Berlin: polls, pirates and the electoral geography of last weekend’s elections

European Politics, Politics

There were state elections in Berlin, the capital of Germany and one of three city states among Germany’s 16 states, last weeekend. The results were somewhat surprising and fairly pleasing, and since I made a couple of maps that I have no place to put, I thought I’d revive our old blog.

Berlin: The Result

Official preliminary end results, courtesy of the Landeswahlleiter:

Social-Democrats (SPD)      28,3%   (-2.5%)
Christian-Democrats (CDU)   23,4%   (+2.1%)
Greens                      17,6%   (+4.5%)
Left Party                  11,7%   (-1.7%)
Pirate Party                 8,9%   (+8.9%)
NPD (extreme-right)          2,1%   (-0.5%)
Free-market liberals (FDP)   1,8%   (-5.8%)
Animal Protection Party      1,5%   (+0.7%)
pro-Germany                  1,2%   (+1.2%)
"Freedom" (far-right)        1,0%   (+1.0%)
The Greys (pensioners)       xxx    (-3.8%)
WASG (left-wing)             xxx    (-2.9%)
Others                       2.5%   (-1.2%)

In all, 69.3% for left-of-centre parties, 29.7% for the right, and the remainder for hard-to-classify parties like the Alliance for Innovation and Justice (BIG), which received 0.5% but over 10% in some precincts (see below), and appears to be a conservative Muslim party.

Regarding that 69% (oh, juicy) for the left, there’s a certain joy in just exclaiming: “hey, it’s Berlin!”. But even for Berlin this is an unusual result. In 2006 and 2001, the main leftwing parties pooled about 60% of the vote, and in 1999 only some 50%.

Basic backgrounds

The Social-democratic win seems largely due to the personal popularity of Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who was the center of a campaign largely focused on appealing to a kind of feel-good local patriotism. The party’s slogan was “Understanding Berlin,” which was also a bit of a dig against the Greens, who had parachuted one of their national party leaders, Renate Kunast, into the race. Kunast decided to challenge Wowereit at a time when polls suggested a neck-and-neck race between the two parties, with the once-dominant Christian-Democrats fading into third place. But Wowereit seems to have easily won the election campaign, with the last few polls showing his SPD at some 30% of the vote, the CDU at just over 20% and the Greens at just under 20%.

Some pundits have blamed Kunast’s dogged aura of ambition and overly slick campaign, which proved an ill fit for challenging Wowereit, whom the New York Times once described as “charming, sociable and openly gay” and “a cuddly symbol of Berlin’s openness and tolerance”. At least as important, however, is probably how Kunast’s refusal to rule out a coalition government with the right-wing CDU chased parts of the Greens’ traditional alternative-lefty electorate into the arms of the Pirates.

All that said, compared to five years ago the Greens actually won votes, and the SPD lost some. It’s actually the Greens’ best result in unified Berlin yet. It’s just that at a time that the Greens poll at around 20% nationally, getting less than that in the country’s Mecca of alternative culture is distinctly underwhelming.

Despite their rivalry, the SPD and Greens still look likely to form a coalition government now, replacing the previous “red-red” coalition of Social-democrats and Leftists which no longer has a majority. But due to the surprise success of the Pirates, the two parties have ended up with an unexpectedly narrow majority of 76 to 73 seats. The two parties are sharply divided about the extension of a major highway, and theoretically the Social-democrats could still opt for a more ample majority government with the CDU instead. That would leave the entire opposition in the state parliament to the government’s left, however, and would probably be frowned on by the national SPD, which is keen to unambiguously set the course for a red-green government after the next federal elections.

Meanwhile, the digital-rights Pirate Party has easily harvested the most international headlines with its shock success. If you don’t remember, the Pirates drew a fair bit of attention when a Pirate Party received 7% of the Swedish vote in the 2009 European Parliament elections. Subsequent electoral gains have been scarce, however: in the 2010 national elections in Sweden, for example, the Pirate Party received just 0.7% of the vote. Pirate Parties did win a number of municipal council seats in Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain and Switzerland, and the German Pirate Party received 2% of the vote in both the 2009 German national elections and 2011 elections in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Hamburg, campaigning on opposition to new data retention and Internet filtering policies. But this result is easily the Pirate Parties’ biggest coup since they first broke through.

The result of the Left Party – a coalition of East-German ex-communists and West-German disgruntled trade unionists and other leftwingers – is a far cry from the 20+% which the ex-communist PDS received ten years ago. Especially in its core East-Berlin constituency, the party’s support has plummeted: it went from 48% of the East-Berlin vote ten years ago to 23% now. That’s the worst the post-communists have done there in state elections since the unification of Germany. The party’s result is also worse in comparison to 2006 than it may look at first sight: the Left Party has absorbed the WASG since the last elections, so you should really compared its result now to their pooled results five years ago.

