Monday, December 12, 2011

No, You

http://xkcd.com/989/
When we joined the Eurozone, I asked what Estonia's next great challenge was going to be. One suggestion was to join the Nordic Council, getting de-facto recognition of our status as a Nordic country (after which we would do absolutely everything in our power to make sure neither Latvia nor Lithuania could ever possibly join). But that was not significant enough; while it would be nice, it's simply not the kind of overarching goal and purpose that could unite the country in a singular pursuit.

These days I think a better challenge would be population growth. Twenty years ago, at the cusp of independence, Estonia's population was around 1.5 million; now it's 1.3 at a stretch. A lot of it is attributable to emigration in the 90s, in both easterly and westerly directions. Since that time successive governments have struggled with family-support legislation, tax breaks, baby benefits, etc. - and we've just about gotten to the point where the natural demographics are balanced, heading towards the positive: more babies will be born than people will die.

But following EU accession, global financial crisis, and the popping of the real-estate-fueled economic bubble, emigration is once again a big issue. A lot of capable and energetic talent is taking advantage of labor mobility laws, and going off abroad in search of fame, fortune, or just a good time.

Admittedly a lot of them will come back (and have). There is a sense of homeland that drives people back here, as evidenced both by the fairly high community of foreign expats married to Estonian women, and by my own experience during extended travels. I've almost literally been around the world, and while there are plenty of places where I could see myself spending a few years (Stockholm, Barcelona, NYC, Hong Kong, Singapore...), I know I'd always want to come back to Tartu.

The other issue is the difference between perception and reality. This is something I've also internalized while traveling: we might compare ourselves to countries with far greater GDP and income levels, but how different is the living standard, really? This summer, going across Europe by rail, I stopped overnight at a friend's house in southern Denmark. The guy is an IT professional, his wife is a specialist nurse. They live in a modest two-bedroom house, and their car is a ten-year-old diesel Ford Focus. Later on during that trip I ended up in Stuttgart, staying with a couple who had a really nice, large apartment; in their early-mid 30s, they didn't have children yet, and after traveling around the world themselves, they were very happy to meet other people by offering them a spare room via couchsurfing or airBnB. The guy was also an IT professional, this time for Mercedes (everyone in Stuttgart works for Mercedes, Porsche, or Bosch). He had a company car - but said that if he didn't, he wouldn't get a private one, because he and his wife didn't really need one and it is too expensive to run it in Germany. Months later, I was performing in Helsinki and talked to one of the biggest standup guys on that scene; he complained that while the average salary in Finland came out to something like 2700 euros (as opposed to 700 in Estonia), that really doesn't get you very far living in Helsinki. Indeed: a tuna sandwich in Rimi in downtown Tallinn or Tartu is 1.45. The same sandwich in Stockmann in Helsinki is over six euros. After Helsinki I went on my big trip for the year. In Northern California, I stayed with friends again - both professionals, established, in their 40s, childless for personal philosophic reasons. Their house is rented, and their one extravagance is a big powerful muscle car - a Dodge, far cheaper than an equivalent BMW that you'll see a lot of in Tallinn. Their previous car, the first one that either of them had purchased new, was a cheap basic Toyota. In Vancouver, I met up with a friend who drove a Neon, the Lada of North America.

All of these people are comfortably middle-class. The ones in Denmark are probably the closest to the median living standard for their country. The ones in California had the fanciest toy - but the biggest vulnerability to medical bills and, had they chosen to have children, the highest expenses for education.

So wherever you are in the Western world - of which Estonia is now firmly a part - you will end up with a roughly similar living standard for a given level of skill, ability and motivation. People who move out of Estonia hoping to significantly improve their circumstances through the sheer fact of living in a country with a higher GDP often find that this is not a magical solution. (People who intend to only work long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits and happily spend the rest of their lives eating instant noodles, sitting in a subsidized apartment and watching reality television, deserve as little sympathy and consideration as the societies that fail to prevent it.)

I tested this idea recently when an acquaintance mentioned the dire state of the Estonian medical system. She is a doctor who recently finished her training and went off to work in provincial Finland. This is a common enough occurrence: the University of Tartu's medical school is valued highly enough by our northern neighbors that a lot of their young people actually come here to study - it's cheaper and the entrance competition is easier. The doctor in question was concerned about the future of Estonia's healthcare as a whole: by her reckoning, at least 80% of medical students were learning Finnish, and very nearly all of them intended to take their skills elsewhere after graduation. (Norway is another country with a seemingly endless demand for medical professionals, and also one where the apparent living standard is not as high as you'd expect.)

My question to my acquaintance was this: what would have to happen, in a practical sense, for her to have decided to stay in Estonia? Or to now decide to come back, in light of her experience working up near the Arctic Circle?

The answer was not a higher salary, or access to new equipment, or better working conditions, or challenging cases to stimulate the imagination, learn new techniques and advance a career. It wasn't any of the completely valid and understandable gripes that I expected to hear when I asked the question. The answer was the way that the established classes in her chosen profession treated newbies - with lack of respect, not considering that they might also be smart, capable, trustworthy people who had something of value to contribute. The answer was attitude.

For her, and for a lot of other people I've talked to, the reason for emigration is the inability to handle Estonians' uncaring treatment of their fellow human beings. We are a country with universal free healthcare, nearly universal free higher education, easy access to tools of entrepreneurship, low levels of bureaucracy, trusted law enforcement that keeps the crime rate tolerable, and once you see the world for yourself, an objectively reasonable living standard. Hell, even our weather has been improving.

Estonia's biggest turnoff is that we just aren't nice to each other.

