Testing the Fedora 20 Alpha release

Today I installed the Fedora 20 Alpha release with GNOME on my laptop to test it. Regarding the changes in GNOME 3.10, I love the move to merge title bars and toolbars into header bars. It’s good to save vertical space. The new applications like GNOME Photos, Music and especially Software are also nice, but I’m not sure about the integrated system status menu. It simply takes a lot more clicks to connect to a WiFi network now. As always, I’ve filed some bug reports and commented on some old ones:

Fedora:

  • Bug #904052 – Eye of GNOME should be the default application for viewing images
  • Bug #981963 – no touchpad edge scrolling in Fedora 20 with GNOME
  • Bug #1028734 – LibreOffice banner shown during installation of F20 alpha is outdated
  • Bug #1028758 – no easy way to change computer name before or during installation

GNOME:

  • Bug #329652 – add OpenSearch support to GNOME Web
  • Bug #664915 – GNOME Web uses wrong fonts on nos.nl
  • Bug #711774 – GNOME Software doesn’t display progress for downloads

I think the first and fourth Fedora bugs are evidence that the Fedora developers don’t spend as much time on usability as they should. The second one is a very nasty bug, but knowing Fedora’s development I doubt it will be fixed in time for the final Fedora 20 release. Fedora releases should be more polished.

The first two GNOME bugs are still preventing me to switch to GNOME Web from Firefox. They’re very old and there is no indication that they’re going to be fixed any time soon, I wish I could do it myself.

My review of the Geeksphone Peak with Firefox OS

I wrote in September that I had pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS and why I did so. Unfortunately the Peak+ was delayed and in October it turned out the delay would be longer than expected. At that point Geeksphone offered those who had pre-ordered the Peak+ to send them the original Peak instead, which had become available again.

Because I didn’t want to wait much longer, I accepted this offer. I received my Peak the next day on 22 October, after it was shipped from Spain to my address in the Netherlands in less than 24 hours. I also got a refund because the Peak had a lower price. Initially I was disappointed in Geeksphone’s communication of the delay. I learned about the delay through the order status on their website rather than an e-mail which they could have sent, but the way the handled this restored my trust in them.

The Peak smartphone

I think the hardware is very adequate for a phone which is sold for € 150. I haven’t compared it with the Android phones at the same price point, but if I look at the Samsung Galaxy S4 of my brother or my dad’s iPhone 4 I don’t get the feeling my phone is deficient. Sure, the Galaxy and the iPhone cost over three times as much and have better hardware, but I’m satisfied with it.

But there are a few things which I would have liked to see differently. The iPhone 4 for example measures 115,2 by 58,6 by 9,3 mm and has a 3,5 inch screen with a resolution of 640 by 960 pixels. The Peak measures 133,6 by 66 by 8,9 mm and has 4,3 inch screen with a resolution of 540 by 960 pixels. I like how the iPhone 4 fits in my pant’s pocket, but the slightly larger Peak is a bit more noticeable. I would have preferred the iPhone 4’s slightly more compact dimensions and higher amount of pixels per inch.

When I took off the Peak’s back cover to place the battery and SIM card I feared I would break it, but it’s sturdy enough. The quality of the enclosure won’t win awards either, but it’s good enough for me. What worries me more is that the Peak only gets half of the full reception quality in my home, while my former dumb phone would always get full reception quality. However, in practice I’ve never experienced problems with the reception during phone calls.

The Firefox OS software

Version 1.1 of Firefox OS does the basics right and I haven’t seen it crash. However, being an operating system in its infancy, it doesn’t have much good apps. For example, Here Maps which is included by default doesn’t have turn-by-turn navigation. EverNav does, but if you want to use it you to have log in, which is something I don’t want. I’m surprised no one has built a good map app based on OpenStreetMap yet. It would have been useful if a flashlight app and an app for taking notes were included by default, but they aren’t available yet either.

I often use the 9292 website, which is popular for planning trips with the Dutch public transport. Because Firefox OS hasn’t been introduced in the Netherlands yet it’s unsurprising they don’t have an app for Firefox OS. This isn’t an issue as a Firefox app doesn’t need to be much more than a simple manifest file which redirects to a mobile website. Unfortunately 9292 doesn’t detect the Firefox OS user agent and redirect you to their mobile website like it does for Android smartphones. You can visit the mobile website manually and than add it as a favorite to your home screen, but it doesn’t display 100% correctly in Firefox. And the favicon used for the home screen uses a very low resolution, so it’s not a pretty sight. I’ve already sent them a message to inform them of these problems.

