Understanding narcissism vital to understanding politics

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton: "a self-destructive narcissist, although he's so fatally charming" in the words of the author of "The Narcissist Next Door".

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton: “a self-destructive narcissist, although he’s so fatally charming” in the words of the author of “The Narcissist Next Door”.

If civics education in high school today is anything like the way it was when I was in high school, it remains nearly useless for creating well-informed, critical-thinking voters. It could basically have been summarized as: nice, ordinary people like us elect other nice ordinary people to sit in a big room in Ottawa called the House of Commons, making the people’s laws and holding the government to account.

Their work, we were told, is reviewed by some fancier people called Senators, and if things go well, a bill becomes law with the assent of the Governor-General, who represents the Queen, a free-floating celebrity whose role even a teacher could not coherently describe.

Having taught us the basic theory of how Canadian democracy is supposed to work, the teacher’s duty was done. At no time were students encouraged to be skeptics. And the human factors that occasionally brought a politician’s downfall through scandal? Irrelevant.

Yet human factors are important. In theory, people who run for public office are concerned citizens just like us who want to make a difference. Though this is often true in practice, the reality is much more complicated.

Consider the words of Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve and thus America’s top banker from 1987 to 2006. His tenure spanned the terms of four presidents, each of whom relied on him as an advisor. But Greenspan had also personally known two earlier presidents, making him one of a select few to have known a total of six U.S. presidents.

“Nixon was the extreme,” Greenspan wrote in his 2007 memoir, The Age of Turbulence, describing the 1969-74 Republican president as “an extremely smart man” but also shown by the Watergate scandal to have been “sadly paranoid, misanthropic, and cynical”. In private, Greenspan found Nixon so crude that his language “would have made Tony Soprano blush”.

“But I came to see that people who are on the top of the political heap are really different,” Greenspan continued. “Jerry Ford was as close to normal as you get in a president, but he never was elected.”

“There’s a constitutional amendment that I’ve been pushing for years without success,” he adds. “It says, ‘Anyone willing to do what is required to become president of the United States is thereby barred from taking that office.'”

“I’m only half joking.”

Greenspan had revealed a truth. Politics is a career that attracts a disproportionate number of highly narcissistic personalities: people who have a hunger for power or adulation so deeply rooted in their personalities that they are willing to make the harsh sacrifices of a political career to satisfy it — the 60-70 hour weeks, the public criticism, the invasions of privacy, the strained (and often destroyed) marriages, and everything else.

Narcissism is a normal human behaviour to at least some degree, as a scroll through a Facebook feed can attest, but is deemed by the American Psychiatric Association to be problematic when it begins to be expressed as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.”

Politics, with its grand ceremonies, opportunities to cross paths with the famous and powerful, and reliance on the public’s admiration for success, makes for an ideal stage.

“…[W]hat typically drives [politicians] is a lust for power, prestige, status, and authority,” U.S. psychologist Leon Seltzer wrote in a 2011 commentary on the Psychology Today web site. “As senator or congressman the whole nation has become one huge ‘narcissistic supply’ for them. That is, the ego gratifications available simply from residing in congress are truly extraordinary: such an unusually prestigious role can’t but pump up their self-esteem to levels that further confirm their bloated sense of self.”

“Bill Clinton was a self-destructive narcissist, although he’s so fatally charming, which is also one of the narcissist’s great traits — a sort of lethal charisma — that we forgave him a great deal,” said Jeffrey Kluger, the author of The Narcissist Next Door, in a 2014 video interview.

“Barack Obama certainly would score high if he were to sit down and take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. He sought the presidency after only two years in the Senate, he clearly believed that he could achieve high office — he did achieve high office. Unlike some narcissists, he doesn’t seem terribly comfortable in the public eye, or at least terribly comfortable mingling with people.”

Yet some politicians were able to harness their own narcissism effectively.

“Ronald Reagan, I think, is a very, very good example of perhaps the most highly functional narcissist who’s ever been at least in our political system,” Kluger notes. “It was narcissism, a healthy narcissism, that pushed him into movies; it was healthy narcissism that pushed him into politics.”

Indeed, the public might have to accept that the price of having leaders in any form is to be able to live with their narcissism.

“Narcissistic leaders are often skillful orators, and this is one of the talents that makes them so charismatic,” a 2000 Harvard Business Review article (republished in 2004) by American psychoanalyst-anthropologist Michael Maccoby noted. “Indeed, anyone who has seen narcissists perform can attest to their personal magnetism and their ability to stir enthusiasm among audiences.”

“Although it is not always obvious, narcissistic leaders are quite dependent on their followers—they need affirmation, and preferably adulation,” Maccoby continues, noting that this can give leaders the confidence to pursue their goals — or set them on the path to disaster:

“But the very adulation that the narcissist demands can have a corrosive effect. As he expands, he listens even less to words of caution and advice. After all, he has been right before, when others had their doubts. Rather than try to persuade those who disagree with him, he feels justified in ignoring them—creating further isolation. The result is sometimes flagrant risk taking that can lead to catastrophe.”

This could be used to justify changes to Canada’s parliamentary system at both the federal and provincial level that would strengthen independent oversight of the executives’ actions, from requiring that party leaders hold the confidence of caucus and not just the infrequently engaged party membership at all times, to formally protecting the independence of even governing-party legislators from prime ministerial and cabinet interference, as the Swedish parliamentary system does.

Either change would give legislators more latitude to rein in an over-the-top narcissist who happens to be installed in the top job.

Helpful too would be better public understanding of narcissism’s inevitable role in public life, especially as we enter the final weeks of Canada’s three-way, too-close-to-call federal election race.

