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


If salary shaming doesn’t work what will curb executive pay?

If salary shaming doesn’t work what will curb executive pay?

If salary shaming does not limit excessive executive pay, a link with workers’ pay will, write social psychologist Naomi Ellemers (Universiteit Utrecht) and organisational sociologist Rafael Wittek ­(Rijksuniversiteit Groningen) Executive pay levels at large companies frequently prove controversial. ING, Van Lanschot and Unilever have all come in for criticism recently for what is perceived to be the excessive remuneration of their CEOs. Perspectives on the subject vary. Politicians, concerned with public accountability, rely on the embarrassing effect of transparency. If top executives are shown to have much bigger pay packets than the workers, surely they will think again? Supervisory board members refer to the size and complexity of executive tasks. After years of modest pay increases it is high time salaries reflected CEOs’ time and trouble, they say. Economists in their turn point to the market: how are Dutch companies going to hold on to their top executives if not by paying them top whack? So who is right? One way of finding out what is really at the bottom of the huge increases in executive pay is to look at how pay levels have developed over the years and what drove the hikes. An analysis of data on top executive pay between 1940 and 2005 rules out market forces as a driver. It shows that periods of big pay rises do not coincide with any big lack of able executives. Neither can they be explained by a lack of supervisory tools to reel in excess growth. The opposite seems to be the case: as supervisory powers increased, so did top salaries. Executive pay rose much more than could be justified by the rate of inflation and increased cost of living. It is also far too big a leap to suppose that the success of a company depends on the efforts of a single person. Workers Studies have found that a number of external factors such as macro-economic developments are important determinants as well. However, big pay differences can have a detrimental effect on performance, for instance because workers feel they are being treated unjustly. The most likely explanation for ever fatter pay packets is the desire of top executives to distinguish themselves from their colleagues and the need of supervisory boards to express their faith in CEOs. Those are the social drivers behind the excessive executive pay packet. And these social drivers will only become stronger if top salaries are made public. So how to put the brakes on excessive pay? A simple measure would be to link top executive pay to wage developments within the company. No ‘accumulation’ but an annual percentage, in line with the rest of the staff. If staff wages don’t go up, neither does the CEO’s. This ties in top executive pay with company performance – a result to do with executive choices rather than shareholder value. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Column: Stef Blok backtracks but the damage has been done

Column: Stef Blok backtracks but the damage has been done

What will be the ramifications of foreign minister Stef Blok's comments on the multicultural society, asks Arend Jan Boekestijn, a former VVD MP and lecturer in international relations at Utrecht University A safe pair of hands, that is the image Stef Blok projected in the wake of the ludicrous and ego-inspired dacha affair which scuppered his predecessor Halbe Zijlstra’s career at the foreign office. A smaller ego was required and when Edith Schippers refused, Blok, after being wooed for some time, agreed to step into the breach. Devoid of any foreign office experience but capable of blending in at various ministries, he seemed a safe choice. Tricky Diplomacy can be a tricky business. In the absence of a world government nation states are sometimes hard put to defend their interests. In a world dominated by contradictions it takes tact and reason to get results. Blok’s controversial comments came when he attended a private meeting for people home from a stint of working for international organisations. But no meeting should be used as a launching pad for theories with no empirical evidence to support them. Blok doesn’t seem to think so. In 2010 Angela Merkel said the multicultural society failed because integration should not only be encouraged but enforced. Blok’s comments went much further. He doesn’t believe in assimilation. According to him there are no peaceful multicultural societies where the original population survives intact. At the meeting, where the audience were still under the impression that diplomacy thrives on tact and reason, jaws dropped. Blok’s comments are neither tactical nor reasonable. No one will deny that tensions exist in multicultural societies but examples of peaceful coexistence abound. Many European countries have issues to do with ethnicity but are largely peaceful. The same holds true for countries in Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania. For a Dutch citizen with a foreign background who is trying his utmost to find a job, Blok’s comments could be construed as not very encouraging at all. The work of our diplomats in peaceful multicultural countries won’t be made easier by them either. Had these comments come from Emmanuel Macron or Theresa May MPs they would have been called to account by their national parliaments forthwith. In this country written questions were submitted by the PvdA. Homogenous society Blok’s comments have other, potentially worrying implications. If there is no such thing as a peaceful multicultural society some might think it a good idea to promote a homogenous society. Regulation of the influx of immigrants makes sense but what to do with citizens with a foreign background? Blok seems to be embracing the integration pessimism ventilated by the PVV and Forum voor Democratie while ignoring the 2016 annual immigration report by CBS which sees much to be optimistic about. Besides, the alternative of a homogenous society comes with its own set of problems. In Japan, for instance, the realisation is dawning that the lack of cultural diversity may not be such a good thing after all. The salary man phenomena, where people dedicate their entire  lives to a single company at the expense of their individuality, may have turned Japan into an industrial giant but at the price of much-needed creativity and innovation. International businesses don’t opt for international teams to develop new ideas and products for nothing. The power of diversity is a given in the world of business. Apple, Google and Intel were all founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants and businesses know it. Failed state Blok went further still. He called Suriname a failed state and as if that wasn’t enough he blames this on the ethnic diversity of the country. There is much that can be said of Suriname and not all of it good but its government is successful in providing the population with the basic needs, hardly the hallmark of a failed state. Politics is indeed divided along ethnic lines but the tensions between groups seldom erupt into violence. Then Blok turned his attention to eastern Europe. These regions are unlikely to take in refugees, he claimed. He is probably right, but this cabinet’s policy is nevertheless aimed at this being the case. Blok not only broke up the integrity of the cabinet policy but also undermined the EU’s bargaining power when it comes to negotiations with eastern Europe. The job description of a foreign minster does not include undermining diplomacy and the ambitions of minorities. Fortunately the minister backtracked on his comments. But the damage, both here and abroad, has been done. This column was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Leave the European Union? Here are three lessons for Nexiteers

