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SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC CITY CROWNED WITH TOP QUALITY OF LIFE 7th (!!) YEAR IN A ROW

Seriously America? We didn’t manage one city in the top 10?!

For the 7th consecutive year in the row, Vienna has been voted number one city in a quality of life survey of folks who work and live abroad. It doesn’t surprise me. I’ve written many a post about Vienna and her virtues and even one about her selection to this supreme place of honor but given the current climate in the US primaries, I think now is the perfect opportunity to delve a bit deeper.

Why? Because the city voted world’s most livable is the capital of a…wait for it…wait for it… social democratic country. Yep. There’s that word again.

Austria 101 in three paragraphs

First a bit of a background so that you don’t get any wrong ideas. John Oliver can attest to the fact that many of my fellow Americans are woefully ignorant in geography. In fact John Oliver might say something like, “Austria, that country in the Alps somewhere with raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and Terminator.”

Following WWII Austria found itself geopolitically situated as a neutral nation wedged between the countries of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. For decades Austria negotiated its precarious stance between two highly belligerent neighbors with diplomatic grace and finesse. Unlike Germany, after WWII Austria was spared a division of the country into east and west. It also managed to escape, unlike its neighbors to the north and east, decades of occupation by foreign powers. Unlike Switzerland, its likewise neutral neighbor to the west, Austria has become an active member of the European Union. Austria is a place where Russians, Americans, Israelis and Saudi Arabians can bump elbows at the Park Plaza buffet table and politely engage in chit chat. (http://www.kcblau.com/spy-capital/)

Austria is not capitalist, communist, socialist or corporatist (shops here are still closed on Sundays and I have come to believe that that’s something positive). It is a social democracy and has been since the end of WWII (that’s over 70 years).

Social democrats and social democracy have become buzz words lately and since I currently live in a place organized under these principles, I thought I would share some firsthand, frontline thoughts about what that means exactly.

Yes, taxes in Austria are high but…quality of life is too.

Life in the USA as Harry and Louise 

I don’t know about you but my name isn’t Walton, Koch, Goldman, Rothschild or Bush. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon dangling from pouty lips and though I loved my high school green and gold, the sports fields were baseball and football, not rugby and tennis.

My father grew up in a part of Pittsburgh where every man either worked for the steel mill or joined the military to escape it. Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and John Cougar Melloncamp – those were the guys who sang from the soul of my roots – roots that could be like those of Harry and Louise.

Life in a Social Democracy as Harry and Louise

So what will you, Harry and Louise, find in a social democratic city?

Universal public health insurance – this means that you are not one cancer diagnosis away from personal bankruptcy or uninsurability. People search for jobs based on salary and job satisfaction, not benefits. No deductible payments for treatment and no exorbitant fees for medications (I think I pay a flat fee of about 5 bucks per prescription here).

Private health insurance: Don’t like sharing a hospital room with a snoring neighbor who has fifty relatives visit a day? Want to have a posh hospital with display cases of swords donated by former patients who happened to be sheikhs? No worries, Harry and Louise. You can get that here too. No one is going to forbid you from buying private insurance coverage.

Sick leave: Austrian law forbids firing an employee because of illness – a novel idea – you get sick or have an accident and don’t have to worry that it could also be a financial death sentence for you and your loved ones.

Maternity Leave: a year or more of paid maternity leave and what is becoming more and more common is that mom and dad split the “time off” so both get the joys of diaper changes and “Mein Pipihendl” rounds. And what does that look like back home in the US? John Oliver on Paid Family Leave.

Five weeks paid vacation by law for everyone: I swear it’s true, even for the “wage slaves” (more details here: http://www.kcblau.com/five-weeks/).

Affordable housing so well planned that there are no ghettos because

Hundertwasser housing in Vienna's 3rd district

Hundertwasser housing in Vienna’s 3rd district

subsidized housing complexes have been strategically spread throughout the city in all districts – some have even been designed by some of the city’s most famous architects – functional and livable – check out Hundertwasser’s housing for example.

Public transportation for less than a dollar a day (365 Euros a year!) that will allow you to ride all of the city’s public transportation (buses, subways, trams) and will get you anywhere you want to go in a timely and reliable manner. Like to party on the weekends? No worries about drinking and driving because the Wiener Linien always picks the short straw and will happily play designated driver and see you home safe and sound. Public transit is so popular that in 2015, 700,000 annual tickets were sold. In fact people are so in love with public transportation here that a woman from Manchester, England wrote the Vienna Public Transit a love letter when she moved away from Vienna complaining about the overpriced and unreliable transit system back in her hometown in England: Thank you for a fantastic, affordable public transport system. I miss you every day and I know someday we’ll meet again.

Free Higher Education: Can you imagine graduating from college with absolutely no debt? None? Zip? Zero? Or changing your major without having to consider the financial consequences? Vienna might not be completely made of milk and honey but this really, truly exists here. Seriously. But hey! If you want to pay and ensure that special one-on-one professor mentoring time – there are Private Universities here too. Don’t believe Harry and Louise if they try to tell you otherwise.

Pedestrian Shopping Zones: no cars and in the warm months – outdoor cafes, dining areas and plenty of room for street artists to do their thing. Because there is more to quality of life than money.