In addition to carefully evaluating each party’s offerings, the voting public would be doing itself a favour by assessing everyone from the party leaders down to their local candidates and the talking heads each camp parades before the TV cameras, trying to discern who has a healthier form of narcissism, who has a more harmful one, and thinking through the implications for the country.

But let there be no doubt: narcissism will always be a factor in politics.

“Even our greatest and most humble people — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King — had to have had narcissistic components to their personality. They gravitated toward attention, they gravitated toward crowds,” noted Kluger.

“If we believe that they didn’t get a charge out of standing before a crowd of half a million people . . . and moving an entire nation with their words, well, we don’t really understand human nature then if that’s what we think.”



Jerrold Post, founding director of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, discusses his book Narcissism and Politics (YouTube, 1 hr.)

No contradiction between pro-free-trade and progressive

What it means to be “progressive” can be as nebulous as defining what it means to be “conservative”, “socialist” or “liberal”.

But if the core definition of what it means to be “progressive” is to be in favour of policies that would steer a country toward being at the top of the game by one simple metric — how its citizens respond to the question, How satisfied are you with your life? — then it is important to identify and pursue the policies that have the most favourable odds of producing a better life for the greatest number.

Thus, it was surprising today to see the suggestion in the National Post that being pro-free-trade is somehow incompatible with being progressive. The comment in question concerned NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who has shown a level of sympathy toward free trade agreements out of step with his party’s traditional position. As reporter Tristin Hopper wrote:

If there was one thing that united the NDP in the 1990s, it was opposition to NAFTA. But Mulcair isn’t only indifferent to free trade, he likes it, as evidenced by his support for agreements with Japan, Jordan, India, Brazil and South Africa. Labour activists often oppose free trade on the grounds that Canada might lose jobs because another country will have better and more efficient workers. But even this appears to be fine with the NDP leader. “I don’t mind being beaten out by a competitor on the manufacture of steel if they have labour rights, environmental rights and we’re on an even playing field,” said Mulcair in 2014.

Yet a pro-free-trade position might be more progressive than many on either the left or the right might like to think. For many years, economists have recognized that reducing barriers to trade is a more effective path for raising overall living standards than are protectionist policies. As Bryan Caplan documented in The Myth of the Rational Voter:

There are numerous surveys of the economic beliefs of both economists and the general public. They broadly confirm the “wide divergence” with which Newcomb maintained “all are familiar.” Take the case of free trade versus protection. A long-running survey initiated by J. R. Kearl and coauthors has repeatedly asked economists whether they agree that “tariffs and import quotas usually reduce the general welfare of society.” In 2000, 72.5% mainly agreed, and an additional 20.1% agreed with provisos; only 6% generally disagreed. The breakdowns for 1990 and the late 1970s are even more lopsided in favour of free trade.

Five years later, a survey of 210 randomly selected American Economics Association members found that “the overwhelming majority (87.5%) agree that the U.S. should eliminate remaining tariffs and other barriers to trade.”

In January 2014, this blog identified several economic factors as being strongly correlated with higher overall citizen satisfaction with life: these included employment rates, relatively rare instances of long-term unemployment, personal earnings, and household disposable income.

If policymakers have a choice between two policies — one of which, according to the evidence, has better odds than the other of producing an outcome that will raise citizens’ overall standard of living — they have an obligation to the people they were elected to serve to pursue that policy.

If that is not consistent with a past position — as was the case with Brian Mulroney in the ’80s and is the case with the NDP today — they have a duty as public servants to change their thinking and their position accordingly.

As long as the evidence continues to support the view that a pro-free-trade policy is better than protectionist or self-sufficiency policies for overall citizen well-being, let’s call free trade for what it is: a sensible policy.

Why a “Netflix Tax”, in the form of GST, might be coming no matter who becomes Prime Minister

A Conservative Party video suggests Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (left) and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (right) are eager to impose a "Netflix Tax". But does the application of GST, which the incumbent government expressed interest in, count?

A Conservative Party video suggests Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (left) and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (right) are eager to impose a “Netflix Tax”. But does the application of GST, which the incumbent government expressed interest in, count?

During an election campaign, one gets used to hearing all kinds of absurd, over-the-top rhetoric from the professional manipulators otherwise known as party leaders and their campaign staffs.  So, when Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper vowed on the campaign trail this past week to block Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair from imposing a “Netflix tax”, it was fairly easy to brush it off initially as yet another bit of daft nonsense one can expect from a mid-summer election campaign.

Out of curiosity, though, I decided to look up “Netflix Tax” on Google to see if any other jurisdiction had ever imposed one. Sure enough, just last month, the City of Chicago announced a nine-percent tax on “electronically delivered amusements” that many are referring to as a “Netflix Tax”. It comes into effect Sept. 1, and is intended to improve the dreadful state of the city’s finances.

Then another case caught my eye, this one from Australia, whose conservative Liberal-National governments under prime ministers John Howard (1996-2007) and Tony Abbott (2013-present) have long been a source of ideas and advice for the Conservative Party here in Canada.

This past May, the Australian federal treasurer, Joe Hockey — a man whose name alone would make him a star here in hockey-mad Canada — announced that Australians will need to begin paying 10-percent GST on international digital purchases beginning in 2017. As the Australian media company News Limited reported:

The move, dubbed the “Netflix tax,” would see the GST expanded to cover digital purchases from overseas companies, potentially raising the price of Amazon e-books, Steam online games, Tidal music subscriptions, and apps from Microsoft and BlackBerry by 10 per cent.

The scheme would not begin until July 2017, however, and would not affect international companies already collecting the GST from Australian consumers, including Apple and Spotify.

Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey said the move would “level the playing field” for Australia-based businesses delivering digital content.

“It is unfair that overseas-based business selling services into Australia may not charge GST when local businesses have to charge GST,” Mr Hockey said.

“A local business that employs Australians, pays rent in Australia, pays tax in Australia, and helps build our economy is disadvantaged by the current system.”

Similar issues have been raised here in Canada in the recent past. The Canadian government’s own 2014 Budget pledged to look into “cross-border tax integrity issues, such as ensuring the effective collection of sales tax on e-commerce sales to Canadians by foreign-based vendors.”

As the Globe and Mail reported in January 2015, one of the vendors that could be among the targets of this 2014 budgetary vow could be Netflix, which officially is not “carrying on business” in Canada and is therefore not compelled to collect GST.

But there is a difference between not being required to collect GST and being GST-free. As the Globe and Mail report went on to note:

In theory, when foreign companies don’t charge sales tax, it is up to each consumer to self-report digital purchases from abroad and pay HST or GST, though virtually no one does.

“These digital supplies are already taxable,” Rogers writes in a submission to government, decrying “the competitive disadvantage in the digital economy for Canadian domestic suppliers which must charge GST/HST to Canadian consumers.” Rogers, for example, recently launched a streaming service called Shomi, which costs $8.99 a month, plus tax.

And it is an idea that has had its fans within the incumbent government:

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development agrees the best solution is to compel companies to register and collect sales taxes in the countries where they make sales. Such measures are part of a larger OECD tax plan presented to G20 finance ministers in the summer of 2013, aimed at combatting tax-base erosion and profit-shifting.

In Canada, the notion of taxing digital sales from abroad gained traction with the government in the fall of 2013, under then-finance minister Jim Flaherty. But it burst onto the European Union’s agenda more than a decade earlier over fears that companies might move offshore to stay competitive.

The notion of expanding GST to include digital services such as Netflix is not necessarily a bad one. Like many affluent nations, Canada has a growing population of pensioners, in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population, who will become more reliant on costly government services at the same time as their income tax and sales tax payments drop significantly.

For instance, Statistics Canada data shows that in households where the key financial decision-maker was between the ages of 55 and 64, the average household income taxes paid were $16,189 in 2013. In households where the key financial decision-maker was aged 65 or older: just $8,097.

Other wholly or partially taxable household expenditures that were, on average, more than $1,000 lower in 2013 among the 65-plus group than they were among the 55-to-64 group: total food expenditures (-$1,668), shelter (-$3,838), household operations (-$1,028), clothing and accessories (-$1,286), transportation (-$4,624), recreation (-$1,483) and education (-$1,088). Overall, total household consumption was on average $16,810 lower among the households where the key financial decision maker was aged 65-plus than it was when that decision-maker was aged 55 to 64.

If Canada is going to have a prosperous economy in the future, it also needs a healthy and well-educated workforce; it needs transportation systems that gets goods to market and both imports and exports to where they need to go promptly; it needs a border that is secure against various threats, but at the same time not delaying harmless people or goods needlessly; it needs local roads and public transit systems that get employees to and from work and customers to and from businesses; and it needs places where people can leave their children while they work, even if this is evening or weekend work. All of that is going to require government spending to at least some degree.

At the same time, as the fierce response to even a modest one-point rise in the Manitoba provincial sales tax in 2013 showed, there are high political costs to be paid for raising the rates that show up on the sales receipt.

Therefore, much like the airlines, governments have high fixed costs and yet struggle to exert pricing power. Thus the path of least resistance to raising the revenue that is needed to pay the bills for the services that people won’t tolerate being deprived of is to move sideways instead of tackling the issue head-on: by eliminating exemptions and giveaways, charging more fines, unbundling the core product, packing people more tightly into existing space, and replacing less complicated forms of human labour with technology wherever possible.

As the population ages, making the revenues add up to what is needed to pay for the bills that Canadian governments cannot easily get out of paying will only get more difficult. Whether this October’s election produces a Prime Minister Harper, a Prime Minister Mulcair or a Prime Minister Trudeau — or, though the odds are extremely long, a Prime Minister May —  the urge to apply GST to Netflix and other foreign-based digital services might be virtually impossible to resist.

A quick guide to Stockholm

My first encounter with a born-and-raised Stockholmer, while on a walking tour of Potsdam, Germany in 2012, wouldn’t have initially led me to choose his hometown, which he described as “boring”, as a travel destination. But after hearing great things over the intervening years about the city from non-Stockholmers such as Pedro and Jesse T., and seeing it ranked competitively on VirtualTourist’s listing of most-popular European cities, I was sold.

One evening in May, after careful deliberation about where and when I would go on my annual urban holiday, and mentally asking myself “Are you sure?” one last time and self-answering in the affirmative, I clicked a “Submit” button on Lufthansa’s web site. That was it: I would be off to Stockholm in mid-July.

Now back in Winnipeg, I have no regrets.

Contrary to the Stockholmer’s advice three years ago, what I found was a city that was far from boring. Not as sexy or dramatic as London, Paris or Berlin perhaps, but a pleasant and lively city where I found enough to do to pass seven days without much effort; a city in which the nearby kebab shop is still doing brisk business after 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, and in which I could go in search of something fun or interesting to do at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night and find it easily. (If that Stockholmer I met thought a city where you could do that was “boring”, God knows how he would have described the vast majority of North American cities. “Comatose”, perhaps?)

