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Monday, 19 September 2016

“Majesty, point us a dot at the horizon. Somewhere where we – the Dutch people – would want to go for ourselves and our children”. Open letter to the Dutch King as the government’s official straw man on Prince’s Day

Your Majesty,

Since last Prince’s Day [the Dutch National Budget Day and the moment of the official governmental outlook for the next year on the third Tuesday of September - EL] the situation in The Netherlands has substantially improved, as far as the economy is concerned.

Housing prices are up again – especially in the big cities –and unemployment is dropping; in particular among older, 50+ workers. The number of trucks on the Dutch roads is steadily mounting, as a palpable sign of soaring economic activity. In other words, the economy seems to be in a positive flow, in spite of the global unrest, the refugee crisis and the tensions in Eastern Europe. On top of that the Dutch national budget looks fine as well.

There is a lot to be satisfied about for the current PvdA (socialist) and VVD (liberal-conservative) government, that is going to reach maturity unharmed for the first time in many, many years.  And – as 2017 is an election year for the Second Chamber of Parliament – the government is boasting about its achievements during the nearly four years of Cabinet Mark Rutte II.

The PvdA is boasting about the social, labour-friendly parts in their share of the government policy, while the VVD is bragging about their ministers and state secretaries being tough on crime, commuter-friendly (“We delivered more tarmac during this government period than during any other time before”) and being the entrepreneur’s best friends.

Almost everybody in the government – irrespective of their party – is very pleased with himself and wants to share the secret of his success with the Dutch grassroots, as an invitation to give him/her another chance.

And Mark Rutte? He thinks that he is capable of leading the country for another five years, like no-one else is, and he is very much willing to do so too. Well, your majesty, you know him.

But, your highness, look outside the safe zone of your own protected micro-cosmos. Forget those ecstatic sportsmen and -women that you encountered on various occasions in Rio de Janeiro: those people – especially the medal winners – are living in their own micro-cosmos, where they can ignore – even deny – reality and normal live in The Netherlands.

Read the newspapers and don’t skip the comments of common Dutch citizens beneath the articles. Spend a day or two on Twitter or Facebook and other social media to get acquainted with the emotions of ‘Joop & Liesbeth’ (proverbial socialist couple), ‘Jan-Jaap and Brechtje’ (proverbial liberal-conservatives) or their blue-collar rightwing counterparts ‘Henk & Ingrid’. Not always the happiest of emotions; thats true! And often contrary in their conclusions with respect to the Dutch social-economic situation. But very real ones!

Pierce through the tinsel of LinkedIn showing only ‘passionate and utterly motivated people, waiting for a new challenge where they can proactively show what they are made of’; there are quite a lot of them, aren’t there?! Do you think all those people are on LinkedIn for fun?! Really?!

And do you think that all those people on LinkedIn are showing cheesy statements of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or the Dalai Lama, because they deeply adore those guys? Really?! And not, because these folks hope that some of these idols’ glory, success and glamour will touch themselves on their quest for a new job and a better career?!

Read about the numerous flex-workers, the (not so) freelancers and the hundreds of thousands of youngsters with temporary contracts, who will not receive a fixed contract in many, many years probably. Or the people with a chronical illness and their loved ones, who are all struggling to cope with that circumstance: humanely, but also financially and with respect to their difficult work-leisure balance.

Please walk the extra mile to really know the current feelings of your citizens, instead of only being the ventriloquist’s dummy of your government. Just a perfect spokesman, reading a bad speech that is utterly boring in its insignificance and its stately dryness and cheesiness. Prick through the bragging of this cabinets self-complacency and try to see what the people are missing at this moment: the proverbial dot on the horizon.

Your Majesty, you have three children and so have I. Actually they are almost the same age. Your oldest daughter will become the Queen of The Netherlands, while my youngest son will hopefully become the King of Dutch Chess.

I want my children to grow up in a cleaner, more healthy world. Not in a world in which their lungs will be polluted at a young age with the particulates of the heavy industry and the millions of fossile fuel-driven cars, clouding our highways. And I want them to grow up in a world in which they can get a decent job with a decent salary and a decent retirement fee after they have stopped working; at a reasonable age.

I want them to grow up in a safe world, in which the Second Cold War and Islamic jihads are hopefully a thing of the past again. A world in which mutual understanding has triumphated upon the countries with the biggest guns, the most deadly bombs or the most dangerous religious masses.