Karmeliter Market

Every Saturday you will find young and old shopping at the second district open air market, Karmeliter Market.

Parks, green areas, flowers, trees: Yes, all here. Vienna is a very “green” city.

Museums free for those 18 and under: culture and education for the kids – something we could only wish for with our 9/11 Memorial Museum.

(http://www.kcblau.com/nyc-national-september-11-museum/)

Minimum Assistance

(Mindestsicherung) – people who don’t have more than about 4000 USD to their name and can’t work because they are disabled or too old are automatically insured and entitled to financial help from the government – about 800 USD a month total. The idea is to catch disadvantaged members of society in a social net before they fall into extreme poverty. It’s called brotherly (or sisterly) love, Harry and Louise, so deal with it.

Required civil or military service: giving back to Uncle Sam (or Onkel Franz?) 6 months military or 9 months civil service. Young, able men serve their country after graduating from high school. It’s a few months in which all male members of society are equalized – regardless of the pedigree of your background. Where and when do we have that in the US? And let’s face it, many 18-year-olds could benefit from a year of figuring out what they really want to do with their futures before diving head first into the next (often expensive in the US) chapters of their lives.

Services for the elderly and disabled: transportation to the hospital for treatment, food delivery, as well as care and workshops for the mentally disabled.

Humane prisons with lower prison terms and strict regulations regarding length of solitary confinement and conditions of cells and fewer prisoners. Prisons here are not privatized because let’s face it – should someone be increasing his or her wealth based on the number of people we lock up and how long they are kept there? Kind of a scary, Orwellian idea that a rational person may have been tempted to believe would have ended with the “Cash for Kids” scandal in 2009. And one last question on this – are we truly, seriously convinced that we have the most misbehaved, criminal human beings in the entire world who would justify us having the highest number of our own citizens locked up behind bars (followed by China and Russia)? Or is $omething $eriously amiss? And don’t just take my word for it, check out the World Prison Brief numbers for the extremely depressingly, dismal reality.

High life expectancy (higher than US) (http://www.kcblau.com/usprogress/)

Water so Good it’s Constitutionally Protected

Private property – you can certainly own land, houses and apartments here but many folks choose to rent because rent prices are highly regulated and therefore renting is an affordable option.

Private businesses – your can found and run your own business here too

Life in a Social Democracy as a Property Mogul

Karmelitermarkt

High quality of life doesn’t have to be about money

I am not going to lie to you. I don’t know whether or not a Donald Trump could have made his billions here (though Richard Lugner apparently managed). At the same time, and I’m going to quote The Guardian for this: “In the mid-90s the property mogul hoped eminent domain would help move out a widow who stood in the way of a planned limousine parking lot.” Said property mogul would have not  harbored such hopes in a country where the rights of the so-called “little people” carry equal weight as their wealthier fellow countrymen.

Worth here is not based on wealth. And who of us normal mortals really believes it should be?  It would be like saying Ebenezer Scrooge in the beginning of the Christmas Carol is a far more worthy individual than Bob and Timothy Cratchit.

Worth based on honest values is a sentiment I could swear would appeal to all my freedom-loving, flag-carrying American compatriots who’ve heard the story of Abraham Lincoln’s humble beginnings since the time they could pledge allegiance to the flag. It’s what is preached in the churches that are still overflowing in the small towns every Sunday from sea to shining sea.

Glock sign

You can get a Glock in the land that makes them but you will have to undergo a psychological test first and store it under lock and key. So I can’t lie that it boggles my mind that in the US, we as a people can nod and hail “hallelujahs” as our preachers, ministers, and priests instruct us to love-our-fellow-man while we don our WWJD bracelets with the same hand clutching the 45 special under the pew, just in case that brotherly love takes a temporary hiatus.

There was a time in history when only the off-spring of the privileged elite could afford tutors and thus receive an education; a time when we packed up our undesirables and shipped them to distant shores and unknown futures; a time when where you sat on the bus or at a coffee shop depended on the color of your skin; a time when your right to vote was determined by the M or F on your birth certificate. Thank God those days are behind us.

We’ve moved to a better place since then and ensured more rights for more people. Let’s not stop now.

Part of the reason so many people fear “social democracy” is that they don’t understand what it means in day-to-day life. Fear-mongering media outlets funded by companies holding big-billed self-interests inundate the public with opinion-swaying “Harry and Louise” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_and_Louise) ads that skew the real issues. It’s simple. Should health care be a profit-oriented business? Are profit-oriented businesses the ultimate means to create a civil, socially humane nation? Do we want to live in a society where money just doesn’t talk, it talks the loudest and mutes all others from even having a voice? Is that the kind of democracy we think of when we proudly wave the stars and stripes?

As Americans isn’t it time we pause long enough from the selfies to soul-search and ask ourselves: why are so many others in the world living such a high quality of life and none of our cities have even managed the top 10 (despite our bagels, pulled porks and reubens)? Yes, let’s come together (and stop bickering) and make America great again. But let’s not do it based on hot air and empty promises. Let’s start by seeing how others have obviously managed it elsewhere.