Q & A — Stockholm, Sweden

Q. Why Stockholm?

A. Stockholm is a good choice for those who have already seen some of the grand cities of Europe, such as London, Paris and Berlin, and are now looking for a city that has many of the best things about European urban life — the cafe culture, the history, the nightlife — without being a Disneyland for Adults. In other words, someplace interesting enough to be a bit touristy, but not completely and grotesquely overrun by tourists.

Q. What are the best things to see and do in Stockholm?

A. Different people will have different interests, of course. For the most memorable Stockholm experiences, I would recommend:

a.) Check out the Vasa. The Vasa Museum basically has just one exhibit: the ship by that name which sunk in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628. It had the good fortune to sink in the harbour’s brackish waters, which meant that this elaborately designed wooden ship was in unusually good condition when the Swedes raised it from the sea bed in the ’60s and put back together to become a museum piece. It’s a rare opportunity to see an original 17th century ship up close, and the story of ego and incompetence that led the giant ship (by 1628 standards) to literally flop over on its side just 1.3 kilometres into what was supposed to be a journey to Poland is an entertaining one.

b.) Take each of Free Tour Stockholm‘s three urban walking tours. One covers Norrmalm, the island on which the modern city centre is located. The second covers Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s “old town” neighbourhood (and the one area which is “overrun by tourists”). The third covers Södermalm, which was considered Stockholm’s shabbiest neighbourhood 20 years ago, but which is now known as a “hipster haven”. The guides work for tips (from what I’ve seen, 50 to 100 Swedish krona, or $7.50 to $15 Cdn., seems typical) and each tour takes about 90 minutes. A great way to learn more about Stockholm and its history, and to meet travelers from all over the world.

c.) Take a fika break. In fact, take all the fika breaks you want. Taking some time to relax and enjoy a coffee and pastry while reading a book or watching the world go by, an experience known as fika, a casual term for coffee, is a beloved part of Swedish culture. In Stockholm, you’re rarely far from an independent cafe or even a franchise outlet such as Espresso House or Wayne’s Coffee, which sell quality coffee and pastries. (Their offerings make Starbucks, which has an unusually weak presence in Stockholm, look third-rate by comparison.) Budget a rather steep 60 to 80 krona ($9 to $12 Cdn.) for the experience, which is worth it.

Keep in mind that space is at a premium in Europe’s densely populated cities; thus you might be expected to sit in very close proximity to strangers during peak times, and will not be allowed the vast personal space that North Americans are used to. Respecting others’ privacy (more on that later) is important here.

(Cautionary note: Be careful about using the term “fika” around Germans, as the pronunciation is very close to that of “ficken”, their slang term for sexual intercourse.)

d.) Enjoy the city’s parks. Kungsträdgården, a fairly small park in the city centre, is a popular place to hang out and people-watch, and frequently hosts free concerts, festivals and other events. The much larger Djurgården, south and east of the city centre, is akin to Assiniboine Park with harbour views.

e.) Learn how those Scandinavians got to be so on-the-ball about everything. Those wanting to learn more about how Sweden has become synonymous with the sane, ethical, earnestly responsible government that is becoming an endangered species in North America might be interested in taking in a tour of City Hall and of the Riksdag, Sweden’s national parliament.

f.) Enjoy the nightlife. If you’re into nightclubbing, Stockholm has its fair share of clubs filled with people who could pass for fashion models. But if that’s not your thing, no problem. During a summer evening, there’s a good chance something will be going on at Kungsträdgården, or that Drottninggatan, the pedestrian mall that serves as Stockholm’s main retail street, will be full of people and buskers. Outside the old PUB department store on Drottninggatan, one could spend half an hour or more many evenings relaxing and watching Mareks Radzēvičs, a Latvian musician, play the cello. If you have a few krona to spare, toss it into his cello case. Continue south on Drottninggatan toward the Riksdag and the Old Town, where there will be plenty more activity.

g.) Go for a sauna. It’s a Nordic tradition, it’s very relaxing, and many Swedish hotels offer them. In fact, it’s rather amazing that it has never really caught on in Canada, given our similar climate. And since part of traveling is experiencing things you wouldn’t experience in your home town, don’t freak out if the sauna is mixed-gender-nude — just mind the etiquette rules that you’ll be expected to adhere to.

If you’re an ABBA fan, by all means check out the ABBA Museum. I avoided this one after being warned by an Australian expat living in Sweden that he was ready to puncture his eardrums after two hours.

Skansen, a historical park depicting how Swedes lived in the olden days, is apparently hugely popular among those who can tolerate large numbers of families with children.

Q. When is the best time to go?

A. Summer. Stockholm sits slightly above 59° North latitude, making it one of the most northerly large cities in the world. In fact, it’s further north than Churchill. At this latitude, the summer days are even longer than they are in Winnipeg, while the winter days are even shorter and darker. Hence, Stockholmers make the best of their summers, which are cloudier than they are in Winnipeg, but generally mild.

Hotel prices tend to be a bit better in the summer, too, as there are fewer business travelers around and there is more competition for price-sensitive holiday travelers.

Q. What is the weather like?

A. As noted, summer days are mild: typically with highs in the low to mid-twenties Celsius during the day, and lows in the low to mid-teens at night. It rains periodically, but not too heavily or frequently.

Q. Are things really expensive there?

A. Stockholm is one of the more expensive cities to visit, but there are ways to mitigate the costs. Find a hotel with a complimentary or affordable buffet breakfast (the ubiquitous, Swedish-based Scandic hotel chain is a safe bet), and eat breakfast like a king so that all you will need is a modest lunch later on. Go for a proper meal later in the day, at a price which is about 25 to 50 percent higher than Winnipeg levels; avoid progressively snacking throughout the day (outside of fika breaks), as the markup over standard Winnipeg prices is higher, and could end up costing as much as a single restaurant meal.