The Left’s decline could have various reasons. The WASG voters from 2006 seem to not have made the transition to the Left Party, and the Left lost relatively many voters to the Pirates. Having been  Wowereit’s junior government partner for the past ten years, the Leftists have lost much of the critical left-wing profile they combatively honed in the 90s. Or who knows – maybe the eroding numbers for the Left could also be a sign that “Ostalgia,” and the resentment which the city’s “Ossis” feel of the know-it-all yuppies from the Western half of the city in particular, are fading. It’s been a while since the battle over the traffic light men.

The extreme-right NPD, which is opposed to funding for commemorations of fascism, made waves with election posters that subtly featured the party’s leader on a motorbike and the slogan “Giving gas”, which the party’s activists made sure to plaster near synagogues and the like. It lost some support, however, getting 1.6% of the vote in West-Berlin and 2.9% in East-Berlin (down from 4.0%).

For far more interesting information about these elections, check out the Berlin post on the ever reliable World Elections blog.

East vs West

There is still a massive difference between the voting behaviour in West-Berlin and East-Berlin, but it has gotten a lot smaller over the past ten years, thanks to the implosion of the post-communists in East-Berlin.

SPD CDU Greens Left+WASG
Pirates FDP Others

West Ost West Ost West Ost West Ost West Ost West Ost West Ost
2011 28.0 28.8 29.5 14.2 20.4 13.5 4.3 22.6 8.1 10.1 2.3 1.2 7.4 9.6
2006 31.4 29.8 27.7 11.4 14.8 10.5 6.9 31.4 9.3 4.9 9.9 12.0
2001 33.7 23.2 30.8 12.4 11.1 5.9 6.9 47.6 12.8 5.3 4.7 5.6
1999 25.2 17.8 49.3 26.9 12.1 6.4 4.2 39.5 2.8 1.1 6.4 8.3
1995 25.5 20.2 45.4 23.6 15.0 10.0 2.1 36.3 3.4 1.1 8.6 8.8
1990 29.5 32.1 49.0 25.0 8.2 11.4 1.1 23.6 7.9 5.6 4.3 2.3

Data 1990-2001:
Data 2006:
Data 2011:

Polls and Pirates

The Pirate party easily outdid all but the very last poll, which was mocked as unrealistic at the time by political enthusiasts. The Greens, the free-market liberals of the FDP and especially the Social-democrats, on the other hand, did worse than the polls had suggested. Some SPD voters may have started taking their party’s victory for granted and not bothered to come out, while a few FDP voters may have switched to the CDU when they saw that their party was unlikely to cross the 5% electoral threshold. (The CDU was the only other party to outperform the polls, if only by a sliver.)   It was undoubtedly the Pirates’ success that did the most to keep the other parties’ vote lower than expected though.

An analysis of voter ‘traffic’ by pollster Infratest dimap suggests that the Pirates primarily rallied non-voters (23,000) and voters of other minor parties (22,000). In addition, however, the Pirates won some 17,000 voters from the Greens, some 14,000 from the Social-democrats, and 13,000 from the Left. Those 22,000 voters that the Pirates won from other minor parties are interesting, by the way. The two main minor parties last time that did not take part this year were the Greys – a party for the elderly – and the WASG, which received some 40,000 votes. Since Pirate Party voters are the youngest of any party’s, it’s unlikely that they got much cross-over support from the Greys, so that would suggest that these 22,000 largely come from the WASG. In fact, the Infratest dimap analysis suggests just a net 2,000 voters going from “other parties” in 2006 to the Left Party now.

Argh! The cost of success

The Pirates have won 15 seats – which is good, because they didn’t have more than 15 candidates on their city-wide list.  In fact, they will have to forego on taking up a number of seats they won in the local district assemblies, because they didn’t have enough candidates listed.

One poignant case in question is the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, where the Pirates did best. They won nine seats in the district assembly, which is enough to qualify them for one of the five positions (Stadtrat) on the district administration, which apparently are appointed proportionally. But first off, the Pirates had only eight candidates on its district list, so they can not fill one of their seats at all. Moreover, three further Pirates have been elected to both the Berlin city parliament and the F’hain-Kreuzberg district assembly, and they will have to choose which of the two offices to accept. In order to fill all of the Pirates’ 15 seats in the city parliament, all the double-electeds will have to give that job priority to the district-level one. That seems like an easy choice, except that if the three double-electeds from F’hain-Kreuzberg make that choice too, their caucus in the district assembly shrinks to five … and they lose their proportional post on the district administration to the Left Party. The perils of success!

My favorite Berlin neighbourhoods

Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg may be my favourite electoral district of any kind anywhere.  It’s got some 268,000 inhabitants, so we’re not just talking about some small niche community. And it is reliably the most leftwing district of its size, I dare guess, in Europe. Among other things, it elected Germany’s first constituency MP for the Greens in 2002 (when the party had previously only MPs elected over party lists), and not just any Green either: Hans-Christian Ströbele.

This time, the results in the district were as follows: Greens 30%; SPD 24%; Pirates 15%; The Left 13%; CDU 8%; and the satirical PARTY party 2% – or a total of 87.1% for left-wing parties…

Who would you have voted?