If we are to take up the new national challenge and grow our numbers, we have to do more than just make babies. We have to keep people in the country - or, perhaps even better, we have to make sure that people who've gone out into the world bring their valuable skills and experiences back here. We have to make Estonia a better place to be.

We are the ones who have to do it. Me and you. The only way to make Estonia a place where people are nice to each other is to start right now - start being nice to those around you, and keep doing it. Until they start doing it too, or until they die out, or until they go to Finland or the UK or Canada.

We won't begrudge anyone leaving to find the society in which they want to live. Meanwhile, you and I can stay behind, and improve this one.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Dokumenteerija

Here's a video of a lecture I gave to first-year IT students at the University of Tartu, on the job of a technical writer. It's in Estonian, and it's short; one of a technical writer's core virtues is to talk as little as possible while still getting your point across.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Freedom and Suicides

One of the feeds in my podcast list is Freakonomics, and they had a recent special episode called The Suicide Paradox. It's a great show and a great series in general, but one of the side points they mentioned resonated with something else I had the chance to discuss and think about. Apparently, there is an empirically proven way to cover suicides in the press in such a way that prevents copycats, or even decreases the normal suicide level. Cover a high-profile event incorrectly, and you generate a spike in suicides.

This is a great example of the difference between freedom of the press and freedom of speech. I briefly went onto the Dan Carlin forums, where a question was posed: is Dan Carlin a member of the press? And in a wider sense, is every person with a means of broadcasting a member of the press? And therefore, should freedom of the press apply to bloggers, podcasters etc.? (The question about Carlin himself is a bit muddled because he used to be a mainstream radio show host before he started his own online podcast. Anyway, it's excellent if a bit US-centric and occasionally infuriating to a European, so I suggest you give it a listen. His other show, Hardcore History, has an even broader appeal and is also outstanding.)

The right of a blogger or podcaster to say whatever they will is covered by freedom of speech laws. Independent content creators like that do not need the extra protection that comes from press freedom laws. The very thing that makes them interesting, disruptive to the media landscape, and very important to the workings of society, also means that they should not be covered by press freedom laws. Because freedom of the press does not exist in isolation - it is inextricably linked to the responsibility of the press. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press overlap to a significant degree, but if you draw a diagram, you will see that they are shifted against each other. Journalists are protected from prosecution for certain things that members of the general public would get fined or thrown in jail for, and journalists are routinely given wider and deeper access to areas and information that is not disclosed to the public. But journalists are also subject to stricter standards on some issues. In some ways, they are more free than regular people; in other ways, they are less free.

The suicide coverage aspect is one good example of this. In a blog or podcast or YouTube clip or song or poem or novel, you can talk about suicides in any way you want. You are absolutely free to romanticize them, to make them feel heroic and wonderful and the only viable release from the unbearable tortures of the human condition. Nobody has the right to stop you, and in my personal opinion, rightly so. (I don't agree with every current legal practice on a moral level, even if I'm willing to abide by them. In this case, freedom of speech is both legislated and ethical.) However, if you are a journalist, and you cover a suicide in your publication in such a way that it leads to further suicides, then yes, you are responsible. You are professionally responsible on the legislative level, and you are personally responsible on the moral/ethical level.

An important clarification: you are responsible even if you were not aware the distinction exists. In this case - where there is clear evidence than press coverage makes a difference - you can't claim ignorance. If you are a member of the press, you do not have the excuse of not having studied this particular case in journalism school: you are expected to know better. The press is rightly held to a higher standard. This particular case does not quite generate criminal liability, but it's exactly why the press has ethical standards bodies. I'd say it's on about the same level as a doctor's liability for medical malpractice: you didn't directly cause someone to die, but it was in your power to prevent it. If you didn't make every effort to do so, you're not a killer, but neither are you allowed to carry that power any more.

A different aspect of expanded journalistic freedom is access to dangerous areas. This could be as drastic as embedded war reporters following soldiers into combat, and getting killed (the guy who made the highly praised documentary Restrepo was killed while covering the Libyan uprising). It could also be something much closer to home. Only a few months ago, right here in Estonia, a young girl died when a motorcycle crashed into her. She was a press photographer, covering a professional race. As a member of the press, she was allowed to stand close to the track, where regular people cannot go - even though that's where you get the best views. Her death is a tragedy, but she was allowed an expanded freedom because she took on an expanded responsibility. The rider whose bike it was that killed her was absolutely horrified, and stopped racing professionally, but he was not criminally liable for the killing - because the photographer knowingly put herself in harm's way. The photographer was the one with a greater standard of responsibility, not the competitor.

Bloggers, podcasters, independent broadcasters etc. will not and ought not receive protection under the freedom of the press if they're not willing to accept the responsibility of the press. Be it personal danger or the inability to say and write certain things, express certain opinions. You might think suicide is romantic, but if you work for Postimees, you're not allowed to say so. You have a responsibility to describe the mess and unpleasantness left behind, and emphasize the pointlessness of it, the fact that people won't suddenly be fascinated by the victim's deep and troubled personality - there will be nothing left except chunks of brain matter, or the contents the victim's bowels all over the floor.