I intend to build my use of the phone around ownCloud, which would allow me store my calendar and contact data with my own web host. This way, I don’t need to use services like Google Calendar and the big companies can’t poke their noses into my personal data. GNOME also supports synchronization with ownCloud, which allow me to work easily with the same data on my PC, laptop and smartphone.

It’s already possible to synchronize the calendar with ownCloud if you follow these instructions (in French). However, synchronizing the contacts with ownCloud using CardDAV is not yet possible though, all Firefox OS offers at time is synchronization with Facebook.

This and other issues I’ve noticed have been filed at Mozilla’s bug tracker, of which the first two were filed by others and the last four by me:

  • Bug 859306 – Sync contacts with carddav
  • Bug 901218 – [Peak] Back camera does not take photos in full resolution : 1.2M instead of 8M pixels
  • Bug 934092 – can’t set locale separately from language
  • Bug 934094 – “order by last name” setting doesn’t take surname prefix into account
  • Bug 934097 – alarm doesn’t trigger when the Peak smartphone is turned off
  • Bug 934099 – Firefox OS doesn’t use delta updates
  • Bug 934115 – m.9292.nl website displays two arrows in a drop down menu

The first bug is most important to me. If it’s also important to you, you might want to vote for the bug report.

What I like and dislike about Rdio, my favorite music streaming service

Some time ago I started testing two music streaming services: Spotify and Rdio. The former is based in Sweden and by far the most popular in the Netherlands, the latter is based in the USA and much less popular here. Both services offer two forms of paid subscription and have identical pricing. After giving the free accounts of both services a try, I decided to start paying € 5 a month for Rdio’s Web account.

Rdio versus Spotify

I like Rdio more than Spotify because its web interface is so awesome. It looks so nice and is so easy to use, unlike Spotify’s web interface. The other notable difference with Spotify is that Rdio has a large collection of genre radio stations, with many separate radio stations for subgenres. This makes it easier for me to discover new music.

Both Rdio and Spotify have a catalog of more than 20 million songs, but the availability of specific artists is slightly different. Personally I noticed both don’t have AC/DC and only Spotify has Inna. And Rdio only has three Metallica albums available. But with such a large catalog there is enough other music to listen too.

My issues with Rdio

Apart from these lacunae in the catalog there are several other issues which I would like to see improved. I’ve posted my suggestion for improvement to the Rdio public help center:

The Logitech UE Smart Radio is not such a big issue for me. When I get finally get a job and my own home at some point, I would like to have a device in my living room which can play music from Rdio. However, I could also buy the Audioengine A2+ speakers and connect them with my laptop through USB. This would give me better sound quality than the UE Smart Radio. If I place them in my living room I could probably connect them with my TV too.

With a laptop I can also keep using the € 5 subscription instead of upgrading to the € 10 subscription which I assume would be necessary if Rdio were available on the UE Smart Radio. This is also the case for Spotify, which is supported by the UE Smart Radio. Spotify considers it a mobile device, which will only work if with their premium account for € 10 a month.

Concerning my issue with the payment methods, if they are absolutely unable to do something about it I might consider getting a PayPal account again after all, at least PayPal is free and credit cards are not.

Switching to Flickr and a responsive WordPress theme

I think it’s desirable to be independent in my life online. I pay Antagonist for my webhosting and e-mail instead of using free services for those. It gives me flexibility and benefits my privacy, because I don’t trust big companies like Google with my data. However, when it comes to hosting photos I need to be more practical. That’s why I intend to migrate all my photos to Flickr, as I said in my previous post. I will use this account.

Why I switch to Flickr

My current account at Antagonist provides me with 3 GB of storage. This is not enough to store a lot of photos: the photos made by my Nikon D5100 weigh in at about 7 MB in the highest quality and resolution. That’s why I have to resize photos significantly before I upload them to my webspace. Antagonist also has a plan for unlimited storage and traffic, but this is twice as expensive. Being unemployed now, I don’t want to pay the higher price at this time.

