Sunday, April 30, 2017

Germany introduces warrantless surveillance of travel patterns of all airline passengers

As usual, the main news out of the surveillance world this week was centered on the US. Much was written about the NSA halting a small sub program of under Section 702, specifically the controversial upstream part that collects Americans' emails "about" foreign terror suspects. If you want details, the blog of the brilliant Marcy Wheeler is where you should go.

But this very same week, the German federal parliament quietly passed a bill that vastly expands warrantless surveillance of airline passengers. Mandated by EU Directive 2016/861, storing passenger name records (PNR) is now implemented under the German FlugDaG law. The EU directive applies to flights from and to countries outside of the EU, but Germany added intra European flights to its law. 

The US has long required PNR data from airlines, and one reason for the Europeans to mandate collection of these data was simply the "me too" so familiar in the surveillance and security industry. The main argument by proponents of the measure was, of course, the danger of terrorism and "serious crimes".

The list of offenses that constitute "serious crimes" is found in Annex II of the EU directive and contains the expected high profile crimes like sabotage and trafficking of nuclear materials but also fraud and product piracy. The item fraud comes with the added clause 'including that against the financial interests of the Union', a somewhat hilarious addition if you think about it for a second.

The term 'serious crimes' has been abused so much that it has become next to meaningless outside of its propaganda value. A shorter, much more honest version of a list of serious crimes would be "anything beyond parking tickets and a simple DUI".

The data points collected include expected items, such as name, address, identification document, and payment method, as well as more intrusive data, such as details about luggage, the seat number, and meal preference, for a total of about 60 data points. The data are stored for five years, with an extension to 15 years in certain cases. After six months, the data are "minimized" (depersonalised) but they can be "deminimized" upon order of a judge, which, as far as the technical implementation goes, means they are not really being "depersonalized" at all.

Critics call the measure too invasive and claim it violates the German constitution, with one use called out as particularly egregious: law enforcement will conduct warrantless pattern searches of the data to find previously unknown criminals based on travel patterns.
Law enforcement will analyze your travel data for suspicious activities even though they have no indication of you doing or planning anything illegal.

The algorithms used to sift through the data in order to find suspicious travel habits and flag you to law enforcement as well as intelligence agencies are, of course, largely unknown.

Paying for a flight in cash is definitely a red flag, that much we know. Traveling with too little luggage is likely another one based on the simpleton law enforcement thinking that a terrorist wouldn't prepare his luggage with the same enthusiasm as a vacation traveler.

The same simple thinking applies to meal choices. So, don't order Halal food unless you want to be flagged as a Muslim. Vegetarian, or gluten free are very likely the best choices to avoid being red flagged. After all, these two show you care about eating healthy and have a harmless disposition. Vegan might get you labeled as potential eco-terrorist, so go easy on that one if you fly into Iowa or some other wingnut state.

Critics of the warrantless search had previously warned that airline travel passenger data collection could be a first step, with other modes of transport to follow.

They were dismissed as alarmist.

Until Belgium, freshly motivated by terror attacks, decided to extend the same surveillance measures to trains, buses, and travel by ship starting in 2018.

Austria is also planing to extend data collection to train and boat passengers.

The logical next steps are more pervasive license plate readers to get vehicle traffic under improved surveillance.

And, the blogster is willing to bet its* still unclaimed Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, Germany will follow with measures for trains and maritime travel, soon.

* Gender neutral. 
[Update 5/1/2017]  Improved readability of title. Fixed typos.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The German Army spare general works as USAREUR Chief of Staff

The blogster blinked when it* first read in late 2015 that a German general was to become Chief of Staff at the US European Command (USAREUR) in Wiesbaden, Germany.

What was going on?

An interview by the lucky German Brigadier General in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) in January 2015 brought some information. The simple fact that a German active soldier was in charge of foreign troops is something NATO has seen before. The difference in this case, the media pointed out, was that the German officer was fully integrated into the US chain of command, with the same duties as a US citizen in the role would have.

Some American voices were highly critical, for example, this niche website slammed the move as "Another Obama First in Destroying our National Security".

German media ran positive articles, talking up the political trust, the wonderful transatlantic relationship, even presenting it as confidence building after the NSA surveillance scandal triggered by the Snowden leaks a year earlier.

The blogster's very first and main question was: how did they solve the legal issues?

Germany did have a sweeping, but not enforced, law that criminalized the preparation of wars of aggression, which theoretically could have covered even the activity described in the 2015 interview. However, the German government changed the law in January 2017 to clarify the problematic situation to only criminalize this domestically. German government knowledge of, for example, US drone operations remain politically sensitive but any legal challenge becomes even less likely than before.