There was a time when I was a journalist, a legitimate member of the press. I didn't go to journalism school - I applied, and got in, but decided that majoring in English would be easier - but I did get paid by mainstream newspapers, magazines and websites. I carried a press ID, and I was not afraid to use it. I stood in the press photographer area of a drag race event, where the flimsy wire fence would not have protected me if a thousand-horsepower Toyota Supra had suddenly blown a tire. I still feel the responsibility of a journalist when I'm commissioned by the mainstream media. Still, here, on AnTyx, I am not a journalist. I am a blogger. I do not have the expanded protection of the freedom of the press. But I do have the freedom to be an asshole to people.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Federal Express

You're doing it wrong.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

You're Praising Us Wrong

Over the last decade or so, Estonia has frequently been the subject of praise from foreign commentators for its rapid growth and fiscal responsibility. This has increased since the start of the global financial crisis in 2008 - we were hit pretty bad in the property bust, but have recovered well. (I've compared data from March 2007 to March 2011, and the average wage has increased 20%, while the Consumer Price Index has increased 21%.) We're also competing with Luxembourg for the lowest public debt in the Union. All this looks like a really good situation to outside observers obsessed with debt and growth problems in the US and EU, so there have been a number of articles talking about how we've been Doing It Right.

I want to talk about what our fans are doing wrong. I want to talk about bits of the Estonian state which are not mentioned by commentators who are using us an example for their own ideology.

On the US side, the most obvious example of this I've seen recently is this article in something called the Washington Times, by a man called Richard Rahn, "a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth" - in other words, someone who lives in the US capital and talks for a living.
Estonia serves as an example - even for the United States - of what can be accomplished by keeping down deficits and debt, and utilizing a flat tax rather than a progressive income tax.
That is true enough. But to any member of the US right wing (which is quite different, ideologically, from the European and even Estonian right wings), I would recommend they remember this:

1) That flat tax really is flat, as in, it doesn't decrease for the top earners. It also makes no difference between wages, capital gains, stock options, or anything else. Captains of industry may manage to siphon cash into Swiss bank accounts, but all personal earnings are taxed at the same rate. In fact, because income tax is waived for the first little bit of money you earn, the effective rate actually grows the higher your income gets, although this is insignificant above average-wage level. The free-market beacon you offer up to the wayward US does not give tax breaks to the rich.

2) Universal healthcare for everyone. People can be unhappy with the quality of treatment, and occasionally rightly so, but it's almost impossible to end up without healthcare coverage. If you or your spouse are on someone's payroll (even at minimum wage), if you're a minor, if you're a college student, if you're registered as unemployed - you get health insurance. No tiers. You can pay to jump a queue, but you still see the same specialist who's working with the same equipment, and it's paid for by the state.

3) Free higher education. Not universal - because no economy needs too many college graduates - but the state sponsors enough spots that if you know what you want to do after school and have the talent for it, you won't have to pay tuition. Between special subsidized student loans and a tradition of part-time work in college, smart and capable kids from low-income families have no problem getting a high-quality education. Access to the entire EU's worth of universities certainly helps.

The arguments are somewhat different when talking about the praise heaped on Estonia from EU-centric sources; here's a representative article from The Economist. Europe's right-wingers point to Estonia as a paragon of austerity, but are quick to ascribe it to cleverness and low levels of bureaucracy. But the key quality here is patience and a willingness to suffer for ultimate long-term good. That latter is what's missing in Europe as a whole today. Lack of it is the cause of the European sovereign crisis. Its onset is the only way to resolve the issue.

Quite simply, Estonia does not spend more than it earns - and neither should other countries. The Eurozone crisis is about unsustainable government-sector borrowing. Sure, a lot of Estonia's post-independence development has been subsidized by EU structural funds - but the same goes for a lot of other EU states, old and new. The threat to the common currency, the threat of Greece or Spain or Italy or Portugal defaulting, is that afterwards, Eurozone states will no longer be able to borrow money at low rates. So stop borrowing.

Forget PIGS. Both Germany and France have government debt of over 80% of their GDP - the entire value produced in those countries in a year. The Eurozone average is 85%. All the countries in the EU except Estonia and and Sweden spent more in 2010 than they earned, so that debt is only getting bigger. The initial thinking was that deficit spending would be canceled out by growth; by the time a country had to repay the debts, it would be collecting so much more in taxes that repayment wouldn't be difficult, or at the very least there would be a net gain. But most European states are at the point now where it is extremely unlikely that they would ever be able to pay off their public debt, and they haven't even started. Greece and Ireland and the other Eurozone states who have been particularly reckless with their spending are the first to reach the point where nobody trust them to keep up payments any more - but every single country in the EU will get there within the foreseeable future.

Unless they stop deficit spending.

This will be very difficult for politicians to sell to their voters, because today's Europeans see prosperity as their birthright. But balanced, surplus budgets are the only way to deal with the crisis.

The EU's government debt issue is not as bad as America or Japan's, true. But America has a lot of fat to trim. There are vast reserves of inefficiency in its budget-sponsored industries, primarily military and healthcare. Sooner or later, push will come to shove, they will introduce a single-payer system that will cut healthcare costs by a massive margin, and stop shoveling quite so much money into their military-related industries. They will also raise taxes on the top earners, like they did to pay off their WWII debt. They had a surplus in the 90s. The reason they don't now is because of their politicians.

The reason the EU doesn't have a budget surplus is because of its voters. The politicians, I'm sure, are well aware that austerity is necessary - but the populations will not stand for it. The EU already has high taxes. Increasing them further may help, but EU taxpayers expect to get something back for their contribution, a higher level of services, higher government spending. And it's government spending that needs to be cut.

In 2010, Germany's government debt increased by 3.3% of GDP. France's increased by 7% of GDP. Ireland's government spent a third more in 2010 than the value of everything that every person and corporation in that country did or created, put together.

