Measles — And Vaccinations

There’s been a serious measles outbreak in Europe this year.  In the first half of 2018, there have been more than 41,000 reported cases of measles in Europe, and at least 37 deaths.  The 41,000 cases during the first half of 2018 is almost double the number of measles cases reported during the entire year of 2017 and is almost eight times higher than the reported measles figures for Europe in 2016.

pri_65784434There is a simple apparent cause for the European measles outbreak:  a drop in immunization rates.  Routine vaccinations of young children with the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine — which is shown to be 97% effective in preventing measles — are falling in countries like Italy, Romania, and the Ukraine.  It’s not clear whether parents are simply not as attentive as they once were, or whether they think measles has been wiped out and vaccination isn’t necessary in the modern world, or they’ve fallen prey to scientifically dubious arguments that MMR vaccination leads to conditions like autism.

The decline in vaccinations in the general public is the key to measles outbreaks, because measles is one of the most virulent, communicable diseases around.  It’s spread by droplets in the coughs and sneezes of an infected person, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a person with measles can infect 90 percent of the non-immune people who come within close contact.  And even though measles seems like a simple childhood disease, it can have serious complications, like pneumonia and encephalitis, in some cases.

According to the CDC, there are no measles outbreaks in the U.S.; as of August, there had been only 124 cases of measles in 22 states in 2018, and none in Ohio.   It’s a marked contrast to the figures reported in Europe.  The outbreak in Europe, however, shows that parents and doctors need to keep their guards up and ensure that kids get vaccinated.  And it shows something more:  in this interconnected world, we’ve got to be able to depend on each other to follow the health care basics.  If people stop getting the routine, proven vaccinations, measles may end up being the least of our concerns.

Fuel To The Fire

New Year’s Eve might be even a bigger deal in Europe than it is here.  (Google “drunk Brits new years eve” if you don’t believe me.)  But in Cologne, Germany — and in other cities in Germany and elsewhere — the drunken mayhem took a turn for the worse.

In Cologne, mobs of drunken men surrounded, assaulted and robbed women in the huge square outside the city train station; two rapes also were reported.  German police now estimate that as many as 1,000 men were involved in the incidents and are looking for 16 men in particular.  More than 100 women and girls have come forward to report the gropes, robberies, and attacks by the men, and they describe a chaotic and lawless scene in which the gangs of men did whatever they wanted without fear of apprehension or reprisal.  The women say there was no meaningful police presence at the scene, and the Cologne police chief said the scale and nature of what happened was “a completely new dimension of crime.”

GERMANY-EUROPE-MIGRANTSWhat makes the story even more incendiary is that witnesses described many of the men gathered in the square as being northern African or Arab in appearance.  Critics of Germany’s recent decision to permit more than 1 million refugees from the Middle East to enter the country have seized upon the attacks in Cologne and elsewhere as another reason to reject the open-door policy.  German authorities have said, however, that there is no evidence that the men who committed the robberies and assaults were recent refugee arrivals.

And there is an undeniable undercurrent of distrust of German authorities lurking in reports of the incidents, too.  The initial police report on the New Year’s Eve celebration in Cologne said there was a “joyful, party atmosphere” and a celebration that was “mostly peaceful.”  It was only after countless women began telling people about being mauled and robbed that authorities changed their reports to acknowledge the lawlessness and disorder.  You can’t read about the Cologne mobs without wondering whether the initial reaction by authorities was to minimize the extent of the criminal activity in order to avoid additional criticism of the German immigration policy.  Indeed, comments by Cologne’s mayor, Henriette Reker, amazingly seemed to suggest that the assaulted women bore some of the responsibility for the attacks, saying they should “keep at an arm’s length” from strangers and “stick together in groups, don’t get split up, even if you’re in a party mood”.

We’ll have to wait to see whether the German police apprehend and identify specific suspects, but the failure of authorities to be forthcoming about the incidents in the first place simply, and unnecessarily, adds fuel to the anti-immigrant fire.  It’s hard for many of us to accept, but Donald Trump apparently appeals to some Americans because of the perception that he is “speaking truth to power” — and that perception can be created only if there also is a perception that power isn’t speaking truth in the first place.  When authorities are seen as trying to downplay the facts or bury the true story, it only reinforces that underlying perception and gives blowhards like Trump more ammunition for their anti-immigration rants.

