Thursday 30 June 2016

The EU, refugees and migration

An alternative to Brexit that helps refugees and workers

Summary. This post proposes an alternative to Brexit that makes all EU citizens better off and helps refugees better. Let's add to the refugee convention the condition that if you help refugees in the region, you do not have to house them at home. The real problem of migration is not the migration itself, but the reduction in bargaining power of the average worked. Rather than restrict the freedom of EU citizens to work elsewhere, we could also improve the bargaining power of the workers in other ways. If we then also stop the neo-liberal projects TTIP, CETA and Euro, the EU becomes an attractive way to collaborate for all European citizens.

Brexit, Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and thousands of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. We should talk about the EU, refugees and migration.


The European Union started as a peace project, as a collaboration based on two industries that were crucial for war: coal and iron. It is often still sold as a peace project. That is certainly an aspect, but I think that this part is oversold when people point to Europe's violent past. The EU sure helps. However, also outside of the EU the frequency of international conflicts is decreasing. The benefits of war have decreased, most capital is nowadays in humans and organisation and cannot be easily plundered. The costs of war have also increased with nuclear and chemical weapons. The spread of democracy and the absence of war itself makes war less likely.

If leaders and countries acted rationally the EU might no longer be necessary for peace in Europe. Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in The Netherlands, Nigel Farage in England and Donald Trump in the USA make clear that we should not count on every leader making a cost benefit analysis. The wars in Yugoslavia and Ukraine also warn us that war is possible in Europe. Peace is one of the benefits of the EU and one reason why right-wing extremists do not like it.

The main benefit of the EU is that is allows the citizens of Europe to collaborate and stand up against economic powers. Environmental problems belong to this category. Where powerful companies pollute to make more money, while people with less power have to deal with the consequences. This power abuse increases inequality. On a national level, it is the role of the government to solve such problems. The polluter can, however, threaten to go to another country. International collaboration by setting environmental standards make such threats less credible and makes it easier for governments to serve their populations.

Many environmental problems are naturally also international, for instance, pollution of large rivers and acid rain, and natural candidates for collaboration to avoid international conflicts. A study just out this week tried to estimate the impact of European political measures to reduce air pollutants. It found that:
The reduction in PM2.5 concentrations [very small particles in the air] is calculated to have prevented 80 000 (37 000–116 000, at 95% confidence intervals) premature deaths annually across the European Union, resulting in a perceived financial benefit to society of US$232 billion annually (1.4% of 2010 EU GDP).
Those 80 thousand bodies and 1.4% of GDP is for small particles alone. Add to this all the other pollutants, workers rights and consumer protection. National laws would on average be less strict because firms would nationally have a stronger negotiation position. More people would die, more economic damage would be done. Socializing losses is a money making machine. In this case avoid investments in cleaner technology or selling more cheaper lower quality products increase the private gains at our costs.

People need to collaborate to reduce tax competition between countries. The rich and especially their money are more mobile and they can threaten democracies to pay their taxes elsewhere if the rates for the rich and large companies do not go down. That means that the lower 99%, you and me, will have to pay more, which is why incomes did not increase for most groups in the last decades, while most of the new wealth went to the super rich. The EU should coordinate taxes much more and especially get rid of national tax tricks to allow foreigners to pay less taxes than local people. The EU does this too little, but without the EU we can stop dreaming of achieving more justice here.

What amazes me most about the Leave campaign in the UK is that they managed to portrait the EU as the establishment and themselves as the defenders of the normal man. In reality both campaigns had their elites behind them and leaving the EU would make the UK establishment more powerful. Rupert Murdoch supported the Leave campaign because politicians in London do what he tells them to do. Last time I looked Rupert Murdoch was member of the establishment and not a working man trying to get by.

Rupert Murdoch supported the Leave campaign because politicians in London do what he tells them to do

Yes, the EU also does terrible things. A democratic institution will not always follow your preference; if you like that, try to become a dictator. The establishment naturally also sees that the EU is their main opponent and lobbies to make the EU do what they would like. This is facilitated by the fact that the media does not report much on the EU and much can thus be done behind the back of the people, which means that politicians do not have to fear losing their jobs for doing the bidding of the establishment. We should pay more attention and organize to make sure that our lobbies are also in Brussels.

Well know examples of terrible neo-liberal EU projects are the trade agreements TTIP and CETA and the Euro. Europe is not a banana republic, our courts do their job well and there is no need for special TTIP private courts so that corporations can threaten governments who want to improve living conditions. It is an assault on our democracies. If the EU presses through TTIP or CETA, I will stop being reasonable and from then on I will be anti-EU.

The Euro is a mess, it has many, many problems. We should slowly move out of it.


The increase in the number of refugees is not just an EU problem. Improved information and travel possibilities means that more people are travelling further to find a safe home.

It is not just an EU problem, but currently the the Bush-Blair war against Iraq has resulted in many people seeking refuge from violence in the EU, which in turn produces tensions within the union. A closer EU foreign policy could have prevented this mess. (The misinformation campaign for the Iraq war is comparable with the Brexit campaign; in both cases the Anglo-American population did not do their due diligence and did not punish the information sources that lied to them.)

