The Strange Animal Called Spain

It seems that the longer I live in Spain, the more oddities I discover and the stranger the country appears. If you’re only here for a few months, it is quite likely that all you take away from Spain is a memory of the ease of life, the sun, the tapas, and beaches. However, if you live here longer you discover and increasing number of oddities among the people and the society that are often difficult to comprehend.

Example 1: no Green movement

For instance, why is it that in a national parliament of 16 parties (as of the Nov 2019 election), the Green party is not represented at all, in a post-Greta world mind you? It just seems odd how Spain seems to operate on a completely different mindset than the rest of (western) Europe, perhaps slightly more similar to an Eastern European country like Poland, for instance, where the Greens also typically feature as an also-ran.

Spain is the only country in Western Europe that has no Green movement to speak of.

Instead, the parliament has a whole range of highly patriotic and mostly obstinate provincialist parties who make the formation of a stable government almost impossible.

I suppose to vote for the Green party requires some level of political maturity, economic stability, and also a society that exhibits a certain degree of altruism and a sense of community; values that are particularly strong among the Northern Europeans but traditionally much less developed in Mediterranean countries where a fending-for-oneself kind of attitude tends to prevail. Also, the State is typically seen as highly corrupt and mismanaged and people therefore see it as legitimate or even called for to cheat at any opportunity (on their tax return, for instance) and to generally exhibit a low level of respect toward public and communal spaces/property (which explains the dismal state they are usually in).

Example 2: no qualms about fascism

Or how about the fact that the moment VOX (a right wing neo-fascist party) got voted into parliament, the PP (Spanish conservative party) did not hesitate one second and announced it would form a coalition with them if necessary. Think about it! This would be as if the German conservatives would be jumping at the first opportunity to form a coalition with some neo-Nazi party. And while Hitler has been dead for nearly 75 years, in Spain Franco only died about 40 years ago. How scary is that?!?

While Germany now also has an ultra-right party in parliament again (AfD), the other parties would not dream of forming a coalition with them, although this appears to become increasingly difficult, especially in the former East-Germany.

In France, the ultra-right consistently gets a scary third of the presidential vote while in the UK the boundaries between the Conservatives and ultra-right UKIP become increasingly blurred; but thanks to different electoral systems in these countries (run-offs and first-past-the-post), the ultra-right is less likely to have any direct say in government affairs any time soon (although they do of course influence the political discourse and policies indirectly). Not so in Spain where we only narrowly escaped a PP-CS-VOX coalition.

Example 3: conservative big cities

Another aspect of Spanish politics that strikes me as odd is how the big cities vote conservative. It has been established that there is a correlation between one’s level of education and political leanings (see image below): the more educated you are the more likely you are to vote for parties that advocate left or liberal policies.

The more educated you are the more likely you are to vote for a liberal party.

Considering that cities offer more professional opportunities for educated people, we can safely assume that cities have a higher proportion of well educated people compared to the countryside, which in turn tends to produce a left or liberal mayor in these cities, even if the remaining country or the city’s immediate surroundings are deeply conservative. For instance, despite the ultra-right national government in Hungary, Budapest has a Green mayor. Or take Bavaria, a state in Germany that has been governed uninterruptedly for nearly 75 years by a hard-right conservative party (CSU), while Munich (its capital) is usually governed by a socialist mayor. Also Berlin, London, and Paris have socialist mayors while the conservatives govern at the national level. In fact, from among the 10 biggest Western European cities, 8 have socialist/left mayors.

Meanwhile, Madrid is governed by a conservative (PP)/neo-liberal (CS) coalition with the support of neo-fascist VOX, and if you look at the results from the past Nov 2019 election, many constituencies in the big Spanish cities were won by the conservative PP, except in Barcelona which has parties that foster their own Catalan flavoured politics of discrimination and exclusion. But overall, the big cities in Spain are fairly conservative while large parts of the mostly rural South (Andalusia), for instance, voted for the Socialist party (see the map in the link above). So again, Spain is completely at odds with the rest of Western Europe here and I am not sure why.

Overall, Spain is still an OK country to live in but the points mentioned above are deeply worrying and make me increasingly uneasy. While democracies all over Europe are (once again) under threat from right wing populists, the Spanish one seems particularly fragile, possibly due to the many corruption scandals and the general lack of a national identity. Most people take refuge in their regional identity and often display almost comical amounts of local patriotism. While I am still waiting for someone to provide me with a single example where nationalism has led to something positive, one can only hope that the disasters from the 20th century will not have been forgotten already and that democracies will know how defend themselves this time round.

