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

Health warning: the government’s smoking policy kills

Smoking kills but vote-hungry politicians are failing to act, write psychology professor emeritus Frits van Dam and lung specialist Wanda de Kanter. May 31 is another World No Tobacco Day, the United Nations’ cri de coeur against smoking. Almost a quarter of people over 15 in the Netherlands smoke. Half their number, over 20,000 people, will die of smoking-related illnesses. Public health director-general Angelique Berg agrees that smoking should be actively discouraged but her plan – scary pictures on packaging and information campaigns in schools – is mere window dressing. It won’t stop young people from taking up smoking nor will it help young smokers to kick the habit. She has failed to mention the most effective strategy for combating tobacco use: a tax hike. In countries which do use fiscal measures to tackle smoking, such as Australia and Sweden, the number of smokers is significantly lower than in the Netherlands. Sales Another obvious measure would be to limit the sale of tobacco to licensed outlets but this has met with vociferous protests from the supermarket and petrol station lobby. Angelique Berg is keeping quiet about this too. On January 28 2016 a plenary session in the Dutch parliament about the tobacco law was attended only by the tobacco spokesmen for seven parties in an otherwise empty chamber. Most politicians show no sense of urgency at all about the subject in spite of the fact that we are being faced with a national health crisis. Every year ten times as many people die of smoking-related illnesses as perished in the flood of 1953, and smoking deaths outnumber traffic deaths by 35. Thirteen motions and amendments were proposed during the debate. The VVD and PVV rejected all anti-tobacco motions and Labour, for the most part, concurred. Their philosophy is a simple one: people have a choice. It’s up to them to decide to smoke or not to smoke. There was no mention of the fact that once people are addicted they no longer have that choice. The VVD’s Eric van den Burg, an alderman in Amsterdam, does understand. In a debate at the Balie on May 8 he said that his party and its tobacco spokesperson in particular ‘are mistaken in that they think everyone is capable of making the right choice’. Free to choose? Addicts are not free to choose; it’s what makes them addicts. Van den Burg thinks the price of a packet of cigarettes should go up by €10. But it won’t happen, he says, because ‘the lobby and powerful tobacco industry are preventing this from happening’. And, he added, ‘a tax hike would cost the VVD two to three seats and naturally that is something the party would want to avoid’. The same goes for Labour. Even Labour’s tobacco spokesperson, family doctor Marith Volp, is not promoting a tax rise. It’s easy to understand why. It would be the smokers among the Labour electorate – people on low incomes – who would be hardest hit. Labour stands to lose more than the VVD in this respect. There can only be one conclusion: smoking is an addiction perpetuated by a coalition motivated by electoral gain. Society is paying the price: deadly diseases, premature deaths, productivity loss and huge health care costs. There is still some time to go until the next elections but who should we vote for if we want to protect society, and children in particular, from the dangers of tobacco? Simply vote for the party which at the very least includes a commitment to increase tax on tobacco and limit its sale to designated outlets in its manifesto. This article appeared earlier in the NRC  More >

Unions and employers see soft landing on a downy pension pillow

Trust the employers and unions to come up with a complicated and opaque new pension plan, writes economist Mathijs Bouman. The Sociaal Economische Raad (a senior government advisory body made up of unions, employers and lay members) is laying out a soft pillow filled with the downiest of goose down sown up in a sturdy cotton pillow case. It’s  there to cushion the fall for every unfortunate generation whose luck on the stock exchange has run out. Who fills this miraculous pillow? All the generations whose luck held. Excess investment earnings from one generation go to generations whose shares tumbled. Lucky generations compensate unlucky generations. There’s solidarity among the age cohorts: we have a mutual investment return insurance policy. Buffer The buffer for luck and bad luck is an important part of the SER’s recent pension report in which it outlines a new pension system in which workers create their own investment pot. Even considering such an individually tailored pension is a revolutionary step for the union and employer talking shop. Abolishing the collective pension pots containing all the premiums in exchange for a vague and hardly secure promise of a nominal amount of money upon retirement was something the unions never even wanted to consider. Every adjustment of the system was dismissed as an attack on solidarity. But now the polder is coming round to the idea that the present system no longer serves. Years of discussion about actuarial interest rates, funding ratios and indexation have shown that the rot has set in and that the ‘best pension system in the world’ is crumbling. So the system has to change. Collective pots become individual pots, underpinned by that huge pillow. Collective The pillow is not an individual pillow but a collective pillow. Filled with a downy solidarity tax on the investment returns of those individual pots that are ‘too high’. The buffer for luck and bad luck is nothing but a shadow pension fund that collects premiums on the investment returns of pension funds. It’s a new collective fund filled with money whose exact ownership is unclear and which will be divvied up based on investment returns expected in a far-away future. And what will constitute ‘normal’, 'above average’ and ‘too little’ return on investment? Do I hear someone say ‘actuarial interest’?  The fight between the generations over the money in the pillow will break out before the opening bell of the stock exchange. In the end every age group will consider themselves as the unlucky generation surrounded by generations with all the luck in the world. Individual pension pots subject to a solidarity tax to fund a collective investment buffer based on arbitrary investment return expectations – those who thought the new system would be simpler and more transparent have reckoned without the SER. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >

How moderate right-wingers have become ‘extremist’ europhiles

Economist Mathijs Bouman charts the journey from being a moderate right-winger to an extremist europhile. You think that free trade is a good starting point for economic diplomacy, preferably via multilateral free trade agreements, or if that can’t be done via bilateral agreements. You think close cooperation with the US is a no-brainer. Naturally, some hard nuts will have to be cracked at the negotiating table but then a mutually advantageous free trade accord should be in the bag. You thought everybody would see the advantages of such an agreement but while your back was turned for five minutes public opinion had shifted dramatically. Free trade is in the interest of multinationals, people say, and they are only interested in poisoning us with chlorine chickens  and hormone beef Freedom and prosperity After a quarter of a century you are cancelling your Milieudefensie membership. Once an organisation for nature lovers you gladly supported, it now has an anti-globalist agenda which opposes free entrepreneurship and free trade. You’re branded an extremist because you think European cooperation will promote freedom, security and prosperity. You are still not convinced that a Europe with national currencies and fluctuating exchange rates will function better than a monetary union. You fear the Russian bear more than the Brussels snail. Your sort is called a europhile these days (yes, this is now a term of abuse). And market forces, well everybody knows what a complete and utter failure they are. Never mind that we put our superfluous stuff on auction site Marktplaats at the weekend and bid for the cheapest wellness-arrangement on vakantieveilingen.nl while vilifying the price mechanism as an instrument to fill the pockets of the big earners the rest of the week. Trap Semi civil servant Antoinette Hertsenberg is given airtime by semi state broadcaster AvroTros to condemn market forces in the health system. Even childhood hero and writer Jan Terlouw has fallen into the trap. In a reaction to consumer programme Radar, he twitters : ‘Does anyone still have a good word to say about market forces in health care?’ In the early seventies Terlouw in his book How to become King convincingly explained how the monopoly of corrupt doctors brought ruin to the people in a city in the kingdom of Katoren. He has changed his tune since then. I prefer the Terlouw of 1971. Those who positioned themselves slightly to the right of the centre on the political spectrum, and paired a considered distrust of state interference to a belief in international cooperation, are now seen as neoliberal slaves to capitalism, or Europhile extremists. This article appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad  More >

The TTIP is bad for agriculture and environment

Representatives of the farming unions, livestock farmers’ associations and environmental groups don’t often agree, but all think the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership should be stopped. The European Union (EU) and the United States (US) are in negotiations about a free trade agreement (TTIP). This is happening behind closed doors, and the precise contents of the agreement have not been made public. But farmers and livestock farmers know enough for the alarm bells to go off: the TTIP will flood the European market with American agricultural products produced to a lower standard. This will adversely affect the incomes of farmers, the safety of our food, workers’ rights, the quality of the environment and animal welfare. The same goes for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) the Canadian variant of the TTIP. These agreements leave no room for production standard requirements, apart from a brief mention of food safety. The EU and the US have fundamentally different rules for allowing products and materials onto the market. The EU favours a precautionary approach: no, unless proven to be safe. The Americans turn this around: yes, unless. They will only ban a product or material if it is proven to be unsafe. Unfair competition American agriculture and livestock farming have no legal standards regarding animal welfare, and standards for pollution, food safety and working conditions are much less stringent then in Europe. This means production costs are much lower. Because the EU and the US want to come to a mutual recognition of each other’s standards the abolition of import duty will open the door to unfair competition from American products. Tariff-free import quota for American products will likewise lead to unfair competition and lower prices. The European market will become unbalanced and this will seriously affect the continuity of the primary agricultural sector in Europe. Unfair competition will force farmers to scale up and family businesses will be closed. Job losses in the supply chain and the processing industry will be inevitable. The working conditions and workers’ wages in the entire agricultural sector will come under even more pressure. No guarantees The fact that the European Commission and the Dutch government maintain that standards won’t be lowered in no way constitutes a guarantee for farmers and consumers. Already the EU is postponing and relaxing laws governing food safety. With TTIP and CETA raising standards would become practically impossible. Standards can only be raised if the farmer pays for the added costs and the EU market is protected against products that comply with lower standards. But with free trade agreements that is impossible. American as well as European research shows that European agriculture and livestock farming will suffer once the TTIP comes into effect: there will be more imports, lower production and lower prices. We find the enthusiasm of our politicians for these agreements incomprehensible. We demand an end to the TTIP negotiations. We demand that CETA not be ratified by the EU and the Netherlands. Should the negotiations continue then agriculture, livestock farming and food should be excluded. Ingrid Jansen - chairman Nederlandse Vakbond Varkenshouders (pig farmers) Eric Douma - chairman LTO Varkenshouderij (pig farmers) Hennie de Haan - chairman Nederlandse Vakbond Pluimveehouders (poultry farmers) Sieta van Keimpema - chairman Dutch Dairymen Board Irene van der Sar - board member Nederlandse Melkveehouders Vakbond (dairy farmers' association) Keimpe van der Heide - board member Nederlandse Akkerbouw Vakbond (arable farmers' association) Piet van IJzendoorn - chairman Vereniging voor Biologisch-Dynamische Landbouw en Voeding (organic food producers' association) Jacomijn Pluimers - campaign leader Duurzaam Voedsel Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth) Wim Baltussen - FNV sector Agrarisch Groen (trade union) Guus Geurts - board member Platform Aarde Boer Consument (consumer platform) This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant  More >

