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


Blame it on the wigeon

Blame it on the wigeon

The bird flu outbreak may now be contained but that does not mean we can forget about it. After all, it is easier to blame the poor old wild ducks and geese than to eat less meat, says Joris Lohman of the Slow Food movement.   The bird flu outbreak introduced a relatively unknown danger to the public: the wigeon. This dastardly migrating bird is threatening our cheap chicken filets. The wigeon is spreading the bird flu virus, or so it is believed. The outbreak is a tragedy. Tens of thousands of chickens have had to be killed prematurely. If the old saying that the state of a society can be measured by the way it treats its animals holds any truth, we’re in very bad shape indeed. Scapegoat What do you do when faced with a crisis? You look for the nearest scapegoat. The wigeon has been put in the spotlight leaving the living conditions of the chickens conveniently in the dark. As we all know, tens of thousands of chickens are living on top of each other in closed-off spaces. Factory farmers are trying to keep out ‘nature’ with more hygiene measures and ever more tightly closed doors. Nevertheless, bird flu is with us once again. A well-known crisis reflex is kicking in: it isn’t the system, it's human error that is to blame. We just didn’t see the wigeon coming. It’s not that simple. If not the wigeon who else can we blame? Factory farming? Farmers are being portrayed as ruthless money grabbers exploiting defenceless animals. That’s not quite the whole story either. Factory farmers are caught in a system that demands cheap meat. The only way of achieving this is by cutting production costs which means large-scale factory farms. Intensive factory farming stopped being lucrative a long time ago. Employment  The consumer, in high dudgeon about animal abuse, buys his reduced ‘plofkip’ in the supermarket without any qualms. The supermarket managers aren’t bothered either: ‘if they don’t buy from us they’ll go elsewhere.’ And the government? The government thinks animal welfare is important. It thinks employment in the agricultural sector is important too and it is doing its utmost to promote the export of meat, the more the better. Apart from meat, the Netherlands likes to export knowledge so other countries can learn how to stuff as many animals as possible onto a very small surface too. Oh, and shut those doors. All this is happening against the background of a growing world population – people who wouldn’t mind a chicken filet every once in a while either. Earlier this month, British scientists published the umpteenth report explaining how meat production is the biggest cause of global warming, topping the CO2 emission produced by all the cars in the world put together. More crisis! What can we do to stop this? Eat less meat. Oh dear, that sounds far too complicated. Anyone for shooting some wigeons? Joris Lohman is a member of the Slow Food Youth movement SFY. This column appeared earlier in Trouw.    More >


This week: editorials focus on health insurance reforms and the minimum wage

The cabinet crisis following the decision by three Labour senators not to support plans to give more power to health insurance companies has dominated the front pages since Tuesday evening. The dispute has, however, overshadowed another significant roll-out of government policy - social affairs minister Lodewijk Asscher's efforts to stop workers from other EU countries being exploited by companies determined to pay them less than the minimum wage. Asscher's announcement is 'not before time' wrote Volkskrant commentator Raoul du Pre. 'Cheap labour has economic advantages but there's a dark side too. (..) 'Dutch truck drivers are having a hard time finding jobs because they demand a normal wage.' The new measures, which also hold clients of companies responsible for paying substandard wages and includes hefty fines on those who are found to be in breach, will prevent the minimum wage from turning into a paper tiger, Du Pre concluded. (Volkskrant, 13/12/2014) The health insurance debate has given the leader writers and columnists a great deal of material - both those who favour freedom of choice for patients and those who don't - as well as close observers of the ensuing political shenanigans. Legal health care expert Ernst Hulst, in Trouw, was jubilant about the outcome: 'Not all MPs bought into the idea of a free health care market' he enthused. 'Free market health care pushes up costs and infringes on the fundamental right of equal accessibility and physical integrity for all. But fundamental rights are not bargaining chips.' (Trouw, 18/12/2014) The NRC focused on another aspect of the health care debate - the cabinet's plans to by-pass the upper chamber to push through its legislation by means of a so-called 'algemene maatregel van bestuur' a measure only used in an emergency. The second cabinet to be led by prime minister Mark Rutte has 'escaped an untimely end,' the paper said. But the mutterings of the until now compliant opposition parties about 'back donor policies' mean that 'it is far from clear how things will develop.' (NRC, 19/12/2014) Elsevier, by contrast, commented on the behaviour of the three rebellious Labour senators. 'There seems to be a complete lack of leadership in the party and the question has to be asked: Is Labour a trustworthy coalition partner?', it wrote. (..) 'There are fallings out in any coalition but this is far more serious. The defeatist Labour policy is making it impossible for the cabinet to govern'. (Elsevier, 19/12/2014cab  More >