A world in which drinking and cleaning water is freely obtainable for all the world’s citizens and daily food stuffs are not the asset of a few powerful companies: Bayer-Monsanto, Nestle, Danone, Syngenta or Cargill. And not in a world in which Africa is still starving from poverty and drought, while being looted by China, Japan, Russia, South Korea or the European countries and the United States; just as South-America and the North Pole.

For my children I want that they have the chance to see their children and grandchildren grow up, just like I see them do that now. I know by heart, that you think about that the same way, with respect to your children.

I know that you are bound by the protocol to express that what is presented to you and that the Prime Minister has written your King’s speech. A Prime Minister who flatters himself with the opinion that he ‘is not the guy for having a grand vision on the world. That he is simply keeping the shop open for “The Netherlands ltd” and that he is doing a fine job with that’. 

Talented in what he does, but utterly uninspiring as a human being.

PM Mark Rutte does not have children of himself and that is OK, of course. I hope for him that he will find and keep happiness in his life: with or without a partner for life. I think I know his situation as I have been in a similar situation too, for quite a long time. Actually not much unlike yourself, your highness.

Nevertheless, you have children, as I mentioned earlier. That gives you an extra responsibility: both as a loving father and instigator of your own ‘blue’ bloodline. And that, even though your daughters live in the same micro-cosmos as you do. 

A micro-cosmos in which encounters with the press and with common, 'normal' people are reduced to half a dozen, carefully chosen and guarded moments per year. And a micro-cosmos in which having a shedload of money, status and a fixed job has never been an issue, even though I dont envy you or your job.

Yet, I hope that you know and understand that a world war with Russia, China or perhaps even the United States would destroy your little Camelot after all, even though you and your loved ones would be among the first people to find shelter. 

And that religious tensions and economic despair in a society can utterly divide people at the bottom of the social ladder and make them afraid, desperate and agressive. And also that the air pollution from fossile fuels won’t stop just outside your little paradises in Wassenaar, Den Haag, Greece or Switzerland, irrespective of how much money you paid and security you arranged for it.

And of course I hope you understand and feel inside your heart that the dissatisfied and disappointed, sometimes even angry and alienated people in The Netherlands want a straw to clutch at: a glimmer of hope from a person that they love and trust beyond anything else. A sign that gives them confidence and courage to move on living their lives and to get more optimistical about the future again, as it is their future; for them to discover!

So please, your highness...!

Go to your ‘employer’ Mark Rutte and his henchmen and tell them to take a hike with Rutte's boring secrets of his Cabinet’s success, their boasting about the positive progression of the Dutch economy and their stately prose about the current state of the Dutch nation, that nobody understands and for which nobody really cares. 

Tell them that you go on strike “like an Air France pilot” if he demands from you to present that boring nonsense again.

Tell them that you heard from your ‘subjects’ (i.e. the Dutch citizens) that they want an inspired and inspiring speech: a speech that will change their life for the better and make the world – at least our country – a better place again, in which solidarity and mutual trust triumphate egoism and carelessness about our fellow citizens.

Tell Mark that you are ready and willing to give that darn speech, like you were never before. Tell Mark that your children – the princesses – want to become 90+ too, just like your grandmother and -father did. And that fossile fueles are soooo 1990.

Tell him that a modern Prime Minister is not a simple technocratic and bureaucratic store manager, like Rutte seems to believe. Tell him that he is an utterly important politician on whose shoulders lies the responsibility of inspiring, motivating and comforting the people in his country: not only to smoothtalk to and pamper his own grassroots.

Go for it, your highness! Show him that you are worth every euro that he pays for you per annum, as the moral leader of our country! You – and no-one else – can do this! I rely on you!!!

Yours sincerely,

Ernst


PS. Tell Maxima to not go berzerk on the hat. She looks fine without it!

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The emphasis of government policies, officials and pundits on the promotion of electronic, non-cash money has a clear drawback: people can lose grip on their spending pattern and current cash position. So abolishing all cash-money is not the right way to fight corruption, large-scale crime and terrorism

Perhaps everybody knows the feeling. You are in a shop with your purchases, walking to the cashdesk where the point-of-sale terminal is. And then you wonder:"Will I have enough money on my current account to pay my purchases or not?!" 