Also be price-aware about buying alcohol or taking taxis, as the prices are typically at least 50 percent greater than Winnipeg prices. See Numbeo.com’s Cost of Living Comparison for more information.

Q. I heard that the taxes are high? Is that true?

A. If you had a hissy fit over the Manitoba Provincial Sales Tax increase, you’ll go into shock over Swedish sales tax, which is 25 percent on many goods. Don’t feel too bad for the Swedes, though, as they do get their money’s worth: car ownership in Stockholm is largely optional even for families with children due to the city’s walkability and the country’s excellent public transportation network, qualified post-secondary students pay no tuition, and the country is ranked near the top in everything from economic competitiveness to freedom from corruption to peacefulness.

But — it is possible for you as a Canadian to get a sales tax refund on purchases that you are taking back to Canada with you, as long as you are carrying them in your carry-on baggage. I’ve never applied for this rebate because: a.) It’s a bit of a hassle, and requires you to have sufficient time at whichever airport you’re exiting the Schengen “border-free Europe” zone at, and, b.) I’m getting a benefit from the safe streets and excellent infrastructure that European cities provide, so it’s not like I’m paying but getting nothing. But if you’ve got a bit of extra airport time and some space in your carry-ons for your purchases, go for it.

Note that in Sweden, sales taxes are included in advertised prices. The price you see is the price you pay.

Q. What is the best way to get there?

A. Since there are no direct flights between Canada and Sweden, you will need to travel via a third country. I would recommend taking Lufthansa’s overnight Toronto-Munich flight, and then making a quick one-hour connection to their mid-morning Munich-Stockholm flight. This is for four reasons:

a.) It gets you into Stockholm earlier, and thus less exhausted, than almost any other option;

b.) Munich is one of Europe’s best airports for making a connection at. I was able to disembark my flight from Canada, clear Immigration, go through airport security, and then walk at a relaxed pace to the departure gate for the flight to Stockholm in 29 minutes flat;

c.) In the unlikely event that you do miss your connection, the next non-stop flight is only about three hours later and would still get you into Stockholm by mid-afternoon;

d.) Lufthansa is a good, reliable airline. I will candidly admit that getting an unexpected and unexplained free upgrade to Business Class on the flight back to Canada makes me a big Lufthansa fan; but I’ve also spot-checked their on-time performance on Flightradar24.com, and estimated that only about five percent of Lufthansa flights arrive more than 30 minutes late — as good as it gets in the business, and a good indication of a company that has its act together.

Alternately, KLM’s Amsterdam hub and SAS’s Copenhagen hub, the latter served by SAS’s Canadian partner Air Canada, should be among the better airports to make connections at. Avoid tight connections at the sprawling Frankfurt-Main, and avoid all connections at much-despised airports such as Chicago O’Hare, any New York City-area airport, London Heathrow or Paris Charles de Gaulle.

Q. Is Sweden part of the “border-free Europe”?

A. Yes, Sweden is part of the Schengen Area, in which people are allowed to move around — even to take up residence in a different country — with minimal hassle. For example, some people live in Sweden but work in Denmark, commuting daily across a bridge that connects the two countries, often without having to even report to a customs officer.

What does that mean for you as a Canadian? You will need to clear Immigration (a.k.a., Passport Control) at the first Schengen Area country that you arrive in; most likely Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark. Since Canadian tourists are generally considered low-risk, it is unlikely that you will be asked more than just the basic questions: the purpose of your visit, how long you intend to stay for, where you plan to visit, etc. Unlike Canada and the U.K., which is not a Schengen country, most if not all Schengen countries do not require you to fill out a paper arrival card or customs declaration before landing.

If you connect through London Heathrow, you should not need to go through British immigration formalities as long as you stay within the secured International areas of the airport. This is easiest if both your inbound and outbound flights arrive and depart from the Star Alliance’s Terminal 2 or British Airways’ Terminal 5.

Even if you are arriving from another Schengen country, you will need to clear Customs on arrival in Sweden. This is a less bureaucratic and less interrogative experience than it is in Canada and the U.S. Like much of Europe, Sweden uses a Green Channel/Red Channel system: walk out of the baggage claim area through the Green Channel exit if you have nothing to declare, or walk into the Red Channel area and speak to a customs officer if you do. (On my arrival in Stockholm, a couple of uniformed officers stood off to the side scanning the crowd. The Green Channel exit was unstaffed, which is not unusual at European airports. Arriving passengers can be spot-checked, however, so don’t try sneaking things through.)

Q. Does Sweden use the Euro as its currency?

A. No, Sweden continues to use its traditional currency, the Krona (shorthand: SEK). One Swedish krona is equal to about 15 cents Cdn. Therefore, $100 Cdn. is equal to about 667 SEK, and 100 SEK is equal to about $15 Cdn.

Q. How much cash should I get?

A. At least 50 percent more than you would go through in Canada during the same period of time. For example, if your cash spending in Canada is about $80 per week, get at least $120 Cdn. worth of Swedish krona, or 800 SEK, before departure or just after arrival.

If you prefer to use plastic, Sweden is a credit/debit card-friendly country, provided that you have a chip card and a four-digit PIN. (Longer or shorter PINs might be problematic.)

Q. What is the best way to get into the city from the airport?

A. Flygbussarna‘s coaches offer the best combination of price and convenience. Coaches to and from Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, 45 kilometres by road north of the city centre, run every 10 minutes during much of the day for $30 Cdn. per person round-trip. The drive takes about 45 minutes. Tickets can be purchased online before leaving Canada.

