Tag Archives: USA

US 2016 Elections – from a small European country’s perspective

Just a few days until the US Presidential Elections. From a Small European Country the big circus on the other side of the pond seems unreal, like a Reality TV freak show. I guess its partly because most small European countries are governed by multi-party parliaments, where coalition governments are necessarily formed to achieve a majority. This usually softens the rough edges in politics, at least after the elections. The American “winner takes all” system creates a different vibe and a much more personal election race.

Which brings me to the personality of the candidates. I and many other Europeans wonder how and why the proud American democracy comes up with two such losers to compete for the most important office on the planet. Not only that, both are accompanied by VP candidates that are designed to be absolutely anonymous to the point of being interchangeable without anyone noticing. By now, the race is not about who’s the most suitable candidate – its obvious both are completely incompetent and shouldn’t be allowed to be president of anything except a Florida condo association. Its about who is the least repelling.

In the blue corner – an older, frailer version of Bill Clinton (how’s that for democracy – having two families run the country among themselves?), mired in corruption scandals and elected via a highly dubious process in her party, defeating a visibly crippled candidate, who obviously stood no chance in the national elections. In the red corner – a walking scandal with the emotional maturity of a 5-year old (“No, you’re the one that’s unfit” – yes, Donald, and why not add to it “My Shwartz is bigger than yours” – oh, I forgot, you already said that) and the credibility of Comical Ali. Come on, America, is that really the best you’ve got?

In all honesty, I don’t like Hillary Clinton. Few people do, not even her own husband it seems. My guess is that any Republican candidate would have taken this election by a huge margin with Hillary as the opponent. Anyone but The Donald. The dude looks more and more like a Democratic conspiracy to make Hillary look good. I never thought I’d say it, but with The Donald as the alternative, even I prefer Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office.

Every time he seems to be on his way up, The Donald manages to ruin his chances with an almost supernatural mastery. On the other hand, despite his ridiculousness, he still stands a chance to win. Which is sort of funny, in the way watching YouTube videos of crashing skateboarders is funny. Only this time its the only superpower in the world with a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons that’s going to crash on its balls and land on its head. I do wonder what else The Donald has to do or say to discourage the people that still think that voting for the political equivalent of Armageddon is a good idea.

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Shocking truth about Americans on vacation

Of all my posts, the one about the 7 things I don’t understand about Americans in Europe generated the most comments. And the most commented of those 7 things was my question “Why are they in such a rush?”. The commenters offer the explanation that Americans have very little days of paid leave, so need to rush to be able to see as much as possible in the limited time they have. And I sort of accepted this explanation, even though I still think having little paid leave is a lifestyle choice.

But as I accidentally found out, the shocking truth is that Americans don’t even use the little leave they have! According to Expedia’s 2013 Vacation Deprivation study, Americans are only using 10 of the 14 days they are given. So they actually choose not to go on vacation, they choose to have rushed, unsatisfying short trips, even as, according to the same study, three out of four Americans feel their bosses are supportive of vacation – higher than the world average!

So why don’t they go on vacation? One reason is indeed the short leave – a quarter of Americans are stockpiling days of paid leave to be able to go on a longer vacation. But that’s just part of the story. Short-term greed is a reason for almost a fifth of the Americans not to go on vacation – they prefer to be paid for unused vacation days. I don’t need to explain why this kills you quite literally in the long run. A lot of the Americans said they can’t afford a vacation. But having a vacation doesn’t mean you have to spend. No excuses. Save your life – take a vacation. Even if it means sitting on a bench in a park in your home town with a book for a week. And leave your smartphone at home while you’re at it.

I took a vacation to volunteer at a film festival in my own town. Look how happy I am!

I took a vacation to go to a film festival in my own town. Look how happy I am!

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And here are the results of the European votes (excluding mine)…

Let me start with a clear statement – I didn’t vote last week. This action has raised some eyebrows among those who know me, as this is absolutely contrary to what I normally do. I usually vote, although for obscure parties, but this time I do have my reasons not to. They are threefold – firstly, I am elections-tired, secondly, I don’t understand how the EU parliament works and thirdly, Parkinson’s law. Allow me to explain in more details.

