Two Cheers for the Revolting French Students

William Pfaff analyzes analyzes the French riots in the New York Review of Books without a hint of frog-scolding. To Pfaff (a man of the left), the demonstrations, for all their silly excesses, are a harbinger of increasingly sharp debates to come, as globalization begins to threaten more and more Western workers who once thought their jobs secure:

I would suggest a larger explanation for the prevailing anxiety: that, as throughout modern history, France functions as the coal miner’s canary of modern society, reacting to political and social forces before anyone else. France’s refusal to approve the European Union constitutional treaty two years ago caused an international shock because the voters rejected the view, all but universally held among European elites, that continuing expansion and market liberalization are essential to the EU, indeed inevitable. The reaction of the European public elsewhere to the French vote seems, on the whole, to have been one of relief.


[From the perspective of globalizaion skeptics], what in France seems a sterile popular defense of an obsolete social and economic order might instead be understood as a premonitory appeal for a humane successor to an economic model that considers labor a commodity and extends price competition for that commodity to the entire world. The apparently reactionary or even Luddite position inspired by French reactions might prove prophetic.

As for French politicians:

Neither political party, as a party, has made other than an equivocal or reactionary challenge to the social and economic model of market liberalism that much of France rejects. As elsewhere in Europe—notably in the European Commission under its current president—French elites seem unaware of the degree to which the global model they are being pressed to adopt is already under attack from within. Instead, the French, who consider pessimism evidence of intelligence, are telling themselves that the nation suffers some profound crisis.

The European Parliament and CIA Flights

The Christian Science Monitor, an American newspaper with a solid team of foreign reporters, addresses the European Parliament’s investigation of CIA flights and prisons in Europe.

The article makes two main points. The first one, which I find pretty interesting, is that the European Parliament seems to be consciously bypassing national parliaments and officials. The EU Parliament is investigating something  that Europeans themselves — but not necessarily their respective national governments — want investigated:

The [EU Parliament’s] allegations have so far created few official waves, coming as they do as European governments mull their own responses to international terrorism – and after reports late last year had already prompted a round of transatlantic diplomacy. But the response does indicate that the US has a black eye not so much with European governments, but with European publics. And it also hints – as the report alleges – that at least some European governments not only knew of the flights and transfers of suspected terrorists, but also cooperated with them.

European governments and security forces, the piece makes clear, are urgently aware of the risk they face from Islamist terrorism. I’ve been surprised to see more press coverage of European anti-terror tactics (especially in France) in the English-speaking press than in the European press. Generally, the coverage is neutral or even positive, as in "Even though France has millions of Islamic citizens, it has had no terrorist attacks on its soil. That’s not by chance, it’s the result of a successful security policies. Here’s what they are — marvel at their un-French harshness!"

I didn’t see a single article on this topic during my stay in France, and I’ve seen only one in Germany, although it’s possible I’ve missed something. I often wonder whether, if Europeans received daily coverage of their own governments’ aggressive anti-terrorist policies (including surveillance, infiltration, detention, and deportation), that would change their attitude toward the fact that their officials tacitly consented to the CIA’s actions…

Chainsaws, Loincloths, Eurovision

This band is Finland’s entry to the 2006 Eurovision song contest:

They’re called Lordi. They sing songs like "Chainsaw Buffet." According to the New York Times, after they were nominated to represent Finland, "critics called for President Tarja Halonen to use her constitutional powers to veto the band and nominate a traditional Finnish folk singer instead."

Lead singer Tomi Putaansuu said ""In Finland, we have no Eiffel Tower, few real famous artists, it is freezing cold and we suffer from low self-esteem. Finns nearly choked on their cereal when they realized we were the face Finland would be showing to the world."

I have mixed feelings about Lordi, despite my general approval of blood-spurting chainsaws and leather loincloths. On the one hand, mocking the Eurovision song contest is a national industry in the English-speaking world, providing needed subject matter to thousands of music journalists. From this perspective, the Eurovision song contest needs more, not fewer traditional Finnish folk singers.

But maybe it would actually be good for humanity if the ESC somehow became hip. Assuming, of course, that a higher global level of hipness is desirable. In any case, Lordi’s still playing catchup, considering that GWAR (featuring Oderus Urungus) was spurting blood on its audiences way back in the mid-1980s…

Germany’s Relaxed Mothers

Germany’s controversial Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently released a report on the state of German mothers which showed that German mothers with children under six years old spend "clearly" less time in gainful employment than mothers in many other EU countries.  According to this article in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the Family Report concludes that these mothers aren’t spending the extra free time in domestic work, but rather in "personal leisure time." 

