Friday, September 30, 2005

Schroeder moving to history's ash-heap?

Let's hope so. The IHT has the latest. If he goes, that will mean that other than in Spain, politicians supporting the war in Iraq have done quite well. In Spain, a bungled cover-up of al-Queda's Madrid bombings cost the conservative PM his job.

The Social Democrats are beginning to look beyond the self-indulgent Schroeder. Unless the SPD wins all three seats in Dresden's delayed election, the pressure on Schroeder to drop out of the Chancellor's race will become intense.

The long knives of the SPD are surely being drawn; leftists are remarkable for the ferocity of their political infighting, so the political theater ought to be interesting. Throw in the fall political season in France, and it becomes must watch tv.
Germany's Social Democrats are calling into question the political future of their own chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, with some party leaders saying it is no longer a question of if, but when, Schröder will quit.

That most likely would pave the way for Angela Merkel, the conservative leader, to become chancellor of Germany as head of a coalition of her Christian Democrats bloc and the Social Democrats.

Michael Müller, deputy parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, said Thursday that Schröder would resign soon. When asked when, he referred to the last parliamentary election set for Sunday in Dresden.

"I don't think it will be after Dresden," said Müller, who represents the left wing of the Social Democrats. "It could be after he has completed the negotiations for a grand coalition."
The SPD had hoped that tossing the apple of discord in among the CDU would unseat Merkel as party head, thus costing Schroeder's enemy her job in exchange for his. Thankfully, no one in the CDU was foolish enough to pick it up.

Schröder, who has vowed never to serve under Merkel as chancellor, has insisted he will remain in the post. But his own party is no longer so sure. [...]

Guido Westerwelle, leader of the pro-business Free Democrats, said Thursday the Dresden vote would hasten Schröder's exit. "I assume that will be the occasion for Schröder to make way," said Westerwelle. His hopes of becoming the junior partner in Merkel's conservative coalition were dashed because the center-right coalition failed to win a parliamentary majority.

Leading Social Democrats repeatedly have denied that Schröder was thinking of resigning. Franz Müntefering, parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats said over the past 10 days that Schröder would remain as chancellor. Then Schröder suggested that the job be split; he would serve the first two years and Merkel the next two, implying that he might then leave. The Christian Democrats rejected that idea.

In recent days, however, Schröder's future has become slowly untangled from Merkel's. One reason is the determination of the Christian Democrats, who for the moment are backing Merkel rather than be bullied by the Social Democrats into ditching her.

Wolfgang Schäuble, the influential deputy leader of the Christian Democrats parliamentary grouping, said in an interview: "The Social Democrats speculate that the union is not united. And there was speculation about a coalition without Merkel. They might even dream of a coalition without Merkel. This speculation will go nowhere. We will stay together."

"And when we construct the coalition, it will be under Chancellor Merkel," he said.
Merkel, whose political future appeared to hang in the balance after her party had its worst showing for several decades, has fought back with a determination to become chancellor. She would be the first woman to hold the position and one who was raised in communist East Germany. [...]

Merkel and her advisers have since set conditions for starting formal coalition talks with the Social Democrats, insisting that it recognize the Christian Democrats' right to nominate the chancellor. [...]

"The public accept the democratic results of the elections," Schäuble said. "The union did not have an overwhelming victory but they get more votes and seats than the Social Democrats and so it is up to us to nominate the chancellor." [...]

It doesn't get simpler than that. Schroeder can begin planning a graceful exit.

World toilet summit lifts lid on public hygiene

Crap, why wasn't I notified of this meeting?
Delegates to the annual World Toilet Summit in Northern Ireland's capital Belfast could be forgiven for feeling flushed this week after sitting down for a three-day debate on the finer points of public sanitation.

Some 350 experts at the summit, which ended Thursday, discussed such pressing subjects as anti-social behavior in rest-rooms, portable toilets, and facilities for the blind.

"A lot was achieved, including the finalization of a protocol setting out global standards for the provision and hygiene of public toilets," Raymond Martin, director of the Irish Toilet Association, told Reuters.

Other highlights of the summit included the launch of a "Bog Standard Campaign" to push for better toilets in UK schools, and the unveiling of Belfast's first public UriLift toilet, a stainless steel urinal that rises hydraulically out of the ground at night to facilitate male revelers. [...]

That last one is a great idea. I hope the proceedings see print; I could use them when camping.

From the World Toilet Summit homepage comes this zinger: "A Loo of the Year Awards Ceremony & Summit Dinner will be held along with an Irish Theme evening." Not the best thing to have your nation grouped with the Loo of the Year Award.

Also this unintentional humor: they put out a call for papers.

My two favorite presentations: “A Seat of Learning” by David Coventry, Head of Street Scene and Annette Joyce, City Centre Manager, Cambridge City Council; and “Tsunami Disaster – Toilet Relief Programme” by Naning Adiwoso, Indonesia.

My brother blogged about it this too, but in a more reflective "share the memories" manner.

My brother has a blog

So long as he stays off politics (he is in the Chimpy McHitlerburton camp), he is highly readable, especially if you like travel related stuff. You're also in luck if you enjoy all things toilet.

Go over and yell at him.

Opera in Vienna

My family and I visited my in-laws in Austria for an extended weekend. They live about 40 minutes west of Vienna, in beautiful rolling country. Knowing we would be there, my wife got three great tickets for Monday's performance of Tosca at Vienna's Staatsoper.

The set was thankfully designed to look as if the opera was taking place in 1800. Costumes pretty much looked as though they came from the Napoleonic era, except for those worn by the police/torturers. These were a curious but effective mix of old fashioned style and something out of a fascist's wet-dream. I don't understand why some characters need to be set off like that when operas usually only have a handful of meaningful parts anyway.

The singing was superb. All three principal roles were sung and acted memorably. This was my first Tosca, and I was surprised at the vileness of chief of police Scarpia (sung by Sam Ramey), a nasty piece of work. Puccini must have had someone in mind when composing this part.

Tosca was sung by Nadja Michael. She acted as well as she sang, so it was a real bonus that she was also attractive.

Cavaradosi was sung by a really portly tenor, Johan Botha. What he lacked in manueverability, he made up for in ability. Simply put, he was wonderful.

I am no opera maven, so I hadn't heard of any of these folks. Perhaps someone (Patterico springs to mind) with more insight can tell me if any of the cast is known for their Tosca role.

Only one thing about the production jarred. The music would frequently overwhelm the singers, mostly in the tenderer moments. The Vienna opera doesn't use microphones, so it may have been that the music was simply played too loudly. No matter what the cause, it detracted from our enjoyment.

Before the opera began, we met my mother-in-law for dinner, where I heard the story of a previous Tosca production. She remembered a story from ex-director of the opera who told of one Tosca, who threw herself from the castle's walls, landed on a mattress and bounced back up into the audience's view, presumably still shrieking.

Ours lacked this bit of comedy, but was memorable nonetheless.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Dutch responses to flooding

I should make this part of a series. The Dutch have tackled flooding like no one else. Here Der Spiegel online looks at innovative floating houses, and speculates that they may be of use in New Orleans (my take: not likely as the cost is prohiberative, and simply banning building in some areas makes the most sense).
There are 37 houses strung along this branch of the Maas like a row of beads. At first glance, they seem quite unremarkable. Two storeys high, semicircular metal roofs and yellow, green or blue facades - hardly any clues let on that these are The Netherlands' first amphibious houses. The cellar, in this case, is not built into the earth. Instead, it is on a platform - and is much more than a mere storage room. The hollow foundation of each house works in the same way as the hull of a ship, buoying the structure up above water. To prevent the swimming houses from floating away, they slide up two broad steel posts - and as the water level sinks, so they sink back down again.

Anne van der Molen doesn't worry when the rainy season hits. Her house can swim."The columns have been driven deep into solid ground," explains Dick van Gooswilligen from the Dura Vermeer construction company. " They are even strong enough to withstand currents you would find on the open seas." Gooswilligen is currently busy guiding dozens of journalists from the United States through the watertight settlement in the Maasbommel district, close to Nijmegen. " As global warming causes the sea level to rise, this is the solution," he explains into a microphone. " Housing of this type is the future for the delta regions of the world, the ones which face the greatest danger." [...]

[B]ecause of the small kingdom's dense population, there is increasing pressure to build in areas prone to flooding. Already, though, the country defies the laws of physics simply by existing: More than a quarter of its land lies below sea level. And, year by year, the land is sinking a little bit lower. The Dutch protect themselves from going under through a network of canals and pumps. It is not only the sea which threatens the mighty barrage on the coast. On the other side lies the Rhine River, which branches out and forms a wide-reaching delta with the Maas. [...]