And one last thing: Dear Harry and Louise, When you go to vote, vote based on what’s best for you and Larry and Marlene next door and your parents, and your kids and your kids’ kids, not the property moguls, bankers and opportunistic politicians whose greatest objective is to park their limos in what used to be the sweet-old-widow-down-the-street’s living room.

What the US could Learn from a Place like Austria: http://www.kcblau.com/usprogress/

Mercer Website with Survey Results: https://www.imercer.com/content/mobility/quality-of-living-city-rankings.html

Wiener Linien (Vienna Public Transportation): http://www.wienerlinien.at/eportal3/ep/contentView.do/pageTypeId/66526/programId/74577/contentTypeId/1001/channelId/-47186/contentId/82733

The Guardian article about Donald Trump’s Eminent Domain Battle:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/19/donald-trumps-eminent-domain-nearly-cost-widow-house

Forbes list of America’s Richest Families:

http://www.forbes.com/families/

Super Pacs undressed: New York Times article (“The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Elections”) on the 158 families who are funding half of the US political campaigns in the early stages: “They are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male.” Read it and weep for our American “democratic” system: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/10/11/us/politics/2016-presidential-election-super-pac-donors.html

Article from the New York Times in Oct 2001 about Bin Ladens liquidating their holdings in the Carlyle Group (where Pres Bush worked as an adviser and former Sec of State James Baker as a partner) so as not to give the appearance that they would be profiting from the War on Terrorism that would ensue after 9/11: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/26/business/bin-laden-family-liquidates-holdings-with-carlyle-group.html

In case you missed the link above: Economist article from 2003 (!) about the Bush family and their link to the Carlyle Group http://www.economist.com/node/1875084 – “At a time when America is aggressively promoting democracy and capitalism abroad, including by military means, it would be helpful if its politicians and businesses were regarded as cleaner than clean. Shrouded in secrecy, Carlyle calls capitalism into question.”

Private vs. Public – what is good for the general population is not always good for private industry – let us not forget history and why many US cities no longer have the public transportation options that a city like Vienna does:
Documentary Taken for a Ride Part 1, Taken for a Ride Part 2

Schoenbrunn Park in Vienna

Schönbrunn Park in Vienna

 

 

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TRADE AGREEMENTS: MAIN STREET VS. WALL STREET

“Our trade agreements should not just be for Wall Street, they should also be for Main Street. And the problems that we’ve had is that we’ve had corporate lobbyists often times involved in the negotiations of these trade agreements but in the end, AFL-CIO haven’t been involved, working ordinary people haven’t been involved and we’ve got to make sure that our agreements are good for everybody. Globalization is creating winners and losers but the problem is, it’s the same winners and the same losers each and every time.” – Barack Obama, pre-presidency, August 7, 2007 on MSNBC televised 2008 Democratic Primary Debate

Free trade agreement proponents will claim that they want to do away with restrictions that hinder the free flow of goods amongst nations. Yet now more than ever many of the restrictions serve to help keep the Davids and Donnas of this world competitive with Goliath. If we don’t give the “little” guys and girls the tools to compete, they are crushed before they even step one foot into the ring. Even the multi-million dollar corporate cronies, when they load down their caddies with bags of clubs and hop into their golf carts to set out for another fine day on the green teeing off for the next deal with politicians, military generals  or business partners see the point of giving each other handicaps to keep the game fair and “allowing players of different proficiency to play against each other on somewhat equal terms.”

Free Trade Agreements are not allowing anyone into the game except those with access to the private club. The agreements are  negotiated, drafted and implemented to maximize profits and advance the interests of international mega-conglomerates, not to benefit 2007 Obama’s ordinary, Main Street citizen as mentioned above.

HE WHO CONTROLS THE SOWING OF THE SEEDS WILL ENSURE THAT HE AND HIS WILL BE THE ONES TO FATTEN FROM THE HARVEST

The problem with the trade deals is who are behind them – corporations and lawyers, not you and me. The US President did not spend his days sitting on his throne, entertaining audiences of his troubled, out-of-work, in-debt constituents while his court scribes recorded their concerns and his court experts drafted them into an agreement to approach fellow rulers abroad in order to promote peace and prosperity at home. No. Only the concerns of those dining at the tables of the royal court feasts were heard. But somehow the rest of us should believe that these deals will nevertheless mean a betterment of our everyday lives. Not only is the normal public not included in the drafting of the agreements, interest groups aren’t either. So non-profit agencies, public organizations and experts cannot weigh in on things like environmental concerns, public health and safety issues and implications for workers rights.

The entire management of the free trade agreement talks has exposed the fact the leaders of democratic nations who have been elected to represent the people are simply not doing so. It is the 21st century version of taxation without representation. The public coughs up the millions of dollars needed to send politicians and government officials around the world to draft, negotiate and adopt a deal that the public is not even allowed to read or witness. Think about that for a moment. If your pre-nuptial agreement were like a free trade agreement, it would be like your future-spouse-to-be having you pay for the years it takes him/her and his golfing/spa and drinking buddies/girlfriends to draft a document you’re not allowed to look at it, share with your lawyers or have something to say about but “It’s okay, sweetheart, trust me, it’s for your benefit, not mine.”

