Romania shrugs off label of Europes poor man as economy booms

Since it joined the EU in 2007, government economic measures and communist-era educational excellence have spurred rapid growth

At a sleek new office in the heart of Bucharest, Fitbit co-founder and chief executive James Park explains why the smartwear giant is rapidly expanding its operations in Romania and following the lead of a host of multinationals. The tech talent here is amazing. Romania and other countries in central and eastern Europe have great existing talent, and also great universities, he says.

The US company, which bought Romanian smartwatch brand Vector Watches for a reported $15m (11.4m) late last year, and has tripled its staff in Romania since, has just opened its largest research and development centre outside the US, in the Romanian capital. Its not alone: in recent years, major global companies such as Siemens, Ford and Bosch have set up or expanded operations in Romania, boosting an economy thats already growing at speed.

While many see Romania as a country of migrants flocking abroad to find work, back home the economy is booming. The services sector is expanding at pace, along with exports and manufacturing. Meanwhile, private consumption from clothes to furniture and cars hit a nine-year high in 2016, and increased a further 8% in the first half of this year.

The economy grew 5.7% year-on-year in the second quarter of 2017, the fastest rate in the EU, where the average growth rate was 2.4%. This was on the back of a GDP rise of 4.8% in 2016 and 3.9% in 2015; during the same period the UK economy grew by a more placid 1.8% and 2.2%. According to the International Monetary Fund, Romanias economy is expected to grow by 5.5% for the whole of 2017.

The tech sector, in particular, is expanding fast, built on a communist-era legacy of excellence in science, mathematics and technical education, as well as Romanias strong language skills, which have long made it a hub for IT outsourcing. While the Romanian languages Latin roots have helped explained the countrys linguistic skills, some suggest it was a decision to subtitle rather than dub foreign programming on television that boosted foreign language exposure and proficiency.

According to industry insiders, the tech sector which employs about 150,000 people is expected to double its share of GDP to 12% by 2025, aided by one of the fastest broadband internet speeds in the world (behind only Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Iceland).

Elsewhere, Ford has announced plans to hire almost 1,000 workers for its plant in Craiova, 180km west of the capital, adding to its current workforce of 2,715. The automotive giant has invested more than 1.2bn (1.1bn) in its Romanian manufacturing operations since 2008. Renault-owned Dacia, a former communist state-owned giant, remains the countrys largest company based on revenue, with a turnover of 4.1bn in 2016. Joining the EU in 2007 clearly had an impact, while more recent government measures have also boosted the economy.

The government in 2015 decided to cut taxation for consumption, says Ionut Dumitru, chief economist at Raiffeisen Bank Romania and chairman of Romanias fiscal council. They cut VAT from 24% to 20%, and now 19%, and extended the reduced VAT rate for food and some other items. This was a very strong stimulus for consumption.

The government has also doubled the minimum wage in four years. And its not only the minimum wage that has increased a lot, but also public sector wages.

Wages in Romania remain far below the EU average, making it an enticing option for outsourcing; the minimum monthly wage is currently around 283 only Bulgarias is lower within the EU.

However, lower wages have stopped many Romanians returning home, leaving companies short of workers in 2016, the unemployment rate dropped to an historic low of 5.9% compared with an EU average of 8.6%, amid predictions it will drop to 5.4% this year.

Uncertainty over Brexit is having an impact, with companies looking at alternatives within the EU in case the UK pursues an exit that restricts trade.

Were getting inquiries from UK companies on a weekly basis since the referendum, says Shajjad Rizvi, the director of the British Romanian Chamber of Commerce in the northern city of Cluj, one of the largest tech centres in central and eastern Europe.

We are seeing global companies hedging their bets, in case tariffs are not favourable or something else, and Romania is one of the choices they are looking at, he adds. Software companies, a lot are doubling or tripling their workforces in Romania, and a lot of those jobs are coming from the UK. Whole departments: marketing, PR, HR; they are being closed down in the UK and moved out here.

But there are also serious challenges. Romania has long been considered one of the most corrupt nations in the EU. Despite progress, there are still major concerns. In February, the country experienced the largest protests in decades after the government pushed through legislation that would have effectively decriminalised low-level corruption. The government backed down, but has yet to regain public trust.

Transportation infrastructure is also poor. Romania came 128 out of 138 countries for the quality of its road infrastructure in the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report; the railway system, which is old and slow, came in slightly better at 79. There are only 747km of motorway in the whole country.

There is also concern about the rising deficit. In 2016 the government deficit the gap between state income and spending rose to 3% of GDP, up from 0.8% in 2015, due to increased spending and tax cuts. The main concern for the economy is the fiscal situation, says Raiffeisens Dumitru. The deficit is under pressure.

Even so, Romanias economy looks set to continue to expand in the near future. Its hard to sustain more than 5% growth, says Dumitru. Most analysts are predicting closer to 4% for next year. But even 4% will probably be one of the highest growth rates in Europe, so its not bad at all.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/14/romania-economy-booming

Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos to the Washington Policy Center

Thank you, Ami, for that introduction and for what you do to advocate for our kids and their futures. And thank all of you for the work you do to improve the lives of Evergreen Staters.

You know, my job may be in a place that’s called Washington, but please know that I prefer to be in this Washington. In fact, I was delighted to welcome one of your own into my family just a few years ago. A young man from Mukilteo married my daughter and he is the proud dad of one of my sweet granddaughters.

One of the most celebrated mathematicians has died

Vladimir Voevodsky made math better.
Image: Getty Images

Not going to class isn’t typically something good to boast about. But perhaps the late Vladimir Voevodsky is the exception to the rule. 

Voevodsky is credited with founding new fields of mathematics, such as motivic homotopy theory, and a computer tool to help check mathematical proofs, as the New York Times explored in an obituary this week. The latter was a feat that other mathematicians didn’t dare approach, but Voevodsky’s effort has overwhelmingly benefited the industry — and everyone, really — by allowing mathematicians to fact-check their work.

He died at age 51 on Sept. 30, at his home in Princeton, New Jersey from unknown causes. He leaves behind his former wife Nadia Shalaby and their two daughters. 

“His contributions are so fundamental that it’s impossible to imagine how things were thought of before him,” Chris Kapulkin, a former colleague at the University of Western Ontario, told the Times.

Among Voevodsky’s achievements was changing the meaning of the equal sign. In 2002, he won the Fields Medal for discovering the existence of a “mathematical wormhole” that allowed theoretical tools in one field of mathematics to be used in another field. 

He wasn’t a top student of the traditional, rule-abiding sense. According to the Times, Voevodsky was kicked out of high school three times. He was also kicked out of Moscow University after failing academically. He later attended Harvard. Despite neglecting to attend lectures, he graduated in 1992.  

He worked through it all, and all present and future mathematicians have him to thank. 

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/10/08/vladimir-voevodsky-mathematician-died-awesome/

Things People Say

When bias beats logic: why the US can’t have a reasoned gun debate

Mass shootings in the US are consistently followed by calls for action and then political paralysis. Thats because people refuse to see nuance, experts say

In the week since the mass shooting in Las Vegas left nearly 60 people dead and hundreds injured, Americans have spoken out in outrage and grief, demanding action. They have asked, again: why cant the US pass any gun control laws?

At the same time, just as they did after Sandy Hook and San Bernardino and Orlando, these passionate advocates have endorsed some gun control laws with very little evidence behind them, even some policies that experts have labeled fundamentally not rational or a hysterical violation of civil rights. The great bipartisan gun control victory of this year may be new restrictions on bump stocks, a range toy used to make a semi-automatic rifle fire more like a fully automatic rifle, which arguably should never have been legal in the first place. That wont do much to reduce Americas more than 36,000 annual gun suicides, homicides, fatal accidents, and police killings.

Why does the US feel so paralysed every time it is confronted by a new attack?

Jon Stokes, a writer and software developer, said he is frustrated after each mass shooting by the sentiment among very smart people, who are used to detail and nuance and doing a lot of research, that this is cut and dried, this is black and white.

Stokes has lived on both sides of Americas gun culture war, growing up in rural Louisiana, where he got his first gun at age nine, and later studying at Harvard and the University of Chicago, where he adopted some of a big-city residents skepticism about guns. Hes written articles about the gun geek culture behind the popularity of the AR-15, why he owns a military-style rifle, and why gun owners are so skeptical of tech-enhanced smart guns.

He watches otherwise thoughtful friends suddenly embrace one gun control policy or another, as if it were a magic bullet.

Some kind of animal brain kicks in, and theyre like, No, this is morally simple.

Even to suggest that the debate is more complicated that learning something about guns, by taking a course on how to safely carry a concealed weapon, or learning how to fire a gun, might shift their perspective on whichever solution they have just heard about on TV just upsets them, and they basically say youre trying to obscure the issue.

I dont want to see that kid dead any more than you do, Stokes said. If there was a magic fix, I promise you I would support it.

In early 2013, a few months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, a Yale psychologist created an experiment to test how political bias affects our reasoning skills. Dan Kahan was attempting to understand why public debates over social problems remain deadlocked, even when good scientific evidence is available. He decided to test a question about gun control.

Kahan gave study participants all American adults a basic mathematics test, then asked them to solve a short but tricky problem about whether a medicinal skin cream was effective or ineffective. The problem was just hard enough that most people jumped to the wrong answer. People with stronger math skills, unsurprisingly, were more likely to get the answer right.

Then Kahan ran the same test again. This time, instead of evaluating skin cream trials, participants were asked to evaluate whether a law banning citizens from carrying concealed firearms in public made crime go up or down. The result: when liberals and conservatives were confronted with a set of results that contradicted their political assumptions, the smartest people were barely more likely to arrive at the correct answer than the people with no math skills at all. Political bias had erased the advantages of stronger reasoning skills.

The reason that measurable facts were sidelined in political debates was not that people have poor reasoning skills, Kahan concluded. Presented with a conflict between holding to their beliefs or finding the correct answer to a problem, people simply went with their tribe.

It wasa reasonable strategy on the individual level and a disastrous one for tackling social change, he concluded.

When it comes to guns, Americans want it both ways. A recent Pew study found that just over half of Americans want stronger gun laws. Even stronger majorities of Americans also believe that most people should be allowed to legally own most kinds of guns and allowed to carry them in most places.

There is room for thoughtful gun control within these constraints. But the extreme polarization of Americas gun debate the assumption, as the late-night television host Stephen Colbert argued when talking about the Las Vegas shooting, that the bar is so low right now that Congress can be heroes by doing literally anything obscures how symbolic and marginal some of the most nationally prominent gun control measures are. Like closing the terror gap, so that people on terror watchlists are not allowed to buy guns, or rolling back an Obama order on guns and mental illness that had been opposed by disability rights groups and civi liberties campaigners.

After the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, Australia imposed a mandatory buyback and melted down more than 600,000 semi-automatic rifles and other long guns, about a third of the countrys gun stock. They have not had a high-casualty mass shooting since.

American politicians and pundits are always asking: Australia tackled their mass shooting problem. Why cant we? But no one actually proposes an equivalent Big Melt in the United States, which would require a mandatory buyback of 90m American rifles, at a cost that might be in the billions of dollars.

Instead, an American assault weapons ban, which lasted from 1994 to 2004, allowed everyone to keep the military-style guns they already had, and defined assault weapons in such a technical way that gun companies were able to make cosmetic tweaks to certain models and produce virtually identical, but now legal, guns. A former Obama White House official told the Guardian candidly that the assault weapon ban does nothing and though Obama had nominally endorsed it in 2013, we would have pushed a lot harder if we had believed in it.

Part of the weakness of major gun control proposals is the result of the NRAs catch-22, said Adam Winkler, a gun politics expert at the University of California Los Angeles law school. The NRA waters down the gun laws and makes them ineffective and then says, Look, the gun laws are ineffective, we told you that gun laws never work.

But the biggest distortion in the gun control debate is the dramatic empathy gap between different kinds of victims. Its striking how puritanical the American imagination is, how narrow its range of sympathy. Mass shootings, in which the perpetrator kills complete strangers at random in a public place, prompt an outpouring of grief for the innocent lives lost. These shootings are undoubtedly horrifying, but they account for a tiny percentage of Americas overall gun deaths each year.

The roughly 60 gun suicides each day, the 19 black men and boys lost each day to homicide, do not inspire the same reaction, even though they represent the majority of gun violence victims. Yet there are meaningful measures which could save lives here targeted inventions by frontline workers in neighborhoods where the gun homicide rate is 400 times higher than other developed countries, awareness campaigns to help gun owners in rural states learn about how to identify suicide risk and intervene with friends in trouble.

When it comes to suicide, there is so much shame about that conversation and where there is shame there is also denial, said Mike McBride, a pastor who leads Live Free, a national campaign for gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform. When young men of color are killed, you have disdain and aggression, fueled by the type of white supremacist argument which equates blackness with criminality.

First-hand experience can be profoundly transformative the guitarist Caleb Keeter, who was caught up in the Las Vegas shooting, said afterwards: Ive been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the event of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We need gun control. RIGHT. NOW.

But as Nicole Hockley, the mother of Dylan, one of the children killed at Sandy Hook, put it, many Americans seem exhausted and alienated by the gun debate itself, that cyclical conversation that moves from assault weapons to arming more Americans to mental illness to policy proposals that may or may not relate at all to what actually occurred.

Its time to open up the conversation, she argues to focus on different ways to save lives, rather than the same old gun law stalemate.

Otherwise, she wrote: By the end of next week this story will be almost gone as if it never happened, even while those most impacted are still reeling from shock and grief.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/oct/07/us-gun-control-debate-bias

Learning Outside from the 2017 Green Strides Tour in Georgia

I had the honor of attending the Georgia Green Strides Tour 2017 with Andrea Falken of the U.S.

Hurricane Relief Update–Secretary DeVos Visits Impacted Florida Schools, Department Maintains Close Contact with Affected Area Officials

Washington — As states and territories recover and rebuild from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate, the U.S. Department of Education continues to provide assistance to the impacted students, schools and institutions. On Friday Oct. 6, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited two impacted schools in southern Florida—Everglades City School in Everglades City and Pinecrest Elementary in Immokalee—to speak with students and hear directly from teachers and administrators about their communities’ recovery efforts and needs.

ED Releases Secretary’s Proposed Priorities for Competitive Grant Programs

Today, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released the Secretary’s proposed priorities for ED’s competitive grant programs and launched the 30-day public comment period.

The Path Begins: Forest Kindergarten

It’s a rainy day in Walker County, Georgia.

Relationships Relationships Relationships

#65: Marilyn Ballard, Owner of ECE Solutions joins us this week to talk solutions to challenging behaviour.