Saturday, September 29, 2012

Maker and Takers

Makers and TakersI’ve been thinking a lot about this supposed division of economic classes, an argument being pressed by Mitt Romney and his Republican allies this season.  If nothing else, it’s a resonant slogan that, like “Cut and Run” frames the issue in a way that prevent debate.  I wish that the left could be as deft.

I know that life is more complex: the ‘47%’ are not pure ‘takers’, nor the 53% all ‘makers’.   Jared Bernstein had a insightful essay on his economics blog, Makers, Takers, and YOYOs, that I think captures the real ambiguity well:

All of us need some help at some point.  Sometimes that help comes from family, sometimes from government, typically from some combination of both, but no one goes it alone.  If you’re lucky, have people who care for you, or have the wherewithal to seek it out yourself, there will be a ladder in front of you at some point.   That doesn’t make you a taker—you’ll have to climb it yourself.

Right now, I’m hearing a lot from people who were born on third yet think they hit a triple.  They’re telling me that the role of government is to kick out those ladders.  But they are wrong.  The role of government is to make sure those ladders are there, along with insurance against ill-health and penury in old age, a safety net when the economic bottom falls out, investments in the public goods the market won’t provide, protections against negative externalities like pollution and market bubbles that private markets fail to price in, and so on.

Morlocks and EloiEven more striking is the way that the debate is turning traditional class positioning on it’s head.  From The Time Machine to The Hunger Games, social philosophers and commentators have imagined a world were the working poor support the idle rich.  Thee were Makers, the Morlocks; there were Takers, the Eloi.   The new framing (also commented on by the Economist) casts the rich and powerful as the Makers, supporting a vast underclass of Takers.

I see their purpose in spinning this illusion, the way it cements the class distinctions with a mortar of goods and guilt, complete with a welcoming meritocratic gate through which those clever and industriousness can enter.  But it runs so counter to actual everyday experience for most people that I wonder what sustains it.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The mean streets of Brussels

Maybe it’s just a cyclothymic week, but it feels like it’s just going too hard lately.

I gathered things together for my brief trip to London yesterday, checking that the olive tree was fed (new shoots emerging) and the perishables were away.  Rain gusted in bursts across the bridge; I tucked in another Dutch book.  It didn’t look like there was any way to postpone the test: better to just prepare as best I can. Turn down the temperature; check the windows, out.

Life probably settles closest to the right balance when I’m in Maastricht.  I practice my Dutch daily, ride my bike around town, go to exercise and the PT, visit with friends.  Britain is too often a whirlwind of train trips into London and driving to meetings; the US a long plane trip followed by jet lag.  But this time the bike is still in the shop, friends are quarreling, and there are too many unanswered questions on the development program

I take a quick diversion to my first Meet ‘n Greet, a monthly event at Café Zuid.  There’s a big group, perhaps with all of the arriving students, but the crowd turns out to be more professional than prep.  In quick succession I meet an art restorer, an organizer, an electronics salesman, a new hire at my old company.  The canapé's wheel by along with an hour: time to run.

I needn’t have bothered: the train to Liege runs every hour and I’m 40 minutes early.  Knots of laughing students tumble along the platforms, the sky turns blue, then black.  I wonder why the Dutch trains all look fresh and clean, while the Belgian ones are old, crusted with graffiti.  The conductors always look crisp, nonetheless.  We board.

Leige is spectacularly lit, ribs arching high above the tracks.  Trains glide through bound for France, Germany, north to Amsterdam.  An one for Brussels: I am really starting to fade and doze lightly waiting for the conductor to check the ticket.  The cities, the villages flicker past.

We reach Brussels Midi at ten, Google says that the hotel is two km away.  I engage a taxi driver who summons friends: they conclude that the hotel is too close for them to take me.  Straight on, a droit, left at the light, four, five blocks, voila. I give it a go, but it’s a straight shot out into the night along deserted streets.   Back to the taxi stand, another debate.  Absolument pas.  I understand the reason, the finality, and consider seeing if the brightly it Park Inn across the street might have a room.

Silly.  Just Do It.

Out.  Right.  Light.  Down the street.  The numbers crawl from 1 upwards, unevenly across the two sides of the street.  I need 178.  A gap in the numbers accompanies a vacant lot, weeds and garbage.  A teenager crosses the street, asks if I know the time.   I’m at 92.