In fact, the trade agreements have been shrouded in such secrecy that the representatives of the EU Parliament were not even permitted to have a copy, but were given two hours viewing time in a special room without advisers or professionals whose language and legal skills would help these politicians untangle the intentional or unintentional obfuscations woven into the agreement. Who comes up with such things and what are they smoking? Worse yet, who ducks their responsibilities to their electorates and allows themselves to be treated in such a way and why?

To be fair, the US government has now released parts of the agreement but it is not the full agreement itself and a very controlled release. So to return to the pre-nuptial comparison, wouldn’t you begin to suspect that the incriminating articles that allow your spouse-to-be unlimited viewing time of adult websites or wardrobe expenditures and liberation from all household duties are not going to be the ones he/she agrees to let you view beforehand?

KC Blau Elf Spotting Certificate

KC Blau, for example, likes to proudly display her hard-earned Elf Spotting Certificate

If these agreements are being implemented on behalf of the well-being of Joe, Dick, Harry, Hans and Heidi, why all the secrecy? Shouldn’t politicians be bragging about and showing off all their sweat-ridden work? Shouldn’t the fruits of their efforts be plastered all over billboards along the highways to give drivers stuck in traffic with no WIFI something to look at and  be publicly televised to offer ordinary citizens deprived of the Austrian Weather Panorama a channel they can tune into, glaze over to and fall asleep to after a stressful day at their second or third workplace? When something is as stellar as the politicians are touting it to be, you would think politicians especially would move  heaven and earth to have framed versions displayed on every refrigerator and work cubicle from  Bendar Seri Begawan to Birmingham, Alabama, rather than making efforts to hide it in some locked, stuffy room in Brussels with no admirers save a few tired, but dedicated EU reps and politically interested city mice.

Austria Label for Austrian Products

Austria Label for Austrian Products

BYE BYE BUY LOCAL

The trend to buy local products seems to have gone global and for good reason. While friends of mine in the US in NYC and NC have joined local co-ops to receive fresh farm produce from local growers, Austrian friends and colleagues make efforts to heed little red stickers at their grocery stores indicating when products have come from Austria. The buy-local trend makes sense. When you buy products locally grown and produced you are helping the neighboring farms and businesses continue to grow, thrive and operate within the community. Your actions are also reducing the environmental footprint associated with goods that must be shipped over great distances using fuels and polluting the environment. Unfortunately, the trade agreements strive to restrict labeling currently used to promote local products.

Cow grazing on Alpine meadow in Alpbach, Austria

Cow grazing on Alpine meadow in Alpbach, Austria

Austrians care about the traditions and culture of Austrian milk from Austrian cows who spend their summers lazily munching down sweet flowers and grass in the rolling fields of the Alpine meadows. Multi-national million-dollar diary corporations don’t.

ARE GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS AND PRODUCTS HARMFUL?

Label showing product made without gene modification

Label showing product made without gene modification

Probably not. But it could also be just too early to know for sure. But maybe you’re someone who is still not convinced. You continue to suffer nightmares induced by images of a GMO-ridden future as portrayed in Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent biopunk science fiction novel, The Windup Girl and have therefore found some sense of comfort in the control GMO-free labels have given you. You can make the decision for yourself whether it matters or not that your corn has been created in the test tubes of the chemical laboratories of multi-million dollar companies and not Mother Nature’s  earth-authentic cradle.  Under the trade agreements the labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) as genetically-modified would be impermissible.

HEALTH CARE COSTS AND DRUG COMPANIES
Patents on drugs would be extended so that it will take longer for generic drugs to be allowed into the market as competition. Such restrictions basically amount to government-granted monopolies for the drug producers. When only one company is offering the medication for an ailment of the population, that company can set whatever price they want for that product because there is no competition to drive the price downward. So prices and profits remain high and increase health care costs. Granting pharmaceutical companies such patent extensions constitutes a form of protectionism for a private company which is in blatant opposition to the principles of free trade and the promotion of public health.

Some recent examples of how such power can be (and is) blatantly abused by CEOs of pharmaceutical companies have come to light. The first one includes Turing Pharmaceuticals’s CEO Martin Shkreli raising the price of the company’s AIDs drug, Daraprim, 5000 % from 13.50 USD per pill to 750 USD per pill overnight and making himself, overnight, the “most hated man in America.” The second example is that of the activities of the drug company Mylan, which lobbied the US Congress to require EpiPens in all US schools. Then they hiked the price of those EpiPens over 400 % from 100 USD to 614 USD. The company’s CEO Heather Bresch sold 100,200 of her shares in the company and earned herself more than 5 million USD from the sale before the release of a report by David Maris of Well Fargo showing that Mylan had raised the prices of seven of its products by 100% or more and 24 products by 20% or more. And these are the profit-driven Dagoberts whose interests we should be protecting through our free trade agreements?! Seriously?!

See FDA website for information about the amount of money that can be saved in health care through the use of generic drugs.

http://www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers/buyingusingmedicinesafely/understandinggenericdrugs/ucm167991.htm

GOOD-RIDDANCE TO THE PROMOTION OF INDEPENDENT ARTISTIC EFFORTS SUCH AS LOCAL FILMS AND ART IN LOCAL LANGUAGES CONCERNING LOCAL PEOPLE, HISTORY AND CULTURE THROUGH GOVERNMENT FUNDING PROGRAMS

Subsidies currently the norm in Europe (think of French films or Austria’s Bergdoktor!) would no longer be permitted.