Banking for the future: it’s all about reputation repair

Banking for the future: it’s all about reputation repair

Annemarie van Gaal blasts banks who sell unfathomable financial products like derivatives to entrepreneurs. Reputation repair. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? I was reminded of it at a symposium called ‘Banking for the future’ held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Dutch banking association NVB. Six years after the banking crisis, winning back confidence and repairing a damaged reputation is still a work in progress. In his opening speech chairman Chris Buijink announced he was going to establish a ‘whistleblower facility’ for banks. Complaints will be registered and dealt with by a disciplinary committee. It’s a nice initiative. Of course we already have the Kifid, an ‘independent’ arbitrator in conflicts between clients and financial service providers. It has no disciplinary committee but, like the new initiative, it was established and financed by the financial service providers themselves. Kifid is not transparent and its arbitrations are published anonymously. Bruijink promised transparency in the banking sector and I hope this includes his new initiative. There can be no reputation repair without transparency. Derivatives Finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said in his speech that banks should find a solution for the derivative problems experienced by small and medium-sized businesses ‘quickly and adequately’. I agree, and on that note I would like to be the first to register a complaint: almost all the entrepreneurs who went to the bank for a loan ended up with an unwanted derivative product. Those who asked for a fixed interest loan were offered a loan with a variable interest rate and a derivative to keep the interest rate risk in check. But entrepreneurs who preferred a variable interest loan were given a fixed interest loan and a derivative. Hardly any of the entrepreneurs knew what the consequences of derivatives were likely to be. Expiry dates of the loans and derivatives may differ and the derivative may continue when the loan stops, with all the risks this entails. Entrepreneur The other day I met an entrepreneur who had sold his business. Some of the money went towards paying off his loans. The only thing left was a derivative linked to a loan from Rabobank. If he paid off the money he would also have to buy off the derivative. It cost him a million and a half. Nearly all the capital which he had worked for so hard all these years went to the bank for ending a financial product which he had never quite understood why he needed in the first place. I talked to some Rabobank people about this and they admitted that the entrepreneur in question ‘naturally wasn’t a financial expert’ and that he hadn’t understood ‘how derivatives work’. But that didn’t alter the bank’s insistence that the derivative had to be bought off for the full amount. Where is the bank’s duty of care? Or doesn’t it extend to small and medium-sized businesses? Chris Buijink, here’s your first complaint. Annemarie van Gaal is an entrepreneur and investor. This column appeared earlier in The Financieele Dagblad.    More >


