I am not a blogger! I'm a human being!

Location: Poland

Monday, April 03, 2006

It wasn't supposed to be like this...

Another reposting of a comment I made: This is in response to the frequent tactic of supporters of the Iraq invasion/occupation/disaster that (paraphrasing) "A least things are better than they were under Saddam Hussein".

As unimpressive an accomplishment as that is, it's all they can really claim to have achieved; a country falling apart at the seams that's at least a little better than when the worst dictator in that region was running things.

Just think, a few years ago Iraq was going to be a shiny new model for the rest of the Middle East and now it makes the political situation of other Middle Eastern countries and their governments (which are pretty awful by any rational standards) look good by comparison.

I really don't think George W. Bush is stupid, it takes somebody with a pretty high level of (horribly misapplied) intelligence to fuck things up this royally and thoroughly.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Expanding Jarosław

The author Michael Korda studied powerful business people the way the Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees. In one of his books (with the modest title POWER!) he describes various methods for gaining organizational power.

At one point he contrasts 'climbing' and 'expanding'. Climbers slowly trudge up a hierarchical ladder of promotion (or fail to trudge up) while Expanders simply take over other people's jobs, starting with boring bits and pieces and anything having to do with liaison or communication. They don't give up any job once they have it but instead count on getting subordinates along the way to whom they can delegate most of the work. They create their own management structures and eventually they have to promoted to regularize their acquisitions and when powerful enough do away with as much of the previous hierarchy as possible.

Although written in the US in the 70's, this bit is as true then as now and Expanders also exist in Poland. What's interesting is that I thought (erroneously) that they could only function in the more flexible private sector as most public sector organizations aren't flexible enough. But I know of one prominent expander at a Polish university and now we have a wonderful example in one of the least likely organizations at all, the Polish government. The person of the most powerful man in Poland – Jarosław Kaczyński.

Prior to parliamentary elections the differences between his Law and Justice party and the somewhat more market oriented less socially conservative PO (Civic Platform) were minimized. Everyone assumed that no matter which party won, a coalition between the two would quickly be formed and the new government would try to better the perpetually stuttering Polish economy.

Fat chance. For a series of mysterious, never disclosed and never explained reasons the two parties couldn't patch up their differences and a minority government was formed with an informal alliance with the pseudo-socialistic populists of SO (Self-Defense) and the very far right League of Polish Families (LPR). Keeping the rambunctious, nakedly ambitious leaders of these two parties wasn't so easy and finally a Stabilization Pact was formed and his holding (just barely) for the time being.

In other words, with no official position besides that of Member of Parliament and leader of his party, the more secretive of the Kaczyński brothers has become the most powerful politician in the country, restructured the format of parliament and is in the very obvious process of trying to co-opt the other parties in the pact so that he can discard their troublesome leaders. He's even sent out feelers for forming a more market oriented wing of the party by co-opting former PO heavyweight Zyta Gilowska into his government as Minister of Finance (though she's been hampered in actually getting anything done).

Part of me finds all this scary and it's clearly not good for Poland (as most of his party's ideas are doomed to failure), but part of me is shouting "Well done! Bravo!". It's certainly been a virtuoso performance and I have no idea how much longer it can last. His perpetual weapon against his allies has been the specter of new elections where neither PO nor LPR would be expected to repeat their previous success. But all this has taken a toll on his own party's ratings so he may have to find a new big stick.

Monday, January 02, 2006

I'm myself, not that other guy

A concerned reader asks: "By the way, do you happen to be VP of www.hslda.org?"

No. The concerned reader is of course referring to the other Michael Farris, a high profile rightwing whacko. I won't get into it any more than that except to mention that we are among each others' nightmares (or would be if he knew of my existence).

Once I lived in a town with yet another (I assume) Michael Farris and occasionally I'd get a call for him. Once I picked up the phone and a hopeful sounding female voice (HSFV) on the other end piped up in a strong southern US accent.

ME: Hello.
HSFV: (happy at getting through) Michael?
ME: (not recognizing the voice) Yes ...
HSFV: (triumphant) This is Natasha!
ME: (thrown by the contrast in name and accent) Who?
HSFV: ... (hung up)

I wonder if she realized I was a different Michael Farris or if she just thought that Michael Farris sure is a creep.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy? New? Year?

Why does the new year have to begin after my least favorite holiday? New Year's Eve is a tiresome overrated excuse for a party and New Year's Day tends to be boring (when it doesn't tend to be filled with excruciating pain).

I guess it's so that the next few days at least will seem like an improvement.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Corruption and Poland: Please, Blue Fairy, I want to be real! (part three of ???)

Recap: In dealing with bureacracies, the everyday person should avoid using logic or pleas for compassion at all costs and instead, realize that the Achilles heel of all bureaucracies is enforcement. I'm also using a tennisy metaphor for the bureaucracy (see previous post).

Here, it helps to look at things in a larger context and remember, if you're not Polish, that the system of enforcement here will have different weaknesses than in your home country.

In the US, generally, the best choice is to take a detail-oriented approach and make the line judge see that smudge on the line and convince them that your serve just barely touched the line. An alternative, is to take advantage of American phobias of confrontation and make interactions with you exhausting and unpleasant in hopes that they'll give you the benefit of a doubt, just to get rid of you (John McEnroe used this throughout his real tennis career, it didn't make him liked, but it was probably more effective than not).

Neither of these approaches work very well in Poland. On the whole, Polish people avoid attention to detail the way vampires avoid the dawn and relish the noisy confrontation. Foreigners lose most arguments in Poland, because their emotions too often get the best of them. Then they're labelled hysterical and ignored. (While arguing in Poland, volume and vehemence are fine, even encouraged, but you should never get so caught up in the heat of the moment that you can't share a joke or cup of tea with your opponent.)