USAGE OF PRIVATE INTERNATIONAL ARBITRATION COURTS IN PLACE OF PUBLIC COURTS

International arbitration courts were initially put into place to reduce costs of court cases by making a system in which the ruling is binding and cannot be appealed – thus shortening cases that could last years due to the ladder of appellate courts, and to allow corporations to solve disputes with corporations (two opponents of relatively equal economic standing) by allowing their cases to be heard in a forum that is more flexible than courts. In addition, there was the added bonus, as far as corporations are concerned, that the decisions are not public record and therefore damage amounts paid and culpability found, could be kept from the scrutinizing public eye and from possibly being used in similar cases in the future by additional damage victims in class action suits (which arbitration makes impossible). The problem however, is that this form of parallel justice system is not presided over by impartial judges paid by a neutral source. Judges are paid by the arbitration parties to the case and corporations can re-hire judges for future cases, of course, when their judgements appear to be pro-company. It is a complicated, messy, system that started off with good intentions but has been abused in a way to take away the rights of “ordinary, working men” (try signing an employment contract, retail agreement or patient release form in the US nowadays without an arbitration clause agreement). (see/listen to NPR’s report: Have We Lost Our Constitutional Right in the Fine Print: http://www.npr.org/2015/11/12/455749456/have-we-lost-a-constitutional-right-in-the-fine-print)

THE NEW EMPEROR – WHOSE RULES RULE?

A major problem opponents of the trade agreements have is that all signatories of the trade agreement are required to make their laws and regulations conform to this agreement. That means that national laws will subsequently be secondary to the laws of the agreements. That alone should be enough to make ordinary citizens lose sleep. Unfortunately, whereas many like to claim that Brexit was a protest to the status quo, I believe it was also a “yes” vote to taking back local power. And this is important. This is a lot of what is fueling Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric. He is disingenuously claiming that he will empower the little guy. He won’t. But he has parroted his empty promise often enough that many believe he wants to.

GIVING THE POWERFUL EVEN MORE POWER

A relatively small number of mega corporations control many of the products the public consumes. These include familiar corporations like Procter and Gamble, JP Morgan Chase, Google and General Electric. Consolidation and monopoly is growing, not slowing. Americans of my generation who were raised on fears of an international communist domination should get their heads out of the sand and read Vladimir Lenin’s book from a century ago called “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.” Lenin predicted current trends and developments in which mega-corporations grow and grow, and as they grow, they become more powerful and wipe out smaller competitors, thus leaving in the end, only a few very powerful businesses dominating everything produced and consumed in the form of monopolies. “If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.” And this concentration of all goods, he argued, is what in the end leads to communism (not the generically-imposed, government-induced, post-1945 Russian version).

If you believe competition promotes innovation and quality, then a continual destruction of competitors through the continual rise of a few, powerful mega-corporations that have higher revenue turnovers than the GDP of many smaller nations, should be raising some serious alarm bells. The state of free press is a prime example of a unsung heroic victim of this development. A little over 20 years ago, more than 50 media companies controlled our information flow in the US. Today? Just 6 companies control all US media. This gives six CEOs control of all the information that we receive about everything. A clear example of how we have let the private interest supersede the democracy-based interests of the public.

BUSINESS VS. PUBLIC INTERESTS

We have to stop pretending that the profit-driven interests of international companies, no matter where they are based, automatically coincide with the national security and welfare interests of the constituents of the home nation. They often do not. And for this reason it is a blatant conflict of interests to allow the agendas of private companies to dominate the content of international agreements concluded between and amongst nations. Interdependence is good and can be a tool in promoting peace and prosperity but it cannot be allowed to come at the expense of the ability and capability for self-reliance.

It’s like in North Carolina when the hurricane warnings are raised. Sure you have a BigWig’s around the corner but when the storm hits and the grocery store is suddenly closed for business until further notice, you better hope you’ve squirreled away an ample  enough supply of bread, water, candles and Cocoa Puffs to weather you through the storm. The more we move industries and agriculture completely abroad (because it is more profitable for our companies to produce where labor is cheaper and workers’ rights weaker), the more we eradicate local industries, the greater the danger of positioning ourselves at the mercy of those we have come to depend on to supply us with our essential needs.

History abounds with examples in which the interests of international trade were explicitly at odds with the welfare of a nation’s populace. Look, for example, at Britain and Europe’s exporting opium to China in the 18th and 19th centuries in order to counter the trade imbalance between China and themselves. While the Western partners (particularly Britain) were eager to import Chinese goods such as teas, silks and porcelain, the largely peasant population of China had no need for Western goods. This made silver and gold the only possible trade currency (as opposed to goods) for Western traders to use to attain Chinese goods. Then comes opium. The West discovered they could send opium to China and receive the sought-after Chinese goods in return. As opium became more widely available and fell in price in China, the number of addicts shot up as well. Naturally the Qing dynasty grew alarmed and tried to restrict the import of foreign opium. This led to the First and Second Opium Wars.