The 2015 interviewee stated: It would only be a problem if I was involved in operations the German government does not want to be involved in. This was followed by some slick legal legwork: But this cannot happen because we, USAREUR, do not control operations. All we do is provide forces fully ready forces to the respective US operational command, for example EUCOM in Stuttgart or CENTCOM in Florida.

An agreement signed in Washington in 2014, specifically regulates how German soldiers can serve in positions like the USAREUR Chief of Staff.

The fun part, though, comes in an interview of 27 April 2017 by the latest German brigadier to take the job at USAREUR. Trying to give the article some current relevance, it asks how German American military cooperation is faring in the times of Donald Trump.

The new Chief of Staff spills the beans on the background of the decision to put a German officer in the at USAREUR in the first place.

It originated not with some high minded measure to enhance trust or confidence.

Instead, it was  a simple money saving personnel measure taken by US military leadership back at the Pentagon in around 2012.

The German general explains: It was mundane. The Pentagon wanted to put a Colonel in the position instead of a general. Since the then USAREUR commander, Lt. General Campbell, really wanted a general in the job instead of a colonel, he asked the German army Chief whether the Germans could envisage a German general in the role of Chief of Staff at USAREUR.

The PR spin came later.

The new Chief, Brigadier General Rohrschneider, also points out in the 2017 interview that the German military has a limited number of generals. So, the German army is relinquishing one of its generals for the role, but the Germans are convinced this is an investment beneficial for both sides.

Or, as the blogster would phrase is: hey, it is a brilliant PR move, and a career minded German colonel happily does the job previously done by a general while the brigadier gets to play real soldier at USAREUR.

* Gender neutral, the blogster is, Yoda says.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Nobody is talking about it trope - when Everybody is talking about it

From our Nobody is talking about the abuse of Nobody is talking about it series.

To the blogster, of the short, sweeping statements one encounters in the media, Nobody is talking about it is one of the more interesting ones.

On rare occasions, nobody is talking about a subject, but the blogster cannot recall a good recent example. And not simply because the phrase is dubious on a strictly logical level. The moment you say "nobody is talking about it", at least one person, you, is talking about "it". If you use "it", you must have mentioned the subject earlier, or your audience knows what "it" signifies. So, with one person talking about it, can you still claim "nobody" is?

But that's a game for linguists or Monday morning philosophers, because we generally imply that nobody serves as an attention getting device or to express that not enough people, or too few folks of importance, are talking about it.

As a result, the blogster neither minds nor critiques the occasional nobody is talking about it as long as the subject seems to not be present everywhere you look.

But it* draws the line where literally everybody, in this case all the media outlets in a country, is talking, writing, or debating about an event or issue. When everybody is talking about it, nobody is talking about it takes on another function.

It can serve to reinforce a point, to vent frustration, or maybe - who knows - to get to the wordcount a journalist needs for a piece. Hm, I'm five words short of my 300, what can I say. Got it, nobody is talking about it.

Sometimes, using it is plain stupid.

Like in a recent comment in the German WELT, in which a journalist vents about the high burden of taxes and government mandated levies and fees in Germany, reported in an annual OECD survey on the topic.

For some time now, they hit also the classic Social Democrat demographic, top performing workers who would love to work overtime. We can not continue like this with taxes and related burdens. And nobody is talking about it. Either is equally scandalous.**

His Nobody is talking about it is deemed stupid by the blogster because it is manifestly false. Perform a single web search on high taxes and secondary burdens in Germany, and you will be buried under search results that deal with the subject.

Not only that, you will also find that Germany reduced taxes for higher income earners as well as taxes on capital gains.

* Gender neutral. 
** Our translation of: Längst trifft es auch das klassische SPD-Milieu, top performende Facharbeiter, Handwerker mit Lust zu bezahlten Überstunden. Es geht so nicht weiter mit Steuern und Abgaben. Und niemand spricht darüber. Beides ist gleichermaßen skandalös.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Do yourselves a favor - stop blabbing that we are losing the information war

Note: If you are convinced the West is in an information war with Russia and losing it, this post is not for you. At best, you will think what-about-ism reigns supreme in these few paragraphs, at worst, you'll go full Louise Mensch on the basement dwelling mouse tamer (computer mouse, that is) responsible for the post. If this describes you, please head over to for a more sedate web experience.

The blogster hates the term "information war", despises its emotional appeal, the alert and fear implication, the social us-versus-them-if-you-are-not-with-us connotation. Sure, the English speaking world has been using the term war with enough gusto to dilute the meaning a bit, but still.