Technical innovation requires social innovation

Technical innovation requires social innovation

A happy staff makes for economic growth so it is time that companies put some effort into social innovation, says Erasmus University professor Henk Volberda. Sending real-time videos without the aid of a satellite, a melon which goes from green to yellow in the final one-and-a-half days of ripening so growers know exactly which are ready, a substance which rice growers in South East Asia can use instead of harmful insecticides - all these are Dutch innovations. The businesses which thought them up are Triple IT, Nunhems BV and Incotec and all three were nominated for the Erasmus Innovation Award 2014. The fourth company to compete for the award was YoungCapital which was nominated because of its innovative recruiting programme. So is innovation still doing well in the Netherlands? Unfortunately the answer is: far from it. The Erasmus Competition and Innovation Monitor 2013-2014 shows that radical innovation – completely new products and services – is down by 6% and incremental innovation – improvements on existing products and services – by 4%. It is not a matter of a lack of money for research and development. Businesses invested slightly more this year. The problem is that many companies have been neglecting social innovation; ie, new ways of organising, managing and working. Companies need to sort out their organisational structure before they can generate clever new products and services. Social innovation went down by 8% in the last year and that is not good news. Tinker Socially innovative businesses don’t have a culture of isolated geeks tinkering away at something in little attic rooms. They stimulate openness and cooperation. Triple IT, which counts the BBC among its customers, is a good example. The jury praised the combination of ‘innovation, execution and culture’ and the modern employee relations at the company. The management focuses on stimulating inspiration, mutual trust and an open working environment instead of traditional aspects such as control, financial reward and apportioning blame. The enjoyment of the work takes centre stage: at Triple IT employees play computer games together, for example. Cooperation and exchange of information are important at Nunhem BV too. Here staff work in multi-disciplinary teams to chart demand. A socially innovative company opens its windows to the outside world. Other companies, knowledge institutions, clients and the public are not seen as potential enemies who may abscond with the company secrets at any moment, but as sources of inspiration, ideas and potential partnerships. Both Nunhems BV and Incotec are working with numerous other companies and universities in the Netherlands and abroad. These efforts are reflected in their products and services. YoungCapital established a university to further the development of its employees. With the help of its clients, it’s developing new recruitment methods using role play and interactive testing. Performance This type of company – based on cooperation, an open culture and a facilitating management – is in a better position to develop new products and services than traditional companies. They beat the competition where turnover, profit and market share are concerned. Social innovation and performance go hand-in-hand. The government is still focused primarily on technological innovation. It forgets that investment in people takes priority if you want to produce interesting new products and services. Almost all the top sector policy measures are aimed at the (fiscal) stimulation of technological innovation. The success of socially innovative businesses proves that apart from a technological capital agenda we need a human capital agenda. The top sector policy should include measures which stimulate social innovations. Why not use tax breaks to invest in human capital, or stimulate cooperation between businesses and knowledge institutions? Give entrepreneurs access to online diagnosic tools or create online innovative leadership modules. Social innovation creates jobs as well. Companies which invest in both technological and social innovation report an average personnel growth of 8.3%. Staff involvement and work enjoyment are high. The 0.2% economic growth in the third quarter was seen as proof of a rallying economy. But if you look at the innovation figures – which determine economic growth – there is not much cause for optimism. We need to invest in social innovation and a human capital agenda. There can be no technological innovation without social innovation. Henk Volberda is professor of Strategic Management at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. This opinion piece was published earlier in the Volkskrant.  More >


Oil prices are down- we’re doomed!

Oil prices are down- we’re doomed!

There are a lot of worried noises out there. But what's so terrible about falling oil prices? asks Nyenrode University's Jan Maarten Slagter. As you may have noticed, I’m not an economist. This is possibly the reason why I’m surprised about the worried noises these experts started making when oil prices began to fall. Oh dear, it’s gone down to less than $70 – we’re doomed! Why is it a problem when one of our most important raw materials becomes cheaper? I have a car and I pay an arm and a leg for petrol. You won’t hear me moaning about paying 10 euro cents less since last summer. Transport makes up a huge part of a company’s costs and that money saved goes straight to profit. And that’s without including all those other parts oil products play in the production process. What surprises me most is the lack of an historical perspective. Until the millennium oil prices were around the $20 mark. Then prices rocketed. No sooner did The Economist warn about the dangers of oil prices which would remain under $10 a barrel at the end of the 1990s (‘We are drowning in oil!’ the panicky headline read) than the price of a barrel shot up to over $100 (the Chinese economy started to pick up speed, oil supplies turned out to be finite and the Middle East was on fire). That short aberration is taken to be the norm which is why, apparently, we think the present price – still three times as high as in the nineties – is something to worry about. The worriers have a couple of arguments on which to base their pessimism. Lower oil prices will make it relatively unprofitable to develop alternative energy sources with lower CO2 emissions. That is true. But the same holds true for the oil production techniques which are (potentially) harmful for the environment – like drilling at great depths in the polar regions and fracking. Coal – a worse pollutant than oil – will become less attractive if oil prices drop. On a note of principle: a transition to a ‘green’ economy is a political choice. It would be naïve to think that market forces will bring it about. If a green economy is what we want, we will have to turn to political measures, for instance a global tax on CO2 emissions. And then there’s the inflation argument. Many macro-economists think higher inflation is exactly what the economy needs: the real term interest rate will fall and this will stimulate investment and spending. A drop in oil price will depress inflation and have the opposite effect. Moreover, the inflation effect is temporary. It is measured year on year and permanently lower oil prices wouldn’t show up after one year. But the effects of an increase in spending power is something we'll enjoy for much longer - with every Christmas that comes around. Jan Maarten Slagter is a programme director at Nyenrode Business Universiteit. This column appeared earlier in the Telegraaf.      More >