What does work here? Several things, only a couple of which will be discussed here, but they all revolve around becoming a real person to the bureaucrat. If you can learn to argue in Polish (not just in language but in style), then go ahead. You don't have to be nice to be real. One of the enduring mysteries in Poland is how much more willingly people will do things for people they know and actively dislike than they will for people they don't. The flipside of this is how difficult it can be for people to work together when they agree about most things (see arguments between PiS and PO), but that's another topic.

Another method is to bring the lady at the desk some chocolate or something from the bakery. Not everybody can pull this off (I can't and don't try). If you do try it, it should seem spontaneous and not calculated and if you do it clumsily it will fail and get you labelled as a hopeless fool (in which case it can sitll work if you can inspire maternal feelings). I've never used the box of chocolate gambit myself, because I'm convinced I'd couldn't pull it off, I'd sound like I was saying: "Here's your BRIBE! Please, don't forget to take your BRIBE! Do you have your BRIBE now?"

And it's important to remember that this is not a bribe, you're not going to get a positive decision because you left some pączki on someone's desk or be denied because you didn't. The chocolates are a symbol (in a culture that relies heavily on symbols) that you've given a little thought to what might give the lady behind the desk a little pleasure. That is, you've made her a real person in your mind. Once you're done that, she'll often reciprocate.

There are limits as to what this will accomplish, it won't get you of trouble if your transgression is serious and it won't get you a positive decision if you've really screwed up. It can get the bureaucrat to use whatever discretionary power they have in your favor, so that if you missed the deadline by a few days (but not a few months) or it might get your application on the top or bottom or in the middle of the pile (whichever is of more help to you). It can also lead to a favorable interpretation of dubious information or take into account your motivations (if good) and overlook trivial mistakes. In other words, it can save you many frustrating trips to the same place and time and effort, freeing up your personal calendar for important beer drinking.

Is this corruption, I don't think so. All my reasoning (or lack thereof) will have to wait for another time, but I think the best argument is that the really corrupt do exist, and none the foregoing will work if you've come across a corrupt official (or a whole nest of them). In Poland, they especially cluster in anything having to do with cars (buying, registering, importing or driving them).Your only options are a) paying up b) working around them.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Corruption and Poland: Damned bureaucrats (part two of ???)

In honor of Poland winning Transparency International's Miss Corruption Europe award, I'm looking at the (to me) gray areas, trying to find the border(s) between getting by and corruption. Here, I'm focusing on something I tend not to think of as corruption, but which many foreigners in Poland (and some Poles) do see as corruption.

As is probably true the world over, members of the bureaucracy in Poland are utterly deaf to pleas based on logic, fairness or sanity. I've worked in a bureaucracy and the only way to exist inside one and keep your own sanity is to treat it all like a big game, let's say tennis. You, the member of The Public, are serving and your opponent is the System. The bureaucrats that you're liable to deal with are the line judges and Those Who Make The Rules are the umpire (who's usually sound asleep but occasionally can be roused to make a final decision).

The line judges don't make the rules or establish where the lines are to be placed and are not responsible for the outcome of their calls. The rules don't have to make sense (any more than the placement of lines on a tennis court is guided by rational principles). The applied linguist Suzette Haden Elgin has a lot more on this in one of her books (I'll add that in an update).

Once you realize all this, you have several options available. You can muddle on the same as before and hope for the best. Ignore what you know and waste a lot of your time by arguing with the line judge that the baseline should be placed five centimeters further back (and lose, of course). You can expend a lot of time and effort in figuring out how to get a higher percentage of your first serves in (but remember, the lines are liable to move in mid-serve). Or you can look for loopholes, not in the rules, but in the system of enforcement. Human beings don't stop being human just because their job usually requires it. Remember this and take sustenance from it. Every system has weaknesses in enforcement and if you're not a bureaucrat at heart yourself, it's a good idea to know what those are.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Corruption and Poland (part one of ???)

Poland, where I live, has recently been named the most corrupt country in the EU by Transparency Internation (no link, they don't need it). In expressing some skepticism about all this at warsawstation (no link because I'm too ignorant to know how) I was asked some questions that made me think. Rather than answer there, I'm going to turn them into a series. I have no idea how long it will be. Given my track record so far on this thing, there's no telling how often new installments will happen.

I think there's a difference between corruption and the normal give and tack of getting through the day in any society and there's a big gray area in the middle. I hope everybody can agree that a cop taking a direct payment instead of issuing a deserved ticket is corruption and a cop letting someone off with a warning (after some conversational give and take) instead of issuing a deserved ticket probably isn't. But again, there's a big space in the middle where things aren't so clear.
I'll start all of this off (as I usually do) with a digression:
In the Silent Language, Edward T. Hall describes a 20 year conflict concerning speeding tickets in a small Southwestern US town with mostly Hispanic, but some Anglo residents. A Hispanic traffic cop enforced the ludicrously low speed limit ruthlessly and routinely gave out tickets (with a hefty fine) for going even one mile over the limit. The Hispanic residents rarely actually paid the fine, they usually knew someone in the courthouse who could make it go away. The Anglos couldn't and/or wouldn't make use of acquaintances or family members that way and paid the fines but thought there should be some leeway in enforcing the law, that only people going well over the limit or otherwise driving recklessly should be fined.
In other words, one system (Hispanic) initiated the legal process over very minor infractions, but the process only rarely reached maturation. The other system (Anglo) was more ruthless (or upstanding?) when the process was actually initiated but expected that the process would only be initiated on serious, rather than trivial (here undefined) infringements.
Which system is more corrupt? Which system is more likely to engender corruption?