Leave the European Union? Here are three lessons for Nexiteers

    People in the Netherlands who support the idea of a Nexit need a few lessons in reality, writes macro-economist Mathijs Bouman. They really do exist, the Dutch politicians who look at the UK and think: now why can’t we do that. Political chaos, ministers stepping down in droves, parties split down the middle, companies preparing to leave, the economy on hold and a derailed social debate. Exactly what the Netherlands needs. ‘We want a NEXIT referendum, just like the UK,’ writes a new political party which has already collected some 13 seats in the polls. ‘It’s time to put an end to monetary union, close the borders and leave the EU.’ Another party (or should I say ‘movement’) which has been in parliament a little longer and has become the second most popular party in the country is even more succinct: ‘Make the Netherlands independent again. Leave the EU’. Lessons That, at least, is what they wrote in their one page election programme last year. A supporting tweet from the party leader read ‘THE NETHERLANDS MUST BE OURS AGAIN’- in capitals in case you are hard of hearing. It is to be hoped that both the party and the movement are studying the present situation in the UK so we can profit from their findings once we get our very own Nexit. Here’s a few lessons they could already learn. Efficient Lesson 1: the EU is an efficient negotiating machine. It is holding on to its principles with an iron discipline. Rights of EU citizens are not simply bargained away at the whim of a departing member state. There will be no ‘cakeism’ when it comes to the free movement of goods, services and people. How’s that for a totally undemocratic, money wasting, dictatorial organisation made up of greedy incompetents from southern countries with a minority complex. Nobody can explain how the EU is coming out of these negotiations looking efficient, predictable and true to its principles. Lesson 2: Don’t take the helm yourself. Let the politicians who prefer to remain in the EU do the dirty work. This we learn from the failed attempts by David Davis and Boris Johnson to take the wheel. It’s much easier to get things done by putting out a one-liner or two. Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage was clever enough to leave the political stage immediately after the referendum so he could roar his comments from the side line with clean hands. Take a page out of Farage’s book! Referendum Lesson 3: This is the most important lesson of all: make sure you lose the Nexit referendum, preferably by a large margin. Because what you have been promising the public is patently untrue. A complete break with the EU with its improvised deals undermining every rule and principle of the union at a huge economic and social cost is not even possible in theory. All you have to do is look at the UK to see how it’s panning out in practice. This column was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >


The changes to the 30% ruling are foolish

The changes to the 30% ruling are foolish

Dutch tax minister Menno Snel should resign because of the incompetence he has shown with his plans to cut the 30% ruling for current cases, says expat Jay Henning. Anyone familiar with tax will know that retrospective changes to tax law are taboo, as it creates a climate of uncertainty which puts off investment and long term planning.  But that does not seem to apply to the 30% ruling, which the Dutch government is cutting from eight to five years, with no transition period. So what has been the reaction to the plan? It has been massive and unanimous – the government can make the change but absolutely should not apply it retrospectively.   PwC, tax advisors, legal firms, trade unions, the American and German chambers of commerce, they all offered opinions on this with the same message. Major technology companies such as booking.com and TomTom explained how this would be traumatic and disruptive for their staff, and make it difficult for these world class companies to compete internationally. Universities explained how it would make it impossible for them to fill their roster of professors.  Even the trade unions that would like the ruling to be completely abolished, insist on transition measures for those who have the ruling in place. But it is not just employers and unions that have come out vigorously – recipients themselves have joined forces in a grassroots group referred to as the United Expats of the Netherlands. They have led the way through news interviews, industry engagement, an organised rally, and a petition with over 30,000 signatures submitted to parliament. Their efforts are impressive, both in size and scope, and have given voice to this issue. Incompetence I have been flabbergasted at the sheer incompetence of the process, driven by tax minister Menno Snel.  This is a man with limited political experience, who worked for a water board before he was brought in to wreak havoc in the Dutch economy. The original proposal was bad, but the way that he has dealt with the feedback from society has been far worse. Everyone makes mistakes, the right way to deal with the response would have been to acknowledge the matters that were raised, thank everyone for the input, and then amend the proposal to be less damaging. The inverse has happened here. Instead of responding to the valid points that were raised, Snel has been pig-headed and stuck to his meaningless script. When major technology companies which are an important part of the economic growth of the Netherlands band together and the CEOs directly tell you that this threatens the continuity of their businesses, this is important information. You have to consider it, you cannot just ignore it because you want your dumb idea to become law. This is best illustrated through example. Below I have paraphrased from Dutch some of the statements in Snel's responses to various interested parties, and my reaction to this. 'There was no transition measure in the coalition agreement' – This is meaningless. The coalition agreement was reached between parties behind closed doors, before the response from society was received.  You cannot ignore the information being presented to you on the need for a transition measure, solely because a bunch of ignorant politicians had not planned on having it. 'I am aware it would have consequences for expats staying more than five years' – It is chilling to understand his complete lack of compassion for destroying the lives of thousands of expat families who came to the Netherlands in good faith.  These are productive members of society who contribute to the well-being of the whole population, yet Snel decides to treat them like this. 'We have given people 6 months’ notice to update affairs'- People bought houses on 30 year mortgages. How exactly does six months help them here? It is not like people can make a small trim to the household budget.  They have lost on average 25% of their net pay.  Who has that kind of buffer?  Very few people. 'People should take into account possible tax changes when making long term decisions' – How I interpret this comment, is that he is saying that people not should place any reliance on commitments from the Dutch government as they cannot be trusted. Surely there are people in the Dutch government who do not want to earn this insidious reputation? This goes against everything that people have come to expect from the logical and pragmatic Dutch government. These responses beggar belief. In a sane and intelligent world, he would be forced to resign.   Dutch schools As an employee, I am devastated.  I brought my family here from another country, and made my kids learn Dutch in Dutch schools. Every one of our decisions was based on an eight year plan. It is incredibly expensive moving here with a family when you pay for it yourself, especially when your home country has a weaker currency. I wiped out my life savings as many of us do, to make the investment.  The first few years costs you everything you have, the next few years the costs stabilize, and many people plan to save in the last three years of the eight years to prepare for when the ruling falls away.  This is done in an orderly manner. If the ruling falls away prematurely, one is left unprepared.  I will simply not be able to afford to continue to live here. The whole move here, the last five years, will all have been a dreadful mistake.  All this because I was lied to by a respectable country such as the Netherlands. Nonsensical Let us be clear, this has nothing to do with sound economic management.  It just does not make sense to apply it retroactively. If they applied the change for new rulings as of January 2019, there would have been no resistance from business or society. Yet they insist on applying it to existing rulings. This change is to address a xenophobic element in the new coalition government.  Again, I do not think that this is a fair portrayal of Dutch society. The political leaders are not aligned with the Dutch people in this action. Expats have a shared experience of being welcomed by their Dutch colleagues. In fact, the Netherlands has a reputation for being one of the easiest countries for an international worker to settle in, once you can handle the direct approach in the workplace - a trait that I admire and was part of what drew me here. How can a government knowingly take an action that reduces trust in them, and hurts the ability of their economy to be competitive?  One would really not expect this level of stupidity and self-harm in Dutch politics. International pressure There is still time to change it, but I think this is the time for international pressure to be put on those who are pushing for this adjustment. What worries me is that I have not seen a single intelligent response to any of the points raised. Snel just reads from the same script that does not answer any of the questions. If the changes go through as they are suggesting, I think I would leave the country, out of principle. If a state has so little respect for the commitments that they made to me, and on the basis of which I changed the life of my whole family, then I want nothing to do with them. If the government insists on ignoring the warnings from business, professionals, trade unions and the expats themselves, then they have earned any negative repercussions that this may bring about. Jay Henning is a father, a husband and a finance executive.   More >


