Sunday, 27 September 2015

Dance class

September. Nagging heatwaves have gone by for good. Nights are drawing in. Time to break out of the lethargy in which I plunged just after the exam and in which I lingered over nearly the entire summer. Time to focus on less mundane stuff than floating between home and work with some occasional only entertainment.

Nearly three years of swotting up for three levels of the examinations have worn me down and put off learning for a while. My idea to refresh my command of German, lost on account of not using it (I was reminded of it specifically painfully last year while holidaying in Germany), has been given up. Firstly, I did not feel like taking up another course, doing homeworks, etc. Secondly, signing up for a language course would require attending classes twice a week either early in the morning or in the evening, which for work-related reasons (the New Factory requires more and more flexibility in terms of business trips and staying overtime) could not be viable, or on Saturday mornings, which in turn does not come into play for family-related reasons.

A new pastime activity was meant to involve some sort of physical exercise, so eventually I have plumped for dance classes. So far I have had two lessons and absolutely do not regret my decision!

Definitely it is never too late to learn something new and useful. While attending parties and weddings I was never chair-ridden, but I danced as good as I could (just as many people do). But why dance as you can, while it is better to “can dance” (pun intended, yet sounds silly, unlike the Polish lepiej umieć tańczyć, niż tańczyć jak się umie). My selection was the party dance course (taniec użytkowy) – not complicated, yet most coming in handy on social occasions.

Before signing up I had some doubts whether I was up to it. My sense of rhythm is below-average, yet my co-ordination of movements of limbs must not be bad if I drive a car at absolute ease, so I hoped I would not bugger up all along.

After two classes the impressions I can share are the following:
- as long as the pace of learning is moderate and an instructor does not try to teach you too much, grasping the dance comes up naturally,
- switching the partners continuously adds much value to the learning, since you do not learn how your partner moves, but develop universal habits and learn how to send and receive impulses to and from your partner,
- dancing not only enhances your daily routine but also helps you forget about the quandaries of the daily grind,
- it is essentially the chance to meet new people and simply have fun!, but
- unlike some of you may think, odds of finding there a life companion are statistically and practically low (in my group those people who do not come with a partner, have been sent by their partners to brush up on their dancing skills).

There was a time people urged to take a dance class to find a girlfriend. When they gave up on urging, I settled for it on my own! The sound approach, I believe, is to go there for any other reason than to find a girlfriend. Otherwise, I would have ended up frustrated!

And once the current course draws to a close, I will sign up for another one, just to have fun!

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Hospitality put to the test

Abortion, in-vitro, gay marriages, separation of the state and the Church… The list of discords between Poles has grown long for a while and this month attitude towards migrants joint the catalogue of divide lines. Actually the problem has not come out of the blue, but the influx of migrants and / or refugees to Hungary has triggered disputes how United Europe should face the challenge and how Poland should behave in order to protect its interests with encroaching European solidarity.

I used the terms ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ as they both show up in the discussions, yet should not be mistaken for each other, nor used interchangeably. In simple words, the former term generally refers to people who strive to settle down in another country to seek a better life, while the latter term describes people who had to flee their homeland because they had been persecuted there or because their country is war-stricken.

The scale of discord was best observable on… facebook. As I learnt, among my (so-called) friends I have both avid supporters of openness towards migrants, calling for greeting them with open arms and playing host to as many of them as possible, as well as extreme-right-wing freaks, posting one post after another decrying the migrants, displaying them as Muslim rabble (or would-be terrorists) assaulting Europe and attempting to set up their own rules here. The gap between the embracement and rejection for migrants was so wide that while I looked at posts from the two sides of the dispute, I wondered where the truth lies.

If I had followed only my leftist ‘friends’ and turned off news feed from my right-wing ‘friends’, I would have shaped an opinion of migrants as of poor people who had to choice but to leave their property and lives they had led behind and escape their homelands to search for a safer home. The newcomers would enhance cultural diversity of Poland and after all out of purely humanitarian reasons, we should take them in.

Had I tweaked with the visibility settings and left in only news feed from my right-wing ‘friends’, I would have viewed migrants as uncivilised horde, made up mostly of men aged 20-35, invading Europe in uncontrolled way, living in camps resembling rubbish dumps, rioting with the police, slinging stones into trains, robbing food from trucks, wheedling out social benefits, etc.

