Organisation - December 1, 2011

Rabbinge cabinet tackles capitalism

What would happen in the Netherlands if it had a technocratic cabinet like Italy's, but made up of Wageningen professors? Capitalism would be reined in: speculation banking would be controlled, cooperatives would flourish again and the days of tax-deductible interest on mortgages would be over. Text: Gaby van Caulil and Rob Rakaker

Perhaps we should try running the country without politicians, Mario Monti must have thought. Once he had been appointed prime minister of Italy, he formed a cabinet full of professors, lawyers and businessmen, but no politicians. Most of his ministers are alumni of Bocconio, an elite university in Milan. Italy looks to the luminaries of a single university to save it from stagnation.  
Just imagine for a moment that the economic crisis made drastic measures necessary in the Netherlands. The scenario: the financial crisis is still spreading and is pushing the Dutch economy into a deep recession. Geert Wilders refuses to ratify budget cuts and the fragile coalition is crumbling. The country needs a government that can take swift and decisive action. Suddenly there are calls for a Dutch-style technocratic cabinet. And that's when The Hague looks to Wageningen. 
Politician-free Apolitical utopia
After a very un-Dutch swift cabinet formation, the new Rabbinge cabinet emerges with a fresh coalition agreement and a team of ministers with scientific expertise.
It quickly becomes clear that the Wageningen ministers will break with many of the policies of their predecessors. Navel-gazing has had its day: Holland must be much more purposeful in forging international agreements. There is a u-turn ahead on tax-deductible interest on mortgages, and a makeover for the housing rental market. Speculation banking and flash capital will be curbed. Meat will be made animal-friendly and consumers will pay for this. The new cabinet will also reverse several current plans: support for the Ecological Main Structure will be resumed and prevention will have pride of place in health care services. Nor do the researchers forget their own constituency: education and science can count on extra funding.  
So is Rabbinge I an apolitical utopia that will solve all our problems? Or a dictatorship of academics? Decide for yourself. One thing is clear, at any rate: the queen can count on Wageningen.
Rabbinge I
Rudy Rabbinge is the new prime minister. Rabbin­ge has an impressive international network in the field of the global food supply. He was a member of the WRR (the scientific council for government policy), as well as of the upper house of parliament from 1997 to 2007, and he retired last week as university professor. So what are Prime Minister Rabbinge's plans?
'This technocratic cabinet will aim at sustainable development, will be much more internationally oriented and will tackle the financial mess. To do this, we will make the ­financial system more flexible. Banks will be divided into business and consumer services, so that the citizen does not have to pay, via the government, for mismanagement by bankers. Tax-deductible mortgage interest will go. Not all at once, but that isn't necessary either. This will create new scope for investing in innovation. The innovation policy pursued by the current minister, Verhagen, is not stimulating. On paper it looks as though there is 1.5 billion available, but most of the money is already allocated.
Lastly, we are going to go back to promoting cooperative organizations in, for example, the agricultural sector, replacing the system based on shareholders with a system based on stakeholders. For instance: a shareholder doesn't care whether he has a share in Shell or in Unilever, but a farmer who is a member of Avebe is involved because he is a co-owner. A cooperative can be particularly meaningful in the health care sector. I introduced it in a hospital in Schiedam-Vlaardingen. There, the health insurance company, doctors and other employees have become joint owners, and any profits made are not distributed among shareholders but invested in the hospital itself, in things like an MRI scanner. We certainly won't throw capitalism overboard, but we will blunt its sharp edges.'
Put retirement up further
The budget will be presented from now on by the rela­tively young Erwin Bulte (43). Bulte is professor of Development Economics in Wageningen and of Environ­mental Economics in Tilburg. He won a prestigious Vici grant last year and was a member of the environmental research council RMNO. He promises that government finances will be healthy again in 10 years' time.
'After the current round of cuts, there will be another big round of about 10 to 15 billion. There is no way round raising the retirement age. And it's a pity for students, but the trend set by Halbe Zijstra will be continued: a bigger emphasis on loans and extra rewards for finishing a degree quickly. Cuts in public health are a thorny issue of course. I wonder whether we should let technology be the driver in this field ('it's possible so it should be done'). In view of my background, it will come as no surprise that I am not in favour of further cuts in development aid.
In terms of tax, I would get rid of tax-deductible mortgage interest (as part of a comprehensive plan in which the housing rental sector would get a makeover too); I would introduce road pricing, and I would support an international tax on flash capital (the Tobin tax). Greece has to get out of the euro zone, because even if the debts are cancelled, the Greeks are not competitive. So either the nominal wages will have to go down a lot - which is not likely to happen - or the Greeks will have to devalue their own currency. In ten years' time, Holland will be in the 'neuro zone', and will be playing a leading role there.'
As much protein as possible from the sea
The new ministry of Nature Policy and Fisheries will be captained by Han Lindeboom, now still business unit manager at IMARES. He can hold his own in controversies about issues such as shellfish fisheries and declining fish stocks in the North Sea. Lindeboom works on Texel but is quite at home at the ministry of EL&I and the royal palace.
'I don't support the current nature policy at all. I'm all for meadows, but I won't be pumping funding into beautifying farming landscapes. I go for real nature. We shall implement the Ecological Main Structure insofar as it is needed. I realize it needs to be done more cheaply, but there are sure to be opportunities. I will get the experts to look into that.
In my fisheries policy I want to get as much protein out of the sea as it is possible to do ethically and sustainably. That means minimal seabed damage and minimal bycatch. I will set the rules and those who are smart enough can go ahead within those limits. I will challenge them to find innovative and selective fishing methods.
If a species is threatened with extinction, I will be strict. A total ban on eel fishing should therefore be introduced. I want to experiment with catch shares too. Make fishers owners of fish in a certain area, for which they are then responsible.'