Vrij Links must remain faithful to their free-thinking, secular roots

Vrij Links must remain faithful to their free-thinking, secular roots

Spinoza sowed the seeds of a free Europe in which secular thought could flourish so we should stop thinking that non-western immigrants need protecting from free debate, say writer Asis Aynan, actor Femke Lakerveld, film maker Eddy Terstall and former Labour MP Keklik Yücel.. Group thinking is dividing this country. Nationalist right-wing opinion is feeding on romantic nationalism and all the regressive left has to show for itself are equally divisive tales of identity politics. The group is elbowing out the concepts of nationhood as well as individuality. The progressive left, traditionally based on universal values and the elevation of the masses, has been left to languish on the side lines. We, a number of progressive Dutch people from different backgrounds, refuse to give up on the left-wing ideas that have stimulated freedom and modern thought in the Netherlands and the entire Western world. Polarisation We are worried about increasing polarisation and segregation and are longing for a society in which independent citizens elevate themselves and society as a whole. That is why we advocate Vrij Links (The Free Left), a movement firmly rooted in the time-honoured principles of liberalism and secularism. Left wing and progressive liberal movements owe their existence to their championship of individual self-determination. This long adventure dates from the Enlightenment and found its expression during the French Revolution. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the proletariat organised into unions whose power peaked between 1950s and 1980s. As far as we are concerned that adventure has not come to an end. The great philosopher Spinoza sowed the seeds of a free Europe in the fertile Dutch soil and democracy and secular thought flourished. From the shadows of the present ethnic-religious conflicts, we want to launch an appeal to modern progressives and remind people of the origin of our freedom. In line with the radicals of the Enlightenment, we think that it is vital we defend the freedom of the individual. What we want is a free and unhampered debate, a neutral state, secular education for all children and a renewed appreciation for individual freedom. Free debate An open society thrives on freedom of expression. For centuries the Netherlands has been a country in which worldviews could be challenged and this has led to a unique and free society. What is interpreted as an insult by some, may be a fresh point of view or analysis for others. Vrij Links distances itself from the suggestion that non-western Dutch people should be protected from a free debate because they are not ready for such expressions of modernity. We think this way of thinking – called the racism of lower expectations by the British – negates the individuality of Dutch people with a non-western background. An open society is characterised by a peaceful battle of ideas, in which the best idea ultimately wins. To exclude, for instance, religious practices or ideas from the debate only helps the theocratic patriarchy and limits individual emancipation. Political correctness leads to insipid and meaningless art; an academic climate without discussion leads to intellectually defenceless laureates and cultural impoverishment. No idea, religious or profane, is above criticism in a free world. Ideas have no rights. Citizens have rights. In an open society the truth and moral value of ideas are continually evaluated by free citizens. A neutral state and secular education The concessions that were made in bygone centuries to religious groups were easily absorbed by Dutch society. Big demographic changes, especially in the big cities, have meant this is no longer the case. A conservative religious worldview is competing with progressive values, especially in the areas of freedom of conscience and the autonomy of the individual. Vrij Links opposes a separate mention of freedom of religion in the constitution because it leads to the preferential treatment of those who consider themselves to belong to one of the major religions. The freedoms believers claim for themselves – freedom of opinion, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and the freedom to demonstrate – are already firmly anchored in law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pressure on secularism means pressure on personal freedoms and when this is the case homophobia, gender inequality and religious pressures flourish. This will inevitably lead to a loss of equal opportunities and talent. That is why we want a solidly secular education system. Secularism is often equated, consciously or subconsciously, with atheism but all it means is a neutral societal playing field for all ideas and opinions. Vrij Links strives to abolish faith-based education during regular school hours. Doubt and investigation are the driving forces behind individual development. Students have to learn to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions about all religions and philosophies. Individual freedom Vrij Links stands for equality for all regardless of gender, colour, sexual orientation and creed. This uncompromising principle of anti-discrimination is the jewel in the crown of a liberal movement which fits in with the Dutch tradition of pitting individuality against the collective and advocating individual emancipation Part of the current ‘left-wing’ movement is trying to profit from the popularity of identity-based thinking. This trend, which came over from the United States, defines people according to religion, background, gender, sexual orientation and race. Vrij Links believes that the world is made up of seven billion people with seven billion identities and rejects group thinking both on the left and the right. Every human being is free to follow his or her chosen path. Perhaps the ability to choose a partner of your liking and to be in charge of your body and sexuality constitute the most intimate and fundamental human rights of all. Freedom as we know it was devised and fought for by the generations that preceded us. Freedom of expression or conscience are not a ‘Western’ concept or relative but valuable in themselves. These soft human values are vulnerable but at the same time they represent humankind’s  greatest achievement. Great autonomous thinkers sowed the seeds for modernity and democracy. As progressive citizens we have no choice but to continue on the road which was ‘Enlightened’ by Spinoza and his fellow travellers. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Dutch politicians have a key role in protecting the rights of British citizens