Commuter trains run every 30 minutes between the airport and Stockholm’s central railway station. How much you will pay depends on whether you buy a single-trip ticket or a multi-day travelcard: a one-way ticket into town costs $20.25 Cdn. per person, while a seven-day travelcard, valid for bus, metro, tram and train travel throughout the Stockholm area with airport privileges, should cost a total of about $73.50 if my calculations are correct. This is an option if you are travelling light — commuter trains might be crowded — and intend to use public transportation frequently during your stay.

Arlanda Express runs swanky, high-speed trains that cover the 45 kilometres between the airport and the city centre in just 20 minutes. But they run at 15-minute intervals, slightly less often than the slower Flygbussarna coaches, and are vastly more expensive at $79.50 Cdn. per person round-trip. Not really worth it unless you want to take a high-speed train just for kicks.

Taxis between the airport and the city cost about $75 Cdn. each way: worthwhile for a family, but couples and solo travelers will get better value by taking a coach if they’re staying at a hotel within the city centre. (Or try your luck with Uber.)

Q. Where would be a good place to stay?

A. In or near Norrmalm is your best bet. This will put you within walking distance of much of what the city has to offer, and close to Central Station and metro and tram stops for trips further afield.

Staying in the centre of the city, even if it’s more expensive than staying in a suburb, has two advantages. First, you can drop off any purchases you make during the day, or run back quickly to pick up or drop off a rain jacket or umbrella. Second, you can more easily return to use the toilet, bearing in mind that public toilets in Europe are not always as easy to find and sometimes are pay-to-use. (Even in the expensive NK department store, it costs 10 SEK, or $1.50 Cdn., to use the restrooms.)

Q. Is it safe in Stockholm?

A. Yes, quite safe, though some would recommend being cautious around metro stations, streets outside of pubs, and the Sergels Torg sunken plaza at night. There are only about 90 homicides per year in the entire nation of Sweden out of a population of 9.5 million; this would be roughly equivalent to Winnipeg experiencing just 6-7 homicides per year.

Visitors’ primary concern should be in not making themselves easy targets for pickpockets and bag-snatchers. Take only what you need for the day with you, and leave the rest in your hotel room safe; and familiarize yourself with these anti-theft tips from Frommer’s and the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police.

Don’t bother with the strange new trend of wearing your backpack on your belly instead of on your back. It looks ridiculous; it automatically flags you as a tourist who is likely carrying more valuables around than the typical local person and who won’t be in town long enough to see justice carried out; and if you have your passport and your credit and debit cards all in one backpack, you’ll be royally screwed if a thief does get ahold of it. (For that second reason — not flagging yourself as a tourist — I recommend not sporting a Canadian flag while traveling. Or wearing white sneakers, which is apparently another give-away that someone is a North American.)

Q. What is the best way to eat affordably in Stockholm?

A. Stockholm’s Middle Eastern eateries offer meat and vegetables in good portions for moderate prices. A hearty Shish Tawouk plate at the STHLM Bistro in central Stockholm costs only 99 SEK ($15 Cdn.), and the city’s various kebab places offer similar value.

Unlike Canada, advertised Swedish prices include sales taxes, so the price you see is the price you pay. As restaurant servers in Sweden are relatively well-compensated compared to their Canadian counterparts, tips are normally limited to rounding the bill up to the nearest multiple of 10 or 20 Swedish krona ($1.50 to $3.00 Cdn.), which usually works out to five or 10 percent. A Canadian-style 15 percent tip would be a bit extravagant, akin to giving a Canadian server a 30 percent tip.

Avoid restaurants in Gamla Stan, the touristy old-town area, which are less reliant on repeat business than restaurants elsewhere in the city and therefore have less of a vested interest in your being satisfied. Instead, eat where the Stockholmers eat, which is basically in any other part of the city.

Q. Should I rent a car?

A. No, unless you’re planning to travel out into rural areas poorly served by Sweden’s excellent public transport system. Stockholm is by no means a “car town”, which is a good thing as a car town is a dull town. Parking for one hour on a weekday afternoon in central Stockholm typically costs $9 to $13.50 Cdn., vehicles entering the city are subject to congestion charges of up to $9 Cdn. per vehicle per day, and Stockholm gas prices are currently about $2.15 Cdn. per litre. And for all that expense, driving won’t save you much time: a trip from Central Station to the hip Södermalm area, for instance, takes 10-20 minutes both by car and by Metro.

In fact, while in Stockholm, you might notice that a fair bit of freedom can be gained by not driving. As a pedestrian or public transport user, you’ll be free to have a drink or two even on an empty stomach without worry, you can wander more because you won’t be tethered by the need to stay close to where you parked your vehicle, and going out on the town will be less expensive and involve less effort.

Q. Do people speak English there?

A. Approximately 86 percent of Swedes are able to speak English well enough to carry on a conversation, and many will quickly switch to English if they detect that you are not a Swede. It is a second language, though, so don’t assume that they know jargon or nuances that most Canadians would know: keep your English simple and direct.

As always when traveling in a foreign country, it is considered good form to know and to use basic niceties such as hello (hej), please and thank you (tack in both instances) and pardon me (ursäkta mig). Hej is pronounced identically to the English word hey, tack is pronounced the same way as the English word by the same spelling, and ursäkta mig is pronounced ur-shack-ta mye.

Q. Are the people friendly?

A. Stockholmers can seem rather aloof by Winnipeg standards, but also calmer and more polite. As in the other Nordic countries, respect for others’ privacy is both offered and expected, and asking questions that cross that privacy threshold — even questions we take for granted such as “What did you do this weekend?” — might be seen as impolite in their view.

