Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Having had Estonia grow up around me, I take a lot of things for granted. Yet it seems that in a few areas we are very much ahead of the curve, and one of those is taxes.

The story was making the headlines recently about former Estonian PM Mart Laar (the only PM in the history of the newly independent country to get the job twice, although he still couldn't last a full term) getting the Milton Friedman award for promoting freedom. Central amounghis celebrated achievements is the introduction of Estonia's flat tax system.

The reason why I'm having trouble comprehending the complicated tax structure of countries like the US is because ours works so well so naturally. It's bloody obvious that this is how you're supposed to do this stuff. So, a few details:
  • 23% (and dropping every year) personal income tax
Everything you earn, you pay 23% on. The first $150 or so you earn every month are tax exempt. Since your employer handles all the paperwork, they either discount that money right away and it forms part of what you take home, or they don't bother, and you get a rebate in March. The figure you will see in an employment contract and (often) job ad is with this income tax, so what you actually get is just under a quarter less.
  • 33% social tax
Pays for hospitals, education, emergency services, etc. Paid by the employer on your behalf, so unless you're self-employed you aren't even aware this exists. Healthcare in Estonia is free, but mostly run as a private enterprise paid for by the national health insurance agency. Education is free, compulsory up to 9th grade, universally available up to 12th grade, and partially free at university level - the government orders sets of specialists they feel will be needed years from now, so if you're among the top X scorers in entrance exams, you pay no tuition whatsoever. You can also take the exact same program and pay for it - somewhere between $1000 and $2000 per year.

Naturally, I had a state-sponsored spot. Best score of the year; the text was designed to allow a score of 80% for the best students. I got 85.5%.
  • 18% value-added tax
Some categories of product and service, such as utilities or theater tickets, are taxed at 5%. There are EU-imposed loopholes; I recently bought a cruise to Stockholm at zero VAT. This doubles as the import duty, though you can import stuff anywhere else in the EU and sell/use it here with no additional charge.

That's it. There are excise charges on petrol, alcohol and tobacco of course, but otherwise the system is very simple. The rebates are few, but significant: interest on student loans and mortgages is not taxed (meaning you get 23% of interest payments back from the government).

There you have it: the Estonian tax legislation, in half a page of human text. There are no car taxes, no pet taxes, no inheritence taxes, no capital gains taxes - though I'll have to pay income tax on my stock options. To all the theorists who say it could not possibly work, I offer you a delicious factoid. The government of the Republic of Estonia had to pass a supplementary budget in 2005; the law states that our budget has  to be balanced, and the tax revenue for the year exceeded expectations by two billion kroons - around 158 million dollars.

It works alright.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


In my natural state, you would most often find me in desperate need of a haircut, a shave and a wardrobe consisting of something other than black T-shirts with skulls on them. Still, there are some things I'll dress up for. Theater, for example. You can wear jeans to the cinema, but at the theater, there are live human beings extending you the courtesy of performing for you, and this you need to respect - regardless of whether the performance is good or not. I won't dress formal for a burial, on the assumption that the key figure really couldn't care less any more, but I do wear a suit and tie when I go to see a play.

Every man needs to own a formal suit, even if he will only use it twice, to be married and buried. And every man needs to know how to tie a double Windsor, even if on the second of the abovementioned occasions somebody will do it for him.

Friday, April 21, 2006


It's been a slow day, so I looked for blog articles mentioning Estonia, and came across this. Two things:

1) The Estonica bit: Yep, shale is our one noticeable mineral resource. (The other natural resource is our forest, which I think is the official collateral for the national currency.) Shale, in ore form, is used in powerplants, and as such is the least efficient fuel used by humanity. But we've got it, and a good amount of it. The article above mentions Brazil, but back when I was in high school, Estonia was the world's leading producer of shale. The US was second. Today the shale is mostly converted into shale oil, which we export to great success. Apparently shale oil is added in small quantities to crude oil to facilitate refinement and end up with high-quality petrol.

2) The reality bit: This is an excellent example of what I find to be the problem with the current hype about fuel cells and running out of oil. There is no accurate, or even convincing estimate of how much oil there is in the world and how much of it is feasibly extractable. One figure I've heard recently was that 90% of the world's easily available oil reserves are in Venezuela; and Hugo Chavez has been talking about selling it at a fixed price of $50/barrel to everyone except the US. I know he's a bastard, but damn, at that price I'll take it. Now there's a huge reserve of oil right there in the US, extractable at a cost of $25/barrel. The important thing to take away from this is that you shouldn't put much stock in proof by repeated assertion, and apply some common sense to at least assess the credibility of sensational statements.


Consider the Ford F-150, the most sold single model of a vehicle in the world. Two aspects of it are exceptional. One, that it achieves this impressive feat while being sold almost exclusively in North America. And two, that it's so ludicrously wasteful.