Dutch politicians have a key role in protecting the rights of British citizens

This week, the Dutch courts will decide if a court case brought by British nationals in the Netherlands who want to keep their European citizenship should be referred to the EU courts. But, whatever happens, the Netherlands can play an important role in making sure the rights of British citizens in Europe are protected after Brexit, writes Sarah Parkes of the British in the Netherlands group. Some 85,000 British citizens currently live in the Netherlands. Our number has been growing since the early 1930s and we hope, post Brexit, that we will be able to maintain our good relationship with the Dutch, can continue to contribute to the Dutch economy and, of course, to Dutch society. Whilst the UK government has been paying attention to the details of how the three million EU citizens can continue their current lives in Britain, they have given little attention to the estimated 1.3 million British citizens resident in the other 27 EU countries. Indeed, some of us could not even vote in the 2016 referendum to try to protect our EU citizenship. Work permits We have many questions about how our lives will look post Brexit that so far, no-one has answered. Will we have to apply for a Dutch work permit as a non-EU citizen? Will cross-border workers, as non-EU citizens, be able to work in neighbouring countries based on their Dutch residence permit? How will the self-employed manage if they no longer have an automatic right to run a company in the Netherlands? A few British retirees, and those who shall retire in the future, have not lived in the Netherlands for the necessary 50 years to benefit from a full state pension. At the moment, they can top that up to a living income by claiming state financial assistance. But will they still be able to do this when they are no longer EU citizens? And what about the rights of British nationals who lose their jobs or become unable to work through ill health?  Will British citizens, who have made their lives here and no longer have ties in the UK, still have the security of unemployment and invalidity benefits post-‘Brexit’? Divorce Family life is another issue. We are all aware of cases where non-EU citizens who become divorced from a Dutch national have been told to leave the Netherlands because they no longer have the right to remain. But what will happen to British nationals in the future, if they divorce their Dutch partner? And what will happen to British citizens with the right to permanent residence if they have to work abroad for a while or return to Britain to care for a terminally-ill relative? Will British children, resident in the Netherlands have to pay the same fees as people from China or the US if they choose to pursue a university education in the Netherlands? Will they, as non-EU citizens, still have easy access to the Erasmus scheme if studying at a Dutch University? We assume that post-‘Brexit’ British citizens will be required to take the inburgering exams because they will no longer be exempt as EU nationals. But will this apply to people who have lived here for 10 or 15 years? Nationality We understand that by taking Dutch nationality many of our potential problems may be solved, but it is not a uniform solution. The Dutch reluctance to accept dual nationality is also a major stumbling block. Only a few of us qualify to become Dutch by option, without having to hand back their British passports. Most of us would need to become Dutch by naturalisation and rescind our UK nationality. This may have profound consequences when we retire or if we have to return to the UK for a while. Germany allows for dual nationality if the person is a citizen of another EU country or of Switzerland. Surely a similar model could be adopted in the Netherlands which includes British citizens or even just British citizens who formerly held EU citizenship, and were resident in the Netherlands before the official withdrawal of the UK from the EU? The government coalition agreement includes a clause to modernise the rules on dual nationality. We would urge MPs and ministers to act on this. And in Brussels, Dutch MPs and MEPs are in a strong place to represent the views of the British in the Netherlands. Dutch MEPs are, after all, our representatives because as EU citizens, many of us were able to vote for them in the last European elections. Given that Brexit is set to take place in March 2019, we will be without a voice altogether in May 2019. Sarah Parkes has lived in the Netherlands for 18 years. British in the Netherlands is affiliated to the British in Europe organisation who actively campaign for the rights of UK citizens in the EU and supports EU citizens in the UK.  More >