This can have its benefits however. For example, in a Swedish restaurant, servers will not hang around your table, and might not even approach unless they see some indication that you wish to speak to them or that you’ve finished the meal. While this might be considered poor service in Canada, it is considered good service in Sweden, as the server is making a point of respecting your privacy.

But once again, Swedes are remarkably polite and civil, and you can count on being treated courteously wherever you go.

Q. How do they feel about Canadians?

A. Swedes aren’t the type to offer unsolicited opinions to strangers, so it’s not readily apparent. My best guess is that it’s probably a benignly neutral view, possibly leaning positive — but that they don’t really give us much more thought than we give them.

Q. Do people really dress up nicely in Stockholm?

A. They tend to be conservative-casual dressers: well-fitting, unostentatious, neutral or moderately coloured clothes are fashionable; excessively baggy or flashy clothes are not. Jeans and t-shirts are fine as long as they meet this criteria. Leave the sweat pants at home, as you would probably be considered an oddball for wearing such clothing in public in Stockholm, and in much of the world outside of North America for that matter.

Stockholm in Images

Twenty years ago, Södermalm was the last place one would go as a tourist in Stockholm. Today, it’s a must-see neighbourhood due to its historic character and its status as a “hipster haven”.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s oldest neighbourhood, can be annoyingly touristy — but also beautiful.

Central Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården Park is the site of many free events, and a fine place for people watching.

Head down to Hotorget Plaza in Stockholm’s Norrmalm area on Sundays to experience a genuine European market.

I wonder what kind of reaction the owner would get driving that middle van around Winnipeg?

Further reading:

The Canadian government’s travel information page for Sweden

Kwintessential’s guide to Swedish etiquette

Tsipras: The loser who ought to have not bet

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras: A man with not much to smile about.

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras: A man with not much to smile about.

“In politics, one plus one does not necessarily equal two,” a political science professor once told a roomful of us back in my university days. “In fact, in politics, if you add up one and one and get two, you’ve probably got the wrong answer.”

Indeed, concealing one’s true intentions has long been a useful skill in politics. “Je vous ai compris,” French prime minister Charles de Gaulle told the ruling white minority in Algeria in June 1958 to allay concerns that he would grant Algeria the independence that would bring the colonists’ privileged way of life to an end. In English, the words meant “I have understood you” or, more aptly, “I get the message.”

This and other duplicity bought time for de Gaulle to accomplish his real goal: France’s withdrawal from Algeria, which de Gaulle even in 1958 privately knew had no hope of continuing on as a French colony, and overseeing the country’s transition to independence. After de Gaulle’s deception of the colonists became known, the bitter joke was that the French leader had been misquoted, having actually told the crowd “Je vous hais, compris?” (“I hate you, understand?”)

If someone of de Gaulle’s intelligence and cunning were Prime Minister of Greece today, that country might not be on the verge of a meltdown of its banking and even medical system, which could trigger emergency humanitarian assistance for what was a few years ago a moderately affluent European country.

What Greece has instead is prime minister Alexis Tsipras, who is no Charles de Gaulle. Frustrated by negotiations in which fellow members of the European Union, primarily Germany, insisted on painful economic and political concessions in return for helping the Greek government avoid national bankruptcy, Tsipras called a snap referendum on the European Union’s terms, which was held this past Sunday.

Tsipras himself campaigned for the “No” side in that referendum, claiming that a rejection of the European Union’s onerous terms would strengthen his position at the bargaining table. And he won, with 61 percent of the vote.

Yet there are now reports that perhaps no one in Greece was more horrified by Sunday’s “No” victory than Tsipras himself. A stunning article written by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Athens correspondent for Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper, and published Tuesday notes that the result left the Greek prime minister “depressed” and that “what should have been a celebration on Sunday night turned into a wake.”

Why? According to the article, Tsipras had tried his hand at de Gaulle-style duplicity, campaigning for a “No” vote while privately hoping for a “Yes” vote, and failed miserably. Evans-Pritchard writes:

Greek premier Alexis Tsipras never expected to win Sunday’s referendum on EMU bail-out terms, let alone to preside over a blazing national revolt against foreign control.

He called the snap vote with the expectation – and intention – of losing it. The plan was to put up a good fight, accept honourable defeat, and hand over the keys of the Maximos Mansion, leaving it to others to implement the June 25 “ultimatum” and suffer the opprobrium.

The consequences of Tsipras’s losing bet, according to Evans-Pritchard:

Syriza [Tsipras’s governing party] has been in utter disarray for 36 hours. On Tuesday, the Greek side turned up for a make-or-break summit in Brussels with no plans at all, even though Germany and its allies warned them at the outset that this is their last chance to avert ejection.

[ . . . ]

Events are now spinning out of control. The banks remain shut. The ECB has maintained its liquidity freeze, and through its inaction is asphyxiating the banking system.

Factories are shutting down across the country as stocks of raw materials run out and containers full of vitally-needed imports clog up Greek ports. Companies cannot pay their suppliers because external transfers are blocked. Private scrip currencies are starting to appear as firms retreat to semi-barter outside the banking system.

Greeks cannot be blamed for feeling miserable about their lot in life, with unemployment running at 25 percent and their citizens rating their own average satisfaction with life at the lowest level of any OECD country. Austerity policies, under which the population is obligated to accept a lower standard of living as the price of being assisted by other European governments (who need to be mindful of their own electorates) and of returning to economic competitiveness in the absence of a currency-devaluation option, is now being linked to rising suicide rates and growing public health problems, and has put the country in “an effective debt trap in which the effort to escape through austerity has reinforced the enclave” (see PDF page 8, print page 138).