Ebru Umar’s wretched columns are a small price to pay for press freedom

As a 'shock columnist' who likes hurling playground insults, Ebru Umar is no fearless martyr to the free word in the mould of Vaclav Havel, writes Gordon Darroch. Ebru Umar might be a fool but we still have to fight for her. The Dutch Metro columnist’s holiday in the Turkish resort of Kusadasi has been indefinitely extended while police decide whether to charge her with insulting the country’s president on Twitter. She appears to be bearing it bravely: she's tweeted a picture of the sunset from her balcony. This in itself makes her a rarity among freedom of speech campaigners in Turkey, such as Erol Zavar, since for most of them sunlight is a rare privilege. Zavar, the editor of the leftwing magazine Odak, was given a life sentence in 2000 for ‘changing the constitutional order by force’ and is currently fighting a losing battle with cancer in a high-security jail in Ankara. Umar, meanwhile, is sipping tea in the sunshine and posting selfies from the hair salon. Umar is the type of shock columnist who attracts praise because ze neemt geen blad voor de mond – a Dutch expression that loosely means she speaks her mind. Sadly, it seems she has little discernible mind to speak of. She was arrested for a couple of critical tweets about Erdogan, and recently she signed off a pre-emptive strike against Erdogan’s supporters in the Dutch Turkish community with the words: ‘I have only one thing to say to you: go fuck yourself’. Martyr This is not somebody in any danger of being mistaken for a fearless martyr to the free word in the mould of Vaclav Havel. When another Dutch journalist, Frederike Geerdink, was expelled from Turkey after spending 25 years reporting on the Kurdish civil war, Umar responded in a radio broadcast: ‘What business do you have there? Go away! If you’re a journalist in Turkey you know there’s a chance of vanishing behind bars’. But let us be charitable and call Umar a late recruit to the cause of press freedom. More vexing is the pinned tweet at the top of her timeline: ‘Dear tweeps, I’ve been Ebru Umar for almost 46 years now. Trust me: I will remain Ebru Umar for the rest of my life.’ Forty-six years on earth distilled into the hollow cry: ‘Look at me! Point the camera at me! I’m the story! Not them! Me! Me! Me!’ But no matter: freedom of speech is not just the freedom of beetle-browed intellectuals to debate the influence of Gramsci over a frothy macchiato. It is also the freedom of simple souls to say witless things on Twitter about their ancestral homeland’s government. Human rights The Dutch government says it is working hard behind the scenes to secure Umar’s release, and so it should. She has had phone calls from the prime minister and foreign minister, she says, and been treated courteously by the police. None of this, however, should detract from the wider issue of Erdogan’s abhorrent attitude to human rights, which has been tolerated for too long. Europe, with the Netherlands as chairman, must wise up and realise that it holds the trump card here. Erdogan has promoted himself as the fixer who can solve Europe’s refugee crisis in return for visa-free travel for his citizens, accelerated membership of the European Union and a €6 billion funding package. Now the Turkish president hopes to use that deal as a lever to seize the initiative on freedom of expression and lower the threshold for EU accession. The likes of Umar and Jan Böhnermann are decoys in a deeper campaign against modernity. But for all his empty threats to dump busloads of refugees at the Greek border, Erdogan can ill afford to miss out on that €6 billion bonanza. It should be impressed on him that EU membership is out of the question unless Turkey drastically improves its record on human rights. Censorship The country ranks 151st out of 180 countries on the latest Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, the internet is routinely censored, trials of journalists are held behind closed doors and the president’s bodyguards recently assaulted Turkish journalists who tried to ask critical questions during a tour of the United States. Umar deserves to be defended to the hilt not because of her wretched columns, but because of what she represents. It was distressing to see an MP from the misleadingly named Denk (Think) party in the Dutch parliament argue on Nieuwsuur that the Netherlands had no business intervening because Umar had failed to comply with Turkish censorship standards. Focus The benefit to society of letting conscientious writers check the power of presumptive dictators far outweighs the irritation caused by attention-seeking columnists. If the west can’t stand up for its own simpletons, what message are we sending to the likes of Idris Yılmaz and Vildan Atmaca, two reporters from pro-Kurdish news agencies who are currently in detention facing trial for posting anti-Erdogan cartoons on Facebook? Yet if Umar simply reverts to hurling playground insults at Erdogan and his followers when she returns to the Netherlands, it will be a pretty miserable return on the efforts made on her behalf. Perhaps she can use her international fame to focus on the excesses of Erdogan’s regime and the harassment, intimidation and abuse of process that are part of everyday life for journalists in Turkey who don’t have a direct line to the Dutch prime minister. It will mean venturing beyond the hair salon and the Aegean balcony, but you never know; 46 isn’t too late to start. Gordon Darroch is a freelance journalist who also writes for DutchNews.nl. This column first appeared on his blog WordsforPress.   More >

Is a university campus prayer room any different to providing a bar?