I know I felt pretty vulnerable: empty street, grey hair, light shirt, suitcase dragging along behind.  Tourist, lost.  Stupidly I revert to how I handle baking animals: stop, steely eye contact, firm ‘No’, a slight gesture.  The kid hesitates, looks confused. A louder ‘no’, tip of the head, wait until he’s ahead before following behind.  I’m more frustrated with myself for being so dumb and with the taxi driver for causing this situation than anything else.  I feel, and probably look, angry.  126.

We lock step along the street, one block, two, three.  The only brightly lit façade turns out to be the hotel.  There hasn’t been a car, another person the whole way.  Just me and the confused kid. And I’m shaking as I get inside.  The clerk gives me an upgrade but opines that it’s likely too late to go out looking for an open restaurant.  d‘accord.

I operate from a philosophy of  relying on myself, assessing the risks, taking the best alternative, then sorting out the situation that it leads to.  It work great in business (so far).

‘not so hot at 10:30 near Gare Midi.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Autumn chill

DSC03351 Stitch

The leaves have begun to turn along the Maas and around the courtyards: bands of cold rain are sweeping in from the coast.  It’s soaking the streets and dampening my mood. 

My businesses are in a pretty intense phase where a lot needs to go right, and on schedule, to meet our commercialization targets.  I can handle the science and technology, the processes and budgets, but the people issues are increasingly acute.  With less planning and presenting, people seem happy falling into silly squabbles about appearances and control.   We’re spending too much time generally on the companies ’plumbing’ and not enough on their strategy and exits.  It leads me towards thinking that we need changes in people and organization, which is going to be painful.

I’m also feeling insecure about residency: bot the UK and the Dutch are getting more difficult with financial and cultural requirements for renewing permits.  The renewal letters are arriving with strict reporting requirements, time limits, and pages of threats about he consequences of not getting renewed.  I understand the larger politics of immigration, but the businesses brought a quarter-million euros into the country last year and we’re hiring local people and paying local taxes.

I’m working hard, on my own time and money, towards passing the language exam (A2, NT1 NT2?).  The stakes are rising because the Dutch are insisting that I take a pre-exam in November: refusal indicates that I am ‘unwilling’ to integrate, rather than ‘unable’ to speak.  Now I have to balance the risk of failing the exam against the risk of not taking it yet, not a pair of pleasant alternatives. 

I continue to work with my tutor, my workbooks, and my lessons daily: the college has restored my internet access to the on-line tutorials and videos (after six months of fruitless trying).

My 40th High School Reunion is this weekend.  I’ve ever been to any reunions, but this one was tempting and, for a while, I thought that I might back to Deerfield for it.  I’ve been in contact with several old friends, found that a few had passed away, scanned through pictures, squinting, to see who I still recognized.  I have to catch a train to Brussels, though pre-position in a discount hotel near Gare Midi for the Eurostar to London for early meetings on Friday.  

I’m feeling tired and discouraged.  The suitcase only changes over now, it doesn’t seem to ever get unpacked.  I know I’m just buried with a transient gaggle of issues, but I like to have a positive outlook as I get them addressed.  Otherwise, I’ll just fight the problems rather than solve them.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

InterNations connections

InternationsI’m pleased to welcome new visitors from InterNations, an expatriate organization celebrating its fifth year of networking people around the world.  I’m a self-paying member of “InterNations – Maastricht” and have long referred others to their social and networking events.

I was contacted a few months back to become a recommended Dutch-expatriate blog, and I really appreciate the new connection from Malte and the group.  I’m happy to offer their link via their badge, to the right, and they’ve posted a short background piece at their site.

My expertise is in living and working in the Netherlands, entrepreneurship, and developing global startups from a great medical technology idea.  If you have questions about a project, or are just in Maastricht and want to share some ideas, please get in touch.  Discussions of travel, painting, and sailing are also welcome (as many know…).

And, as always, many thanks for reading and commenting along this journey: hard to believe it’s been 1100 posts (and counting!).

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mijn fiets in de trein

There’s a first time for everything…  (een eerste keer voor alles).

Actually, I’m not sure why this never came up – I ride the train and my bike a lot, just seldom the two together.  But the IND required me to get a new uittreksel documenting that my business is still in business, and the KvK Limburg has decamped to Sittard, so the bike make the most sense for getting the kilometer or so between the station and the office.

Taking a bike onto the train is pretty easy: you buy a supplemental day-pass at the station, paying six euros for the bike (it works the same for a pet).  Bikes aren’t allowed on the train during morning and afternoon rush hours, and you have to find the right door (marked with a bicycle) to board.