As bad as the term itself is, it is made worse by the fact that the 'battle lines' are less than clear. Many politicians and pundits use it in the context of West versus Russia, some include 'former Soviet Union', others include the terrorist threat du jour, so Al Quaeda a decade ago, ISIS now. Of course, there is the unbelievably gross InfoWars website with its New World Order paranoia, originally for domestic US consumption, now gone worldwide - because it is the worldwide web after all.
Add a large dose of 'fake news' and generic social media hype, and you have a concept that can mean almost anything you want it to mean as long as you can sustain the rhetoric of fear and threat.

The blogster believes there is really nothing fundamentally new, but that coaching traditional propaganda and lies as "information war" can serve to increase the perceived threat and aggression to levels that can led to physical violence or, at least, to increased domestic censorship to 'defend' against purported aggression.

Some articles screaming information war are relatively benign. Were it not for this awful phrase, this article in the Seattle Times would be a good read. Unlike others that simply repeat one or two tired stories, the article does have some solid research to it. Yet, having 'losing the information war' as its foregone conclusion is counter productive, or even dangerous if you look at the sheer volume of alarming writings and reports.

Add pieces like Marie Le Pen's Troll Armies and others, and normal news consumers may well feel under threat by sinister, vaguely Russian controlled forces.

Yet, if you just dig a little bit deeper, all the characteristics and stories associated with the current 'information war' have been there for a long time, just take the Wikipedia entry on disinformation.

So, what is going on?

Social media, yes. But that's not all.

The March 2017 publication on the Information Battle of the governments of the former Soviet Union gives some insight:
If we are suffering from a deficit in factual or evidence-based reporting, it is certainly not a new phenomenon. The British tabloid press will hardly be remembered as champions of truth-telling. For decades, media critics have lamented what they saw as a growing tendency among the press to privilege gossip over facts, sensationalism over serious news, and spectacle over informative reporting.
But the same cannot be said of their broadcasting counterparts in the UK, and especially the BBC which continues to enjoy an unrivalled reputation for quality, accuracy and balance. According to Ofcom’s most recent data on news consumption, BBC television news is ranked higher than all of its competitors in this respect, with 61 percent of its users considering it both an accurate and trustworthy news source (compared to 45 percent for CNN and 35 percent for RT).

In the global news market, the longstanding Anglo-American hegemony established through CNN and BBC World was first challenged by the rise of Qatar-based network Al Jazeera in the early 2000s.79 The channel’s early success owed much to its reputation as a source of alternative frames for the US-led War on Terror, and the reactionary responses of US political elites seemed to underline its disruptive potential.80 But it was the launch of its English language channel in 2006, fronted by established and respected western journalists, which marked the most significant disruption to the BBC-CNN duopoly.   

What Al Jazeera exposed in both the BBC and CNN was not lies or propaganda in a crude sense, nor an exclusive preoccupation with issues that conformed to a Western ideological agenda, nor the omission of critical perspectives of Western governments and ideals. But they did expose a tendency towards selection of stories and facts that, on balance, aligned with a Western neoliberal consensus and definition of world problems. It was into this fracturing and polarising global agenda that RT emerged with an explicit mission to cover issues and perspectives marginalised by the so-called ‘mainstream media’.

What this really boils down to is the loss of dominance, and it is this loss that is compounded by the internet and social media in particular.

To quote Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State:  
“Let’s talk straight realpolitik,” Clinton said. “We are in a huge competition” for global influence and global markets. She described countries circling around huge new oil discoveries in the south Pacific. “China is there every day, figuring out how they’re going to come in behind us, come in under us,” she said.

She also said the U.S. had to do more to communicate its values and spread its influence to the rest of the world through government-backed media, such as Al-Hurrah Television, which broadcasts in the Arab world.

“We are engaged in an information war and we are losing that war,” she said. China and Russia have started multi- language television networks, she said, even as the U.S. cuts back in this area. “We are paying a big price” for dismantling international communications networks after the end of the Cold War, Clinton said.

Her last paragraph is as much an acknowledgement that - in the eyes of the governing elites -  information was a weapon long before the current wailing, and that the West was pretty darn good at using it.

Guess what, the West  is still good at it. From the highly respected Austrian newspaper publisher who worked for the CIA to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein's astounding revelations about the CIA and the Media, to the German intelligence agency BND bragging about "fixing" unfavorable reporting after the 1968 invasion of Prague by the Soviets to the media campaign around the Iraq War, the West has played the game well.

No upstanding western publication has used 'information war' to describe these measures.

As a former professor at a university in Munich, Germany, once succinctly put it: Information always has to to with in formation.*

Rumors, lies, omissions, and verbal abuse do not go away if they are censored and disappear from public view.