The only realistic way to repay Europe's debts is to cut spending. Some will find it easier than others. None will find it as easy as Estonia did.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Twenty Years and a Day

Lions by Flasher T
Lions, a photo by Flasher T on Flickr.

I'm a bit late, I suppose... still, I've got my own memories. In August of 1991, I wasn't there - but I was close. I'd just finished kindergarten and was about to start school; I was terribly jealous of my sister, who'd been outside the country already, and I'd never been anywhere further than our allotment. So at the end of the summer, my mother promised to take me on a trip.

We were supposed to go to a seaside resort off in the Soviet south, along with my mother's friend and her daughter, with whom we were good friends. But that got canceled at the last minut because of a cholera outbreak, so instead, Mom and I and my sister would spend the last week of August with Mom's cousin and her family, in Leningrad.

I only remember a few things. I remember sitting at home during the day, before the evening train to Leningrad, watching TV; it was Aktuaalne Kaamera, the news show, and next to the anchor's shoulder was a cartoonish green tank on a red background. (In retrospect I'm impressed that the Estonian provincial news had access to some kind of CGI technology, however rudimentary.) I remember arriving at the Leningrad train station in the evening sun, taking the subway to where our cousins lived, and seeing that there had just been heavy rain; that was when the sheer size of the city became apparent - different parts of it had different weather. I remember the grownups kicking myself, my sister and our second cousin (both of them in their mid-teens, me still only seven) out on the street with some cinema money so they could watch the news on TV; we went and saw Maria Mirabella, a Czechoslovakian (I think?) semi-animated, semi-live action movie. I remember my mother bribing me with having my picture taken in knight's armor so I wouldn't make too much of a fuss about taking the train back on Sunday afternoon; I was severely outraged at the notion of missing the Rescue Rangers on TV.

Later on, I remember my mother talking about how she was unsure we would even manage to get back across the border. When we left, it was still the Soviet Union; when we got back, it was an independent Republic of Estonia.

I went back to St. Petersburg again, the second and so far last time I've been to Russia, exactly twelve years later - to the day. That was the first time I'd ever told a girl I loved her. But that's a whole different story...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In Re Vu

I've been on Bulgarian TV and in Latvian magazines; now, here's me in a Maltese publication providing an outside perspective to an inside audience.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

This is what they issue cadets in Grammar Nazi schools.
So, among all the souvenir crap on which they've stuck the Tallinn Culture Capital 2011 logo, there is a decent-sized wooden stick, about the same size as a small police baton - i.e. not as big as a baseball bat, but enough to do some appreciable non-lethal damage. The Estonian name for it is vägikaigas, and it's intended for a kind of push-pull exercise, an old-timey children's game.

The English name they settled on?

Nitpicker's cudgel.

Outstanding. And yes, I checked Google and Wikipedia, there is no obvious etymological relationship. Somebody in the Culture Capital project team honestly believes that a wooden stick, about two fingers' thick and a forearm long, is primarily the workaday tool of a nitpicker.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Cheer With Them

From The New York Times, via.
So, Osama Bin Laden is dead. A few points to make.

1) May 2nd, 2011, will be remembered in history as the day the 2000s ended. It may be superficial and anthropocentric, but we do tend to think of near history in terms of decades, with each one having an overall mood. Decades don't end at the stroke of midnight on a year ending in zero, though. The 90s began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and turned out to be a decade of triumph and growth. The 2000s, along with the century, began on 9/11. It was a decade of fear, uncertainty and doubt. The events of the last few months - the natural disasters, but also the end of the worst of the financial crisis and the Arab Spring - are momentous enough to be remembered as a particularly eventful season, but the bullet in the brain of Bin Laden is the bookend. I don't know what the next decade will be like, but my hope is that it will be the decade when we focus on practical solutions to immediate problems.

2) The question of whether or not Osama Bin Laden was actually killed then and there is irrelevant. If he'd died earlier and of natural causes - at least now there is public certainty that the ringleader is gone, and his followers have been denied a figurehead and a trickster legend. If he is still alive, hiding in a cave (or a Gitmo jail cell), and will never be heard from again - same difference for the rest of us. The murder of the concept of Osama Bin Laden is important to the world. The murder of the person is important to far fewer people.

3) Similarly, I can find no use in conspiracy theories that question whether Osama Bin Laden was in fact the person behind 9/11. The "inside job" people are obvious nuts; but I have seen some incredibly earnest and internally consistent arguments that this act of terror was not executed by this particular bunch of hateful individuals; it was, in fact, executed by a completely different bunch of hateful individuals who just happened to be standing next to them at the time.

4) For all that the US and its allies have behaved quite badly over the last decade, an important point has been made. Osama Bin Laden's stated political goal was to gain victory over the US by luring it into unwinnable wars and bankrupting it, like the USSR's Afghanistan debacle. On the face of it, he's gotten a long way towards succeeding: neither Afghanistan nor Iraq can be "won" in a satisfactory way, and the US has ramped up massive debts in the process. Yet the Great Satan has had the last laugh. At the end of the day, the message is: if you hurt us this badly, you will never be able to hide. You will never be able to get away with it. We will spend any amount of blood and treasure to hunt you down, and we will never stop. This is a vital point, a great discouragement to masterminds everywhere. In the same way that Israel has never stopped looking for and executing Nazi officials, the rest of the West will never stop looking for and executing terrorist leaders. The more inevitable we make a bullet to the brain and a watery grave (a more effective deterrent than a public trial and execution, despite the need for the supremacy of law in a free society), the longer and harder people will think before embarking on quests of destruction driven by personal hatred. By and large, the revolutions that succeed without a zealot at the top are the benign ones.