If you speak German you can check for yourself what you should have voted by using the Wahl-o-Mat for these elections. Predictably, I got the Greens first (74 out of 86) and the Left directly after (71 out of 86), though if I include the various miniscule splinterparties, a couple of extreme-left parties (B, DKP and PSG) manage to squeeze in between the two still.

Hot spots

Various German news sites have published electoral maps showing the winner by city district. There are also great maps showing the winner, and party strengths and weaknesses, by individual city parliament electoral district. I like these ones on the US Election Atlas site (of all places) best.

For the heck of it, however, I downloaded the excel sheet with results by individual precinct (as opposed to just by city district or city assembly electoral district). If you are interested in this level of detail, one site to look up for sure is the section on the Berlin elections. Click on any city assembly electoral district, and you get a map of winners by individual precinct. It’s fairly rare to see electoral maps on that level of detail.

Myself, I was mostly interested in which individual precincts were the best for each of the main parties – hence downloading the excel sheet. I only looked at actual, walk-in polling stations, and not at the processing of votes by mail; and I looked at the party list vote (“Zweitstimme”), in order to reduce the effect of a particularly popular local candidate (the precincts map show the results by “Erststimme,” for individual candidate). The result: this map, which shows the top 5 results of the top 5 parties – though you’ll have to click on it to see it in full size.

Colour coded as obvious for Germans: red is the SPD, black the CDU, green the Greens, pinkish the Left and orange the Pirates

I colour coded the pins according to party colours: red is the SPD, black the CDU, green the Greens, pinkish the Left and orange the Pirates.

Kreuzberg vs Friedrichshain

Interestingly, both the Greens and the Pirates did best in the city district Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, but their bulwarks were on opposite ends of the district.

  • The Greens received 48% of the “second vote” in a precinct by the Fidicinstrasse, in South-West Kreuzberg. Four of the party’s top 5 results are in that part of Kreuzberg, in fact; and a full eight of its top 10 precinct were in Kreuzberg overall.
  • The Pirates received 26% of the vote in a precinct covering the few blocks around the Boxhagenerplatz, in the heart of Friedrichshain. (I think I was at a festival in the little park there once). More strikingly, three of the Pirates’ top five results and all of eight of its top 10 results were in Friedrichshain.

Highrises and suburbs

  • The Left Party received 43% of the vote in a precinct by the Schottstrasse in the Lichtenberg neighbourhood. All of four of its top 5 precincts were in the city district Lichtenberg, though its sixth-best result, at 41% of the vote, was in a precinct at the beginning of the Karl-Marx-Allee, just off Alexanderplatz. Judging on Google Street View, the party’s top two precincts are located amidst low-rise post-war housing blocks, while its third-best precinct is all major highrises.
  • The SPD received 46% of the vote in a precinct among some mid/highrises by the Michelangelostrasse and Gurtelstrasse in upper Prenzlauer Berg / Weissensee. Yes, that’s in former East-Berlin, but the numbers 2 through 12 of the top precincts were all in West-Berlin. SPD precinct #2 is located amidst highrise blocks in Wedding; its precincts #3-4 consist of more highrise blocks, but in the suburb of Spandau. Six of the next nine top SPD results are in Spandau too.
  • The CDU received 52% of the vote in a precinct by the Bernadottestrasse in Wilmersdorf. Very leafy: a clearly prosperous area. The party’s top 3 precincts actually covered adjoining ground: each covered bits of Grunewald / Schmargendorf that border the Berliner Forest.

What about the smaller parties (and we can include the FDP under that nomer now)? Let’s include the top 5 precinct results for the NPD and the BIG, which are all over 10%; as well as the one (1) precinct result where the FDP got over 10%:

Now with the NPD (brown), FDP (yellow) and BIG (dark green)

Now with the NPD (brown), FDP (yellow) and BIG (dark green)

  • The only precinct the FDP received more than 10% of the vote in is located in Steglitz-Zehlenforf, bordering the Berliner Forest. Its next four best results were all in Charlottenberg-Wilmersdorf, similarly close to the forest, and two of them were also among the top 5 results for the CDU. Rich people, basically.
  • The extreme-right NPD received 14% of the vote in a precinct by the Hugelschanze in Spandau Neustadt: an inconspicuous looking couple of streets, judging by Google Street View, fairly green, midrise buildings with a bit of graffiti. That’s in the West, but the party’s runner-up results #2-3 (12-13%) were both in Treptow-Kopenick, and its results #4-5 and #7-10 (10-12%) were all in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, all in the East. Its Treptow-Kopenick bulwarks consist of neatly kept-up post-war mid-rises and highrises, while its two best scores in Marzahn-Hellersdorf are adjoining plots of major highrises on the edge of the city.

On the populist-xenophobic (but not outright fascist) right,

  • pro-Deutschland received 7% of the vote at a voting station in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, and some 5-6% in a total of around 15 further precincts, two-thirds or so of which were in either Spandau or Marzahn-Hellersdorf.
  • FREEDOM received 9% of the vote in a precinct around the Idunastrasse up in Heinersdorf, city district Pankow. It received 8%, 5% and 5% of the vote, respectively, in three adjoining precincts in Heinersdorf, and also 5% at a polling station in Marzahn-Hellersdorf.

