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Monthly Archives: March 2013

I wasn’t going to join the hype in the European media about eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem. The hype is only about money and that isn’t so interesting, contrary to what the nice people at the Financial Times tell you. However, it so happens that Jeroen Dijsselbloem also has been the chair of a Dutch Parliamentary Inquiry Commmittee on Innovations in Education in 2007-2008. Now we are talking. For this brings us to the issue of the education in mathematics.

The European media hype is about whether Dijsselbloem knew what a ‘template’ is. He says on Dutch television that he didn’t know the word. He did however reply to a question containing it, see the FT Reuters transcript. Apparently the political distinction is now being made between an ‘approach’ and a ‘template’. We may figure that Dijsselbloem is a sensible and intelligent person who gets the drift of a question, so we can forgive him for not responding: “Can you explain what you mean by a template ?” It is actually not so nice of the reporters at FT Reuters to make such a fuss about this. They are just as guilty in this blame-game, for after Dijsselbloem’s reply they didn’t ask for confirmation: “So this will be the template, just to be sure that we will not quote you in a wrong manner ?” The real fuss is the command of English and the state of the Dutch system of education.

The European media hype is also about whether Dijsselbloem over-enthousiastically took the Dutch approach to SNS-Reaal-bank and Cyprus as the future approach for the Eurozone (if we allow for that word). It may be that he overplayed his position as president and that other members have different thoughts. This may indeed be the case. The other members may have shown polite interest in what Dijsselbloem has been explaining about his ideas, and it may be that Dijsselbloem mistook this for agreement. Deep in the hype, harsh words may have been spoken, but, as diplomats tend to do, internally, far removed from the spotlights. Well, every Dutch(wo)man has to learn that Europe isn’t just a ‘big Holland’. We all remember the difficulty that Wim Duisenberg had in 2000 after the introduction of the euro and the questions about the exchange rate policy.

Nevertheless, the EU is setting up a Banking Union with a European Banking Authority. On that single webpage we see words like ‘supervision’, ‘regulation’, ‘mechanism’, ‘vision’ and ‘roadmap’, but we do not see the word ‘approach’ yet. Downloading the Communication, we see that the Banking Union distinguishes ‘the most significant European systemically important banks’ and the ‘others’. The first will have to be saved at all cost, the others will be allowed to implode. Thus Dijsselbloem quite accurately warns us to put our money in a system bank, unless we are risk-prone and like a little bit of higher interest plus the thrill of a possible collapse. The warning is also that each bank in trouble should quicky join a system bank so that it will be saved.

I might sound a bit sarcastic but in reality I am referring to my earlier Economic Plan for Europe and the suggestion for a new EMU treaty, plus an additional analysis that I hope to be able to put on the web soon. [Addendum April 3: it is here now.]

Now the interesting part. For Dutch education, we find a similar juggling of words. The Dijsselbloem Committee in 2008 distinguishes ‘what’ from ‘how’. Parliament decides what will be taught at school, and the teaching community decides how it will be taught. The Committee observes that this rule had been violated in the past, with various ‘innovations in education’, that Parliament loved but teachers abhorred, and that caused Dutch education to go down the drain.

The Committee didn’t investigate how it came about, that Parliament loved ‘innovations’ that the teachers abhorred. Apparently Dijsselbloem takes it for granted that Parliament doesn’t listen to teachers. Indeed, after the Committee report was declared a success, Parliament decided that highschool graduation should include a test on basic numerical skills, and a fail would even block graduation. Parliament thinks that this is a ‘what’ but actually it is a ‘how’. Learning to count is for young children and not for teenagers. Elementary schools should provide for those basic numerical skills, but they are failing to do so, both because of ‘innovations’ and because of elementary school teachers who have insufficient numerical skills themselves. Apparently Parliament wants to fix this by shifting the burden onto the higher level. Dutch readers with a strong heart and love for horror shows would want to read Jaap de Jonge “Opkomst en ondergang van de rekentoets” (Rise and Fall of the Numerical Test), March 2013, Euclides 88/5 p224-225. Unfortunately, that magazine of the Dutch Association of Teachers of Mathematics tends to keep important information behind a pay-wall.