5) And finally. People have compared the cheering in the West at the news of Bin Laden's death to the cheering in the Middle East at the news of the 9/11 attacks. To some, both are equally unpleasant. But there is an enormous difference. Ten years ago, they cheered because they finally had a hope for war. Today, they cheer because they finally have a hope for peace.

So cheer with them.

-------
 EDIT: The Economist's Democracy in America correspondent echoes a similar sentiment:

Were the crowds outside of the White House celebrating bloodshed, or were they celebrating a perceived end to the bloodshed caused by Mr bin Laden (however wrong that assumption may be)? Were they rejoicing in a man's death, or rejoicing in the fact that this man can no longer cause death? [...] But I say the celebration didn't feel wrong because the one I observed did not have the jingoistic feel of so many post-9/11 gatherings in support of the troops, or the war, or the other war, or whatever. The revelers were not pumping themselves up for some future aggression. Sure, it was "America, fuck yeah!", but it was not "America, fuck you!" There was a satisfying sense of closure to an era of mass discomfort caused by our fears and our reaction to those fears.  

Friday, March 25, 2011

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Kyoto and Estonia's Electric Cars

The most disappointing thing in recent years, in Estonian politics and life, is that we seem to have lost our edge; our willingness to go for awesome projects that might be very improbable and would not work anywhere else, but end up working really well here. The Tiger Leap program, the free wifi, the e-voting... How long has it been since there was a truly inspirational national project? The ultra-broadband buildout is the closest thing in the last few years, but that's not as obvious or immediate.

Now, it seems there is one. 

For years, Estonia has been supplementing its budget income by selling emission quotas under the EU and Kyoto Protocol regulations. Like fishing rights, this is a non-obvious but fairly serious revenue stream. The quotas are apparently assigned on a comparison basis, with 1990 as the baseline. In 1990, Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union, and all that Soviet industry was busy belching out pollution; most of it was not viable in a free-market economy and went bankrupt, so we are actually allowed to pollute a lot more than we do. The difference can be sold to countries which pollute more than they are allowed to, for cash... or other benefits.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, Estonia's initial assigned quota was around 196 million AAU per year; this is the emission level that was recorded for 1990. (One AAU is equal to one metric ton of carbon dioxide, although it's actually a mathematical calculation with conversion factors for other types of greenhouse gases - CO2 is not the only thing that industries emit.) In the period between 2007 and 2012, Estonia was subject to the general EU commitment to reduce that emission level by 8%, so it could claim no more than 180 million AAU per year. If companies in Estonia emit less CO2 than that, the leftover amounts can be traded with companies in other countries, and added to that country's allocation.

This commitment period is ending next year, and Estonia apparently has AAUs to spare, because instead of just selling them for cash, it will hand over 10 million AAU to Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation. In return, Mitsubishi will establish an electric car infrastructure in Estonia. The country's cities and major motorways will be covered by a network of 250 charging stations, and the state will receive 507 Mitsubishi i-MIEV electric cars, which will be used by social workers.

Besides that, the sale of additional AAUs will be used to finance a subsidy for an additional 500 or so vehicles for private buyers. Those cars will not be free, but they will be a lot cheaper than market price, and buyers won't have to stick to the Mitsubishis - any electric car certified for use in the EU will be eligible.

To receive the subsidy, the buyers will have to commit to purchasing sustainable energy certificates. This is a way of ensuring that the electric cars are powered by green electricity. The cars themselves can be charged from any station in the country-wide network, or indeed any power socket; the certificate is a way of ensuring that for each fossil-fueled kilowatt-hour that the electric car takes out of the grid, a green-fueled kilowatt-hour is put back into the grid.

Buyers of non-subsidized electric cars will, of course, be allowed to use the country-wide charging infrastructure, and will not be forced to purchase the green-energy certificates. Meanwhile, the subsidized electric cars will effectively consume no fossil fuels at all - apart, of course, from the energy used to build the cars in the first place. It's also worth remembering that all of this is financed by allowing a Japanese corporation to spew out greenhouse gases from its own factories.

But it's still an amazingly elegant and forward-thinking deal, one which will make Estonia one of the world's leading countries in electric-vehicle infrastructure. And the availability of charging stations is the real key to making electric cars viable.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Progressive Income Tax and You

I love hard data.

Here is a little website where you can input your current net salary (per month), and see how much less/more you would be paying under the progressive income tax proposals of SDE and the Center Party.

What I would also love to see is the impact of this on the budget, but unfortunately there is probably no way to get a breakdown of taxes paid by each resident (even if it's just a list of numbers, with no personally identifiable information). I'm sure the Tax Board has that info, and I would love it if they made the calculations and published the results, but I doubt they will. So I tried a very, very approximate method to get something vaguely resembling useful numbers.

The most relevant numbers I can find in the Statistics Database are the total amount of personal income tax paid into the state budget (191 728 390 Euro) and municipal budgets (584 706 720 Euro) in 2010. This table shows the average number of persons engaged in each industry, adjusted for fulltime work, and this one shows the average net and brute salary for the same industries (both tables show data for Q3 2010).

If there are any statisticians in the audience, please tell me if I've got the logic heavily wrong somehow. I took the number of employees in each industry, and the net wage for that industry; then used the net wage with the link above to calculate the impact.

Click the image to see the full-size version.

So for the wages listed above, alone, it seems that the Social Democrats' progressive income tax plan will result in an increase of budget revenues of around 3 million euro per year; whereas the Center Party's plan, which actually cuts the tax rate for the lower income bands, will result in a loss off around 638 thousand euro per year in budget revenue.