By calling a referendum, Tsipras gave the Greek people an opportunity to vent their pent-up anger — and they did just that by voting “No” in Sunday’s referendum. If it is indeed correct that Tsipras was betting on a “Yes” vote to get himself out of office at an opportune moment in which he could leave with his reputation intact rather than as the man who took Greece into bankruptcy,  he has botched it up spectacularly.

Recommended reading for those interested in this topic (and who want something more than the tedious, uninformative partisan mudslinging to which the Greece issue has been sometimes reduced in Canada):

Drones and commercial aircraft on a collision course

Flights into and out of Sweden’s Arlanda Airport were delayed Monday night as air traffic control dealt with a new instance of an increasingly common problem: a drone having been spotted in airspace where it posed a collision risk to commercial airliners.

Monday’s incident wasn’t the first time that a drone interfered with air traffic in the region around Arlanda, which serves both Stockholm, 35 kilometres to the south, and Uppsala, 30 kilometres to the north. A 2014 report noted that drones flown in the airspace around Bromma Airport, a smaller airfield used mainly by budget carriers, occasionally caused flights to be diverted. Indeed, Bromma was closed for half an hour one day last month due to a drone being flown in restricted airspace.

While a drone might seem small compared to a jetliner, neither airlines nor pilots care to be burdened with the consequences of one being ingested into an engine, and no one wants to find out what would happen if a drone struck a windscreen, or the horizontal or vertical stabilizer at the back, at flight speeds.

Yet the day is likely coming when an aircraft and a drone will collide, hopefully without any consequences more serious than a smashed-up drone and a bit of superficial damage to the passing aircraft. Consider the following incidents:

June 5, 2015: A Southwest Boeing 737 landing at Dallas’s Love Field passed “a few hundred feet” from a drone being flown uncomfortably close to the arrival flight path. Another aircraft claimed to see a drone flying close to the approach path as well.

May 23, 2015: An Air Canada Embraer 190 taking off from Toronto en route to Saskatoon took “an evasive manoeuvre” to avoid colliding with a yellow- and black-coloured object flying at 2,200 feet above sea level (or about 1,600 feet above ground).

Sept. 1, 2014: A WestJet Boeing 737 was approaching Calgary inbound from San Diego at 7,000 feet above sea level (or about 3,500 feet above ground) when the pilots observed “a remote controlled vehicle crossing their flight path at the same altitude in front of them”.

And perhaps the most bizarre incident of them all:

March 19, 2014: The pilots of a chartered Dash-8 flying at 3,800 feet above sea level (3,700 feet above ground) over the northern outskirts of Perth, Australia noticed “a bright strobe light directly in front of the aircraft . . . [which] appeared to track towards the aircraft”. They took evasive action to avoid a collision with a grey, cylindrical-shaped object that passed about 20 metres off to the side of the aircraft and 30 metres below. The object that nearly collided with the aircraft remains unidentified, and the incident has been classified by Australian air safety investigators as a “serious incident” involving “interference from the ground”.



Does politics give people the blues?

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

During the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, one YouTube video that went viral showed four year old Abigael Evans crying as she tells her mother, “I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney”. The video was still getting views in 2015, when a commenter left a message on the site telling Abigael not to feel bad, as politics could make grown-ups cry as well.

Both she and the commenter were far from alone. A mid-May Economist article noted that young people are so turned off by politics that to even discuss such topics in a social setting is “deemed distasteful” and that it “kills the mood”.

Within a couple of weeks, I stumbled across further information about why that might be while reading Measuring Happiness: The Economics of Well-Being, the English translation of a book written by German authors Joachim Weimann, Andreas Knabe and Ronnie Schöb.* In Chapter 7, they discuss the results of an experiment carried out in a 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index study in which one random sample of Americans were asked to rate their satisfaction with life, while another random sample were first asked about their political views and then about their satisfaction with life:

Beginning January 9, 2009, half of the respondents were asked political questions as usual, whereas the other half were no longer asked any political questions but were asked about their life satisfaction right away. For the latter group, the average life satisfaction skyrocketed immediately after January 9, indicating very strong context effects. (pp. 95-96)

The source of this information was a 2012 paper by Angus Deaton of the Center for Health and Well-Being at Princeton University, who noted that:

People appear to dislike politics and politicians so much that prompting them to think about them has a very large downward effect on their assessment of their own lives . . . [T]he effect of asking the political questions on well-being is only a little less than the effect of someone becoming unemployed, so that to get the same effect on average well-being, three-quarters of the population would have to lose their jobs.

Three months later, another change was made to insert a buffer between the political and life-satisfaction questions for all respondents. Immediately, this showed up as an increase in how well people rated their overall life satisfaction compared to the answers they gave when there was no buffer. As Deaton observed, the jump in reported life satisfaction was equivalent to the expected effects of “a more than doubling of per capita GDP”.

While this says something about the risk that one set of questions in a survey could accidentally influence how people respond to the questions that follow, it also says something about why Canadians and others around the world are tuning out on politics: if having politics on their mind makes them feel worse about life, and not thinking about it makes them feel better, the sensible thing to do is to give politics no more attention that necessary.

Politicians who wish to make the societies they govern happier places to live, and to keep the dreaded it’s-time-for-a-change sentiment at bay until a later election, might find that their best bet is to simply stay out of their constituents’ faces. And as for the large numbers of politically disengaged people, about which there has been much hand-wringing in recent years, the best policy might be to simply leave them in peace.

* – Available at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg at 306 WEI 2015.


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