Opinion pieces, columns and insights into Dutch news and current affairs from key commentators


The Netherlands has an unhealthy obsession with statistics

Rankings praising the Dutch health system abound in the media but what do the results really say about the Netherlands?, asks DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe. If you read the Dutch press, it cannot have escaped your attention that not so long ago the Dutch health service was again ranked one of the best in the world. We foreigners may moan about over-inquisitive receptionists when visiting our family doctor and the fondness for paracetamol, but in terms of our health we are actually lucky to be living here. Yes, in May, the Netherlands came in ninth place in a ranking of almost 200 countries by The Lancet magazine. The ranking was compiled by looking at how likely you are to survive various nasty diseases, including tuberculosis, whooping cough and measles – 32 different ailments in total. Contrast this then, with a survey published in early 2015 by Sweden’s Health Consumer Powerhouse. It put the Dutch health service at the top of a ranking of 36 different European countries for the second year running. Why did the Dutch do well? Accessibility and the lack of government interference. Ministry Or what about research by the Commonwealth Fund think-tank in America, which put the Netherlands at the top of a list of 11 western countries in terms of its healthcare system. That research was published at the end of last year and led to a lengthy and proud analysis on the Dutch health ministry’s own website, complete with comment from the minister. What is really striking about all these rankings is not that the Dutch healthcare system does so well, but the fact the rankings themselves gather so many column inches. Dutch reporting on all this success also invariably includes the phrase ‘not bad for a kleine kikkerland’ – a little frog country - which is how the Dutch seem to like to describe their homeland. What this choice little phrase really illustrates is that perhaps the reason for the obsession with rankings is an enormous minority complex. Research Be it healthcare, or happiness or kindness to animals (someone must be researching that one) you can guarantee your research will get published if the Dutch are doing well. At DutchNews.nl too we are guilty of this. A quick hunt through the archives reveals that the Netherlands has moved up into fourth place in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of the most competitive countries. The Netherlands is the sixth happiest country in the world, tops a ranking of the world’s most proficient at English, Dutch men are the world’s tallest and there are seven Dutch people in Forbes’ ranking of 300 under 30… the list is endless. These stories invariably do well on our social media platforms – foreigners too like to share Dutch success stories – and inevitably help spread the name of the compiling organisation. Want to launch a new brand? Come up with a list which is topped by the Dutch and free publicity could be yours. Children's rights Not all rankings are good news, however. Perhaps the most bizarre ranking in recent months was the one produced by the KidsRights Foundation which looked into children’s rights and put the Netherlands in 15th place behind Thailand, Tunisia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The poor Dutch performance was due to its trailing in two of the five key categories – education and the environment. In terms of education, the Netherlands was rated 58th in a list which had Egypt in 5th place and Bangladesh in 17th. The research was carried out together with Rotterdam’s Erasmus University which, in case you are wondering, said the Dutch decline ‘reflects the concerns about children in the Netherlands who live in poverty, and on cuts that also affect families and children with a minimum income’. So where does Erasmus figure in all those rankings of the world’s best universities? They show an equally confusing picture. Take the QS World University Rankings for example, which last year said Amsterdam was the top-rated Dutch university, followed by Delft, and had just two Dutch institutions in the top 100. The Times Higher Education ranking, however, puts Delft in the lead of the Dutch pack and had five Dutch institutions in the top 100. But QS also put Delft as second best in the world for civil and structural engineering. Confused? It gets even stranger when you add in the ranking compiled by Jia Tong University in Shanghai, which puts Utrecht top of the Dutch institutions, followed by Groningen. Last month also saw the publication of a new list which said the Netherlands is home to the most problem drinkers in Europe, apart from Ireland and Denmark. It was a stark little statistic that also generated lots of newspaper headlines but in fact should have been consigned to the bin. ‘Forty percent of Dutch men are problematic drinkers compared with 25% worldwide,’ the results stated. When it comes to women, 27% have an alcohol problem, compared with 20% on a global basis. Shocking figures indeed, but perhaps not that shocking when you dig a little deeper and discover the Dutch sample of some 3,000 people had an average age of 23. The sample also included way more youngsters with a college or university education than the population at large and was overwhelmingly white. You might have well as headlined the article ‘Dutch frat boys drink a lot’ and be done with it. This article was first published in the Xpat Journal  More >