You cannot fight water, you have to learn how to live with it", states Sybilla Dekker, the minister in charge. Her department has arranged a competition for engineers, urban planners and architects to design living accommodation, greenhouses, parking lots and factories which would float and could grow into "waterproof" towns.

One of the leading architects in this relatively new discipline of maritime architecture is Koen Olthuis. [...] Now, his team is even coming up with plans for office buildings a hundred meters in height that "swim." The key to making this idea a reality is a patented technique whereby the foundation of the construction can be transformed into a float. A foam core is encased in concrete, with steel cables securing it against the pull of potential currents. Individual pontoons, whether for residential blocks or chicken coops, can be joined to one another like Lego blocks. As a result, a maritime settlement is born."

This construction model is built to last at least one hundred years," Olthuis says. If anything should happen to the foundation, there is no need to call in the construction company. Instead, the whole thing can be taken to the dockyard. [...]

The first town based on this model, numbering 12,000 houses, might conceivably be built close to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. The Netherlands are particularly low in this area. [...]

At this stage, such model houses cost more than conventional housing. The amphibious buildings in Maasbommel cost approximately €250,000 to €300,000 for a 120 square meter home. This is due in part to the flexible nature of the construction which also plays a role in creating feed lines for gas, electricity, drinking water and drainage. Like the foundation, they, too, have to be able to adapt to the changes in height of the premises.

But, when the floating construction model goes more mainstream, the price of a one family "ark" should drop dramatically. " At the end of the day, we will save on a lot of the costs conventional building methods incur doing things like securing foundations in soft ground. We won't have to contend with that," Olthuis points out. [...]

Deforestation leads to increase in radiation? The enlightened call for more power lines!

Found in New Scientist is this bit from the autumn magazine of the National Trust, part of whose mission is to preserve the beauties of the English countryside. "Do trees help protect us from radiation?" it asks, and goes on to explain: "Trees have electrical currents running through them, and so create electromagnetic fields around themselves. Because there are billions of trees, it seems likely that they contribute to creating and maintaining the Earth's magnetic field, which shields us against radiation from the sun and the cosmos. However, the magnetic field appears to be declining, and there is a theory that massive global deforestation could be a factor."

Rob Gill, one of several readers who spotted this, suggests: "Maybe the National Trust should campaign for more overhead power lines, since these surely have bigger and better currents flowing through them and would thus protect us even more effectively."

Kathy at Big Cat Chronicles has a more scientific look at the subject of declining magnetic fields.

Lump me with the Libertarians, at least this time

Well, I can't complain too much about this classification. Although I believe people are basically free to behave as they will, I have strong feelings as to how they should behave. Needless to say, people often don't behave properly in my view. I see myself as being described as crochety in thirty years.

You are a

Social Liberal
(66% permissive)

and an...

Economic Conservative
(68% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid
Also: The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

Saw it at Xrlq.

Swiss competitiveness remains strong

Good news for the Swiss. They (we) came in eighth in overall competitiveness in the world. In Europe, only the Scandinavian nations bested Switzerland. Both Germany and Austria, the other German speaking nations tumbled, as did France, which comes as no surprise to anyone following its fall from economic grace. The rankings are here. The US came in second, behind Finland.

Switzerland has once again come eighth in the annual competitiveness report of the World Economic Forum, helped by its technological innovation.

Released on Wednesday, The Global Competitiveness Report 2005-2006 finds that Finland remains the most competitive economy in the world, followed by the United States and Sweden.

"Switzerland's greatest competitive strength is its capacity for technological innovation, with high company spending on research and development and high levels of collaboration between industry and the university community," commented Augusto Lopez-Claros, chief economist and director of the WEF's Global Competitive Programme. "The country has high quality public institutions, reflected in well protected property rights and very low levels of corruption by international standards," he added. [...]

What can be done to keep competitive?

The most problematic factors for doing business in Switzerland as seen from the survey are inefficient government bureaucracy, tax regulation and tax rates.

Other problem areas include access to financing, restrictive labour legislation and an inadequately educated workforce.

Least of the business community's worries are corruption, government instability, crime and theft, and inflation.

Recommendations for Swiss policymakers include the better use of public resources given that Switzerland is one of the most generous subsidisers of agriculture in the OECD, and boosting enrolment rates for higher education. [...]

Regular reader Rorschach (his blog) pointed out in some comments to another post that Switzerland, like Europe, needs to undertake many needed reforms, and I agree. A good place to start would be with agricultural subsidies. A joke in Switzerland is that the government spends as much per cow as it does on each student. In fact, the numbers aren't so far apart. Lowering subsidies would free up monies for education and training.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Is France ready to get working again?

Roger Cohen--one of the IHT's best columnists--reports ($) on the under the radar French attack on unemployment. What has been obvious to all, that many French and Germans are quite content to collect unemployment benefits under a generous system, is now under review. Honest work doesn't even come into the question for many welfare recipients, especially if the unemployed are able to work black for a few Euros to keep them in Gauloises.

The French government is onto something: It's no good having a country where people make more money by not working than by taking a job. That realization may just mean that France will stir from its lethargy.

Certainly, Thierry Breton, 50, the boyish French finance minister with a fine command of English and a taste for things American ("I love your country," he purred), is convinced that "France is about to move."

Over breakfast at the French Consulate here, Breton suggested that no less than "a second French Revolution" was under way, one that the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin would like to complete "under the radar screen."

That, in fact, is how most change is accomplished in France, where a left-leaning rhetoric of equality and solidarity has been de rigueur for decades, even as the country has moved steadily toward the European norm of an open market economy.

Now, Breton wants to accelerate the market-oriented change by trashing, at last, the myth that a highly-regulated labor market preserves jobs. [...]

With that in mind, he's ready to break taboos. "We had a strange situation," he said. "For some people the subsidies they could get, unemployment benefits and so on, were higher than if they came to work." During an hourlong conversation, he returned to this theme again and again, insisting that the principle must be re-established that "work pays, which has not been the case."

For a long time now, it has been clear that the problem of chronically high unemployment in France and Germany has been tied to the fact that a combination of long-term state handouts and tax-free work in the black economy was more attractive to many people than taking a job. But finding a politician ready to say that has been hard.

Breton said it not once but five times. He also outlined measures the government is taking to render work more attractive and accessible. These include one-time payments of 1,000, or $1,207, to workers taking first-time jobs in sectors including construction, tax relief for people moving more than 200 kilometers, or 124 miles, to take a job, and allowing companies of under 20 employees to hire and fire with ease.

"In France the rigidity has been so great that people hesitate to hire because they have to keep people they no longer need," Breton said. "So now, in a small company, you can hire and, if it does not work out, let them go overnight with no penalty, so long as this happens within the first two years."

This last measure, he added, had already led to 30,000 new work contracts in the past three months. Unemployment has fallen slightly in the same period, to 9.8 percent from over 10 percent.

That is still high, but with the presidential election looming in 20 months and Villepin an undeclared candidate, this government is in a hurry to produce results. Otherwise the prime minister would stand little chance in what would be his first bid to get elected to political office.

"We think there are 500,000 jobs on offer in France that we have been unable to fill," Breton said. "With the new flexibility and incentives, that should change."

Of course, the political season is only just beginning again in France after the summer break and when labor unions catch on to what is going on "under the radar screen," the reaction could be harsh.

Just how harsh? Look at today's bit about French ferry workers taking over a boat in protest. The government's response? Storm and retake it. Bravo.

But already the broad lines of the government's approach to economic reform seem clear. Pander to national sentiment and notions of French exceptionality with talk of "economic patriotism" and assurances that globalization is not part of France's destiny, while pushing through fiercely pragmatic market reforms under that smoke screen.

Seems a bit lame, but we are talking of France, and their special political/psychological needs are considerable.

Among the reforms Breton is pushing is a revision of the tax code that will cap the top income tax rate at 40 percent (down from 48 percent), reduce the number of tax brackets, and neutralize France's wealth tax ("It has done a lot of damage to our economy") by declaring that nobody pay more than 60 percent of his or her revenue in taxes. Abolishing the wealth tax was too politically sensitive, but this measure should curb its worst excesses.

Doing all this while keeping the French budget deficit under control, and beginning to tackle the long-term problem of spiraling debt, will not be easy, Breton acknowledged.

The tax cuts, which still require parliamentary approval, will not kick in until 2007, allowing resources to be focused on unemployment next year. Meanwhile, nonstrategic assets like the highways are up for sale, and Breton said 30 billion would be raised from privatizations this year.