A Touch Of Europe

When we were outfitting our new backyard, we spent a lot of time on finding just the right umbrella.  We were looking for a brightly colored one that would remind us of a European cafe in a nice shaded courtyard.  We scoured the Internet for a Campari umbrella, and also checked out other Euro beer- and liquor-themed options, then Kish found this Cinzano umbrella that fits our concept perfectly.
C’est bon!

Jews In Europe, Again

On Saturday, a gunman in Copenhagen went on a rampage at a free speech event and then shot and killed a Jewish man guarding a synagogue before being killed by police; Danish authorities think he may have been trying to recreate last month’s murderous attacks at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and a kosher supermarket, in Paris.  On Sunday, hundreds of Jewish tombs were desecrated in eastern France.  Surveys of Jews in Europe show increased worries about anti-Semitism, and a recent hidden camera video shows a Jewish man being insulted, spat upon, and threatened as he walked the streets of Paris.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded to the Denmark incident by calling for Jews to emigrate to Israel; he said Jews deserve protection in every country but warned that the attacks will continue.  Some Jewish leaders in Europe rejected that call, arguing that, in one man’s words, for Jews to leave Europe would be handing Hitler a “posthumous victory.”  They contend, instead, that Jews should remain and advocate for increased democracy, vocal rejection of anti-Semitism by governments in the Eurozone, and increased police protection of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.

What should Jews do?  No one is predicting a second Holocaust — but no one predicted a first Holocaust, either.  No one wants to retreat in the face of depraved and murderous attacks, but would you want to continue to expose your family and children to potentially unsafe conditions and a culture in which slurs and physical intimidation are increasingly commonplace?  It’s an impossible individual choice, being made against the dark historical backdrop of genocide that happened on the European continent less than a century ago.

The burden instead must fall on governments to stop Europe from backsliding into hell.  Protest marches and public pronouncements are nice, but more must be done to stop the anti-Semitic wave, demonstrate the commitment to a Europe that welcomes and includes Jews, culturally and politically, and aggressively identify and prosecute the perpetrators of street bullying, vandalism, shootings, and every other anti-Jewish criminal act.  Americans can reinforce that message by not spending their money in Europe unless action is taken.

If people are to leave the European continent in the wake of an anti-Semitic wave, it should be the wrongdoers, not the persecuted.

Time To Book That Trip To Europe

If you’ve got a trip to Europe on your “bucket list,” you might want to go for it now.  For Americans, travel in France, Germany, Italy, and the other members of the Eurozone will be as cheap as it has been in years — for the next few months, at least.

IMG_0114The value of the Euro — the collective currency of the Eurozone — has been in free fall against the American dollar over the past few months.  On Friday, the Euro fell to $1.12, which is its lowest level in 11 years.  That’s a very sharp decline from earlier in the year, when the Euro was trading at around $1.40.

European economies are weak, and the European Central Bank has announced that it will be engaged in a “quantitative easing” program that will seek to expand the money supply — and, inevitably, have an inflationary impact — in an effort to spur economic growth.  And because the ECB has just announced its program, and it will take some time for all of the details to be absorbed by the financial markets, we can expect the value of the Euro to continue to fall against the dollar in the near future.

All of this is good news for Americans who are interested in visiting Europe.  Because the  Federal Reserve Board has already completed the quantitative easing program in the U.S. and has announced that it will be raising interest rates in the near future, the dollar should remain very strong against the Euro.  That means American tourist dollars will get better exchange rates at currency stores and will have more buying power on the streets of Paris and Rome — which will bring down the real cost of lodging, meals and museum fees.

Couple that with the ever-present European interest in encouraging tourism, and it’s not hard to forecast that bargain-hunting U.S. travelers will have a field day in 2015.

Nationalism, Or A Desire For Self-Control?