To the blogster, one big problem with the 'information war' hype is that all sorts of alleged or real events or lies are lumped together. Isn't there a difference between a thousand or even one hundred thousand people on Facebook claiming a mass shooting was a hoax and government propaganda accusing another country of crimes against humanity or use of weapons of mass destruction?

The first may cause pain for survivors and families. And this can and will be used by otherwise reasonable democratic parties for legislation that can create a pathway to censorship.
The second will kill hundreds of thousands or more.

The blogster still prefers to see them. Dealing with numbnuts after a disaster is doable. Being steered by lies into supporting wars is evil. Being able to find out later that these lies had the impact they had is priceless.

* Roth, Universitaet der Bundeswehr, Muenchen

Odd, but true: German power industry complains subsidies are too high

One way to understand a country is by looking at how public money is being spent in a manner that subsidizes industries or services.

Subsidies come in different flavors, for example out of tax revenues, out of loans taken on by a government for the purpose, or out of fees and levies set up specifically to subsidize an industry or activity.

The first two are the most politically controversial, especially in a world where neoliberalism reigns supreme. In the U.S., the only sector that can very much enjoy next to unlimited tax and debt funding has been the military with its twin, law enforcement.
The advantage of the third is that is can be sold as "limited", "targeted", and "temporary".

A fourth, and special, version of subsidies is caused by government inaction. A well known example for this is the consequence of a government refusing to raise the minimum wage or of enforcing it. This is how, in Germany, the taxpayer subsidizes your Porsche sports car, or the famous Walmart statistics in America, where taxpayer money lifts the income of Walmart workers to a "living" level.

For Germany, the blogster thinks, the last major subsidy based on a taxation measure was the "solidarity levy", a  tax hike on income put in place in the early 1990s. The surcharge was introduced for one year with the express aim of paying about 20% of the cost of  the first Gulf War. The fact that Germany paid for a war in which it did not participate with military forces is little known outside of Germany, and today, even most Germans have forgotten the original reason for the levy. When the levy came up for renewal, it was swiftly repurposed as covering the costs of German reunification. In 2017, the "temporary" surcharge is still around - despite a booming economy and record federal tax surplus.

No surprise then, that the special levy approach has been the preferred variant for decades, and German governments of all political stripes have been expert at using this scheme.

One such levy is the "vocational training levy", a 900 Euro a year surcharge payable by individuals and small companies that do not offer vocational training under the traditional German vocational training system. The revenue is used to subsidize those companies/institutions that offer vocational training.

Of all German subsidy schemes, the green energy scheme is the most widely known. Successive German governments have praised their support for renewable energy and put money into the effort. While tax revenues are used across Europe to subsidize coal and nuclear power, the green scheme was designed as "paying for itself" through a surcharge on consumer power prices.

The PR effort paid off for a while. Nobody would feel a sense of dissonance when they cited the two major German accomplishments as "automobiles" and "going green".

The result is that German private households pay next to 30 cents for a kilowatt hour of electricity and billions are poured into subsidies, much of them to keep energy intensive industries alive. Since the "green energy surcharge" worked so well, they added another surcharge for grid maintenance and extension and slapped the 19% sales tax on top.

The ultimate test of a subsidy is this: the industry that benefits complains that subsidies are too high. This is such a rare, outlandish occurrence, it is well worth repeating.

Beneficiaries complain that subsidies are too high.

Note that the article is from 2012. What has happened since? Not a whole lot, although 2017 will finally see the abandonment of the 20 year income guarantee for green electricity producers. 

Under the current scheme, German wind energy producers are guaranteed eight years of 19.5 cents per kilowatt hour, then two years at 15 cents, and another ten years at 3.5 cents.
The price for a kilowatt hour at the electricity exchanges stood at 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour.

When the blogster turned the computer on, the machine drew power at 9 times the price paid by the utility company at the exchange.

Two weeks ago, in April 2017, the press announced the first German offshore wind power park that won't use any subsidies. Though hailed as a big step forward, the levy on consumer prices won't be going down anytime soon because of the 20 year price guarantees for existing installations.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Turkey referendum as fodder for anti-Turkish politics in Germany

The referendum in Turkey on the expansion of president Erdogan's power resulted in a narrow win about 51.4% for Erdogan (Yes votes). Not knowing much about Turkish domestic politics, the blogster found the analysis of the election result in Germany rather enlightening.

Turks, including Kurds, make up the largest minority in Germany, with about 25% of foreign citizens living in the country, and just under 1.5 million were eligible to cast ballots in the referendum, with around 50% of them actually doing so.

All in all, about 3 million people of Turkish descent lived in Germany in2012, of which about half had German citizenship. Around 530 000 have dual German and Turkish citizenship.