While you could and should argue that we’ve since progressed, opting for trade battles to be fought in courts (even if they are imbalanced arbitration tribunals) rather than on the battlefields, that is not the point. The point is that a country’s responsibility for the well-being of its populace cannot be subjugated to the interests of private international corporations seeking nothing more than an increase in the bottom lines of their balance sheets. And disputes should be solved diplomatically by fair and impartial forums weighing more factors than loop-holes and fine print. But the current trade agreements aren’t setting out innovative plans that learn from the disturbing lessons of the past in order to achieve this. Similar to an International Court of Justice and Human Rights, maybe we need an International Court of Trade, Environment and Human Welfare.

Still not convinced that trade agreements are being made for corporations and not you and me? Allow recent historical examples of how free trade agreements are being used (abused) to promote corporate (as opposed to public) interest. While reading, keep in mind the economic consequences for some of these local, small-budget governments that have been sued by major, multinational companies with high revenues.

CORPORATE LAW $UITS FOR LOSS OF POTENTIAL PROFIT

This is an amazing phenomenon that has come from free trade agreements. Companies are suing governments over laws that they perceive disadvantageous to their businesses by making major claims for loss profits. The costs of these law suits can quickly escalate and become too costly for local governments to properly defend themselves. Trade agreements make governments liable if laws to protect consumers have negative consequences for businesses. If you are manufacturing CFCs and a law is passed that no longer allows you to sell aerosols powered by CFC chemicals because studies show that these eat away at the protective ozone layer around the earth and are therefore bad for the environment and public health, of course you will lose profits. And you should. And no one and nothing should be forced to pay you for those losses or allow you to overturn those laws. In fact, you should be required to pay something to humanity for blatantly ignoring the impact of you profit, greed-driven, ignorant business pursuits.

Should public servants who are working on the clock for public tax dollars, be facilitating measures that will subsequently put local, regional, state and national governments’ back against the walls as they have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars (sometimes millions) to defend policies, measures and laws put into place to protect local environments, as well as the public health and safety of local communities?

Examples of such cases are as numerous as they are disturbing:

FRACKING: The Calgary-based oil- and gas-drilling company Lone Pine which was registered in Delaware at the time sued Quebec under NAFTA for 250-million dollars in damages as a result of Quebec’s moratorium on fracking to prevent fracking exploration under the St. Lawrence Seaway. (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/10/03/quebec-fracking-ban-lawsuit_n_4038173.html)

SMOKING: Challenges to cigarette packaging restrictions – an effort to promote public health by cutting down on cigarette sales through a measure proven to be low-cost and effective came to a head when Philipp Morris sued the little country of Uruguay for such laws. Philipp Morris sued for loss of profits and wanted to pressure Uruguay to reverse its laws. (http://www.iisd.org/itn/2011/07/12/philip-morris-v-uruguay-will-investor-state-arbitration-send-restrictions-on-tobacco-marketing-up-in-smoke/)

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION OF WATER: Metalclad is a US company that built a processing plant for toxic waste in Mexico. The local government refused to issue a building permit after an environmental impact report from a government engineer raised concerns about the project’s consequences for local ground water. When building didn’t stop, the local government declared the area an environmental refuge. Metalclad challenged the decision under NAFTA and was awarded 16.8 million USD (!).

In another case, under NAFTA, Methanex, a Canadian firm, challenged the state of California’s ban on the use of MTBE (a groundwater pollutant) in gasoline in a suit claiming a billion dollars in damages for good will, reputation and future profits. How is a state like California supposed to dish out a billion dollars to a private company?

DIGITAL AND INTERNET RESTRICTIONS

A short video from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (https://www.eff.org/issues/tpp) and Santiago Rocha (sound quality not the best) on the topic of free trade agreements and digital rights.

The winners? The lawyers and mega-corporations. The losers? Working, ordinary people as mentioned in Obama’s 2007 speech.

As a person who supported the Obama campaign(s) and believes in the ideals of a party that says it promotes “equal opportunity, consumer protection, and environmental protection,” I find several of the leading democratic party candidates stand on these free trade agreements, as they are being negotiated and drafted, mind-boggling. But then again, I have find many things mind-boggling concerning the democratic party in recent times. But what’s a girl to do?

DEMOCRATS AND THE SPLIT PERSONALITY REGARDING FREE TRADE

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have done complete U-Turns when it comes to free trade which gives the impression that aliens have inhabited their bodies and are using them to amuse themselves and confuse the American public. President Obama uses a pro-Free Trade Agreement jam on the popular show Jimmy Fallon to reverse campaign promises rather than fulfill them. Watch closely from 4:28 – 5:36 >> almost a fifth of President Obama’s cool, groovy rap is dedicated to the not-so-cool product-placement-promotion of the Free Trade Agreement. This can’t be the same man who gave the speech(es) further down below opposing NAFTA and vehemently denied reports that he had been secretly communicating with Canada during the campaign to ignore his anti-NAFTA campaign mumbo jumbo since it was just campaign rhetoric. Say it isn’t so.