Tax rulings: MPs demand the right to know

Tax rulings: MPs demand the right to know

MPs are supposed to supervise the cabinet but in the case of tax deals with Starbucks and the like they have no way of knowing which deals have been struck. Unconstitutional, cry MPs Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks), Arnold Merkies (SP), Pieter Omtzigt (CDA) and Carola Schouten (CU. MPs have no way of making sure if deals between the Dutch tax office and multinationals such as Google and Starbucks are fair and within the confines of the law. Finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem and junior minister Erik Wiebes are consistently refusing to inform them as to the particulars of these deals. By withholding this information from MPs they are effectively interfering with the lower chamber’s supervisory function. The air of mystery surrounding these deals does not inspire confidence in what it is the tax office is offering the companies in exchange for their presence in the Netherlands. Parliamentary supervision is vital and that is why we call on both politicians to respect the lower chamber’s constitutional right to be informed. Tax evasion by multinationals does not sit well with the citizens of this country, and rightly so. Every day brings news of yet another construction which allows companies to reduce their tax bill. Disney, for example, only paid a 0.25%  tax on its profits between 2009 – 2013. Unfair Amazon only paid 1% in tax on its European turnover over the last 10 years. And between 1998 and 2012 Starbucks in Britain paid €8.6m in tax while its turnover in that period was over 3,4000 times (!) as much. Compare that to the level of tax faced by small companies and workers. The cafeteria around the corner and the bookshop are paying a much higher percentage than Starbucks and Amazon. That is unfair and not how it is supposed to be. These companies happened to be in Luxemburg but they might as well have been in the Netherlands. The Netherlands also offers so-called tax rulings to companies which stipulate the way tax is levied. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle. But increasingly the signs are that this ruling practice is getting out of hand. The European Committee found that the Starbucks tax bill is a whopping 90% lower than is should be thanks to a deal with the Dutch tax office, prompting an investigation into unfair state support for Starbucks. That is a serious allegation and all the more reason why MPs should have a proper look at exactly which breaks the tax office is offering to companies like Starbucks. The information can be treated confidentially if need be. But the cabinet is steadfast in its refusal to give out any information and is therefore hindering the lower chamber in the execution of its supervisory task. Confidentiality Dijsselbloem and Wiebes are hiding behind the tax law. It contains a confidentiality clause which prohibits the further divulgence of companies’ tax-related data beyond what is needed to execute the tax law. That is much too convenient. The law also offers the possibility to wave confidentially, for instance if it serves the greater good of society. We feel that, in view of the social unrest caused by tax avoidance, the greater good of society would most definitely be served. A minister or a junior minister who persists in his refusal to hand over certain data will have to do so citing the interest of the state as described in article 68 of the constitution which governs the right to information. But in this instance we see no danger to the interest of the state. The recent announcement by the minister that he intends to share the Dutch ruling practices with the tax authorities in other countries makes this abundantly clear Following an investigation in Luxemburg, the rulings turned out to differ significantly from the government’s version. The European Committee is now investigating Dutch ruling practices. But it’s high time the Dutch parliament are allowed to execute their supervisory task as well. We call on minister Dijsselbloem and junior minister Wiebes to stop resisting a transparent tax system. And we call on our Labour and VVD colleagues to take the supervisory task of MPs seriously and this time around support our motion to confidentially inform parliament about tax rulings. Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks), Arnold Merkies (SP), Pieter Omtzigt (CDA) and Carola Schouten (CU) are MPs. This opinion piece appeared earlier in the Volkskrant.  More >


Maastricht mayor stands down: Hoes to blame?

Maastricht mayor stands down: Hoes to blame?