  1. I am elections-tired
    The number of elections in the Netherlands is starting to be ridiculous. I’m good with numbers (otherwise I wouldn’t be doing a Ph.D. in Earth Sciences) but I actually start losing track of the number of times I voted in the last few years. See for yourself – there are the national parliament elections, which are normally held every 4 years, but in recent times are held biannually due to unstable governments falling quite regularly. Then there are the municipal elections, which were held just two months ago. So far, so good? This is where things get complicated. There are also the provincial parliament elections of the regional government. These parliaments elect the provincial government and the Senate, the upper house of the Dutch parliament. Feeling lost? Wait, there’s more – there are also the Water Board elections – the guys that manage the dikes and polders get elected, too. Actually, I forgot to mention that in the big cities (like Rotterdam, where I live) during the municipal elections also the neighbourhood committees were elected, but these are rather unimportant. By the time the European elections are up, I just don’t give a damn anymore.
  2. I don’t get it
    What was I supposed to vote for? The European parliament? And they do what exactly? Theoretically, I know they are rather important and take hundreds of decisions that effect my daily life. Like the tough decision to call carrot a fruit for the purposes of making jam. But wait – that was not a decision by the European parliament at all! It was a Directive of the Council of the European Union, who (and I quote):

    Having regard to the Treaty establishing the European Community, and in particular Article 37 thereof,
    Having regard to the proposal from the Commission,
    Having regard to the opinion of the European Parliament,
    Having regard to the opinion of the Economic and Social Committee,
    BLA BLA BLA
    Have decided that:
    – for the purposes of this Directive, tomatoes, the edible parts of rhubarb stalks, carrots, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, melons and water-melons are considered to be fruit[…]

    Must be a tough job indeed, having regard of all those people. Now who were they exactly? Don’t know? Well, neither do I. And I know even less about how they get their positions and what is exactly the power balance between the Parliament, the Commission and the Economic and Social Committee. And why is it that they need all those meetings of heads of state, finance and foreign ministers, if they have all these committees working for them?

  3. Parkinson’s law
    To anyone familiar with Parkinson’s law it is obvious that a parliament that has 751 members and three places of work (Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg) just can’t function. In fact, a body of this size would probably be counterproductive to the extreme, has it not been slowed down by its own weight. So besides eating a lot of taxpayers money (simultaneously translating debates between 24 languages costs around €150,000 per day), it probably does nothing. Yes, it makes decisions, but by the time they finish debating, the problem has either solved itself or became otherwise irrelevant, so the whole circus can start all over.

And that’s why I didn’t vote for the European parliament. Of course, I do have suggestions for improvement. In fact, they are pretty obvious.

  1. The number of levels of government must be cut
    I can only speak of the Netherlands, but here the provincial parliament, the Upper House and the Water Boards can all be deleted without anyone noticing. Except the people working there, but the ones doing useful work can be redistributed among the remaining governments and the useless ones are clearly a burden and can be sent to retirement. Most of them are already retired (more than two thirds of the Upper House members, for example) so its not an issue.
  2. The EU must become less complicated and much, much more transparent
    The successes of the anti-EU parties should be a wake-up call for all. The majority of the Europeans support the EU, think it is a good thing and see the benefits of it. But they can’t see the forest through the trees. If a high-educated person like myself doesn’t get how and why the EU takes its decision (read – spends my money), what about those with less academic qualifications? The EU and its various governing bodies need to get mature, define their objectives, divide responsibilities and keep out of touchy subjects until they prove to be capable and trust-able to handle them.
  3. The European parliament needs to get tough on itself
    And I mean real tough – cutting drastically the number of members and choosing a single location. Limiting the number of official languages might be a good starting point. If even the UN can stick to just six official and two (just 2!) working languages, the EU has no excuses there.
  4. The European parliament may have to split in two to increase its credibility
    I know it sounds contradictory, but I think the Americans actually got this one right – in what is known as the Connecticut Compromise, the states send two types of representatives – a proportional Congress (like the EU parliament is) and an egalitarian Senate, where each state has two members. I am not saying the EU should copy this model but I do think that a compromise in such style can contribute to the balance of power between the members, in the long term reducing the frictions and the need for elaborate discussion between governments.

I remain hopeful that Sunday’s dramatic result will lead to dramatic changes in the way the EU is run. But unfortunately, I don’t see any of this happening any time soon. In 5 years, I will reconsider voting. I will have plenty of opportunities to vote in between, so I’ll keep practising colouring my ballot.

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European myths and legends

Europe is teeming with myths and legends. Tales of kings, gnomes, elves, wolves and witches are everywhere in the castle-filled Europe. But its not only old myths – modern myths are here as well. As you can probably guess, these modern myths hold about as much truth as the old ones. Here are some of those modern myths about Europe.

