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Luc Soete
tel: +31 (0)43 388 44 00
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Curriculum Vitae







“The present isn’t what it used to be” [1]

Your excellencies;
Minister of Education, Culture and Science: Jet Bussemaeker,
Mayor of the city of Maastricht, Annemarie Penn - te Strake,
Colleagues Rectores Magnifici,
Dear soon to be colleagues Rectores Magnifici emeriti,
Dear members of the Supervisory Board,
Dear soon to be ex-colleagues of the Executive Board,
Dear Rianne,
Dear students, staff and friends,
Ladies and gentlemen,

This is the fifth and last time I stand here on this pulpit in the Sint-Jan’s church. The first time was in January 1990 when I was asked, at the rather young age of 39, to give the university’s 14th Dies Natalis lecture of what was then called the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg (RL). The title of my talk was: “The future isn’t what it used to be”, a title which seemed particularly appropriate in those first days of the 90’s after the fall of the Berlin wall and the expectations of what this radical change might bring about in Europe. The future suddenly didn’t appear anymore to be what it had appeared just one year before…

Now 26 years later, as retiring Rector Magnificus (RM) of Maastricht University (UM), I am tempted to give you an alternative, radically different, perspective on the future, more in the tradition of Robert Nathan [2]: the American writer who published in 1956 a fascinating satirical essay [3] reporting the far distant future view of the contemporary US – formed from the surviving fragmentary remnants of a people who referred to themselves as “the US”. [4]

Following Robert Nathan, my future story begins also at a far distant future time, when a team of foreign social scientists, in Nathan’s case, Kenyan archaeologists (who spoke English properly) had discovered the ruins of a civilization lost for more than 6000 years. Nathan had the advantage of writing in the ‘50’s, before the existence of digital archives, leaving him free to fully exploit his creativity and playful satire in imagining how the archaeologists’ variant interpretations of what they found in the remains of “Pound-Laundry”. Pound-Laundry was the place-name they had reconstructed painstakingly derived from their translations of the letters WASHING, and TON, that had been inscribed on the fragments of stone monuments – despite the absence of supporting evidence that anything had been washed in this place. [5]

In my story, the focus of future interest falls upon the meaning, or meanings, that are to be given to peculiar academic relics that have been unearthed at Maastricht, a city still known in this far distant future among scholars of ancient political institutions for its association with “the treaty too far”. My discussion of these discoveries will be confined though to the focus on the relics of “UM”: the word that the inhabitants used in connection with particular buildings that were scattered throughout the city’s core and in referring to participants in certain public rituals and the ceremonial garb displayed on such occasions. Robert Nathan focused his story on the people of the lost civilization of the US. My story, likewise, will be concerned with the people of the “um” society.

Why and how had these strange academics come to refer to themselves in that ummm hesitant way? [6]

Did they suffer from some commonly-shared language disorder, or was the “ummm” interjected into their spoken communications as a device to gain time because one wasn’t sure what one should try to communicate to others? Or simply to mask that at the moment they had nothing at all in mind? According to collected digital archives – thank God for digital humanities! – these academics also claimed that they were “leading in learning”, so in all likelihood, the name “ummm” referred to the verbal technique developed in their  communications with students – much valued because it gave both speaker and listener more time to reflect upon what had been uttered and what could be said next: thinking and learning while speaking. [7] 

And even more surprisingly, close nearby -- across the river Maas in West Limburg – the report from the future relates the discovery of another ancient academic place occupied by scientists who called themselves the “UH”! According to one well-known local language scholar at the time [Leonie Cornips], the difference between the Ummm and Uhhh could signify nothing more than some differences in the pronunciations of the regional dialect commonly used during that epoch, because subsequent descendants of “Limburgs” have a continuing tendency to take a lot of time before actually pronouncing something.