OBAMA AND FREE TRADE

Obama as US President : Slow Jam on Jimmy Fallon

Below, Barack Obama as presidential candidate, speaking about free trade agreements in 2007 as quoted in the beginning of this blog post and claiming that we need to ensure we elect a president who “is not simply subject to the whims of corporate lobbyists.” A president who will ensure “we have a voice in Washington.” What happened between then and now? What??? It’s like we should be making an appeal to Obi Wan Kenobi to help us out because at the moment, he truly seems to be our only hope.

HILLARY CLINTON AND FREE TRADE

As Secretary State, Hillary Clinton traveled around the globe singing the praises of the exact same trade agreements she now is saying she would oppose if elected. However, her predecessor’s track record and her own topsy-turvy, two-faced relationship with the subject matter, raise serious concerns about the extent of the sincerity of this promise. Will she keep her promise, once elected, and stop these free trade agreements in their tracks, or as President Hillary Clinton will she suffer the same post-election amnesia as Barack Obama?

Collage from Anti-TTIP and TPP protests

Collage from Anti-TTIP and TPP protests

Don’t get me wrong, I do not think the solution is to vote in a narcissistic, spotlight-hungry, lifelong-privileged  Mr.-Heat-Miser-Lookalike. I think we have to hold those we elect accountable to their campaign promises and accountable to the public, “ordinary, working, Main Street man’s (and woman’s)” interests that they have taken oath to swear to uphold. Perhaps what we need is compensation. Not for loss of profit but for loss of credibility and democracy.

AFTER NOTE: Perhaps the real motivation for the urgency of these agreements and an explanation for the about-face many politicians have made with regards to them has more to do with remaining competitive in a world market with China as a player. But if so, this is not the way to go about it because it weakens the ability of regional and local businesses to compete on an international scale and takes away many of the democratic rights and safeguards of citizens in the process.

Additional Reading:

Democratic Party Wikipedia Entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_Party_%28United_States%29, Accessed August 28, 2016

http://www.aflcio.org/Issues/Trade/U.S.-EU-Free-Trade-Agreement-TTIP

Read more about TTIP and Brexit in a previous post: http://www.kcblau.com/brexit-legacy/

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DISTANCE HURT – Austrian word of the Week

Print This PostFernweh: Oh yeah. Americans feel it too. But maybe the-powers-that-be thought it wise not to allow it into the English language, for fear that the English-speaking wage slaves amongst us with little to no paid vacation time could be chronically ill with Fernweh. Wittgenstein knew exactly what he was talking about when he said the boundaries of our language are the boundaries of our world. No name? No reality. Better to let those European German-speakers name and suffer from their Fernweh ailment as they plan their month-long annual jaunts to distance lands, exotic beaches and tropical paradises. Because who the heck isn’t suffering a bit of distance hurt whenever Poldi from three cubicles down, keeps sending the company Whatsapp group amazingly gorgeous photos of hippos or

Hippo

Don’t be fooled. Whatapp Hippo Photo sent to induce Fernweh and envy.

rhinos and clear blue African skies while the rest of us peons are battling the last of our winter colds, suffering through Lugner Presidential raps and elbowing Omis in Billa for the last pack of the spring’s first ripened strawberries. Yes, unbelievable but true, even if you are fortunate enough to reside in the world’s most livable city, you can suffer from bouts of Fernweh. So if

Vacation Sign

Vienna store sign bragging about being on vacation instead of simply posting “closed.”

you’re like me, it’s not that you weren’t desperate to get out of Dodge while living your hamster-wheel 9-5 existence in small town USA, you just didn’t realize there was a proper name for it and that folks just like you all over the globe were suffering from the exact same thing – Fernweh! Yes, Fernweh! Print This Post

More Words of the Week

Beuschlreißer: Lung Ripper

Panama Beach

Beach in Panama – guaranteed to grant Fernweh sufferers relief while experienced – unless they’re too busy trying to hide something else.

Blechtrottel: Tin Idiot

C-80

Eierbär: Eggsbear

Eifersucht, Frühlingsmüdigkeit, Hungerlohn, Torschlusspanik, Schadenfreude, Weltschmerz, Katzenjammer, Freitod, Holzpyjama, Lebensmüde, Fernweh

Fetzenschädel: Rags Skull

Geistesvernichtungsanstalt: Spirit Annihilation Asylum

Gespritzer

Häuslpapierfladerer: House Paper Thief

Hatscher

Krautwacher: Cabbage Guard

Putzgretl: Cleaning Gretl

Saubär: Pig Bear

Treppenwitz: Stair Joke

 

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WHAT WE CAN LEARN IN THE USA FROM A PLACE LIKE AUSTRIA

“Give me the strength to change the things I can, the courage to endure the things I can’t and the wisdom to recognize the difference.”

“Don’t compare. It’s neither better nor worse, it’s just different.“ Print This Post

If It Were My Home

Chart Comparing the US to Austria from the Country Comparison Website: If It Were My Home (click on image for enlarged view)

Rule # 1 of being an exchange student is simply another way of pounding into bright-eyed, bushy-tailed homesick teens that to truly enjoy their experience abroad, and get the most out their host country, they will have to come equipped with an open mind.

When you spend an entire lifetime driving the half-a-block to the grocery store, you tend to become misled by the notion that the car is indeed the right way and only possible way to fetch your groceries.