Male circumcision is ‘violation of bodily integrity’ and should be banned

Male circumcision is ‘violation of bodily integrity’ and should be banned

A ban on male circumcision should be put on the political agenda, say Wouter van Erkel and Koen Sijtsema of D66’s youth wing Jonge Democraten. In the Netherlands thousands of boys, both Jewish and Muslim, are circumcised for religious reasons every year. Estimates range between 10,000 and 15,000 circumcisions carried out in this country annually. Campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali highlighted the issue years ago but every time circumcision is subject of a public debate, politicians shy away from putting it up for discussion in parliament. That is a great shame, because non-therapeutic male circumcision is an infringement of fundamental rights. The fact is that male circumcision (as is female circumcision which, fortunately, has already been banned) is a violation of the integrity of the body. Often parental autonomy is used as an argument to allow this violation to take place. That is a nonsense. Of course parents are at liberty to raise their children the way they like but the line should be drawn at circumcision. Child protection services A parent who wants to remove, say, his child’s earlobe based on a decree of God would soon be dealing with police and child protection services. So why should the removal of a boy’s foreskin be any different? Doctors’ association KNMG put it that the medical advantages of circumcision, if any, are way outnumbered by the risks and other disadvantages, such as the loss of up to 30% of erogenous tissue. The association’s findings were supported by associations of paediatricians, urologists and paediatric surgeons. There is, of course, nothing wrong with circumcisions that are carried out for medical reasons, and the same goes for adults who decide, for whatever reason, to have the operation. The problem starts when freedom of religion is used as an argument to submit a child to circumcision. Religious marker Freedom of religion implies that every person is free to adhere to any religion they like. That freedom must under no circumstances include the infliction of a religious, permanent marker on another person. Then one person’s freedom curtails the freedom of another. Then there is the aesthetic argument for circumcision. A circumcised penis is simply more attractive, Ali B. once explained in a television show. He is entitled to his opinion but it is no reason to subject children to circumcision. We are not talking about sticking-out ears, after all. A child may well experience psychological damage from having big ears. But if a child is happy the way it is those ears should remain the way they are. The rules for surgery on children are strict, and that is a good thing. Underground We are not advocating an immediate ban on circumcision. Our fear is that the moment that happens this deplorable practice will go into underground and we will lose sight of it completely. Our proposal is to discourage circumcision by increasing the minimum age for circumcision step by step and to legally oblige parents who register their child to be circumcised to adhere to an informed period of reflection. This will allow the realisation that circumcision is not right to take hold in religious communities. A future total ban will then be easier and safer to impose. A woman is boss of her own belly; a man should be boss of his own penis. This column appeared earlier in the NRC   More >