Is a university campus prayer room any different to providing a bar?

Universities provide bars, yoga classes and gyms on their campuses, so why not places where students of every religion can go to pray? asks Molly Quell. Last week, Delta, the Delft University of Technology magazine, reported that the university was investigating how to provide silent rooms on campus. The same week, the AD reported that students in The Hague had requested a prayer room. Judging from the reaction in the media, you could have mistakenly thought Muslim students at these schools had demanded the forced conversions of the princesses. The AD had something to say. Omroep West reported on it. PowNed had a story. Geen Stijl voiced their thoughts. Even the JOVD (the youth wing of the VVD) had something to say. The JOVD column reads, in part: 'A university should be a secular place where the gathering of scientific knowledge is the main aim and, therefore, there is no place for religious expression.' Pubs So I fully expect to see the JOVD calling for the closure of TU Delft’s nine faculty pubs and protesting outside the pottery class offered by the Culture Centre. It’s not the first time this conflict has arisen. In 2012, Nos reported that students at The Hague's hbo college had requested prayer rooms. At the time, it was pointed out that universities in Leiden, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Maastricht all offered prayer or meditation rooms for their students. These universities certainly have no problems accepting tuition money from international students, but when asked to fulfil those students needs, suddenly campus is only for academics. Student life The reality is universities play a much larger role in the lives of their students and staff than merely a place to study and work, something that is clearly visible in the amenities offered by modern institutions: bars, cafes, sports facilities, concerts, festivals, yoga classes, debates and movie showings. It seems to me that if the university can indulge my need for an afternoon beer, they can accommodate a group of students who would like a quiet space to pray. And if you want to argue that the university is no place for religion, then you'd better also be arguing in favour of classes on Whit Monday. Otherwise someone might mistake you for a bigot. Molly Quell is the international editor of Delta and a journalist based in Delft. The opinions expressed here are entirely her own. You can find her on Twitter at @mollyquell.   More >