Of course, these numbers do not include income tax generated from corporate dividends and investment income, but those numbers are far harder to find. But they would not make a significant impact on the magnitude of the budget impact. Remember that the total revenue from personal income tax in 2010, for the state and local budgets, was 191 728 390 + 584 706 720 = 776 435 110 euro. Whereas the people in the table, together, would have paid 701 085 072 Euro in flat income tax, adjusting for the untaxable minimum.

Again, all these numbers are very approximate. As always, if you can point me to the right data, I'll appreciate it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Elections 2011

The Estonian parliamentary elections are this Sunday (and electronic voting has been going on for the best part of a week), and I suppose I really ought to write something about them.

I've been avoiding it, for a number of reasons. For one, there doesn't seem to be very much invasion of the real world with these elections. Political street advertising is banned, and I don't watch TV*, so the only real exposure I've had is the news articles and debates. Maybe the coverage is more pervasive in Tallinn. I've gotten some paper spam in the last few days, but nowhere near as much as I remember from previous election cycles, including Europarliament and local elections.

The other reason is that there is very little intrigue in the run-up to these elections. I've said before that the incumbent Reform Party was likely to do well, thanks to the successful Euro adoption and its general reputation as the party of economic administrators at a time when the economy is the most important issue. I'd hoped that Ansip would be forced to leave, on the general principle that having the same person in charge for so long is not healthy; but I'm pretty sure I'll be losing that bet. At this stage, the biggest question about the elections on March 6th is whether Andrus Ansip's Reform Party will get 51 seats, giving them a single-party majority, or if they will simply end up with somewhere north of 40, forced to grab one of the lesser parties into a coalition.

The Center Party will almost inevitably get some parliamentary seats, but will stay in opposition; it's also likely to lose seats compared to the current election. Not only is it suffering still from the effects of Savisaar's Kremlin money scandal, but it still doesn't have anything to actually offer, other than the idea of a progressive income tax. Anger among the disenfranchised means the Centrists are not out for the count, but their platform is unacceptable to Estonian voters with actual ambition or hope.



IRL has been getting surprising amounts of support, based on the chatter I hear. It is turning into a sink for all the mainstream voters who dislike Reform for their apparent elitism and blame them for the economic troubles, but are not ready to turn to Savisaar. The problem with IRL is that its best people are not being used to good effect. I'm starting to suspect that Mart Laar is disillusioned with the party as it exists today, and the actual RL part of it - Juhan Parts, Tõnis Luukas, and the other remnants of the pre-Ansip cabinet - are disliked by pretty much everyone, including Reform themselves. (In the media hurricane that followed the Savisaar scandal, there was an interesting claim - that the original press leak came from senior IRL officials, as a way of distracting the political establishment from Reform's planned ouster of Parts. That may or may not be the case, but it's clear that Res Publica people have been annoying in their statements and behavior.) Ideologically, IRL seems to be positioning itself as the catch-all center-right party: if Reform is taking care of the economic conservative side of things, then IRL wants the rest of the generic conservative platform. There is some strategic sense behind it, as Europe is generally shifting to the right, and IRL might get support from Old Europe's Christian Democrats and other conservative forces - but the problem is that Estonia is not a natural home for conservative socialism. So IRL is combining populistic promises about education, pensions, welfare benefits etc. with US-style family values. Estonia's political landscape does not need Tõnis Lukas's homophobic outbursts.

The Social Democrats are up in the air right now, and their performance in the elections is the one thing that is both interesting and uncertain. The party's image has suffered with the meltdown of their previous leadership and getting kicked out of Ansip's cabinet, but they seem to have successfully purged the old guard. Their current leader is Sven Mikser, a defector from the Center Party (where he served as Defense Minister in the Ansip-Savisaar coalition, despite never having even served as a conscript - though the latter is not necessarily a bad thing). Mikser is relatively young, but he's an established persona, and oddly enough his change of parties actually makes him look like a man of principle (as much as applicable to a politician, anyway, particularly in a country with poorly differentiated parties). That said, the absolute worst thing that could happen to SDE right now is for the electorate to take them seriously, as an actual Social Democratic party, rather than a safe vote sink that will keep the major players in check. In the same way that Estonia needs to embrace European values more closely before it can properly process IRL's social conservatism, the country needs to build up its economic base and labor efficiency before it can afford SDE's social liberalism. The Scandinavian welfare model is something Estonia will probably end up with, but not for a few decades: we need to be able to afford it without running up massive public debt, and we need a generational change to establish the samhälle, the sense of social unity and responsibility which is the bedrock of Scandinavian society.

Unfortunately, that's more or less it. Only these four parties are guaranteed to be represented in the next Riigikogu. The Greens have blown their chance and do not appeal to anyone - even Epp Petrone, arguably Estonia's most prominent and fervent environmentalist, refused to run as a Green in the last local elections. The leadership crisis of Rahvaliit, the farmers' party, makes SDE's clustermess look as elegant, amicable and coordinated as a Tour de France lead cyclist exchange.

Personally, I ended up voting (electronically) for whoever happened to be the lead of my constituency's Reform list, much as expected. I am by no means happy with the Reform Party's performance, current state and future prospects, but unlike the others, Reform still leaves the impression that they intend to base their leadership style on the economy: if we all make money, the other problems will resolve themselves somehow. That's a flawed strategy, but on some level it appeals to my thinking in that one must solve one's own problems, not hope for external assistance; and it's also less damaging in the long run than IRL's stated program of adding massive new social spending to the budget, without any idea of where the extra money will come from. Estonia's tiny budget deficit and near-nonexistent public debt is still a Good Thing(tm), and we should not give them up. SDE suffers from the same problem, and I guess they're actually less offensive under new leadership than IRL - the same sort of welfare policies without IRL's conservative intolerance - but I neither believe nor support any of their promises.