The new Dutch cabinet must get its Economy 4.0 act together

The new Dutch cabinet must get its Economy 4.0 act together

The new cabinet can only be successful if its economic policy is geared towards the new economy, or 4.0, say economists Rick van der Ploeg and Willem Vermeend The unstoppable progress of digitalisation and new technologies in the next few decades will ring in huge changes around the world. This combination, also called Economy 4.0, in tandem with globalisation and the impact of measures to combat climate change, will revolutionise economies everywhere. Its impact is already becoming clear: companies who failed to take 4.0 seriously have been falling by the wayside. Preparation The Netherlands too will have to deal with far-reaching social and economic developments which, at the moment, do not seem to inspire a great sense of urgency. Education, which should be at the forefront of any new development, is still firmly stuck in the ‘old’ world of 3.0 and is training people for obsolete jobs. There has been no sign of any serious preparation for 4.0 in education as yet. The same goes for politics and many businesses for whom digitalisation, innovative technology and climate change are just so many abstract terms. What this revolution is mainly about is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in all sectors, the Internet of Things, Big Data, bio and nanotechnology, robotics, drones, virtual reality and photonics (microchips which process data using light instead of electricity). In various countries, the Netherlands among them, scientists are working on a so-called quantum computer which will be millions of times faster than traditional computers. Dark sides of 4.0 This tech economy will turn every existing business model on its head. Countries at the forefront of the application of digitalisation and smart tech are the winners of 4.0. But they will have to cope with its darker sides as well. The consequences for the labour market will be enormous. A lack of technically trained people is already making itself felt, while at the same time an increasing number of ‘wrongly’ trained people are failing to find jobs. Governments will also have to devise a way to prevent a gap from opening up between citizens who profit from the new economy and those who will be left behind. Income inequality will increase as well. World 4.0 If companies want to survive in Economy 4.0 they will have to look for new business models. Government policy measures dating from 3.0 will no longer cut it. The labour market of the future, which has already begun, will look nothing like our current one. But still politicians are discussing 3.0 measures instead of concentrating their efforts on the 4.0 labour market. In many countries people are worried about the consequences of automation for employment. They are afraid they will be replaced by smart software programmes and robots. According to the World Economic Forum report ‘The Future of Jobs’ automation and robots will account for the net loss of five million jobs up to and including 2020. For the Netherlands the likely outcome will be that approximately a third of the present eight million jobs will be affected by Economy 4.0. Some 10% will disappear altogether while the rest will be taken over by smart software programmes and robots. So far policy makers in the Hague have failed to come up with a satisfactory response to this development. Tax systems 3.0 The current tax systems, which were designed for 3.0 and based on the physical economy, will disappear. 4.0 will make them completely obsolete. Tinkering with the 3.0 systems is a waste of time. The digital economy demands simple, broadly based tax systems and new types of charging systems in which digitalisation and blockchain technologies will play a part. Old fashioned tax systems based on equalising income via stepped tax rates will be scrapped everywhere. Tax 4.0 will be broadly based, with few deductions and no fiscal facilities. Tax on labour will be reduced and shift to consumption.  Countries that stick to 3.0 systems and high tax rates will lose companies, jobs and talented workers. The digital economy knows no borders and this makes it easier to work or start a business in fiscally friendly countries. Political parties who think this will not have much of an impact should think again. In most countries we are seeing that companies and workers are increasingly inclined to flee high taxes. The tax man will have an easy job of it. The systems will be digital and work with artificial intelligence and smart algorithms to detect and combat tax evasion and fraud. A pipe dream, you say? Not a bit of it. If the new cabinet begins work on a new system straight away, by 2022 the Netherlands could be the first country in the world to have a 4.0 tax system up and running. Smart cabinet Economy 4.0 should be the central starting point for the new cabinet. Both government and businesses must concentrate their efforts on digitalisation and new technologies and be quick about it. The same goes for education. Work must also start on a package of measures to deal with the negative aspects of 4.0. As far as climate policy is concerned our advice is to refrain from ineffective, 3.0 fiscal measures which damage the economy and employment while the financial burden is carried mainly by lower income groups. What they will not do is help the climate. Innovation will save the earth Our planet deserves better. It can only be saved by replacing fossil fuels with sustainable alternatives and for that we need innovative technologies. The cabinet must invest tens of billions of euros in R&D to speed up energy transition and recruit green tech smart start-ups from all over the world to work in this country. Only then can the Netherlands become a true climate champion. This column appeared earlier in the Telegraaf  More >