Why Spain despises its intellectuals

A common joke in France is that “Europe ends at the Pyrenees” (the mountain chain separating France and Spain). Unlike in Germany or France, where intellectuals can reach near-celebrity status, intellectuals in Spain are often considered suspect (at best) or may be outright despised. As Michel Houellebecq wrote in his novel The Possibility of an Island which is set in Madrid:

“Spaniards don’t like cultural programmes at all, nor culture in general, it’s an area that is fundamentally hostile to them, one occasionally has the impression when talking about culture to them that they are sort of personally insulted.” – from Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island

This can also be seen in how Spanish people pronounce foreign and in particular English words. Even if they would happen to know how to pronounce the word correctly, they basically need to mispronounce it if they do not want to be ridiculed and considered a snob. Anglicisms are now fairly commonplace in many European languages but Spain is the only country where I have seen people actively strive to mispronounce them. In other words, in Spain you need to dumb down and hide your education in order to be accepted.

While other languages also have their fair share of derogatory terms for smart or educated people, nowhere are they used with as much passion and ease as in Spain (perhaps with the exception of the US). In Spain, terms like cultureta (loosely translated as “educated snob”) or listillo (a diminutive of “smart person” used with contempt) can be used at the mere display of education or talent (similar to egghead, brainiac, nerd, or poindexter in the US). In contrast, to be scalded for your education in the UK, Germany, or France, you really need to show off your education in some exaggerated and self-aggrandizing manner. It is not enough to simply be educated.

Why is this? I can offer some suggestions.

For one, Spain is a country where job recruitment is often based on personal connections rather than merit. As a result, many high profile jobs are filled by individuals that are less qualified than their subordinates. Obviously, they do not like to be reminded of their lack of ability/suitability for the job and consequently need to stifle any display of knowledge or education by scalding it.

A second factor is that Spain had the longest lasting military dictatorship of any European nation in the 20th century: 39 years. As in any military/populist regime, also Franco had declared intellectuals to be the enemy of the people and persecuted, killed, or exiled them. So with two generations of Spaniards having been told that intellectuals are the enemy, we cannot expect this attitude to change over night. In addition, Spain never really broke with Franco (to this date it is forbidden to investigate this period) and people have never really been told (officially) that Franco’s policies were wrong. This is perhaps the biggest mistake and an outright scandal for a supposedly modern democracy, which may explain why the current Catalan nationalists have no qualms about mounting their own little Catalan version of cultural discrimination and outright racism against Spanish speakers.

A third factor is that Spain has been a relatively poor country for a very long time. It remained largely agrarian under Franco and only when Spain joined the EU in the mid 1980s did things start to pick up economically for a broader middle-class. It is difficult for people, who are forced to take on all sorts of menial jobs just to stay afloat, to not distrust people who can make a living by simply using their minds. This is particularly the case in rural areas. In the 1980s, Spain chose the path of cheap mass tourism as its business model. Maybe this was without alternative since you cannot create a high-tech manufacturing industry out of nothing when Franco had been wiping out the educated class for nearly 40 years. But as a result, Spain became what is now often called “the country of waiters and construction workers”. Young people, not seeing the value of education, drop out of school to make some quick money in restaurant and construction jobs (and generally in jobs that require no or only little education). Once the economy cools down, these jobs are the first to go and people eventually end up as so-called ninis (ni estudia ni trabaja which translates as “neither studying nor working”), a term similar to NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) that was coined in the late 1990s in the UK. And even to this day (see the policies of the Aznar and Rajoy presidencies), the R&E and cultural budgets are typically the first to be cut in Spain when the financial situation becomes tight. And thus, the exiling of intellectuals and artists continues even today as they are forced to leave the country if they want to keep working in their respective professions.

A fourth factor, not particular to Spain though, is the internet. Put bluntly, the internet allows stupid people to find other stupid people who then, as a fairly coherent group, loose any awareness of their own intellectual limitations. Before the internet, people were exposed to all sorts of opinions and levels of education in their daily interactions. This made the less educated people more aware of their own limitations and thus more coy and cautious about voicing their opinions. Now, due to the internet’s echo chambers, this coyness has all but disappeared and people with extreme or uneducated opinions feel increasingly justified and encouraged to (loudly) voice these opinions (the climate change debate in the US is a prime example). People who did not read any newspapers in the pre-digital age can now be reached (and manipulated) via Twitter, Facebook or some pseudo-journalistic blog irrespective of the validity or truthfulness of its content. As such, the internet is much better for targeting and catering to people’s individual predilections, something that was much more difficult to achieve with a medium like TV. Populist parties and their supporters use it to their great advantage as we can see in many election results today.

