Quality … – consistency is everything

Surely unwanted, but done — at the desk, when I paid for the headphones in a market selling multi-media ….The product’s barcode was scanned, and the same moment I have been asked if I wanted to add insurance, the question being accompanied but a brief explanation of what is covered:

if you use the headphones and you are getting dizzy …., well, if the headphones then fall down and are getting damaged, it is covered by the insurance.

Of course, I had been thinking .. not about buying such insurance but about the meaning of quality and what it means in such context of a multi media supermarket (and other outlets, stores, shops and of course also producing entities. A somewhat official definition of quality managements goes like this:

A quality management system (QMS) is defined as a formalized system that documents processes, procedures, and responsibilities for achieving quality policies and objectives. A QMS helps coordinate and direct an organization’s activities to meet customer and regulatory requirements and improve its effectiveness and efficiency on a continuous basis.

I found it on the website of the American Society for Quality – as they have certification courses in place, I suppose it is somewhat authoritative. Back to the shop and the question then, I assume that the main point about quality is that a consistent system its in place – it reminds me of ISO-standards: in principle they work in a very strange way: you say what the standard is and if it is reached you are good. We have had a discussion on this, in connection with shelter for the homelessness. An organisation offering services for homeless people may set s standard for its performance that only 5 % of the people whom they helped finding accommodation return at some stage to the centre, being homeless again. Wow, that would be success, right? Now, looking at the other side it may become tricky. Let us assume they supported 10 people to find accommodation, two people actually stay in the accommodation, five pass away after sleeping rough on the street during frosty nights, two disappeared … unknown destiny and one actually returned to the organisation, looking for help again, What can be said? I feel glad for the two who have proper accommodation now. I am sad, seeing that such a norm-setting process can claim to be successful as the self-set target is reached and I am upset to see that such quality assessment still allows so much misery in there real world.

Sure, back in the shop …. it is in this perspective complaining on a level of high living standards. But still, I felt tempted to ask if the insurance covers as well the cost for medical treatment or if this would still up to health insurance – an institution that is increasingly under pressure due to privatisation of health services, mismanagement and wrong politics. Well, I resisted temptation.

Looking back in order to search for the future

Pausing for a moment is not a bad thing, even if we are forced to. There is a lot of talk about the new normal and indeed, it had been last week that we had been confronted with some news that had been surely worthwhile to think about. It had been world overshoot day, this on a global level. Qatar reached it already on the 11th of February, Indonesia will be the last, reaching it on the 18th of December (https://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/country-overshoot-days/)

Of course, there are massive economic problems as consequence of the pandemic. However, a detailed analysis shows that these are problems of production: the commodity system of capitalism requires to keep costs of production low, thus separating production proper and consumption. This appears a to be a problem of distribution and linked injustice. However distribution is not really the problem. The problem is that commodity production in the understanding of capitalist production depends on separating production of use value and production of exchange value. Only refocusing the entire process on use will allow to produce what is needed by human beings instead of investors.

Artificial Intelligence

It is in the meantime a widely used term, possibly also a widely misunderstood one?

Wikipedia suggests on the disambiguation site the following:

Artificial intelligence is at this stage a widely used term, and of course we even agree by small-signing the dotted line of the big thing:

Occasionally I access websites, using the phone. In a blink of an eye the search history is available on the other machines. Sure, I do not have anything to hide …, and as said: I signed. But what exactly did I sign when? Recently I had been looking for a shop – I needed the address and knew that there are some branches in town, however, I did not know that this is actually a national chain. The web suggested the maps with the branches in Berlin, then the general website, and then … the question if I would allow google to use my position. hum …and at the very bottom

Consoling: the postcode is wrong. Or in more popular terms: Artificial intelligence has something humane: it is at times equally stupid.

The strange encounter

Two bears are meeting after a couple of weeks.

How are you keepin’?

The answer of the grizzly, with an obvious sigh of relief:

Oh gosh I am feeling great! It is like waking from hibernation. And what about yourself?

hum …

A few seconds passed, though it felt like minutes until the icebear replied

hum, I guess I know what you mean. We call it global warming!

,

we will miss the good old time before Corona

life being quiet and well structured. Sure, the climate change: No real spring, no real summer, no real autumn, no real winter … but at least the days reasonably well structured … and nowadays?