Long read: Why we should give free money to everyone

We tend to think that simply giving people money makes them lazy. Yet a wealth of scientific research shows the contrary: free money helps lift people out of poverty. The time has come for a radical reform of the welfare state, writes Dutch author Rutger Bregman. London, May 2009—An experiment is underway. Its subjects: 13 homeless men. They are veterans of the street. Some have been sleeping on the cold pavement of the Square Mile, Europe’s financial centre, for going on 40 years. Between the police expenses, court costs and social services, these 13 troublemakers have racked up a bill estimated at £400,000 or more. Per year. The strain on city services and local charities is too great for things to go on this way. So Broadway, a London-based aid organisation, makes a radical decision. From now on, the City’s 13 consummate drifters will be getting VIP treatment. It’s adiós to the daily helpings of food stamps, soup kitchens and shelters. They’re getting a drastic and instantaneous bailout. From now on, these rough sleepers will receive free money. To be exact, they’re getting £3,000 in spending money, and they don’t have to do a thing in return. How they spend it is up to them. They can opt to make use of an adviser if they’d like—or not. There are no strings attached, no questions to trip them up. The only thing they’re asked is: What do you think you need? Gardening glasses 'I didn’t have enormous expectations,' one of the experiment’s social workers later recalled. But the drifters’ desires proved eminently modest. A telephone, a dictionary, a hearing aid—each had his own ideas about what he needed. In fact, most were downright thrifty. After one year, each had spent an average of just £800. Take Simon, who had been strung out on heroin for 20 years. The money turned his life around. Simon got clean and started taking gardening classes. 'For some reason, for the first time in my life, everything just clicked,' he said later. 'I’m starting to look after myself, wash and shave. Now I’m thinking of going back home. I’ve got two kids.' A year and a half after the experiment began, seven of the 13 rough sleepers had a roof over their heads. Two more were about to move into their own apartments. All 13 had taken critical steps toward solvency and personal growth. They were enrolled in classes, learning to cook, going through rehab, visiting their families and making plans for the future. 'It empowers people,' one of the social workers involved in the project said about the personalised budget. 'It gives choices. I think it can make a difference.' After decades of fruitless pushing, pulling, pampering, penalising, prosecuting and protecting, nine notorious vagrants had finally been brought in from the streets. The cost? Some £50,000 a year, including the social workers’ wages. In other words, not only did the project help nine people, it also cut costs considerably. Even the Economist had to conclude that the 'most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them'. Hard data Poor people can’t handle money. This seems to be the prevailing sentiment, almost a truism. After all, if they knew how to manage money, how could they be poor in the first place? We assume they must spend it on fast food and soda instead of on fresh fruit and books. So to 'help', we’ve rigged up a myriad of ingenious assistance programmes, with reams of paperwork, registration systems and an army of inspectors, all revolving around the biblical principle that 'those unwilling to work will not get to eat' (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Touted as a shift 'from welfare to workfare', the underlying message is clear: free money makes people lazy. Except that according to the evidence, it doesn’t. Already, research has correlated unconditional cash disbursements with reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy and truancy, and with improved school performance, economic growth and gender equality. 'The big reason poor people are poor is because they don’t have enough money,' noted economist Charles Kenny in Bloomberg Businessweek, 'and it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that giving them money is a great way to reduce that problem.' In their book Just Give Money to the Poor (2010), scholars at the University of Manchester furnish countless examples of cases where cash handouts with few or no strings attached have worked. In Namibia, figures for malnutrition took a nosedive (from 42% to 10%), as did those for truancy (from 40% to virtually 0%) and crime (by 42%). In Malawi, school attendance among girls and women surged 40%, regardless of whether the cash came with or without conditions. Time and again, the ones to profit most are children. They suffer less hunger and disease, grow taller, perform better at school and are less likely to be forced into child labour. From Brazil to India, from Mexico to South Africa, cash transfer programmes have become all the rage across the Global South. By 2010, they were already reaching more than 110 million families in 45 countries. The great thing about money is that people can use it to buy things they need, instead of things that self-appointed experts think they need. And, as it happens, there is one category of product on which poor people do not spend their free money, and that’s alcohol and tobacco. In fact, a major study by the World Bank demonstrated that in 95% of all researched cases in Africa, Latin America and Asia, alcohol and tobacco consumption either remained the same or declined. But it gets even stranger. In Liberia, an experiment was conducted to see what would happen if you gave $200 to the shiftiest of the poor. Alcoholics, addicts and petty criminals were rounded up from the slums. Three years later, what had they spent the money on? Food, clothing, medicine and small businesses. 'If these men didn’t throw away free money,' one of the researchers wondered, 'who would?' Utopia Free money. It’s a notion already proposed by some of history’s leading thinkers. Thomas More dreamed about it in his book Utopia in 1516. Countless economists and philosophers—Nobel Prize winners among them—would follow. Its proponents have spanned the spectrum from left to right, all the way to the founders of neoliberal thought, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. And Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) promises that, one day, it will come. A universal basic guaranteed income. And not merely for a few years, or in developing countries alone, or only for the poor, but just what it says on the box: free money for everyone. Not as a favour, but as a right. Call it the 'capitalist road to communism'. A monthly allowance, enough to live on, without having to lift a finger. The only condition, as such, is that you 'have a pulse'. No inspectors looking over your shoulder to see if you’ve spent it wisely; nobody questioning if it’s really deserved. No more special benefit and assistance programmes; at most an additional allowance for seniors, the unemployed and those unable to work. Basic income: it’s an idea whose time has come. Mincome, Canada In a warehouse attic in Winnipeg, Canada, nearly 2,000 boxes lie gathering dust. The boxes are filled with data—graphs, tables, reports, interviews—about one of the most fascinating social experiments in post-war history. Evelyn Forget, a professor at the University of Manitoba, first heard about the records in 2004. For five long years she tried to convince Canada’s national archives to allow her access to the warehouse. Finally, in 2009, she succeeded. Stepping into the attic for the first time, Forget could hardly believe her eyes. It was a treasure trove of information on the real-world implementation of Thomas More’s dream from five centuries earlier. In March 1973, the provincial government of Manitoba earmarked a sum of $83 million in modern U.S. dollars for the project. They chose Dauphin, a small town of 13,000 northwest of Winnipeg, as the location of the experiment. Everybody in Dauphin was guaranteed a basic income, ensuring that no one fell below the poverty line. In practise, this meant 30% of the town’s inhabitants—1,000 families in all—got a check in the mail each month. A family of four received what would now be around $19,000 a year, no questions asked. For four years, all went well, but then elections threw a spanner in the works. A conservative government was voted into power. The new Canadian cabinet saw little point to the expensive experiment, for which the national government was footing three-quarters of the bill. When it became clear the new administration wouldn’t even fund an analysis of the experiment’s results, the researchers decided to pack their files away in some 2,000 boxes. When Professor Forget first heard about Mincome, no one knew what, if anything, the experiment had actually demonstrated. For three years, she rigorously subjected the data to all manner of statistical analysis. No matter what she tried, the results were the same every time. Mincome had been a resounding success. From experiment to law 'Politically, there was a concern that if you began a guaranteed annual income, people would stop working and start having large families,' said Forget. What really happened was precisely the opposite. Young adults postponed getting married, and birthrates dropped. Their school performance improved substantially. The 'Mincome cohort' studied harder and faster. In the end, total work hours only notched down 1% for men, 3% for married women and 5% for unmarried women. Men who were family breadwinners hardly worked less at all, while new mothers used the cash assistance to take several months’ maternity leave, and students to stay at school longer. Forget’s most remarkable finding, though, was that hospitalisations decreased by as much as 8.5%. Considering the size of public spending on health care in the developed world, the financial implications were huge. Several years into the experiment, domestic violence was also down, as were mental health complaints. Mincome had made the whole town healthier. Forget could even trace the impacts of receiving a basic income through to the next generation, both in earnings and in health. Dauphin—the town with no poverty—was one of five guaranteed income experiments in North America. The other four were all conducted in the United States. Few people today are aware that the United States was just a hair’s breadth from realising a social safety net at least as extensive as those in most western European countries. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his 'War on Poverty' in 1964, Democrats and Republicans alike rallied behind fundamental welfare reforms. First, however, some trial runs were needed. Tens of millions of dollars were budgeted to provide a basic income for more than 8,500 Americans in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Carolina, Indiana, Seattle and Denver in what were also the first-ever large-scale social experiments to distinguish experimental and control groups. The researchers wanted answers to three questions: (1) Would people work significantly less if they received a guaranteed income? (2) Would the programme be too expensive? (3) Would it prove politically unfeasible? The answers were no, no and yes. Declines in working hours were limited across the board. '[The] declines in hours of paid work were undoubtedly compensated in part by other useful activities, such as search for better jobs or work in the home,' noted the Seattle experiment’s concluding report. For example, one mother who had dropped out of high school worked less in order to earn a degree in psychology and get a job as a researcher. Another woman took acting classes; her husband began composing music. 'We’re now self-sufficient, income-earning artists,' she told the researchers. Among the young included in the experiment, almost all the hours not spent on paid work went into more education. Among the New Jersey subjects, the rate of high school graduations rose 30%. And thus, in August 1968, President Nixon presented a bill providing for a modest basic income, calling it 'the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history'. A White House poll found 90% of all newspapers enthusiastically receptive to the plan. The National Council of Churches was in favour, and so were the labour unions and even the corporate sector (see Brian Steensland’s book The Failed Welfare Resolution, page 69). At the White House, a telegram arrived declaring: 'Two upper middle class Republicans who will pay for the programme say bravo.' Pundits were even going around quoting Victor Hugo—'Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.' It seemed that the time for a basic income had well and truly arrived. 'Welfare Plan Passes House [...] a Battle Won in Crusade for Reform,' was the headline of the New York Times on April 16, 1970. With 243 votes for and 155 against, President Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP) was approved by an overwhelming majority. Most pundits expected the plan to pass the Senate, too, with a membership even more progressive than that of the House of Representatives. But in the Senate Finance Committee, doubts were raised. 'This bill represents the most extensive, expensive and expansive welfare legislation ever handled,' one Republican senator said. Most vehemently opposed, however, were the Democrats. They felt the FAP didn’t go far enough and pushed for an even higher basic income. After months of being batted back and forth between the Senate and the White House, the bill was finally canned. In the following year, Nixon presented a slightly tweaked proposal to Congress. Once again, the bill was accepted by the House, now as part of a larger package of reforms. In his 1971 State of the Union address, Nixon considered his plan to 'place a floor under the income of every family with children in America' the most important item of legislation on his agenda (see Steensland, page 157). But once again, the bill foundered in the Senate. Not until 1978 was the plan for a basic income shelved once and for all, however, following a fatal discovery upon publication of the final results of the Seattle experiment. One finding in particular grabbed everybody’s attention. The number of divorces had jumped more than 50%. Interest in this statistic quickly overshadowed all the other outcomes, such as better school performance and improvements in health. A basic income, evidently, gave women too much independence. Ten years later, a re-analysis of the data revealed that a statistical error had been made. In reality, there had been no change in the divorce rate at all. 'It Can Be Done! Conquering Poverty in America by 1976,' Nobel Prize winner James Tobin confidently wrote in 1967. At that time, almost 80% of Americans supported a guaranteed basic income. Years later, Ronald Reagan would famously sneer: 'In the ’60s we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.' Yet some ideas just won’t die. Recent years have seen basic income make a comeback on political agendas. Switzerland is already looking forward to a referendum. Large-scale experiments have been announced in Finland and Canada, and plans are in the works in nearly 20 cities in the Netherlands. Even in Silicon Valley, basic income is the talk of the town. Maybe now the time has come that we can finally be rid of that pointless distinction between two types of poor—and to the major misconception that we almost managed to dispel some 40 years ago: the fallacy that a life without poverty is a privilege you have to work for, rather than a right we all deserve. Remember: the great milestones of civilization always have the whiff of utopia about them at first. But almost as soon as a utopia becomes a reality, it often comes to be seen as utterly commonplace. Utopias always start out small, with experiments that ever so slowly change the world. It happened just a few years ago on the streets of London, when 13 street sleepers got £3,000, no questions asked. As one of the aid workers said, 'It’s quite hard to just change overnight the way you’ve always approached this problem. These pilots give us the opportunity to talk differently, think differently, describe the problem differently...' And that’s how all progress begins. Rutger Bregman (1988) is the author of Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek, available in English and published by The Correspondent. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @rcbregman. Translated from Dutch by Elizabeth Manton.  More >

