paris. In fact, it doesn’t really matter, because regardless of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, the decisions for COP21 have already been taken. In fact, they have been taken a long time ago. Global warming is a fact that has been known for decades. Likewise, the remedies have long been discovered as well. Economists and thinkers who care and understand about economics, such as Nicholas Stern, Johan Eliasch or Ross Garnaut, have long shown how the issue of global warming can and must be tackled. Not surprisingly and given that we all participate in the same global market economy, it must be tackled by integrating climate change in this same market. Or in other words, setting a price on negative impacts (e.g. carbon emission) and on positive actions (e.g. conservation of ecosystem services) will help to solve the problem. The market will by itself regulate the negative impacts of carbon emissions and world leaders would indeed have reasons to drink champagne.

Hearing that, you probably think ‘if it were that simple, why don’t we do it then?’ Well, also that can be answered by economics. Unfortunately, good economics is all based on perfect markets but markets are not perfect. If our governments solved the problem of climate change, they would have no reason and now budget for annual travels around the globe. In reality, governments, authorities and other powerful people have manipulated and distorted markets ever since with focus on optimizing their personal profits at the expense of society and the environment. While you ride your bicycle to curb carbon emission, governments all over the world still subsidize diesel that benefit their clans and friends in different sectors. Whereas the Vietnamese government invests in bigger fleets that will target at already over-fished fish stocks, it taxes the import of bicycles, simply due to the fact that authorities make more money from buying big boats while bicycles are imported by small or medium sized enterprises.

When even state attorneys and judges in Zurich, who are meant to investigate corruption and the faulty practices of the FIFA, play the wrongful rules of an elite circle accepting presents from their clients rather than investigating their crimes, how can we then expect the world to be perfect? You don’t need to be an economist to understand that when thousands of representatives from all over the planet will travel to Paris in late November, they don’t do so with the aim to curb global warming. Just as with other UN gatherings, they will take the opportunity of their annual catching-up to toast at your expenses and make funny faces to keep photographers and journalists busy. Apart from that, they will meet friends, will network a bit and of course, do some shopping in Paris’ famous boutiques. Regardless of whether you care about economics, hoping that our world leaders will do something to halt climate change is like praying for the Messiah. It doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t solve the problems on this planet. What we need is policies that benefit society, not champagne for the few. To conclude with economic theories, it’s time to adapt the deficient rules of a faulty game.

[1] I summarize it rather than to quote all his words

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4-star service requires skills and a noble attitude, not paternalism and arrogance. An open letter to Vietnam Airlines.

While Vietnam Airlines targets at becoming a 4-star airline, the company fails to meet minimal standards and a proper business attitude. Far from overcoming the filth of communist paternalism, non-existent customer service still reflects the terror of governmental bureaucracy.

Lately, Vietnam Airlines is bombarding its frequent flyer customers with emails explaining how hard the company was working on becoming a 4-star airline. In contrast to these efforts, today I experienced an incident that proves that VN Airlines has not changed too much since I first used their services in 2010. Booked on flight VN1189 from Hai Phong to Ho Chi Minh City, I was called by the baggage control unit to report to their office shortly after check-in. The staff there informed me that I wasn´t allowed to bring three bottles of fish sauce in glass bottles that I had bought as a present. According to the person in charge glass wasn´t allowed as a check-in item due to safety concerns. Confused due to the fact that I have many times checked in wine bottles and perfume in glass containers, I asked for clarification and an extract of the accordant part within the air transport regulations showing that glass was indeed not allowed on a plane. The lady then referred me to Vietnam Airlines to clarify the issue.

At the Vietnam Airlines ticketing desk I was told the same story without giving further information and―after insisting on a proper statement―I was made to wait for at least 10 minutes. It wasn´t after asking again that the woman in charge finally contacted a supervisor and explained the matter. He―probably sure that I was right―then tried to find whatever reason to maintain the claim his colleagues had made. He made me wait for another 15 minutes and eventually showed me a board that said that passengers are not allowed to carry on ´corrosives´ (the rule was accompanied by an image showing a car battery). I then tried to explain both members at the ticketing desk that fish sauce was in no way corrosive and that I believed they were wrong. I insisted that they show me the part of the transport conditions that I accepted as part of my ticket purchase which confirms that fish sauce in a glass container and properly packed was not allowed as part of the check-in luggage.

In continuation, a team of five Vietnam Airlines staff tried to find a regulation which could sustain their claim. Eventually, and maybe 30 min after the initial protest, I was shown what was supposed to be an extract of Chapter 9 of the Vietnam Airlines baggage carriage conditions with the following text highlighted as proof of the claim that fish sauce in a glass container was not allowed: “passengers are not allowed to carry irritating or offensive materials”.