3:00 Berlin time, getting up, checking essays …, 4:07 to 5:24; going for a walk, listening to some web-presentation …: 5: 30: back to the desk, some mails – business and “gioia di vivere”; 8 Berlin time – 14 Changsha: four hours teaching: “black boxes with names (Chinese characters) written in it”, 13:00 Berlin-Vienna time, after grabbing some lunch, ventilating communication strategies that are more appropriate than lectures and Q&A sessions, off to … ah no, online banking is better than queuing, possibly chatting with some other folks also waiting there: 14:30 Berlin-Berlin some voluntary work, doing the “shopping for a stranger”, also “offering an ear”, 15:15: some homework: fixing some board; 15:30 Berlin — all other places and times: writing down some notes for my contribution to a global webinar; 16: 00: start, one hour reasonably intense presentation and debate on the social security measures and the need …, well to develop other standards to measure their effectiveness; 17:00 Berlin … some time, somewhere: chatting with my daughter? a friend? a friend to be? 17:30 Berlin — late in ChangSha, but I still have to talk to my assistant, we arranged to meet this hour …, later some writing, perhaps some music, more likely the analysis of a recent judgment regarding the payment of social benefits in another country than that of permanent residence

11:00 Berlin – timelessness in the realm of dreams … time for it, though it will not be much time … dreaming … the “good old times when the world had been structured: trotting for 9 to the office, leaving at 5 ….”

Grounding

Only time will show the valid origin and possibly not even that: there are different sources for the phrase “I don’t trust any statistics that I did not made up myself.” Statistics and presumed scientific analysis show different results. Sometimes there are simple explanations – for instance there is a difference between figures for regions and entire countries and the reference is not clearly stated; also rounding may appear as huge difference in the overall result. As such, scientific results are used as guiding political decisions, often a contest between different individual measures. An interesting framework for analysis of pandemias had been already proposed by Ed Snowden about 10 years ago in a lecture series where he posed 10 questions. It may be worthwhile to reproduce them in full length here (from https://oyc.yale.edu/history/hist-234/lecture-12):

10 questions on diseases

“I have a sort of suggestion of maybe ten major questions that we ought to be thinking about with regard to diseases.

The first major question, for any of the diseases we’re talking about, was what’s the total mortality and morbidity that’s caused by the epidemic in question? The mortality, the total numbers of deaths. Morbidity, the total number of cases. That’s an important factor that needs to be taken into account in assessing the impact of the epidemic. A second question has to do with a term we introduced long ago, a phrase, which was the case fatality rate. And a related question with that is, is there an effective therapy or means of prevention, or instead does a society experience the disease in feeling itself to be helpless, and physicians feeling the same?

The case fatality rate is — we could call it the kill rate of a disease, the percentage of cases that terminate in death. And we know that, for example, in dealing with plague, one of the features of it — and Asiatic cholera as well — was a very high case fatality rate, of plague, fifty to eighty percent, cholera, something like fifty percent. At the other extreme, when we come to it, we’ll see that influenza has a very high morbidity, but quite a low case fatality rate, and that’s related, I think, to the impact that that disease, influenza, has on society, which isn’t associated with such terror as say plague or cholera. That’s an important variable, the kill rate of the disease.

Another factor, a third question we need to ask, is what’s the nature of the symptoms of the infectious disease in question? Are they particularly painful? Are they degrading, according to the norms of the time? And we’ve seen, for example, in dealing with plague and cholera that a major feature about them was that their symptoms were agonizing and dehumanizing. Clearly, as we turn to syphilis, its symptoms also were extremely important in the way that the disease was experienced. Tuberculosis, on the other hand — and we’ll be looking at that — was seen, at the time, to make its sufferers more intelligent, more romantic, more beautiful in some sense, at least in the first half of the nineteenth century. So, that — what is the nature of the symptoms, is a crucially important question.

Another, fourth question, that I hope you’ll bear in mind throughout the course, and in your review for the exercise this week, is the question, is this disease new, or is it familiar to the population? Familiar diseases tend not to be so terrifying. The population is also likely to have some degree of immunity to the disease, and the disease is likely, or may have, already mutated to become less deadly. Examples are the so-called diseases of childhood, like chickenpox, mumps and measles; normally relatively mild, but in populations to which they’re newly introduced, they can be devastating.

A fifth question has to do with, what’s the profile of the victims of the disease? Is this a disease that’s an affliction of the young and the elderly; that is, experienced as a more normal course of a disease, in accord with society’s expectations and past experience? Or does it instead strike down particularly those who are in the prime of life, thereby no longer seeming natural but as something extraordinary in the experience of the population? And it also means that the disease is likely to maximize its economic and financial impact, to be particularly destabilizing to a community. Cholera, in this regard, for example, was terrifying because of the way in which it seemed to afflict those who were the bulwarks of families and of communities.