Another issue is that my experience with the Gallery web-based photo gallery software was not positive. Some years ago I used it to publish photos on my blogs, but I still remember it gave me trouble and that the WordPress plugin didn’t work so well. At that point I started using NextGEN Gallery which is just a WordPress plugin. It does what it’s supposed to do, but I don’t feel comfortable with having an entire photo management solution integrated into WordPress. Its usability isn’t bad, but a dedicated solution would be better. These are the reasons I think Flickr is more convenient.

If I consider privacy, I’m a lot less concerned about Yahoo having my photos than if they handled my e-mail. All my photos on Flickr will be licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license anyway, so I don’t see any significant risks for my privacy.

Changing the WordPress theme

Another issue with my blog is that the Tarski theme doesn’t display well on small smartphone displays. I have noticed that nowadays we have responsive web design to solve this problem. It turns out that the current default theme, Twenty Thirteen, is a responsive theme. Try the demo and resize your browser window to see for yourself.

I don’t like how its appearance compares with my current child theme for Tarski, but I guess I’ll just make a new child theme for this theme then. I might have stayed with the Tarski theme if its developer is going to make it responsive too, but it’s very quiet on the Tarski website.

Back after three weeks in Southern Italy

I’m back in the Netherlands after a three week journey through Southern Italy. I had plans to travel there already in this year’s spring season, but delayed them because I feared it would interfere with my job applications. Even after the delay It turned out that I missed the opportunity to do an assessment for a traineeship, so I guess that was inevitable.

I finalized my travel plans while I was working full-time at an IT service desk during July, August and September. I booked a return flight with Ryanair to depart from Maastricht to Bari at Sunday 29 September, returning at Sunday 20 October. I paid € 50 for this, it still amazes me they can be so cheap.

Why Southern Italy?

My choice for Southern Italy was motivated the fact that it has a nice climate with comfortable temperatures in October, more so than Northern Italy. Like the rest of Italy it has plenty of cultural heritage and many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This especially applies to the area around Naples. And of course Southern Italy is renowned for the quality of its cuisine. Again the pizza from Naples is in the spotlight, but elsewhere in Southern Italy I also ate interesting dishes which was different from the typical Italian food.

Using the public transport

Like my trip through Sicily last year, I decided to use public transport to get around in Southern Italy. You loose flexibility because the buses and trains don’t operate with the same frequency as they do in the Netherlands, but it was much cheaper than hiring a car.

However, I couldn’t go rafting down the Lao River because it was impossible to get to Papasidero with public transport. I did want to hire a car for one day to go to the Pertosa Caves and Grumentum, but that wasn’t possible because the car rental companies apparently only accept payment with credit cards. I don’t have a credit card and I hate the credit card companies, so that complicates things.

I traveled on my own, but if I had two or three travel companions the balance would have tilted in favor of renting a car. Also realize that if you decide on using the public transport, you’ll have to adapt your daily schedule to the infrequent service and that you’ll need a PhD in public transport planning. The TrenItalia website for trains works reasonably well and is available in English, but there are dozens of local bus companies with awful websites that only provide information in Italian.

In the Netherlands we like to complain about our public transport, but when I got back I thought my country is a public transport paradise. We’ve got the OV-chipkaart, the 9292.nl website and even on Sunday I can take a bus to Utrecht from my small village once an hour, practically the whole day. In Southern Italy I saw trains which still ran on diesel and railroad switches which were operated by hand.

Packing lightly

If you use the public transport it pays off to pack lightly. Ryanair also charges you more if you take along more than your hand luggage. Because I had to carry around my luggage all the time when I didn’t have a place to store it I packed only the essential stuff. I used a small backpack for this which I used daily when I went to university and followed the guides which are available on efficient packing techniques.

I packed a few clothes which I washed by hand during my trip, as well as my dSLR camera, electric shaver, my notebook (plus charger), two small books, travel documents, deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Don’t forget to take along a converter for using those grounded plugs with the Italian power sockets.

Finally had success with CouchSurfing

In Sicily last year my efforts to find locals who could host me as their guest failed. This time I had more success and was hosted by five CouchSurfers for a total of nine nights. I also met with four others who weren’t able to host me, but could show me around town. All of them were great people to meet. It was thanks to them that I saw many things I would not have seen otherwise. I used to think of myself as introverted and never had much trouble to travel alone, but on some of the days when I had no company I felt bored.