The Ukraine referendum was a thrashing the government deserved

The Ukraine referendum was a thrashing the government deserved

The government and Brussels may have deserved the thrashing they got on referendum day but the results are a wake-up call for ministers and voters, say economists Rick van der Ploeg and Willem Vermeend. There are only a few countries in the world where an advisory or binding referendum is part of the democratic tool box. It is generally thought to have too many disadvantages, reason why most have chosen a democratic system in which chosen representatives and administrators take policy decisions after having weighed all the options. Every four or so years voters judge their performance. This is the system that we have in the Netherlands. The main disadvantage of a referendum is that voters are limited to either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. There is no room for nuance or arguments. Fact is that only enthusiastic yes and no voters take to the ballot; those who have no particular sentiment about the subject or don’t feel they want to vote, don’t. That leaves us with an extremely one-sided version of the real state of affairs. A referendum about economic or financial issues has the potential to do serious damage to the economy and employment and can weaken the international position of a country. That is why binding referendums are very few and far between. Since July 15 2015, a private members bill introduced by D66, Labour and GroenLinks has made it possible for citizens to initiate an advisory referendum on certain bills and treaties. A binding referendum is not possible in the Netherlands without a change to the constitution. On April 6 the bill came into effect for the first time. Looking at the result, the question is whether the MPs are still happy about their bill. Opponents of the association treaty with Ukraine, PVV and SP voters in particular, voted in their droves and achieved a resounding victory: over 60% of voters said ‘no’. As a sufficient number of people in favour also turned up, the required 30% election threshold was achieved forcing prime minister Mark Rutte to reconsider the Dutch ratification of the treaty. Not a celebration of democracy According to the no camp this referendum was a ‘celebration of democracy’. We begrudge no one a good party but it really really wasn’t: almost 70% of voters stayed at home, and many yes voters are sorry they voted at all. If more pro-treaty people had stayed at home (some 300,000) the election threshold wouldn’t have been reached and nothing would have stood in the way of ratification. They had, moreover, very good reasons not to participate. In an interview in the NRC two of the referendum’s organisers said the whole circus surrounding the treaty was simply an excuse. Their real aim was to use the ballot box to mobilise opponents of Europe and the cabinet to start a process which should ultimately lead to the Netherlands leaving the EU. They also made it very clear that the real aim was to damage the image of the Netherlands in the EU. If the reactions in the international media are anything to go by they did a good job. Embarrassing The referendum result caused a media storm not only in Europe but the United States too. The general tenor of the comments was best expressed by a headline in the British press: ‘An embarrassment for the Dutch government’. The fact that Rutte and his ministers are heeding a small group of rabid Eurosceptics intending to do damage to their country and the EU also raised eyebrows. Of all 28 member states, only the Netherlands is being difficult. Word in international business circles is that the business climate in the Netherlands has been damaged. The referendum winners are clearly not bothered by this. On the contrary, they are already looking forward to a referendum on the European trade treaties with the US (TTIP) and Canada. With the referendum law the way it is, chances are they will win this one as well. Fanatical and passionate opponents of Europe and multinationals will vote in their droves and the average voter, with no particular interest in the matter, will stay at home. The organisers will launch clever internet campaigns, something the makers of the referendum law have not taken into account. If the cabinet wants to avoid more damage being done to the Netherlands it will have to adapt the referendum rules, or withdraw the law completely. Wake up call It has to be said that the cabinet as well as Brussels have only themselves to blame for this thrashing. The cabinet pro-treaty campaign, such as it was, was very poor compared to the opponents’ media savvy one. Rutte is still failing to make clear to Brussels that the Netherlands insists the European rules be changed and that means greater national sovereignty and European rules only when they have a clear added value, for instance in matters concerning security and the economy. At the moment the reverse is true and that is fuelling anger all over the EU. This can’t be ignored any longer. That is why we expect the outcome of the referendum to be a  wake-up call for policy makers as well as voters. In the Netherlands some two million jobs depend directly on international trade, mostly within the EU. Hundreds of thousands of people are working in companies dependent on trade  with the export sector. All these people are voters whose livelihoods depend on business. They have nothing to gain from political parties wanting to leave the EU and certainly not from referendum organisers who want to damage the economy. That should be reason enough to go out and vote. This column appeared earlier in the Telegraaf  More >

We’re in the money: how will political parties spend €27bn?