A sixth question that’s important: what’s the class profile of the sufferers? What sorts of people in society are stricken with the affliction? Is this a disease of poverty, such as cholera is usually thought of? Or is it an affliction that strikes everyone, without particular reference to class or social and economic status, like influenza or syphilis, indeed?

A seventh important question is what is the mode of transmission of the disease? Is it transmitted person to person? Is it transmitted by contaminated food and water? Are vectors involved? Is it spread through the air by droplets? Is it spread by sexual contact? And clearly, I think we’ll be arguing that the mode of transmission is really crucial, and in sexually transmitted diseases I think that that is fairly self-evident and a very important factor in the social impact of those diseases.

An eighth important question is whether the disease is fulminant in its course, or is it slow acting and a wasting disease? If we look, for example, at cholera, one of the features, and a striking one, is that it was one of the most fulminant of diseases. It would strike down a sufferer, and you could board a train and die before you reached your destination, as the disease ran its course that quickly through the human body. Or, on the other hand, is the disease one that takes years, perhaps even decades, to run its course? And an example of that, of course, would be tuberculosis or HIV-AIDS, in our own time.

A ninth important question we need always to bear in mind is how is the disease understood by the population that it’s infecting? Is it seen as a punishment of God? Is it later on thought to be something that comes from the dangerous classes? Or later on, is it understood to be a microbial infection? And those ways in which the disease is understood have enormous impact on how the population reacts to the disease. A tenth variable is what’s the duration of the epidemic? Influenza, for example, passes through a locality in a matter of weeks, normally. Cholera or plague tend to have epidemics that last for months. And tuberculosis, one might describe as an epidemic in slow motion that afflicts a community for a whole century or more.”

There is another dimension which I want to propose as 11th concern: it is about how people deal with the situation, the “grounding” that serves as foundation for political decions about different measures and approaches to fight the spread of virus. As subheading of this section “Grounding” I propose “What are we really talking about?” And I want to start by telling a little story – one that seems to be completely unconnected to the question of policies against the spreading of the virus. Although not a fairy tale, it begins with once upon a time. So, once upon a time, after the workshop meeting in Brussels, I went with some colleagues to a pub. All of them had been Swedish nationals, two native Swedes, one of them holding Swedish passport but having been raised in Macedonia. We have been talking about some business – the Swedish-Macedonian colleague moving along with the rhythm of the music, played in the background. One of the other colleagues, looking little bit sad, said:

“Look at her – she is relaxed, enjoying herself, expressing frankly her emotions. It’s so different, compared with me: standing still like a rock, wearing a grey suit, a grey shirt and a grey tie and probably all this mirrored in a grey face. I simply cannot jump out of this.”

This story does not end with the phrase “and they lived happily ever after” – although they were very nice people. The different character was showing up in the following months while we worked together. The reason for telling the story is very simple: currently Sweden is often celebrated for a very open and liberal approach when it comes to dealing with the virus. There seems to be no lockout, businesses are continuing works they did earlier, schools and kindergardens remained open … . And still, the spread of the virus, its victims, and the mystic number “R” remained reasonably low. Such policies of containing the spread of the virus is then frequently compared with strict measures of containment: in Ireland people had not been allowed to go further than two km from their home; in Germany the situation had been one of “loose lockdown”, in the Mediterranean countries we find “strict lockdowns” … – relevant are also differences in the speed of reaction: some countries more or less hesitant, waiting some time before they introduced even harsher measures … – now I could tell another story, reflecting on the opening of a telephone call one of the last days, speaking to a Chinese friend who is still working in the UK but quit her job in order to return to China.

“There are many reasons  …..”

Taking the many reasons together, thinking also of what I heard from other Chinese friends and colleagues the many reasons may be summarised by saying

“you know, there’s something about home … – there I do not feel lonely, I am well looked after and things are done when they need to be done.”

Sure, much of the following is anecdotal, based on statements of few individuals out of a population of nearly 1,439,324,000 Chinese people (https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/china-population/) and as such should not be overestimated. Nevertheless, it may well be taken as reflection of the often highlighted “we-society” – some forms of control, but performing two roles at the same time: limitation and protection, the chaxugeju providing a framework and security bed that defines the individual (comparable with the African ubuntu, i.e. the ”I am because we are”), so entirely different if compared with the west where the individual is not defined by relations but a self-contained entity, striving to be different from others, even unique and even independent from others. Still, in using such terms, we should never forget that the meaning may will be different to Western uses of the terms.