So where does the truth lie? In between? With time both groups of ‘friends’ cooled off, while other, more balanced posts began to emerge. As it turned out, the picture cannot be painted with one of two colours, it is neither black, nor white. There is a variety of shades of grey and the problem of inflow of thousands of migrants has many facets and it is not as simple as advocate or straightforward embracing or rejecting migrants claim.

Among migrants there are refugees from war-afflicted regions, but many more migrants take the opportunity to search for easier life in Europe, whose leaders naively want to play host to everyone. As statistics of humanitarian organisations and TV footages reveal, most migrants are young men, who on one hand are potential conscripts, on the other hand who have been probably sent by their families for a mission to settle down and then help other family members move in.

I argue motives of majority of migrants are purely economic. They do not want to just live in a peaceful country. Had they wanted, they would have stopped in Hungary, Croatia, or Poland, but they treat CEE countries only as a transit areas on their way to Germany, Austria or Sweden, where they would live off generous social security benefits. Quotas on migrants allocation EU leaders intend to set are an absolutely flawed way to tackling the crisis, since they totally disregard reasons which bring migrants to Europe. Even if Mrs Merkel instructs Poland, by threatening to cut off the stream of subsidies, to take in 10,000 or more migrants, unless tighter border controls are instated, those migrants will eventually land in Germany, because they do not want to live in a poor country which can offer them fairly low allowances. The way European politicians handle the matter prompts comparisons to centrally planned economy or to allocating animals between zoo gardens, while all decisions are claimed to be made in the name of most humanitarian, lofty values.

While reading the above you might have the impression I might be intolerant to migrants. The impression might be misleading. I am not afraid of migrants, I appreciate cultural diversity, I respect different customs and religions, skin colour, etc. In my neighbourhood I run across several people from Belarus or Ukraine who came here in search for better life, often work in grey economy to earn money, rent the cheapest accommodation, eke out a living and the rest of the money transfer to their families abroad. In the corporate world I have worked with people from former USSR and even from Middle-East regions and they have all been competent and reliable workers. Sometimes I eat out in restaurants run by guys from Turkey or one of surrounding countries and although I am most fond of Polish cuisine, I hold dear their contribution to variety of eateries in Warsaw. Those people have one thing in common – they work, while by all accounts most migrants flooding Europe have no intention to take up any job, but aim to settle down in countries with most generous social security systems. This is who I am intolerant to – loafers, regardless of their descent.

Once I discarded political correctness, time to face another truth – attempts to bring in Western-style democracies to Arabic countries have been doomed to fail. People living there are from a different cultural circle and simply have not grown up to democracy. With time I more and more often think it would have been wiser not to bring down dictators who, surprisingly, better kept law and order, than setting up democratic systems which are rather a travesty of democracy and in terms of death toll prove inferior to dictatorship.

I wonder how the whole story unfolds. I wonder whether tightening border controls would put to an end Europe without borders established by Schengen agreement.

I wonder whether putting in walls on some of the borders will divert the stream of migrants to Poland and if it happens, how the Poland’s administration will cope with thousands of migrants heading for Western Europe, especially if Germany closes its borders.

I wonder whether Poles would see train stations occupied by migrants, or if A2 and A4 motorways will have one westward lane occupied by marching migrants.

I wonder whether the commotion will reduce the number of safe tourist destinations available for Poles.

I wonder whether travelling by car across Europe will be a safe as and easy as it used to be…

And I hope by spring next year it all straightens out…

For those seeking a fairly unbiased coverage, I wholeheartedly recommend The Economist’s column dedicated to migration crisis.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Pre-election bidding

Two months I uncompromisingly dissected the economic agenda of PiS (or rather a string of joyous give-away proposals) laid out to lure benighted voters. Campaigners of PO, slowly bracing for retracting into new role of being the opposition, had done little to challenge the puffed up expenditure assurances made by their competitors and their efforts had boiled down to a simple message that if the promises were kept, Poland would follow the traces of Greece. Until now…

On Friday rumours that PO would unveil its revolutionary economic agenda leaked out. Somebody had not managed to keep their mouth shut until Saturday and highlights of PO’s new agenda came to the light one day earlier. Scrapping social security and health service contribution and shifting towards funding the two systems from the state budget looked appealing, since such modifications would simply workings of the state administration, however raised doubts right away – whether the changes would fall into line with constitution and how they would be financed?