The Netherlands must be seen to be open for business: D66

The Netherlands has to protect its own companies but must be seen to open for business at the same time, says D66 MP Jan Paternotte. An open economy is good for the Netherlands. At the same time we must prevent Dutch companies from becoming an easy prey for American companies on a shopping spree. A compulsory cooling-off period in the case of a hostile takeover, as suggested by former CEOs Jan Hommen and Hans Weijers, would be a good way of creating a bit of much-needed breathing space. Companies will then have an opportunity of offering shareholders an alternative. Recently three Dutch companies have been the objects of unwanted corporate attention: PostNL, Unilever and AkzoNobel. The American company PPG announced it could launch a hostile bid on AkzoNobel at any given moment. There are several European countries with a political and cultural tradition of building defensive walls around ‘their’ national companies. You may have shares in a French company but ownership is a matter for the Élysée. Non! When Pepsi tried to take over Danone in 2006 the French government countered with a resolute ‘Non!’. It did not matter what the shareholders thought: this French flagship was not going to become American. With the help of the unions the French authorities increased the pressure and Danone remained French. Such thick defensive walls would not do for the Netherlands. This country profits from having an open economy. Take Heineken, for instance, which buys up breweries all over the world, and is now the second largest brewer in the world. Or AkzoNobel, whose second name refers to the Swedish company bought by Dutch Akzo. Some political parties want special committees to determine if takeovers are in line with government policy. That would not be a good move: the Netherlands must be seen to be open for business. National control Of course there are some companies, telecom companies among them, which should remain under national control. But Akzo’s paint and Unilever’s peanut butter are hardly vital for national security. The Netherlands can’t afford to be naïve, however. The dollar is high against the euro and interest rates are low. American stock exchanges are showing record highs as big companies are factoring in great expectations from the Trump administration. For American companies Dutch companies are now relatively cheap. That is how Kraft-Heinz felt able to take on a larger company like Unilever, which promptly got rid of its margarine division in a bid to appease its shareholders. Today’s takeovers are not what they were. Kraft (now Kraft-Heinz) took over British company Cadbury but failed to honour promises made over the continuation of 400 jobs at a factory. The company is good at keeping costs down but does not do very well on sustainability and long-term innovation. The takeover bid for AkzoNobel involved a group of shareholders convicted of insider trading by a French court. Healthy profits The takeover of an ailing company can be a good thing. But Unilever and Akzo are booking healthy profits. That is why a level playing field must be created in the Netherlands and Europe. The extent of the political intervention in the economy in France and Southern Europe is well-known but Germany and the United Kingdom also have protective measures in place. Germany has fewer listed companies and unions have a powerful voice in takeover negotiations. In Britain, Theresa May was one of the first to announce government intervention when the bid for Unilever was announced. In the US Trump has announced his own protectionist policies. In a level European playing field, a trading nation like the Netherlands would never have to be afraid of the competition. It is important, moreover, that European countries should not become involved in a battle of protectionist measures. We must prevent the western world from becoming engulfed in a wave of protectionism and that is why Europe too must put the subject on the agenda. This column was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


It’s time for a cabinet without the CDA: Marianne Thieme

The Christian Democrats are never going to support real green policies and it time they should be cut out of the cabinet formation process, writes Marianne Thieme, leader of the pro-animal PvdD No matter how often it was suggested that Edith Schippers and the cabinet negotiators from the VVD, CDA, D66 and GroenLinks were creating the ‘greenest cabinet ever’ it was clear from the outset that GroenLinks and the CDA were never going to see eye to eye. The differences between the two were large: a cap on the number of animals held in mega stables, climate objectives and the transition to a more plant-based and animal friendlier society - in short the green bit in the GroenLinks election programme. Former coalition broker and CDA stalwart Herman Wijffels and CDA leader Sybrand Buma were adamant the party was never going to agree to green reform, rather the opposite. The formation process had hardly started when it stumbled at the first hurdle. The climate legislation proposed by GroenLinks, Labour, D66, SP and ChristenUnie was declared controversial (bills deemed too politically sensitive to be passed ‘between cabinets’ are declared controversial, DN) by the lower chamber at the request of the VVD. The declaration did not bode well for future negotiations. Were the requirements set by the Paris accord to be put on hold because progressive parties were already dreading the climate agendas of the VVD and CDA? Sources close to the negotiating parties said that no bills proposed by them would be discussed during the formation period. But apparently there was room for exceptions: new and controversial organ donation legislation was passed without so much as a murmur. Stagnation climate law It is nothing short of scandalous that GroenLinks and D66 as well as fellow supporters of the climate bill - Labour, SP and ChristenUnie - hardly said a word against the stagnation tactics surrounding the bill. The fact that they agreed not to support any proposal that involves spending money during the formation shows that the ambition to govern overruled their professed ideals from the start. It showed a potential willingness to set aside green policies, which is not what people voted for and which denies the urgency of the climate problem. Moreover, there was no need at all for GroenLinks and D66 to opt for a coalition with VVD and CDA. On the contrary, the combination would not be a very disadvantageous one seeing that CDA and VVD can count on the support of PVV, SGP and FvD (Forum for Democracy, DN) when it comes to shooting down green policies. Green-right It would be wise not to involve the CDA in new negotiations. From 1998 the VVD has frequently made it clear it would be open to what could be dubbed a ‘green-right’ policy, including a restructuring of intensive stock farming. Add to this the explicit preference of  VVD ally employers’ organisation VNO-NCW for setting a course for a greener future and it becomes clear that other combinations would be the more obvious option. Side-lining the CDA would open the door to negotiations about a truly green policy with possible coalition partners such as ChristenUnie, Partij voor de Dieren and perhaps Labour. If the SP didn’t rule out any collaboration with the VVD for now, the coalition could be broader still. As it is it would be a green cabinet with a majority in both chambers. Green policy is not something a new cabinet can take or leave. It must be deeply rooted in the government accord. Now that the CDA has shown it doesn’t care about green issues, it’s time for plan B. Without the CDA. This column was published earlier in Trouw  More >