Animal welfare as export value
At Agriculture and Animal Welfare we find Hans Hopster, the dark horse of the new cabinet. He does have a great reputation, though, as lecturer in Animal Management at VHL and DLO researcher at Livestock Research.  
'I think the Netherlands should aim higher when it comes to animal welfare. This cabinet goes no further than implementing European policy so that there is a 'level playing field'. But increasingly, the Dutch consumer is not satisfied with European standards of animal welfare. We lead the field in the production of 'commodities', but carrying on like this does not have much future in the Netherlands. So we should aim at producing added value such as demonstrably better animal welfare.
The Dutch society for the protection of animals had already launched a category of meat with a star system for animal-friendliness, which falls in between expensive ecological meat and standard meat. That's the line to take, making consumers pay more for animal welfare. And that extra profit margin should be fairly distributed throughout the chain. You should reward livestock farmers for their good behaviour. The government's role is to supervise, stimulate and facilitate, but the business world has to take the lead. Export value should not only be determined by the amount of milk, eggs and meats, but by the knowledge about animal-friendly production.'
Law with a human face
Herman Eijsackkers is the confidential contact person on Academic integrity and also advises the ministry of EL&I on scientific matters. Eijsackers was offered the post of minister of Justice, but at his request the name has been changed to Ministry of Normative Affairs.  
'I believe the government's role should be providing guidance, limits and safeguards in relation to our society's norms and values. The law should have a more human face. The setting of limits is now largely restrictive, whereas the government should be promoting sociable behaviour through it.
An example is the current financial situation. There is no scope at present for putting paid to financial abuses. Small-scales abuses get tackled, such as when a citizen commits fraud, but on a bigger scale it doesn't work. Take for example the types who buy up foreign debts and use the courts to force payments. A government that shows that it tackles large-scale abuse sets an example for many smaller cases.
I will revise the law on intellectual property to make it more ethical. Whereas patent law should serve the public interest, what you see now is that intellectual property rights mainly end up in the hands of the very big companies. This is detrimental to the progress of science and the application of new ideas, with negative consequences for the world food supply.
I am going to develop legislation for new media. The exchange of information is crucial to our society. When you see that much public opinion, government intervention and policy are based on a tweet or an internet campaign (against the vaccination against cervical cancer, for example), it is clear that it's the government's task to set limits and apply controls.'
Subsidize healthy food
Edith Feskens is the dream candidate for the ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sport. Feskens is an internationally highly regarded epidemiologist with extensive experience at the National Institute of Public Health.
'The focus of my policy is prevention. If you don't pay attention to prevention, health care costs go through the roof and there are more chronic diseases. The first thing I would do is to reverse some of my predecessor's policies - sadly, this is necessary. The dietician would once again be covered by the basic health insurance. Physiotherapy should remain widely accessible. I would consider the option of subsidies on healthy food for the lower socio-economic classes. I would abandon the whole idea that lifestyle is the individual's responsibility. My entire policy would also have to be well-founded scientifically and cost-effective. In the Netherlands a great deal of research has been done in the area of prevention, on topics such as motivation, lifestyle changes and sport in neighbourhoods. The previous minister behaved as if none of that existed. But he did spend 70 million on a plan for sports coaches. A plan with just one pilot, no evaluation and no proper prior testing. That is slapdash policymaking based on anecdotes and not on research backed by scientists.'
Go on with top sectors
After saying goodbye to the education institute, Pim Brascamp will get straight down to business as minister of Education, Culture and Science. He brings years of experience as professor of Breeding and Genetics and as educational policymaker to the job.
'As minister I would immediately form an alliance with my colleague at EL&I. For the first time, innovation policy and fundamental research have been separated, and that is a problem. I would want to continue with the top sectors, minus the weak points, because I value continuity in policy. And after all, research and education are long-term investments. You can steer the processes, but you have to do it gradually. You need some impetus but you shouldn't go for sudden sweeping changes. I would not interfere too much with the day-to-day work of professionals such as teachers. So no overregulation, no micromanagement. You have to know your limits as government.
I would also make excellence a less prominent goal, and never the only one. You should invest in the top 75 percent, not in the top 2 percent. A breeder also only gets good animals if he has a big enough group to select from. There are good reasons for supposing that the same is true in education. What is more I think it's important that educating young people continues to be a pleasure and an honour for teachers. In consultation with the prime minister, I would even consider cutting class sizes by 10 percent and increasing teachers' salaries by 10 percent.'
Cherish the UN
The department of development cooperation will come back and be led by sociologist   Thea Hilhorst. She specializes in the impact of natural disasters and conflicts. Hilhorst will not turn development policy upside down. Expressly not.    
'I first want to look at my predecessors' policies and keep the good elements. The most irritating thing about development cooperation is the cycle in which previous policy is disparaged and replaced by each new government. It is wishful thinking to imagine that a new approach can prove its worth in three or four years. That is not how these processes work. So no spectacular policy change for me. I will seek continuity and reinforce things that are proven successes.
Secondly, I want to pay a lot of attention to the UN. We should cherish this structure that makes the world more than the sum of the individual countries. At the same time, I recognize that in practice the system is unwieldy, expensive and often ineffective. So I would aim at serious reforms in the UN, in collaboration with as many donors as possible, especially European ones. That means starting with a reassessment of what civil society can contribute in this area.'