Yesterday I was all day out, hence had no chance to listen to speeches during PO’s convention, however what could be put together from the media coverage of the event and what can be found in the underlying official agenda document, do not square. And does not hold water.

I thought PO, despite its numerous drawbacks, slip-ups, and general fatigue, would at least not stoop so low to join senseless bidding in terms of economic promises. I should have expected to have been wrong, yet another letdown aches. The other, par for the course anyway, was that after reading the agenda released yesterday, I can only concur with Mr Kukiz, who incidentally refused to present any agenda of his grouping and claimed all agendas are a sh*t. Cross my heart, I find no more suitable word to describe the essence of PO’s agenda.

I am not an expert in education, health service, defence, security, foreign policy, but if there is an area of my expertise, it definitely is economy. Under microscope then goes the part of PO’s agenda dedicated to economic stuff.

First nuance which should grab attention of a careful reader is that the agenda is full of target solutions, not changes that are about to come into effect in 2016 or 2017, but when circumstances permit. On one hand the approach looks wise, since legislation passed in haste or reforms pursued when the government cannot afford to pursue them, would do more harm than good, while on the other, the “conditional promises” are the easiest to go back on.

The first pledge of PO is to crack down on “junk contracts”. Revisions to the labour law include obligation for employers to withhold social security contributions, minimum hourly wage of 12 PLN for junk contracts (only?) and introduction, within a few years, of an “uniform job contract”, a legal agreement having features of regular job contracts, to be applied whenever the bond between employer and employee appears long-lasting. Poland has a problem with abusing junk contracts. Employers save on labour costs (which are not exorbitant in comparison to Western Europe), while employees are deprived of basic security. For the government junk contract decrease proceeds from payroll-related contributions, causing shortages of money in social security and healthcare systems. Yet one needs to keep in mind junk contracts add flexibility to the labour market, beneficial for students, or people taking up a second job and these benefits need to be retained. A missing piece is the proposal to instate regular taxation to taxpayers actually employed by corporations, but theoretically employed as contractors. These are senior managers who are not entrepreneurs and do not risk their own money in business and thus should not be entitled to pay 19% corporate income tax, instead of 32% personal income marginal tax! I cannot quote the source at the moment, but I recall the data showing 2% of the richest PIT taxpayers accounted for 26% PIT proceeds. If senior managers / executives (whose annual pre-tax earnings are between PLN 300,000 and PLN 1,000,000) were taxed like ordinary employees, this would bring substantial inflows to the government and help decrease budget deficit!

The second proposal echoing in the media is the alleged introduction of 10% PIT rate and scrapping social security (ZUS) and health service (NFZ) contributions. I do not know what was declared by PO leaders in their yesterday’s speeches, but according to the agenda: (1) 10% will be the effective (not statutory) tax rate for the poorest families, (2) the solutions put forward are long-term targets.

There has been a lot of confusion about these proposal. For the first time in my life I heard of “uniform” tax, which unlike journalists have interpreted it, is not a flat tax, but presumably one tax which replaces regular income tax and other tax-like contributions. PO most probably suggests progressive taxation with pro-family allowances or deductions with tax rates not specified at this stage. What is however more disturbing is that in return for scrapping ZUS and NFZ contributions, income taxes would need to be increased.

The rest of the chapter on economic agenda is full of general, hackneyed proposals. I could comment on any of them with little hope anyone would take the trouble to read the whole post from cover to cover, but will confine to a few main conclusions:

(1) I could write such agenda as well. You could hire a bright 20-year-old student who will list and elaborate on everlasting modest proposals, such as: decreasing unemployment, reducing taxes, simplifying tax systems, improving tax collection, cutting down on red tape, boosting exports, supporting innovations, fostering investments, effectively using EU funds, building new roads, and go on and on…

(2) Most proposals are very general and lack specific solutions. For instance the sentence: “we will help mortgage borrowers who struggle to service their debt in a manner which will ensure equitable treatment of debtors repaying mortgage in Polish zloty and in foreign currencies and will not put at peril stability of the banking system” is not only too long, but also does not specify measures the government would use to achieve the goal, as well as the cost for the taxpayer. Lack of precision is the key drawback not only of political agendas, but is the broader problem of the whole politics in Poland – just bring to mind how questions in the bygone referendum or the one proposed by president Duda (especially the one asking about decreasing retirement age) were formulated…

(3) Some proposals include the total cost of the proposed solution, but the readers get only the final number, not how it was arrived at. I realise few people read agenda, even fewer would read attachments with calculations and assumptions, even fewer would be able to verify their reliability, but for the sake of transparency and credibility, would it hurt to back the final figures with calculations.

While I watch the drowning man (PO) desperately trying the catch the straw (regain its disgruntled electorate), I am being put off tactical voting (as many people I am weary of the current government, yet wary of PiS wacky government) but lean towards voting for… When the association was established in May 2015, I was sceptical towards the grouping and its founder. Mr Petru is more a celebrity and representative of “survival of the fittest” approach to economy, than an economist, leaders of often represent the cruellest face of corporate capitalism, not something I hold dear, yet something I live off. If there is grouping that would best represent my vested interests and future financial well-being, it appears to be, oddly enough Yet by no means should such party head the government. It could only tip the scales in decision-making as coalitional partner of a less economically liberal party. I may wish enters parliament, but it should have a tiny tally of seats there, simply because it does not represent ordinary people, whose, not mine, well-being should be primarily fostered!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Hotter than ever, drier than ever…

Gone is probably one of the hottest summers in the history of Poland. Gone are the tiresome heatwaves. Gone is the thermal discomfort we have endured for weeks.

I am fond of statistics, in particular of weather statistics, hence I have taken the troubled to quantify August 2015 which was the warmest August in the history of temperature measurements in Warsaw - average temperature reached +23.0C, beating August 1992 when it stood at +21.5C and was the second warmest month in the history of Warsaw since 1880, after memorable July 2006, when mean temperature was +23.5C.

The chart below displays quite well the temperature anomalies witnessed last month in Warsaw. Over virtually the entire month average temperature was above mean temperature for specific days, with considerable deviations at the end of the first decade of the month and in its very last days.


The month had a misleadingly cool commencement. On 1 August I was setting off to the mountains on 4 a.m. and outside it was quite chilly, somewhere behind Nadarzyn car thermometer showed +5C. I thought I could do with winter tyres as well…On the same day temperature shot up and two days later exceeded +30C.

The heat wave according to the phenomenon’s pure definition lasted 11 days, since each day from 3 August 2015 to 13 August 2015 maximum temperature recorded was above +30C, and was the longest heat wave observed in Warsaw ever (oddly enough the average number of days in a year when temperature is above +30 is mere five). Had the definition been adjusted down by one Celsius degrees, the heat wave would have lasted incessantly for 15 days, until 17 August.

The heat wave reached its climax on Saturday, 8 August 2015, when temperature rose to +36.6C, 0.4C short of heat record set exactly two years earlier. The day was followed by record-hot night, when temperature did not drop below +22C even before dawn. The average temperature over 24-hour interval stood at +29.2, far warmer than in Athens, Rome or in Madrid on an average day in July.

Days between 19 August 2015 and 26 August 2015 brought blissful relief from heat, with day-time highs in mid +20Cs and lows below +15C. Had it not been for that colder period, August 2015 would have gone down as the hottest month ever.

Last days of August 2015 and 1 September 2015 brought another influx of unusual heat, with temperatures in Warsaw reaching +34.7C and +34.5C on respectively 31 August 2015 and 1 September 2015, with the latter breaking the previous heat record for September set on 7 September 2008 (+30.7C).

On top of this deficiency of precipitation also made itself felt – rain fell twice in August 2015 – on 16 August and on 25 August with the two showers being a drop in the ocean that should lash down from heavens to bring back hydrological balance in Poland.

Abnormally high temperatures have given nearly everyone a rough ride. As experts point out, it is not the intensity, but length of the heat wave that determines its tiresomeness for people. Hence three days with temperatures peaking at +37C are more bearable than two weeks of heat reaching only +32C each day.

Despite weather conditions hazardous for health, number of reported diseases caused by heat was not appallingly high, especially if cases of drowning in rivers and lakes are counted out.

Whoever could, took shelter from the heat in air-conditioned interiors. With increasing number of offices, other public buildings and flats having air-con put in and turned on, electricity consumption soared, reaching levels last observed in record-cold first decade of February 2012 (when temperatures at night dropped well below –20C). In the meantime, power-generating blocks in power plants could not be cooled properly (due to shortage of water and its too high temperature) and this resulted in planned blackouts. Several industrial off-takers faced restrictions on consumption of electricity, something that was just a matter of time and what happened for the first time since the ultimate downfall of planned economy in 1990.

Drought also closed the gates to the forests for tourists, on account of extraordinary peril of fire. And last, but no least, many trees began to shed their yellow leaves far earlier than usual. Despite the heat, it felt like autumn. Yesterday, when I cycled via Las Kabacki, paths were covered with a blanket of leaves, something which ought to be observed in late September.

The problem with the heat in Poland is that an average Pole has no chance to shield it. In winters, when temperatures reach –25C you simply stay at home, keep warm (unless your housing conditions are dire) and only the thought of the bottom line on your heating bill wipes the smile off your face. In summer, an average Pole needs to withstand temperature of +30C inside their dwelling. While in shopping malls and modern offices and in cars air-conditioning is nearly always in place (what an incentive to stay overtime), residential housing still lacks it on larger scale, but given the direction of climate changes, air-conditioning will not be just a luxury, but a must, allowing one to survive the summer comfortably. These musts, while once they grow prevalent, will boost energy consumption again… Summer electricity bills might soon become the price to pay for lower heating bills in milder winters…

And what is about to ensue thereafter? Today temperature fails to creep above +17C, it is astonishingly chilly if we bear in mind just five days ago it was +34.5C. Weather patterns do not tend to recur, therefore record-hot August might to followed by: very warm autumn or a very cold autumn, or a typical autumn, or by any combination of the three. Long-term numerical forecasts foresee an anomalously mild winter, while some signs wildlife and plants send to us indicate a harsh winter ahead.

My own tolerance for heat somewhat decreased this year. In 2012, 2013 and 2014 I actually did not mind it when temperature was above +30C. I remember well walking around the office around midday on 8 August 2013. Temperature was +36C, I was wearing suit trousers and long-sleeve shirt with pulled up sleeves and felt no specific desire to rush to the air-conditioned office. This year even in the temperature of +30C I could sit idle, have nearly nothing on and soak with sweat. There were several night when I could not sleep a wink because of the heat. Drained of energy, I began to feel sympathy with Greeks whose laziness is to some extent grounded in the climate they fail to endure.

In the meantime my holiday plans have gone down the drain :(. The travel companions, while I made the reservation and reached out for money to make a confirmatory payment, dropped off, while our destination, Hungary, was invaded by scores of ruffians (pardon the expression) and actually we would be in a quandary, wondering how the situation would unfold. While it is politically correct to take pity on refugees and sympathise with humans who had to flee their war-inflicted homelands, I argue it is advisable to ask ourselves whether not only we can afford to play host to refugees (the answer is clear), but whether those people would assimilate into our civilisation. As a nation, Poles would respect their culture, religion (unless they are lunatic Muslims attempting to wage a war against the rotten West), etc., but in return they would need to adjust to customs of the country which offers them asylum. Frankly speaking, I do not embrace a prospect of thousands of unemployed mouths to feed inhabiting refugee camps or irate hooligans vandalising public infrastructure or robbing trucks with food (as they allegedly did in Hungary), exhibiting their anger with the fact Europe fails to greet hordes of immigrants with open arms.

This may be unpopular, but the influx of migrant to Europe, stemmed or not, is the price to pay for attempting to spread democracy in areas of world where dictatorship would simply prove better. Democracy is by far the best political system, provided a society has reaches the proper level of development. Guys from the United States who excel at breaking out wars thousands of miles from their borders should also realise it.