Last weekend Mr. Brilliant and I sat in a restaurant and mulled over the prospect of "What if we have to leave the US?" Neither of us are going anywhere while we're still working, as there isn't any more demand for age 50+ professionals elsewhere than there is here. But if you watch a couple of episodes of House Hunters International
on HGTV, you discover that it isn't only people with a million dollars to spend on a vacation home that appear on this show; that some places afford a nice little dwelling on about what we expect to take out of this house even if we just break even.
We ruled out Asian countries that aren't islands whose names end in "i". Then we ruled out tropical islands because they're likely to be increasingly under water in the coming years. We ruled out the Middle East for obvious reasons. We ruled out anyplace too cold because if Mr. Brilliant could take the cold, we could just as easily spend our declining years in Vermont. That ruled out Scandinavia. We ruled out Russia and any of the northernmost former Soviet republics. We ruled out Central America because it's too hot, and South America. The "PIGS" countries -- Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain -- are all as much of a mess as we are. The south of France is tempting, but it's expensive and France isn't in great shape either. That left us with Slovenia and Germany.
Slovenia is an intriguing thought. Mr. Brilliant (who is half Italian, so it falls under the "It's OK To Knock Your Own Team" rule) thinks Slovenia has all the advantages of Italy only it's not full of Italians. I have an online friend in Slovenia, so if we were to decide to scope it out, we could get a nice tour of Ljubljana and environs. It's certainly something to think about, but it's difficult to imagine that it would ever go beyond that.
That left us with Germany.
I spent two weeks in Germany in the summer of 2009 for work, and I've been to Berlin, and while I realize that actually living in a place is far different from spending two weeks at the Hilton, I really, really liked what I saw of Germany. Here was a country that wasn't trying to whitewash the less-than-savory aspects of its history. There is a Holocaust memorial right outside the Reichstag building in Berlin, just in case anyone ever forgets. While the Germans with whom I've had conversations about it become impatient with the "sins of the fathers" taint they live with and wonder when the statute of limitations is up and they can stop being blamed for things done two to three generations ago, they know that what happened in their country in the 1930's must never be allowed to happen again (unlike in the US, where it's perfectly OK for right-wingers to say on national television that black people were better off under slavery). But once you get past World War II and the Cold War, life in Germany has many advantages for my colleagues who live and work there.
The cities are rich with social and cultural activities. They're highly livable cities that don't require a fortune to live in them. It's expensive to drive a car, but many people can walk or bike to where they're going, and if you can't, there is reliable public transportation. The 8:37 AM S6 train out of the main train station in Cologne shows up at precisely 8:37 every single day. On Track 10. Every single day. The cities are immaculate, the trains run on time, and if you don't like knuckles and schnitzel, well, the best Thai restaurant I've ever been to is in the former East Berlin
, I've had great Indian food in Cologne, and a large Turkish population means you can get a plate of sensational adana kebab with rice and salad for about eight euros. This is a place where you can be on a street corner where the "Don't Walk" sign is up, and even if no cars are coming from either directions, YOU WAIT TILL THE LIGHT CHANGES.
It could be that over time, the anarchic way we tend to live here could find this highly ordered universe to be stifling. But sometimes I wonder, if when I'm old, such order could be comforting rather than stifling. I'm especially aware of it while in teleconferences. Here in the New York area, we become highly animated when we talk. It sometimes makes us seem abrasive to our German colleagues when our voices raise while on teleconferences, not because we're angry but it's just what we do. I work closely with an Italian-American woman who grew up in Clifton, New Jersey. We often say that we're sisters of different mothers because in many ways we're a lot alike in how we work and how we communicate. We have a colleague here from Germany, and I invited her into this woman's office while we were discussing something, because I wanted ther to see that the way we talk on these teleconferences isn't unusual or directed at them -- we talk like this with each other even when we agree.
But these days, Germay seems to be the only country in Europe, perhaps in the world, that has its act together (NYT link)
Germany may be the only European nation that is large enough and rich enough to cover the debts of its struggling neighbors, but its citizens are reluctant to be the source of the bailout. Germany is in many ways in the eye of the storm, with barely a hint of the winds swirling nearby. There is no tear gas, as in Athens; no tires burning, as in London; no chanting crowds packing public squares, as in Spain. While much of the rest of Europe is struggling to pass harsh austerity packages, Germany is in the midst of a debate over cutting taxes by as much as $14.2 billion.
“It’s as if there’s this black cloud floating overhead but nothing has fallen on us,” said Markus Ponick, 38, a teacher in Berlin, who on Monday was strolling down a tree-lined stretch of Bleibtreustrasse with a cup of coffee in his hand. The government had made cuts, Mr. Ponick said, but they had been “cleverly chosen” to spare the public pain. “The effects of this crisis are imperceptible here,” he said.
The only major protests to strike Germany have been over tearing down an old train station in Stuttgart or calling for the end of nuclear power. Animal rights and affordable Internet, rather than jobs and spending cuts, are more likely to cause people to take to the streets right now, and even then not in terribly great numbers.
The simplest explanation is jobs.
By one government measure, 706,000 more Germans were employed in May of this year than the year before, of which 415,000 were full-time positions and 289,000 part time. In terms of relative size, that would be roughly comparable in the United States to nearly 2.7 million more people with jobs in 2011 versus 2010.
With strong unions and legal protections for workers, Germany’s labor market for years was compared unfavorably with the more flexible American one. Even after embarking on painful reforms, it suffered from high structural unemployment. In July, German unemployment was 7 percent, compared with 9.1 percent in the United States.
As Germany’s population shrinks, some economists and policy makers are more concerned about a shortage of qualified workers than joblessness.
As for the young, the unemployment rate is the third lowest in Europe, behind only the Netherlands and Austria. Only 9.1 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed here, less than half the 20.5 percent average in Europe.
“I wouldn’t protest because I’m very content with my situation,” said Kristina Kuhn, 21, a student out shopping on the upscale Kurfürstendamm boulevard on Monday afternoon. “Young people can study, find jobs on the side and have opportunities for careers.”
A recent report in the daily newspaper Bild said that government experts expect the job boom to continue for another four years. In a survey of 1,800 Germans prepared for the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research, a majority spoke of an era of increased insecurity, but a full 53 percent said they were optimistic about the next 12 months. Only 12 percent were pessimistic.
“They hear it on the news but for most Germans what they experience in their lives is completely different. The crisis is virtual,” said Renate Köcher, the institute’s director. “What’s decisive for most people is their own situation and for many people that has improved noticeably in the past three or four years.”
There's no doubt that Germany is helped immeasurably by not having the kind of massive military that the U.S. has, but given that no other country in Europe does either, that doesn't explain all about how Germany has emerged from the financial crisis not only relatively unscathed, but with low unemployment in a country that has strong worker protections and a good quality of life for its workers. The major concern for a country that seems to have done everything right is just how much it's going to have to pony up to bail out the countries that haven't.
(Joe Nocera also mentions Germany
as what to do RIGHT during an economic slowdown.)
Labels: finance, Germany