Most countries on Earth have signed the [[Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees]], which obliges them to act humanely and accept refugees. The duty to protect refugees is international law.

Most people have an empathetic side that wants to help people in need, as well as a tribal side and many do not like too many people from other groups coming to stay with us. If you put yourself in the position of a native American that instinct can make sense. In retrospect it was a monumental mistake to let Columbus and Co. get away alive.

In response to the growing numbers, the refugee convention has been hollowed out by making it very difficult to enter a country and ask for asylum, as well as by the principle of secure third countries, which results in sending refugees away without investigating their case. As a consequence many thousands of people drown in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe and Australia has set up an disgusting system of lawless concentration camps.

I would propose to add two principles to the convention:
1. That when a country helps refugees in the region they come from, they are no longer obliged to house them in their own country. But only then.
2. That refugees can also send a request for asylum by mail, so that people are no longer dying trying to cross the border.

The current refugee crisis started with insufficient aid for the refugee camps along the Syrian border where people were literally hungering. This new legal principle would make such cases of neglect less likely, because it would have consequences. If we do our part to help locally, it should be no problem that asylum can be requested by mail, because they could then be rejected.

Helping refugees locally is also better for them. We may be rich, but a refugee who is used to a normal culture will have a hard time accustoming to the cold and impersonal European societies. Next to all the other culture shocks. Even without considering cultural differences, staying in the region makes it easier to maintain social ties and to go back home when the problems are over.

Staying in the region makes it easier to maintain social ties and to go back home

We will not be able to help everyone locally, especially in case of small groups or individuals. A gay man who is threatened in Russia is helped most easily by granting him asylum in Europe.

These two new principles would strengthen the right of asylum, help refugees better and reduce the number of refugees coming to Europe. Racists will not like this solution, but for the majority who experience a mix of empathy and concern, this should be a good solution. For people in favour of a multi-cultural society this is a good solution because it helps refugees better (and there will be enough diversity left).


Refugees and migrants are often seen as one category, but they are fundamentally different. A refugee needs our help. To allow the partner and children of a refugee to live together would be migration, but seems to be a no-brainer as well for people with some empathy.

Economic migration is a different case. Even when it is good for a country, it may not be good for all segments of society. One reason we have democracy is to make sure that all interests are represented.

For the elite migration is mostly nice. By definition the migrants see migration as a benefit. And the elite has other options, thus if they migrate that is normally because they see clear benefits. Even before EU citizens could work everywhere in Europe it was normally possible for scientists to work elsewhere because of the importance of migration for science. Science is highly specialized; there is no labour market in Germany for my specialization.

Many other professions are similarly specialised and professionals with high salaries were normally allowed to work in another country. Also a sufficiently wealthy pensioner will be happy to be allowed to migrate to another (warmer) country. Living in another country a few years can be very enriching.

If you are less well off, the possibility of migration of cheap labour can be used by firms to reduce your bargaining power and you may end up with an even lower salary or without a job. The region the migrant comes from looses a valuable labourer. Migration can thus be used to increase inequality even more. Even for scientists from wealthy countries migration makes the negotiation positions weaker and thus labour conditions worse. But it is good for science and for scientists from poorer countries.

Salaries are determined by bargaining power, not by productivity, which is undefined for individuals in nonlinear production processes

Especially within the EU, I would be in favour of allowing everyone to work where they would like to. Freedom should be our default. In return for this benefit, the elite should compensate the disadvantages for the rest of society by improving the negotiation position of workers. One may think of migration restrictions for some professions, stronger unions, redistribution of wealth, programs for retraining, job guarantees for the unemployed and humane treatment of unemployed people.

A new European Union

There are many benefits of collaboration. The people of Europe need to collaborate to have the power to stand up against ever larger economic powers. There is no reason why this collaboration needs to be so intensive that the EU would become a nation itself. People's interests and customs differ and power is best exercised close to the people. We should only collaborate on large scales where this has a clear benefit.

The Euro makes inequality worse and it creates a lot of negative political energy in the EU that avoids other positive changes. Let's get rid of it. Now that the worst financial crisis is over, this is a good time to start a slow transition.

If we change the refugee convention to alternatively help refugees in the region where they come from, we can help them better than now, less will die on their way to Europe and another problem that creates bad blood in Europe would be gone.

Because refugees and migration are often seen as one problem, a reduction in the number of refugees may also reduce problems people have with migration. Still we should not be blind to the large difference in interests between the elites and the rest of society when it comes to migration. A compromise between the groups may be improving the negotiation position of workers.

Overarching above it all: You are not more pro Europe the more you would like the EU to replace the old nations. When Juncker sees the Brexit as a great opportunity to build a European nation and force the fast introduction of the Euro in every country, he is pro Europe. When I reject that uncreative vision of Europe and see the EU as a way for the people of Europe to collaborate, I am also pro Europe. Just like people argue nationally what the role of government is, we should have an open discussion in the EU about where collaboration is fruitful and possible given our differences.