The most comprehensive list of outcomes is on, here.
In the referendum, about 63% of ballots cast by Turkish voters in Germany were Yes votes.
In Austria, the Yes vote garnered 73%.
In Switzerland, Yes received just 38.6%.
In the U.S., only about 17% voted Yes.
In the United Arab Emirates, only 13% were Yes votes.
Belgium came out with 77% Yes.

Germany has seen controversies about its Turkish minority, about attempts to "integrate" it, about multiculturalism on an off for decades. It comes as no surprise that the same arguments come up after the referendum.

Conservatives tend to regard what is generally seen as a pro authoritarian Yes vote as a slap in the face of the host nation. Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) publisher Kohler called the past German relationship with its largest minority the "lie of a lifetime".

He simply claims that German migration policies have been "too tolerant" and that Germany "for decades, had not demanded migrants integrate as best as possible". For good measure, he adds that "any effort is futile if the immigrants don't want to integrate".

Turks have often been accused in Germany that they do not want to "integrate". Even leading Greens politician Oezdemir, himself the child of Turkish immigrants, called on Turkish residents in Germany to do more to integrate into society.

Dual citizenship, fought over for a long time before it became law, is under attack yet again.

While Turkish immigrants have been more visible as a minority in Germany, they have certainly not benefited from Germany being "too tolerant". The German conservatives, who have been in government for some 50 out of 70 years of post war history, have strenuously denied Germany was an immigration country for most of those years, and event today some still cling to the fantasy.

German politics was not asking people to "integrate as best as they could" because integration was not wanted! Workers came as "guest workers" and were supposed to go back home, whether that was Italy or Turkey, or Span, or Greece.

There were no (free) language classes, there was no offer by the fat cat German public broadcasters in Turkish, there was no "sausage meets potsticker" festival like one recently held in a community that has seen a large influx of Chinese.

There were, however, a series of murders by German neo-Nazis that targeted Turks - with German police investigating them as "intra Turkish" - and arson attacks like one that killed five in 1993.

Not one of the German articles analyzing the referendum has looked even superficially at possible reasons for the widely different outcomes in some countries.

If they had, they might have pointed out one obvious point: the industrial workforces of Belgium, Germany, Holland, and France voted Yes, the more educated workers in, for example, the UAE voted overwhelmingly No.

The overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens (aside from Kurds often fleeing persecution) that came into northern Europe from the 1960s on were simple laborers from disadvantaged, rural regions of Turkey - the same regions where the referendum won with a Yes majority.

As exiled journalist Duendar pointed out in the more liberal Die Zeit, the referendum ended with 25 million Turks voting for Erdogan and 24 million against despite the crackdown on the opposition in Turkey. Despite mass firings, jailing of journalists, shuttering of media outlets.

Yet, once again, German politicians from the right to the medium left see alienating those Turks who voted Yes as the reasonable thing to do.

By the way, we have yet to see statistics about the Americans who live in Germany and voted Trump. Also, there should be calls for them to integrate, right?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

MARS News Alert: Body of executed terrorist disappears from grave

Mars News, Jerusalem, 33  CE

After a week of intense controversy around the terrorist going by the name of Jesus of Nazareth appeared to have found its conclusion when the 33 year old male carpenter was executed on Friday, sources have informed Mars News that his body has disappeared from the grave.

The disappearance, if confirmed, would be all the more disconcerting because the grave had been sealed upon request of the local authorities, and a guard had been posted outside.

Mars News has not been able to contact the guard, and the commanding officer told us that the name of the soldier would not be released due to fears for his safety.

There has been no statement from the office of the Governor, Pilate. A senior government official, who requested to remain anonymous, said this: This whole affair has been a mess from the very outset. The Governor's decision to follow the request of the local elders was in line with legal precedent, and our administration treats the case as closed.
Regarding allegations of torture, the official went on to say Our legal opinion is very clear on this. We do not consider application of the device nicknamed Crown of Thorns as torture because it fails the test of inflicting permanent irreversible damage. Medical experts agree that no permanent damage is caused if sensible precautions are taken and subsequent treatment is administered. You will find that the device was not the cause of death.
The unnamed official also rebutted criticism of the trial itself, saying Jesus had been given the opportunity to defend himself against any and all allegations but that the accused had not offered exculpating evidence or called upon witnesses.

Let me remind you, the official added, that we have well substantiated intelligence reports that individuals who consider themselves supporters of Jesus have tried to interfere with the due process of the execution by mixing opium into vine offered to the condemned on the way to the execution site. The administration decided not to intervene to avoid further inflaming an already volatile situation. We are currently conducting a full investigation of the matter, and I can assure you that, should any misconduct be found, those responsible will be held to account.