Clearly, none of the above points will change any time soon. Nevertheless, the horrors of the 20th century should provide sufficient motivation to the political classes in Spain and elsewhere not to neglect or underestimate the value of an educated and enlightened society.

Climate change – the sad reality

This will be a short post to share a fact about the politics of climate change which, in my view, renders current efforts in Europe to achieve the 1.5° warming goal moot. With the latest climate summit underway in Katowice, Poland, there is currently a lot of information in the traditional media outlets with various statistics and percentages, but none of them really talk about the numbers that matter. The global climate does not care about indicators like “reductions of CO2 emissions per GDP units in purchasing power parity” which is commonly used to measure “progress” in developing countries. The global climate only cares about absolute emission numbers. So let’s look at those with one simple graph.

Data for panels (a) and (b) was taken from the current IEA Highlights report on CO2 emissions from fuel combustion (2018). Data for panel (c) used the Indian/Chinese government targets of a 33/60% reduction in CO2 emissions per GDP unit (PPP) with regard to 2005 values (which corresponds to a 20/24% reduction with regard to 2016 values) and combined it with an average annual GDP (PPP) growth rate for India/China of 5.4/6.0% p.a. between 2016 and 2030, based on an extrapolation of existing World Bank GDP growth data.

What this figure, and in particular panel (c), tells you is that if all 36 OECD countries would reduce their current (2016) fuel-based CO2 emissions by 50% until 2030 (which is of course unrealistic with people like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro (president-elect of Brazil) in power), then this reduction would be outweighed by the projected increase in Chinese emissions alone (based on an extrapolated economic growth of 6% p.a. between 2016 and 2030 and current government targets on emission reduction per GDP unit of 24% over 2016 levels). Using the same method and an estimated annual growth of 5.4% (GDP, PPP) in combination with a 20% reduction over 2016 emissions per GDP unit (PPP), also India would blow an additional 1500 Mt of CO2 into the atmosphere by 2030 (equivalent to present day Japan and Australia combined). Plus, climate-change deniers like Trump or Bolsonaro do not make it easier or any more likely that their countries will actually strive toward a reduction in CO2 emissions. In addition, countries like Australia, Japan, or Korea continue to increase the burning of coal for electricity generation (increases of 26%, 48%, and 234%, respectively, since 1990 – for comparison: European OECD countries reduced coal burning by 40% on average since 1990) .

What is my point you may ask? Well, I find it increasingly difficult to tell friends or family to reduce car use or air travel if this will have little to no effect on global emissions, especially considering that the main polluters operate with impunity and government targets that will lead to an 80% increase in CO2 emissions by 2030 and would thus outweigh even the most optimistic CO2 savings in the so-called developed world.

How should we proceed? Well, given the current situation of world politics, I do not envy future generations as they will be faced with unprecedented levels of weather extremes and disasters (storms, floods, etc.), shifts in agriculture (failing harvests and traditional crops that no longer grow under changed climatic conditions), as well as increased economic and climate-based migrations (more displaced people and more socio-economic conflicts). We all know what should be done (a significant reduction in CO2 emissions), but as this appears increasingly unlikely in the foreseeable future, we need to:

  1. take appropriate measures to prepare for climate change and mitigate the effects as much as possible, and
  2. introduce mechanisms that hold those financially responsible who are the greatest contributors to global CO2 emissions, who are climate change deniers, or who are planning with further emission increases.

Unfortunately, the powers that be only attribute value to things if that value can be measured in monetary units. Therefore, we must oblige the main polluters  to pay for the damage they cause globally (e.g., the cost of relocating entire populations when their regions become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels or temperatures, the cost of forest fires, flash floods, etc.). This can happen either through existing mechanisms (e.g., an increase of the price for CO2 emission certificates) or through tariffs that penalise products that use a high a mount of CO2 to manufacture and/or transport to the consumer (e.g., do people in the US really need to drink bottled water from the French Alps?). Also, people like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro who actively sabotage efforts to contain climate change and deny scientific fact should be indicted and jailed as their actions could lead to the biggest loss of human (and animal) life in history.