What the Dutch papers say about insulting women, Jewish traditions and young Turks

Introducing a new DutchNews.nl regular, a round-up of some of the week's best or most provocative columns. This week we tackle insulting women as entertainment for boys, the way politicians harp on about the Netherlands Jewish-Christian tradition and why young Dutch Turks voted to give president Erdogan more powers. Insulting women Micro biologist and NRC columnist Rosanne Herzberger takes on Telegraaf Media’s website Dumpert.nl which features a show called DumpertReeten (Dumpert arses) in which ‘a couple of men children are slouched on the sofa watching infantile videos. They express their appreciation via a special rating. If it’s a bad video, one woman wearing a string and bra turns around to show her backside. If the video is good four or five women do the same.’ Referencing Fox News’ Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, both fired for sexual harassment, Herzberger suggests that women hit back with a well-aimed kick, not quite in the balls of TMG but fairly close: the pocket book, i.e its advertising revenue. ‘Fortunately capitalism provides a great solution to this sort of situation. Women, apart from having breasts, legs and backsides, are also America’s most important consumers. They decide which make car is bought, they decide where to go on holiday and they do the shopping. So when the women working at Fox all began to start legal procedures against their bosses one advertiser after another distanced themselves from the show.’ ‘Humiliating women is big business,’ Herzberger writes, so who why not have a closer look at the advertisers who ‘apparently have no problem with this sort of content at all.’ Herberger kicks things off with a screenshot on Twitter and asks Who’s with me?  #wiebetaaltDumpertReeten The Jewish-Christian tradition Elsevier's outspoken columnist Gerry van der List wonders why politicians' first reaction is to trot out the ‘Jewish-Christian tradition of the country as a frontline against the militant faith of large numbers of immigrants’. The Jewish-Christian tradition, he says, is ‘a dubious concept that has little unifying power in secular times’. What unites the Dutch is not being Jewish or Christian, but the liberal-humanist tradition, Van der List says. ‘This liberal humanism is under pressure from immigration. Fortuyn and Wilder’s concerns about Islam have a basis in a worrying reality. But the decreasing attraction of religious feasts is not a reason for worry. In a civilised and tolerant country everyone can do what he likes during Easter, whether it’s listening to the Matthäus Passion, going to church, visiting the Keukenhof, reading the Koran or eating sausage at the HEMA. Tolerance for different lifestyles – it’s a virtue that has not always been prominent in the Jewish and Christian traditions’. Turkish vote In the Volkskrant journalist and documentary maker Sinan Can explains why he is not surprised so many Dutch Turks voted for an extension of president Erdogan’s powers in the Turkish referendum. ‘It’s a natural impulse to look for rational arguments for the vote for Erdogan. You go down the list: feeling ignored, discrimination, feelings of alienation etc. While there’s a small kernel of truth in all of these, I think there is something else at work here,’ Can writes. According to Can, part of Erdogan’s appeal is his glorification of Turkey’s past. ‘Turks are crazy for the faded glory of Turkey’s history. He shows himself to be a forceful leader with a big mouth who dares to call the Dutch and the Germans Nazis. They think that’s fantastic. They also like that he’s from humble beginnings. And he exudes a feeling of ‘I’m gonna make Turkey great again.’ Coalition Meanwhile fellow Volkskrant columnist Bert Wagendorp predicts work on the ‘GreenRight coalition’ will continue, particularly as everyone involved seems to have a soft spot for GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver. ‘As formation watcher I see Klaver’s ambition and eagerness: he wants to be part of this. Add to this the fatherly feelings I seem to detect in Buma ( I saw a photograph in which he smiles at Jesse), Pechtold’s wiliness (he needs Jesse, things would become much more complicated with CU or Labour) and Rutte’s sunny disposition (Jesse is a bit of a lefty but a great guy) and I we may even see a successful end to the negotiations.'  More >