Will the French go along with this ambitious reform program that declines to speak its name? Breton, an engineer by training, believes he has "all the vectors" lined up for success. The French, he thinks, have grasped that they cannot go on living beyond their means. They have understood that they must "work more to pay for our social protection system."

I think Breton might be onto something. France is never quite what it appears. It blew off a lot of national steam by voting "No" to the European constitution, a supposed blow to "neoliberal" economics that was in fact just the opposite.

Now, having got through that thrilling little catharsis, the country may be ready to
get down to the business of running a successful global economy with more flexibility and lower unemployment. If he can restrain his penchant for irrational exuberance, Villepin's attempt at a quiet revolution may get him closer to the Élysée Palace.

RINO Goodness at Tinkerty Tonk

I know I'm way late with this, but I was in Vienna for the past several days with no access to a computer (nor any desire to tear myself from that wonderful city). Well, anyway, Rachel over at Tinkerty Tonk has the latest ragin RINO carnival up at her fine website.

She's gone old, old school on the RINO design, using a Drurer woodcut of a rhino.

She did a fine job with this week's submissions.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Shortfalls in European education cited

This story in the IHT should have Europeans worried. Both the quality of student and institution are falling. Even the rash reduction of student visas by the US over the past several years (which Europeans hoped would redirect talented Asians into their universities) has failed to boost higher education in traditional educational powerhouses like Germany and France. A degree from the Sorbonne hasn't the same cachet it once did.

So long as nations prefer agricultural subsidies to funding research and development, and higher education, Europe will continue to lag the US in attracting top talent.

An unwillingness by European countries to encourage and pay for the educational needs of its best students - and to build elite educational institutions for them - is causing a dangerous decline in the number and quality of European engineers and scientists, according to a senior Microsoft executive.

The executive, Craig Mundie, said in an interview Thursday that there was strong growth in the availability of highly qualified engineers in countries like China, but that he was not seeing the same in Europe. "The number is falling," Mundie said, "but also the quality of the training is falling behind the world standard." [...]

Mundie spoke from Brussels where he met with European Union officials including Janez Potocnik, science and research commissioner, and Guenter Verheugen, commissioner for enterprise and industry. [...]

Europe has only two universities - Cambridge and Oxford - listed in the world's top 10, according to a widely cited list of the world's best research institutions produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. [...]

In the interview, Mundie emphasized that Microsoft was increasingly hiring researchers from emerging economies like India, China and Russia. [...]

Part of the problem, Mundie said, is Europe's "stratified" approach to education. Citing as examples countries like the United States, Japan, China and India, he said that "their whole educational system tends to funnel the strongest students to strongest institutions."

In Europe, "there seems to be much more ambivalence" Mundie said, "about whether there are elite places."

The European Commission said it agreed with Mundie's assessment. In the current
round of budget negotiations, it is demanding that member states spend more on high-tech research and development, and it is promoting the idea of centers of excellence.

"This is exactly our point," said Antonia Mochan, a spokeswoman for Potocnik. "Europe is falling behind because we do not invest enough in education research and innovation. We need to do that."

In the EU budget for 2007 to 2013, the commission has asked member countries to earmark 68 billion, or $83 billion, for research and development. Of that total, 10.5 billion would be spent on a European Research Council that would distribute money to encourage "blue sky" thinking.

Having dealt with EU medical grants, I can report that few things the EU attempts ever work as planned. Want to develop a quick and lasting headache? Read the EU funding website.

The commission has also proposed the creation of a European Technology Institute, which would bring together the best researchers from across the continent.
I posted on the pitiful state of European Universities here.

One additional point. Many European countries allow anyone who graduated from a certain level of schooling to enroll in demanding and expensive to teach courses. The costs to train medical students are enormous. In the EU, a significant (up to 50% in some schools) percentage of students drop out of med school afterreceivingg several years of schooling. The school thus takes a large hit to its budget (I recall hearing that it takes approx a million dollars to train a student through residency in the US).

By contrast, in the US, entrance exams and strict requirements mean that approx 1% of the students drop out. Consequently, US schools are better able to utilize resources.

Zurich rules out signing surgery convention

The bastards. This can't mean much to either of my blog's readers, but it sure throws a monkey wrench into the hospital where I and my wife work, the Inselspital.

The agreement Zurich (ironically, the Canton where I am registered as a Swiss) wishes to break was the result of prolonged negotiation among the leading hospitals of Switzerland. Zurich is by far the most powerful university in Switzerland, and they feel they can use their political might to arrange things to suit themselves.
Canton Zurich has torpedoed an inter-cantonal convention that supports a policy of decentralising top-level hospital surgery.

The Zurich government indicated on Thursday that it would not back down from its demand to concentrate surgery such as transplant operations in Zurich and Geneva.

Zurich's health director, Verena Diener, said the "network strategy" preferred by several cantons would weaken research and was bad for the economy."

If top-level surgery is carried out in six different places, we will lose our competitive edge internationally," said Diener.

She said it would also lead to higher costs and reduce quality.The conference of cantonal health directors said Zurich's refusal to sign up to the convention meant that the ratification process was at an end.

The conference had proposed a policy of supporting several small but strong specialised medical centres.

The plan was supported by health authorities in Geneva, Lausanne, Basel and Bern.

Zurich had cantons in eastern Switzerland on its side.

For the agreement to come into force, at least 17 of the country's 26 cantons - including all the cantons with universities - would have had to agree to it.

Diener has called for the creation of an independent panel, which would include foreign experts, to look into the issue of top-level surgery in Switzerland.

Although Zurich Univ is politically powerful, the Medical side of the university is a bit of a disaster at the moment. They have a hard time recruiting and keeping good department Chairs, and the level of meaningful research has fallen off alarmingly.

Nevertheless, they seem determined to concentrate all resources in their university. Sadly, it looks as though they will win.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Emory declares war on Washington University

As a graduate of Wash U's law school, should I be worried? Probably not; there is a whole ocean between those Emory hot heads and safe, neutral Switzerland.
The student government at Emory University is trying a novel approach to helping students: declaring "war" on Washington University in St. Louis. At Wash U., however, students appear to have other concerns and most of them are ignoring the war, possibly forcing Emory combatants to take both sides in a war of insults.

Last weekend, graffiti, leaflets with insults, and toilet paper in trees appeared on both campuses. But sources familiar with the skirmishes said that Emory students staged not only the "attack" on Washington, but also the one at Emory, in hopes of riling students. Most Emory students have not fled to bomb shelters (or anywhere for that matter). But the president of the student government--a senior named Amrit P. Dhir--held an emergency meeting of the student government and announced that he was abolishing the legislative branch and replacing it with himself as "supreme leader." The war declaration banned students from wearing Washington University clothing (unless it contained insults) and said that freedom of the press was "to be tolerated ... for now."
This dingbat could have chosen a better method of instigating a rivalry
Asked if all the war imagery might be a bit tasteless when a real live war in Iraq is costing many lives and dividing many Americans, Dhir noted the disclaimer about violence and said, "we are committed to being sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of everyone in the community."

Curt Carlson, vice president for public affairs at Emory, said administrators there supported the idea of creating more sports rivalries and school spirit. But he said that he did not consider the rules of the student government to have been abolished, and that officials "advised strongly against using the war terminology."
Thankfully, Wash U seems to have brushed off the challenge.
David Ader, president of the Washington University Student Union, is encouraging students to ignore Emory's "war." Said Ader: "I don't disagree with the cause of school pride, but this method is not exactly productive." [...]

Blacks in (officially) non-racist France fight equality bind

An interesting article in the IHT on how blacks are treated by France. Officially no races are recognized, hence in theory no institutional racism exists. The article makes it clear that many hurdles do remain. Parenthetically, I can recall many conversations with Frenchmen where racist comments were made in the most casual way.

What struck me in the article was that France, the country which so loves to wag its finger at America over all things racial, has real problems themselves, and not just peoples' attitudes toward minorities. It extends to political representation and economic opportunities.

Corporate offices are virtually bare of blacks, and blacks are in a political vacuum. No black person sits in the National Assembly or in a regional Parliament and only a smattering are found in city councils. While the European Union finances programs for minorities, none of them are in France, for its refusal to recognize minorities. "Such programs are not wanted for ideological reasons," said Dogad Dogoui, 41, a native of Ivory Coast and a business and political consultant. Adding with a note of sarcasm, "France is the only European country without minorities." So today, blacks are not much on the French agenda. [...]

"The French like to say, blacks are a social problem, not racial," said Gaston Kelman, 52, a native of Cameroon who has written widely on France's blacks. "So our institutions have no means to overcome it." Until recently, virtually all blacks were on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Gradually, however, a younger generation of blacks is starting businesses and giving birth to a black middle class. They feel the discrimination in French society and are beginning to resist. ¨ [...]