As for the Centrists, I suppose my main objection against Savisaar and his clique is that they do not appear to act in the country's long-term best interest. However objectionable I find the coalition parties, SDE, or Strandberg's Greens, all of them seem to be acting under the assumption that they and their children and grandchildren will be living in Estonia for a long time to come, and while they use their power to their own advantage as much as they can, they still understand that building a prosperous and stable society in Estonia (at the cost of painful decisions today) is in their own best interest. What I'm seeing in Savisaar is the attitude that nothing matters more than his own personal well-being

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*Really not trying to be a hipster douche here. I watch a bunch of TV shows, listen to podcasts, etc.; I consume popular culture. Broadcast television is just a really inefficient way of content delivery. I don't even have a cable subscription any more, and my DVR's been offline for months.

Friday, February 25, 2011

TECHNOANSIP

Saw the original photo here, and it reminded me of something.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Mossad sharks are the least of their problems

A Facebook acquaintance mentioned how it's pretty miserable that the West has refused to take a firm stand on Egypt.

What would we have the West do, though? The worst thing we could possibly do is send in troops or something like that. A declaration of unequivocal support for the protesters would certainly be a great gesture, but there is the obvious problem that a)unlike Tunisia, the old leadership has not actually been driven out of the country, and b)it does not seem like the protesters have an organized leadership structure of their own that the West can recognize.

Economic sanctions against Mubarak's regime - like the Lukashenko travel ban and asset seizure - are probably the most viable active measures Europe can take at the moment.

The consideration that the Mubarak regime is more or less secular and the protesters' emergent ringleaders are fervent Muslims is not necessarily a deterrent for European support. It would be useful for Europe to show that it stands not against Islam, but against fundamentalism, zealotry and oppression; that it is willing to back a moderate, progressive force that uses Islam as its uniting ideology. Such a force, backed by Europe and therefore forced to adopt a large chunk of European values, would certainly be a great (additional) precedent in the region.

More than anything else, though - and I'm saying this as a New European from the Baltics - Egypt needs to complete its revolution without outside interference. Without either the West or the rest of the Middle East getting involved. However flawed the next regime is, however much of an improvement or a regression it may turn out to be, the people of Egypt need to own it. They need to see that they can affect their own destiny, so that even if they get it wrong this time, they will be inspired to try again.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Bluebirds

Comedy Estonia is doing its regular monthly standup show in Tallinn on March 9th, and on that night, I'm flying back to Tartu. I've been taking the last coach of the night, leaving at 11pm and arriving at 01.30 - unpleasant, but beats staying at my dad's place and catching the 7am express to make it to my day job on time. I'm losing the same number of hours of sleep, but I get to be in my own bed, and get to the office within half an hour of taking a shower and putting on fresh clothes - as opposed to three hours with the early coach. I've spent enough time on that one in my college days, especially the first year, when I lived in a dilapidated dorm building just before it was completely gutted and renovated. Tartu University mostly doesn't schedule classes on Fridays, so I'd get the 7pm coach to Tallinn on Thursday night and the 7am one back on Monday morning - in time for the 10am class. (I think they briefly tried to schedule a class for 8am on Monday morning in later years, but the prof rapidly switched the slots, to the students' great relief and approval.)

The Tallinn-Tartu flights are designed to hook into Tallinn Airport's schedule, which in itself is built around the idea of delivering people to major European hubs in time for connecting intercontinental flights (or work, especially in the case of the Brussels Special). So the plane gets into Tallinn early in the morning, and leaves late at night - 23.45, in fact, getting into Tartu Airport at 00.30. With the time to get out of the plane and take the shuttle into the center of town, I won't be saving much time over the coach, and the ticket is about 18 euro more expensive; but it'll be a fun experience, anyway. And I get to hang out at Drink a bit more after the show.

Curiously, this will be the third regular flight out of Tallinn Airport to destinations within Estonia (after the island towns of Kuressaare and Kärdla), and I believe all three of those are actually longer than Tallinn's busiest air link - the one to Helsinki. It's 80km over water, but Vantaa Airport is further inland. Can't be bothered right now to figure out if Kärdla is closer.

The island routes are operated by a small independent company, but the Tartu link is Estonian Air, operated by one of their little Saab turboprops. I've actually flown on one of those, a couple of years ago, Tallinn to Stockholm. It was officially called an Estonian Air Regional flight, and there was some administrative difference - it was run separately from the strict guidelines of SAS, the Scandinavian conglomerate that used to own EA. This meant that, ironically, the little local-service Saabs would actually serve sandwiches to their passengers for free - while the Boeings of EA proper charged you for a glass of water.

Those Boeings are being gradually retired with the long-overdue and much-celebrated arrival of brand spanking new Bombardier CRJ900 aircraft from Canada. I've flown on an older-gen CRJ before, a Lufthansa plane from Frankfurt to Tallinn. Compared to the ubiquitous 737s, they've got a funny behavior. They fly just as high and just as fast, but they're a lot smaller and lighter; so while the big Boeings just sort of glide down out of the sky, the little CRJs and Embraers and the rest of them actually point their noses down for a steep descent. Disconcerting, when you don't expect it.