  1. Holland is all about drugs and hookers
    When I told my grandma I was going to the Netherlands to study, she started crying. I said: “But grandma – why? You’ve always wanted me to study, so what’s wrong?”. “Its all drugs and hookers there”, the old woman cried – “I’ve seen it on TV!”. I did my best to reassure her. I said: “But grandma – its all drugs and hookers here as well”. That brought her right back to her senses. She stopped crying and said: “You’re right. The TV is all lies anyway”. Despite both prostitution and cannabis being legal in the Netherlands, the consumption of both here is actually around or even slightly below the European average.
  2. London is full of rich people
    This myth is fuelled by the high concentration of Russian billionaires and football players in London. The capital of the grandest Empire of all times is also full of Imperial Glory in the shape of grand buildings, museums and fancy shops. Sad truth is, that most Londoners are poor people. Even those with a good job in the City pay half of their salary to rent a shared apartment (not even their own!) and endure an hour’s ride each way in the rush hour Tube to and from work. You can’t call that being rich.
  3. Eastern Europe is poor
    This myth is especially popular in… Eastern Europe! True, on average, income is significantly lower in Eastern European countries. But the reality is not as black as some would make you believe. The GDP per capita in Bulgaria, for example, is about 7,000 USD. Corrected for Purchasing Power Parity (that is, the actual prices of goods, which are significantly lower in the East), the GDP PPP in Bulgaria is over 15,000 USD! That is still rather low compared to Western Europe, but the differences are not that big anymore. And another thing – the more one moves to the East (and South) of Europe, the higher the share of non-documented economy – the untaxed, unreported income. In Russia it may be as big as the official economy according to some reports! So no, Eastern Europe is not as poor as you might think by looking at the dry numbers.

    Eastern Europe? No, Holland (at -12 C)!

    Eastern Europe? No, Holland (at -12 C)!

  4. Europeans are skinny
    Mostly believed by Americans, this myth is only partially true. Yes, compared to Americans, Europeans are skinny. But Europe is competing with the U.S. for first place in the obesity crisis. In every country in the EU, more than 50% of men are overweight, and almost everywhere more than 40% of women. The UK is hit especially hard, with numbers approaching the USA. Even in France and Italy, countries praised for their healthy food, more than 10% of the population is obese and the numbers are rising dramatically.
  5. Europeans are well-dressed
    Again, a myth mostly believed by a specific group, this time visitors from SE Asia (and, again, many Americans). Compared to SE Asia, where its nothing unusual to do your shopping dressed in a pygama (mint green, with blue teddy bears or purple, with yellow chicks), Europeans are haute couture. In reality, almost everywhere on the continent, people dress casually. Business districts see more suits and there may be less sweatpants and sneakers on the streets that in North America, but outside the city centre in any European country there is plenty of Adidas fashion walking around. Geographically, as you go Eastwards, sweatpants become less and less the exception until, in Russia, they become the norm.

These are just five of the many, many modern myths about Europe. Have you heard any myths you found out to be untrue? Or have a myth you particularly like? Do share it please!

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Europe and USA – same same but different

Europe and the USA are similar in many ways. Both are roughly the same size, have about the same number of states/countries, even the average income is (roughly) compatible. There are differences, too, and many of them. While for most differences a US state and a European country can be found that share some commonality, there are two points on which Europe and the USA are radically different as a whole.

First one is morals. When I turn the TV on, what comes on right after the evening news? I’ll give you a hint – its Dutch TV. Anyone who’s seen a Dutch movie will instantly know the right answer – nude! Not speedos, not topless, no – NUDE. People naked as the day they were born. On mainstream national public channels. And nobody is making a fuss about it. That, I think, is symbolizing the huge differences in morals between Europe and the USA. Nipplegate is just inconceivable in even the most conservative parts of Europe. I seriously can’t think of a European country where an incidental one-second exposure of something that might have been a nipple would lead to public outrage of the magnitude unleashed in Nipplegate.

The other difference is guns. Can you buy a gun in the supermarket in the USA? Yes, you can! In most European countries, gun ownership for self-defence is prohibited. Even the Czech Republic which has the most gun-friendly laws in Europe requires the gun-owner to pass tests about firearms legislation, weapon knowledge and first aid, and a medical inspection. American gun-proponents like to point out that Norway and Switzerland have high gun-ownership ratios. But in Norway, almost all guns owned by civilians are hunting rifles, and to get a hunting license the applicant must complete a 30 hour, 9 session course and pass a written exam. And in Switzerland most guns are government-issued rifles held by members of the military reserve. They don’t even have ammo for those!

Personally, I prefer the European approach to these two issues and I don’t think I would like to live in the USA. Because having the choices, I’d much prefer being surrounded by nipples than by guns. And you?

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