According to the CPB, it looks like the political parties can actually afford to go on a spending spree, writes Mathijs Bouman. The macro-economic think tank traditionally analyses party manifestos in the run up to the general election. Every time the CPB analyses election programmes, politicians grumble. But this year their grumble has turned into a wail. Ahead of the national elections in 2017, CDA, Labour and D66 have publicly vented their unwillingness to participate in this uniquely Dutch tradition. SP, GroenLinks and SGP are still thinking about it. I have to admit I have always been in two minds about the method used by the CPB. In order to prevent parties from being rewarded for squandering money, the CPB looks at the long-term effects of the election programmes. It makes sense as an idea but what actually happens is that, come campaigning time, politicians start pounding each other with figures about job growth in 2040. That, inevitably, leads to nonsensical discussions. Be precise On the other hand, the CPB analysis is a great way of infusing some discipline into the writers of the election programmes. Political parties who promise to lower taxes, increase spending while claiming the budget deficit will fall, will feel the cold steel of the CPB dissecting knife. What is more, they need to be precise. ‘We will reduce health care costs’ is not going to cut it with the CPB. By how much? How? When and who will benefit? The CPB wants to know. If you really want to know what political parties are up to, a CPB analysis will tell you more than an election programme. That is why I would be sorry if the programmes for 2017 weren’t subjected to the CPB treatment. Fortunately chances are that the parties will change their minds and participate after all. Firstly, because they don’t want their opponents to accuse them of cowardice and secondly, because this time around an analysis could actually work in their favour. There is money in the kitty in the coming years, lots of it. Something for everyone At least that is what the CPB’s latest economic forecast tells us. This can be seen as a baseline measurement for the elections: how would the economy fare if policies remain the same? These data matter to election programme writers because it shows how much room there is for extra spending and tax relief. It turns out there is quite a bit of room. After years of cutbacks and tax increases the budget is looking very healthy. It’s so healthy in fact that the Netherlands will meet all European budget rules in 2021. The budget deficit will become a budget surplus and public debt will go down to under 60% of GDP. Other requirements, for instance regarding the structural deficit and increases in public spending, are within the boundaries as well. That gives left-wing parties an opportunity to come up with plans to tackle income inequality while right-wing parties can tout tax relief. There’s something for everyone. How to spend €27bn So how much can the parties bet on their various hobby horses? It’s not easy to say. It all depends which budget rules you want to continue to meet. I will try anyway. Officially, the structural deficit in 2021 cannot exceed 0.5% of GDP. According to the CPB we will be looking at a 0.1% surplus. The resulting margin is 0.6 % or some €5bn for new policies. That is something but it gets better. Taking into account the maximum allowed collective spending increase of 0.9% a year, the government can spend as much as an extra €24bn in 2021. The deficit will go up but will stay under the 3% limit. To reach that limit spending can go up to €27bn. That would worry Brussels a little but not enough to dole out a fine. The sweet shop is open for business. The billions are there for the spending. What politician is going to resist? The analysts at the CPB are rolling up their sleeves as we speak. This column was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad   More >

The Ukraine referendum is cynical, manipulative and one we should boycott

The Ukraine referendum is cynical, manipulative and one we should boycott

The Ukraine referendum is cynical, manipulative and all about fake democracy - so not something we should be voting in, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe. Tomorrow (April 6) the Dutch will be able to vote in a referendum on the EU's treaty of association with Ukraine. The vote is only open to Dutch nationals and the result of the referendum is only advisory – and it won’t have any official weight unless 30% of the electorate turn out. The Netherlands has, after all, already said it backs the treaty. So what is tomorrow’s vote really all about? The referendum on Ukraine is not about the treaty. It is about testing Dutch public opinion on the EU in general.  The campaign for a referendum was driven by anti-EU campaigners who have admitted they want to put pressure on the relationship between the Netherlands and the EU and deliberately looked for an issue they could use. Don’t care ‘We really don’t care about Ukraine, you need to understand that,’ Arjan van Dixhoorn, professor of history at Utrecht University College Roosevelt and chairman of the Burgercomite EU, told the NRC newspaper last week. ‘We waited two years for the referendum law to come into force,’ said committee member Pepijn van Houwelingen who works for the government’s social policy unit SCP. ‘We checked what laws and international treaties could meet the referendum requirements… Then we realised the Ukraine treaty, which had been an issue for years, was a potential referendum subject.’ Taxpayers’ money And all this time we have been thinking it’s about Ukraine. That this was the reason Ukrainian students and dozens of others have been over here campaigning. That this is why thousands of words have been written and millions of euros of taxpayers’ money have been spent. No. The reality is that a bunch of smart arses with government-funded jobs thought it a good idea to force a referendum on something which has already been decided. No doubt these same people will shortly rev up a campaign for votes for a real Nexit referendum. It is nasty and manipulative – a prank pulled by arrogant, clever people who refused to appear on the NRC’s photograph and said they did not want their jobs made public because they are acting in a private capacity. No, I don’t think they should get into trouble at work because of their actions, but I do think they should have the guts to show their faces to the world. Toilet paper As someone who has paid taxes in the Netherlands for 30 years but has no vote, I am outraged that my money is being so cynically used: that the referendum committee approved some idiot’s application to spend nearly €50,000 printing toilet paper with anti-Ukrainian statements. That private companies were given similar amounts to hand out biscuits to members of the public. This referendum is about fake democracy and, by voting in it, we are perpetuating the myth that there is some kind of check over the excesses of government and giving credence to the deliberate manipulation of millions of people. We should not be playing into the hands of the people who made this referendum a reality, even if over 400,000 people signed a petition to make sure it was held. If we want to debate a Nexit, let us do it openly and honestly, not by the back door and by wasting taxpayers’ money. This referendum is part of a cynical game. We should not give it the 30% turnout its supporters need.  More >