What is perhaps the most troubling about French attitudes is that virtually no black middle class exists. Tellingly, the article notes that educated ambitious blacks tend to emmigrate, often to the US.

Still, Vuaki [a black businessman] remains one of a relatively small minority. Most blacks are employed in menial jobs, in construction or transportation. What encourages people like Vuaki is that the glass ceiling often felt by young blacks who get an education is prompting them to strike out in business on their own. [...]

Still, Kelman said, many other young Africans with an education strike out for Britain, Canada and the United States, where the chances of starting a businesses are considered better.

It will probably be a long way before a small black middle class makes itself felt politically. Few blacks vote and even fewer take part in politics. "We are not yet in the places where decisions are made," said Dogoui, "We are consumers, not decision makers."

Quote of the day, EU economic version

Today's quote is courtesy of José Barosso, President of the European Commission. He is relatively pro-business, and a favorite target of welfare state politicians.
"Does Europe want to be a victim or does Europe want to be a player?" he said at a press briefing.

His caution came as the International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for the 12 countries that use the euro for the third time this year, saying the region faced a "highly uncertain" future as rising oil prices and the ripple effects of Hurricane Katrina take their toll.

Citing deepening gloom about the prospects for Germany, France and Italy, the Fund urged the European Central Bank to cut interest rates if growth slowed further. [...]
At the moment, Germany leads the parade of European sick men, mostly thatnks to its political problems. Otherwise, Italy would be heading the parade.

More quotable:
"Whether we want it or not globalization is with us," Barroso said.

"Globalization will take place with Europe or without Europe," he added.
The challanges faced by Europe are many; mostly however, they are institutional, as noted in the following paragraphs.
Barroso, during a news briefing, cast the economy as a more urgent issue for Europe to throw its political weight behind now than a revival of the European Union constitution, whose defeat in referendums by France and the Netherlands this summer dealt a setback for closer European integration. Europe, facing growing competitive threats from the economies of India and China, should forget about resurrecting the constitution for the next two to three years and should focus instead on economic survival, he said.

"Europe has changed," he said. "There will not be a constitution in the next couple of years. Let us accept that and get on with business."

To aid economic renewal, the European Commission also proposed measures Wednesday to foster growth, including proposals for giving state aid to high-technology start-up companies.

The commission also reduced the scope of tougher new rules it is proposing on air quality to ease the burden on industry.

How much longer until we hear cries to ammend the Kyoto treaty?
A former Portuguese prime minister, Barroso came to Brussels a year ago with the reputation of a free-market reformer. But he has been frustrated in efforts at free-market liberalization by France and Germany, which blocked his drive to deregulate Europe's services market in the spring.

Ever since voters rejected the EU constitution, he has followed the British prime minister, Tony Blair, in arguing more forcefully that the EU must reconnect with its citizens by tackling low growth and high unemployment through radical reform.

As part of that, next week, Günter Verheugen, commissioner for enterprise and industry, will announce plans to cut around 70 draft commission directives.
I've mentioned before that the single toughest class for me in law school was EU Law. Here's proof:
In a bigger step, Verheugen in October will give details of the areas where the commission will try to cut from the EU's 80,000 pages of existing law.

Barroso said, "We need to be humble and recognize that we have not always got it right."

In a separate interview with the International Herald Tribune, Verheugen said: "There will be no new proposals without an impact assessment that covers fully the impact of legislation on the economy." [...]

Neelie Kroes, the competition commissioner, also proposed changes to state aid rules that would allow governments to subsidize small innovative companies without running afoul of anticompetitiveness rules.

State aid is usually illegal under EU laws, but Kroes said support could be allowed in
cases where there was "market failure" to help new companies get off the ground, or to support new areas of risk capital where Europe lags behind the United States. [...]

Also, here is an editorial by Barosso in yesterday's IHT. It deals with the EU and the challenge of Globalization. He essentially writes that the EU needs to get its thumb out of its fourth point of contact.

Swiss woman is world time trial champion

Hopp Schweiz! Karen Thuerig has retained her title as the world's best female time trialist. She also is an accomplished tri-and duathlete. She'll be racing the Ironman this October, where there is a tradition of Swiss women doing well.

Known as an all-round athlete, Thürig's next challenge is the "Ironman" triathlon event in Hawaii. She began her sporting career with titles in the duathlon (running and cycling). Previous results include two duathlon world championships and three Swiss duathlon titles.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Penguin migrations as evidence of Intelligent Design?

Evidently so, for one enthusiastic film goer. Someone call the Discovery Institute.

Christian conservatives have claimed that March of the Penguins, the documentary of emperor penguins by Luc Jacquet, is a film that support Intelligent Design.

The film [...] follows a flock of emperor penguins in the Antarctic for a year as they journey 70 miles in harsh winds and freezing cold temperatures by foot, going through the harshest conditions in the struggle to survive - all to find true "love" and to find a mate and reproduce. [...]

The film be[g]ins with penguins jumping out of the water and starting their journey. The penguins journey to the breeding ground and travel in a single file line, walking nearly the entire way, to a distance seventy miles from their starting point.

Once all of the penguins finally reach the destination, they begin to pair off. Some fights occur as there are less males than females, but eventually they are paired off as best as possible.

After the female lays the egg, the egg is passed from female to male. The male protects the egg while the mother makes the 70 mile journey back to the water to eat. While the mother is away, the father shields the egg from the freezing weather conditions.

When the mother returns, the father makes the journey to find feed for itself as well. The chick hatches while the mother is away, so she sees her chick for the first time upon her return. They continue to go back and forth over the entire summer to provide food for themselves and their offspring. Due to harsh conditions, most of the young chicks do not survive.

The film takes viewers on a breathtaking and entertaining educational experience. "The complexity of the penguins' lifestyle testifies to a Divine Creator," said one commentator.

"To think that natural selection or even the penguins themselves could come up with the idea to migrate miles and miles multiple times each year without their partner or their offspring is a bit insulting to my intellect. How great is our God!" [...]

So, penguins marching back and forth in killer conditions, which doesn't allow for many chicks making it to adulthood shows a Divine Creator?

Odd that seemingly illogical behavior is now ascribed to an intelligent designer. There was a day when to suggest an incompetent designer would be blasphemy. I doubt this guy sees the irony.

UPDATE: Der Kommissar has promulgated guidelines (the wedgie document) on how to deal with ID/Creationist types. Probably not necessary to deal with the above yahoo, but the guidelines contain plenty of good advice.

Vienna to hold Wiesenthal service

I'll be in Vienna for an extended weekend. I hope to be able to pay my respects to this tireless fighter for justice.
Simon Wiesenthal, who devoted much of his life to tracking down fugitive Nazi war criminals, is to be honoured in a memorial service in Vienna. [...]

Mr Wiesenthal died in Vienna on Tuesday, aged 96, having helped track down more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann.

The secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said Mr Wiesenthal had sent an important message to the world that there should be no impunity for genocide and crimes against humanity. [...]

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

What Germany's election means to Europe

Short answer: everything and everyone is in a tizzy over Merkel's failure to consolidate her party's early advatage--Europe and Germany are in for some tortured political circus. The IHT's John Vinocur ($) has a thoughtful piece on the consequences for Europe. He also has some very good thoughts on what may be Shcroeder's decision to make forming a government impossible, thus guaranteeing new elections.

Perhaps Schroeder feels that since he was able to make up so much ground in the closing days of the campaign, his party didn't really lose the elections, they just ran out of time. Additionally, new elections mean that his electoral scare tactics would have more time to work.
Germany's mess of an election outcome isn't just one of democracy's inconvenient but quick-to-fix shortfalls, surmountable with patience and modulated rhetoric and good will.

It's a blow to Europe's hopes of economic and social renewal sometime soon. And it's a massive kick in the shins for new optimism about a country so strong that Europe cannot work without it, yet one so short of confidence in its politics now that it voted both to oust the status quo of its leftist government while holding at arm's length the mildly risky job-creating trade-offs proposed by the center-right. [...]

How to rationalize into reassuring normality in the reflexive EU manner, that after seven years of no growth and mass unemployment, instead of clearing a way forward, Germany now has a defeated chancellor in Gerhard Schröder who insists he is its only feasible leader. It's a position disregarding these chunks of reality:

That the Christian Democratic bloc of Angela Merkel won the most seats in the Bundestag, which in German parliamentary custom gives her the task of forming a coalition.

