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Amsterdam's Plan to Pay Alcoholics in Beer is Just 'Dutch Pragmatism'

An unusual Dutch initiative aims to put an end to one of Amsterdam's worst nuisances -- those bawdy, loitering alcoholics -- by employing them in a kind of street cleaning corps. The problem, though, is that the state-financed Rainbow Foundation behind the project pays the self-professed chronic alcoholics in beer for their labor.

"The aim is to keep them occupied, to get them doing something so they no longer cause trouble at the park," Gerrie Holterman, who heads the Rainbow Foundation, told AFP, referring to Amsterdam's Oosterpark, an apparent favorite haunt of the alcoholics. And at least some of the participants agree on the apparent benefits of the initiative. One man in the program named Frank told AFP, "Lots of us haven't had any structure in our lives for years, we just don't know what it is, and so this is good for us."

But by offering positive reinforcement to Amsterdam alocholics' worst tendencies, the weirdly commonsense solution to the problem of drunks causing a ruckus in public parks raises some serious ethical questions. The two groups of about ten people work three days a week cleaning city streets and are paid ten euros a day for their labor, along with a half-packet of rolling tobacco and five cans of beer. The men start the day off with two cans, have another two at lunch, and finish off with a last can in the afternoon. Did being an alcoholic ever pay so well?

The AFP article suggests that the program is symptomatic of what it calls "Dutch pragmatism." While the article doesn't elaborate on what that exactly means, it is probably an allusion to the kind of permissiveness behind the country's famously lax drug and prostitution laws. "The Dutch tend to think that it will happen anyway, whether they prohibit it or not," a 2001 BBC article on Dutch permissiveness argued. "The logic is simple -- tolerate it, rather than prohibit it and subsequently lose control." It was this rationale that was reportedly behind the legalization in the Netherlands of prostitution, "soft drugs," and even euthanasia ("under strict conditions"). But that philosophy is by no means a uniquely Dutch philosophy. The same logic underpin a number of other initiatives to combat social problems in other countries also. Publicly funded "sex boxes" built in Zurich, for example, aim to give sex workers a safe and contained place in which to work. Several U.S. cities have established clean needle exchanges to combat the spread of HIV among needle drug users and the public healthcare costs associated with it.

But the new Amsterdam program has taken that "pragmatism" to a new height that no doubt some will find problematic. Paying alcoholics in beer doesn't just turn a blind eye to the problem in the name of practicality but turns it into labor that benefits the city, even at the risk of worsening these alcoholics' drinking problem. The plan highlights a problematic quality of so-called "Dutch pragmatism": If a government really does subscribe to the premise that social ills like alcoholism are inevitable, then can it be implicated in encouraging it, even if it's part of a scheme that obviously profits the city? In other words, if cities are free from the burden of correcting social ills because they are inevitable, are they also free from the guilt of potentially worsening it?

"You have to see things like this: everyone benefits," Holterman, the head of the Rainbow Foundation, told AFP about the program. The obvious rejoinder to that sunny Dutch optimism -- or, wait, was it pragmatism? -- is whether the alcoholics really benefit. The family members of the alcoholics cleaning the benches of the Oosterpark might not be so overjoyed that the government is validating their decision to drink.

They might still have some hope that their alcoholic father, brother, or son might still get sober.

NICOLAS DELAUNAY/AFP/Getty Images

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Meet Bibi's (and Bar Rafaeli's) Favorite French Politician

When French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius traveled to Geneva earlier this month to demand stricter restraints on Iran's nuclear program, he had just got off the phone with a previously obscure French parliamentarian. MP Meyer Habib had delivered a stark warning to the foreign minister: If France didn't crack down harder on Iran's nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would attack the Islamic Republic. "You have to toughen your positions in order to prevent war," Habib said.

Coming from most other parliamentarians, such a statement could be dismissed as mere conjecture. But Habib is different: He has known Netanyahu for 21 years, helping open doors for the Israeli premier to the top ranks of the French government. Now, he has emerged as one of the staunchest advocates for imposing tough terms on Iran in the country perceived as the most skeptical of the interim nuclear deal.

Habib's ties to Netanyahu stem from his unique political résumé. The French parliamentarian, an Orthodox Jew who used to be deputy chairman of the French Jewish umbrella group CRIF, which represents French citizens living abroad. Half of his constituency resides in Israel. According to a profile published in Tablet Magazine, he first connected with Netanyahu in the early 1990s, when he helped the Israeli politician get his brother Yoni's letters published in French. Netanyahu returned the favor when Habib ran for parliament in 2013, recording a video calling him "a good friend of mine and a good friend of Israel." Habib -- who also counts Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli among his supporters -- won in an upset.

As international negotiators prepare to return to Geneva on Nov. 20, Habib and Netanyahu are once again on the same page about imposing tougher terms on Tehran's nuclear program. "Today, if we remain strong on Iran, we are in a situation to avoid a war," he told Foreign Policy. "The Iranians are on their knees. We can get a better deal. We can make sure they never get the bomb. We are not allowed to fail."

There are some signs that the world powers will request stricter terms than first offered to Iran -- but whether this will satisfy Habib or Israel remains to be seen. The Israeli daily Haaretz published a leak from "informed U.S. sources" on Sunday that reported the world powers would demand a halt to Iran's construction of Arak nuclear reactor, and an "unprecedented inspection regime" to ensure Tehran adheres to its commitments. Habib, however, said that a good deal would include even more concessions from Tehran: He wants Iran to dismantle the Arak reactor, degrade its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium to 5 percent or ship it out of the country, and dismantle its uranium enrichment facilities at Qom and Natanz.

While Habib emphasizes that he doesn't speak from Netanyahu, he says his long association with the Israeli premier has led him to believe that a bad deal could invite an Israeli attack. "[I]f the world doesn't take its responsibilities, [Netanyahu] will not take any risk, and never accept that Israel would be in a situation where it could be destroyed," he said. "You can make your own conclusions on what this would mean." 

Whether Israel can successfully accomplish a unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear facilities remains a matter of debate. Netanyahu's former national security advisor said on Monday that there was "no question" the premier would order an attack if he felt he had no other option, and that such a strike could set back Iran's nuclear program "for a very long time." For Habib, at least, such guarantees stand in stark contrast to what he perceives as the irresolution of the United States when it comes to Iran.

"Unfortunately, President Obama let his enemies cross his red lines many times without reacting," he says. "In my opinion, Netanyahu does not let anyone cross his red lines."

 

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images