Now to the Grand Finale. My point is that Parliament has decided that schools must teach math, but the teachers do not deliver math, but something that they call ‘math’. Mathematicians are trained for abstraction, but in class they meet real live students, and they resolve their cognitive dissonance by clinging to a tradition that has grown over the ages, but that isn’t targetted at proper didactics. See my books Elegance with Substance 2009 and Conquest of the Plane 2011. Thus the Dijsselbloem distinction at first seems to have some merit, but breaks down when Parliament refuses to check whether it really gets what it intends to get. The distinction between ‘what’ and ‘how’ is somewhat illusory, if the people responsible for the ‘how’ destroy the ‘what’.

The only solution is that Parliament starts paying attention to teachers rather than the bureaucrats and lobbyists. The only solution lies in an open atmosphere, where people can speak freely and frankly, where we treat people and ideas with respect, and where we judge issues on their merit.

More on this in my paper What a mathematician might wish to know about my work, March 2013.

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In the former weblog we considered the election results in Italy, accompanied by sensational Greek singers. There is no lack of beauty and talent in Europe, for in Germany we find Maybrit Illner and her excellent ZDF talkshow. There is no lack of attention for Italy either, for Maybrit puts it center stage too. Let us watch her show of Thusday March 7: Chaos, Clowns und Euro-Krise. Zieht uns Italien in den Abgrund (Will Italy pull us into the abyss ?)

In terms of European integration, we immediately learn some lessons. The first is that the German word for clown is ‘clown’ too. The French can also speak about harlequin and Pierrot though that is a specific kind of clown. A Dutch word is paljas but this appears to derive from the French paillasse – a bag of straw – which again derives from the Italian pagliaccio, indeed a clown or straw man, from the Latin palea = straw. We also must beware of humour on German television after the Angelen took the sense of understatement and left for England (what is in a name ?).

A second lesson is that it isn’t so diplomatic to say that the Italian politicians are ‘clowns’. Admittedly Beppe Grillo has a professional background in cabaret, and Silvio Berlusconi started out as an entertainer on a cruise ship, but the film A Clockwork Orange should have clarified that one shouldn’t mistake the funny masks for the reality behind them. One of Maybrit’s guests is Jean Asselborn, the minister of Foreign Affairs of Luxemburg, who deferentially calls her ‘madame’, to which she blushes and objects, for unclarified reasons that become ever more intruiguing the more you think about it. Nevertheless, the point is that one should not call people what they don’t want to be called, except when you are in the position of a judge who has the authority and duty to convict someone to some kind of label.

A third lesson is that Europe would benefit from undertitles. My German is fair and I can understand what Maybrit and her guests were talking about, partly because I understand the subject. But if the peoples of Europe are to understand each other better, it would help when (specific) national programs can be followed with English undertitles. Question Time at the BBC is a great program that pays to watch on occasion, but even here it would help when some cockney dialect or whatever would be undertitled, since unfortunately few of the British comprehend that Oxford English is so nice to listen to. There is the legendary story that a Japanese company didn’t invest in England since they couldn’t understand the English that people were speaking. The bureaucrats in Brussels have ample experience in translation, and it would be wonderful if they got out of their translation boxes and started to apply it where it matters for the average citizen: our television sets.

While the former weblog concentrated on the role of mathematicians, Maybrit concentrates on the euro. Her table is laced with guests heavily set against the euro. If Angela Merkel has been watching, which is not unlikely, we might expect a surprise announcement next week that Germany returns to the DM.

Below, we will discuss some of the main arguments of Maybrit’s guests. Before doing so, let us first consider this table about the relevance of Greece for the euro. Normally the impact of Greece is compared to the Eurozone as a whole but this table considers the impact with respect to Germany by itself. It appears that Germany could absorb the problematic part of Greece’s debt without much of a problem. The conclusion is that there isn’t much of an economic problem, and the whole issue is one of politics, of psychology, of theatre, or, even, of a circus indeed.

GDP and Debt in billion euro’s – 2011 (Eurostat)

If BRD takes part of EL debt

 

BRD

Ellas

B+E

BRD+100

EL-100

BRD+150

EL-150

GDP

2572

215

2787

2572

215

2572

215

Debt

2088

356

2444

2188

256

2238

206

%Debt/GDP

81.2

165.3

87.7

85.1

118.8

87.0

95.6

(Earlier I teamed up countries in Europe in a different way: Germany with Italy, and Holland with Greece. This present combination is a useful illustration of the argument. The 2013 data will be different but it is useful to link up to the earlier exposition that used the 2011 data too. )

The table clarifies what many already have been saying. Europe is a victim of its ghosts from the past. The Krach of 1929 and hyperinflation in Germany. Protestant doom and gloom versus catholic live and let live. The fear for free-riders. The industrious ant and the carefree cricket. Nothing to fear but fear itself.