I would claim, however, that the Ummm-Uhhh couplet [8] should be taken to be further historical proof that those two academic communities had developed a strikingly clever way of communication amongst themselves, playing for more time in discussing academic arguments while confusing the others, and with students getting so bored by lectures continuously “enhanced” with Ummm and Uhhh that they had organized education through tutor-less learning groups, what was called at the time P, ummm-B, uhhh-L.
But why did this clever community ultimately disappear? They seemed to have invented the self-organization of education rather well. Their learning method appeared well-suited for application in many other domains, including ummm politics.  Could it be that the eventual downfall of this society was the consequence of this effective technique of academic communication being subverted by strategic forms of linguistic behaviour [9]? In the many digital and hand-written documents and fragmentary memos that I have compiled in a small green book, there are copious pointers to the conclusion  that the meaning of ummm or uhhh changed over time from a clever expression of “learning while speaking” into the challenge, and I quote: "something is urgently wrong, but rather than having me simply tell you what it is, it will be better for you to figure it out yourself – in the amount of time it will take me to complete this unhelpfully sarcastic remark."

Let me give you an illustrative example of how ummm scientists might have communicated before, using the proper “learning as you speak” protocol in an urgent situation.  [Names are of course purely fictional] Harm: “Martin, watch out for that large pothole you seem to be unknowingly driving into." Martin (avoiding the pothole): “Thank you for your timely and straight-forward warning. I appreciate you using the first sentence after you were alerted to this danger to tell me about this pothole, instead of uttering a one-worded, useless phrase.”

And now, once strategic behaviour had become the norm, we find Harm (sarcastically) describing the identical situation:  "Ummm..." Martin: “What? ... What?” (car drives into pothole).  Harm: “Wow, good job![10]

I have lots of different examples which I will not cite here. As you might have presumed from this somewhat extensive elaboration, future studies have been a topic about which I have loved to write and, ummm... talk about at various occasions in my thirty years here at Maastricht University.

 “Technology Forecasting” was indeed a topic popular in the UK and the US were I worked before coming to Maastricht. The US Congress had even set up in the late 70’s a now defunct organization, the Office of Technology Assessment which initiated some of the most detailed and sophisticated analyses of future technological trends. And after I moved to the Netherlands, I became a member of the Stuurgroep of the newly created “Nederlandse Organisatie voor Technologisch Aspectenonderzoek” (NOTA) which the late Walter Zegveld as chairman and Els Borst, Willem Albert Wagenaar, Arie Rip as colleagues, among others. NOTA was renamed Rathenau Institute in 1994.

Of course, and as my colleague Rein de Wilde has been keen to point out, many of those future studies often appear to have missed completely developments as they actually took place. Still foresight studies have become gradually integrated in policy making with the growing popularity of so-called “ex-ante impact” assessment in order to predict the likely impact of funding this or that research field.

If only, one would apply such future oriented, ex-ante impact assessment to politics and election debates. Here, to illustrate the potential scope, is a suggestion for Britain’s Prime Minister, following her comment that “BREXIT remains BREXIT”: in 2019 when the BREXIT negotiations will have been concluded in the most optimistic scenario, the ranks of the British voting population will have expanded by the addition of 2 million citizens who will then have reached the age of 18, and suffered the loss of 1.5 million due to the deaths of older citizens. Given that the vote of youngsters was 75% for Remain, while 60% of those aged 65+ voted to Leave, it can be estimated that in 2019 the pro-EU camp will have gained 1 million adherents, while size of the pro-BREXIT camp will be 350,000 smaller. In short, an outcome which will be the reverse of the results of the balloting held last June. [11] 

Demographic trends remain by far the best forecasting tool, and that is what led me (some years ago) to argue for broadening the electoral vote to all citizens, giving proxy votes to parents for their children: a proposal discussed already a decade ago by Philippe Van Parijs who is scheduled to speak later. [12] In many ways the BREXIT referendum, with its striking generational divide in opinions about the desirability of Leaving rather than Remaining in the EU, offers a striking illustration of the potential power of broadening democratic representation to give voice to the future generations who will inherit a world transformed by today’s choices.