Estonian Air is running a contest right now to name the two new planes (a third one will be arriving later). The contest is here, on Facebook. At the time of writing, the most popular options is Tartu, which I voted for. Number two is Põhjatäht, which means Northern Star and would be a fine name, except that non-Estonians would have a hell of a time pronouncing all those funny vowels. Third place is Sinilind, Bluebird - this seems to be the overall nicknames of airplanes in the flag carrier's livery. Go and vote for your favorite! (A history major friend of mine suggested Sigtuna Gate - that would be popular on the Stockholm route!)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Customer Service Win

Customer service is legendarily bad in Estonia - we're a pretty laissez-faire, agressively capitalist society. There are actually consumer protections enshrined in our legislation, including some slightly surprising ones - just recently the parliament repealed a law that limited prepayment for purchased goods to 50%. Still, in terms of the customer being right, it has pretty much been up to individual companies, to decide how much value they can extract from providing a good shopping experience. And since I do a lot of criticizing, I find it also worthwhile to point out when Estonian retailers go above and beyond. When they turn out unexpectedly decent.

I've had a couple such experiences lately.

The first one was with ox.ee. This is one of the more popular online electronics retailers in Estonia - mostly computer parts. It's actually relatively straightforward to set up that business in the country, since the supply is basically handled by one giant warehouse in Finland, and you just have to tie your website to their stock database, and charge a premium plus shipping and handling.

I used ox.ee to buy a netbook a few months ago; I wanted a very specific model, which only appeared in the Finnish warehouse briefly, and was not actually advertised. I stumbled across it in the ox.ee system by googling for the part number, and found it to be significantly cheaper than the essentially identical model that competitors were pushing. To their credit, ox.ee honored the auto-generated price and shipped the netbook to me in Tartu via SmartPost, which really is ridiculously convenient - especially since there is a dropoff point in my office building.

A few weeks later, I got tired of my hard drive always being full, and ordered a new 2TB one. Ox.ee actually has a bonus system, where a percentage of the money you spend gets credited towards future purchases, so after the expensive netbook, the hard drive was pretty cheap - and even without the bonus, it was already a good deal (less than a hundred euro, including the shipping). The hard drive, which arrived sealed in its factory packaging, turned out to be faulty; I registered the fault on the ox.ee website, got a fast response from their customer service department via Skype chat, sent it off to them, and got a replacement a couple of weeks later. Most of that time was spent on getting the manufacturer to assume responsibility for the failure, ox.ee themselves actually did not waste time at all, and their website has a warranty status tracking feature that was pretty convenient. I got a new hard drive and it's been running well. Top marks to ox.ee.

The other experience was with Monton - one of the retail clothes brands run by a big Estonian company, Baltika. I've spent a fair amount of money in Monton, Mosaic, Reserved and Cropp stores - I believe they're all the same company - and I especially like the fact that if an item I like is expensive, I can always wait a few months for it to be heavily discounted. Maybe I have a non-mainstream taste in clothes, but I just picked up a really nice winter coat for 65 euro. It used to be 1800 kroons.

In this case, what I got was a shoulder bag. It was made of thick leather, looked really stylish and upmarket, and it was just big enough to comfortably fit my netbook and e-reader. Only 19 euro on sale, too. Unfortunately, a day's use discovered that the shoulder strap buckle was badly designed, the strap would open on its own and the bag would just drop on the ground - always unpleasant, but particularly so in Estonian winters.

I took the bag back to the Monton store in Tartu Kaubamaja, they sent it off to the main office, and less than two weeks later I got a call: they admitted it was a design flaw. I could go to the store and pick up a different item for the same value, or get a gift card if there was nothing in stock at the moment that I liked.

So, I get to the store and hand over the paperwork, sign a return receipt, etc.

Salesperson: Would you like another item or a gift card?
Me: Gift card, please.
S: OK, the smallest gift card we have is 20 euro...
Me: Uh-huh.
S: The bag was 19 euro. That'll be one euro, please.
Me: [asshole mode ON] Um, no. Monton admitted it was a design flaw. The limitations of your gift cards are not my problem; you're not getting any more of my money today.
S: *shrug* Here's 19 euro in cash.
Me: Have a nice day!

I'm pretty sure I'll be shopping there again.

Monday, January 24, 2011

My Politics

The Estonian Public Broadcasting company released a little questionnaire that maps important political issues ahead of the parliamentary elections in March.

I decided to record myself answering the questions, and explaining why.







Saturday, January 22, 2011

Seen any good movies lately?

The Tourist: enjoyable, but between this and Salt, Angelina Jolie is falling into a pattern of spy movies with really, really disappointing plot twists.

Bagman: Kevin Spacey plays Ari Gold.

Thirteen: Worth watching just for the scene of the kid from Twilight getting the ever-living shit kicked out of him. Also, Turkish in a bowler hat.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

An afternoon's easy entertainment

*phone rings*

Me: Hello

Voice: Hi, is this Andrei?

Me: Yes

Voice: My name is X, I'm calling from Y to tell you about our new product Z...

Me: How did you get my number?

Voice: From [telemarketer]

Me: How did they get my number?

Voice: I'm not sure...

Me: Find out and call me back. *click*

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Yay, I'm a Pundit! and other €-linkery

Courtesy of Kris Rikken, I've been quoted in the British press. Beyond that, the Economist's Charlemagne has a pretty good write-up of the motivations and implications of Estonia's Euro accession. For those who might not have read it before, here's my distilled Euro analysis. The first-day coverage of the switch in the Estonian press has been humorous to track, though not particularly interesting to read: half a dozen full-page articles about everything pretty much running smoothly and nothing going wrong.

Oh, and Happy N€w Y€ar!

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