The European sovereign debt crisis started at the end of 2009. We are now 3 years further, with many bankruptcies and much unemployment. Europe would have saved itself much misery if it had bitten the bullet head on. President Herman van Rompuy recently launched various proposals to transfer sovereignty to the bureaucracy in Brussels. Flaws in the design of the euro are mended only slowly. Compare it to this: A ship sets out sailing into a fog, but no matter since its captain is blind anyway. It hits the rocks and is shipwrecked. Many passengers fall out and drown. Dead bodies and even live people are used to close the holes in the ship’s body. In the captain’s cabin the ship medic tries to restore the captain’s eyesight. The fight for survival (of the captain) already lasts three years, but he encourages his crew: In some years we shall prevail.

How to bite the bullet ? See this Economic plan for Europe and see this paper on how the euro-system might be redesigned. Both are collected in the book Common Sense: Boycott Holland. Cut up the banks into retail and business. The retail banks can all be franchises of the Central Bank, and we would not need a European system of deposit insurance since the Central Bank has always money. Invest, invest, and invest. Do not rely on business banks to generate the required investments but set up a back-up system for investments when there is a recession (like now). And this advice comes from a careful economist.

These are the fundamentals. Let us now consider the discussion under Maybrit’s elegant guidance.

Oskar Lafontaine makes a surprising re-entry on the German national floor. The Napoleon of the Saar has established a reputation of some opportunism, but at this table he rightly points out that Europe has been saving the banks rather than the people (though people need banks). He calls Angela Merkel the courtisane of the rich, which proves again that when it comes to love the world likes to use French words. Lafontaine also mentions, later in the discussion, that Germany partakes in wage dumping. This is indeed part of the analysis. The current policy is to seduce companies to invest for exports but countries should deliberately set up investments in the home economy.

Professor Bernd Lucke of Hamburg University is creating a new political party Alternative für Deutschland to move Germany out of the euro. He agrees with Lafontaine on the banks. Lucke explains that wages in Greece and Italy have to be lowered by 30% to make them competitive. He doesn’t see this happening without a return to exchange rates. This isn’t quite true. When you abolish exchange rates then you can create an explicit mechanism that produces the same effect. Tax exports from surplus countries (exchange rate appreciation) and subsidize exports from deficit countries (depreciation). Also, countries should rather invest in their home economies rather than for exports. Reorganisation of the banks and abolition of the tax void for the labour markets will cause a world boom. The situation can be handled without a return to the DM.

Dirk Müller is also known as “Mr. DAX” (the German stock exchange) and teams up with professor Lucke. The euro was not required to get peace. The years with the DM had peace. The euro was introduced with the fallacy that it would contribute to peace but it is now that we see fighting in the streets of Europe. A section of Athens reminds of a third world country. The crisis is still not under control. Berlusconi is not a clown but a danger. The main worry however is France. No words of love now. Return to the DM.

Italian journalist Flaminia Bussotti (ANSA) tries to be an objective journalist and to defend the honour of her country. Unemployment of 11% and for the youth 38%. Monti’s cutbacks have been severe, and Maybrit shows us the images of the Italian minister Elsa Fornero who burst out in tears when announcing the ‘sacrifices’. Bussotti has the good point that Italy doesn’t quite ‘profit’ from an interest rate higher than 6%.

Luxemburg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn rightly explains that we should not just care about the sentiments of the financial markets but also about people and the public trust. He misses his chance to burst out in tears however, it would have made him instantly famous. He also explains that he doesn’t know the technical details, which seems to be part of the problem, i.e. EU political leaders trying to win trust without knowing what they are talking about. He advances the argument that Germany should be grateful to the Southern Europeans that they have been borrowing money to buy BMWs, though he seems to forget that paying off loans is a good idea too. He holds that the euro is a project of ‘give and take’, but he doesn’t go into details indeed: who gives and who takes. Also, the euro is a project for peace. It is unlikely that Maybrit will invite him again, not only because he calls her ‘madame’ but also since he doesn’t explain that Europe is bleeding also to save the banks in Luxemburg. Apparently Luxemburg also uses a different clown costume than the rest of Europe.

The final guest is Rainer Brüderle, the leader of the parliamentarian fraction of the FDP , the minority government party. He takes the hard line. If Italy wants to, it can step out of the euro.