That is what brought me to the title of this farewell lecture: “The present isn’t what it used to be”. Reflecting over the experience of the past four years, it is difficult not to be struck by the speed and all-encompassing nature of the challenges that within only the past couple of years have emerged to confront us. It seems as if the temporal course of development is no longer characterized by steady, linear change, and has instead become exponential in pace and sometimes chaotic in its directions.  I can offer a couple of illustrations that lend greater concreteness to the impression that change has been so abrupt that our sense of the present is no longer what it used to be.

The first of the pair, not unfamiliar in the physical sciences, seems now to become very much the “new normal” in the social sciences, and particularly in economics. The fact that changing quantitative evidence regarding behavioural and system-wide social phenomena is continuously overturning “established” analytical conclusions and challenging comfortable underlying normative justifications for policy actions or for non-intervention in the workings of market economies.

Let me welcome you to my own international economics discipline where in the world of monetary theory and policy, for sure, the prevailing present isn’t what it used to be!
As my colleague Tom Van Veen has argued on various occasions, “helicopter money” [13] – the idea of money being dropped from the sky, as Lambik did in the Suske and Wiske album “De Wilde Weldoener” suddenly has become a hot topic in current debates about how to tackle the current low growth and low inflation trap in which most developed countries find themselves stuck. [14] Japan is actually on the verge of introducing such a policy, which formerly existed only in the realm of thought experiments devised for macroeconomists by Milton Friedman. Europe might be next, because the European Central Bank (ECB) responsible for monetary policy in the Eurozone area is running out of other anti-deflation options. Having reduced its so-called ECB-refinancing or minimum bid rate interest rates to 0 % and buying-up government bonds and other securities and assets on a massive scale, in trying to re-ignite the European growth machine, time is clearly not on its side. Swapping bonds and other assets for cash from the ECB doesn’t seem, at least up to now, to have made any significant impact, not in the least because the shift in regulations following the (2008 -10) financial crisis has required banks to hold substantially more capital on their balance sheet: in effect, putting today less money in the economy than they ever did in the past. At the same time, such Quantitative Easing (QE) – or, in more popular terms, “printing money” – policy causes significant instabilities on financial markets. Dutch pensioners, and pension funds alike, have grown nervous because interest rates on their savings and investments no longer provide sufficient guarantees for long term income, and the financial sector itself is seeing its own profitable activities undermined by very low interest rates and equity yields resulting from the use of the QE technique.  

The alternative “helicopter money” policy, e.g. through the ECB making perpetual loans to households at zero interest rates, puts money directly in the hands of people. As has been pointed out by many macro-economists [15], this form of “democratic helicopter money”[16] [that is why the term “drone money” is not used!] is also a monetary policy instrument, using similar QE techniques, but may also be viewed as the equivalent to a tax rebate policy. However, because it is institutionally distinct from fiscal policy, it would offer the ECB a more effective policy tool while maintaining the institutional separation between fiscal and monetary authorities, dispensing with the need for any ‘coordination’ between the two, or the subordination of one to the other. In short: in the new, upside down policy world of “applied helicopter money” all the advantages of ECB decision-making and independence are retained at a stroke, and made perfectly legal in the Eurozone area. Its implementation would directly address the current deflationary situation created by the Maastricht Treaty having led to a neutering of effective fiscal policy within the Eurozone.  

There are of course interesting similarities with the old notion of “basic income”: a concept which Philippe Van Parijs was instrumental in developing and promoting already in the 80’s. Once the link is made between “helicopter money”, “basic income” and the many innovative growth opportunities in the area of the sharing economy, a future real European growth scenario suddenly seems no longer a “fata morgana” but becomes a real option. It is, next to my ummm project, the second major project I hope to work on in the near future.

My second example of a sphere of public policy choices in which “the present isn’t what it used to be” is the role of education in enhancing social mobility.  There was a time when we all believed that education was essential for intergenerational mobility. Here too, recent evidence [17] suggests that children of non-college graduates are about as unlikely to attend college in a country such as Denmark, the country believed to be the most advanced in social mobility, as in the US. Ongoing UM research carried out by Lex Borghans, Ron Diris and Trudie Schils [18] within the framework of the “Educatieve Agenda Limburg” confirms this tendency for The Netherlands, and in particular for Limburg characterized by a much larger proportion of native, low-skilled parents than elsewhere in the country. However, the large investments made in public education in countries such as Denmark do pay off in developing higher cognitive skills among low-income children, as international math and reading scores illustrate, with the poorest quartiles in Denmark far outperforming their counterpart in the US. However, despite these higher cognitive skills, as in the U.S., only a tiny share of Denmark’s college graduate population comes from homes where neither parent finished high school. [19] 

As Rasmus Landersø and James Heckman observe: equality of opportunity appears, surprisingly in the current social media -Wikipedia world, to be a “fantasy”: it does not exist in the U.S., it does not exist in Denmark, in Limburg and it probably doesn’t exist anywhere. In other words: parents matter. That’s for the sobering side of the evidence.

On the more positive side, the fact that as in Denmark enrolment in day care, in preschool and other early education investments have a high pay-off in the development of cognitive skills for low-income children [20], points to a rather straightforward policy answer to the present problem of e.g. language deficiencies of children from immigrants and families of foreign origin, certainly when they remain socially clustered within their own communities.

It remains for me, as foreign observer, one of the most striking inconsistencies of Dutch intergenerational transfer policies: public investment in free schooling only from the age of 4 onwards creates a situation in which only parents with a high income are able to afford to pay for day care, reinforcing so to say inequality at the start of the life cycle, and a universal public pension (“AOW”) scheme on top of semi-private pension funds reinforcing inequality in the last phase. Why not cut the AOW for those pensioners with semi-private pensions above a certain level, and use those monies to subsidize free day care? Is it because, as in the BREXIT case, politicians fear the vote of pensioners? It appears that it is time to escape the present by joining Philippe Van Parijs’ search for intergenerational justice and implementing the idea of giving parents proxy votes to cast in the interests of their children’s collective futures. 

I have held back a third and concluding problem area in which neither the past nor the present is what it used to be: the European Union project, of course! To put things into perspective, when I started my term as Rector Magnificus in 2012, the EC received the Nobel peace prize. Four years later a majority of British voters chooses to exit Europe. I will not elaborate too much on this topic, as Phillipe Van Parijs is “waiting on deck” to give his views on Europe’s destiny. Yet, having been present here in Maastricht at the time of the Eurotop, it is obviously striking to me how suddenly the discussion of Europe’s future shifted abruptly from analytical, albeit often hotly debated economic arguments, to political, often “fact-free” populist claims and clamouring about what should be done tomorrow, if not today, to make the world better virtually overnight.  

For the greying among you, remember that back in the 90’s, we, Maastricht economists [21] -- we weren’t called the UMmm at the time -- were very critical of the proposed economic and monetary union and its implementation, as were many other internationally distinguished economists such as Nobel Prize winner Robert Mundell, and Paul de Grauwe, our recent Doctor honoris causa. Hopefully, the activities jointly organized with the Provincial authorities, surrounding the 25th anniversary of the Eurotop in December of this year and that of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in February next year, will bring us back to more analytical and evidence-based arguments than Europe’s citizens have been offered in the media.

But, it is time to conclude by proceeding to the biggest change taking place here and now, just after Philippe van Parijs’ talk: my passing of this academic relic – the Rector Magnificus’s chain – to my successor Professor dr. Rianne Monique  Letschert, who, in putting it on becomes the ummm’s tenth Rector Magnificus, and will set me free of the honour’s burden. RM Letschert, as the initials of your name indicate, you were born to become Rector Magnificus.  Yet, as I take this last opportunity to peer more closely at what is written on this chain of academic authority, I can make out  – hmmm: Oh no, not UM! But RL!!!  In short, you were born to become Rector Magnificus of this university!

