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.


The Dutch Debate “Drug Tourism”

The Netherlands, with its decriminalization of “soft drugs” like marijuana, has long attracted tourists who are interested in sampling illicit substances.  Now Maastricht, a Dutch city on the border with Germany and Belgium, is trying to crack down — in part — on “drug tourism,” and the country as a whole is trying to decide how to address the issue.

The Dutch approach to drugs has led to the development of about 700 “coffee shops” nationwide.  These establishments sell that sought-after combination of coffee and cannabis and are a typical destination for “drug tourists.”  Now Maastricht has decided to ban certain tourists from the “coffee shops.”  German and Belgian tourists can go in and partake of the wares; everyone else, not so much.  Scanners will check passports and ID cards, police will conduct random checks, and anyone not holding a Dutch, Belgian, or German passport will be required to leave.

Proponents of Maastricht’s law say “drug tourism” is a threat to public order.  Opponents of the law say it violates EU policies of equal treatment of citizens of member countries — and also hurts business and the city’s economy.  Why turn away those hard-partying Americans, Brits, and Italians, they reason, if you are going to allow Germans and Belgians to come in, chug a cappuccino, and toke up?

The struggle between trying to regulate social conduct, and the prospect of tourist dollars and tax revenue, has caused many American cities and states to revisit their laws about gambling and liquor sales.  The debate in the Netherlands about drug laws is the same debate in a different context.  In America, the lure of tax revenue and increased tourism usually proves to be irresistible, particularly in bad economic times.  How will the Netherlands come out on that debate?

Predicting The Extinction Of Religion

The BBC has an interesting article on the efforts of scientists to predict the extinction of religion in certain countries.  The scientific study considers the number of people who indicate no religious affiliation in census data and then seeks to identify the “social motives” behind being a religious person.  The study predicts that religious faith will die out in Australia, Austria, Canada, The Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland.  (Ireland?  Really?)

The scientists apply a “nonlinear dynamics” model that seeks to measure and predict the social and utilitarian value of putting yourself in the “non-religious” category.  As one scientist explained, the concept of nonlinear dynamics “posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.”  Nonlinear dynamics has previously been used by scientists to predict the death of certain spoken languages, where individuals have to decide between a language that is spoken only by a shrinking pool of participants and learning a more popular alternative.

I think the scientists may have missed the boat on this one.  To be sure, religions and languages both have a cultural element, but for many religious people their belief is rooted much more deeply.  Adherents to the world’s various religions, after all, are motivated at least in part by faith.  If joining the larger social group was all there was to it, history would not reveal such a long and bloody list of religious martyrs who were burned at the stake, stoned, and tortured rather than repudiate their beliefs.