Maybrit is shocked: And the banks, aren’t they too big to fail ? Dirk Müller holds that they may go bankrupt and then be nationalised. Government debt should no longer be without risk. Let those people suffer who have been dumb enough to invest their money in government paper. Back to the DM.

Brüderle mentions Holland on minute 24 as an example of a good country that has been following a low wage policy. Thus he doesn’t see that this is wage dumping and contributes to the problem. When Brüderle starts to explain that Greece has been following a wrong policy for years, and now has to suffer the consequences, he finds strong opposition from Lucke. It had been promised that the euro would have no bailout, but the ESM provides this, and so slow that Greece and Italy will need many years to do something about the 30% lack of competitiveness. Brüderle suggests that Lucke talks as a professor and that what he says has no relevance for the real world. Problem solved, no questions asked in the German parliament about wage dumping.

In the discussion there are some tentative references to world war two and the H-word. At the end of the program the instability of the Weimar republic is recalled. The current policy of Europe would be like that of Heinrich Brüning which led to the rise of the nazi’s and the H-word himself. This kind of policy puts the French-German friendship at risk. Yet, Brüderle reminds all, Germany cannot do it all by itself. Let Italy leave, he also said. How does his mind combine these two conflicting thoughts ?

Somewhat halfway in the program, minute 36, Maybrit presents the results of an opinion poll. EU-antagonism has risen starkly in Germany.

32 % personal disadvantages because of the EU
65 % a worsening by the euro
65 % expects an improvement from a return to the DM
49 % expects improvement without the EU

Maybrit manages to close the program with a big smile. The audience gives a big round of applause. The guests shake hands or look a bit bewildered. And we see each other again next week.

It is all very informative and entertaining. My problem however is that the question hasn’t been answered whether Italy will pull us into the abyss or not. If we keep on talking or talk-showing like this, dear charming Maybrit, we will not make much progress.

Perhaps a talkshow about the boycott of Holland is too much to ask. Can I propose a talkshow around the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes of 411 BC ? In which the women of Greece refuse to sleep with their husbands until the war is stopped ? In this case: let the women of Germany stop sleeping with their husbands (or sleep at all) till the country accepts that a major bailout of Greece is required to make a new start. Carmen Reinhart from Harvard University can tell you why a bailout is needed.

Addendum: April 18 2013: These researchers (PERI) identified errors in the Reinhart & Rogoff calculations. The latter state that they used median values instead of averages. Overall, my conclusion was that a bailout was needed, and not that austerity for the indebted countries was needed. This conclusion was also an experience with other highly indebted countries in the past. Overall, it is also a matter of logic. With deficit spending and debt rising, the proceeds generate growth. Eventually there can be a ‘Minsky moment’.

You can read this best while listening to the beautiful Eleftheria Arvanitaki and her rousing Metrisa on YouTube. I don’t know what she actually sings about, and I don’t want to know, but you can sense the thunder clouds forming on the horizon, with already some flashes of lightning.

The Italian election result feels like that too. A deadlock, commentators say. Europe is in crisis again, they hold. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. Belgium needed 18 months to create the Elio di Rupo government, and many thought that the country actually did well and got a much needed period of rest.

There is discussion about a grand coalition of leftist Bersani and rightist Berlusconi, or perhaps a minority government but supported by Grillo. Grillo wants to judge proposals on their merits separately and refuses to bargain about a full programme. In these political analyses the habit of thinking in majority governments wreaks havoc again. According to this view you team up to kick out a minority. Why would it not be possible to have an inclusive government, in which (most of) all parties partake ? It is a good idea indeed to judge proposals on their merits, to keep out pork barrel, but still with the intention that all have to live in the same country.

We see an example in this duet with Arvanitaki. The somewhat aged beauty who sings Na Na and who keeps breaking her earthenware bells is Haris Alexiou, who has produced wonderful albums and who performed in great concerts. Listen to her stately singing, the vivacious apopse with images from her younger years, and the touching oles, a classic. Or Ximeroni ! (Unfortunately with bad sound quality.)

I admit, illustrating Italian election results by Greek singers may come across as farfetched, but the association actually is rather sound, because co-operation is also a form of art. Many people regard democracy and elections as sport, and they only notice the winner. In reality, those winners and their supporters may be the barbarians, lost to culture and civilisation.