Working together is a key part of the Dutch psyche

Working together is a key part of the Dutch psyche

Working together to reach consensus is one of the essences of being Dutch. No wonder then that even at school children learn all about making deals with their peers, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe The Netherlands is now in the middle of a long and complicated process to create a new coalition government. The Dutch political system invariably creates coalitions and the process can take months and months. Manifesto points are ditched, compromises reached, trade-offs agreed and finally the parties that have managed to find enough common ground publish their long-awaited coalition agreement – their blue-print for the country for the next four years. Consensus Those who romanticise the Dutch tradition of consensus like to see its origins in the Dutch fight against the sea – when everyone had to work together to ensure the dykes were high and the waves kept at bay. This may well be the case. But consensus is not just confined to the corridors of power in The Hague. Consensus also looms large in industry and economic policy in the form of the polder – the Dutch word for reclaimed land which is also the name given to the tripartite talks between employers, unions and the government that always take place when a major issue needs to be dealt with. But the Dutch love of consensus starts well before you’ve reached a position of influence in politics or industry. It permeates every level of Dutch society – right down to the education system. Yes, if you’ve got children at a Dutch school, you will not be able to avoid the practice of working together in groups. Working together I’ve never been sure about whether the Dutch school fondness for group-based projects is about teaching kids to get along and work together, to get them to accept how to make the best of things or because the teacher can’t face the idea of marking 30 different projects on World War II or fossil fuels. The trouble starts when junior comes home cursing about the fact he has been put in a group with three others who are, he says, stupid and lazy. They’ve already had a meeting to decide who is going to do what and he just knows he’s going to fail because the others are sooooo useless. Three of the four have decided that X will be in charge of finding the pictures because he or she is dyslexic and can’t be relied on to produce a coherent 500 words on the greenhouse effect. Of the three writing the text, one goes awol or comes up with endless excuses why her or she have not completed their required part. The two who are left over have a blazing fight about the dreadful quality the other has delivered, one bows out and the other stays up all night rewriting the whole thing to their own exacting standards. Hard lesson Perhaps the hardest lesson to learn about this group approach is accepting the fact that your future – well, your exam mark at least – will partly depend on the performance of your peers. A mate of mine has just been asked if she could possibly edit – rewrite – a 20 page project on England which has to be in English because her god-daughter is convinced she will fail because three of the girls in the group can’t string two words together. The final project won’t say much about their English skills but it will show the importance of ‘who you know’ in getting what you want. As junior becomes more experienced about the process, he or she learns to make sure they get in with the other kids who will be most useful to them… the one with the rich parents who will pay for the final project to be perfectly printed, the one with the uncle who just happens to be a climate change advisor to the government – name dropping at a young age never hurt anyone - the one who always gets top marks and can actually spell and, most important of all, the one who can whip up a power point presentation at the age of seven. Yes, when it comes to convincing the teacher you actually know what you are talking about, style definitely wins over substance and making sure your team puts on the best presentation is crucial. Tantrums So in a few weeks, or maybe months time, the new Dutch government will be presenting its plans for the future, based on endless meetings, late night rewrites and goodness knows how many tantrums behind closed doors. We can say with some certainty that PVV leader Geert Wilders is the kid no-one wants in their team. While the group who have decided they can work together make their presentation, he’ll be sitting at the back of the class making snide comments. As for the marks? That will up to us to decide in four years time.  More >