Of course this would require a consensus of the main economic players which is non-existent at the moment. But even if a block like the EU could throw its economic and political weight behind an idea like this, it could have a significant impact.

It would be immensely helpful if people did not elect right-wing demagogues into office. I understand that this is becoming increasingly difficult given that in many countries people are left to choose between what amounts to pestilence and cholera, but while pestilence is nearly always fatal, cholera is just a temporary and treatable annoyance, so let’s choose the lesser evil.

The Banana Republic of Absurdistan (formerly known as Catalonia)

Even for someone like myself, who has lived for over 8 years in Barcelona, and is therefore used to all sorts of shenanigans by the local governments, these last few months have been quite remarkable. Many people in Catalonia have been sleeping rather uneasily, waking up anxious every morning, dreading to open any news website for fear of having to read about the latest political nonsense committed by their so-called leaders. And well, on Friday this week, the time had finally come, and we all woke up to find ourselves as citizens of the newly declared banana republic of Absurdistan. A new republic, outside the EU, recognized by no country, without any democratic legitimacy or valid currency, i.e., without any plan, justification, or means whatsoever to support its functioning as a separate country; but hey, it sure felt good to have declared it anyway.

Events in Catalonia had been escalating for years, and have now culminated in a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. How did it come to this? In short: years of inept leaders, both in Barcelona and Madrid. The long version is a bit more complex. For starters, while most elected leaders in the civilized world would try to find conciliatory words after coming to power, along the lines of: “I will be a president, not only of my supporters, but a president of all Catalans” (replace with whatever country/region), the Catalan President Puigdemont made it clear from the very beginning, that he did not care very much for the over 52% of Catalans1, who did not vote for his mono-thematic pro-independence coalition.

Result from the 2015 Catalan regional elections, split into pro- and con-indepenendence parties.

This is actually the closest they have ever come to gaining a majority, because in subsequent months, the independence movement steadily lost some steam, and by July 2017, only 41% of Catalans supported independence2,3.

Unfortunately, this lack of democratic legitimacy has never been a major concern to the independence camp, and it certainly did not stop successive populist Catalan governments from misappropriating public funds to continue a highly one-sided, divisive, and inflammatory independence campaign, forcing a singular Catalanist viewpoint and single Catalan language onto a heterogeneous, multi-cultural, and thus multi-lingual population. Thanks to far reaching autonomies for the Spanish regions, many Catalan school children nowadays graduate from high school, having been brainwashed into hating their own country, purposefully rendered only borderline capable of expressing themselves fluently in Spanish.

This deep rift between Barcelona and Madrid has been created by Continue reading “The Banana Republic of Absurdistan (formerly known as Catalonia)”

Defending liberal society and the responsibility of journalism and science in times of “alternative facts”

This last week has been quite fun and enlightening as it provided a glimpse of what we can expect from the new US government over the next four years. For starters, there was the first press conference by White House press secretary Sean Spicer. This press conference was interesting for two reasons: (1) Spicer made five statements, four of which were proven to be lies, and (2) one cannot help but wonder why the Trump administration, through its press secretary, decided to start their 4-year term with such easily refuted lies over a topic so utterly banal and petty (attendance figures at the inauguration ceremony). Clearly, Trump has not yet made the transition from rating-obsessed reality TV star to head of state. As usual, the internet reacted promptly and in kind. Within minutes, twitter handles like #SpicerFacts and #SeanSpicerFacts had been created and were starting to trend.


There is quite possibly no better way to loose your credibility as a government after just 1 day on the job. If these guys are prepared to lie so blatantly about issues that are utterly irrelevant to anyone and anything other than Donald Trump’s ego, how are we ever going to believe them once they talk about issues that really matter and where the truthfulness of their statements is more difficult to verify!
Continue reading “Defending liberal society and the responsibility of journalism and science in times of “alternative facts””

The widening wealth gap and why demagogues like Donald Trump are on the rise (again)

This week Donald Trump has been sworn in as the 45th US president and it was a truly historical event. Never before has a US president been so unpopular even before taking office. Usually, the week preceding inauguration and the first days in office are the honeymoon period for any new president during which they enjoy high popularity ratings. Not so for Donald Trump. Due to his divisive and openly hostile campaign, he could feel the stiff breeze of opposition right from the very minute he took office. Not only was the popular turnout at the inaugural ceremony very low, but millions of people took to the streets to protest against the new president even before he had enacted a single policy. And like any good demagogue worth his salt, what did Trump do when this rather inconvenient truth stared him in the face, he of course denied it calling all media outlets “dishonest”.

Trump inauguration
Top: comparing public turnout at the Trump inauguration (left) with Obama (right). Bottom: protesters against Trump on inauguration day.

While many people are still rubbing their eyes in disbelief about how a simpleton egomaniac without any political agenda other than “make America great again” could rise to power, his success, if seen in context, is not really such a surprise after all.
Continue reading “The widening wealth gap and why demagogues like Donald Trump are on the rise (again)”

Careless reporting on climate change and the growing threat to science

Today I came across this article on the BBC where the headline reads Climate change: Fresh doubt over global warming ‘pause’.
First off, you will notice that the headline mentions words like “doubt” and “climate change” very close together. In fact, you have to read this headline very carefully in order to understand its correct meaning and have a certain amount of background knowledge to understand the word “pause”. Most people will only quickly browse the headlines, and with a majority this headline will have registered along the lines of “fresh doubts over global warming”. You actually only have to change a single letter, the “p” from pause to a “c”, and you are there. Well done BBC! It is actually quite clever if your intention is to have most headline-shoppers walk away with the wrong impression, strengthening the doubt agenda, while still being able to maintain the appearance of unbiased journalism as the facts are reported correctly in the article. This is shoddy editing at best, or shameful journalism at worst, but either way not helpful in an already difficult debate.

Why not use a less ambiguous headline like: “Scientists confirm: global warming at constant rate since 1950” or something along those lines. This is clear and leaves no reason for doubt (pun intended)! Because if you do take the time to read the article, Continue reading “Careless reporting on climate change and the growing threat to science”

Generals and Billionaires

Many people who thought that US president elect Donald Trump was only bluffing and things couldn’t possibly get as bad as he appeared to be during the campaign had a sore post-election awakening because things are actually far worse than expected. Looking at his cabinet nominations, I can’t help but wonder how the white working class who helped Trump win this election feel about their new “anti-establishment” “swamp-draining” representatives. It is a cabinet of horror, let’s see:

Trump’s cabinet of horror

  • Wilbur Ross (Trade and Commerce): This guy made a fortune by buying ailing companies, running them all the way into the ground and selling off the pieces. He is also known as the “king of bankruptcy” and Continue reading “Generals and Billionaires”

Climate change and the culpability of people like Donald Trump

Being a scientist myself, it has been bugging me for quite some time how people who clearly have no clue of the scientific method, analytical thinking in general, or climate science in particular, are trying to weigh in on the debate about global warming. I do not mean to sound elitist, but this is not like choosing which curtains fit better with the bedroom carpet, a subject on which certainly everyone is entitled to an opinion. Science is different because science is not about uttering opinions and gut feelings but about finding facts and proving them. For most scientists it takes somewhere between 10-15 years of training (3 years for the BSc, another 1-2y for the MSc, 3-5y for the PhD, and how ever long it takes as a post-doc) before you finally get a permanent position and are allowed to lead major research projects. So if some guy with a 3-year undergraduate degree in economics – aka Donald Trump – feels like he needs to weigh in with statements like:

“[climate change is] an expensive hoax”, “a concept…created by and for the Chinese”, and pure “bullshit” – Donald Trump

we should

  1. identify him as the tosser that he obviously is for saying things like this about an important subject he clearly knows absolutely nothing about, and, more importantly
  2. not elect him president of a country … duh!

Continue reading “Climate change and the culpability of people like Donald Trump”

On demagogues, nationalism, populism, religion, and other weaknesses of the human condition

In a world of post-truth politics, alt-right, and death-by-selfie (seriously?!), some people may feel worried and increasingly alienated by a culture or country they no longer recognise as their own. Although less than two generations have passed since the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, it appears as though what happened in the 20th century, the bloodiest in human history, is all but some distant parallel universe where people existed in black-and-white. What many did not believe even remotely possible some 10-15 years ago, seems to be unfolding in front of our very eyes: a reversal of cultural and socio-political achievements (workers’ rights, tolerance toward people of other religions, races, or sexual orientations, etc.), a renunciation of reason and progressive politics. Instead, religion is on the rise again and we can witness the return of the age of the demagogue, with U.S. president-elect Donald Trump as their new poster boy.

A (non-exhaustive) list of present-day demagogues.

Continue reading “On demagogues, nationalism, populism, religion, and other weaknesses of the human condition”