Some suggest to break the deadlock in Italy with new elections. In that case we might see what I have been advising for some years now: (1) governments that mirror parliament, (2) annual elections. This gives voters more power and still forces politicians to co-operate. Two other crucial advices: (3) select the prime minister with a Borda Fixed Point method, so that he or she has broad support and still can function in impartial manner above the parties (see this application to Holland), (4) create an Economic Supreme Court that watches over the quality of information. These four elements improve the responsiveness to popular sentiment without turning into populism, and they increase the quality without turning into technocracy.

Notice that there is a fundamental problem here. Election methods normally are a disaster. In the US election between Bush, Gore and Nader the winner was Bush while Gore would have beaten each of the others in pairwise comparisons. In the French election between Chirac, Jospin and LePen the winner was Chirac, while Jospin would have beaten each of the others in pairwise comparisons. Lawyers who write electoral laws tend not to understand much of mathematics, and then ask advice from mathematicians, who however create math from thin air and apply it to reality without understanding reality. Democracy disappears in the ravine between alpha’s and beta’s, the Two Cultures of C.P. Snow.

Italy has developed a complex system to allocate seats with the intention to enhance stability. That system now seems to enhance instability. It might be that it works out okay, as we hope above, but that would be by chance or wisdom, and the electoral system remains a disaster.

Of the many people who have been sleeping, a great responsibility falls on the politcians who voted this system into action. There is also a responsibility for the mathematicians who have been advising in the background. The fundamental problem is they can help to design systems, but run away from criticism, do not acknowledge error, and thus do not learn from mistakes. With their structurally erroneous advices these mathematicians destroy huge democracies.

We need a disciplinary board for mathematicians. When a medical doctor gives a wrong advice then there is such a board. A mathematician who doesn’t study reality but still advises that abstract notions apply to reality, is condemnable in the same manner.

In a short Dutch article Pas op met wiskunde over verkiezingen I explain the issue at a level for highschool students. Its appendix also contains a list of some 10 mathematicians who run away from criticism on their work on voting and democracy. In 1990 I observed that serious errors were being made, and the list gives that experience of denial since then. The list contains only mathematicians who are supposed to have an ethic of ‘definition, theorem, proof’ and who sin against that, even when the error is pointed out to them. It is no use to make a list of economists and political scientists who repeat the errors of the mathematicians, since that list would be much longer, and they would tend to refer to the mathematicians anyway (as if that would be proper).

The story turns into horror. I do not know whether I should refer to the dancing and waving of Eleni Bitali and her song about her life (zoi mou). Beware: first it seems as if she is the blond lady but later the camera switches position and it appears that she is the lady with red hair. I offered above Dutch article to the journal of the Dutch Association for Mathematics Nieuw Archief voor Wiskunde (NAW). One would think that the editors would be delighted with a short exposition of the major errors by mathematicians on voting theory and democracy. At that, a discussion that high school students should be able to understand, and that reviews which mathematician better corrects which misunderstanding. One would expect that the editors would desire to advance better mathematics. But no. Editor Barry Koren of the University of Leiden answers that he has studied the short article, fails to understand it, doesn’t specify what passage he doesn’t understand, rejects the paper and closes the discussion, in one grand sweep. I have included his name on the list of failing mathematicians because of this event, though as far as I know he hasn’t written on voting theory. But the horror is that this concerns criticism on the math profession and that a journal blocks that criticism.

Perhaps professor Koren of Leiden didn’t understand that the article was targetted at a level of exposition for highschool students, though it was explained to him. Perhaps he mistook the easy language with sloppy thinking. Perhaps he wanted to see complex mathematics though he could have found these in the references. We can imagine various misunderstandings. The fundamental point is that he presents a closed mind. An econometrician is not allowed to criticize mathematicians when they don’t study reality but still give advice on that.

Do the mathematicians fail only on democracy and election methods ? No, they do so too in the education of mathematics, when they have been trained for abstract thought and suddenly encounter real life pupils. They do so too when they are ‘rocket scientists’ and develop financial products that do not account for real risks. They do so too in the study of logic when they exclude nonsense while that is the most nonsensical thing to do. I only mention areas that I have studied myself and where I have established this. Perhaps other people have other examples.

My advice for a disciplinary board for mathematicians thus is dead serious.

We end with Eleftheria Arvanitaki and a sirtaki in the studio. Listen especially from minute 37 onwards, when the guests have unpacked their presents, and Eleftheria enchants all hearts, with all eyes becoming watery and proud men holding on to their sigaret, and with Haris Alexiou in full rapture.

When Greek singers and their musicians would travel over Europe and would teach us to sing and dance then they have another export product with great potential, alongside with those earlier ideas about democracy and mathematics.