Comedian and performer Youp van ‘t Hek looks back at the past week in politics - particularly the resignation of Maastricht's mayor Onno Hoes after he was caught with toyboys yet again. Who will be the next mayor of Maastricht? Newly between-jobs (ex-KLM chief) Camiel Eurlings will undoubtedly be recommended for the post by Maxime Verhagen. Maxime hasn’t forgotten how a shouty and saluting Camiel supported him when he sold his soul to Wilders in 2010. It was one of the funniest moments in Dutch recent political history. What does Maxime have to do with the candidacy for the new mayor of Maastricht, you may ask. Well, a lot. He’s from Limburg, a Christian Democrat, his father was an important member of the KVP (forerunner of the CDA, DN), and he is up to his eyebrows in Limburg clay as a lobbyist, ambassador and commissioner. That means he has everything to do with it, even if he doesn’t. Officially. He’s on the phone with Jos van Rey and Pietje van Pol six times a day, neither of whom have anything to do with it either but who will determine between them who the new mayor is going to be. And if it’s not Camiel then, who knows, it might be Bram Moszkowicz who has also become available. Bram was born in Maastricht and that means he’s in with a chance. Unless he accepts a post as a Big Issue seller outside the local Jumbo supermarket. Bram is the reason I will do my Christmas shopping at Jumbo this year, although I admit to being a little peeved at not being invited to sing along, unremunerated of course, with Lange Frans, Jan Smit, Hennie Huisman and René Froger in that touching, feature-length food bank ad. Am I supposed to feel sorry for Onno Hoes for his treatment by creepy Rutger and slimy Weesie? Of course not. Onno profited from what his ex-partner Albert Verlinde has been dishing out for years. Remember that grainy security camera footage of Yo & Wes canoodling in an underground parking garage, and that phone recording of Georgina Verbaan? Last Wednesday Albert almost choked in his effort to explain how completely and utterly different the garage pictures where from what happened to Onno. Wes & Yo should have realised that garages have cameras, he said. And he did tell them he was going to broadcast the images. Not a word about Georgina, however. Daphne Deckers nodded in agreement. Marc van der Linden was thinking about his supper. I can’t wait for Hoes versus PowNews. According to the lawyers, Hoes stands a good chance of winning. I don’t think so. If you spend 20 years with someone in the knowledge that he buys embarrassing footage and broadcasts it then that makes you an accessory. And that is why Weesie and Rutger were right to think Onno wouldn’t mind being filmed. The case is going to be a riot and I doubt the judge will be able to keep a straight face when Onno says it’s a disgrace. No Mr Hoes, it was a very lucrative source of income for you not too long ago. Last week I phoned the VARA and asked if I could have an extra hour for my new year’s eve show. There’s so much material. Bram will be sitting next to Albert again next week in RTL Boulevard. Will Albert ask Bram whether it’s true that he, as the NRC reported last week, asked someone to beat up national would-be dandy Jort Kelder because he said he was ‘in bed with the mafia’? Bram will of course say he did no such thing. And what will journalist Albert do then? Will he leave it at that or will he send someone round with a hidden camera? A sexy woman with a camera between her tits, perhaps, who will make Bram tell all after a romantic dinner? It would make for great television. Youp van 't Hek is a comedian and writer.    More >