Beyond that, no worries.  My only mistake actually came later in the afternoon.



I was cycling from the station to an afternoon meeting at the University when the *thunk-thunk* of a flat back tire started.  I pulled in to put some air in, but that lasted only 3/4 of the way to my destination.  So I dropped the bike at the Maastricht Randwyck station and walked to the offices.  Afterwards, I returned to put the bike onto the train only to find that I’d left the dagkaartje back at the apartment.  Nothing to do but pony up another six euros.

I took advantage of the tire repair to fix the broken rear light and kickstand, so that my oude fiets is at least functioning as well as a new one.

Or, at least, legally.


IAmExpat notes that a discount is available on train cards: half-off if you purchase one before mid-October.  This is a great deal in every way – the train card gives 40% off non-peak travel and you can share the discount when traveling with others.

An OV-Chipkaart needs to  be validated at a Veolia ServicePoint before it can be used to get a discountn Veolia buses and trains.  It takes about a minute and costs nothing: in Maastricht the office is right across from the train station next to the Grand Hotel de l’Empereur.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Over zondag

Sunday morning in Maastricht, a nice sunrise after a rainy night.  The temperature have turned decidedly warmer; storms are predicted along the coast;.  It’s remind me of Seattle’s “Pineapple Express”, when warm rains and wind blow in from Hawaii.  Even better, I’m finding that my Dutch can now handle sentences at this level: Volgens en waaide het maandag enkele uren bijzonder hard langst de kust en was aan het eind van de middag de eerste herfststorm van 2012 officieel een feit.   Progress.

But back to Sunday.

The weather alone is a good excuse to sit in with a herfstbier and some reading, maybe a piece of drawing paper and a few charcoals.  But falling on a Sunday is even better: most shops and grocers are firmly closed from Saturday afternoon until Monday midday.  This is governed by the 1996 Winkeltijdenwet, which set commercial hours by the following rules

  • Het is verboden op zon- enfeestdagen geopend te zijn en om op werkdagen voor 06.00 uur en na 22.00 uur geopend te zijn.  Requires closure before 6 am, after 10pm, and on Sundays.
  • Gemeenten mogen vrijstelling verlenen voor maximaal 12 zon-/feestdagen per jaar.   12 Sundays and public holidays exempted each year.
  • Vrijstelling is mogelijk voor avondwinkels.  “Evening stores” may be exempted.
  • Aanvullende vrijstelling is mogelijk in gemeenten of delen van gemeenten ten behoeve van toerisme, en in de nabijheid van grensovergangen langs daarop aansluitende doorgaande wegen ten behoeve van grensoverschrijdend verkeer.   Tourist and border exemptions are allowed.

The major exemption is koopzondag, the first Sunday of every month.

At first, living in Arnhem, this regular and total closure took some getting used to.

In the VS, whenever we need something we hop into the car and go get it, day or night, assured that stores will be open.  As a result, I suffered first some hungry days, not having stocked dinner for the weekend, then some twitchy days, wondering what to do if the city was closed.

Fortunately, I lived a few doors off Sonsbeek Park, a lovely green sward with lakes and woods and paths where people went walking on sunny weekend days. And I got used to taking the day off from work and errands, just taking the day lightly.

Thus was Balance reborn.

DSC03278 Stitch

As you can imagine, this tradition has come under some commercial pressure.  But Prof Robert Frank points out that opening stores for more hours doesn’t actually increase sales, it just spreads them across a longer period of time and forces shopkeepers to spend more time working to stay even.  Tyler Brule, the hyperkinetic Fast Lane columnist for the FT, recently published an essay on the same topic, but from a Swiss perspective:

This ongoing curb on consumerism is not only an inconvenience, it’s wholly outdated. Or is it? As the church bells started to ring from the old town, I considered the joys of a day of rest for (almost) all.

In the end, he almost brings himself to embrace the idea…if only for it’s effects on people.

In contrast, I’m now firmly in the camp of believing that closed-door Sunday is a marvelous social  (and why can’t Conservatives and Republicans champion traditional causes like this one?).  I go biking to Eijsden through the countryside, have coffee along the river, meet friends, read a book, follow a thought.  For one day, it’s planned and dedicated time to intellectually relax and reconnect.

Or, as people are doing out front this zondag, to salsa.

Despite the rain.