Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Growing Divide Between Labor and Capital

 Andrew Smithers chart
Inequality in the U.S. is higher than it has ever been by many measures (see this article in Weakonomics).  While the country has long had a high tolerance for inequality as compared to most parts of the world, this holds true only to the extent that it is considered "just" inequality.  Inequality based on what is perceived as unfair advantage has an equally long tradition of being condemned.  

There are any number of social (not to mention moral) arguments against dramatic inequality: it turns out that high inequality is associated with worse health and happiness indicators for all (not just the poor).  But there is also a business and investment case against extremely high inequality. 

Jon Shayne, writing on the PBS Newshour's The Business Desk, looks at the dramatic divergence of national income going to capital and going to labor.  In a fascinating interview with Jon, Andrew Smithers takes on the conventional wisdom (suspect as that should always be, as John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out) about this divergence, which most attribute to shifts in technology and winner-take-all knowledge economies.  Smithers offers a different (and convincing) explanation: executive compensation has introduced a number of incentives that encourage managers to maximize short term profits at the expense of long-term investment in labor and productivity.  This is both more troubling for long-term prospects and more manageable--if we had the political will.  It is precisely in those cases where individual short-term maximization comes at the expense of longer-term and broader publication goods that politics should step in: to make markets work to the ends that we collectively decide on (and investment that promotes long-term stable growth should, in theory, be an easy one to decide on).  

As I have written about previously, Bob Frank proposes a steeply progressive consumption tax that would discourage wasteful consumption while not penalizing productive investment.  (See this and other policies that economists love and politicians hate at Planet Money.)

In his blog, Jon Shayne reports another immodest proposal from Josh May:namely that low P/E investments be taxed at a low rate and high (i.e. more speculative) P/E investments (at the time of purchase) have a high capital gains tax rate.  As Jon points out, another alternative would be for the capital gains tax rate to become progressively lower over time (i.e. rewarding holding and long-term investment).

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Extremists are Happiest

I've been looking at what contributes to wellbeing around the world.  As reported in previous posts, beyond a basic income, health, and social relations, one of the key elements of overall life satisfaction is commitment to larger projects that go beyond the self.  Such commitment can range from mastering a craft or field or sport to patriotism or religious belief to supporting a hate group.  It just has to be a project that transcends narrow self-interest and gives meaning to life.

In this light, I was fascinated by a NY Times op-ed piece by Arthur C. Brooks that my brother David sent me.  Brooks reports on a Pew Center study that finds conservatives much more likely to say they are very happy about their lives than are liberals.  And extremists on both sides of the political spectrum, the hard core ideologues, report that they are the happiest of all.  The conservative/liberal divide is not so surprising given that long term partnerships (marriage) and religious beliefs are associated with happiness, and conservatives are more likely to have both.

At first blush, the happy extremists are the puzzle.  The world endlessly refuses to operate how these true believers think that it should.  Certainly , this should lead to more frustration than happiness.  But that is not the case.  In terms of wellbeing, actually changing the world is less important than the psychological and social commitment to larger projects.  The fevor of extremists beliefs bestows meaning and purpose on life's activities, whether or not they are successful.  Perhaps ideological fervor brings individual life satisfaction although writ large it can certainly also reduce collective wellbeing.   

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Can reducing our choices increase our happiness? PopAnth link

In Michael Lewis' recent profile of Obama in Vanity Fair, the President remarks, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits.  I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” While my work is much less stressful that Obama's, I too have stopped making eating decisions (I order what someone else at the table has ordered or whatever my wife cooks) to reduce the number of choices I have to make in daily life.  If I go to the supermarket, rather than compare prices and sizes, I pick the brand name I see first.  It is worth the extra 20 cents to not have to worry over another decision.

This begs the question: Does more choice make us happier? The instinctive American response would certainly be yes, but a comparison of German and US shoppers suggests otherwise. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Friday, September 7, 2012

Organic Foods and Moral Provenance

A recent study out of Stanford finds little documentable nutritional value for organic foods.  As reported by NPR, the metastudy found no impact in individuals' actual health based on eating organic and that the nutritional benefits of specific vegetables grown organically is lost in the vast range of nutrient levels found in all supermarket vegetables.