Organizational principles are to a society what a grammar is to a language. The principles provide the structural framework for social action; they are intuitive and taken for granted; they are deeply embedded in people’s worldviews, as well as in the society that people re-create every day.“ (Introduction to Fei Xiaotong’s From the Soil-The Foundations by Gary G Hamilton and Wang Zheng; University of California Press, 1992: 19)

So, looking at societies, the relevant economies and legal systems, is always about understanding those parts that are known to everybody, though difficult to be spelled out: the tacit knowledge, usually not appearing in the textbooks (as it seems to be of no relevance) and not talked about amongst those who live their life accordingly (as it is too obvious in its permanent presence).

It is about the Guanxi in China, the Christian bonds in Europe, the family ties in … – but this is exactly the point: while we find families everywhere, their meaning is completely different.

Coming back to politics of controlling the spread of the virus, one of the main issues of the debate is about containment policies. With a very broad brush, being aware of the danger of stereotyping (and re-producing stereotypes), the following can be said:

  • celebrating Sweden as example of a liberal handling is questionable as it starts from two premises that are standing against the common understanding of liberal: • it is a country that is highly bureaucratic, the country of men wearing grey suits, grey shirts and grey ties, not allowing themselves to express emotions – self-containment does not need external control; • it is a country that is highly advanced in respect of social provisions, modern working conditions including home-office (although never leaving people go off-ice) and the like – so it is obviously not really a matter to find new regulations for what is given already by existing regulations and tacit rules
  • Supposedly Lenin once said that the Germans, storming a railway station during a revolution, would first buy a platform ticket: rule bound and in need of rules, like the Alsation, so often used as service-dog by the German police …. And still, one of the rules, in very general terms, is a welfare system that is still “advanced”: elaborated, bureaucratic but altogether based in the idea of a unified (yes, unified though today’s critiques of strict “loose confinement” do not criticise this “quasi anti-liberal unification”) system, expressed in the fact of having a somewhat all-encompassing, comprehensive “book of social law” (Sozialgesetzbuch) [including unemployment insurance but excluding labour law] – comprehensive does not mean accessible for everybody although accessibility had been one of the reasons for the reform by which the different areas of relevant “social legislation” had been brought together. Today we speak of one book of social law, this consists now of 12 volumes, and a further extension is planed for 2024. Rule-obedience is thus closely linked to an expertocratic system – including non-obedience where expert-reasoning is lacking. – This is surely one of the reasons behind the important role of the Robert-Koch-Institute. A high representative of the organisation that is specialised on virus research frequently said that they cannot decide – instead there are political decisions, whereas the RKI can only provide data on the basis of which political decisions are to be taken. The problem, one can say, is in this country to find a balance between the authoritarian (not least it means submissive) character and the enlightened “liberal” bourgeois. As formulated on an earlier occasion in this series of reflections: the country of poets and thinkers (in German: Dichter und Denker) being at the very same time the country of judges and hangman (in German: Richter und Henker).
    Well, there is a sideliner to this, where the two actually meet, creeping into daily life without being noticed: much of the poesy and thinking is a matter of appearance, not of essence – the market, with its essence of making profit, comes along and makes profit even of the emergency and health threat: mouth and nose masks, after they had been sold out, are back, now already as a “new normality”: in fashionable designs they are available – the sellers asking for “the little bit more”, the little bit that individuals can afford for looking good, but society cannot afford to look after those in need: some excluded from suggested beauty by the judgement of the market …
  • Non posso crederci – non siamo qui per divertirci, non siamo qui per il momento, per fare un respiro profondo per ammirare le bellezze e le ricchezze dell’antichità…, e noi stessi, la famiglia e bambini? Restrizioni ….. – incredibile – I cannot believe it – aren’t we here to enjoy ourselves, aren’t we here for the moment, taking a deep breath to admire the beauties and wealth of antiquity …, and ourselves, the family and children? Restrictions …. – unbelievable” – A torrent of words like this, and an emotionally based resistance, followed by cocooning, weirdly combined with an expressionist/exhibitionist and collectivist public performance of “street balcony singing”. There is good reason behind extreme familiarism, regionalism, political extremism and short-termism characterising Italian politics – though “electoral rule changes in the early 1990s turned Italy more towards majority governments”
(Chris Harris, 2016: Why do governments in Italy change so often?; https://www.euronews.com/2016/12/13/why-do-italian-governments-change-so-often)
  • Prejudice? Maybe, though it may also be a reflection of the history of the United States of Northern America: a people that arrived there as a result of failing to claim their – mainly economic – freedom in their country of origin, welded together by religion, a commonly claimed right to occupy the country and expel the Indians and an extreme form of economic liberalism – the occupation of a vast area, the quasi tabula rasa in economic terms, where everything had to be started from the scratch and a kind of cultural new beginning (there had not been anything they could build upon: in some way the own history had been rejected and the then contemporary new culture of the Indians had been genocided),