The reporter came across a small group of people discussing the disappearance of the body. He told you he'd do it, one bearded young man of about 20 years said. You can't keep this one down, a second one chimed in, stupid officials, bringing bogus terrorism charges and killing him.
And all based on a confidential informant who would say anything for money, the first one said. We've been seeing this again and again. I hope the snitch gets his just rewards, I'll personally kick his scrawny ass when we find out who he was.

I wonder how he did it, a previously silent onlooker said.

It was another miracle, haven't you heard, he's been performing miracles since childhood!

Why call it a miracle when all you need is opium dissolved in vinegar on that final sponge and a Roman soldier bribed into not breaking his legs? 

Shut up, he's the real deal, you should see him doing a miracle. Making the lame get up and walk! Man...

We did that outside of a Catastrophus Show, the cheapest trick in the book. You should have seen the drunk sandal wearing kids gawk when Maggie got up, exclaiming הַלְּלוּיָהּ , I can walk!

The reporter left the unruly mob behind and made its* way to the council of elders. A spokesman of the council read the following prepared statement: We are satisfied with the lawful prosecution and conviction of the common criminal and terrorist Jesus of Nazareth. Justice has been served. There can be no question that law and order have been restored. The Council is looking forward to continued mutually beneficial relations with the representatives of the Roman commonwealth in the best interests of both our nations.

* The ancient reporter used a gender neutral form.

Friday, April 14, 2017

"Join the Army; travel to exotic, distant lands" - and be kept in a cage in transit

The anti-war movement of the Vietnam era gave us some memorable slogans and posters, one of the most remembered being "Join the Army; travel to exotic, distant lands; meet exciting, unusual people and kill them" from 1971.

Times have changed since then. The U.S. military has become an all volunteer force, saving at least some presidential candidates from having to explain why they did not serve in any of the almost continuous wars the U.S. has fought since. Militarism has become even more entrenched and glamorized as stories and experiences of conscripts recede from memory and embedded journalists turned out to be shameless cheerleaders.

One largely overlooked aspect of the past couple of decades or so has been that American soldiers have become less visible in foreign countries - despite an increase in the number of "engagements".

Traveling by car through one German region with the largest American military community in Europe, the blogster was struck by how little visibility US troops have these days. It* had to look up recent history to find out what had happened.

Nowadays, if you happen to see a car or truck with a Confederate flag or, in English, a sticker warning Don't Mess with Texas, chances are that the vehicle belongs to a German redneck or someone who had too much fun in Texas as a tourist. The Americans blend in, and only their driving style still gives them away.

Even more surprisingly, the private vehicles of U.S. personnel in German have local German license plates,

American soldiers transiting through Germany for deployment in the Middle East or other exotic places can not enjoy a trip outside of the airbase if they have a layover of sufficient duration.

Not only are these Americans stuck on base, they have even less freedom than civilian commercial travelers, who usually find an overpriced but livable duty free transit area at an international airport.

Our freedom fighting heroes, on the other hand, are kept in a closed space.

They kept us in a cage, we didn't get to see anything, two soldiers described their recent transit experience on a U.S. airbase in southern Germany.

The heroic pictures you see on TV don't include that portion of travel to exotic, distant lands.

* Gender neutral, folks. 

[Changes 4/15] Typos, grammar

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Germans don't like Germans - a startling statement by a friend

Germans don't like Germans, I tell you.

Chatting on the telephone with a friend not long ago, that friend suddenly dropped the assertion Germans don't like Germans. Then she reinforced it with an emphatic I tell you.

Did she sense the blogster was startled and confused, was she unsure she had been heard? Whatever her motivation, she then went You don't believe me, do you?

I don't know, an unusually discombobulated blogster responded, wondering how we just got from talking about the weather in California to such a heavy emotional topic.

She took that to be an invitation to explain.

When I'm over there, I always notice. They speak badly of other Germans, but they like foreigners, well, at least me as an American who no longer is German to them. They have no problem spending billions and billions on refugees, now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they should not be helped. But the Germans don't want to spend money helping other Germans because they don't think they deserve it. The government, too, she added. And it was already like this when my mother fled East Germany with my sister and me and they put us in the refugee camp.

The blogster resonded, it* would think about this. To which she in turn responded with something like it is not earth shattering, I'm just pointing out how I see it.

The conversation then went back to weather and travel plans. Afterwards, the blogster tried to parse and explore the sudden Germans don't like Germans. She had obviously been aware that the German political right, or populists, or whatever you call them used the expenditures on refugees in their criticism of the country.

The blogster recalled that she had described starting a new life as a child in West Germany in the 1960s before, and that she had mentioned outright hostility by locals. Some of whom telling her that there no longer was any reason to flee East Germany and be a burden on the state in the West.

This sort of experience may well predispose later views.

With the money spent on refugees, she certainly had a point. The most recent figures say that the federal government spent just under 22 billion Euros on refugees in 2016. This is about one third less than for all of the over 4 million recipients of the basic means tested Hartz IV combined. The latter have seen benefits increases under the inflation rate, and they have seen even more intrusive means testing - which experts liken to stripping naked.

Contrasting the total amounts and largely uncontrolled costs for refugees with the often absurd penny pinching social services bureaucracy does seem to bolster our friend's statement.

What is less clear is how disdain for your fellow countrymen in other countries compares to Germany. Is it even the same kind of antagonism, meaning is it because one is poor, is it because one comes from a certain stereotyped region of the country, because of religion, or a combination of these and maybe other factors. Does her Germans don't like Germans compare at all to, for example, Scots versus English in the UK, Flemish versus Walloon in Belgium?

Let's face it, we have the same kind of disdain for the poor, the unemployed, the less fortunate in the United States. Plus, the American poor still have problems even getting basic healthcare.

Maybe some smart social studies folks and psychologists might want to investigate the issue.

* Gender neutrality is a thing at the K-Landnews.

A war propaganda broadside on TV by a nasty German broadsheet journalist

Note: The author of this post is one grumpy critter. A former government worker backed by, in it's* own words, a f***ing security clearance and a general asking 'can I do anything for you', it decided to take on the Chief of Chiefs of nasty German broadsheet BILD in this post.
If you are a bit squeamish, we suggest you move on to for you own good.

The chief of chiefs at German old fashioned broadsheet Bild Zeitung, one Julian Reichelt, comes with a slightly underwhelming educational history (at least, Wikipedia is rather silent). This is not a problem in itself. After all, a number of geniuses like the gentleman who is immortalized in the name of the Fraunhofer Society had no formal education.

Mr. Reichelt, though, is not a genius. Largely oblivious to facts and logic, Mr. Reichelt - as a product of Bild Zeitung - feels entitled to a role in German media and public discourse. Wikipedia says that his positions generally reflect the role of a conservative hardliner.

If you like a rough and tumble German who spends much of his time praising the West's powerful, check out his Twitter account with gems like "I salute that rededication and hope more action will follow Tillerson's words, especially in Syria."

Given the outsized role played by Bild Zeitung and its respective chief in German politics, it came as a surprise to the grumpy blogster that the 'centrist conservative' Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) ran an article "War propaganda - not out of Moscow this time" which opened with "Reichelt did not act as a journalist but as a war propagandist". **

By German standards, the significance of a statement like this is difficult to overstate. Especially if it comes from a publication that is staunchly pro West, with deep distrust of Russia and firm footing on what we call 'Western values' in  general.

The article dealt with last night's episode of one of Germany's regular political talk shows, the topic of which was the situation in Syria. Most of the time, German political talks shows are rather sedate if not outright boring events with the same guests uttering the same familiar statements and Lego blocks of discourse.

According to the article, Reichelt pretty much lost it when a former officer reminded the round that bombs will kill civilians, no matter what kind of bomb you drop. Reichelt had been focusing on the awful killing of civilians and especially children in his paper and on Twitter for so long that a simple statement of fact by the former NATO planner threw him off.

When someone then pointed out that a German military officer had called an air strike in Afghanistan in 2009, killing about one hundred civilians, including children, our Bild hero became enraged, calling the officer a "propagandist' with "pseudo-expert knowledge", "uninformed and dumb".

The blogster finds it quite striking that these terms perfectly describe the way Mr. Reichelt performs as a journalist.

So, FAZ deserves praise for calling out his ridiculous TV performance. Although the blogster disagrees with the part "not as a journalist", because this is exactly how Mr. Reichelt rolls most of the time.

Mr. Reichelt can find some consolation in the reporting of Der Spiegel on the same talk show. Often decried as too liberal, Der Spiegel will toe the line in important foreign policy matters, and the authors did go fairly easy on Reichelt, saying that 'he once again appeared slightly rhetorically hyperactive'. The Afghanistan bombing was framed by Der Spiegel as an "incident"  with "German reconnaissance involvement", and it used "allegedly" to frame the fact that civilians were killed in the strike called in by a German officer who could see the events on the ground on his drone screen.

The FAZ article will not have any repercussions for Mr. Reichelt, his role as editor of Bild Zeitung all but ensures continued invitation to TV talk shows.

That kind of power is a nice thing to have.