A task is considered to have been completed with the most efficiency when the amount of energy expelled is as large as necessary and as small as possible. The index of the F-150 originally referred to its payload of 1500 pounds, although the Ford website tells me it varies between models. The car is powered by a 4.2-liter V6 or a choice of two V8s, and has an official consumption figure of around 14l/100km in town, falling to 11l/100km on the highway.

Now, assume you are in Europe and you need a service vehicle to deliver goods or equipment, and you think that three quarters of a ton should just about do it. You go to the dealership, and you buy...

A Renault Kangoo. Or a Peugeot Partner, or a Citroen Berlingo, or an Opel Combo, or, if you think you need a bit more space, a Ford Transit Connect. And here's the thing: a long-wheelbase Connect with a 90bhp diesel engine is rated at 900kg, or 2000 pounds. The official mileage is 30mpg in the city, and 40mpg on the highway.

Ah! you will say. But there is no way that a mere 90bhp will be able to shift all that weight!

You'll be wrong. A friend of mine works as a delivery driver for the Estonian postal service. I've had the experience of riding along with him in a Kangoo equipped with a 1.4l diesel putting out a manic 75bhp, with the back full of mail (and paper, as you might be aware, is quite heavy). Trust me: in the right hands, that thing flew.

And besides, American horses tend to be a lot less effective. I spent a bit of time in California a couple of years ago, and got to ride along, and briefly drive, a brand-spanking new F-250 King Ranch with a monster 6.8l diesel. I'm aware that US manufacturers tend to regard official power outputs liberally, but my chief impression was that nothing with 328bhp has any business being that slow.

Most Americans who admit the wastefulness of fullsize trucks justify it by their ability to tow things. Yet a European van, equipped with an engine of the same class - around two liters, around a hundred horsepower - will quite happily tow a race car on a trailer, or a small boat. And these are already beyond the weight limit when you need a special license.

Shall we attempt a moral here? The primary virtue of a commercial vehicle in Europe is efficiency. The primary virtue of a commerical vehicle in America is comfort. Europe embraces the principle of reasonable sufficiency, while America embraces the principle of overwhelming force. Europe will devote the minimally appropriate amount of energy to a task, whereas America will devote the maximally available amount.

America likes doing things. Europe likes getting things done.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


On more than one occasion I have heard expats praise Estonia for its general similarity of attitudes to their home country. I've heard an American housewife say that she could live quite comfortably in Estonia as long as she had access to a Stockmann, and I've heard a British rover say that this is the only country, other than home, where he would consider raising his (hypothetical) children.

Nevertheless, there are a few things foreigners will have trouble with. First and foremost, this would be the language.

Admittedly, most people in Estonia do speak at least some English, but if you're going to stay here for an extended period you will need to start learning Estonian. Be prepared to become the source of much merriment to your local acquaintances in the process.

Most European languages belong to one of two groups, Germanic or Romance. The former notably includes English, German, Dutch, and most Scandinavian languages. The latter includes French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. Both of these groups have evolved from a single source, and belong to the Indo-European family. The upshot is that if you are proficient in one of these languages, you will be able to logically deduce similarities in others, at least on the level of word meanings. In almost every European capital, traffic signs pointing to downtown will be some variation of Center.

Not so in Estonian. Along with Finnish (and, inexplicably, Hungarian) it is a Finno-Ugric language, and has nothing to do with the rest of them. Centuries of conquerors have left a mark on the tongue, but it is still beyond the comprehension of anyone who is not born into it. I've been speaking it all my life, and I'm still not entirely comfortable in it.

It's more than just the grammar, which you may largely ignore if your intention is simply to get by at the supermarket. Estonian shares with Irish and Dutch the distinction of having fundamentally counter-intuitive pronunciation. Unlike those, the Estonian language tricks you by being entirely phonetic; you take a word, and you start pronouncing it from the first letter, taking each in turn, until you get to the last one. No skipping, and formally at least, no assimilation. What you see is what you read.

Except that it isn't, because each sound is subtly but importantly different from what you would expect it to be. I've known Finns who have lived in Tartu for years or taken extensive language classes - and they still speak with a bad accent. I cannot possibly describe in words the entertainment value of a Cambridge-educated Brit trying to pronounce the name of the pub PĆ¼ssirohukelder.

So if you're an expat trying to speak Estonian, remember: your local friends are too polite to laugh in your face, but they are in fact fairly miffed at what you're doing to their language.

Except if you're speaking to South Estonians. In that case, never mind, it's not your fault; nobody really has a clue what the fuck they're on about.

Monday, April 17, 2006


Once again I'm feeling guilty for not writing a thing in two weeks (not that anybody seemed to notice), but I discovered Tim King's Letters from Estonia today, and thought I'd share.