Needless to say that I wasn´t satisfied. However, the staff would not give in. I then said that I agreed to leave the fish sauce there if they would sign a paper stating that I left it there due to transport regulation, accompanied with name and role and signed by the person in charge. However, all of them, including the supervisor, denied to provide their names or sign whatever paper. In the meantime, passengers were asked to move to the gate. I had to repeat that they move forward with their decision but the staff clearly played with time since they knew that I had no choice than to give in at one stage. Eventually they sent me back to the baggage control to make sure that my luggage was on the plane. When I returned to the baggage control room, the lady had already packed and sent my suitcase to the plane and I had no access to it. Further, she also denied to provide her name or sign a paper, but insisted that I had to throw away the fish sauce. Eventually, I had no choice but to proceed to the gate and leave the fish sauce behind.

I ask you what I asked the staff at check-in: what about fish sauce―a food item and daily ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine―is irritating or offensive?

It doesn´t matter if Vietnam Airlines cares about their Elite members or not. I believe that what happened to me is very ruthless and lacks all respect for a human being, no matter their frequent flyer member status. Worse than that, the incident reflects business practices that have terrorized Vietnam for decades. Based in the doctrine of communist top-down control and power abuse, it is the practical arm of arbitrary rules and incapacity called bureaucracy. The fact that none of the VN airline staff was willing to identify their names or role but insisted on rules that they made up ad hoc as they pleased (the reason for not carrying the fish sauce changed from ´glass container´, to ´corrosives´, to ´bad smell´ and eventually to ´offensive material´) suggests that their actions are not based in knowledge or proper training, but rather on abuse of power. If Vietnam Airlines truly strives for a 4-star service in an international context, I can´t see how this could be achieved. Apart from FIFA, there is no other international forum that can accommodate for such misconduct.

While Vietnam is developing and changing fast, Vietnam Airlines seems to have lost focus and connection to a reality it never had. The worst terrorism is not the one from psychopaths targeting airlines, but that from those people among us denying basic human rights to fellow citizens.

P.S. For all those interested in the statement by Vietnam Airlines, please find here the letter from Vietnam Airlines I received in reply. It makes things worse…..

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Why the intention to ban burkas in Switzerland is more than just right-wing politician rhetoric.

Switzerland has made a name for its prohibition of minarets. Although a new initiative is widely criticized for being right-wing populism, the topic deserves some more attention.

Burkas don’t just cause discussions, they are indeed extremely unattractive, not to say scary. Casual and regular readers of my blog might know that I’m generally very much in favour of tolerance and that I have repeatedly defended the Islamic world. Yet, as much as I’m opposed to right-wing populism, I must say that the voices which call for a ban on burkas in Switzerland are more than just that. Those who simply see the action from a PR perspective fail to understand the general interests and aims of the people. In a world in which war, terror, brutal murders and cruelty dominate almost all aspects of our daily lives, people wish more than ever to simply live in peace and find a refuge where to hide. Needless to say that in today’s Europe which struggles to cope with thousands of asylum seekers arriving daily, places to hide get smaller.

BurkaBurka: religious custom or a scary trend? (Source picture: http:secretstorms.com)

The terror of Islamic extremists have made their ways around our households not only in recent times and under the terror of IS (Islamic State), but for many years. Parallel to the increasing terror, citizens with Muslim background are more present in our daily lives: on one hand in the form of a trend towards radicalization of their religious customs, on the other in form of an increasing number of wealthy tourists enjoying the luxury of the capitalist world. The flip side of the story is that whereas two decades ago we used to talk about the horrible tortures in form of a ‘full-body cover’ that women undergo in Islamic countries, we are now confronted with living mummies walking through our streets and eating cakes at the same coffee shop as we do. Citizens are scared and I believe they can’t be blamed, at least not any longer since the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ terror. And as our freedom is thus being further reduced to areas such as religion, cultural heritage or our ‘homes’, citizens try to regain the power of the spaces they believe belongs to them.

It can be argued that the freedom of everyone is to walk around the way they please. However, does this apply to us the way it does to religious extremists? In Switzerland it is a general law that people are not allowed to cover their entire face and while we are being punished for infringements, we should close our eyes on visitors out of courtesy? Everyone working in Islamic countries knows how hard it is to even drink a beer after a hard day working. Is that tolerance for our needs and desires? Do we need to punish others if we decide not to drink beer but they do, or kill others if they eat meat from animals that we consider to be holy? More than a lack of tolerance, opposition against burkas are foremost a reaction to increasing radicalization of religious terror. Unfortunately, those distancing themselves from the initiative fail to understand their fellow citizens and instead are only driven by the economic benefits they gain from doing business with rich Arabs shopping in Switzerland.

More than weighting the bans or acceptance of burkas, what we need is a discussion on the level to which we tolerate religious extremism and when it’s time to set a limit. It’s good if the discussions start, everything else is closing our eyes (or veils) on the reality.

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