Exchange Student Rule # 1, however, is an over- simplified message for about-to-be overwhelmed globetrotters. But for 16- and 17-year olds spending a year in some faraway land, perhaps their first time away from all that is familiar, I’d venture that, yes, it is a good rule to follow. Definitely do not compare their fork-and-knife eating pizza habits to our shove-it-in-your-mouth methods. Frankly, can we really be sure that Uncle Ted truly did wash his hands when he came in from the bushes and dug into the Pepperoni extra cheese.

But at some point, if we strive to grow and progress, life demands that we adopt Global Adult Rule # 1, which, God help us all, if I were Supreme Ruler of the World, I’d make required reading for all those entering adulthood.

Golden Adult Rule # 1: Encounter the world with a mature mind, able to weigh pros and cons honestly and without the rose-colored glasses of pride or ego in order to maintain a forward moving pace.

One can imagine that the first cave dwellers to slap some hide around their tired, calloused, bloodied, hairy, feet must have suffered ridicule from the cave clan one valley over. But as the smoke and drum beats from the shoed community seeped into the quiet, hungry corners of the cranky, sore-footed neighbor valley, ridicule must have dissipated into cautious skepticism. Maybe perhaps, it is definitely theoretically possible, that those frequent mammoth feasts are made possible by hunters who can run faster and track over greater distances. But who wants to admit they’re wrong and outdone? We’ll just go on with our grim bare-footed ways. But the storm gates of progress are not to be contained. No doubt, some buck-wild, bare-footed Neanderthal teen crashed the Friday night all-you-can-eat mammoth happy hour with his big-toed buddies and scored a pair of shiny, new, leathery-soft, prehistoric Pradas in the midnight pin-the-tail on the megaloceros competition and shoes went viral and feet have never been quite as pained and ugly since.

To think that any society can progress – technically or socially — by its citizens barricading themselves behind stone walls of obstinate obliviousness is to damn ourselves to darkness.

Pakistan flood in Texas

If the 2010 Pakistan flood that had directly killed 2000 people had hit Texas.

And that’s what’s so great about the website, If It Were My Home. Originally the creators wanted to make disasters more real for the folks at home by enabling users to transpose maps of natural catastrophes to any part of the globe (you can see, for example, what it would be like if the 2010 Pakistan massive flood had struck climate-change denier, Senator Ted Cruz’s home state of Texas). Later the creators of the website used the official figures from national government and international organizations to enable direct comparisons between two countries. How different would my life be if I lived in Austria rather than the US? Well…let’s have a look.

In the US, my friends and family can expect to enjoy 9.2% less free time, spend 64.5% more on healthcare, and die a whopping 0.61 years sooner than those of us in Austria. On the downside, I’ll probably earn 19.3% less money than my counterparts in the US. But in a place with free public universities, universal healthcare, and a public transportation system that charges just 1€/day for annual tickets, who needs more money?

Years ago, there was a trio of old ladies on a US commercial for a fast food chain whose no-nonsense attitude shot them to instantaneous fame. As Granny # 1 jammed her wire-rimmed eye glasses into the big white fluffy bun of the competitor, Granny Peller, clutching her handbag and stretching her lace-collared neck for a better look, demanded, “Where’s the beef?”

In the States, when we tout our greatest-nation-on-earth status, what are we comparing and to whom? Every country I have ever visited thinks itself the greatest. India boasts that it’s the world’s largest democracy, Greece, the world’s oldest and Norway can brag about having the most qualitative. All countries have something to puff out their chests about. Yet an intelligent conversation leading to progress demands an end to platitudes and a comparison based on real figures. Yes, Granny Peller, “Where’s the beef?!”

Comparisons can be dicey. When one side is clearly better, the limping lag-behind is bound to get defensive and lash out. We like our big-toed bunion blistered bare feet! You shoed footed sissies need to trot on back over to that valley of yours and stop all that stupid drumming and grilling! But as modern, intelligent, humans, we must hope, at some point, to have reached the maturity to leave our egos in the cave beside the spears and hammer-stones, and venture to the valley across the mighty mountain and icy river to learn, transfer and improve. And you know what? We might find that those cave crocs are great but could sure use some traction for the stony paths, fur for the winter and color for the misses.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put away childish ways.

I do not believe that Austrians are less criminally-minded. I am also not convinced Americans have a violence gene that makes them more prone to murder each other. Despite the wonderful Alpine air, I highly doubt that “frische Luft” is the reason for fewer infancy deaths here.

So why such differences? Isn’t it time we stop the platitudes, check our egos, climb the mountains, and change the things we can?

Print This Post Some sites to check out:

Country comparisons and transposable global disaster maps If It Were My Home Website

Check out these Instructions for Prehistoric Pumps. Bound to be the buzz at any paleontology party. People will be emulating you as the picture of progress.

Article from the New York Times about archeological find of prehistoric shoes complete with image of Prehistoric Prada found under sheep dung.

And just for fun: Shoes vs. Beer – which is progress? Check out Heineken’s take on the matter: https://youtu.be/zZfy0gpIARE

Where’s the Beef Commercial on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug75diEyiA0

Where’s the Beef Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where%27s_the_beef%3F

Global Democracy Ranking site: Compare Rankings of Countries

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