Paradoxically, it was easier to find hosts in smaller towns and villages than it was the largest cities. In Reggio di Calabria, Salerno and Napels I did not find any host, in spite of sending about thirty “CouchRequests” to the CouchSurfers in Naples. That was a disappointment, but it didn’t diminish the success of my CouchSurfing experience. It left me desiring for more, so I look forward to being a host myself for other CouchSurfers in the near future. I hope to do more CouchSurfing when I visit Greece or Turkey next.

Blisters almost spoiled it

I want to use my time efficiently on holidays so I can see as much as possible, which means I was walking long distances every day. My old shoes were close to collapse half way during the trip, so I decided to buy new shoes in Reggio di Calabria to prevent discomfort later. It was the most stupid decision I made during my trip. The new shoes seemed like a nice fit in the shoe store, but a few hundred meters later I already got huge blisters. I couldn’t return them to the store anymore, so I had to ditch them and buy slippers. The slippers worked for some time, but were not exactly comfortable, certainly in the downpour of Salerno.

I then decided to buy beautiful Geox shoes for € 152. Normally I buy two pairs of good shoes with that, but hey, you only live once. They fit nicely in the store, but again they turned out to hurt my feet not much later. By then I was at a low point in my holiday and considered going home, but I managed to keep thinking positively. It was possible to exchange the Geox shoes for a slightly less expensive model and went back to the slippers. Soon I bought better sandals and blister bandages. It’s unfortunate that trivial issues like having good shoes can have such a big impact.

The schedule

  • Sun 29 Sep: after my arrival at Bari’s airport at 15:10 I immediately took the train to Lecce where I met my first host at the train station.
  • Mon 30 Sep: I visited the wonderful historical center of Lecce. Be sure not to miss the Museo Provinciale Sigismondo Castromediano.
  • Tue 01 Oct: from Lecce I made a day trip to Otranto, a seaside town with nice beaches and a small historical center. I tried in vain to take a bus from Lecce, but no one had any idea about timetables or where the bus would stop. I did manage to get there with a train.
  • Wed 02 Oct: I went to visit Brindisi where I was picked up by my second host, who drove me to his home in Ceglie Messapica.
  • Thu 03 Oct: from Ceglie Messapica we drove to Ostuni and Gnatia among others.
  • Fri 04 Oct: from Ceglie Messapica we drove to the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Taranto only to find out that it was closed for restoration. I said goodbye to my host and went on to Metaponto to see the museum and archaeological site of Metapontum there.
  • Sat 05 Oct: took the train to Policoro to see the ruins of Hereclea and the archeological museum there. I then continued my journey to Trebisacce where I met my third host and visited Timpone della Motta.
  • Sun 06 Oct: from Trebisacce I went to Sibari to visit the museum and archaeological site of Sybaris.
  • Mon 07 Oct: I took the train from Trebisacce to Lamezia Terme, where I met my fourth host.
  • Tue 08 Oct: from Lamezia Terme I took the train to Reggio di Calabria. To my surprise the Museo Nazionale was closed, but it was possible to see a small part of the collection exhibited elsewhere. Met up with a CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Wed 09 Oct: there is no reason to stay in Reggio di Calabria for more than one day because there is nothing else to see there apart from the Museo Nazionale. Spent this day sending a huge amount of CouchRequests to potential hosts in Salerno and Naples, all in vain.
  • Thu 10 Oct: took the train to Salerno and visited Maratea on the way.
  • Fri 11 Oct: visited Paestum with a bus from Salerno. Again no timetable for the bus, but I got lucky and didn’t need to wait long. Met with a CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Sat 12 Oct: no rental car to visit Grumentem and Pertosa Caves, visited the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples instead. Met with same CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Sun 13 Oct: took the train to Naples and then another train to visit Pompeii and the Villa Poppea.
  • Mon 14 Oct: took the metro from Naples to visit Pozzuoli and then a bus to visit Cumae.
  • Tue 15 Oct: took the train from Naples to take a bus from Pompeii to the Vesuvius and then another train to visit Herculaneum.
  • Wed 16 Oct: took the train from Naples to Caserta, met up with a CouchSurfer to visit Capua and visited the palace of Caserta alone.
  • Thu 17 Oct: took the Napoli Sotterranea tour, visited the Roman market beneath the San Lorenzo Maggiore church, the Museo di Capodimonte and the Catacombs of San Gennaro.
  • Fri 18 Oct: visited the botanical gardens in Naples, then met another CouchSurfer to visit the Palazzo Reale, the Castel dell’Ovo, the Castel Sant’Elmo and the Certosa di San Martino.
  • Sat 19 Oct: took the train from Napels to Bari, met my fifth host at the train station.
  • Sun 20 Oct: departed from Bari’s airport to Maastrict at 10:05.