In Europe, elections to the European Parliament last week sent shock waves through the political firmament.  Parties of the right and left that ran campaigns against the European Union — known as “Euroskeptics” — made significant gains in England, France, Denmark, and Greece, although pro-EU parties collectively will still be in the majority.

The political reaction was immediate, as leaders who had previously characterized the Euroskeptics as a fringe movement scrambled to respond to the wave.  In Great Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron — whose Conservative Party was thumped and finished third in British balloting, behind the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party — acknowledged that people were “deeply disillusioned” with the EU.  In France, where President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party finished third behind the Euroskeptic National Front, Hollande went on TV to call for the EU to scale back its role.  Noting that the EU had become “remote and incomprehensible,” Hollande said he will speak to other European leaders about focusing on the economy and added that the EU needs to be “effective where it is needed and to withdraw from where it is not necessary.”

The politics of multi-party European countries seem very murky here in the two-party U.S.  It’s not clear whether the recent vote is the product of simmering nationalism — a very loaded word in Europe, where it provoked two devastating World Wars — or anger over austere financial policies and moribund economies, or concern about immigration, or a simple desire for self-determination rather than ceding control over policies to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels who are seemingly answerable to no one.  Or perhaps it is a combination of all of those factors, as well as others.

The EU started as an economic entity that sought to combine the economies of European countries into a cohesive unit, with a single currency, that could compete on the world stage with the United States and Japan; eventually it became more of political and regulatory entity that plays an increasingly significant role in everyday life.  A sizable number of Europeans now seem to be questioning whether they want what the EU has become.  And Europe’s political leaders are wondering:  what is the alternative?

The Rise Of Anti-Semitism In The Eurozone

The BBC has a troubling story about the apparent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe — at least, as expressed in a poll of European Jews.  Of the nearly 6,000 people surveyed, two-thirds considered anti-Semitism to be a big problem, and more than 75 percent believed that bigotry has increased in the last five years.

Even worse, those depressingly high numbers don’t really tell the full story.  Survey respondents reported that prejudicial comments on-line — where distance and anonymity can allow the inner demons to run free — has become shockingly prevalent.  Moreover, 20 percent of the respondents had personally experienced verbal abuse or physical assault, with the most serious incidents involving Muslim extremists, people with left-wing political views, and finally people with right-wing views.  The situation has gotten so bad that, in many countries, significant percentages of the Jewish respondents are considered emigrating to ensure the safety of their families.

This is the kind of grim, brooding story that should cause serious concern for everyone who believes in democracy, pluralism, and freedom of religion.  We know what happened in the 1930s and World War II years, and we need to take steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again — in Europe, or elsewhere.

If we see instances of anti-Semitic speech on-line, we need to call out the speaker and shame them with their bigotry.  We shouldn’t tolerate anti-Semitic garbage from the podium of the UN General Assembly or the mouths of Middle Eastern zealots.  If we hear of an anti-Semitic incident, we need to take steps to ensure that the perpetrators are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  If we see vandalism in Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, we need to participate in the clean-up and figure out how to prevent such incidents in the future.  We need to fight hate speech with right speech, and criminal acts with criminal prosecution.

This is not a Jewish issue, it is a human issue.  Abuse and mistreatment of any religious or ethnic group weakens us all and splinters the world into feuding factions.  I don’t want to live in a balkanized world where any group may be targeted, scapegoated, and assaulted  with impunity.  I hope that the good people of Europe stand up, and I hope that those of us in America stay vigilant.

The Lost Romance Of Train Travel

IMG_3548I was born as the Golden Age of Train Travel in America was ending, and railroads were being eclipsed by airplanes and the interstate highway system.  As I grew up, the passenger rail system was shriveling, many grand downtown stations were being torn down, and cities like Columbus were being left with no rail service at all.

Still, there has always been something evocative about trains.  When I traveled through Europe after college, I enjoyed the train experience — the jostling and rocking, the whistles and bells, the clickety-clack of steel wheels on steel track, and the aging smell of the cars.  I enjoyed the chance encounters with complete strangers that a communal travel system offered.  It was stimulating and added to the feeling that I was really getting exposure to the cultures and people of the countries I was visiting.