For me, the most valuable innovation of the EU is actually that it is a twitter (an entity between a trade deal and a nation state). That is the reason why nations all over the world are building similar regional collaborations. They would not if the aim would the end of their nations and only building a larger more anonymous nation. Europe should be proud of its queer identity.

Related reading

Brexit is great news for the rest of the EU. Britain has not yet come to terms with its own irrelevance, and would only have got in the way of plans to create a more democratic pooling of sovereignty.

* Top photo: EU Grunge Flag, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Photo Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Map of Regional Organizations: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Thursday 23 June 2016

Four wonderful climate science podcasts you need to know

[UPDATE: How is this Buzzfeed headline?]

For some years I was a regular listener of EconTalk, where the economist Russ Roberts would interview a colleague, typically about a recent book or article. Roberts is a staunch libertarian and the interviews with fellow libertarians are worse than listening in on drunk men agreeing with each other in a bar at 4am, but many other interviews with economists who went out in the world and had studied reality were wonderful. I learned a lot about the world view of this special tribe and something about the limits on how we organize society.

Podcasts are a nice way to learn. The debate makes otherwise maybe more boring engaging and you can listen to it while commuting, walking or doing the household chores.

I tried to get a few people enthusiastic about doing such a podcast for climate science and even in the end considered doing it myself. But there is no need any more. Suddenly a wealth of really good climate science podcasts has sprung up.

Warm Regards

The newest podcast is by Eric Holthaus, journalist at Slate. It is called Warm Regards. He has as co-hosts climate scientist and Ice Age ecologist Jacquelyn Gill and New York Times science blogger Andrew Revkin. They are so new, in fact, that I could not listen to their first podcast yet: "How Do We Talk About Climate Change?". They are now also on iTunes.

[UPDATE. While preparing my diner, I listened to the podcast. Really enjoyed it. Good voices. Good sound. Professionally made. They introduced themselves, what they work on and why they care about climate change. The main topic was science communication and they emphasised that a good relationship with the listener is much more important than details that are quickly forgotten. Revkin liked talking to mitigation sceptics, the other two take the more productive route of trying to talk as much as possible to people who are wiling to listen and consider the arguments. The app Block Together is a good way to keep lines of communication open with decent people on twitter by very efficiently blocking harassing accounts. I also use it and can highly recommend it.

Personally I would add that we should not overestimate the importance of science communication. Outside of Anglo-America scientists are much less active in communicating climate change, but we have nearly no problems with mitigation sceptical movements. The difference is a working political system and better press. Talking about climate and science is what I do best, but if you have the option, it is probably better to invest your time in getting money out of US politics and building up a free and democratic press, for example by supporting membership supported media channels.]

Climate History Podcast

The Climate History Podcast is hosted by Dr. Dagomar Degroot, the founder of and co-founder of the Climate History Network. Even if society has changed a lot, we can learn from how humans have responded to the small climatic changes in the past. This initiative is just three podcasts old and the one I listened to, on the little ice age, is really interesting. First three titles are:

1. Climate Change and Crisis: Lessons from the Past
2. The History of Climate Change with Professor Sam White
3. Archaeology in the Arctic: Reconstructing the Consequences of Climate Change in the Far North

You can listen to it on iTunes project and download and listen to the podcast at SoundCloud.

Mostly Weather

The UK MetOffice produces the podcasts Mostly Weather. So officially it is about weather, but most topics are actually dual-use science, important for both weather and climate. (Mitigation sceptics often do not seem to know that meteorology is bigger than climatology.) It is made with love by climate scientists Doug McNeall, Niall Robinson and Claire Witham.

It is aimed at a general audience, but also a scientist can still learn something. I learned from their first podcasts on the history of weather forecasting that this started over the ocean: there it is most important and easier to do. Other podcasts were on the elements: clouds, snow, lightning and about the structure of atmosphere and they just had a series on weather forecasting.


For me as a scientist, the clear favorite is Forecast. It is made by Michael White, editor for climate topics at the scientific journal Nature. He makes it as a private project, but naturally he has access to the best and the brightest as editor and a good understanding of the climate system. This makes for in depth interviews on the science, but he also talks a lot about the serendipitous personal and scientific histories of the scientists. I have the feeling, many non-scientists will be able to understand the interviews, but admit I am not a very good judge of this.

The last interview was with Gabi Hegerl, the woman who discovered climate change (the first to do an attribution study). Other names people may recognize are: Reto Knutti, astronaut Piers Sellers, Chris Field, Bjorn Stevens, Kim Cobb, Mat Collins. Oh and a modeller from NASA GISS. Gavin Schmidt.

Have fun listening. Let me know if I missed something and which podcasts you like most.

[2017 UPDATE. The new kid on the block is Positive Feedback by Australian journalist (The Guardian) Graham Readfearn.]