The feelings of embarrassment when the terminal responds: “You have reached your spending limit for this period. Please try to pay differently”, and you have to tell the cashier that you can’t pay for your purchases, are enough to thoroughly ruin your day... Or even longer when you have to wait a few days before your paycheck / salary transfer comes in.

Another precarious situation is when you spent money that you had reserved for other things – the rent, the electricity bill, the holiday or the mortgage repayment – because you were unaware of how much money you already spent from your bank account that month and you didn’t have online, real time insights in your current account at the time that you needed it most.

A third risk of having a non-cash money system is that one off-invoices and bills are being sent and collected exclusively through digital services (internet banking and email), so without a version on paper. That is very convenient for companies and the (local) government bureaus as it strongly reduces their mail and banking expenses, but not for people who always relied on the mailman for bringing their bills and invoices: elderly folks and computer haters / digital illiterates.

All these situations are the inevitable result of the fact that you nowadays pay electronically mostlyvia internet banking and point of sale terminals – at least in The Netherlands – and not in hard cash or through paper transaction forms anymore. Cash, that you collected at your bank, where you also dropped your money transaction forms, or ATM once a week.

In those earlier times it was easy: you collected enough cash for a few days or a week and when it finally ran out, it was simply gone: you knew exactly how much you spent that week. You did your all your regular payments (i.e. mortgage, rent, electricity, doctor's bills and all else) via transaction forms or cash payments too. Except for an early credit card, it was impossible to spend more money than you carried, except for regular shops where they knew your name and your face and they trusted you to pay your dues in time.

These days many people totally lose track of their spendings, as they don’t check out their bank account every day and don’t carry cash anymore, but use their bankcard for everything. And for some, mostly older people, internet banking is a hurdle that they hardly can take. Only at the moment that they discover that there was too much month in their salary or benefit payment, the alarm bells ring: often in a supermarket or a shop, or when their invoice payments start to bounce.

The latter was the subject of an article in De Telegraaf: the largest daily paper in The Netherlands:

Increasing numbers of Dutch people have a hard time to maintain grip on their spendings, due to the mounting digitization of payment services.

As a consequence these consuments lose track and give up on it. Consequence: they fail in applying for benefit / allowance money for which they are entitled and also run a risk of getting into financial trouble.

From the annual report of Humanitas, a large volunteers organization in The Netherlands, it became clear that last year 13.832 people came in for help with their home administration, a 13% increase year on year. Budget information bureau Nibud also speaks of a growing problem, hitting youngsters as well as elderly people.

According to Humanitas this is a consequence of the growing complexity of financial services in The Netherlands. “Many elders have minimal computer skills. Due to the digitization of financial services and the termination of paper invoices and accompanying information by many institutions and authorities, they lost track of what money comes in and gets out”, according to a spokespreson of the organization.

But also many youngsters are clueless about their finances and the digitization of payment services, according to Nibud: ”Many of them don’t know how to apply for allowances and benefits at the governmental digital portals. Or they have problems with ticking the right boxes, when it comes to the electronic application for for instance their study benefit”, according to a spokesperson for the organization.

The consequences are quite clear, according to Roeland van Geuns, lecturer Poverty and Participation at the vocational college ‘Hogeschool van Amsterdam’. “In many cases such people don’t receive and use public benefits for which they are fully entitled, due to lacking digital skills. They don’t apply for a healthcare benefit, as they didn’t even know they were entitled to. And when they do know, they are still clueless upon how to apply for it anyway.”

This particular article was focusing on the problems of people who don’t know how to wrangle their computer and use internet banking. But as I tried to explain in the first part of the article, this problem of disconnection between people and their financial situation is broader.

This is particularly worrisome and important, as more and more pundits and government officials advocate a strong reduction in the global amount of paper cash (Euros and Dollars), in order to hamper and counterattack the large circuits of black, criminal money that are crossing the world nowadays. Money that is used for the funding of crime and terrorist attacks or for the bribery of government officials around the globe.

One of those pundits, Kenneth Rogoff, advocated a moratorium on the usage of large banknotes: €100, €200 and €500 or their dollar and yen pendants, in an op-ed in Het Financieele Dagblad:

The $100 bill is accounting for 80% of the staggering cash amount of $4,200 per capita in the United States. In Japan, the ¥10,000 (roughly $100) is responsible for roughly 90% of the Japanese cash amount. The cash possession per capita is almost $7000 overthere. All this money is enabling growth of the underground economy; not the official one.

I don’t advocate a cashless society, as this will neither be feasible nor desirable for the time being. Nevertheless, a cashless society would be fairer and more secure. With the increasing usage of bank cards, electronic money transfers and mobile payments, the usage of cash in the legal economy has decreased, especially for middle and large-scale payment transactions. Research learned that only a small percentage of the large banknotes is held and used for payments by common people and SME companies.

Cash makes crimes, corruption and terrorism easier, as it is anonymous, and large bills are especially problematic as they are so easy to carry and hide. A million dollar in $100 bills fits in a small attache briefcase and a million in $500 dollar bills even fits in a lady’s purse.

Fair enough: there are other ways to bribe an official or to evade taxes or to carry out other forms of financial crime. But most of them have very high transaction costs (for instance uncut, unpolished diamonds) or carry a more than average risk for disclosure (bank transfers and credit card payments).

Admitted, Rogoff builds a strong case for the cashless society, but as he pointed out himself, it is not feasible and desirable for everybody yet, especially the elderly.

And there is one big drawback to electronic money alone, that cannot be mitigated easily. What happens with your non-cash money when the bank, where it resides, turns out to be not safe. That happened to my wife, who had a bank account at the Russian Sberbank in the Nineties of last century:

However, this is not the only thing that is haunting this former Soviet statebank. In 1997, when the Russian ruble collapsed, countless Russians (among whom my wife) lost the lion share of their life savings, stashed at the Sberbank: sometimes for thousands of dollars per person in savings.

All these people received the crisp message from their local Sberbank: “We’re sorry, your money is gone! It has vanished! Next customer, please!”

It will probably still take a few decades, before Sberbank loses this image of a bank which lost billions in embezzled money, as a consequencey of massive fraud and corruption. As it is like John Goldsmith stated in his wonderful book “Bullion”: “money does not vaporize, it just gets another owner”.

This example shows in a sourish way, that eventually the only party that knows that you own a certain amount of electronic money, is the bank that keeps it for you. When this bank (especially in less safe countries with a much weaker central bank and/or central administration) is gone, so is your money. This is an undeniable risk of electronic money that is not true for cash money, in particular when it is stashed in a safe or deposit box that can be reached at all times.

So please be careful before you declare cash money a thing of the past, by totally moving all money transactions on behalf of the goverment and (SME) companies to cyberspace. For many people cash money is still a tangible tool for taking control of their expenses and keeping their financial health in order. It is also a tangible proof that they really own their money: money that cannot be simply taken away by a plummeting bank or a cash-strapped government in a thorougly corrupted country. 

Corruption – the killer of honesty, the economy and national stability in countries all over the world – must be dealt with fiercely, but that is a (supra-)national government job. Not a thing that one can simply blame on the sheer existence of cash money. That would be too easy for the people in charge.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

It’s time to appreciate the workers again and to look at them as the mortar of every company; even if they come with an administrative hassle and their productivity looks inferior to output robotized and digitized services

It doesn't seem the most pleasant of times for being a worker in a large company.

Litterally at the minute that I started to write this article, a news alert popped up that the large Dutch bank ABN Amro is going to dismiss up to 1375 “superfluous” workers (link in Dutch).

And also at other financial institutions, commercial service providers and insurance companies there is a continuous search for ways to replace ‘expensive, time-restricted and basically unreliable’ workers with digitized and robotized services that can be operated around the clock the whole year through, in this increasingly 24x7 economy.

Instead of such large companies having thousands of employees in large office towers who provide manual services on behalf of their customers during working hours alone, the customers are taught to service themselves via the ubiquitous online channels or the upcoming robotized telephone, chat and whatsapp services:

“Do you want to have a loan, a mortgage or an insurance policy?! Please visit our website at www.yourloan.com (fake address) and fill in the online application form. Your application will be serviced within 48 hours, after you uploaded all the forms and necessary documentation! And if you want to receive our standard insurance policies really quickly, please use our latest Whatsapp service!”

The obvious result is that the lower and mid-level jobs at such commercial / financial companies disappear at a blistering speed, while being temporary replaced by (freelance and project-driven) consulting jobs to enable the deployment of complex digitization and robotization services. Services that allow banks and insurance companies to do the same amount of work with only half the personnel or less.

Also in case of more hands-on jobs, like construction worker, distribution worker, agricultural worker or factory worker, there is a trend to get rid of people who are on the company's payroll with fixed contracts and replace them by freelancers or temporary labour, acquired from specialized service companies or temporary labour agencies.