This week: Unwanted presents, expensive medication, Uberpop and asylum seekers

Sinterklaas has left the country and Maastricht's mayor is leaving office. But health service reforms remain firmly on the agenda and calls for change to the taxi laws are growing. A round-up of this week's editorials.   As many people were looking forlornly at yet another milk frother in the aftermath of Sinterklaas, Z24's Jasperien van Weerdt had the solution: put it (and all your other unwanted presents) on auction site Marktplaats or go to the nearest second-hand stuff shop or, alternatively, trade them in for something you really want at the swap shop. If you go for Marktplaats make sure your ad has something to distinguish it from all the other ads by adding the word 'free', Van Weerdt suggests. A ‘phone with free charger’ will generate more attention than ‘phone with charger’, Van Weerdt warned. Fast forward to Christmas: vegetarians and teetotallers who have been given a Christmas hamper full of duck paté and bottles of wine can go to www.kerstpakketruilen.nl and swap them for some swanky veggie soup  and a wok. (Z24, 8/10/2014) Medicine costs The rising cost of medication will force hospitals to turn away patients when their insurer’s budget has run out, while doctors might feel undue pressure when it comes to prescribing expensive medication. ‘Unacceptable’, wrote the Financieele Dagblad in an editorial. ‘Patients must be secure in the knowledge that they are getting the best medication for their illness and not some less effective, cheaper alternative.’ But the battle between insurers and hospitals shouldn’t be fought in the doctor’s surgery at all, the FD said. The problem of ever-more expensive medication really asks for a Europe=wide solution but in the absence of any moves in that direction it is up to hospitals and insurers to work more efficiently. The health minister should stop repeating her ‘mantra’ of doctors having to prescribe according to the dictates of science and practice. ‘That simply doesn’t cut it. Soon a large number of new expensive medication will come onto the market. If hospitals and insurers cannot cope with the problem the politicians will have to step in.’ (FD, 9/12/2014) Taxis Taxi app Uberpop, which allows private individuals to operate as taxis, remains banned in the Netherlands, the company appeal court said this week. Elsevier’s economics correspondent, Nic Vieselaar, thought the judge’s decision highlighted the need for an adjustment of the current taxi regulations which make travelling by taxi prohibitively expensive. ‘The Uberpop app allows for feedback about the driver and the customer. Bad drivers are sent on their way, obnoxious clients can use a bike in future. The amount due is paid by credit card. No squabbles about the price of the ride, and no need of carry a lot of money.’ While punters have to be safe and insured, ‘expensive permits and taxi meters which only inflate the price of a ride are obsolete’. (Elsevier, 9/12/2014) Syrians The Telegraaf commented on the ‘wave of Syrians engulfing the country’ this week. The Netherlands has a tradition of offering a safe haven to refugees, the paper wrote but the question is, where they are going to live? Housing associations have large waiting lists already and ‘often this means even longer waiting times for regular candidates’. One of the reasons for this is that some 30,000 failed asylum seekers were given a pardon which meant that ‘fortune-seekers were rewarded at the expense of the Dutch and those who truly need asylum', the paper states. The same is happening on a local level, the paper continued. ‘Left-wing politicians spurred on by organisations like Vluchtelingenwerk and Defence for Children, which have a financial interest in large numbers of refugees, are calling for ‘more, more, more’ to make it look as if they have a conscience. Meanwhile the deportation policy is failing. This will only lead to more polarisation and xenophobia’. (Telegraaf, 10/12/2014) Maastricht Maastricht mayor Onno Hoes decided to find another job this week after being caught on camera chatting up a young man and being indiscrete about council affairs - having promised he would stop letting himself and the city down after the last time his private life was blasted all over the papers. ‘It can hardly be said that Pownews was highlighting something that is in the public interest,’ wrote Elsevier commentator Gerry van der List. ‘Hoes wasn’t exactly damning about the Maastricht city council and it would be hard to find an administrator who wasn’t critical of the people he works with outside the public domain every once in a while.’ Onnogate leaves a bad taste in the mouth (..) A competent mayor has to go after a highly dubious report about his urge to score in private life. It would not be a good thing if political reporting turns into gossip-mongering à la RTL Boulevard,' Van der List concluded. (Elsevier, 11/12/2014)     More >