That Joschka Fischer of the Greens, coalition partner of Schröder's Social Democrats, said that their majority had been voted out of office and that the Greens saw their role as in the opposition. Since Schröder has no likely coalition partner, his probable intent is to force a political street-fight against a background of insecurity, block Merkel from forming a government, and very possibly open the way to new elections.

How, at the heart of Europe, do you rationalize a massive power play of this variety, more Bolivian in feel than Berliner Republik? A leading Christian Democrat I talked to said it involves a destructive political game, disconnected from the issues, and tied for now to Schröder's bunkerish subtext of without-me-it-all-comes-down-on-your-heads. [...]

Ordinarily, the reasonable prospect for moving on, a grand coalition led by Merkel, excluding Schröder, and grouping Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, would be a weak, fragile solution involving months of negotiation to start up, and then endless discussions before any action.

Even in those circumstances - that is, if Schröder backs off, and/or the Greens reject as expected an offer to link up with Merkel and the Free Democrats - the prospects are certain for less solidity and more unpredictability in Germany than Europe has known in the postwar period.

Before the elections, and before Schröder's version of the results, I asked the reigning wise men from both big parties what they thought of a possible grand coalition's life cycle.

In Berlin, Wolfgang Schäuble of the Christian Democrats said he thought it would break up in 18 months to two years, with the Social Democrats expecting to win new elections in tandem with the not yet fully respectable Left Party.

Helmut Schmidt, the former Social Democratic chancellor, and a key player in the Grand Coalition of late 1960s, told me in his office in Hamburg that trouble would come by late winter or spring, but in the form of the Christian Democratic barons and regional leaders attempting to eat a shaky Merkel alive. He thought the parties' leaders were a bad personal match. And to the proposition that whatever policies Merkel specifically sought, it was quite impossible to tell from Schröder's campaign what the Social Democrats wanted or were willing to do on reforms, Schmidt replied, "I'd go along with that." [...]

It would be condescending to say that there is every reason to be confident in the resilience of German democracy and the durability of its institutions. But now in a discomforting place where it had hoped not to go, Germany will have to work very hard to reinforce these elements that everyone had thought so obvious so long.

Merkel on the outs?

Could her political rivals be greasing the skids for Angie? Highly unlikely, but reports are emerging of strains in her party.
Angela Merkel was still fighting hard Monday to become Germany's first woman chancellor but, with pressure building both from within her conservative camp and from the Social Democrats, she was also scrambling to shore up support and credibility after poor election results Sunday.

Standing conspicuously alone after a meeting of Christian Democratic leaders Monday morning, Merkel announced she would ask the party's legislators on Tuesday to re-elect her as their parliamentary leader. [...]

Joschka Fischer, Green leader and foreign minister, said the idea of joining a coalition led by Merkel was not possible. "Me? Joining a coalition under Merkel? Look, Merkel will not be chancellor."

Other Green leaders said they too would refuse to join a government if Merkel was chancellor - a veiled suggestion that they could perhaps change their minds if Merkel was replaced.
She has been widely blamed for running a poor campaign. A member of her shadow cabinet was a frequent target of Schroeders, while Merkel made several speaking gaffes. However, the idea of her being replaced seems far fetched.

It is hard to imagine that her removal would be the price for Green participation. I see this as simply a case of the Greens throwing the apple of discord in among the CDU, and hoping someone will be foolish enough to pick it up. The Greens hold out hope that despite being trounced in the polls, they can yet govern with the SPD.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Finis Germaniae?

No, not yet, at least. Though the election results will complicate and delay the economic recovery. Political theater junkies will surely enjoy the next few weeks, as all the parties seek to maximize their chances for power. Machiavelli's The Prince will be much consulted.

Roger Cohen of the IHT on the German elections (the swine are charging for access to some content). has his own ideas.

He notes that the political stakes are high. Given that the European social welfare model is doomed, can the Europeans, and Germans in particular, find a way forward?
As well written the piece is--for all the explanations one finds on in blogland, I can't help wondering: what the hell were these guys thinking when they voted for Schroeder et al?

Just when it can least afford it, Germany has entered a period of muddled political maneuvering.

[...] Merkel appeared to be the winner, albeit a weak one. She seemed to have edged out Schröder, but so narrowly that the reformist center-right coalition she had hoped for looks unattainable.

Instead, her Christian Democratic Party, or CDU, may be forced into a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats, or SPD, an arrangement she has called a recipe for "standstill." With almost five million unemployed and close to zero growth, standstill is the last thing Europe's largest economy needs.

But a bitter ideological dispute playing out across Europe, and between Europe and the United States, has taken on a particular virulence here. It pits free-market reformers, or so-called neo-Liberals, against the defenders of Europe's social welfare system. [...]

Merkel, raised in Communist East Germany, drawn to the United States and a more deregulated economy, campaigned on an explicit free-market platform. Strip away bureaucracy, she said. Lower non-wage labor costs. Make it easier for small companies to hire and fire. Change Germany's risk-shy mentality.

Not too much to ask for. But fear of the future is often more potent than hope for the future. Thus the Left did a fine job of fear mongering as a part of its strategy, while assuring voters that its own program would be enough to put Germany right again. The voters swallowed hook, line and sinker.

The country was not ready for a woman cast by the left as a latter-day Margaret Thatcher flanked by a flat-tax loony as economic adviser. Nor was it enthused by
Merkel's vision of a more Atlanticist Germany, its alliance with the United States invigorated once more. For Merkel, the approximately 35 percent of the vote won by the CDU amounts to a sharp personal setback.

The chancellor called an early election with the professed aim of demonstrating he had the support to govern with vigor. In this aim he was rebuked.

The irony here is that Schroeder engineered these elections via a no-confidence vote. At the time he claimed his own party would not support his initiatives. Now, of course, he claims a mandate, even though his coalition lost seats, and is therefore even less able to push through his program. Balls of steel that, guy.

But Merkel stumbled in her hour of opportunity. Her failure to garner a center-right majority will feel particularly bitter because the business-friendly Free Democrats, her favored partners, did well, advancing to over 9.8 percent of the vote, from 7.4 in 2002 -- a result hailed by its leader, Guido Westewelle, as the "big victory of the election."

The party's performance suggests that a strong reformist current exists in Germany, one that considers Schroder's seven-year failure to dent an unemployment rate of over 11 percent unacceptable.

Almost equally strong, however, is the view that any dismantling of the so-called social market economy that has served Germany since World War II would be a disaster. For many Germans, the unemployment benefits that can make it as attractive not to work as to work amount to a constitutionally guaranteed birthright.

The roughly 8 percent of the vote gained by the new Left Party, made up of disgruntled former Social Democrats and former East German communists, illustrates how powerful such thinking remains.

The idea that the state has to look after people so that they can live decently without working remains entrenched," said Wolfgang Stock, a political scientist close to the Christian Democrats.

So what now? Merkel appears to head the strongest party, but it will be difficult for her to avoid a partnership with the SPD that she disdains. If a grand coalition is formed, any radical reform of the German economy can be safely ruled out.

So, too, would any rapid rapprochement with Washington, of the kind Merkel had outlined.

A more palatable alternative for Merkel might be to seek to lure the Greens into a coalition with the FDP. That would provide a majority, but the differences of view between the parties - on the environment and the eventual admission of Turkey into the European Union - are probably too large to bridge.

Schröder, meanwhile, seems to believe he may yet survive. "Nobody except me is able to govern this country," he declared. That seems a far-fetched claim. In theory, a coalition with the Greens and Left Party would give him a majority, but Schröder would have to swallow awfully hard to ally with ex-Communists and Social Democrat renegades whose views he has denounced.

The big three of the EU get (relatively) tough with Iran

Over the last year we have seen the limits of EU style "soft power" when dealing with Iran. In an effort to prove that they mean business, the three--Germany, France, Britain--are prepared to refer the problem to the Security Council, maybe.
[...] EU diplomats said they had begun drafting a resolution to submit to this week's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) 35-nation board asking it to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible economic sanctions."The drafting of a resolution sending Iran to the Security Council has begun," an EU diplomat told Reuters.

Although the EU trio would not seek immediate sanctions against Iran, they might consider them in the future if Iran remained defiant, EU diplomats said.

French, British and German officials were due to meet with colleagues from other EU countries on Monday morning ahead of the IAEA board meeting.

Diplomats said EU countries were demanding that any resolution and strategy be agreed by the bloc as a whole.

They added that countries with significant exports to Iran like Italy and Austria were wary of exposing themselves to possible retaliatory measures by Iran. [...]

They must be falling all over one another in Tehran. Their strategy vis a vis Europe has worked beautifully, and they get to watch high comedy in the bargain.