Some chewing gum and a packet of baby killers please

Some chewing gum and a packet of baby killers please

Cigarettes kill. But so do lots of things. What is a shareholder to do? asks economist Mathijs Bouman. I only had a couple of items in my shopping basket which entitled me to pay at the service desk. As my shopping was being scanned I gazed at the display of cigarettes against the wall. There was none of the brightly coloured packaging as in the days when I too thought smoking was cool. In its place had come grisly pictures of trench mouth, puss-oozing abscesses and murky pupils. I even spotted the occasional dead baby. If this stuff is so dangerous why is this shop selling it? I thought. Bankers who sell dodgy financial products are hounded unto the third generation by supervisors shouting ‘consumer interest’ but a supermarket can sell a packet of baby killers with impunity. Why? I admit I’m not the first person to ask the question. In 2016 the Dutch doctors’ organisation KNMG lobbied for a ban on the sale of cigarettes in supermarkets, as well as petrol stations, bookshops and chemists. Smokers would be limited to specialised tobacco shops. In the event politicians said 'no' but the last cabinet did promise a ban on displaying smokes. From 2020 cigarettes will be hidden behind closed doors. Some supermarkets are already doing this. But keeping the stuff out of sight is an entirely different thing from banning its sale altogether. Shouldn’t the big supermarkets themselves simply decide to stop selling cigarettes for the common good? I have my doubts. Before you know it they will feel compelled to ban fatty crisps, salty liquorice of freshly brewed Indian Pale Ale, which, taken in sufficient quantities, will kill you too. Isn’t it up to the consumer to decide how unhealthy he or she wants to be? As I was trying to find my way out of my quandary, behavioural scientist Robert Dur showed me a recent article by Nobel prize winner Oliver Hart (Harvard) and Luigi Zingales (Chigago) questioning Milton Friedman’s 50-year-old adage that the public interest must not stand in the way of maximum profits. The politicians can take care of the public interest and ethics is a matter for the individual, Friedman said. Society would be better off if companies do what their shareholders want them to do, i.e. make money. Hart and Zingales agree that companies must keep their shareholders’ interests in mind but think that these interests cover more than just money. A shareholder is only human after all. He has his own ethics and social interests. It follows that if shareholders of a supermarket are more interested in living babies than dead ones the sale of cigarettes must stop pronto.  Companies should not go for maximum market value but maximum shareholder welfare, they say. Pension fund ABP recently announced it would no longer invest in tobacco companies. I wonder if its portfolio still contains supermarket shares. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad.  More >