An outsider's perspective is of utmost interest to residents of Estonia, with our small country syndrome. Estonians are rightly proud of their culture and appreciate comments by those unfamiliar with it.

My own perspective is slightly tilted as well. Estonia is a nation state, and I am not ethnically Estonian; however both my parents' families have lived on the territory of what is now Estonia before 1940, and in fact before 1918, which makes this as much my country as anyone else's. I'm what's technically known as an Estlander. It might not seem like much of a distinction, but trust me: in a country where permanent black residents can be counted on the finger of one very disfigured hand, it is.

Government vs nation

From a forum post:

"burning a flag is speech. It is expressing dissatisfaction with the government."

This is a typical (and topical) example of what's wrong with Americans' attitude to politics and government. The government is not the nation, and one would think that them lot would be the first to realize that. The flag is a representation of the country and the community of its people, the values and rules they have chosen to set for themselves. If you are burning a flag, you are not insulting the government, you are insulting the nation, and the nation is under no obligation to tolerate it. If you don't like the nation - move. (Burning other countries' flags is legal in Estonia. Burning its own is a misdemeanor and will get you a fine or up to 15 days in jail.)

Despite all of Americans' talk of democracy and how great their free country is, they seem fundamentally incapable of taking responsibility for it; they generally believe that there's the people, and then there's the government, which is occasionally necessary but overall an evil presense to be feared and opposed at every opportunity. Watching from a small country where in 15 years of independence there has never been a cabinet that lasted from one parliamentary election to another, this seems preposterous. The government is a representative of the people, and if you don't like it, you don't go out and burn flags - you fucking change the government. If, despite your best efforts, you still get what you think of as the "bad" administration, you just shut the fuck up and live with it, admitting that you're in the minority, most people in your country want to live under Bush and there's nothing you can do about it, except move to Canada.

But for fuck's sake, stop talking of the government as a foreign conqueror from your sworn enemy (Texas) forcing an alien way of life and set of values upon you.

And don't insult the nation. There's a very good saying about this, left over from the Soviet days: "If you spit at the community, the community wipes it off. If the community spits at you, you drown."

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Ground rules for technical writers

Well that's what we use where I work... might be useful to others.

  1. When in doubt – ask – for ignorance is not an excuse.

  2. When in a tight spot – cry out – for together we can remedy nearly anything.

  3. When you feel as if you can’t make it – tell us – for we won’t leave our own behind.

  4. When asked a question – answer to the best of your knowledge – for this is what we do.

  5. When sick – stay home – for we’ll kick your sorry ass if you infect us!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Europe United

The other day, a friend pointed me to the Finnish entry for Eurovision this year.

OK, I can sort of see what they were thinking. Power metal is Finland's premier musical export at this point (The Rasmus, HIM, Stratovarius etc.). The problem is that this isn't even a particularly good metal song. Still, Finland's never had much luck in the contest - they hosted it once, but only because Israel had won twice in a row - and I wish them all the best.

Eurovision is a big deal in Estonia. The vocal majority screams about it being mindless drivel, and yes, it's much more of a performance contest these days than a song contest. Still, Estonians love to think of themselves as a great singing nation. Hell, we even had a Singing Revolution almost two decades ago.

In the last few years, the situation's been a bit weird. Estonia won Eurovision in 2001, and everyone was ecstatic, but hosting it was a major burden. Certainly the event didn't break even, despite all the tourists. We did alright in 2002, got third place, it was an honor thing. But since then, the powers-that-be seem to be terrified of winning again and having to go through all that; we certainly couldn't let someone else have it. Estonia's entry isn't chosen by popular vote, so the audience favourites have never won. This was most obvious with Vanilla Ninja, the girl band that went on to massive fame in Germany and represented Switzerland at the ESC last year - their song was so obviously Eurovision material that it could not possibly be allowed. The same thing happened this year: the international panel of experts junked the track which everyone voted for, a distinctive and rather beautiful song, for a Swedish girl performing the blandest pop.

Not that I do well at guessing who's going to win. The Ukrainian song I liked from the start, but otherwise I fairly consistently vote for midfielders.

Despite this, I love Eurovision. It is the greatest existing manifestation of the dream of a united Europe. Yes, everyone votes for their neighbours, but I don't see much credibility in the gossip of rigging. It's only a political event insofar as for one night, over half a billion people become a single audience, and experience the sort of fraternity no common market or currency can stimulate.

To quote the Spanish entry of a few years back - "Europe's living a celebration."

Dilemma revisited

MarkTAW has posted an article inspired by our conversation about happiness. I suggest to everyone that you go and read it, particularly the practical advice bit at the bottom - it's a very good list of things I try to do and you should do as well.

Oh, and Mark - you've got a greengrocer's apostrophe in the footer there.


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