Odd one out

The conservative-Muslim BIG party, which is being tied to the Turkish government party AKP and campaigned for migrant rights but also against the alleged promotion of homosexuality in schools, received just tenths of a percentage point on a city-wide level. But it won as much as 10-15% in ten precincts. Eight of them were in the city districts Mitte or Fr’hain-Kreuzberg; it seems to have done well in Wedding in particular. Its best result, however, was in a precinct in Neukolln, around the Heinrich-Schlusnus-Strasse, which in Google Satellite View looks like a 1970s architectural experiment gone horribly wrong.

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Knowing What I Don’t Know

Culture, Media / journalism, Politics, Uncategorized

Something interesting happened over the course of the 2008 presidential campaign. I have always been interested in current events and politics, and have always read the New York Times daily and The New Yorker weekly. I’ve usually supplemented those sources from here and there, CNN maybe, or my local newspaper. But I’ve felt reasonably well-informed based on those two publications.

During the campaign, for both professional reasons and simply because I was personally very interested, I branched way out from there. In the earliest days, (circa late 2005/ early 2006), I’d simply search for “Obama” in Google News and see what there was to see. As I did so, certain sites kept coming up — Lynn Sweet’s blog, Andrew Sullivan’s blog, the Chicago Tribune’s blog, Talking Points Memo, First Read, and more. As things heated up and a general search for “Obama” would yield way too many hits on Google News to be useful, I started to cycle through those sites in addition to the Big Two (NYT and The New Yorker).

No single news source turned out to be the one that had all the answers. But cumulatively, all of this reading gave me a lot of accurate information. Various ideas I formed based on that information were borne out — I was able to correctly predict many elements of the campaign, from whether Obama was indeed a viable candidate (in the very earliest days) to whether he would be able to get the Latino vote in a general election, to how Obama would fare against McCain in a head-to-head debate (back when such an outcome seemed unlikely), to what effect Sarah Palin would have on McCain’s campaign (the fact that my predictions tended to be pretty good was part of why I was interested in starting this blog; unfortunately, by that time, only the tail end of my Sarah Palin predictions made it here).

By the time of the election, I was ready to take a break from the information overload. (Me and everyone else who had followed this incredibly dramatic and incredibly information-rich campaign.) I figured my interest would return at some point after I had given myself a bit of a break.

My interest did return, but I faced something I didn’t expect. Because I was so extensive in my research and reading during the campaign, I now know that my usual sources offer some but not all of the story — or worse, offer what is purported to be the full story but is actually fatally skewed. I was repeatedly very annoyed with sloppy reporting from the New York Times during the campaign — that means that while I have always read news items with a jaded eye, my eye is much more jaded yet, to the point that I don’t feel I “know” anything that I’ve read in the NYT — it’s merely a starting point. The New Yorker is much, much better from my perspective — my bullshit sensors are tripped by their reporting far less. But they tend to choose relatively narrow subjects that they then plumb in-depth. I feel like I “know” what’s going on with something that they plumb, but at the expense of breadth. There are plenty of things I’m curious about that they don’t plumb.

So I’m faced with the uncomfortable knowledge that unless I do my extensive trawling again, I don’t really know what’s going on. I have the broad outlines. I have a variety of opinions.

That’s not enough.

This leaves me a bit in limbo when it comes to writing something about politics. It feels lazy to just ask the questions. It feels daunting to go in search of all the answers, so that I “know” something to the same level that I did during the campaign.

It’s an interesting exercise, though, a good wake-up call re: journalism and fallibility thereof. This knowledge that while I may read a lot about current events, the truth takes so much work to find. While I think the idea that blogs will take over from newspapers is problematic (another post, perhaps), I do think this is a service that blogs provide — going deep, doing the research, and providing other information rather than leaving it all to the major newspapers. The New York Times is far from worthless, but the New York Times PLUS my long list of daily blog reads during the campaign provided far more, and more accurate, information to me than the New York Times alone.

So now I read my New York Times every day, and think… “really?”


Not on the Bonus Burning Bandwagon

Economy, US Economy, US Politics

Have you heard about the bonuses paid to the losers at AIG?  OK, that’s a joke because everyone has heard about how “the very employees responsible for running the company into the ground” are making off with millions in tax payer dollars as Senator Mark Warner wrote in a letter to the AIG CEO Edward Liddy.  Now I will never receive a seven figure bonus and I can’t figure out why a company would ever agree to pay one, but with that being said, I’m just not on the Bonus Bashing bandwagon yet.  It’s not that I think AIG is great.  It’s not that I’m especially sympathetic with the downward spiral that the formally high riding AIG folks are on.  The real reason that I can’t yet bring myself to go looking for my torch and pitchfork is that we really don’t know squat about these bonuses… and neither do the congressmen building ever higher soap boxes from which to denounce them.  What we don’t know so far:  who got the bonuses, why they got them, what were the criteria for receiving them.  What we do know: $165 million in bounuses were paid and a total of close to $1 billion is slated to be paid to around 4,600 top managers in 2009.  So do all our congressmen know what they are talking about?

I heard one congressman saying something to the effect of “how do any of these people deserve performance bonuses when their company is crashing?”  Let me say again that I don’t understand million dollar bonuses, but that said, I think it is perfectly reasonable that bad companies can have great employees.  Should the top salesman at the local GM dealership give up his bonus because GM is doing poorly?  What if GM accepts government money?  What if he sells a crappy car?  My thought is that if he was working to an incentive plan and he achieved his end of the deal, he should get his check.  Many employees receive some portion on their pay as variable compensation.  Every employee at the company where I work is on a bonus plan.  We don’t get millions, but everyone has the potential to get up to 10% of their annual pay based on performance.  For more senior employees the percentage is higher.  If I meet my objectives and targets, can the government take that money away?  Personally, I don’t consider this a “bonus”, I consider it pay.  How about that guy, Douglas Poling,  who received the biggest bonus: $6.4 million?  Turns out he was reponsible for trying to clean up the mess and his work resulted in AIG recouping big dollars, dollars that we taxpayers don’t have to pay.

Gerry Pasciucco, a former vice chairman of Morgan Stanley who was brought in by Mr. Liddy in November to wind down the financial products unit, said Mr. Poling had sold off roughly 80 percent of the unit’s assets. Mr. Pasciucco said the money from the sales would go to the government, which has handed more than $170 billion in bailout money to A.I.G. in the last six months.

“He’s done an outstanding job in winding down his investment books,” Mr. Pasciucco said. “He did it at the right time, and we’ve made money. We would be losing money today if we waited to sell some of these assets.”

By the way, our boy Doug gave the bonus back.

We’ve also read about “retention bonuses paid to people who have left the company.”  How does that make sense?  OK, from far away, I can question the wisdom of offering these plans, but let’s understand that these payments are made after the service term to employees that stayed last year.  For whatever reason, AIG offered to make a payment to employees who stayed in 2008.  When that period expired, they were entitled to the payment even if they left the company.  AIG was not government supported at the time, but was feeling heat.  Maybe they felt they needed to keep top performers.  I don’t know why they made these offers.  You don’t either.  I probably wouldn’t have offered such plans, but if I was offered one and accepted it in good faith to stay on a sinking ship, I’d consider my end of the deal complete.  Was management pulling a fast one?  Let’s go find out, but at least let’s hold our fire until we know the answer.

What has all the rhetoric achieved so far?  We’ve got dubious legislation attacking people’s pay passing in Congress without debate, security memos at AIG warning employees to beware of people seeking to do them harm and employees being harassed and attacked at their homes.  Does anyone besides me think we need to get the full story before burning people at the stake?

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Budapest riots: not what they used to be anymore

European Politics, Politics

— Crossposted from Cogitamus —
It’s March 15, a national holiday, and police was duly out in massive numbers to guard the some twenty different, mostly oppositional, manifestations that took place. March 15, on which Hungarians commemorate the 1848 uprising against their Habsburgian overlords, is one of the two or three most volatile days in this country. There’s always a great number of protest manifestations (especially if there is a leftwing government), and the last couple of years there was widespread rioting.

Which is why today was a bit of a disappointment, really.

I was sort of ready to ignore the festivities already, since after two and a half years and a dozen iterations, the demo-cum-riot scene has jumped the shark. It’s always the same anyway: angry grannies and families with Hungarian flags in the afternoon, hooded and balaclavad youths in the evening, when the mainstream conservative politicians sternly intoning their dire warnings make way for younger rabble-rousers, who shout about PM Gyurcsany, the commies, the police and the Jews. Demonstrators who look like the kind of mix of students and squatters you’d get in a far-left demo in Western Europe. Much posturing, waiting around, exchanging of tall tales, waving flags and shouting slogans; not to mention trying to impress the far-right girls, who are surprisingly cute. Marching this way and that, avoiding the police, building barricades, and then the inevitable show-down; teargas, batons, the crowd tearing back with scarves over their mouths. A lengthy cat-and-mouse game, as the rioters taunt the cops and pelt them with stones, until the dull thuds of tear gas grenades being shot into the crowd set everyone running again. Only for the game to start over twenty minutes later once the dust is settled. Rinse and repeat.

Nevertheless, I did keep an eye on the website of the Magyar Nemzet, a national-conservative newspaper which at every new iteration publishes a breathless minute-by-minute account of goings-on in the city. Very practical if you want to know where the riots are at any given moment. Not saying they actively incite the rioters, but … OK, who am I kidding, they do.

But it was thin gruel today. No large street battles, no kidnapped tank being driven around by demonstrators. A year ago, and two years ago, rioters would control sections of major thoroughfares downtown a mile long, rocks would rain down on the police shields. Barricades would be built, phonebooths felled and used as material, Molotov cocktails hurled. This time there was basically one violent clash of sorts, in the late afternoon near the Saint Stephen’s Basilica, around the corner from my work. Which was quickly smothered by an overwhelming police presence, with the riot cops easily outnumbering the rioters. (They’ve been recruiting).
By the time I bothered to haul myself over to the area, it was kind of sad really. Clumps of protestors, hanging around in small groups. Barely a flag among them, though there was a guy or two in a Hungarian Guard uniform. No chants of “Gyurcsany, bugger off”. Just waiting, cracking the odd joke but generally sharing a desultory mood. Warily watching the columns of riot police, clad in black, that blocked off the sidestreets. Sometimes a unit, upon barked commands, rattled off in a lockstep run, or moved into place. The whole street lined with police cars, vans, a whole bus arriving with fresh manpower.


Blurry images from the 2006 riots

Some grannies, the national tricolor pinned on their chest, heckled the cops; a drunk in camouflage slurred insults. We pay you, our taxes, now look at you. But mostly, the status quo was complete. A far right teen, in the practical combat-ready outfit of boots, thigh-highs and skirt, posing for the photo with her girl friend; a guy in near-folkloric nationalist outfit jollying around in mock-poses when I turn my camera his way. On the other side, the helmeted cops are painstakingly polite to anyone with a camera or otherwise visibly not part of the scene. Hard to imagine these were the troops who two years ago were condemned by Amnesty International for violent abuse of demonstrators they had carted off in their vans: they allegedly handcuffed and lined up rows of suspects on their knees, and beat them with truncheons. Though they do still look the part, and at one point wrestled someone from the crowd and violently pushed and shoved him into one of the waiting vans.

Generally though, the police seem to have learnt a lot, these past two years. In the first round of rioting, when protestors briefly occupied the building of Hungarian Television, more cops were injured than protestors. Night after night, they were hunting after bands of rioters running amock, unable to do more than chase them off to ever new places. Now, they seem in full control. What are they doing differently now? Lesson one: overwhelming numbers. Have a disproportionate presence vis-a-vis the rioters. Outnumber them in such proportions, they’re intimidated before they even start. Lesson two: preempt their moves. Smother even the slightest rioting before it escalates. Block off entire neighbourhoods if need be. Lesson three, and this may seem paradoxical: mingle. Well, mingle is perhaps not the right word. But again and again, a point arrived where a phalanx of riot cops crossed the street or jumped out of a bus — not, in old school style, to form a big line of shields and then push the protesting youths into a pack and then backward — but to mix into the crowd. With one cop for every protestor, noone even thinks of resistance as the cops scatter and demand ID from every youth, and frisk many of them.

Of course that’s only possible thanks to their force of numbers. And how this fits with your various civil rights, I don’t know. I’ve never been asked to ID myself just for gathering in protest when taking part in demonstrations back home – and that’s all these kids were doing, by the time I arrived.

Hear me, I’m defending fascists now. And there is genuine reason to worry about the flourishing far right movements, with the Hungarian Guard ceremonially inducting 650 new members today. Just two days ago, a right wing group called the Hungarian Arrows Liberation Army (named in reference to the WW2-era Arrow Cross regime) claimed responsibility for a bus explosion in Bács county. The group said it had wanted to punish a local coach company that had transported a group of Roma “marching against Hungarians” to a demonstration in Ózd, in order to “avenge the anti-Hungarian sentiment”. In all, four people have been killed in seven recent attacks against Roma.

The silent majority, meanwhile, is just disgusted with it all. A Eurobarometer poll published last month showed that just 16% of Hungarians trust their national government – compared to 45% who trusted local and regional authorities and 51% who trusted the EU. More damningly, a national pollconducted last month showed that “all Hungary’s politicians [..] have negative ratings”. Neither the President, a conservative, nor the Prime Minister, a socialist (albeit, as is the case with many ex-communists in the region, one who has embraced the market reform with a passion), was evaluated positively. Nor was the Speaker of the Parliament – or any of the main opposition leaders.

Nor does it seem to be a particularly ideological matter. While the conservative opposition party Fidesz “towers above all the other parties” in the poll, the least impopular politician is actually a Socialist. Moreover, it’s Katalin Szili, the parliamentary speaker who often criticizes PM Gyurscany … from the left. So the Hungarians don’t agree whether the answer lies to the left or to the right, they just know they’re fed up with what they have now. Which neatly summarises the political history of postcommunist Hungary, come to think of it.

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What I Want to See from Rush

Economy, Politics, Uncategorized, US Economy, US Politics

Rush LImbaugh has been crowned the leader of the Republican Party by the Democrats and to the humor of all, his fellow Republicans have kind of completed coronation.  So how should Rush use his new found power?  It’s clear that there is a void at the top of the Republican party and Rush has a large bully pulpit, so what should he do?  I have an idea for you Rush.

First, recognize that all those who try to speak for the Republican Party on the stimulus all have one thing in common:  They are completely unqualified to speak about the economy in general and our current crisis in particular.  Not that the Democratic congressmen and senators are any better, because they aren’t.  On one side of this crisis, you have Obama’s administration consulting with the best economists money can buy.  One the other side, you have … what, a bunch of politicans looking to profit from being in the opposition?  People who want Obama to fail?  This is not going to work for you.

Once you understand that these people, your subjects, don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s time to take on the administration.  Put together your team of reputable economists and present your own plan!  I’m sure you can find a group of economists who are not confident about the administration’s plan to sit around a table, put together a comprehensive theory of what is happening and how we can mitigate the crisis and then propose a solution that is different than what the administration has proposed.  The economists would probably do it for free just for the press!  Armed with a counter proposal,  your minions in government would be in a position to ask for changes in the stimulus package instead of futilely cursing the Democrats.  This is your chance to lead Rush.  What are you going to do with it?

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Cutting Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face

Economy, education, Politics, Uncategorized, US Economy, US Politics

It seems like a new Republican mantra has broken free from the dark corridors where is was previously consigned to furtive whispers: they want Obama to fail.  I understand that Obama is pushing for many policies that don’t fit with the Republican party line, but how can you want him to fail?  What does an Obama failure look like for the United States?  Unemployment over 10%?  Numerous failures in the US manufacturing sector?  Significant erosion in the soft power of the US, much of which stems from our economic position in the world?  Is that what Republicans are hoping for?  How can a Republican congressman go back to his or her constituents and defend this position?  The governor of South Carolina has gone so far as to say he wants to use S.C.’s share of the stimulus money to pay down South Carolina’s debts instead of trying to create new jobs.  Since South Carolina’s unemployment rate is 10.4%, the second highest in the nation, you might think that the governor would decide to create more jobs, but even as the state is furloughing teachers and moving to larger class sizes, Governor Stanford is turning away help for politics.

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Who’s Liable for Medical Accidents


Today, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that the Wyeth pharmaceutical company is liable for injuries sustained to a patient when a drug was improperly administered despite a warning explicitly called out on the label.  It wasn’t even a close vote (6-3) nor was it a new drug.  Here are the details per the NY Times.  The patient, Diana Levine, went to a clinic in 2000 with migraine pain for a shot of Demerol.  As part of this treatment, the clinic also prescribed Phenergan for nausea.  The Wyeth drug Phenergan has been in use since it was approved in 1955, but if misused, it has a horrendous side effect.  Contact with arterial blood can, according to the warning on the label, cause “gangrene requiring amputation”!  That is what happened in this case.  The clinic improperly administered the drug, accidently injecting it into an artery instead of the target vein and the patient eventually lost her arm.  So how is Wyeth liable?  If you have a drug on the market for half a century with 200 million successful uses and a warning on the label that details out the risk, what more must you do?  The Vermont jury that heard the case said that the label could have been more explicit or banned injection completely.  So I feel for Ms. Levine (who also settled a case for $700,000 against the clinic), but what is the responsibility of Wyeth here?  This is not a drug that you buy over the counter at Rite Aid.  You would only expect it to be used in a hospital or clinic setting and it would be administered (as it was in this case) by medical professionals.  Administering the drug by intermuscular injection or IV is supposed to be very safe.  The warning is spectacularly specific.

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Jim Bunning Death Watch, Part 2

Politics, US Politics

Jim Bunning’s current status is: Self-destructive.

The suicide watch has been posted at Sen. Jim Bunning’s office.

Or, at least, it should be.  In the latest chapter of this increasingly bizarre saga, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports that Bunning (R-KY) told a closed fundraising meeting of his supporters that he would resign from office if he encountered opposition from the Republican Party to his reelection effort.

“I would get the last laugh. Don’t forget Kentucky has a Democrat governor,” one of the sources quoted Bunning as saying.

“The only logical extension of that comment is, ‘(Make me mad) … enough and I’ll resign, and then you’ve got 60 Democrats,’ ” said another source who was present at the event.

Theres precedent for this sort of threat

There's precedent for this sort of threat

Bunning’s official response was, predictably, a denial: “It’s not true. I intend to fulfill my obligation to the people of Kentucky. If you are going to write something like this, you better make your sources known, because they are lying.”  Of course, Bunning has a tendency to deny many of his kookier remarks until it is revealed that somebody had recorded them on tape, at which point Bunning’s memory becomes somewhat less fuzzy.

In terms of strategy, this amounts to saying: “don’t piss me off or I’ll kill myself.”  It seems pretty evident, therefore, that Bunning hasn’t thought his cunning plan all the way through.  As one source revealed to the Courier-Journal:

“It’s not because he’s old and senile — he’s always been like that. He’ll tell you what he thinks,” the source said.

But Bunning’s resistance to retirement is “sad to see,” the source said.

“The problem I see with all this media attention is, it just makes him more stubborn rather than make him ready to make a rational decision,” the source said.

Very astute source.


Finding Humor in Porn Statistics


A little humor from the folks at the Journal of Economic Perspectives.  OK, they don’t mean it has humor.  Their article “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” is a serious work looking at the various socioeconomic factors driving pornography consumption or as they say:

For economists, the adult entertainment industry offers several aspects of
interest. On the production side, for example, the adult entertainment industry has
repeatedly proven to be among the first to adopt new imaging technologies. For
example, Johnson (1996) concludes that adult videos spurred early purchases of
home video cassette recorders. More recently, as studios evaluated competing
high-definition DVD formats HD-DVD and Blu-ray, at least some studios chose
Blu-ray upon observing that adult studios favored that format (Mearian, 2006).
Looking back, adult entertainment was an early adopter of a wide variety of
image-related technologies—including ancient sculpture (Diver, 2005), the book
(Moulton, 2000), and the photograph (Loth, 1961).

Still, it’s not hard to find humor in the reams of data contained in the report.  The top state in Internet porn subscriptions per broadband user:  Utah.  Numbers two and three: Alaska and Mississippi.  Those are really red states consuming all that porn.  OK, Hawaii comes in at number four, but then comes Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Dakota and Louisiana.  See any pattern there?  Maybe those blue state folks are just better at finding free porn. 

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Jindal’s Response and What is Says About the Conservative Movement

education, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

After President Obama’s address, the latest “rising star” of the Republican Party took the stage to present the party response.  Bobby Jindal’s speech has been pretty widely panned with pundits commenting unfavorably on his delivery, diction, stage presence, etc, but in terms of respresenting current Conservative thought, it was right on the money.  Skip all the window dressing and look at the meat of his address. Here is what I take away about Conservative views on government, taxes, education, science and defense.

Role of government

Governor Jindal starts with this story:

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office, I’d never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: “Well, I’m the Sheriff and if you don’t like it you can come and arrest me!” I asked him: “Sheriff, what’s got you so mad?” He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go, when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn’t go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, “Sheriff, that’s ridiculous.” And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: “Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!” Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and go start rescuing people.

There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens.

The point here: Government is an obstacle to be overcome.  This particular story is pretty ironic.  My father was one of the late sheriff Lee’s deputies in the mid eighties and if there is one thing that is beyond doubt is that Lee was a politician through and through, the most influential politician in Jefferson Parish from the 80’s until his recent death.  Jindal praises Lee’s work organizing relief while at the same time implying that government is the problem.  The Governor envisions a world where the government is too small to help so that the “compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens” can shine through.

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Jim Bunning Death Watch, Part 1

Politics, US Politics

In his career, Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) has worn a variety of hats.  He started out as a major league baseball player, where he pitched for the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies and was good enough to end up in the Hall of Fame.  He then went into politics in his home state of Kentucky, serving in the state legislature before being elected to congress and then, in 1998, winning a senate seat that he successfully defended in 2004.  And now, it appears, he’s a cancer specialist.

During a wide-ranging 30-minute speech on Saturday [Feb. 21] at the Hardin County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner, Bunning said he supports conservative judges “and that’s going to be in place very shortly because Ruth Bader Ginsburg … has cancer.”

“Bad cancer. The kind that you don’t get better from,” he told a crowd of about 100 at the old State Theater.

“Even though she was operated on, usually, nine months is the longest that anybody would live after (being diagnosed) with pancreatic cancer,” he said.

Bunning: "How many fingers am I holding up? Two? Two is correct."

Evidently, Bunning’s service in the senate alongside Bill Frist has given the Kentucky senator the same ability to make long-distance medical evaluations as Frist displayed during the Terri Schiavo affair.  Frist, it should be recalled, admitted that he had diagnosed Schiavo “based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office.”  He concluded that Schiavo, despite her persistent vegetative state and extensive brain damage, “certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli.”

It’s not clear that the same can be said for Bunning.  Kentucky’s junior senator has been known to exhibit inexplicably bizarre behavior during his time in office.  In his 2004 reelection campaign, he said that his Democratic opponent, Dan Mongiardo, the son of Italian immigrants, “looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.”  Bunning also confessed that he wasn’t much of a news junkie: “Let me explain something: I don’t watch the national news, and I don’t read the paper. I haven’t done that for the last six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information.” That led to charges that Bunning was “out of touch,” which prompted a Nixonian denial: “That’s unfair. You know it is.  Of course I’m not out of touch.”  Note to aspiring politicians: when you have to assure voters that, really, you’re not all that out of touch, you’re doing something wrong.

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Moving house

Image used under CC license from augustusoz

Image used under CC license from augustusoz

Excuse the brief administrative intermezzo, but I am moving blogs. From now on, you can find me blogging on a day-to-day basis at Cogitamus.

To kick things off there, I posted an updated analysis of how the stimulus bill is polling – and what may explain the differences in results between different polls on the question.

If you tended to enjoy my posts here, do by all means keep reading Observationalism, but consider adding Cogitamus to your feed as well!

I’ll surely still drop in here for the occasional guest post, and Observationalism will continue to offer the rapier wit of Joefromchicago, the keen observations of Engineer, and the insightful posts of the others.

I’ve had a lot of fun here getting into blogging for the first time; I’m glad my peers at Observationalism created the opportunity to do so!

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