Let’s learn from history, both good and bad

Let’s learn from history, both good and bad

History's saints as well as its villains carry lessons for the present, writes historian Tineke Bennema. I could see where Urk city council was coming from when it decided to name some of the town’s new streets after discredited sea heroes such as Michiel de Ruyter and Jan Pieterszoon Coen. I believe Urk didn’t do this to stir up controversy but to show that the history of human beings is not a blank slate but a product of the past. A people that denies its history loses its bearings and flounders like a drowning man in the ocean. The discussion about whose view of the nation’s history is the right one focuses on whether values and actions of the past can be judged by modern society and, consequently, rejected or approved, particularly when the these values and actions refer to harm done to others. First of all we need to ask if the past is something we can or want to learn from. You could say we do learn from the past whether we want to or not otherwise we would still be moving around on all fours. Such is evolution. It could be argued that this is an unconscious development but it is undeniably true that man’s development as a race and as an individual has progressed through trial and error. Man didn’t just learn from his mistakes but from his successes as well. We learn by example. And what makes us human is that we are conscious of this. Robbers and rogues The Urk councillors have a point when they say that Dutch society is based on a successful seafaring tradition. It would be much too simple to classify Coen and De Ruyter as mere robbers and rogues. They did, after all, make this country prosperous and we are all still benefitting from this. It would be more useful to look at their actions. And then it becomes quite inevitable that the pedestals of these so-called national heroes are being shaken. The council is also right when it says that modern critics of our past only bring up a rogue’s gallery of people who show us how not to do things. But fortunately history has also produced many inspiring people, even though paragons like Multatuli and William of Orange had their flaws as well. Events The current discussion seems to be focusing on persons. But events have influenced people as well. The February strike, for instance, at the commemoration of which former participant Max van der Stoel showed how the mechanism of exclusion, then and now, can be combatted. Having an opinion on the past is different from wanting to dismiss it from a moral point of view. Learning does imply judging but if you don’t want to judge you can always choose to be inspired by figures of the past, whether they be Coen, Multatuli, Wilhelmina or even Drees or Fortuyn. If we stop thinking and deny the good and the bad that is in our history we may as well burn the history books, close the Anne Frank museum and sell the national monument on Dam square to the Chinese. All these people, all these event are so many beacons in the sea. The entrenched discussion about our glorious and notorious past would be greatly helped by admitting that our history has produced examples that inspire as well as insights and actions that do not deserve to be emulated. We should know about both. It’s not such a bad idea to develop not just a view of how things should not be done but one that shows how they should be done. Because that distinction is none too clear in the Netherlands. This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant  More >


Farewell Facebook, you and I are through!

Farewell Facebook, you and I are through!

Economist Mathijs Bouman has said goodbye and good riddance to Facebook and he won't be back (he hopes). I would like to start this column by offering my sincere apologies to all my friends. Bart Stoffels, Rineke Gieske-Mastenbroek: my apologies. A hearfelt sorry is also due to Witdietma Narain from Arnhem, Willem-Aart Hop from Spakenburg and of course Fokke Obbema from Amsterdam. Apologies too to Remco Dijkstra and Annette van Trigt. And even to Thierry Baudet who, to my surprise, is also a friend. Sorry one and all, I really regret to inform you that we are no longer friends and that goes for the friends of friends as well. I hope you have a good life. I’m quitting, pulling the plug. I have deleted my Facebook account. Which is not as easy as it sounds. Facebook doesn’t like final goodbyes and at first it only agrees to deactivate my account. It will only remove the account permanently in two weeks’ time. Unless I log in between now and then, because then it will be reactivated again. That means that for two weeks I am going to have to surpress the impulse to check how my friends are. Hence this public farewell to Facebook: the die is cast, there is no turning back. I hope. Desertion You have guessed the reason for my desertion: it’s the news about the way Facebook data was used to influence the American elections. British company Cambridge Analytica stole the data of fifty million American Facebook users in order to unleash a finely-tuned campaign of misinformation and manipulation. The result is presently in residence at the White House. The company also meddled in the Brexit referendum, the presidential elections in Kenya and the lord knows what else. Badly or wrongly informed voters form the Achilles heel of any democratic system. Universal suffrage is a fantastic achievement but the downside is that ignorant and clueless voters have as much influence as those who make a study of politics. Education Not that I advocate changing the system but it does put the onus on society to keep the number of politically challenged numbskulls to a  minimum. I used to be under the illusion that the problem could be at least partly solved by means of education, transparent political processes and a free quality press. But now there are companies that are using all their programming wizardry and powers of analysis to do exactly the opposite and make voters more clueless and ignorant. Having a Facebook account is helping them do this apparently. We have unwittingly exchanged one of our most important basic rights – the right to free and open elections- for free access to the holiday snaps of our friends and cat videos without end. That is a very, very bad deal. This summer I will send my friends an old-fashioned postcard. I hope. This column first appeared in the Financieele Dagblad.  More >