I enjoy driving, but there is a lost romance to train travel that the interstate highway system just can’t match.

Here in Nashville, the backdrop to the registration desk in the spectacular lobby of the Union Station Hotel is an old train schedule.  Just look at the names!  The Dixie Flyer!  The South Wind!  The Hummingbird!  The Azalean!  The Florida Arrow!  The Pan American!  Who wouldn’t want to board one of those trains, as porters hustled by and stacks of luggage were loaded, as steam huffed from the engine and warning whistles screamed, in search of adventure?

No Change

Doesn’t it sometimes seem like we’re caught in some kind of Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode where nothing ever changes?  Every week or so they’ll be some big story that dominates the news, and when the coverage finally subsides, we realize we’re right back where we were before.

So it is with the Supreme Court health care ruling.  We now know that the Affordable Health Care Act (h/t to Cousin Jeff) has survived, and when we raise our heads and look around, things everywhere are still stuck in neutral.

Guess what?  European leaders are having another meeting to try to figure out how to solve — once and for all! — that sovereign debt crisis that never seems to end.  (Hey, but this time they’re serious!)  The European debt crisis must be the longest-running, most ineptly handled financial crisis in history.  We keep hearing that the crack-up is coming, and it surely is, but European leaders merely respond with another “summit” that produces talk and resolutions and a shrimpy bailout approach that doesn’t do the trick — and in a week or so the process starts all over again.  In the meantime, economies are moribund, and the European unemployment rate rises.  It’s like a kind of torture, wondering when the big, crushing crack-up will come and the European “leaders” can dither no more.

In America, different pieces of economic news roll out every week, and they’re inevitably bad.  Consumer confidence is falling.  The unemployment rate is ticking up.  Home prices are dropping again.  And most recently we learned that the domestic manufacturing sector of the economy, which had been a relatively strong performer, is now contracting.  There don’t seem to be many glimmers on the horizon, or “green shoots” in the American economic soil — just more of that sapping, ever-present bad news.  We’re being conditioned to cringe in anticipation whenever the business news is announced.

Could Rod Serling please appear and bring this episode of unrelenting sameness to an end?

Remembering The Boys Of Pointe du Hoc

Today is the 68th anniversary of D-Day — the Allied invasion of Europe as part of the great campaign to wipe the scourge of Nazism off the face of the Earth and restore peace and democracy.  It was a bloody, terrible day, but the beachhead was secured, the invasion went forward, and ultimately the enemy was defeated.

In 1984 President Reagan used the occasion of the 40th anniversary of D-Day to give one of the greatest speeches he ever delivered.  He stood on the soil of Normandy, faced a group of Army Rangers — the “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” — who had acted with unbelievable courage in fulfilling their role in the battle plan on June 6, 1944, and talked about the deeply felt beliefs that motivated those men, and the brave citizens of every participating nation, to endure the sacrifices necessary to rescue the people of Europe from tyranny.  The speech was deeply moving to anyone who felt pride in those sacrifices and profound appreciation for the Boys of Pointe du Hoc and their fellow Allied soldiers.

The RealClearPolitics website reprinted the speech today to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day.  It’s well worth reading, and contemplating.  As with so many great speeches, its meaning remains fresh, even though the Iron Curtain and the challenge to peace that existed in 1984 has passed, to be replaced by the challenges Europe faces today.  It remains important for us to remember what happened 68 years ago, and why, and to ask anew:  “Who were these men?”

My Thoughts On “The Age Of Innocence”

David Brooks’ column The Age of Innocence is interesting, both for what it says and for what it means.  What it says is that the American political system is broken.  What it means is that even a columnist at one of the most powerful newspapers in the world lacks the gumption to make his point directly.

Rather than simply reaching conclusions about America, Brooks softens his views by addressing both the European and American democratic systems.  Does anyone actually believe there are similarities between these “systems”?  America has been a representative democracy for almost 250 years; Europe still had crowned heads leading it into a bloody war less than 100 years ago.  The balkanized, multi-party, coalition-dependent parliamentary systems in most European countries bear little relation to our two-party system, where nearly every election has a clear winner and loser and a ruling majority results.  Until recently, America had stoutly resisted the European socio-economic model, with its early retirement ages and short work weeks and months of paid vacation.  And no one in their right mind would equate the European Union with our Congress.  The ponderous bureaucrats of the EU will be there forever, impossible to root out; in America, in contrast, voters can easily — as the last three election cycles have shown — toss out incumbents and install new representatives who purportedly will better reflect their views.

Still, Brooks reaches the right conclusion.  America is on the wrong track because people have stopped viewing government as a necessary evil and have come to view it instead as a kind of personal gravy train.  John Kennedy’s stirring statement in his inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — has been turned completely on its head.  Many Americans now just want to get government benefits without paying taxes.  They want the government to provide them with jobs, and “loans” that will ultimately be forgiven, and “free” health care.  And our poll-driven “leaders” are perfectly happy to encourage this dependency on government and are too craven to act responsibly, whether it comes to the federal budget or eliminating programs that don’t work well — and in some cases don’t work at all.

Brooks recognizes this.  Why, then, does he create a false equivalence between America and Europe?  I think it’s because simply stating that America is on the wrong track, and our politicians have led us there, requires more guts than he possesses.  He doesn’t want to unnecessarily upset any of the powerful inside-the-beltway types that he hobnobs with, so he writes something that makes it seem as though democracies, generally, are doomed to fail through the sheer force of greedy human nature.  That conclusion makes the bitter pill a lot easier to swallow:  it’s no one’s fault, really.

I strongly disagree with that.  America has been, is, can be, and should be different from Europe.  Our failure is the failure of political leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — who want to hold on to the reins of power and have pandered to the worst instincts of people and corporations and interest groups rather than saying “no” and even requiring sacrifice.

Europe is probably doomed; with America, though, there is still hope.  We just need some leaders who will fight to get us back on the right track, rather than throwing up their hands and concluding that we and Europe are on the road to hell together.  It would help, too, if we had journalists who were willing to state that conclusion, sharply and plainly, as journalists are supposed to do.  One of the reasons our politicians have gotten away with their behavior is that the news media has for the most part failed to call them out for their irresponsibility.

A Quick Billion Dollars For The Avengers

It’s obvious that The Avengers has struck a chord with me, and with movie audiences generally.  Only three weeks after its release, it has racked up an impressive $1 billion in box-office receipts.

Imagine — $1 billion.  Even by today’s standards, that is a huge amount of money.  What is it about this  movie that has made it so appealing to so many people?  (Russell, who is here for an all-too-brief short visit, is going to see it tonight, and I’m betting he’ll enjoy himself, too.)

It’s important not to overthink these things.  The Avengers is a very good summer movie.  There will always be an audience for movies that feature good-looking women and men in skin-tight suits.  There are worse things than watching Scarlett Johannson fight bad guys in a sleek black outfit.  And there also will always be people who want to see bad guys beaten by heroes, and do so through some impressive explosions and serious ass-kicking.  When the Hulk gets to throw around a stuffed shirt evil god like a rag doll, you can’t help but cheer.

I also think, though, that the success of escapist fare — which is what The Avengers is — often turns on the mood of the general populace.  Things are tough right now.  In Europe, governments are toppling and currencies are failing.  In America, the recession lingers, and lingers.  Unresolved threats can be found on just about every continent.  In short, the world is especially fertile territory for an escapist film right now.  We’d all rather watch Iron Man save the world through one selfless act than focus on those long-term problems that never seem to get solved.

Adverse To Austerity

Elections have occurred in Greece, France, and Italy in the past few days, and voters have cast their ballots against the austerity measures that were imposed to try to put a brake on the European debt crisis and, in Greece and France, have thrown out the governments that agreed to those measures.