  •  established the feeling of superiority, later elevated to a claim of world leadership, i.e. the role of a world gendarme.
    What can a virus do to a people like this? How could a god hurt a people that makes even a Muslim president a professing Christian? And yet: the flip side is that everyone must be seen as an enemy of everyone else – the price of freedom, which ruthlessly makes everyone a self-made man. This may explain to some extent the way in which the US faced the virus: ignorance going hand in hand with a combination of fear and self-defence. Concrete: a long time of ignoring the dangers; and a worrying increase in the sale of weapons: “Fear of the consequences of the Corona virus is driving Americans into the arms trade. Hunting rifles are slow sellers, but pistols, sports rifles and semi-automatic assault weapons are in demand. Fear drives Americans into the shops, fear of what the virus will do to a society.” (https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/corona-schusswaffen-usa-101.html; own translation)

Although arguments based on the notion of “national character” have to be treated with care – this being even more true if based on a small sample, without introducing any control variable as class, gender, religion … . Still, even this may make at least thinking – finally the question of prejudice is a tricky one, as there is some judice, i.e. some judication, some preceding judgement – a perpetuation can hardly be avoided as the process of civilisation is one that is concerned with the perpetuation of socialisation emerging from the conditions it creates in the preceding stages of development – the irresolvable problem of the grandfather paradox that makes it so difficult to reach the other side where the grass is always greener, not least as part of this civilising process is about social distancing. The problems of social science consists of the fact of a lack of communication – on a superficial level we find plenty of chitchat, the exchange of data, the bean-counting of everything and the speculative combination of a variety of data. Terms and concepts are taken for granted while any serious debate is postponed – methodology chapters and papers are frequently chapters that deal in actual fact with methods, analysis is too often looking at “facts”, however forgetting that positivism is characterised by a fundamental lack of understanding and law is obsessed with rules forgetting the problematique that a decision may be absolutely lawful, though it is in the light of fundamental, social and human rights awful.

History does not repeat itself …

… but that does not mean that tragedies are not recurrent.

On different occasions I raised my scepticism in respect of euro- or corona bonds. To be clear from the outset, I agree with the notion some kind of European finance mechanism has to be put into place as matter of solidarity in tackling the current crisis. However, we know from the not too distant history, namely the way in which Europe and in particular Germany interpreted solidarity in connection with the developments in Greece, that mechanisms can be interpreted in very different ways. Obviously this is what we see already now in connection with European money possibly spent in the spirit of solidarity: The German constitutional court in the ruling of the 5th of May urged the ECB to maintain a specific understanding of proportionality. The highest German Court concluded

“by unconditionally pursuing the PSPP’s monetary policy objective – to achieve inflation rates below, but close to, 2% – while ignoring its economic policy effects, the ECB manifestly disregards the principle of proportionality”

Seen in this light, my scepticism is possibly justified in the same way as it had been in the context of the so-called European anti-poverty programmes that had been performed from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. The European institutions did not have a proper competence in the area of combatting poverty – then European ruling, asked for not least by the German government, resulted in a reinterpretation of combating poverty as a matter of solely employment policy, too often interpreted as workfare – I commented briefly on that in an article in the German Nachrichtendienst des Vereins fuer offentliche und private Fuersorrge under the Title Subsidiaritaet und die falsche Zurueckhaltung[1]

– I am afraid, that cum grano salis, the same may happen today with the financial instruments: what is good in the short run may become the first chapter in the new book of expansionist (German) economic and social policy.

It is worth a side-remark, highlighting the irony of history: it could well be that Christine Lagarde is now victim of exactly those measures that she pursued in the context of the Greek crisis. History does not repeat itself, but that does not mean tragedies of the same kind do not appear again.

[1]                (Subsidiarity and the Wrong Reserve or: The Meaning of European Programmes Combating Poverty (Subsidiariät und die falsche Zurückhaltung oder: Über den Sinn europäischer Armutsprogramme); in: Nachrichtendienst des Deutschen Vereins für öffentliche und private Fürsorge, Frankfurt/M., Issue 2/1995: pp. 79-86a