Dutch agriculture is not a beacon of good farming practice to the world

Dutch agriculture is not a beacon of good farming practice to the world

Dutch agriculture has to become a lot less efficient or the environment will suffer even more, say agro-environmental scientists. Greater awareness among consumers and voters may make it happen. In an opinion piece in January, Volkskrant columnist Bert Wagendorp claimed most farmers simply can’t help being fraudsters when it comes to manure: it’s a national sport to hoodwink the authorities. We are not trying to make excuses but isn’t it also true that we are all responsible for the mess agriculture is in today? ‘This tiny country feeds the world’ National Geographic headed one of its articles in November 2017. It’s because of articles like these the Netherlands is seen as a beacon of good agricultural practice around the world. But over the last 50 years that agricultural practice has wiped out over 70% of partridges, godwits and skylarks. Large-scale expansion not only swallowed up small farmers but traditional landscapes as well, all in the name of efficiency. But efficient, high-input agriculture is taking a huge toll on the environment, perhaps best illustrated by the blanket of manure which has been steadily leaching into the soil and adjacent nature. Perverse incentive Efficiency also creates perverse incentives. Farmers are forced to produce as many kilos of food as possible, even though the intensive use of land leads to the intensive use of fertilisers. Meanwhile the less efficient or more contaminating aspects of the production process are left for the next generations to cope with or are out-sourced to farming businesses elsewhere. Consequently, these specialised and partly even landless businesses only appear to be more efficient than the food production system as a whole, or in the long term. Dutch agriculture has come to resemble the classic circus act of keeping as many plates spinning as simultaneously as possible. The price farmers are paying to keep the plates from crashing to the floor includes low margins, expensive expertise, loans and scrutiny by the authorities. It’s an effort doomed to failure, as the fraud, the mass culls, the preventive use of antibiotics, feed contaminated by pesticide residues and the deep frustration expressed by farmers themselves have shown. Environmental economists say that a proper cost and benefits analysis of a cleaner environment in which biodiversity, public health and landscape are taken into account could lead to less intensive agriculture practices. But we are afraid that such an inclusive analysis will not be enough to conquer vested interests, complacency and the tendency to ignore the wider context. Consumers The challenge is to convince consumers and voters that simplicity, godwits, human scale and health matter more than keeping a lot of plates in the air and that they are worth any extra costs. Transition begins with a willingness to at least consider the costs and benefits of a different kind of agriculture. Once these become clear the appropriate actions can be defined. But, wait a minute. Shouldn’t we aim for the highest possible yields so as to feed people beyond our borders and save their pretty landscapes from industrial farming? That argument is grotesque for a number of reasons. Most Dutch grain is not used to make bread, it is used to feed livestock. An important part of our much-praised exports consists of luxury products and has precious little to do with combating world hunger. Feeding a global population in a sustainable manner and preserving nature reserves will not depend on the extra kilos of produce forced out of the soil of this little country. But it will depend on the success of efforts to improve low productivity in agriculture in developing countries. We need to rethink Dutch agricultural practices and stop focusing on kilos and efficiency. Let’s accept that our farmers are not in the same league as their colleagues in New Zealand and Brazil and that we will have to pay for that. Hold up Dutch agriculture as an example to the rest of the world by all means, but make it an example of a patient who changes his lifestyle to cure his illnesses and ditch the medication. Jaap Schröder, Hans van Grinsven, Jules Bos, Hein ten Berge and  Bert Smit are agro-environmental scientists. Jan Willem Erisman is professor of Integrated Nitrogen Issues at the VU University in Amsterdam and director of the Louis Bolk Institute. This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >