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.