I stayed one more day in Naples than I had planned because I couldn’t find a host in Bari at that time and the hotels in Bari were expensive. As a consequence I was not able to visit the Castel del Monte, the Castellana Caves or Matera. So I’ve got good reasons to visit Southern Italy again in the future.

I find archaeology fascinating, which is why I decided to visit some of the less well-known archaeological sites. I was elated when Dutch archaeologists happened to be around to give me and my host’s family a short tour of the site of Timpone della Motta. However, if you aren’t that interested I’d advise you to stick to the highlights, which include the archaeology museums in Taranto, Reggio di Calabria, Paestum and Naples. You’d better skip places like Metapontum and Sybaris then because there’s not much to see there.

Photos for Wikipedia

Another important reason for me to visit some of the archaeological sites and other locations was to make photos there for improving their respective Wikipedia articles. I’ve already uploaded two photos to the article on the modern town of Maratea and will add some to the Otranto’s article as well, but ancient sites like Gnatia, Metapontum, Timpone della Motta and Cumae have yet to follow. I’m not showing photos in this post yet because I intend to migrate all my photos to Flickr. More on that later.

A formula instead of tax brackets for progressive tax?

Today I’ve taken a look at the blog of prof. dr. Sylvester Eijffinger, which caught my attention since I mentioned him in my post of 5 September. I have some comments on his most recent post which discusses a proposal for a flat tax in the Netherlands. Because comments on his blog are disabled I’ll have to respond through my own weblog.

Tax brackets can discourage earning more income

One of the arguments Eijffinger gives in favor of the flat tax is that the current system of tax brackets in the Netherlands can discourage participation in the labor market. He notes that some people work part time, especially if they have a partner, to avoid higher tax brackets. If they work more they enter a higher tax bracket, which would require them to pay more taxes.

Eijffinger’s comment is rather short because it was a contribution to a discussion in the Dutch newspaper Metro, so I guess he couldn’t afford to give an example. Without an example it’s difficult to understand the problem, so let me give one. The first tax bracket in the Netherlands goes up to € 19.645 and has a tax rate of 37%. The second goes from € 19.646 to € 33.363 with a tax rate of 42%.

Let’s say I work part time to stay in the first tax bracket and make € 18.000. Then I get the option to work more so that I can earn € 22.000. In the first bracket I pay 18.000 * 0.37 = € 6.660. With the higher salary, I pay 19.645 * 0.37 = € 7.268,65 plus 2355 * 0.42 = € 989,10. Then the total tax I pay is € 8.257,75 over € 22.000, or 37,54%. Hardly a steep raise in the effective tax rate because I crossed the limit of the first tax bracket, right?

A solution without resorting to a flat tax

Let’s assume that my example doesn’t fit the point Eijffinger was trying to make. There is reason to believe that the effect can be stronger in other situations, the difference between the third and the fourth tax bracket for example is 10% instead of 5%. Let’s assume that mr. Eijffinger is correct.

In that case, couldn’t we simply use a formula to determine the tax rate for a progressive tax? It’s even simpler than tax brackets. For example, take the linear equation y=15+0.2*x which I’ve plotted here. In this formula “y” is the tax rate in percent and “x” is the income. This fixes the problem of suddenly having to pay much more taxes because the limit of a tax bracket is crossed.

I suggest this because I don’t believe that a flat tax can provide social justice for us. With a flat tax, a millionaire would pay the same percentage of taxes as a cleaner. Instead I think the strongest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden. Aren’t there plenty of other options to reduce inefficiency and bureaucracy in a progressive tax system?

Pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS

A few weeks ago I pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS. This will be my first smartphone, I waited for so long because I think all other smartphone operating systems are inadequate. Why, you might ask? Because Firefox OS is the only smartphone operating system which respects my freedom and privacy.

Freedom versus vendor lock-in

If you buy an iPhone or iPad, you can only download apps from Apple’s App Store. Apple decides which apps get approved, but their policy is enforced inconsistently at best. I don’t care about their hypocritical policy however, but about principles. I despise Apple for it’s paternalistic behavior, I demand to have the freedom to decide which apps I want and where I get them.

Microsoft, the third player on the smartphone market after Apple and Google, doesn’t allow competing app stores either. Regular readers of this blog know that I hate Microsoft for it’s unethical business practices anyway and that I’d never buy anything from them.

The issues with Google’s Android

Google’s Android on the other hand does allow competing app stores. Android is also open source, so third parties other than Google can produce derivatives such as CyanogenMod. So far so good, but there are also two crucial issues for me.

Would I trust Google with my privacy? Certainly not, even though I don’t think Apple or Microsoft are any better. Yes, you can still use an Android phone without a Google account, but it’s not as convenient. My smartphone shouldn’t spy on me by default. And yes, I do use Google’s search engine and I’m not so naive to think that my privacy is still immaculate. But that’s not a reason to further the breakdown of my privacy with an Android smartphone.

What’s a more serious issue for me is that Microsoft is extorting producers of Android smartphones. It coerces them to pay royalties for its patents at the threat of lawsuits. This practice has been more profitable for Microsoft than its own Windows Phone OS, with HTC and Samsung paying $10 or more to Microsoft for every Android device they sell. Microsoft defends itself as follows:

Much of the current litigation in the so called “smartphone patent wars” could be avoided if companies were willing to recognize the value of others’ creations in a way that is fair. At Microsoft, experience has taught us that respect for intellectual property rights is a two-way street, and we have always been prepared to respect the rights of others just as we seek respect for our rights. This is why we have paid others more than $4 billion over the last decade to secure intellectual property rights for the products we provide our customers.

They seem reasonable, but in reality Microsoft’s intellectual property amounts to trivial patents. Microsoft is nothing more than a patent troll (see here for the long version of the story). Because I don’t want Microsoft to profit when I buy a smartphone, buying a smartphone with Android is out of the question for me. The situation might change for me when Google grows a spine and sues Microsoft to hell.

The joys of Firefox OS

Firefox OS doesn’t suffer from these disadvantages. I trust its developer, Mozilla, doesn’t spy on me. At least I don’t need an account of some kind to make optimal use of my phone. As far as I know Geeksphone hasn’t signed a patent license agreement with Microsoft and doesn’t pay royalties. It’s not mandatory to use Mozilla’s app store. And Firefox OS has an important innovation: all the apps are web apps.

So there is no need for “native code” anymore which is only suited to a specific smartphone OS, like Android or Apple’s iOS. This makes life much easier for developers, who can easily make their web apps available for Firefox OS or any other platform which is built on web technology. Finally, this attempt to breaki the Android/iOS duopoly is good thing. Especially Google is getting too powerful for my taste.

The Peak+ will ship in late September, hopefully it will arrive before I depart on holiday. More about that later.

Cuts on public servants in the Netherlands?

On Wednesday 28 August the free Dutch newspaper Metro ran an article on the austerity measures of the Dutch government. Two Dutch economists were asked to comment on the government’s policy and to give their own suggestions. One of them, prof. dr. Sylvester Eijffinger, considers the high number of public servants in the Netherlands as a barrier to economic growth. Accordingly he suggested that we cut the number of public servants.

But are there really so much public servants in our country? During my studies for a master’s degree in Public Administration at Leiden University I attended the lectures of prof. dr. Frits van der Meer. He emphasized in his lectures that the alleged large numbers of public servants in the Netherlands are a myth. Interestingly, he and a colleague have published research to prove their claim. See this Dutch publication and take a look at the table on page 21.

The first column includes public servants in health care and education, the second column does not. This data shows that the number of public servants relative to the total population in the Netherlands is far below the average of several other developed nations. Surprising to see that Germany and the Netherlands have a smaller body of public servants than the USA, is it not? Remember this when you intend to make those jokes about public servants at parties.