* Gender neutral. 
** Orig: So agierte Reichelt nicht als Journalist, sondern als Propagandist einer Kriegspartei.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The unknown Americans who want nothing to do with the United States

The blogster doesn't tease its* audience much but will make an exception today.

You might even think, boring, we know there are Americans who don't like their country, so let's move on to

How would you feel when someone tells you you can pick up a US passport at any time and the response is 'no, thank you'?

We do not mean the five thousand or so who gave up their US citizenship in 2015.

Is this even imaginable in times when seemingly every Republican and whatever you call liberals these days warns that the population of the whole world would drop whatever they are doing, including making other peoples' babies, and rush to the airport to get to the promised land?

Nobody tracks the number of people who could walk into the nearest US consulate or embassy with their papers and get citizenship but have decided not to. The simple, and most likely, explanation for the absence of figures it that they cannot be easily tracked. The U.S. simply does not know how many of them there are. It is probably a safe bet to say that, in Germany alone, there are more than US citizens who give up their citizenship.

Having a hard number would also be awkward and very upsetting to nationalists and public figures in love with the image of the US as the shining city on a hill. We know that much because of heated arguments about dual citizens who are either not American enough, think Ted Cruz before he renounced his Canadian citizenship or Brit boy Boris Johnson, who was upset that he had to pay US taxes for the privilege.

You may or may not have met an American who doesn't want to be one.

A man you would definitely not forget is the jovial biker on Highway 1 somewhere near Big Sur in California. With a US registered motorcycle and a lady who could have passed if she remained silent, he was the open hearted American traveler, greeting strangers as friends you haven't met yet.

And yet, when asked where are you from, he would say Germany and give you the name of a small town in the south of that country. He was from a military family, one of the thousands who never leave.

If you made the mistake to ask him why he had decided to have only German citizenship, he would tell you that a vacation to the U.S. was all he needed. Why would you want to live in a country where things as basic as health insurance were fought over, he would ask. At that point, it would have been wise to stop and chat about travel and the weather.

Well, if you didn't, you would have gotten an earful about stupid wars, about an education system based on money and privilege - and that was long before the pay to play rush to full privatization under Trump.

Other people with American parents outside of the U.S. keep their motivation private, and in some families, the divide between American and Other runs right through the family. The blogster knows two siblings, one decided to be a German citizen, the other went for being American.

There are also intermediate folks, those who fully identify as Indian, as French, or as another nationality but get American citizenship for career reasons or so that their children have more opportunities without submitting to the haphazard US immigration system.

It is the others, those who say no, thanks, who show us most clearly who we are not.

* Gender neutrality is easy, see.

Friday, April 7, 2017

European Union dents the German prosperity gospel

Germany is doing great, there is a budget surplus, people are having lots of work, unemployment is at its lowest point in 25 years.

And then the EU comes and says the German government has contributed to an increase in poverty between 2008 and 2014.

Much has been said about incomes in Germany. The difference between median and average is exploited to claim that poverty is not a big issue. Long debunked claims that poor people don't pay taxes are still used in articles by 'reputable' newspapers. It may come as a surprise to many that the German poor pay the same share of their income in taxes as wealthy residents.

That's the joy of high indirect taxes.

Next is the difference between income (wages and salaries) and wealth (assets, property) . Income inequality in Germany is relatively moderate, but the wealth distribution is very skewed. This chart shows a comparison of European countries, with the average in blue and the median in teal. Germany (Deutschland 2010) shows a big discrepancy between average and median, which means that a lot of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people.

What exactly is the criticized by the EU?

The EU says that too few Germans have benefited from the period of extraordinary economic growth.

This earlier post has some examples of the many ways German governments have squeezed the bottom earners over the past decades: Germany's social security retirement system: 50% or recipients under poverty level by 2030?

Monday, April 3, 2017

British style 2 child policy - demultiplying the poor

Continental news media are busy reporting on the latest Brexit shenanigans, including the dispute over Gibraltar, and tax and social benefits changes are boring anyway.

The Guardian says the new tax regime will push a quarter of a million children into poverty.

The British government hanging on to the tax heaven in southern Spain while cutting benefits to the poor at home makes for a nice contrast.

The 2017 benefit changes are a mixed bag of the "give some, take some" variety typical for complex societies. Let's be nice and highlight the doubling of free childcare for children 3 and 4 years old. Conditions apply, but still.

One change, though, stands out: Child Tax Credit will be limited to 2 children. Of course, there are exemptions, so no one can claim the government is as heartless as it is.

To the blogster, this is too close to the American bumper sticker that reads "If you can't feed them, don't breed them".

We'll check the papers on the Continent to see if they get around to writing about this watershed moment in one of the world's biggest economies.

But don't hold your breath.