Europe was never one to put principle or future security ahead of either profit or sweeping a problem under the rug.

Charging RINOs: newest set of pointed opinions up at Evolution

J.D. at Evolution keeps up the tradition of excellent RINO hosts with a well presented series of submissions from the RINOs (Republicans/Independents Not Overdosed (on party Kool-Aid)). He also managed to capture the essence of what it means to be a RINO, and came up with an alternative moniker: Hornitarian (I embrace the term. I would have embraced the term as a 15 year old as well, but for different reasons).

On top of his hosting abilities, J.D. has a pretty good blog.

Miss Swiss chosen (monday morning goodness)

From the French part no less. She studies law, but flubbed her two opportunities to sway the judges with her words, so maybe she should concentrate on tax law.

She was selected by telephone vote, and ex-Bond girl Ursula Andress was on the expert panel, which was a hell of a fright (see pic at bottom).

I'd picked the second place woman as the winner.

Friday, September 16, 2005

More German election goodness

Der Spiegel's political bureau chief looks at Sunday's German elections. He, too, sees a Germany in denial, fearful of change and stasis in equal measure. He predicts a weak, ineffectual government. The race for the title of sick man of Europe seems to be going to Germany.
[...] Because Angela Merkel, leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Union, has proposed a larger dose of reform policy than Gerhard Schröder, the current chancellor, millions see her as the reincarnation of Maggie Thatcher. No wonder pollsters have found a level of fear in this election campaign that is greater than anything we've ever experienced since the war. A balance of terror has emerged: Fear of unemployment competes with fear of an overly radical fight against it. Empty state coffers cause the same horror as the budget cuts designed to overcome them.

Everyone is terrified of everyone. As if of its own accord, the word "fear" attaches itself to the word "future" -- Zukunftsangst permeates the German mind. Fear of reform, fear of stagnation, fear of a failure of democracy and now -- as the frantic climax of this collective neurosis -- the fear of a further growth of fear.

[...] Germany's decline is farther along than the public realizes. No rapid successes can be expected -- especially not from a woman with no mandate for a new start. Her government will be of the lowest common denominator. The ghosts will be sitting at the government table. Fear will soon possess cabinet status.

Ms. Merkel knows everything one has to know about the state of the nation. She knows the data, and in her years in opposition she took a thorough look at the economy. Much of it reminds her of the decline of East Germany, which she experienced as a scientist in Berlin. She recognizes this refusal to acknowledge, the looking away, the wavering in the face of danger.

A glance at the state's finances shows how dramatic the situation is: Of 190 billion euros in tax revenues, 80 billion is passed on to the cash-strapped state pension system, 30 billion goes to the unemployed, and another 40 billion belongs to the banks, just to service debt. The rest is not even enough to pay the bureaucracy and to build roads. Ever-new credits are constantly needed so that Germany at least has the appearance of a prosperous country. Relief is not in sight because the birth-rate has fallen by half since the early 1960s and so the work force will also soon fall by half. Two retirees will then be financed by one worker, which would be too much for everyone -- the workers and the state. If nothing changes, the government will need 80% of the state budget in 2050 just to prop up pensions. The task of building up the German east is another factor. The region once dominated by the Soviets devours a fortune, and has cost 1.4 trillion euros so far. For 15 years, the western part of Germany has been transferring 4% of its GDP to the East. Because the West has not grown by 4% for decades -- at best by half of that -- the transfer payments are depleting reserves. Former Ford manager and Social Democrat Klaus von Dohnanyi speaks of a "permanent loss of blood from our economy."

Ms. Merkel knows the forces at work here. They are pulling the country, as well as its chancellor, down -- down to the place where the wellspring of eternal fear flows. No nation likes to lose a piece of its power and prosperity each day. German assertiveness is thus Ms. Merkel's natural coalition partner. She must ally herself with it, promote it and let it grow into a mighty political force.

Willpower is society's most underestimated productive force in history. [...]Every country is propelled by a mixture of ambition and pride, which can bring forth both the reprehensible and the great. Angela Merkel has a chance if she succeeds in mobilizing this force of will behind her policies, and thus puts an end to the haunting. Before she takes on the details of pension and tax reforms, there is something more important to do: It's time to call in "Die Geisterjäger" -- the Ghostbusters.

The German malaise: how deep does it extend?

Not much optimism in this IHT translation of a German editorial. I can't say I agree with much of his analysis, which strikes me as entirely too defeatist. Germans are remain highly educated, skilled, and adept at business. They only need a Ronald Reagan type of leader.

Too bad neither Schroeder or Merkel are inspiring. Nevertheless, the choice between the two is clear. Merkel will provide the necessary impetus to shake up Germany's--and thus Europe's--labor markets. German companies are doing quite well on the whole; allowing easier firing of employees during downturns makes it likely that workers will be hired during the good times.

One thing the article mentions but doesn't develop is the sapping effect of high unemployment. When a significant portion of citizens are unemployed, it becomes the norm to dwell on the challenges facing the nation. People with jobs tend to look forward to a better job, better life, better social standing, etc.
The driving force in this country is disappointment.

Right now, people are disappointed in Gerhard Schroeder and his coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. That's why, according to the current wisdom, they'll vote for Angela Merkel or the new Left Party on Sunday. Before, people were disappointed in Helmut Kohl and his coalition with the Free Democrats, and that's why they voted for Schroeder. Kohl was elected because voters were disappointed by Helmut Schmidt and his Social Democrat alliance with the Free Democrats. Disappointed for decades by East Germany, the people in the East at first voted Kohl. And so on. [...]

What Helmut Kohl first managed to tag as 13 years of Social Democrat mass unemployment, bankruptcies and debts simply became Christian Democrat unemployment, bankruptcies and debts, and slowly but surely bled his party. Schroeder, in his eventual turn, succeeded in making the disappointment with Kohl a mere memory: Christian Democrat mass unemployment once again became Social Democrat mass unemployment, and so on. [...]

In this campaign, the politicians all behave as if, all together, we could pull "it" off. As if Germany could again become "what it was." And of course, Merkel, just like Schroeder and Kohl before her, blames only this government for record unemployment and record debts, and so on. On the other hand, Merkel says, she doesn't want to promise anything. Perhaps that is really the achievement of maximum democracy: The candidate promises to promise nothing more, and then promises everything - to cut unemployment, to clean up the budget, but never to reduce pensions. And so on.

How soon are we going to be disappointed in Merkel?

The mood of change at the start of this campaign has long since dissipated. We're disappointed in the change before it has even taken place. Or, more precisely, it has already occurred - in the media, where Merkel has been chancellor ever since Schroeder announced new elections in May.

As the first media chancellor, disappointment is sure to overtake her. For there are good reasons to believe that the people who are disappointed in Schroeder and Red-Green are now bound to be let down by a Merkel government.

(Sven Hillenkamp is an editor at Die Zeit, where a longer version of this article first appeared. Translation from the German by the International Herald Tribune.)

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Gag Clauses in Clinical-Trial Agreements

I recently came across this interesting article in the New England Journal of Medicine. It discusses the prevelance of clauses in clinical trial agreements that give the trial sponsors the de facto right to prevent publication of negative results.

Gag clauses in clinical-trial agreements prevent investigators from examining the data independently or submitting a manuscript for publication without first obtaining the consent of the sponsor. Sponsors with a financial interest in the outcome of clinical research can suppress negative results. They can also interfere with the publication of unfavorable data on safety [...]

Progress against gag clauses, however, could be forthcoming, spurred by public concern about medication safety, distrust of the pharmaceutical industry, and advocacy within the medical community for greater openness in conducting and reporting clinical trials. In December 2004, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association committed the organization to working with industry and other groups to eliminate gag clauses in clinical-trial agreements and to "take all appropriate action to protect the rights of physician researchers to present, publish and disseminate data from clinical trials." The Fair Access to Clinical Trials Act of 2005, as introduced in the Senate by Senators Grassley and Dodd in February, would ban contracts involving researchers or their institutions that prohibit, limit, or unreasonably delay the discussion of the results of a clinical trial at a scientific meeting or the publication of results. [...]

A basic tenet of research ethics is that the data from clinical trials should be fully analyzed and published. If the knowledge gained from trials is not shared, subjects have been exposed to risk needlessly. Moreover, participants in future studies may be harmed because earlier results were not available. These principles are reflected in federal regulations regarding the protection of human subjects, which define research as "a systematic investigation designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge."

Sounds good. But academics rely very much on the dollars these sponsored trials bring in. The profit often is what keeps their personal research going. Understandably, there is serious competition for sponsor contracts.