Alcohol does damage adolescent brain

Alcohol does damage adolescent brain

The headlines earlier this week were clear. A new research project seemed to indicate it was okay for teenagers to drink alcohol after all. But research results aren’t always easy to interpret and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, writes Amsterdam University professor Reinout Wiers. The Volkskrant put it on its front page: research by Sarai Boelema cast doubt on the fact that alcohol causes brain damage in adolescents. In an analysis the following day, a link was made to government policy: ‘adolescents who drink don’t seem to suffer any noticeable brain damage. Is it time to tone down the increasingly strict rules surrounding adolescent drinking?’ The author of the piece didn’t think so. But before we even think about making the link to policy, we have to put Boelema’s study in perspective. What do we know about the links between alcohol and brain development? I want to make clear that the study itself was thorough and that the results were analysed (I was a member of the thesis committee), and that I’m in favour of publicising all scientific results, both positive and negative. But before people jump to the wrong conclusions, it would be useful to put the matter in a broader perspective. Four links Scientific literature on the subject distinguishes four links: 1. Normal growth of the self-regulatory brain functions is impeded by excessive alcohol use (this is what the newspaper article alluded to) 2. The inverse link: children with relatively weak self-regulatory skills often go on to drink to excessively. 3. Excessive drinking at a young age makes the brain hyper sensitive to the substance which automatically triggers reactions which lead to more alcohol abuse. 4. Children with a high sensitivity to reward are relatively more likely to become addicted. As far as the relationship between alcohol and self-regulatory functions is concerned, earlier articles have shown that the proof for the second link – the inverse relationship – is much more compelling than the first: dozens of studies have shown that children with weak self-regulatory skills are at a higher risk of alcohol abuse and addiction. The first link has been based on two lines of enquiry. Research based on animal testing -  the effects of alcohol on the brain development of rats - showed that the self-regulatory functions of the animals were less strong. But how strong are the self-regulatory functions of a rat? In other words, what is the validity of an animal model? The other line of enquiry is the one where brain functions of excessive drinkers are compared to those of moderate or non-drinkers. But these scans contain so much information there will always be differences and what is more, the results are usually based on small-scale, random probes. If differences are repeatedly found at brain level, the question is if these differences weren’t already present before the teenagers started drinking heavily (link 2) or if they are the result of alcohol abuse (link 1). In order to find out we need to measure the children’s brain functions beforehand and then measure them again after some of them have gone on to abuse alcohol. Reservations Clearly the research carried out by Boelema et al. (part of the Trails study) filled a need: a large group of children (over two thousand) did a number of tests at age 11 and the process was repeated at age 19. As this paper reported, none of the children showed significant ill effects from excessive alcohol use. Some qualifications of the findings are in order. Firstly, no direct measurements of brain functions were made, only general neuropsychological tests measuring memory, impulse control and concentration. The sensitivity of the tests used is important as well because Boelema also investigated the inverse link (children with weak self-regulatory functions will go on to drink more) and found no significant differences here either. That is all the more remarkable because over the years dozens of other studies have found clear evidence for just that. There can only be one of two conclusions: either the earlier studies got it wrong or the sensitivity of the tests is at fault. The latter seems to be most probable, not only because of the volume of the earlier research but because the result of a questionnaire used by Boelema regarding self-control in the same children was in line with that research. So if we conclude that the culprit is the sensitivity of the tests the conclusion that can be drawn from them is by necessity weakened as well: if these tests carried out on thousands of children do not find a link clearly established by many researchers in a much smaller group what can you expect these tests to show on the effects of alcohol on the development of the brain? And inversely, if the tests had shown the expected result of alcohol abuse in later life the negative conclusion would have been all the stronger. As far as link 1 we are back to where we started: we don’t know to what extent alcohol damages the self-regulatory functions of the adolescent brain. We need more research before we decide to go easy on adolescent drinking. Motivational brain functions Apart from the supposed negative effects on the self-regulatory functions, alcohol also affects the motivational functions of the brain. These effects weren’t part of Boelema’s research. After excessive alcohol use the brain becomes hyper sensitive to everything related to alcohol. It automatically triggers all kinds of associations (pleasure, relaxation) and activates a tendency to move towards alcohol. In the last ten years some thirty studies looked into these reactions in teenagers and they have shown that such processes do indeed occur in youngsters who abuse alcohol. To what extent these automatically activated motivational processes influence behaviour depends on the strength of a person’s self-regulatory functions: in youngsters with relatively weak self-regulatory functions the influence of these motivational processes is stronger which suggests a link with a higher risk of addiction at a later stage. Where there is a lack of sufficiently strong self-regulation parents should step in and set boundaries: boys with a tendency to move towards alcohol in particular will go off the rails if parents don’t give them clear rules about alcohol use. There is evidence then that adolescent brains are damaged by alcohol, initially through motivational processes and perhaps through self-regulatory processes that were not picked up on by Boelema’s tests. As far as the fourth link goes – children with a highly developed reward sensitivity are more prone to alcohol addiction – there is research to support that too. Another Trails study, of which Boelema’s research forms part, shows that children who tend to focus on things which signal a possible reward drink more and smoke cannabis more. Another study linked this reward sensitivity to the strong development of the hyper-sensitive reward reaction to alcohol. In short: the sensitivity of the tests used by Boelema was not very high. They don’t give support to the inverse link (children with weak self-regulatory functions go on to drink more) which earlier research clearly does and for which Boelema herself found a link during a random probe using a simple questionnaire. There is, however, growing evidence for the effects of alcohol on motivational processes: the brain becomes hyper sensitive to alcohol which, in youngsters with weak self-regulatory functions, can lead to alcohol abuse and addiction. Other negative effects of alcohol use, not included in this particular study but pointed out by Boelema, are sufficiently well-known. We only have to think of the relationship between alcohol abuse by youngsters and accidents and aggressive behaviour, and the heightened risk of several types of cancer. All in all there are enough reasons to keep to the age limit and continue the policy of discouraging the use of alcohol in youngsters. Reinout Wiers is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the the University of Amsterdam This opinion piece was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Dreaming of home: finding a roof over your head