In France, the flamboyant Nikolas Sarkozy was replaced by a Socialist, Francois Hollande, who says he seeks an alternative to austerity and vows to increase taxes and spending.  In Greece, voters deserted the parties that had dominated the political landscape for decades and splintered their support among a broad range of parties, including the disturbingly neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn”.  The same trends were seen in local elections in Italy.

No one should be surprised by these results.  Austerity is hard; Europeans are soft.  They’ve become accustomed to rich benefits, lots of vacation time, a short work week, and generous pensions that allow them to retire at an early age.  The problem is that their lifestyle has been financed by debt, and now people are only willing to lend them more if they agree to actions that will bring their fiscal house in order.  The fact that Greek voters and French voters don’t like the austerity doesn’t change that result.  Why would you want to lend money to someone who hasn’t shown the responsibility or willpower necessary to pay you back?

This likely means that the Eurozone concept will fail.  Appeals for continental unity only go so far, and hardworking and thrifty German and Dutch voters aren’t going to support the unrestrained spending of the Greek and Italian and Portuguese governments forever.  The Euro will end as a unified currency, the responsible northern European countries will return to their highly valued local currencies, and the southern European countries will slink back to their devalued and debased drachmas and lire, look around for new saps to loan them money with no hope of being repaid, and find there are no takers.  At that point, the current days of “austerity” might begin to look pretty good, in retrospect.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere for America.

 

Europe Is Still There, And Its Problems Are Getting Worse

In America, we have the ability to just ignore the rest of the world now and then.  When the news from abroad is too depressing, we turn it off and focus on more interesting American things instead, like a celebrity scandal or  the new iPhone or a weirdly viral YouTube video.

I think most Americans have tuned out the debt crisis in Europe.  It has been going on forever.  There’s no end in sight.  Lots of different, faraway countries are involved. The Europeans appear to be dealing with it.  So why should we care?  Look, a squirrel!

On Friday Standard & Poor’s cut the credit ratings for the debt issued by nine European countries.  France, Europe’s second-largest economy, lost its AAA status, Italy’s debt is now rated the same as that of Kazakhstan, and Portugal’s debt is down to junk bond status.  Even worse, it looks like Greece won’t be able to reach agreement with its creditors, which would mean that the latest Eurozone effort to address the Greek debt crisis would fail and Greece would be facing default and bankruptcy in March.

In the modern world, the economies of countries are connected in countless ways.  We sell lots of good and services to Europe; if its economies crash, those markets vanish and American businesses will suffer.  American banks, mutual funds, and investors have purchased the sovereign debt of European countries and would experience huge losses in the event of defaults.  And, of course, Europe’s current predicament is just a peek at America’s likely future if we don’t deal promptly with our governmental debt problems.  European countries that are saddled with enormous debt are now at the mercy of ratings agencies, creditors, and faceless bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund.

So, we can be distracted if we choose — but Europe is still there, and its problems are, too.  They may be our problems soon, if we don’t start paying attention.

Uh Oh (Again)

The news from Europe has not been good for some time now — but today may be a turning point into even more negative territory.  As the United States enjoyed the Labor Day holiday, equity markets across Europe plunged by an average of 4 percentGermany’s DAX took the hardest hit, falling by more than 5 percent.

It’s not hard to understand why European investors are troubled.  Greece, Spain, and Portugal all are struggling with serious debt problems, and recently Italy, one of Europe’s biggest economies, also has tumbled into distressed territory.  In the meantime, the large, more solvent northern European countries — particularly Germany — have had to prop up their profligate southern European partners.  Germany’s financial support of free-spending Eurozone countries hasn’t gone down well with German voters, who delivered a stinging rebuke to the ruling party in regional elections.

Interestingly, some political leaders in Germany and elsewhere seem to see the ongoing problems as a reason for an even closer political and economic union between the nations of Europe — whereas European citizens, in contrast, appear to be yearning for more control over the destinies of their own countries.  The depths of the Eurozone debt problems are not yet fully understood, and analysts wonder how much worthless debt is held by European banks and whether the piecemeal bailout efforts will ever staunch the outflow of investor confidence.  Given all of these circumstances, it’s not hard to foresee more hard times ahead in the Eurozone.