Given their educational and public-service missions and their capability of conducting unbiased and rigorous clinical trials, academic medical centers should have a vested interest in working together to eliminate gag clauses. Academic institutions, however, compete for clinical-trial research contracts with other medical centers, as well as with private groups known as contract research organizations, or CROs. These organizations can often provide research services at lower cost and with fewer administrative burdens. [...]

An academic institution whose standards for access to data and publication rights are stricter than those of its competitors may lose trials — unless it has access to unique groups of patients or its researchers have some unique expertise. [...]

A related and contentious issue is the proper definition of the phrase "access to the data." Does the sponsor control the data, perform the statistical analysis, and provide a copy of the results to the investigators? Or is the trial database made available to the researchers, who independently confirm the findings and conduct their own analyses? [...]

How might gag clauses in clinical-trial agreements be eliminated? Unless there is a federal ban, academic medical centers and other research organizations, in collaboration with leading clinical researchers, would have to develop strict policies about access to data and publication rights and adhere to them. If they did so, sponsors would be unable to seek more favorable terms from one institution than from another. Medical journals would need to strengthen their existing guidelines — for example, by explicitly defining minimum standards for authors' access to data and their right to examine the data independently, and then refusing to publish studies that do not meet these standards. In some instances, all the data might need to be made available to — and analyzed by — a statistical group that was independent of the industry sponsor. In the absence of a broad-based effort, however, the current opportunity for change may be lost.
All excellent suggestions. Lets hope the feds take the lead here and enact such a ban. Unfortunately, arrayed opposite the medical ethicists are the pharma companies, which wield enormous influence in Washington.

German election: Merkel fights back

Angela Merkel, Germany's best hope for the future held a press conference yesterday where she offered some insight into her charachter, and put out a fairly detailed economic plan. Merkel's once dominant lead has dropped alarmingly following Chancellor Schroeder's effective fear mongering. Plus, it doesn't hurt that most of the German media supports the current government.
Fending off criticism over disarray in her election campaign, Angela Merkel went on the offensive Wednesday, proposing an eight-point economic and social program and attacking Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's seven-year record. [...]

She accused the Social Democrats of being "hopelessly divided," spreading lies about her policies, failing to explain how they would reduce unemployment and even keeping secret unpopular budget cuts Schröder would introduce if elected for a third term.

"The cards are on the table," said Merkel, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats. "The choices are clear. The Social Democrats have been incompetent. They make promises before an election but then disappoint people. If they were elected again they would be even more incompetent."

And in an unusual departure for a politician famous for speaking so little about her life in communist Eastern Germany, Merkel gave a personal reason as to why she wanted to be elected chancellor on Sunday.

She said she would never forget what happened to her after 1989 when the wall that divided the city of Berlin, and Germany, collapsed.

"My life changed completely in 1989 with the fall of the wall," she said. "I have had many opportunities in the last 15 years." [...]

"I would like to give my country back what I myself have gained in terms of the opportunities from German reunification," Merkel added.

Merkel's eight-point program includes convening an energy summit meeting that would include industry, experts and economists. [...]

She then spelled out her plans for helping enterprises, reducing unemployment and helping the "one million children that have become poor under the Red-Green coalition," a reference to the official colors of the Social Democrats and the Greens.

The bureaucracy and regulations for enterprises that employ fewer than 10 people would be scrapped. Older people would be retrained so they could re-enter the job market. Incentives would be given to the East German states where unemployment is 20 percent compared with the national average which is 11.2 percent. More attention would be paid to integrating immigrants by making it compulsory that they learn German.

DR Congo set for more suffering

So what else is new. From the moment they achieved independance in 1960, The Democratic Republic of the Congo (aka Belgium Congo, Zaire) has been lumbered with corrupt and brutal leaders. It still has the resources to be a functioning and relatively prosperous state, but fate seems to have other plans.

Der Spiegel Online has a portrait of the newest butcher. As usual, the threat comes from the east, where most of the country's enormous resources are located. Also as usual, the cat's paw is Rwanda.
Africa's bloodiest war shows signs of flaring up once again. In eastern Congo, a brutal warlord is gathering his forces and has threatened to topple the government. Many see neighboring Rwanda behind the renewed saber-rattling.

Even for eastern Congo, General Laurent Nkunda is a brutal butcher. Last year, his
band of soldiers spent a week occupying the border town of Bukavu in South Kivu province, a region rich in natural resources. When Nkunda's killer gangs finally left the town, the shops in once-lively Bukavu had been looted and its streets were lined with corpses, the men massacred with machetes and countless women raped and then beaten to death. [...]

Nkunda is said to have assembled more than a thousand soldiers in the town of Masisi in the North Kivu region. They speak the language of neighboring Rwanda and are descendants of that country's Tutsi ethnic group. And Nkunda -- a Tutsi himself -- has made no secret of what he intends to do with his army. [...]

Another wave of bloodshed in Congo would hardly be unexpected. Democratic elections -- the first in the history of this war-torn country -- were in fact scheduled to take place in Congo at the end of this year. But many of Congo's neighbors -- especially Rwanda, the much smaller neighboring country that already instigated the last two wars in Congo in 1996 and 1998 -- have no interest in such elections.Rwanda, after all, has profited handsomely from Congolese chaos. The exploitation of Congo's natural resources -- including coltan, gold, diamonds and tropical hardwoods -- has brought millions to the Rwandan capital Kigali. [...]

Meanwhile, in Kinshasa, the government is almost completely unable to meet the growing threat in eastern Congo. The Congolese army is on the verge of disintegrating. In the village of Mwesso, not far from an area where the Tutsi warlord has been gathering his army, the 53rd battalion of the Congolese army, which consists almost exclusively of Tutsis, has completely deserted. In Masisi, half of the army's regular units have already defected to the rebels -- and disarmed the other half before doing so. President Kabila also cannot expect much support from the remaining soldiers in his army, many of whom prefer plundering to playing soldier.
The upshot: more bloodshed, followed by hangwringing from the international community. I was extremely hopeful following the exile and death of Mobutu; I expected that the world would not allow the country to fall back into anarchy. Boy was I wrong.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Quote of the day, apologist for Schroeder version

A "news analysis" in today's IHT provides this example of left-leaning rationalization:
To be sure, Schröder's tenure coincided with a worsening of Germany's economic health - in large part a consequence of German reunification, and thus a legacy of Kohl.
The guy has had seven years to improve things in Germany. Seven years, and the economic situation has only gotten worse. Yet the author blames former Chancellor Kohl.

German election outcomes

The IHT (no link) provides a look at four possible outcomes to the upcoming German elections. Unless Merkel and other like minded parties capture a majority, the surest outcomes will be the further weakening of the country and early elections.

The most likely, at least until push comes to shove: The Grand Coalition between Merkel, her allies, and elements of Schroeder's party.

Should Merkel poll enough votes to enter into a coalition with her preferred partners, the Free Democrats, we'll see a government of the right. My guess is that this coalition will fall a couple of percentage points short.

Parties of the left will likely poll enough to form--at least in theory--a government of the left. However, Schroeder says he won't consider it. Not that means much, of course, but policy differences with an ultra left party will make it difficult to assemble such a coalition.

Least likely is a coalition of the left and the pro-business Free Democrats. Sgain, politcal differences will either preclude or sink this coalition.

Red Cross and Red Crescent? No problem. Red Star of David? No way, say Arabs

A new symbol for neutral medical providers may be available soon for nations uncomfortable with either the Red Cross or Crescent. A red diamond is the preferred emblem.

This is something that has been in the Swiss news for weeks. I had been meaning to link an article or two, but never got around to it. Now the BBC has taken notice. Time to link. But first the Swiss-info version:
Switzerland is hosting an international meeting in Geneva to try to agree on a new emblem for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

It is hoped that the meeting will pave the way for a diplomatic conference, which would allow the Israeli first aid service to be globally recognised.

Founded in 1930, Magen David Adom (Red Star of David) is still not a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, an umbrella body for national first-aid societies, their federation and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).The Israeli society is holding fast to its emblem – a red Star of David. It refuses to operate under either of the two emblems currently in existence and recognised by the movement: the cross and the crescent.

Different attempts to overcome this impasse have always failed, essentially because of resistance from Arab countries.
How surprising is that. Using a religous symbol is fine for Muslims, but Jews aren't extended the same courtesy.

Now to the Beeb for the rest of the story, and a bit of background:

Some countries are reluctant to use either symbol and want a new emblem which has no religious connotations.

There is a proposal for a neutral emblem: a red diamond on a white background, called the Red Crystal.

If the talks in Geneva go well, the Red Crystal is likely to be adopted at a diplomatic conference later this year.