Apparently, one of the sources for the Family Report’s conclusion was the How Europeans Spend their Time, a study released in 2004 by the European Commission.  This document is packed with fascinating tidbits:

  • The French have the most uniform mealtimes (p. 25).
  • Germans work an average of 1,509 hours per year, the second-lowest amount among the countries studied (the lowest?  Norway at 1,484) (p. 32)
  • Women do 2/3 of all domestic work (p. 45)
  • Food preparation is the most time-consuming task.  Hungarian women spend almost 90 minutes per day preparing food, while German women spend the least time, under 50 minutes.  Men (no surprise here) spend an average of about 20 minutes. (p. 49)
  • Dish-washing is also time-consuming.  Once again, those beleaguered Hungarian women lead the pack with almost 30 minutes of dish-washing per day. (p. 51)
  • Across Europe, women do 80% of the cleaning (p. 53).
  • Both men and women have about 5 hours of free time per day. (p.87)
  • Germans spend enormously more time at "entertainment and culture" outside the home (theatre, cinema, museums) than any of the other countries studied except Belgium! (p. 103)

To that last point, I can only say, Go Germany!

Kurt Tucholsky in English translated by Indeterminacy

Over at the aptly-named, Indeterminacy has begun translating pieces by the Weimar-era satirist, pamphleteer and poet Kurt Tucholsky (G).  A sample, from Tucholsky’s short 1919 essay "What May Satire Do?" [answer: everything]:

We should not be so narrow-minded. We, all of us, school teachers and shop owners and professors and editors and musicians and doctors and public officials and women and representatives of the people – we all have our shortcomings and comical sides and foibles great and small. We must not be so quick to protest ("Butcher’s Guild, protect your holiest of goods!") when once in a while someone tells a really good joke about us. It might be mean, but it should be honest. There isn’t a proper man or a proper class that cannot stand a fair shove. He might defend himself by the same means, he might strike back – but he should not turn away injured, outraged, offended. A cleaner wind would blow through our public life, would they all not take it badly.

Go have a look!

A German Orchestra in the Middle Kingdom

On Friday, I saw the premiere of a documentary about a German orchestra’s tour of China and Japan.  The orchestra in question is the Heinrich-Heine-University Orchestra, a semi-professional ensemble made up of current and former students of the University, under the leadership of University Music Director Silke Loehr.  (Disclosure: I know several members of the orchestra).  After months of intense preparation, the Orchestra finally set out, in fall of 2005, to play six concerts in Shanghai, Tokyo, and Beijing.

Ordinarily, you would hire professional tour managers to move 74 people and $60,000 worth of musical instruments around big foreign countries.  The HHU Orchestra, though, doesn’t have fancy managers.  The orchestra members all have day jobs, and took time away from those jobs to organize the tour themselves.  They booked the hotels, planned the itinerary, and managed the customs and visa regulations themselves.  Nobody paid them a cent; and many used up most or all of their vacation days to make the trip.

Fortunately for us, the orchestra was accompanied by a team of young filmmakers from Duesseldorf’s Robert Schumann Conservatory (G).  The conservatory students are studying sound and image technology, and the resulting film is their doctoral dissertation.  And boy, does it look professional — the director, Aleksander Bach, seamlessly mixes interviews, jump-cut videos of pulsing, neon-drenched metropolises, cinéma vérité treks through the backstreets of Beijing, dramatic confrontations with defective hotel doors and defective Chinese customs officials (who unexpectedly demanded a huge security deposit to let the orchestra’s instruments through customs), and — of course — generous excerpts of the orchestra playing Wagner, Schumann, Bizet, and Beethoven.

The interviews build the heart of the film.  The orchestra players share their impressions of China (delicious food, disagreeable officials, startling gap between rich and poor) and Japan (very clean, and orderly — during rush hour, all you hear in the subways is thousands of footsteps).  Ms. Loehr talks about the joys and frustrations of communal music-making, and the mild shock of realizing that in a dictatorship, there is nobody to appeal to if a customs official decides they don’t fancy letting your instruments into the country.

The Chinese and Japanese audiences were warmly appreciative, especially when the orchestra members realized that, pursuant to Asian custom, they were expected to applaud the audience back.  The reaction of the Chinese audiences seemed to indicate that many of them had never seen a live orchestra before — much less an orchestra which lobbed scorching Teutonic missiles like Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture at them.  After one concert, a local official told the orchestra that their visit was so exciting that he, and several others, would likely have trouble going to sleep!  After another concert, a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls ran screaming onto the stage asking for autographs, taking pictures of themselves with orchestra members, and generally practically wetting themselves with delirious excitement.

How do I get this thoughtful, lively 1-hour documentary, you ask?  Just visit its website (G), where you can watch a trailer for the film and place an order.  It only costs 11 Euros. You watch a fine movie, and support young filmmakers and amateurs who play just for the love of the music to boot.  What could be finer?

P.S.  Warning: the documentary’s all in German.  Those of you who have senselessly resisted learning German until now should finally give in.  For the stubborn few who continue to resist, I’ll let you know if an English version comes out.

The Rolling Stones Theory of Transatlantic Perceptions

"You can’t always get what you want," the Rolling Stones sing, "but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you can get what you need."

The Stones provide the soundbite for European press coverage of the United States (and, to a much lesser extent, Britain), and American coverage of Europe: Anglo-Americans criticize European societies because on the Continent, so the meme goes, the most talented members of society can’t get what they want.  The European press criticizes the United States because there, the least talented people can’t get what they need.

First, the America –> Europe direction.  What little coverage there is of Europe in the United States is driven by two constant themes: First, European polities are riven by deep ideological divides and are essentially ungovernable (Italy, France), or stifled by a need for consensus that strangles needed reforms in their crib (Germany).  This is a dire state of affairs, because (second theme) Europe needs a good big dose of liberalizing economic reform right now.  Europeans who have talent, ideas, and the will to work hard find incentives stifled by taxes and regulations, and innovative flexibility crushed by rigid work rules and union contracts.  European universities are overlarge, stuffy, incompetently-managed bureacracies where innovation is smothered by the "dead hand of the state."  To continue quoting The Economist:

The German government—both regional and central—tries to micro-manage every aspect of academic life, from whom universities employ to whom they can teach. The state has progressively starved universities of funds, not least because it has forbidden them from charging fees. It has also snuffed out academic competition. Universities have little power to pick their pupils and even less to attract star professors.

According to this critique, Europe’s future is pretty grim, because Europe desperately needs talent and new ideas.  Why?  Because it can only continue paying for its welfare states only by developing high-wage, high-value-added, knowledge-based economies.  European countries won’t survive with their current level of social welfare unless they concentrate on areas in which cheap substitutes can’t replace the real thing (medical devices and procedures, precision weapons, high-tech machine tools, space-age optical mirrors, etc.), create the best products in the world, and charge lots of money for them.

To put it with Anglo-Saxon bluntness, dumb, lazy, conventionally-minded people need not apply.  Only the smart, hard-working, and competitive are going to help you here.  European societies need to offer these talented people what most talented people want: money, privileges and freedom.  What Europe offers them instead is bureaucracy, mediocre universities, and economic envy. 

Since it is precisely the most talented people who are the most mobile (and the most sought-after), they will leave Europe and go to Britain, Ireland, the United States, or Canada.  Not all of them will leave, to be sure, since there are significant cultural differences.  But social transfer payments in Europe are so high that Europe needs every single one of these job-creating innovators it’s going to be preserve its standard of living. 

Even if it keeps them, the European welfare state has only a slim chance of survival in its present form, since the number of products so advanced that they can "only" be made by expensive, highly-trained European workers is dwindling every day.  You can now make precision autos, silk scarves, designer purses, and microchip machines just as well in India or Wolfsburg or Turin.  India is even exporting MBAs.

I’d say about half of all Anglo-American coverage of Europe (and all the business coverage) fits this paradigm.  [The other half praises Europe’s forward-thinking environmental policies, such as this article reporting on the almost-total success of the $25 billion effort to clean up the Rhine]. It’s a meme, a script, and iron rule of journalism: European social-welfare states must always be portrayed as a hindrance, an obstacle, an "outmoded" or "ultra-luxurious" safety net that is Europe’s biggest obstacle to success.

When Europeans read Anglo-American press coverage, they enter a parallel universe in which six weeks of paid vacation, job security, and extensive social benefits are bad.  Virtually all Europeans, of whatever political stripe, consider these things good, and are willing to sacrifice substantially to keep them. 

I’m occasionally present at conversations between American and European business people or lawyers, and have often noticed the moment when cultural misunderstanding begins.  The American (and some uncharacteristically undiplomatic Britons) begins talking about the stifling, expensive business environment in Europe.  The European businessman usually agrees, and begins joining in the complaints.  "I can’t fire unproductive workers!  I have to pay them whatever the salary agreement says!  They call in sick every single day they can, and I can’t do anything about it!"  Then, the American goes one — or several — steps too far. 

"You and I know, Karlheinz," says the American, "that Germany’s never gonna compete as long as it wastes all this money on culture and gives its people all these free government benefits.  Put a time limit on the unemployment insurance, make anybody take any job available, cut vacation down to 2 weeks a year, get rid of the Christmas money, the subsidies for children, and all that crap, and let bosses hire and fire at will.  Then Europe might be able to compete."  Here the European falls silent.  Perhaps he fingers his collar and smiles nervously, mumbling something about how "these are all very difficult questions…" 

When the European complained about bureacracy and benefits, he was just indulging in the age-old European hobby of bitching about the state of the world.  [Never assume that because a European complains about something, he actually wants it fixed!]  Sure, the European liberal would like to see some changes made in workplace rules and benefit schemes, but he’s talking about "loosening" the restrictions on firing workers, not getting rid of those restrictions altogether.  He thinks 6 weeks of vacation’s probably too much in the long run, but remember — he gets 6 weeks of vacation, too.  A reduction? Sure.  Down to 2 weeks?  Oh, goodness no. 

So that’s the American -> European side of the equation.  Tomorrow, the European -> American side — complete with another simulated conversation!

George Mikes on the “Collective Guilt” Hypothesis

A few weeks ago, I posted a short excerpt from a book called Über Alles by George Mikes.  A refresher: Mikes was born in Hungary, emigrated to England, and became a reasonably famous English comic.  They sent him all over the world to write humorous travel books, which became huge bestsellers. 

Because he spoke fluent German, his publishers sent him to travel through Germany in 1953, to see how the Jerries were getting on.  The result is hardly brilliant.  Mikes himself reminds the reader routinely that he’s just a comedian, and that nothing he says should be taken seriously.  The book does, however, provide an intermittently interesting time-capsule of a foreigner’s take on immediate post-war Germany.

In a chapter called "Shall We Love Them?" Mikes addresses the "collective guilt" hypothesis.  He also, of course, takes a few more swipes at humans who are foolish enough not to be British:

I met altogether two persons in Germany who thought in a balanced, logical and unemotional way about the German problem. Both were Germans. I heard many intelligent, brilliant and illuminating things from others, but everybody else I talked to was carried away by emotion as soon as this so-called German problem was mentioned.  The English in England have no bitter feelings against the Germans, in fact, they like them better than they like the French and much better than the Americans. There is something paternal in their attitude. And they seem to believe that there’s something irresistibly funny in being German.

In Germany, however, with very few exceptions, this attitude changes to dislike. This antipathy has nothing to do with former Nazi crimes or anything of the kind. The British dislike the Germans because they have their hair cropped in a funny way; because they eat sandwiches with a knife and fork; because they are formal, stiff and click their heels; and because they work too hard and take themselves deadly seriously. The Americans, on the other hand, always have the past crimes in mind. The Germans killed 6 million Jews, consequently every tenth German must be a murderer; no, it is even worse: every German must be one tenth of a murderer. That is a matter of clear calculation for the Americans. Americans feel very strongly against the persecution of races, provided (a) it is white races that are being persecuted and (b) it is outside the U.S.  And outright killing goes too far, in any case.

Millions of decent and sincere Americans are outraged by the enormity of Nazi crimes (as millions of Germans are, too) but the same decent and sincere Americans are aware that the Germans are good and reliable anti-Communists. Being anti-Communist is the supreme virtue today. All Nazis must be forgiven if they are genuinely anti-Communists just as, some years ago, all Communists were forgiven if they were genuinely anti-Nazis. In ten years time it may be again the other way round, and so on and so on, until one bright boy notices one day that there is not much to choose between a Nazi and a Communist concentration camp. But the  Americans believe that they are faced with a dilemma. They detest murder but love anti-Communists. The solution: they make the Germans their trusted allies but go on distrusting them. The French, in turn, feel deep resentment on nationalistic grounds. Their country was occupied, devastated and looted by the Germans (rather than the Nazis-the French have longer memories than the Americans).

Now the defeated Germans are better off than the victortous French, and they are becoming stronger and more dangerous every day. And the French are compelled to help them to increase their strength and thus to increase their own peril. The Germans do not like to be regarded as murderers. They are touchy people.  Most of them are not aware of the general  resentment felt against them, and most of them had nothing to do with Nazi crimes, in any case they were victims of the Nazis themselves — they say. Those who speak of the duties of the individual under a dictatorship should try to carry out these duties themselves under such circumstances before they give lessons to others. The Czechs have a splendid record of democratic government, and what can they do? 

If we are murderers-say the Germans, who have heard something about the fact that the world takes a poor view of mass murder — then we should not be forced to rearm. One does not rearm criminals. But if we are to create a new army, then free our generals and clear the name of our soldiers who all fought bravely and obeyed orders in time of war. All these views (except, of course, the British view, the most logical of all) are expressed in violent terms and accompanied by vehement emotions. Solutions? — they ask. Oh, the world is in such a mess, we just cannot find a way out of this quagmire. –"

Nowadays, in the period of courtship and mating, when we all are vying for German favours but still whisper "assassins" behind their backs, I feel we should pose the question: are the Germans responsible for Nazism?  It is a question that is never asked today, as it is considered tactless to speak about it. People stare into space whenever certain tricky subjects crop up and pretend that the six million Jews, and I do not know how many hostages, are still alive. Well — are the Germans responsible for Nazi crimes or not? My answer is: they are not.

I have arrived at this conclusion with hesitation but now I utter it with the firmness of a person who has some doubts about his doctrines. I am, of course, one single voice. Not even a politician, only a writer. Not even a writer, only a humorist. So do not take me seriously. I hold no brief for the Germans, I am far from enamoured of them. There was nothing new in dictatorship even in the pre-Nazi era. Internal oppression and external agression were not invented by Hitler. There used to be dictatorships in France, England, Italy and in almost all the countries of the world, and there is dictatorship in many countries today.  So it is quite groundless to say that there must be something uniquely wicked in the German character because they established a form of government which — after all — is or was known to almost all other peoples. There are several answers to that. First, people point out that the Germans voted for Hitler and consequently are responsible for him. I am not going into the details of arithmetical jugglery to find out whether Hitler received a real majority or not. He came to power by legal means and about half the nation voted for him. But the other half voted against him.

And what did the pro-Nazis vote for?  Some for a strong hand; others for an extreme nationalistic policy; others against the Communists; others against Versailles; others against unemployment; others against weak and detested regime; others for militarism, uniform, and the goose-step; others for a strong anti-semitic policy. In other words many of them voted for ugly and repulsive ideas and the may be blamed to a great extent. Yet, hardly anyone voted for aggressive war, the killing of hostages, the execution of escaped prisoners of war, and the murder of six million Jews. All this was not in Hitler’s programme. The Nazi voters bear a large amount of responsibility; but the voters of 1933 cannot be made responsible for crimes committed six or ten years later.

Visiting a German Tierheim

The always-welcome Ed Philp returns from the dense thicket of German tax law to the cuddlier, fuzzier realm of cute, furry animals.

Ed Philp here, with another entry (thanks Andrew!). This week my girlfriend and I visited the Düsseldorf Tierheim (animal shelter). In theory, we were looking for a second cat. Since we are out of the house often, we thought our present cat could use some companionship. Also, we brought our cat from North America to Germany, and even after being here for two years, her German skills are still miserable.

Having visited animal shelters in the US and Canada, I was expecting rows of small cages with unhappy animals condemned to death in the space of a few short weeks if not adopted. Most municipal shelters in North America have a time limit for keeping animals – thousands of healthy dogs and cats (most of them abandoned, sick or aged) are put to sleep every year for want of an owner. Not so in Düsseldorf.

The Tierheim is located on a gigantic piece of vaguely rural property just outside of the city in a pleasant forest and residential neighborhood. Cats have their own building with seven separate spacious rooms filled with boxes, toys, expansive windows and an abundance of fresh air. Even this house, home to approximately 20 cats and staffed by a friendly woman who could rattle off the cats’ names and special needs, was quiet and smelled only of clean air and fresh coffee. As a student, I lived in worse conditions than these cats. The cats themselves were all healthy, mostly friendly, varied in age from a few months to 12 years (in North America, older animals are put to sleep first, since it is much harder to find homes for them), and all appeared to be very well taken care of. Some had been there for six months or more. When we asked if it would be acceptable to name a cat we were contemplating “Heinz” (her original name was Molly), we were cheerfully told that was a decision that would be up to the cat.

The dog area of the Tierheim took up the largest amount of space. Each dog has its own pen with an indoor and outdoor enclosure. The Tierheim has numerous small fenced gardens in which each dog was played with or trained each day by the committed and abundant staff. The Tierheim offered a vast array of benefits along with the adoption of its dogs, including coupons for free food, training sessions, a waiver of adoption fees and a medical inspection. Virtually all of the dogs were large aggressive breeds such as Staffordshire Terriers. Many appeared sullen or unfriendly and often barked or snarled when they saw people. Obviously it is tough to find proper homes for these ones; many of them had been abandoned.

The Tierheim is also home to a small house for rabbits, a pigeon nesting tower, a family of chickens, several free-roaming cats, the occasional hedgehog, two grunting fat pigs in a pen (one of which is blind) and – improbably – several sheep. We didn’t ask whether the sheep could be adopted. Our apartment isn’t big enough. The Tierheim has numerous full-time staff and regularly employs interns. Everyone we met was very friendly, knowledgeable and obviously put the animals’ welfare first. In a slight nod to Maoism, employees wear color-coded shirts to designate their responsibilities (the interns have to wear an ugly orange). The homepage of the Tierheim actually features videos of the animals available for adoption, although these are often out of date.

The cat we wanted ended up being already taken, so we were out of luck. However, we will certainly return in the late spring to see the new arrivals. In the meantime, we are now worried that any cat we adopt will have trouble adjusting to the less luxurious conditions of our Düsseldorf apartment.

Thanks Ed, for the lovely report.  The videos of the cats are here, they’re pretty fun, even if you don’t understand what the shelter employee is saying.  Here’s one for Spike the dog, from which you can learn that he’s a "fantastic guy" who has "only positive qualities!"

Now a question: is the Tierheim a true "no-kill" shelter?  That’s the trend in the U.S.  Is Germany — or at least Düsseldorf — already there?  Yet another reason for wistful U.S. liberals to emigrate to Europe!

I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t address the social angle: the tragic differences between West German and East German animal shelters.  As Matthias Plambeck showed in his magisterial Pets under the Compass and Sickle, East German dogs suffered 98% unemployment — the only positions available to them were as guide dogs or dangerous work patrolling the border.  They had no right to freedom of expression and were routinely locked into small cages as punishment.  Government "food" rations consisting largely of pellets of dried grain.  In the ultimate humiliation, they were also forced to defecate naked, outdoors, in full view of hundreds of strangers.  If you travel to the East to investigate the contemporary conditions of East German dogs, the German Joys "Solidarity Fund" will be happy to compensate your expenses…

Those Ugly Americans

The U.S. State Department plans to issue instructions to U.S. citizens on how to behave decently abroad, according to the Daily Telegraph:

Keith Reinhard, one of New York’s top advertising executives, who heads BDA [Business for Diplomatic Action, a business group], said: "Surveys consistently show that Americans are viewed as arrogant, insensitive, over-materialistic and ignorant about local values. That, in short, is the image of the Ugly American abroad and we want to change it."

The recommendations include:

  • Think as big as you like but talk and act smaller. (In many countries, any form of boasting is considered very rude. Talking about wealth, power or status – corporate or personal – can create resentment.)
  • Listen at least as much as you talk. (By all means, talk about America and your life in our country. But also ask people you’re visiting about themselves and their way of life.)
  • Save the lectures for your kids. (Whatever your subject of discussion, let it be a discussion not a lecture. Justified or not, the US is seen as imposing its will on the world.)
  • Think a little locally. (Try to find a few topics that are important in the local popular culture. Remember, most people in the world have little or no interest in the World Series or the Super Bowl. What we call "soccer" is football everywhere else. And it’s the most popular sport on the planet.)
  • Slow down. (We talk fast, eat fast, move fast, live fast. Many cultures do not.)
  • Speak lower and slower. (A loud voice is often perceived as bragging. A fast talker can be seen as aggressive and threatening.)
  • Your religion is your religion and not necessarily theirs. (Religion is usually considered deeply personal, not a subject for public discussions.)
  • If you talk politics, talk – don’t argue. (Steer clear of arguments about American politics, even if someone is attacking US politicians or policies. Agree to disagree.)

Failing to, er, Stimulate the Birth Rate in Germany

Ed Philp here once again as a guest commentator, with the generous permission of Andrew.

As readers of the German media will have noted, Germans love to contemplate the problems facing their country. The problem often receiving attention at the moment is Germany’s declining birth rate – in a generation, the German social system will no longer have enough young Hansels and Jennifers to pay for the social benefits of the wrinkled Horsts and Gundruns. Ask any single female German with a university degree about some of the reasons why.

Short of appealing to patriotic duty (Germany tried that a few generations ago) or giving out subsidized certificates for candlelight dinners and red wine, there are some small steps one might think about here. One of them improbably starts with the German Federal Fiscal Court (Bundesfinanzhof – BFH).

The German income tax code allows a deduction for “exceptional hardships” (außergewöhnliche Belastungen) where a person is exposed to an unusual, unavoidable expense that could not otherwise be compensated for. The classic case is illness that is not covered by health insurance  (e.g. AIDS in the early 90s); the deduction has also been granted for damage caused by natural disasters, the payment of ransom money in kidnappings and certain divorce costs (interesting comparisons are begged). In order to be deductible, the expenses must not be the result of the choice of the taxpayer (e.g. moving costs), must be highly unusual and must be justifiable in light of the reduction in tax revenue available for the community.

Recently the Federal Fiscal Court decided two cases involving the costs of  in-vitro fertilization, which is the removal of an egg from a woman, the insemination of the egg, and the replacement of the fertilized egg into the uterus for carriage to childbirth. It’s a complicated – and apparently expensive – procedure. Two women sought to claim the “exceptional hardships” deduction for the costs involved in this procedure, both arguing that it was an unusual, unavoidable expense. German health insurance did not cover the costs of these procedures in either case.

In the first case, the woman M. was fertile and already had a child from a previous marriage. During that previous marriage, she had chosen to become sterilized She had a host of medical problems that prevented her from safely using any of the usual methods of birth control (condoms, pill, IUD – all apparently impossible) and did not foresee having more children. The first marriage didn’t work out; she divorced and remarried. Due to her sterilization, the in-vitro route was the only way to have a child with the second Mr. Richtig (Right).  The BFH denied her the hardship deduction, reasoning that the fertilization costs would never had been incurred if she had not made the original decision to become sterilized. Apparently a healthy sex life isn’t a guaranteed constitutional right (think of the implications…state-sponsored trips to Mallorca!).

The BFH’s logic is debatable, especially since it is arguable that the sterilization was the direct consequence of medical conditions unique to that taxpayer (latex allergy, for example), and that the subsequent fertilization was the direct result of the original sterilization.

It is the second case that I find much more remarkable. In this case, H. was involved in a long-term relationship (eine feste Beziehung) with her partner. Although technically fertile, she too was unable to conceive – her fallopian tubes were just too narrow and the eggs did not “jump” as they were supposed to. She too underwent in-vitro fertilization. The BFH also denied her deduction, this time arguing that: the costs would be deductible for a married woman, but the German Basic Law allocates specific protection to “Marriage and the Family” (Article 6 of the Grundgesetz) and ‘general social opinion holds that a child is better off when it is conceived in the framework of marriage’ (court press release (G)). Therefore, this benefit could not extend to simple long-term relationships.

While some allowance can be made for the fact that a group of tax judges were called upon to make this decision (a tax court situated in conservative Bavaria), this decision smacks of three things. First, a sanctimonious and misplaced determination of child welfare. Second, a questionable subordination of the concept of “Family” in the German Basic Law to “Marriage”. Third, a disregard for the fact that the German Income Tax Code – and in fact, German society as a whole – otherwise provides numerous and significant benefits for the parents of children regardless of marital status. Finally, on a side note, it also completely precludes lesbian couples – who can’t be legally ‘married’ in Germany and by nature aren’t likely to conceive except through technical procedures like sperm donations or fertilization – from taking advantage of the deduction.

Whatever this decision is, it isn’t helping the population problem mentioned above either. Note that Germany also doesn’t acknowledge the common law relationship status available in many other countries which considers long-term couples to be married for tax purposes (recognizing that married or not, a shared economy of expense is practiced between two people). In that sense, this decision it at least somewhat “konsequent”.

Incidentally, if you want to see people getting married in real time in Düsseldorf, all you have to do is click here. Unfortunately, you can’t ask the happy couple whether they are simply doing it for tax reasons. But you can bet that something is a powerful incentive for them to get married in that awful room, which looks like the office of an undersecretary of production in a poor Eastern European nation.

Europe’s Unemployed Intellectuals

A few days ago, I suggested that misfits (meaning clever, unfocussed people who don’t find a secure place in society) often develop into pretend entrepreneurs in the U.S., and cited a few examples of people I know in this "line of work."  Now to the European version, the unemployed intellectual. Where do they come from?

Here’s my theory. You’re a young Frenchman, somewhat like Mr. Dhelft, who we met a few days ago. You dawdle leisurely through university, studying whatever catches your fancy: art history, Chinese calligraphy, recorder, or (as Mr. Dhelft, and thousands like him, did) sociology. There’s no rush — you’re living at home or in subsidized student housing, there are minimal or no tuition fees, and few fixed course requirements at European universities. Of course, you take routine vacations from this grueling endeavor. Not package vacations to crowded beaches, interesting vacations: by backpack through the Andes, by bus through North India, or perhaps the surprise vacation: you show up at the airport and buy the next standby ticket, no matter where it takes you.

Don’t forget your Erasmus year!  This is the European "Erasmus" student-exchange program, studying at a university in another EU country. Your Erasmus year will be little more than a blur of cigarette smoke, recreational drugs, and fumbling sex in rickety IKEA beds (as seen in Cedric Klapisch’s affectionate comedy L’Auberge Espagnole). European universities make few demands on their own students, much less transfer students from foreign countries.

Indeed, before you join the Erasmus program, nobody (apparently) will even check whether you understand your host country’s language! The students in the L’Auberge Espagnole all came to trendy Barcelona to study for a year, and found out only when they arrived that the local university held course in incomprehensible Catalan, not I-can-sort-of-understand-it Spanish.  There is only thing less enticing than sitting next to 200 other students in uncomfortable wooden chairs in a gigantic, stuffy lecture-hall while a professor monotonically reads sections of his latest article into a microphone.  That is sitting there listening to the professor droning on in a language you don’t understand. Much better to head to the nearest cafe, get some sun, and pick up a local hottie with your adorable phrasebook Finnish. And don’t forget, learning how to sit around in a cafe is an important life skill. You will need it later.

Alas, university must end one day. Usually when you’re in your late 20s (this is a serious problem for European economies, but not for you!). There won’t be any pompous graduation ceremonies like at American universities, because everybody graduates at different times in Europe. One day,you’ll just suddenly realize you’ve got enough credits to apply for your degree.  You’ll then go to some university office, and some bored, chain-smoking bureacrat will push your college degree through a greasy plexiglas barrier. Ready or not, you’re in the real world.

You’re likely to have no job experience outside a few internships. If you’ve worked really hard, you may have written a good paper, perhaps even a doctoral thesis, on some theme. A cultural or social theme, needless to say. Let’s say The Influence of Norse Myth on Conceptions of the Heroic in Sturm und Drang Drama.  No, make that The Influence of Norse Myth on Conceptions of the Heroic in Early Sturm und Drang Drama. Much better!

You then sort of begin trying to find a job. Like Mr. Dhelft, you certainly don’t go nuts.  A few resumes per month is probably all you’re going to be able to manage. You’re very picky: you’re not interested in business (nor is it in you, to be fair). There’s not much time pressure, because a network of family and government subsidies will ensure your standard of living doesn’t plummet.

Unlike many American students, you won’t feel pressure to take a well-paying job you don’t like. Your education was free and your cultural tradition disapproves of personal debt. All you need is enough to live on and take a few vacations. What’s more important than the money is the prestige and having cool, interesting colleagues. You don’t need to actually look for jobs that require knowledge of Sturm und Drang drama, although you might luck into one. Much more important is the fact that your wrote your paper on Sturm und Drang drama. That fact is your secret handshake that proves to other "cultural" or "social" people that you’re one of us.

If you’re lucky, you’ll actually find a job: assistant curator for a small museum dedicated to a local 19th-century playwright, "social analyst" for a non-profit organization that studies integration difficulties among local Roma, part-time radio journalist and part-time non-profit event promoter ("Yes, I printed the flyers for Icelandic (Re)-visions — A Conference on the Exploration of Nordic Femininity in the Independent Icelandic Cinema of the 1960s").

But I don’t really want to address the lucky ones here — the ones who finished their college degree (eventually) and found a more-or-less real job (eventually).  This post is about the misfits.  Take an acquaintance of mine named Max. He hung around at the local university for 8 years, working on his doctoral dissertation ("diss"). His relationship with his professor wasn’t very close, and he kept changing the topic of his dissertation, and he saw no reason to stop taking long vacations, and his French classes took research time away from the diss, and the thousand little tasks his professor asked of him took time away from the diss, and female problems took time away from the diss, and, and…  Eventually, his professor had to gently but crisply inform him that there was no longer a place for him at the university, and that he would have to finish his diss within a year.  He couldn’t.

Now, in his late 30s, he’s joined the tens of thousands of European misfit-intellectuals. You see these people in cafes everywhere. Quite often, they have a history like Max’s: highly intelligent, did reasonably well at university, chose a demanding topic for their diss, and somehow didn’t quite finish it.  Or did finish it, but simply could not find a job in Europe’s youth-unfriendly labor markets. They survive on tiny little bits of money: state unemployment benefits, parental subsidies, a generous partner, occasional paid temporary work, tiny little fees for small articles in the local newspaper, etc.

These folks read the most intellectual newspaper available, and ambitious books on contemporary philosophy or social problems. They prefer meditative auteur films to blockbusters. They have complex political opinions. They are often bald, and wear turtlenecks and aggressive glasses. They are likely to be noodling around on a short story or an essay of some sort. They’re every inch the intellectual — they’re just not recognized by society as such. They have no office in a publishing house, they don’t go to any conferences, nobody but their friends is interested in their opinion — and sometimes not even their friends. There have been novels written about these marginally-employed intellectuals, among them Eckhard Henscheid’s funny Die Vollidioten (G) ("The Morons").

Please don’t imagine that I disapprove of these people. Some of my best friends fall into this category. I sort of do myself. I like these people as much as I like people with regular careers. In fact, I like them more than I like people with regular careers, because people with regular careers make me slightly nervous. Unemployed intellectuals fulfill many important roles in society. They create superb documentaries and radio features, when you give them the chance. They buy and write odd magazines, ensuring that these odd magazines are there for us all to read. And finally, at their best, they are like living symbols of a society that still values time more than money, depth more than irony, and understanding more than achievement. Next time you see one in a cafe, buy him a drink!