Dreaming of home: finding a roof over your head

Before the local elections almost a year ago, DutchNews.nl asked its readers what they thought were the biggest issues. Finding a clean and affordable place to live was a very clear top of the list. And this remains a particular problem for the international students, interns and start-up entrepreneurs coming to the Netherlands, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe. In some parts of the country – Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague in particular – it can be extremely tricky to find a decent flat for a fair price – well, a price which locals would be willing to pay. Of course we foreigners all want to live in the best part of town for the lowest possible price. Doesn’t everyone? But there does seems to be this myth out there that 'expats' are rich and can all afford to pay €2,000 for a one bedroom flat without a bath and located in what dodgy estate agents call ‘the edge of the canal area’ or equivalent – meaning some dead-end street several kilometres from the most desirable places to live. Difference There is, of course, a big difference between the housing expectations of the traditional expat – the executive and diplomat on a posting of several years - and the European labour migrant – the young graduate who has come to the Netherlands to find work and make a new life, for a few years at least. It is these free movers who are being squeezed by the rush to make a quick euro out of the traditional expat on a relocation package – even though these too are getting smaller. DutchNews.nl knows of interns paying upwards of €600 a month for a tiny room in a flat on the outskirts of Amsterdam. We get emailed by youngsters who have been fleeced by unlicenced property brokers and can’t get their money back. Vague Amsterdam city council said recently it planned to go all out to become a start-up capital but it needs to do more than make a few vague pronouncements and sanction all-night night clubs to make that a reality. The bright and sparky youngsters who make start-ups happen know that in Berlin you can find a cheap, decent place to live very quickly. So I’d be interested as to what advice city officials would give to the 24-year-old coder who has just stepped of the train from Milan to work for one of these start-ups for a year on a minimum wage. Where is our coder going to live? He won’t be entitled to social housing even if there was any available because he has not been here long enough. And how will city officials ensure he is not ripped off by unlicenced housing agencies charging extortionate finders fees and deposits? And how can he afford to pay €800 a month for a one-bedroom flat ex bills on a minimum wage of €1,500 a month (before tax and deductions) or internship stipend? Conversions There are initiatives under way to try to boost the supply of cheaper housing. Some of the country’s empty office blocks are being converted into flats – and moves are being made to make it even easier to re-use existing buildings in this way. Amsterdam city council is also trying to encourage developers to build more homes in what they call the mid-price range - which means upwards of €800. Please, make sure these mid-price flats have more than one bedroom, so our intern can actually afford to live there by sharing with friends. In fact, the cheapest option for many expats – if you have a job and some savings – is to buy a place of your own. Mortgage interest rates are at a record low so repayments on a €180,000 flat are easily comparable to the rent you’ll have to pay. You might not be living in a luxury flat in a smart part of town, but at least you’ll have a roof over your head. In the meantime, if the Netherlands in general and Amsterdam in particular want to become a European start-up hub, they first need to make sure the youngsters who will make this happen can afford to live here - before they've made their millions. A longer version of this column was first published in the Winter edition of the Xpat Journal.  More >