Most countries, including Israel and Arab states, appear to be in agreement after years of negotiations.

The IRC's traditional symbol, the red cross, has been a target of attack in the past in areas controlled by Islamic militants.

But the red cross was never designed to have religious signifance. It is a reversal of the Swiss flag and was intended to signify neutrality.

However, in the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire began using the red crescent to protect its medical staff during war.

The crescent was recognised under the Geneva Conventions in 1929. [...]

UPDATE: The ICRC website also adddresses the complicated international aspects of adding another emblem; hint: think how difficult it must be to ammend international treaties in this day and age (links galore).

Closer Swiss science ties with Israel raise hackles

Swiss-info (your place for Swiss news) reports that a plan to establish formal scientific ties between Switzerland and Israel has some politicians hot and bothered.

Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin is heading to Israel on Wednesday in a bid to reinforce scientific cooperation with the country.

But there are fears that dealing with the Israelis could undermine Switzerland's standing in the Middle East.

Couchepin hopes to sign a formal declaration of intention with the Israelis during his four-day trip and make up for a lack of any agreement on research between Switzerland and Israel."It's not an accord, but it will be a kind of road map for future cooperation," said Claudio Fischer, head of international science policy at the interior ministry.

Politics, always a contentious issue when Israel is involved, will not play a role, according to Fischer.

"We are concentrating on research cooperation and we have seen there is an obvious interest for that type of cooperation from scientists in both countries," he told swissinfo. "We support that because it can benefit both parties involved."

But not everyone agrees. Daniel Vischer, president of the Switzerland-Palestine Association, says he is against any kind of accord with the Israelis.

"I feel it is inopportune," he told swissinfo. "Israel is still an occupying power in the Palestinian territories despite United Nations resolutions calling for its withdrawal."

Vischer, who is also a Green Party parliamentarian, adds any accord with Israel would damage Switzerland's standing as a go-between in the Middle East.

"Switzerland should treat both sides the same way," he said. "Couchepin and Defence Minister Samuel Schmid are undermining our foreign policy by seeking cooperation with the Israelis."
What a twit. Any cooperation with Israel brings a kneejerk reaction from the Left.

The defence ministry recently announced it would buy communications systemsfrom Israel, much to the displeasure of some members of parliament.

There have been calls to boycott Israeli products in Switzerland, although so far no
one has considered research or education an issue.

The Swiss authorities consider actions, such as a recent short-lived boycott of Israeli universities by British tertiary institutions, as counterproductive. The foreign ministry points out that most Israeli scientists are critical of their government's
actions in the occupied territories.

Switzerland's relationship with Israel has not always been smooth in recent times. Tel Aviv has found cause to complain because the Swiss government has called on Israel to respect the Geneva Conventions in the Palestinian territories and lent its support to the private Geneva Accord.

Despite that Couchepin will be the third minister to travel to Israel this year after Schmid and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

"This trip will help decide what fields we should focus on, but certainly
biotechnology, medicine, life sciences and information technology are of interest [for a future accord]," said Fischer.Israeli scientists are considered to be among the best in these fields. The Swiss authorities hope that an initial declaration, along with subsidies for projects or exchange programmes, will help boost collaboration between the two countries. [...]

It would be great for Switzerland to have agreements with Arab lands, but for the most part, not much good science is done in those countries.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Europe Learns the Wrong Lessons

The American Enterprise has its newest magazine out. Concentrating on the Europe/America rift, it makes fascinating reading.

The lead editiorial explains the history and motivations of anti-Americanism, as well as noting that it is largely independant of Bush being president (can you say jealousy?). It also discusses European economic failings.
Some considerable part of today’s European hostility toward the U.S. is born of frustration over their own failures, and jealousy of American success. This is especially clear in the realm of economics, where Europe has been drooping for two decades now. Europe’s economic malaise is producing many bad social effects quite apart from increased resentment toward the U.S.— so we would like to see it become a central plank of American foreign policy to encourage reforms that could pull the continent out of its financial funk.

Europe’s economic trauma can be seen most clearly in Germany, which has performed miserably since edging away from the American free-market model and toward the French socialized-market alternative. Unemployment in Germany has reached the potentially destabilizing level of 12 percent. More shockingly, about a third of those unemployed have been jobless for more than a year. This is not some recessionary blip; over the last decade and a half, economic growth in Germany has averaged only a little over 1 percent. This miserable performance has allowed the people of other nations to pass the Germans in standard of living.

As Europe’s locomotive runs out of fuel, the whole train slows. French unemployment rates are nearly as high as in Germany. Across the 15 nations of the European Union, the proportion of the jobless who have been unemployed for more than a year now exceeds 40 percent.
The issue has other free articles worth reading. Saw it on Powerline.

Merkel too far to the right for Germany/Europe?

I certainly don't think so, but John Vinocur notes that many in Germany are believing Chancellor Schroeder's fear mongering. His column is always readable, and today's discusses the stakes for Germany and Europe.
[...] There is good reason to suppose that other European leaders well understand how much of a departure Merkel represents in recreating a vibrant Europe. A European player from a left-of-center party suggested this was indeed the case, but, asking for anonymity, acknowledged that diplomatic hedging and party politics made it hard to say out loud. Tony Blair could well fit this category.

These pols see the cocoon instincts of the Germans biting Merkel twice: first, because Gerhard Schröder has skillfully generated German fears of her proposed reforms moving jarringly beyond the status quo; second, because she has now gotten stuck with reassuring the country that, if she gets in, Milton Friedman and hordes of hypercapitalist locusts will not arrive in Berlin next week to take apart German social protections going back to Bismarck.
Too true. Merkel has backtracked on who her Finance Minister may be because of public unease over his policies. Here, Schroeder has been highly effective in stiring people's fears.
So the drone of business as usual in the form of a Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats becomes an increasingly likely outcome of the election. It could well result from this truth: that on the delicate scale of the politically acceptable here, Merkel embodies a really different mind-set.

She represents the antithesis of the 1968 generation of West German politicians who inherently regard as shameful both capitalism and a Europe that recognizes America as an irreplaceable pillar of stability. At the same time, growing up in East Germany's totalitarianism, Merkel has no ties to her party's past years of stolid faith in Rhenish capitalism, the still-lingering economic model (state intervention plus big bank guardianship of business) overtaken by the globalization of world trade.

In a Germany historically torn between the comfort of all varieties of the status quo and the embrace of freedom, Merkel is a woman who says she welcomed from inside East Germany the strength of Ronald Reagan, still a Pavlovian alarm bell for many on both sides of the old Wall, in facing down the Soviets.

That means her message to Europe, while emphasizing the importance of strong German relations with the French, is the opposite of what many of their neighbors saw as the attempt at German-French domination during the Schröder-Chirac years, and Schröder's talk, in the context of his overtures to Russia and China, of Germany's "emancipation." [from the US]

"There will not ever be a strong and unified Europe that is against America," Merkel has said. "Europe must retrieve its economic dynamism or be automatically of less importance for the Americans.

"Whoever in Europe believes he can simply hold himself out [of world responsibility] while complaining about America the Superpower's lack of consideration, just sharpens this tendency. And he lessens his influence."

Same story in relation to what are, for many of Germany's neighbors, the greatest German-French failures of the Schröder years inside the European Union.

Although she would have trouble making up the lost ground, Merkel regrets her country's incapacity to meet the task-by-task economic reforms of the EU's Lisbon Agenda, once ballyhooed as its path to overtaking the United States. And she promises her Germany would come into compliance with the macroeconomic (debt and deficit) strictures of the EU's Stability and Growth Pact that provide the basis for economic expansion: reduction of public spending levels, broadly attempted elsewhere in Europe but dodged by Germany and France.

In sum, hardly stuff that would be thought destabilizing or an unreasonable approach elsewhere, but maybe too much explicit frankness for Germany.

In fact, in an effort to be forthright and illustrate that more vitality later suggests a lick of the lash now, Merkel said she would raise the value-added tax to finance steps creating new labor market flexibility. Her choice of finance minister is a professor who likes the idea of a flat-rate income tax. But over the weekend, a poll-shaken leading Free Democratic Party official complained that these decisions by Merkel had severely damaged their allied election campaign.

The result is unlikely to be Schröder's return to office, but very possibly a confused, nebbishlike Grand Coalition government with Merkel as a hobbled chancellor.

This would be a nonverdict that exonerates Schröder's empty years, a signal for a Europe open to reform to mark time in place, and nothing like a mandate for vast change that German voters today tell pollsters they need in theory, but may not dare to endorse.
A grand coalition means that Germany and Europe fall farther behind the rest of the world.

Time, tide, and Globalization wait for no nation.