ADDENDUM—Bibliographical Notes on “the Weans

The materials published as Robert Nathan’s The Weans derived from material in Nathan’s essay in the November 1956 issue of Harper’s Magazine, entitled “Digging the Weans,” and the script for the CBS Radio Workshop broadcast of "Report on the WeUns," which aired on November 11, 1956 as its 41st episode in an experiment in radio series that ran during 1956-57 near the end of Radio’s ‘golden era’.

Robert Truesdale, web journalist of radio history and culture has given the following thumbnail account of the essay and program, which that accompanies the recorded broadcast (23 mins. playing time) [available at: (http://www.tangentonline.com/old-time-radio/2046-report-on-the-weuns-robert-nathan ]:

"Report on the WeUns" takes place 6,000 years in the future (at the time the story was written) in 7,956 AD. African archaelogists have begun to unearth ruins of an ancient civilization in the continent to the west--the USA--and are desperately attempting to piece together this curious and extinct people from extremely diverse and fragmentary bits of recordings, inscriptions, crumbling monuments and buried buildings. Nathan uses this far future perspective not only to pierce the fumbling attempts of the scholars to accurately interpret these scattered remnants of a lost civilization, but more importantly he uses it to satirize the present. His wit is in peak form as he skewers Rock & Roll (we get to hear a fragment of an Elvis Presley concert), Hollywood and the Oscars, and large department stores and their wares (primarily television). This is social commentary at its finest--and funniest.” 

A photograph of Nathan is available from the web-page cited above.

One may also listen to a recording of Theo Bikel’s reading of the Harper’s article “Digging the Weans”—available at: https://alexrandall5.com/2013/09/28/theodore-bikel-reading-digging-the-weans-by-robert-nathan/

[1] Text of the farewell lecture of Professor dr. Luc L.G. Soete, Rector Magnificus of Maastricht University (UM) on September 1st, 2016. I only found a reference to this title in Francis DiMenno’s MODERN WISDOM: AMERICA’s ONLY HUMOR MAGAZINE, NUMBER 212 JUNE 2016 (https://dimenno.wordpress.com/2016/06/01/647/).

[2] I’m particularly grateful to my dear colleague and friend: Paul David for having brought the work of Robert Nathan to my attention.

[3] Robert Nathan, The Weans, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1960. See Addenda: [SEE ADDENDA: Background Notes on Nathan’s November 1956 Harper’s Magazine article “Digging the Weans”, and CBS Radio Workshop broadcast (in the same month) entitled: “Report on We’uns”].  

[4] Which their future interpreters had renamed, for grammatical correctness: “The Weans”.

[5] Nathan’s futuristic story is full of funny examples of satirizing the present. I only used the one’s here on Pound-Laundry, but following the Kenyan archeological team's  "Report on Digging the Weans" there is also a nice story about the description of the uncountable number of buried glass vessels unearthed that were of uniform size and shape -- despite being distributed widely at every one of the sites of settlements that had been excavated throughout the Continent. Study of these object led them to the conjecture that a powerful religious cult must have become established among the Weans, uniting them in the worship of a deity referred to as "COC-A-CO" , as those three symbols invariably preceded the symbol for "LA" on every still intact bottle. Inasmuch as the syllable "LA" was also  ubiquitously associated with objects and graven images depicting maidens, mothers and matriarch, the archeologists expressed complete confidence in concluding that, consistently with the 'curvey' outlines of the ubiquitous bottles, the deity COC-A-CO worshiped by the Weans was their goddess of fertility.  

[6] According to Webster “um” is “a representation of a common sound made when hesitating in speech”.

[7] “Learning in speaking” would have probably been a more appropriate slogan describing their method, I would suggest. 

[8] As Amanda Onion reported (see http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97983&page=1):  “Herbert Clark of Stanford University and Jean Fox Tree of the University of California at Santa Cruz have spent years listening to recordings of spontaneous conversations and speech to analyze the role of "ums" and "uhs" in language. And unlike previous linguists, they've concluded these so-called disfluencies and discourse markers represent something more than clumsy speakers having trouble expressing themselves — they also serve a role for listeners. "People use these phrases in a very particular, deliberate way," says Clark. "If we anticipate a delay in our speech, we choose the appropriate sound to signal this to the listener. These phrases mean 'I need to make sure you realize I'm delaying because I'm having trouble.'" By signalling a delay is coming, a speaker avoids a silent gap in conversation that might otherwise prove confusing to a listener. "When we talk, we have to do two things," says Clark. "We have to pay attention to the content of what we're saying and also keep track of the interaction of two people talking." Phrases like "um" and "uh" and "you know" play an important role in language, he argues, by serving as a speaker's "conversation managers" in the human interaction aspect of conversation. 

[9] As an economist, I am these days of course much more sensitive to historical explanations involving some behavioural elements.  

[11] The outcome was 17,410,742 Votes for Leave and 16,141,241 Votes for Remain.

[12] The Referendum held on 23 June therefore could be said to have disenfranchised the emerging cohort of citizens to empower those who would not live to experience the consequences of their political preferences. For discussion of such issues from a different perspective, see, e.g., Parijs, Philippe (1998), “The Disfranchisement of the Elderly and other attempts to secure intergenerational justice”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 27 (4), pp. 292-333.

[13] I’m sure that Milton Friedman when he visited friends in Louvain must have read this Suske and Wiske album from 1961, and used the idea in his The Optimum Quantity of Money (1969) book, in which he proposed it as an anti-deflation thought experiment.  Ben Bernanke in a recent blog quoted the old idea of Friedman: “The fact that no responsible government would ever literally drop money from the sky should not prevent us from exploring the logic of Friedman’s thought experiment, which was designed to show—in admittedly extreme terms—why governments should never have to give in to deflation.”

[16] See also https://mainlymacro.blogspot.nl/2016/05/helicopter-money-and-fiscal-policy.html
As Simon Wren-Lewis puts it: “Independent central banks are a means of delegating macroeconomic stabilisation. Yet that delegation is crucially incomplete, because of the lower bound for nominal interest rates. While economists have generally understood that governments can in this situation come to the rescue, politicians either didn’t get the memo, or have proved that they are indeed not to be trusted with the task. HM is a much better instrument than Quantitative Easing, so why deny central banks the instrument they require to do the job they have been asked to do.”

[17] See Rasmus Landersø and James J. Heckman “The Scandinavian Fantasy: The Sources of Intergenerational Mobility in Denmark and the U.S.” NBER Working Paper No. 22465, July 2016

[18] Lex Borghans, Ron Diris, Trudie Schils, “Onderwijsachterstanden in Limburg,” http://www.educatieveagendalimburg.nl/, forthcoming.

[20] Recent research from Corrie Urlings, Karien Coppens and Lex Borghans on the basis of data collected within the framework of the Educatieve Agenda Limburg provides further evidence on the positive impact of pre-school education (which has substantially risen thanks to subsidies from the Ministry of OCW). The impact is the biggest for children from low-skilled parents. However, there is also evidence that only public investment in day-care and pre-school education will not be sufficient to close the gap. As Lex Borghans, Stefan Hirsch and Paul Jungbluth have shown, using again the data from the Educatieve Agenda Limburg project, the gap between children from low- and highly-skilled parents appears to be growing particularly in the last years of primary education. Corrie Urlings, Karien Coppens and Lex Borghans, “Does preschool education influence cognitive outcomes? A closer look at the Netherlands”, Maastricht University and Lex Borghans, Stefa Hirsch and Paul Jungbluth, “Three different methods to investigate the role of measurement error in increasing correlations between parental education and test scores”, Maastricht University.

[21] See Johan Muysken and Luc Soete, “Maastricht kritisch beschouwd”, Preadviezen van de Koninklijke Vereniging voor de Staathuishoudkunde, 1993.

For the inaugural lecture of 29 June 2012, click here
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