Holiday rental giant Airbnb is harming Amsterdam’s communities

Airbnb is becoming greedy. It needs to invest in Amsterdam for the long-term benefit of its communities, not just for short term financial gain, says Leiden University's David Zetland. Airbnb is a popular service for connecting tourists who want a cheaper place to stay in a city with ‘hosts’ willing to give them a room or a flat to stay in. Oh, did I say ‘give’? Sorry, I meant ‘rent.’ Like Facebook with its claims of helping you communicate with ‘friends,’ Airbnb uses ‘share’ in a way that replaces a child's use of that word with an alt-truth definition that means ‘rent.’ That distortion of reality is not a bug but a feature: Airbnb co-founder (and billionaire) Nathan Blecharczyk made his first millions spamming people's inboxes while claiming ‘there were frankly no rules around it’ in 2002. I don't know about you, but I knew that spam was a plague well before 2002, and I'm going to spend the rest of this post talking about how Airbnb's founders need to stop spamming and start helping the cities that are making them rich. By the way, let me clarify that I love Airbnb's service, which I am happy to use as a host and guest. What I am not happy about is how Airbnb seems to be taking the greedy route towards doing business by focussing more on short-stays than strong (and attractive) communities. I say this as someone who studies communities and how their ‘common spaces’ are built on an intangible web of relations among neighbors more than a common postal code. I'm from San Francisco (where Airbnb is based), but I live in Amsterdam, which may be Airbnb's most popular city. According to one source, 2-3% of all Amsterdam residences (and perhaps 7% in popular neighbourhoods) are listed on Airbnb. In many cases, Airbnb is driving a trend to replace affordable housing with illegal hotels owned by investors. In most of Amsterdam's neighbourhoods, residents share common stairways, garbage bins and personal space. It's not unusual to hear each other through floors and walls as we go about our business. In many cases, these noises are comforting because they represent the ‘metabolism’ of the building's inhabitants, some of whom have shared stories, assistance and common challenges for decades. Airbnb's site and philosophy say very little about the neighbours (the ‘community page’ is for hosts to swap tips). Their focus on making deals may be appropriate for San Francisco but not for Amsterdam, a city that has worked for centuries to balance the needs of art and commerce, private and public, rich and poor. In 2014, Amsterdam and Airbnb signed a memorandum of understanding in which Airbnb agreed to ‘notify hosts in a powerful manner that they are obliged to offer homes for rent in compliance with applicable rules.’ This mentioned 60-day limits on hosting, encouraged hosts to ‘download the notice card for neighbours,’ and clarified that the municipality was responsible for reinforcing its own rules. Not included but mentioned, was an agreement for Airbnb to collect and pay the city's 5 percent tourist tax, which amounted to €5.5m in 2015. That amount implied that Airbnb guests paid over €100 million to hosts, of which about 3% (€3 million) went to Airbnb. Late last year, the city and Airbnb updated their agreement to provide a ‘more powerful’ reminder of the 60-day hosting limit. Now, hosts are notified of their total remaining days and told that they will not be allowed to use Airbnb after the 60-day limit is reached. But that update has omitted two major factors that are undermining Airbnb's benefit to Amsterdam. First, Airbnb is not reporting host income to the city (or government), data that it possesses and already reports to American authorities for ‘high volume hosts.’ If Amsterdam hosts are billing over €100m in charges, then the tax authorities should be making around €40m (based on the 42% marginal tax rate that many homeowners would face for renting their own place for less than 60 days). That money would come in handy for a city forced to cut €25m in spending on garbage collection, public spaces, youth programmes, and so on. Second, Airbnb is not doing very much to help the neighborhoods that make its service so popular. Hosts and visitors give each other ratings and feedback, but the neighbors are the ones who must deal with banging bags, morning departures, and strangers who contribute nothing to the neighborhood. Airbnb can address this problem by allowing neighbours to leave feedback on guests. Although this system might take a little while to set up, it's obvious that Airbnb's very clever staff could help Amsterdam's city staff with notifying neighbours and ensuring that strangers would, in the words of Airbnb, ‘belong.’ Airbnb's license to operate in Amsterdam depends on whether it helps or harms the city. Airbnb can help Amsterdam collect its fair share of taxes and guests fit into the community, but it can also resist and damage Amsterdam's quality of life. Let's hope that Airbnb invests in Amsterdam for the long run. David Zetland is an assistant professor of economics at Leiden University College and resident of Amsterdam. Thanks to Kim Zwitserloot and Joes Natris for their help on earlier drafts of this post.   More >