Great examples are the building company virtually without construction workers and the large sales & distribution company without distribution workers on the payroll. The responsibility, the organization and the ‘hassle’ of having executive personnel are ‘delegated away’ to specialized services companies and what remains are a skeleton crew of high-profile, strategic personnel and a few invoices per month that must be paid.

At the same time, the traditional small and medium enterprises – usually a great driver of new jobs – are extremely reluctant to hire new personnel on fixed contracts. They are either worried about not being able to dismiss people at will in more difficult economic times or about the substantial risk of workers getting ill and requiring both a replacement worker and a long-term sickness payment (i.e. the so-called double whammy). Especially the latter is a risk that keeps owners of small companies with 5 to 10 people (f.i. retailers) awake at night.

In especially the Eighties and early Nineties of last century, it was normal that sick workers received a governmental sickness benefit (i.e. Algemene Ziektewet) after only a few days of illness. However, the Dutch government found out that some (especially SME) employers abused this law in times of weak business, by sending their temporarily superfluous personnel home on ‘sick leave’ until better times reappeared.

As a consequence this traditional sickness benefit was replaced by a series of laws in which the employer remained responsible for the sickness payments for a much, much longer period – up to a year or even longer – and also was made more responsible for the causes of such cases of sickness leave. This forced employers to more closely monitor the physical and mental health of their personnel and led to a host of new businesses, involved with the monitoring and guidance of workers, the so-called Arbo-companies (i.e. labour circumstances).

While this generally was a manageable challenge for larger companies of at least 50 employers – as general sickness statistics started to work to their advantage – it often caused grave problems and sometimes even an untimely end for (very) small companies and f.i. “mom-and-pop” retail stores. The result was that they tried to prevent personnel from ever working on fixed contracts and only hired personnel with temporary contracts for a number of years in a row.

When you look at things like this, employees with fixed contracts seem to have very little in their favour; for large as well as small companies. Flexibility is hot and robotization and digitization are even hotter.

However, you can also look at workers from a different point of view. Perhaps it’s time to appreciate your workers again and look at them as the mortar of every company; even if they come with their human peculiarities and an administrative hassle and even when their productivity looks inferior to robotized and digitized services. You can do so for a number of reasons.

Do you trust your computers and robots enough to let them run everything in your company? And do you entrust your suppliers of temporary labour and commercial services to always keep YOUR priorities at number one and work at your advantage alone?

Is it not much more convenient and comforting to have a group of loyal workers around you that are on your payroll and feel really part of your company's family? People that are willing to run the extra mile when the work requires that? And people that you can ask about things that went wrong or could be made better? Your robotized service surely can’t answer your questions and inquiries, when a customer is offended or goes to your competitors out of the blue.

And do you trust the thesis, that your customers like to be helped by a robotized telephone operator, to have a positive outcome?! And that it won’t scare away your elder customers towards your competition, which does operate a call centre with real employees of their own?

When there are two things that both the robotization and the outsourcing of core activities – like call centres and distribution departments – cause, it is that a. customers feel more detached from commercial / financial services companies (i.e. feel more treated like a number than a customer of flesh and blood) and b. those human call centre and distribution service workers will never feel attached to your company in the first place. They work for your company today and for your competitor’s company tomorrow and don't mind much whether customers run away to your competition. They simply do their job and that's that. 

And be sure that your customers notice, whether a call centre employee is really attached to a company on whose behalf he works or just a hired gun from a specialized service provider. So perhaps companies should give the outsourcing of real core activities a second thought after all.

Last, but not least, there is the issue of SME companies and their personnel.

The legislators (i.e. national government) and the executive organizations for labour laws and work-related social security (i.e. local governments, as well as governmental executive bodies, like the Sociale Verzekeringsbank and the UWV) should think about new sickness laws that are less radical and ‘life-threatening’ for small companies, in case of long-term sickness. 

On the other hand these laws should still not open the floodgates for abuse of sickness money in economic hard times for companies. Restoring the situation from the Eighties would be reckless, but the current situation at the labour market is also unsustainable. That is one of the challenges that the new Dutch cabinet will have ahead in 2017. 

But finally: take a look at the people who work for you and consider giving them a fixed contract. They might not be so bad after all and they will be grateful and loyal in exchange for that.

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