One of the folks interviewed on NPR remarked that this didn't change his view and that he would continue buying organic anyway.

Indeed, the premium paid for organic foods is a clear instance of what James Foster and I term "moral provenance," valuing an item not just on its utility but the social conditions in which it was produced and distributed.

Speaking of provenance calls to mind Bordeaux wine and Parma ham and fine art.  Yet, there are many sorts of provenance, signaling moral values, ecological externalities, identity, and other elements as well as quality, taste, and authenticity.  The notion of “fair trade” as well as “union made” is based on provenance.  eBay’s seller rating system is so successful because it can provide some assurance of provenance in the context of anonymous, distant, and likely one-time transactions.  Even the mortgage backed derivative crisis of 2008 and beyond comes back to an issue of provenance (and bad and misleading provenancing of underlying securities).  

Moral provenance refers to the social conditions embedded in a commodity chain and the social, economic, and environmental externalities implicated in transactions; that is to say, moral provenance represents the non-supply-and-demand values encoded in the value chain.  Moral provenance manifests itself in consumer behavior in a willingness to pay a premium for positive externalities and to punish companies for (perceived and actual) negative externalities. 

The "Laws" of Economics

My brother David sent me this from the Bastiat Institute.  My father was a huge fan of Frederic Bastiat, the acerbic wit of the Austrian economics movement, and always kept a case of his The Law in his car trunk to hand out to anyone he thought might be interested and read it.  He probably gave away thousands of copies over his lifetime.

Sentimentality notwithstanding, the problem with this saying is (1) that it is so widely held (implicitly) in traditional neoclassical economic teaching and explicitly in public policy, and (2) that it fundamentally mistakes social contrivances for natural law.  The "law" of supply and demand certainly does work in many market contexts (if imperfectly, the modeling of which has built many economists' careers).  BUT, those market contexts are built on formal laws and informal norms, on historical trajectories and institutional structures that are cultural, social, human.

It is important that we understand that markets are social contrivances and not the product of natural laws--doing so gives us the freedom to use markets to promote the sort of life we value.  Sure, truck and barter is part of the human condition, as Adam Smith phrased it.  But we construct just how we go about it.  And seeing markets as something we create gives us the power to change them toward the ends we best see fit.  In contrast, seeing markets as expressing natural laws allows our leaders to disavow hard moral and political choices onto the moral logics of the market.  Industrial policy, regulation, and all the other currently unfashionable ideas should not be seen as misguided attempts to change the inevitable, but as morally neutral tools to orient markets towards ends that we collectively (if I dare use that word) decide are the best.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Maní+: Fighting Malnutrition in Guatemala

For the last four years I have been leading an effort to fight malnutrition in Guatemala, where 49% of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition.  With the assistance of INCAP, the Shalom Foundation, Funcafe, and others, we have now opened a pilot factory and are producing trial batches.

Maní+ offers an innovative and holistic approach to combating malnutrition in Guatemala while providing economic development opportunities for rural farmers.
  We have developed a locally-sourced and nutrient rich supplementary food customized to the specific nutritional needs of Guatemalan children.  Our Ready To Use Supplementary Food (RUSF) is accompanied by a culturally-appropriate educational model and programs to help farmers produce high-value products for new markets. 

Read more at:   and visit us on the web at (website still under construction, excuse the draft form). 

We have a great team: Carlos Giron and Sasha de Beausset leading operations; Miguel Cuj heading up research and product development; Raxche' Rodriguez heading up education; and Cecilia Skinner-Klee serving as director of development.  (We are in need of further funding in the $50,000-$400,000, range if you are righting checks).

Saturday, August 4, 2012

German Eggs, Guatemalan Coffee, and the Good Life

(wordcloud created with

German Eggs, Guatemalan Coffee, and the Good Life: An Anthropological Look at Markets, Values and Wellbeing (my new manuscript) presents a simple proposition: the ends of the economy, as well as politics, should be provisioning the good life for people as they themselves conceive it.  The rub is, of course, that while we may all want to live the good life, we differ widely on just what that entails.  The book examines wellbeing in two very different cultural contexts, teasing out lessons for the good life and how best to achieve it.   

We look to middle class German supermarket shoppers and to impoverished Maya farmers in Guatemala, uncovering how they use the market as consumers and as producers in pursuit of the good life.  In both places, the good life implies more than mere happiness: it implies wellbeing, fulfillment, the meaningful existence Aristotle termed eudaimonia.  An adequate income is absolutely necessary, but alone is insufficient, for overall wellbeing.  As other research has noted, health and physical security, family bonds and social relations are also important.  But my research points to several additional key elements of the good life that go beyond material standards of living:

·         Agency and Aspiration: Aspiration, a view of the future based on ideas about the good life, gives direction to agency, the power to act and to control one’s destiny 
·         Opportunity Structures: The will—agency—is alone not enough; there must also be a way, a set of structures (social, economic, legal) that provide real opportunities to realize one’s aspirations
·         Dignity and Fairness: The exact contours of “fairness” vary across cultures, but everywhere wellbeing depends on how one is treated in relation to others, socially as well as economically  
·         Commitment to a Meaningful Project: Having a purpose that is larger than one’s self provides a crucial sense of meaning to life; being a part of such larger projects is fundamental to wellbeing and the good life

I illustrate these themes through thick descriptions of German eggs and cars, Guatemalan coffee and cocaine—things to which people attach their aspirations and desires for a good life, both extraordinary and mundane. 

Buying eggs may be one of life’s more mundane tasks, something most of us do without much thought beyond occasionally comparing prices.  But egg shopping in Germany compels one to make an explicit moral decision with every purchase, to lay bare the price one puts on certain values.  Since 2004 Germany has required all eggs to carry a numeric code that denotes how the chickens were raised.  Among German shoppers we find a broad concern with the moral provenance of eggs, which they explain in terms of ecological conscientiousness and a salient cultural notion of social solidarity.  They see such consumer choices as a way of pursuing their vision of what the world should look like, of the good life for themselves and others.
While you may not have spent much time thinking about where yours eggs come from, there is a good chance that you have considered the origin of your coffee, if only to order the Antigua mild or Colombian blend at your coffee shop.  Much high-end gourmet coffee these days is grown by poor, smallholding Maya farmers in the highlands of Guatemala.  The high altitude lands to which they have been relegated over the centuries turns out to be ideally suited for producing the complexly flavored coffees preferred by today’s affluent consumers. These Maya farmers have entered the coffee market in pursuit of something better for themselves and their families, a productive if imperfect path for achieving their own visions of the good life.

In this book, we see how elements of wellbeing are expressed by German consumers and Maya producers, what this means for their visions of the good life, and what they can tell us about wellbeing. 

To understand what the good life could be calls for empirical study of how the world works (the “is”), but also a critical analysis of how things got that way and moral reflection about how the world might be different (the “ought”).  I conclude by suggesting a “positive anthropology” that works between the is and the ought, documenting the ways people around the world conceive of and work toward wellbeing to glean practical as well as theoretical lessons for approaching the good life. 

The entire manuscript draft is available (in A4 format if you are printing) at and I would welcome comments.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

German Quirks: Class Awareness, Exchange Huts, and Lard Balls

The graffiti in Germany is more in your face, demonstrating a much greater awareness of class positions.  I also find it interesting the German quirk of having what I think of as "sticker graffiti," stickers printed with what would normally appear as painted graffiti and plastered on signs and poles.

And, while this is exactly typical, the other day I ran across an "exchange hut," where folks can leave things they no longer need and pick up things others have left. This one is from the Altona neighborhood of Hamburg.

And to add to the list of peculiarities not available in the States, let us look at the at the German meat counter.
Here we see Schmalzbällchen, balls of lard that one can get with onion or with raisins and apple pieces.  The first time I visited Germany, I went with my wife-to-be to a New Year's party where we were served schmalz smeared on bread.  In Alabama, we pour pork fat into an old coffee can and then throw it away.  What a waste.

Germans have a seemingly endless variety of aspic with vegetables and/or unidentifiable pieces of meat that they cut like salami or bologna.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Five One-Handed Economists, Paying German to Hold Your Money

Planet Money, consistently producing the best economics journalism around, have a couple of recent stories of interest.  (Hey, Adam Davidson: still waiting on you to broadcast the interview with me and Bob Frank that you recorded last year!):

Six policies economists love (and politicians hate),  including eliminating the mortgage deduction on personal income taxes and the health insurance deduction for companies, legalizing marijuana, introducing a carbon tax, and replacing income taxes with consumption taxes (the later two eloquently promoted by Bob Frank in The Darwin Economy). 

Investors pay Germany to hold their cash: as a sign of the topsy-turvy economic times in which we live, Germany's latest bond offering sold at a negative yield: investors are actually paying Germany to hold onto their money for them.  I wonder if I can get a deal like that from my bank.

Online Parks in Merida

At the ICA meetings I heard a fascinating paper by Gabriela Vargas-Cetina who reports on free public internet access in Merida (Yucatan, Mexico).  Merida provides an extensive network of free wireless internet access in public parks throughout the city.  The service appears to work exceptionally well (Gaby reports speeds are faster than in her university office) and, amazing, each park has a kiosk with a telephone for free technical support.

Underindulgence and Happiness

Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton report on fascinating research that suggests temporary abstinence increases pleasure--and that sharing treats increases happiness even more.  We might think that if we like something and have the means and access to consume it, the more we consume, the happier we would be.  In fact, not overindulging, or even indulging, increases our appreciation for the object.  Dunn and Norton call this underindulgence.  This links to the argument in my new book manuscript, described in a previous post, that regulating our choices can, counter-intuitively, increase our wellbeing.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pennsylvania or the Netherlands?

Barnachy: Trading States for Countries: U.S. States renamed for countries with matching GDP- interesting. What's more interesting?  Considering the possible trades.
From the excellent new blog, Barnach, by Brent Savoie

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Merle Hazard's Fiscal Cliff

Merle Hazard has done it again! Capturing neatly the political and economic conundrum we face come January, this time Merle pays tribute to the surf songs of yesterday.  Another must listen from that pioneer of "Country and Eastern."  Also check out Merle's lyric contest on the PBS NewsHour website.

My friend Bruce Barry has not only a sharp mind but a sharp pen to go with it.  Like H. L. Mencken, Bruce is always ready with clever and to-the-point analysis tempered by just the right tone of levity.  We are fortune that Bruce's running commentary is now available at  Check it out.

Waving the German Flag

Germans have, understandably, had a complicated relationship with their flag and other symbols of nationalism since the Second World War.  When I first started coming to Germany in the early 1990s, I was struck by how seldom one saw a flag in contrast to the States.  But things have been changing since then.  When we were here during the 2006 World Cup, I saw for the first time folks hanging flags on their houses and their cars, publicly proclaiming their pride in Germany.

If 2006 was the start, the European Cup this year marks a new phase for German pride in their flag.  I have never seen so many German flags--they even reach post 9/11 levels of flag display in the U.S.  THE ECONOMIST this week has a great report on why this is a healthy thing and how current German patriotism is of the unaggressive, even brotherly, variety. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Not Available in America

In this age of globalization, of frictionless markets, it is interesting to take note of what does not travel, what is still only available in some place.  Some of this is cultural specificity, of course.  The demand for burkas in Guatemala is minimal, the appetite for German lard spread rare in the US.  But even beyond culturally quirky items (and high-end designer goods), there are a number of useful things that don’t cross our fluid economic boundaries.

Much of the difference is subtle.  The cut of clothes in Germany, for example, is different than in the US, and not just expensive clothes.  Haircuts too: they use a noticeably different technique here to cut hair, noticeable even to me.  But we find other, more noticeable things as well, things that might could or should be more widely available:

In the US, for example, it is exceedingly difficult to find good street bicycles, what the German’s call “city bikes.” With a chain guard to protect clothes and a carrying rack for hauling things, these are the commonplace workhorses of German bike culture.  Despite their yeoman’s work, there is a beauty to a well made city bike, a simplicity, durability, and responsiveness that helps meld the bike to rider.  The bike I drive in Nashville was bought in Amsterdam, and I have been looking into getting a replacement while I am in Germany.  The bike shop here is generally a pleasure to deal with, very professional and very knowledgeable.  If I do buy the one I am looking at, however, I will need to pay cash, as the store, which sell bikes costing thousands of Euros, doesn’t take credit cards.  And they looked at me funny for even asking.

Speaking of bikes, Deutsche Bahn has a great system of “Call-a-Bike.”  All around Cologne are these DB bikes locked to bike racks and poles.  To use one you call from your cellphone the number on the bike; you get a code that you enter into the lock and then you use it as you like (6 Euro cents per minute) and lock it where you wind up.  There is, of course, an app to find nearby bikes.  Lots of cities are exploring bike sharing, but the cell phone angle (and even more important, the ubiquity) makes a big difference.

Some beauty products don't seem to travel well, and the Germans have a well developed personal grooming market.  The most popular toothpaste (by a wide margin) comes in two tubes: you use one in the morning (for cavities) and one at night (for gums); I think the Crest we use in the States puts all of this into one (indeed, from the label it does everything but spit for you).  And then there are earwax removers.  No you probably aren't supposed to put metal wires into your ears, but sometimes you just need to get something out of your ear.  And there is no better way, really, than the Maya Ohrenreiniger.

The best way to drink coffee is brewing single cups; it takes more time, but slowing pouring hot water over a single cup produces superior results. But it is always awkward when you have more than a couple of folks over.  So, now, if you have three people over for coffee, neighborhood kitchen store has the answer: 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lamy, Kim, and Gauck: Changes Afoot in the WTO, World Bank, and Germany

An optimist at heart, I always look for those bits of news that suggest positive change is afoot.  This week there were several.

Pascal Lamy, the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), wrote a piece in The Globalist arguing that "Capitalism will not survive the [current] legitimacy test without stronger domestic safety nets and a more effective multilateralism."  If not quite Occupy Wall Street rhetoric, it is remarkable coming from the (albeit French) head of the WTO, which has long served as a strong proponent of open markets and free trade at all costs.  Economists going back to Adam Smith long assumed that more trade is always better--if it is free trade, both parties must come out better or they wouldn't engage in it.  But recent research in international trade recognizes that in fact there are often winners and losers as well as cases of clear mutual benefit.  This does not mean that markets are good or bad, just that they can be used towards many ends.  And the points Lamy raises lead us toward the moral and political decisions we have to collectively make if we are to structure markets to best promote overall wellbeing.

In other news, the International Herald Tribune reports that President Obama has nominate Jim Yong Kim to head the World Bank.  China, Brazil, Indian, Russia and other emerging powers are expressing a growing unrest with the standing informal agreement that Europe picks the IMF chief and the U.S. picks the World Bank head.  Putting that aside, though, President Obama's pick is remarkable for a couple of reasons.  First, he is an anthropologist, holding both an MD and a PhD in anthropology from Harvard.  Along with Paul Farmer, he co-founded Partners in Health, and his work has been at the intersection of health and development.  Anthropologists have been some of the most vocal critics of the Bank's policies in the developing world, and appointing Kim sends an important message about the institution's trajectory.

Finally,we have Germany's new president, Joachim Gauck.  The press here has played up the significance that (while born in Hamburg) Gauck was raised in East Germany; thus, along with Merkel, Germany is now led by two former East Germans.  This is a historic shift, but mostly because it doesn't seem to mean much for the workings of the country; perhaps the long discussed "normalization" is finally here, in the heights of government at least if not the unemployed youth of Brandenburg.  The other revealing aspect of Gauck's election also derives its significance from not creating much of a ruckus.  Gauck, a preacher, is married, but separated from his wife for years, and he will move into the presidential palace Bellevue with his long time partner, Daniela Schadt.  What would Rick Santorum say?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Spring Time in the Volksgarten

The weather in Cologne hit the lowers 70s (breaking into the twenties, Celsius), and it was like someone flipped a switch.  From one day to the next the parks were full of folks laying on the lawns, walking on the paths, reading books, and just soaking up the warmth.  Germans are quick to strip to bikinis and speedos, but this year the transition from parkas to beachwear was especially dramatic. 

And it is not just the parks.  The streets are full, cafes have put out their tables, and there is a general liveliness.  I like it because I like to be alone around other people.  I find even the fleeting and anonymous social interaction—seeing the other folks with whom I inhabit this city—invigorating.

My German friends accuse me of romanticizing life here, and there are lots of drawbacks to be sure.  Perhaps it is my John LeCarré inspired false nostalgia of Cold War Germany, but there is a palpable sense of socialist realism to German daily life.  For instance, I carry around plastic shopping bags with me, never knowing when I might need to buy something; there is an art to having the right size bag handy when the occasion arises.  Or the Volksgarten (People’s Garden) down the street from my institute, with its concrete table tennis tables, paths and pond, empty last week and today filled with amiable drunks, not so amiable punks, children playing, families out for a stroll, students and business people reading.

While I tend to optimistically look for the best in situations, it certainly is true that the German system is by no means perfect.  In some inconveniences, I find positive externalities.  For example, I have a small refrigerator—about the size of the larger dorm refrigerators they sell in the States; and even many well appointed German homes have what to American standards are almost comically small refrigerators.  As I result I find myself going to the grocery store all the time.  It is hassle, but it also forces me to have the sorts of even nominal social interface that oils the gears of Gemeinschaft.

There are more insidious downsides as well.  German notions of solidarity also imply exclusion, and German economic growth has been significantly fueled by guest workers long denied citizenship.  There is also a German propriety about social class.  Indeed, to American ears, it is shocking how bluntly folks speak of such things, one’s proper place in the social order.  Even on television.  I have watched a few episodes of a German reality show of real estate agents showing folks potential apartments.  It was amazing to see how they overtly guided their clients not just to what they can afford but what is most appropriate for them and their social class—all in a way that would probably break all sorts of U.S. fair housing laws.  The distance between professionals and working class is on the whole no greater here than in the U.S., but it is much more overtly recognized as such.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kölner Karneval

Today is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the ecstatic culmination of carnival in New Orleans.  Köln celebrates carnival with equal fervor, but here the big day is not today, Veilchendienstag, but yesterday’s Rosenmontag parades. 

The season itself begins at 11:11 on November 11th, especially auspicious last year (’11).  But things really get started the Thursday before Ash Wednesday.  That is Weiberfasnacht, Women’s Carnival, with women taking over city hall and cutting men’s ties in the streets.  Forewarned, I wore an old tie for my symbolic castration at the hands of colleagues at the Max Planck Institute.
photo courtesy of Astrid Duenkelmann

Carnival theory (from Bakhtin to Roberto DaMatta) is all about the liminal state, turning the world upside down for a bit before resuming the normal state of things.  In fact, it has been said that carnival is a sort of pressure release valve that actually supports the social order even as it mocks it.

Having lived for a while in New Orleans, I developed an affinity for Carnival celebration there, and the similarities and differences with Köln are striking.  There is more overt political satire here than in New Orleans.  And this year there was a scramble to rework a number of floats making fun of Christian Wulff, the German president, as he resigned on Friday.

There are more costumes here as well.  From my unscientific sample counting folks walking by on the street in front of my apartment, more than 60% were dressed in some sort of costume, and this gives a critical mass to masking, making it the norm rather than the deviation.  The minimal costume is the ever present red clown nose (the Pappnas) or a Köln coat of arms painted on the face.  But there are a huge number of one-piece furry animal outfits, with maybe 20% of those in costume wearing a fuzzy rabbit or dog costume.

There is much less nudity than in New Orleans, but more mild vandalism (tearing down traffic signs, breaking bottles in the street, lots of public urination). 

But the vibe is very similar to New Orleans.  The street food here is more along the lines of mettwurst (a raw beef spread served on a roll) rather than Lucky Dogs, but other than that it feels a lot like Mardi Gras in German.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Biking Against Traffic on a One-Way Street, and other ways of managing many modes of transportation

It is striking how many modes of transportation one sees on the street in Koeln, or most German cities for that matter.  Of course, there are the cars (more German and less Asian than we see in the States) and the public transportation (here we have buses, subway, tram, and rail).  But what I find really intriguing are the many human powered conveyances.
            There are a plethora of bikes, from what seem like dangerously low recumbents to almost comically tall lamplighters.  There are cruisers and racing cycles, Amsterdam bikes and myriad just plain bikes.  The normal bike here, a “city bike,” has a chain guard, fenders, and a carrier (often with a basket)—sehr practisch for everyday use.  (And oddly difficult to get a bike so configured in a place like Nashville—I had to haul the one I use back as excess baggage a few years ago.)  You see many more unicycles here, along with skateboards and two-wheeled scooters.  And these are used by a wider demographic than we would find in Nashville—it is not uncommon to see men in their thirties on a skateboard or women of a certain age using a scooter.  That always seems a little incongruous to me, but I do find the sheer range of transportation stimulating and provocative.  Why shouldn’t I take a skateboard to run a short errand in the pedestrian zone?
            It is not all rainbows and unicorns, as my friend Brent says, or, here, unicycles and hot air balloons.  In fact, Koeln is not an especially bike-friendly city, at least compared to Hannover, where we lived before.  It was quickly rebuilt after the war, with plenty of four and six lane roads criss crossing it; some have bike lanes and some do not; although I just live a couple of kilometers away, it is not easy for me to bike to the Hauptbahnhof.
            Still, there are a number of clever public planning devices the Germans use that I wish we would have more.  It is often the case, for example, that a street with one-way car traffic will allow have two-way bike traffic.  This slows down cars, gives an advantage to bike commuters in terms of cutting route time, and is practical, recognizing bikers’ tendencies to stretch traffic rules (perhaps justified by a greater awareness of their surroundings and traffic).  There are other devices to slow cars down, including bike stands in the street, pedestrian crossings, and subtle humps in the road.  We have such techniques, of course, in the States, it just seems that we don't use them as generously.
            If, for economic, health, and environmental reasons, a city decided it would be desirable to reduce traffic, such devices provide a gentle nudge to encourage alternative forms of transportation.

Germany/Guatemala similarities

An updated version of an older post:

The two sites of my anthropological fieldwork have been Guatemala and Germany.  At first blush, they would seem to share little more in common than an initial "G."  While equally exotic in their own ways, looking a little deeper we find a surprising number of similarities.  Whether this is a case of ancient contact, modern diffusion, or just uncanny parallel evolution, I will leave it to the reader to decide.  But consider these traits and behaviors found in both places:
-a bureaucratic obsession with paper certificates, seals, tax stamps, and so forth; hard copy, notarized copies are often required for mundane tasks;

-folks make routine purchases in smaller quantities (tending more to what can be easily carried) and, subsequently, more frequent trips to the store than is the Stateside norm

-there is an attention to and use of titles, such as Ing., Diplm., Lic. In addition to Prof. or Dr.

-there is a formality in everyday address: use of Sie and Ud.

-one finds small kiosks on almost every corner

-one drinks coke from glass bottles that are returnable for a deposit

-on the train in Germany conductors go through after every stop and check tickets of new passengers–remembering who has been checked; this same role is assumed by the ayudantes on Guatemalan buses

-weekly markets with fresh produce, meat, artisan handicrafts

-abundance of different sorts of mushrooms, very seasonal

-willingness to make long commutes in order not to move, attachment to place

-cash-based economy–I find myself always looking to change large bills as smaller bills are needed at the smaller stores

-legacies of Holocaust violence, racialized discourses

-more public urination; drunk men and young kids will pee in the streets, for example, if a toilet isn't handy

-more developed artisanry market: cobblers, brush salesmen, etc

–annual town fiestas

-more people walking (although for different reasons) than we find in the States

-ritual drinking: a variety of public rituals that involve ceremonial drinking, often from the same glass