Dutch election: anti-rights rhetoric goes mainstream despite Wilders’ defeat

Dutch election: anti-rights rhetoric goes mainstream despite Wilders’ defeat

Last week's general election in the Netherlands was one of the most closely watched in years. But the fact that Geert Wilders' radical right party failed to make major gains does not mean he has not had an impact, writes Anna Timmerman of Human Rights Watch. While most of the world was focused only on one party, the radical right populist Party for Freedom (PVV) and its leader Geert Wilders, the Dutch cast their votes widely across 13 parties, two of them winning seats for the first time. No party got more than 22% of the vote. For the rest of the world, the fact that the PVV fared less well than many polls had predicted and was soundly beaten by the centre-right Liberal party (VVD, 21.3% of the vote and 33 seats) is an understandable cause for celebration. Populism failed its first big test since Trump’s election and Brexit. While its share of the vote (13.1%) and seats (20) are an increase from 2012, they are lower than the party garnered in 2010, when this brand of radical populism was on few people’s radar. People are also heartened by the share of the vote won by the centrist D66 party (19 seats and 12% of vote) and GroenLinks (Green party), which scored its best result ever (14 seats, and 8.9%). Dirty campaign But the news is not all good. While a mainstream party won, the Liberal party’s triumph was tarnished by a dirty campaign where it emulated the PVV’s rhetoric, lashing out against Islam and telling Dutch-born citizens whose families came from other countries to integrate or 'get out'. These citizens could not be blamed for thinking the party likely to lead the next government won’t govern for them. It was a similar story with the Christian Democrats (CDA), who ran on an anti-refugee agenda. They were rewarded with 12.5% of the vote and 19 seats. The Christian Orthodox SGP party ran a campaign along similar lines and won 3 seats with 2.1%. It remains to be seen who will join the ruling coalition. The main parties have all eschewed a coalition with PVV, and it’s important they honor that pledge. Political expediency Before the elections, Human Rights Watch spoke to candidates from most of the parties. Those interviews made clear that the VVD, PVV, and CDA – parties that make up almost half the seats in the new parliament – are willing to set aside human rights for the sake of political expediency. Indeed, a Dutch lawyers group concluded that all three parties’ election manifestos include measures that are contrary to human rights or are openly discriminatory toward certain groups. In short, the worry is that Wilders’s ideas will prevail even though his party did not. The Netherlands’ civil society will need to work with those parties supporting human rights. And they should call it out when mainstream parties set aside core values for political gain.  More >


Geert Wilders and Donald Trump can learn from Marine Le Print

Geert Wilders and Donald Trump can learn from Marine Le Print

Economist Mathijs Bouman thinks The Donald and The Geert could learn something from Marine Le Pen. It’s easy to come up with populist schemes. But how to pay for them? Donald Trump wants to lower taxes and invest in infrastructure at the same time. Geert Wilders is going to lower the state pension age, abolish the health insurance own risk element as well as lower income tax and halve vehicle tax. Meanwhile in France, Marine Le Pen wants to lower the state pension age, up benefits and lower income tax. Lots of fun things for citizens and lower taxes is the message. Because money doesn’t grow on trees the creatives of the right have to resort to trickery to make things look affordable. Marine Le Pen’s Front National came up with the most creative trick of all: to print money and lots of it. But first: the optical illusions of The Donald and The Geert. Straight face Trump, who has taken a good look at how Ronald Reagan used to handle things, managed to keep a straight face when he said that lower taxes and higher government spending are totally not mutually exclusive. Lower taxes are lucrative if they boost the economy and make tax evasion less of an attractive option. The person who came up with this fairy tale is Art Laffer, the Hans Christian Andersen among economists, who said last year he had the utmost faith in Trump. But according to the calculations of the independent Congressional Budget Office Trump’s policies, like Reagan’s in the 80s, will lead to a public debt of massive proportions. The PVV is keeping its programme well away from the financial scrutiny of the economic policy analysts at the CPB so the party has nothing to worry about on that score. The PVV website shows a party programme consisting of 1 A4 page dating to 2016 with a ‘financial paragraph’ containing the estimated costs and benefits of the proposals. Exactly zero Bringing the state pension age back to 65 will cost €3.5bn, abolishing development aid, windmills, art and public tv will bring in €10bn. The final balance come to exactly zero. It’s quite a feat, especially since two expenses have not been factored in. The costs of quitting the EU and introducing a law to introduce binding referendums have been marked Pro Memorie, or we haven’t a clue. Tip from Wilders to CFOs and treasurers in the land: include a couple of Pro Memories and you can balance the books whatever you do. Le Pen’s optically enhanced budget is much more like it. She wants France to trade the euro for a new French franc. The French Central bank will then be placed under the direct authority of parliament after which the money presses can start printing. Benefits can go up and the pension age can go down because, pouf, the money goes straight from the Banque de France to the Élysée. It’s brilliant! Now why didn’t Trump and Wilders think of that. This column appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >