14 Jul 2014

So Long, Holland

I have arrived back in the Land of the Angles and Saxons, and indeed have spent a day recharging my batteries. So now I’m thinking: why not give you lot something to think about?

Well, this will probably be my last post on Holland for the time being. What I aim to do is make some further comparison between it and England (and indeed the UK in general) while—hopefully—amusing you.

Where Was I?

I was in the part of Holland towards the inner continent, in a town called Groningen. Which reminds me—in Dutch, most of the time the grapheme ‘G’ is pronounced [ɣ] (a harsh ‘hrrr’—or voiced velar fricative if you really want to get technical). So ‘Groningen’ is actually ‘Hrrroningen’. Weird, huh?

Now, Groningen has some strange little features. It has two bells, for one; and they both ring at the same time! And they’re pretty close to one another. And they play totally, totally different tunes.

And they do that every fifteen minutes.

So: you know you’re in Groningen when you here that awful, discordant clanging every fifteen minutes or so (for the clocks on those aren’t perfectly calibrated). You can also guess that it’s pretty damn annoying—don’t try to live in the city centre if you ever want to open a window. Or don’t have soundproofing.

The other pleasantry that Groningen has to offer is the rounded street corners. They’re quite quirky, I admit; they also mean that intersections occur on the pavement, so you always have to watch out for cars and bikes.

Which reminds me: the Dutch are crazy about bikes. It’s quite common to ride to work, ride to a park, ride to a restaurant, ride to…

And good for them. They save themselves money (thanks to the big taxes imposed on cars, along with the fact that car ownership is generally an expensive business) and they get health benefits. I just hope you like the rain, because you’ll be pretty comfortably enured with it by the time you’ve done any serious biking in Holland.

Anyway, let’s move on from all of these oddities to something a bit more concrete.

(Here’s my Google Web Album with some pictures, by the way.)

Holland, and the UK: An Economic Perspective

Anyone with a brain can ascertain that Holland is a wealthier country than the UK, simply by looking at the statistics: higher GDP per capita; a lower Gini co-efficient; lower teen pregnancy; et cetera.

But the statistics don’t tell you as much as the words. And while they are correct on the gist of it, they’re not quite correct on the scale of it. Because Holland isn’t just richer than the UK: it’s loads better off.

There is pretty big class difference here in the UK (unfortunately; a long standing problem worsened by economic crisis and a certain party I know of...)

There is class difference in Holland too, of course; there has to be. The reasons are complex—they range from the fact that some inequality must exist in order to provide incentive for greater risk, and because some people are harder working and more determined (while others are more content); and because, at the end of it all: some professions are more useful to the world than others.

However, class difference is very much pernicious. Firstly, it causes economic problems. This comes in two forms: through the principle of marginal utility—adding a ten grand bonus to guy earning a hundred k is far less meaningful than adding it to someone earning 16k, for example; and through the fact that it is more difficult to make money if you do not have it.

There are many frequent examples of this. Having more cash means you can buy shoes that will last for years, not months; and it means you can buy the more expensive fridge that’s cheaper over the long term due to efficiency; and so on and so forth.

There is also the question of borrower credibility. Banks are generally more willing to lend money to people with more money—the assumption being that the latter are more responsible. (This is quite often mistaken, of course: rich people are just as likely—if not more so—to end up in debt than less rich people.)

But class difference can manifest itself in much more subtle ways than in their economic ones; and it is these differences—these unseen ones—that are more dangerous.

Class

We all know the stereotype: the Victorian ladies and gentlemen sipping their favourite Earl Grey while the peasants are on hunger strike. Perhaps they’re even buying a nice gold chandelier while the peasants are trying to put out a fire.

These things seem silly to us know. But they’re true: the rich so often become heedless of the needs and concerns of less fortunate citizens. They do, to put it more simply, lack empathy.

And empathy is a very important part of a functional society. Those who do not have it are considered psychopaths; those who do are considered saviours. To lack in empathy would make you unable to deal with the emotions of other people (especially those close to you) and it will lower your capability to be a good, responsible citizen.

Which brings me onto a little known fact: a lack of empathy towards those less fortunate does often lead to a lack of empathy in general. Or to put it more bluntly—money damages you as a person.

There is also the age old question of entitlement.

Many of us laugh when we hear about millionaires (or billionaires) giving but a fraction of their money to their offspring. It makes sense, though: money leads to entitlement; and entitlement leads to an inability to cope with scarcity or difficulty.

The economic implications of this are merely an incomplete picture of the problem, of course. (As indeed economics is just part of the issue of class.)

We do not live in a perfect world. Bad things happen. People leave us; relations dull, and colden—and sometimes, disaster strikes. If you feel the world belongs to you, how do you deal with this?

Alex: Why?

I have gone off on a rather long tangent. Pardon me. So: we know that Holland has fewer rich snobs, and that’s a good thing. But how and why is it richer?

If you come from a 1st world country, looking around some neighbourhoods of Birmingham (for example) would come as a bit of a shock. There is a powerful sense of poverty in much of Britain: everything from the small, ugly terraced houses; to the ageing, dying cars; even to the poor taste in fashion—it all paints a gloomy picture.

After two years in the Netherlands, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen this level of poverty. Indeed, most of Groningen seems to be swimming in cash: the restaurants are full; the fashion houses seem busy; the trains are running on time—no complaints to be heard. Everything just seems so… smooth.

I do not claim to know exactly why this is the case. Neither do the economists, as much they as they wish they did.

I will merely present to you some hypotheses.

Infrastructure

Do you live in the UK? If so, you have probably complained extensively about:

  1. The fact that the damn motorways seem forever clogged in a mass of rumbling, grumbling cars filled with even more rumbling, grumbling motorists;

  2. The fact that the trains are bloody expensive;

  3. The fact that the trains are slow sons of a b****;

  4. The airports—they’re too full;

  5. The ferries—they don’t go anywhere;

  6. And more…

In holland, the motorways don’t get traffic jammed for hours (barring force majeure), the trains are fast, on time (and affordable); the airports are big enough; there are better sea-links, and so on.

A weak infrastructure means time and fuel lost by lorries idling idly in packed motorways. Fuel is expensive. Time is expensive—especially when foodstuffs are concerned.

Basically, infrastructure is a good investment; and one that the UK doesn’t do enough of.

Vocational Training…

In the UK, there exists a certain contempt of the word ‘vocational’. Yuck. Vocational. The images typically conjured are of lazy teenage boys sitting around in their DiDa classes (or whatever the hell they call them now) doing ‘ICT’ and ‘Game Design’.

And there’s a reason for this: training in the UK is very, very weak. The fact of the matter is, we can’t get those less fortunate to become competent craftsmen, IT personnel, or even shop-assisstants. (Some supermarkets have implemented their own numeracy and literacy tests for first time employees.)

Try going to a Dutch supermarket—Albert Heijn, let’s say.

Shop Assistant: ‘Hallo.’

Moi: ‘Hallo.’

BEEP BEEP

Moi: ‘Dank u vell.’

SA: ‘Astublieft.’

Fast, efficient, polite. In the UK? You’d likely have to wait a fair bit more and be asked a fair few more unnecessary questions before you’d get anything done. Let’s not even get into the quality of Dutch vocational training—they have separate universities for people like that (unlike here, where the best you’ll find is a poorly paid apprenticeship) and those universities are affordable (ditto), and have better facilities than UK ones.

And it’s not just at the tertiary level, mind you. Dutch highschools are better funded and have a much wider range of courses (that are taken seriously) available for non-academic students. Moreover, I have never seen Dutch schools as bad as some of the ones we have here.

EU

Britain has always been an insular country with insular tendencies. And recently, the bastards that borrowed money from fools banks to be spent profligately on swimming pools, jewellery, fashion and various other things they couldn’t afford—they’ve decided to jump on the anti-EU bandwaggon (ah, scapegoating) to cover up their irresponsibility.

Going into the merits of the EU is a topic for another time. I’ll leave it at this for now: every other EU country that has historically been comparable in wealth to the UK (e.g. Holland, Germany, France, Belgium) is both significantly richer, prone to less inflation, has less class division, and is growing faster than we are. That’s some coincidence, eh?

Let’s Finish

The Dutch are an odd, arrogant bunch with a terrible taste in food outside of cheese and waffles—both of which are fantastic, by the way.

(I’ve seen vegetables in hot water called ‘clear broth’. Oh, please.)

They also have a weird obsession with orange—they sell lots of orange shirts, trousers, mascots, and even suits in the colour. And of course they turned all the carrots orange, like I’ve previously mentioned.

But despite all this, they have a country with fantastic civil liberties (in how many parts of the world can two brothers marry and be on the drug user’s list?) and they’re rich too. We could learn something from them.

Just don’t think boiled, baked and fried vegetables are a good idea, okay?

PS: I’ll be posting the Poem of the Week soon. And that essay on The Essence of a Good Tale that I’ve been talking about. It’ll be really philosophical—indeed, I plan to hand it to my philosophy teacher in September, in lieu of doing whatever weird summer work they’ve chosen.

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