Thursday, January 26, 2012

Germany's One-way Escalators and the Value of Small Travails

In Germany one frequently encounters one-way escalators, an escalator going up and stairs to come down.  In the grocery store, in the airport—if not quite the norm, they still seem to be everywhere.  In one view this reflects a German propensity of austerity: just providing the necessary, convenience that shies away from excess.  It is also emblematic of the little difficulties and challenges that fill daily life here, much more so than in Nashville.

There isn’t a good German translation for “convenient.”  “Bequem” works in some contexts, but it carries the connotation of “comfortable.”  “Praktisch” comes closest to convenience, and indeed is a high complement in German, frequently heard, but it too misses the nuance of the English sentiment.  Praktisch is a rational practically, an efficient solution to a problem that maximizes benefits against costs.  Convenience implies efficiency as well, but with more of a sense of indulgence and greater trade-offs with costs and quality.

I find the little difficulties of German daily life to be sometimes aggravating but generally fulfilling.  It forces one to be more aware of certain aspects of life, especially in terms of consumption, that serve to promote a common good.  The grocery store closest to my apartment is in a pedestrian zone; as would commonly be the case in Manhattan (but not Nashville), I have to haul everything I purchase home (in bags that I brought to the store).  It makes one more conscious of the marginal costs of any extra purchase.  This is a hassle when buying bunch of drinks or bottled water, for example, and then, on top of hauling them home, I have to carry all the empty containers back to the store for the deposit.  (And carry them in the bags I will put the new groceries in—very praktisch.) 

One also is made keenly aware of the amount of waste one produces.  I have to sort all of my trash into a confusing array of color-coded trash bags and rubbish bins, the bags carry taxes corresponding to the type of refuse.  I have to look closely at each piece of trash I produce, a process that seeps into the consciousness, affecting the way I look at all sorts of quotidian activities and anchoring a certain form of prudence.

Washing machines here are super efficient in terms of water and energy usage.  But a normal cycle may take almost two hours to complete.  Many houses and apartment buildings have only a washing machine, and clothes are hung up to dry.  This is changing as dryer sales increase, but the German dryers are as slow as the washing machines.  This requires a serious time commitment to do the laundry.  No wonder Germans tend to wear their clothes more often between washings than Americans do.

Robert Nozick famously poised the question if one would prefer real life or an “experience machine” that could fully replicated reality with all of the good and none of the bad.  He suggests that most folks would choose real life.  We want the challenges, we want to create our own destinies, the work of becoming is what gives meaning to our existence.  It is in this light that I appreciate the little inconveniences of life in Germany, as much of a hassle as they may sometimes be; the little extra effort and forced self-reflectivity give greater meaning to life’s little chores.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Financially Suspicious Minds

Merle Hazard, pioneer of the finance country genre, takes his satirical observations from the airwaves to the page:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Worker's Paradise? German Labor Demands for More Pay and Less Work

The German news today brought reports of an upcoming doctor's strike.  And this is not the first.  It seems like German doctors strike all the time.  This speaks to two key differences with the U.S. system.  First, most German doctors are employees of hospitals and clinics, with a set salary.  Several of my friends in healthcare say that the U.S. will inevitably move toward this model.  What would be harder for U.S. physicians to swallow would be German salaries, in the 48,000 - 60,000 Euro range (and that before high taxes).  It also reflects Germany's more powerful organized labor (even of professionals) and a willingness to agitate for distributional issues.

VW recently announced that its corporate Blackberry server will stop sending message to employee's devices 30 minutes after their work day ends and will not begin again until 30 minutes before the next shift.  This results from an agreement reached with VW's powerful work council (see the Financial Times article).  As with all large German companies, VW's works council holds just under half of the corporate board's seats.  From an American perspective, this is incredible, almost unthinkable.  But under the German model of "co-determination" that treats employees as stakeholders alongside stockholders, it works.  And as the VW action shows, workers are wary of capital's gains through increased productivity allowed by 24/7 accessibility.  They are willing to fight not only for wages, but also for quality of life, and, indeed, independence and dignity, to not be seduced into being at another's beck and call.   

BMW, in this same spirit of compromise between capital and labor, made it a policy a couple of years ago that executive wages should not exceed 25 times the company's average wage.  That is still generous by continental standards (although the U.S. is in an all together different league, with Russia and India and China, the USRICs), but is a crucial symbol of the value placed on solidarity.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Views from the Rhein

For the next three months I am in Köln (the Romans' "Colonia," which gives rise to our Cologne, the place and the scent), and so this blog will focus on life on this side of the pond and the Rhein. 

Adam Davidson, in the latest installment of his insightful new column in the NY Times Magazine, suggest "The Other Reason Europe is Going Broke": it is not just the debt and currency crisis, but labor inflexibility.  While the currently low unemployment rates in Germany are cause for envy, Davidson argues that in the long-term, the generous social benefits of social democracies (namely, making it hard to fire people) stymies the dynamism that the US economy enjoys.  Davidson cites the success of Denmark's "fexicurity" policies that make hiring and firing relatively easy while providing generous unemployment benefits and retraining programs.  Indeed, I think he gives short shrift to the virtues of the European model, not just Denmark, but Germany as well.  Germany had its own labor reform in the "Harz IV" laws of 2005.  This is still a long way from U.S. style labor flexibility (also known as insecurity), but that does not seem to have hindered the steady, slower paced engineering innovations that are the hallmark of Germany's medium-sized manufacturing sector, and the engine of its export economy.  Such skilled manufacturing creates what American politicians like to term "good jobs," well paid, with benefits, a modicum of security, and the dignity that goes with using one's particular skills and talents.  The German system might not reach the dynamic heights of U.S. innovation, but the slow and steady approach has paid off remarkably well in the current global crisis.    

For these three months, I have the great fortune to be an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow and a Visiting Researcher at the Max-Plank-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung here in Köln. I am fond of the German approach to research institutes--intensely serious work and quirky niceties that make it enjoyable.  There is the egalitarian ethic that mandates we all wash our own dishes in the kitchen, and yet there is a consciousness of titles and formalities (I enjoy the grand sounding Prof. Dr. designation, so noted on my door as well as on my bank card and train tickets).