Mr. Eijffinger doesn’t mention any sources, which is logical considering the short length of the newspaper article. I sent him an e-mail last week to inform him of prof. dr. Van der Meer’s research and asked him if he might have different evidence which supports his claim. Unfortunately I haven’t heard from him yet.

A dubious recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Obama has given the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Clinton. To cite the website of the White House:

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

While Bill Clinton’s efforts for humanitarian aid and other charity work are certainly laudable, I think his actions during his presidency disqualify him for a medal. He is responsible for the Lewinsky scandal: he cheated on his wife and lied under oath. Is this the kind of person who should serve as an example to other Americans and be rewarded with such a prestigious medal?

Oprah Winfrey also received the medal for her philanthropic activities. But what kind of philanthropist wants to buy a handbag for $38.000? So much for humility. A true philanthropist would show more solidarity and make some concessions to their own welfare in order to better the lives of other people. If I would be helping destitute people on one day but reserve my money to buy such expensive luxury goods on the other day, I’d be ashamed of myself.

Public servants versus political appointees

On 1 May Coen Teulings ended his seven year term as the director of the Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (Centraal Planbureau in Dutch, abbreviated as CPB). During his tenure he faced criticism for his affiliations with the Dutch Labor Party, which was alleged to have influenced his role as a policy adviser for the government. At his departure he was evaluated positively in the media, which noted that the Labor Party had frequently been critical of the policy advice given by the CPB.

This reminded me of a paper I had written for a course I followed during my master’s programme at Leiden University, Politics of Bureacracy. For my argument I summarily investigated political appointees in the USA. American federal executive officials are nominated by the president and confirmed by the senate.

Political appointees in the USA

When Leon Panetta (Democrat) was appointed as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama (Democrat), the appointment raised questions if Obama was trying to politicize the CIA; Panetta had no experience in intelligence work. Allegations of partisanship are not new, as even stronger criticism was aimed at the appointment of Porter Goss (Republican), the Director of Central Intelligence under George Bush (Republican).

Lewis (2009) argues (use this link for a PDF behind a paywall but with decent layout) that these political appointments are made for two reasons. They allow the president to control the bureaucracy, with appointees being more responsive to the wishes of the political leaders than public servants. They are also made for patronage, i.e. to reward the members of the president’s party with lucrative positions. He goes on to explain that too many appointees ultimately hurt the performance and control of federal agencies.

Appointees lack the experience of career public servants and stay for short tenures, impeding long term planning. Lower performance in turn makes the agencies harder to control for the president, for example because they are more likely to make mistakes. On the other hand, as outsiders appointees can also give new energy to agencies. It’s a matter of balancing the ratio of appointees to public servants to get optimal agency performance. The USA evidently has far too many appointees, more than 3.500, as opposed to a number between 100 and 200 for other developed countries.

The situation in the netherlands

While I don’t have exact numbers, I assume the Netherlands is in the latter category too. Our General Intelligence and Security Service (Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst in Dutch) is led by a career public servant. The CPB would even have a serious credibility problem if it would be led by a political appointee, it is imperative that it is an apolitical organization.

I think the difference between the USA and the Netherlands might partially be explained by our different political culture. We have coalition governments instead of the Democrat-Republican duopoly. Even the Balkenende-III cabinet in which the Labor Party didn’t participate had no problem with appointing a vocal economist with Labor Party sympathies like Coen Teulings as head of the CPB.

What I see as a notable exception to the non-political nature of appointments in the Netherlands is the appointment of Piet Hein Donner (Christian Democrats) as vice-president of the Council of State (Raad van State). The cabinet insisted that the procedure was open, but many opposition figures thought it was a farce and Donner’s appointment was predetermined.

The man surely is an expert in law and seems capable for the job, but the appointment had a semblance of politicization to me as well. Just like the CPB advises on economic policy, the Council of State has an important advisory role on law towards the government. All the more reason to make it just as apolitical as the CPB.

Obama and partisanship

What caught my attention regarding the politics of the USA is the appointment of the Republican Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and now Chuck Hagel by Obama. This is different from this discussion of the relationship between the public service and politics because a Secretary of State is always a politician, but related to the partisanship issue. Why not reward a Democrat with position? Obama assures us he chose Hagel because all he cares about is having the right person for the job. Some journalists think it really is a clever plan to screw the Republican Party.