Yesterday I decided to take in some fall foliage, so I headed to the Düsseldorf Nordfriedhof (g)(North Cemetery), a large and nicely-landscaped idyll. It's the resting place of Arno Breker, among other minor celebrities. The cemetery is very easy on the eyes this time of year:
I also dropped by the "Israelite Cemetery", located in a fenced-off area in the northeast. I was anticipating mouldering, antique graves, as is usually the case in Jewish cemeteries in Germany. Imagine my surprise when I see this modern chapel at the entrance:
There is an old section of the Jewish cemetery, of course:
I was surprised to find out, however, that the Jewish cemetery is actually dominated by modern, well-maintained graves of people who died from the 1960s to 2011:
There were at least 10 people there on this warm Fall day wandering around or depositing flowers. Many of the graves were of Jewish emigres from the Soviet Union or Russia — the advisory near the entrance telling men to wear head coverings on the grounds of the cemeteries was printed in both German and Russian. But most of the graves seemed to be from German Jews who either survived the Holocaust or returned to Germany at some point. Apparently Düsseldorf has the third-largest Jewish community in Germany, with some 7,500 members (g).
What perhaps makes these figures even more striking is their standing in comparison to the rest of the developed world. One might expect that, given the unique importance our culture places on the idea of rewarding effort rather than class, we would be better than other nations at doing so. In fact, America ranks nearly last in terms of relative social mobility, just barely beating out the UK , and mobility has been steadily declining here since the 70′s . Our neighbors to the frozen north foster nearly 2.5 times the mobility as our society allows: children born to lower income homes in Canada are more likely to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder, while those born to wealth are less likely to remain there . The American dream is indeed alive and well; it’s just now residing in other countries.
So why is social mobility now so much higher in these other countries, and what can be done to improve it here? It’s worthwhile to note that social mobility is not a direct function of income distribution or inequality, though that connection is interesting to explore in its own right. Rather, it stems both from policies that eliminate barriers at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum and those which discourage inertia at the upper bounds. Access to quality education has been shown to be one of the primary drivers of upward mobility , as have access to health care  and various work supports . Conversely, taxation and fiscal policy can have enormous influences on social mobility or lack thereof, particularly at the higher end of the income ladder . It is discouraging, though not entirely surprising, then, that the US does such a poor job of this. Of the more than $740 billion in annual expenditures that can be at least partially tied to promoting social mobility (such as employer-related work subsidies, homeownership subsidies, education and training), $540 billion bypasses those with lower incomes entirely ; more than three-quarters of the largest subsidies go exclusively to households in the top quintile . Conversely, only about a quarter of mobility spending reaches lower-income households, and that percentage is scheduled to decline even further in the coming years .
Over at Obscene Desserts, John posts a recent graph from the Economist showing the top 1% income earners in the United States lifting off into the stratosphere while the rest stagnate:
This got me wondering whether this is just an American phenomenon. The Paris School of Economics has a database on income shares on their website that lets you slice and dice the income data by nation, income percentile. It seems to be a work-in-progress, since you can't really change the default settings, but you can generate a few interesting maps, which I've gathered from there and from other sites:
So, just about everywhere you look in the industrialized world, the top 1% have been doing somewhat better, but in the United States they have really blown the doors off, probably because of winner-take-all effects. I can't find statistics for Germany, but I can hardly imagine they would differ that much from France or the Netherlands. Or might they….?
One zombie trope among many Americans, especially conservative Americans, is that European societies are still stuck in yesterday's class conflicts, while America, having no class system (no really, some of them actually say this with a straight face) lets even the most modest citizen rise to the top. The latest version of comes in a speech from a prominent Republican lawmaker, Paul Ryan:
Telling Americans they are stuck in their current station in life, that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and that government’s role is to help them cope with it — well, that’s not who we are. That’s not what we do.
Our Founding Fathers rejected this mentality. In societies marked by class structure, an elite class made up of rich and powerful patrons supplies the needs of a large client underclass that toils, but cannot own. The unfairness of closed societies is the kindling for class warfare, where the interests of “capital” and “labor” are perpetually in conflict. What one class wins, the other loses.
The legacy of this tradition can still be seen in Europe today: Top-heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class. …
Whether we are a nation that still believes in equality of opportunity, or whether we are moving away from that, and towards an insistence on equality of outcome.
Jonathan Chait dismantles the entire speech here, in a blog post that probably goes too deep into the weeds for most non-American readers. Here's where he takes on Ryan's rose-colored vision of American opportunity:
Unfortunately, Ryan’s understanding of reality is a complete inversion of actual reality. “Equality of opportunity” bears no relation to the reality of the American economy or any economy. Parents can benefit their children by giving them money, better schools, better home environments, tutoring, camp, and other advantages. Opportunity is overwhelmingly unequal. One result is that rich kids perform far better in school than poor kids. But that is not the only result. Poor kids who beat the odds and get high test scores are less likely to complete college than rich kids with middling or even low test scores. Poor kids who beat those odds and graduate from college are still less likely to grow up to be rich than rich kids who did not graduate from college. I'm not sure if there's a perfect solution, but pretty sure Ryan's plan to slash [subsidized student loans] is not going to help.
There's one nugget of truth in what Ryan says, in that there's a bit less open class snobbery in the United States than in Europe. But in terms of practical, real-world outcomes, European societies offer more class mobility than the United States. One problem with American political culture is that a stubborn minority of citizens won't admit this fact, or even the existence of America's class system.
The torments of the euro would be funny if they weren’t so tragic. At this point the urgent need is for a big Panzerfaust — a bailout fund big enough to head off a self-fulfilling liquidity crisis for Italy. But such a fund would be backed by the credit of the euro area’s remaining AAA governments, basically Germany and France — yet at this point the euro situation has deteriorated sufficiently that taking on another commitment would undermine French credit. There’s a hole in the bucket, and every attempt to fix that hole ends up being stymied because, well, there’s a hole in the bucket.
The answer to the whole conundrum is to back the rescue, not with French guarantees, but with the power of the printing press — to put the ECB behind the effort. But the ECB won’t and maybe can’t (under current rules) do that.
And meanwhile, austerity programs are leading to severe slumps in Greece and elsewhere. Who could have imagined that?
What a tragedy. A rich, productive continent, which has produced arguably the most decent societies in human history, is tearing itself apart because its elite insisted on embarking on a dubious monetary project, and now can’t bring itself to take the steps necessary to give that project a chance of working.
Reporting and commentary about the crisis in the "Anglo-Saxon" world and on the Continent have been diverging for a while now, and tensions are rising, as Sarkozy's recent comments about UK interference are any guide. If Krugman is right, then European leaders — especially Germany — have failed to accurately diagnose the crisis (whether for political reasons or otherwise), and have ruled out the only reforms that stand a chance of containing the crisis. I don't pretend to have enough expertise to understand all the issues, but I do have expertise in reading Paul Krugman, and most of what he's predicted recently has more or less come true. If he's right about where the Euro crisis is headed, it's time to buckle your seatbelts…
From 1937-1944, the Great German Art Exhibition was held annually in Munich. The art was from regime-approved artists. Most of it was for sale, and pieces were bought by high Nazi functionaries including Goebbels and Hitler himself. Naturally, everything was figurative and pandered to petty-bourgeois tastes.
Subjects included Nordic mythology, German myths and legends, as well as still lives and room after room of athletic female nudes, including Girl with Penguin, below. They knew their audience, these hacks.
To their credit, art historians have scanned in the catalogs for each of these exhibitions and made them all available free, online, here (g). Not very stimulating, I'm afraid. After a painstakingly cursory scan of the entire website, I hereby certify that Girl with Penguin is the most interesting work ever displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition, because WTF – a penguin? Also, why is it so huge?
And now, for a few photos of late summer/early Fall foliage taken in the Rotthäuser Creek (g) nature preserve near Düsseldorf. The preserve follows a lush valley in which a small creek runs. The farmers at the creek's edge blocked it every couple of kilometers to make fish-breeding pools, making the entire area swampy and green. At the northwest end of the preserve is the Abshof farm (g), which cultivates local fruit varieties and an endangered race of sheep local to East Prussia and the Baltic states called the Skudde (g).
By the way, can anyone identify the mushrooms in the photos? Are they edible?
There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink alcohol. There are some societies (such as the UK, the US, Australia and parts of Scandinavia) that anthropologists call "ambivalent" drinking-cultures, where drinking is associated with disinhibition, aggression, promiscuity, violence and anti-social behaviour.
There are other societies (such as Latin and Mediterranean cultures in particular, but in fact the vast majority of cultures), where drinking is not associated with these undesirable behaviours – cultures where alcohol is just a morally neutral, normal, integral part of ordinary, everyday life – about on a par with, say, coffee or tea. These are known as "integrated" drinking cultures.
This variation cannot be attributed to different levels of consumption – most integrated drinking cultures have significantly higher per-capita alcohol consumption than the ambivalent drinking cultures.
Instead the variation is clearly related to different cultural beliefs about alcohol, different expectations about the effects of alcohol, and different social rules about drunken comportment.
Our beliefs about the effects of alcohol act as self-fulfilling prophecies – if you firmly believe and expect that booze will make you aggressive, then it will do exactly that. In fact, you will be able to get roaring drunk on a non-alcoholic placebo.
Germany, I would say, fits into the 'ambivalent' group, as any Italian or Spaniard will be happy to tell you.
Picking up a theme from a few weeks ago — how the old saw about puritanical America versus liberal Germany needs to be updated — here are the results of a few recent opinion polls on whether marijuana should be legalized. About the U.S., the L.A. Times reports:
Slowly but surely, Americans seem to be making peace with the pot pipe.
According to a poll released by Gallup on Monday, 50% of Americans surveyed say marijuana use should be legal — up from 46% last year. This year, 46% percent said it should be illegal.
Those numbers mean that, for the first time in the poll's 42-year-history, Americans who say that marijuana should be legal outnumber those who say it should be illegal.
Societal acceptance of marijuana has come a long way since 1969, when Gallup first posed the question "Should marijuana use be legal?" Back then, only 12% of Americans favored legalization of the drug. From the '70s through the mid-'90s, support remained in the 20s, but it has been climbing steadily
The Spiegel reports a recent German poll showing that only 26% of Germans favor legalizing marijuana, as opposed to 36% who wish to keep it a crime. The remainder want it designated as an Ordnungswidrigkeit, which is basically a minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine, similar to a parking ticket. Thus, overall, a majority of Germans favor reducing the punishment for marijuana to something less than an actual crime, but only 26% are willing to go as far as Americans are.
Count me among that 26%/50%. Marijuana doesn't cause physical dependence, cannot cause overdose, and does not contribute to violent behavior. In other words, it's about as harmless as drugs can get — much less harmful than nicotine and alcohol — and has only been prohibited, I would argue, because those who originally used it were stigmatized outsiders (blacks, foreigners, hippies, the young). Like single-malt whisky or a fine Bordeaux, pure, fresh cannabis sativa is a feast for the senses. Why governments are continuing to waste millions of dollars and euros prohibiting it is beyond me. But note that more Americans are asking themselves that question than are Germans, at least for now.
Steven Rattner, who helped Obama save the U.S. auto industry, wants the U.S. to develop an industrial policy similar to Germany's:
[W]e should follow the example of successful high-wage exporters in concentrating on products where we have an advantage, as Germany has done with products like sophisticated machine tools.
While America still leads in sectors like defense and aviation, our greatest strength, and a source of high-paying jobs, lies in service industries with high intellectual content, like education, entertainment, digital media, and yes, even financial services. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are all American creations, as are the global credit card companies American Express, Visa and MasterCard.
Achieving higher wages also requires a greater commitment to education; wages for those with college degrees rose 1.4 percent between 2000 and 2010, after inflation. Following the German model of greater emphasis on engineering and technical training would also be advantageous.