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Mole's Progressive Democrat

The Progressive Democrat Newsletter grew out of the frustration of the 2004 election. Originally intended for New York City progressives, its readership is now national. For anyone who wants to be alerted by email whenever this newsletter is updated (usually weekly), please send your email address and let me know what state you live in (so I can keep track of my readership).

Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

I am a research biologist in NYC. Married with two kids living in Brooklyn.

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  • Friday, June 25, 2010

    Some Observations on Germany

    I just got back from my first trip to Germany. Spent 5 days in Heidelberg for a meeting, then two days in the Spessart mountains to see where my Kunkel and Englert ancestors came from, then two nights in the Ingelheim area to see where my Wasem ancestors came from and discovered some great German wines. All in all it was a very successful trip.

    It is interesting how much WW II remains in the consciousness of the Germans, even today. I think the most interesting manifestation of this had to do with flags. It did strike me when I got to Germany just how many houses were displaying the German flag. Having traveled in many countries, I know that most countries aren't as flag fanatical as Americans are, but Germany seemed similar to us. But I also thought they are no different from America when it comes to flag fanaticism. Then I also realized that it is World Cup time and that probably boosts the flag visibility.

    But in every town I was in people started apologizing about the visibility of the German flag. They were careful to explain that it wasn't normal that it was ONLY because of the World Cup that there were so many German flags displayed. I was told this so often it struck me as strange. One American told me his German girlfriend grew up with the notion that anyone displaying the German flag might be a Nazi. And in the Spessart mountains one person in particular said explicitly that he was afraid people would think of Nazism if they saw the German flag being displayed so much but that it really was only because of the World Cup.

    In one way I think it is appropriate that Germany has so absorbed into its consciousness the need to never repeat the same mistake it made in the 1930's. On the other hand, as an American surrounded by the American flag even when there is no World Cup, I have to say it is a shame that Germany has to be embarrassed by its own flag because of Hitler and his idiot cronies. Particularly given the history of the flag that is currently in use.

    They current flag of Germany was a design originally based around the flags used by some of the so-called "Freikorps" units that fought Napoleon. In the German revolution of 1848 (which was an odd mixture of unification efforts, weak attempts at modernization and democratization, but also fairly conservative and at times anti-Semitic...and is directly responsible for one branch of my family coming over) the design was adopted in honor of those anti-Napoleon Freikorps. The revolution was a failure (forcing my great-grandmother's brothers, John and Jacob Wasem, to flee Germany because of their roles in the revolution) and the flag was replaced...but not forgotten. After the end of WW I, the abolition of the monarchy and the formation of the Weimar Republic, the black-red-gold flag was again adopted in deliberate reference to the revolution of 1848. The flag would have been seen as a symbol of all that was wrong with democracy in Germany by the Nazis, and hence became a symbol of all that was RIGHT with democracy in Germany by the anti-Nazi, pro-democracy elements in Germany. With the defeat of the Nazis, West Germany adopted the flag in its current form, again with deliberate reference to the revolution of 1848 and the Weimar Republic and deliberate rejection of all the Nazis stood for.

    So the flag has come to represent a unified but democratic Germany as opposed to the insanity represented by the Nazis. This makes ironic the perception that the display of this flag may be mistaken for Nazi sympathies.

    The next thing I noticed about Germany was the fact that they make much more use of wind and solar energy than America. Even in the usually cloudy, rural Spessart mountains, many (though not a majority) of homes have solar panels. I saw giant windmills several times on the top of ridges, a sight I found kind of cool. Some people say they are eyesores, but I'd say much, much less so than the site of a coal powered plant, air pollution and coal waste dumps polluting entire water supplies. I found the windmills on the hills impressive and cool. Though I have to admit that the site of a massive nuclear power plant (I think it was the Kernkraftwerk Philippsburg plant) on the horizon when I looked out from the conference site in the hills above Heidelberg it looked pretty cool as well even though I am not really a fan of nuclear power.

    I was also impressed with the health care system, vacation time, and other such liberal social programs in Germany. They are expensive programs, but given the fact that the German economy is booming right now compared with the US economy, it seems to me that such liberal programs do not ruin an economy. I saw a great deal of construction, expansions of companies and prosperity in Germany. In fact, one way that Germany blunted the effect of the economic depression from the Bush era is by creating a system where instead of laying off workers, workers were given shorter work weeks but the government covered some of the wages of the period not worked. This meant they kept jobs and (and here is where Germany is thinking more intelligently than the US) people still had money to spend. Which protected their economy. By contrast, in the US we are as quick as can be to lay off workers, who then have trouble supporting their families and have no money to spend, thus keeping our economy is a recession possibly longer than it needs to be. Economies grow when people have money to save and spend. Germany recognizes that basic economic fact. America seems to ignore it.

    Seems to me, if Germany can combine economic success in these tough times with strong social programs like health care and generous vacation time as well as expanding alternative energy programs, WHY THE HELL CAN'T AMERICA??? Our massive trade deficit (primarily because of our addiction to oil), inefficient energy systems, health care system that is actually far MORE expensive than Germany's while giving far WORSE outcomes, actually hurt our economy and prevent prosperity. Our so-called conservative views towards health care reform and social programs HURTS AMERICA. We need to do better...and Germany could well be one of the role models we need to emulate.

    There was one problem with Germany's system that came up in conversation. The welfare system there, which is expensive but very effective and helps strengthen their economy, depends on current workers supporting the welfare received by retired workers. But Germany faces a decline in population that will mean that in the future there will not be enough current workers to support the welfare system. But this is not unique to Germany. America's Social Security system faces the same problem and the Japanese are facing the same problem in a far worse form. In Japan the percentage of retired people is projected to rise to 48% by 2025, meaning nearly half the population will be supported by the remaining 50%. This could create a crisis where the support of the retired is too much for those working.

    However...not to minimize the potential crisis this creates, but I think there is one aspect of what the increased ratio of elderly to young means for the distribution of wealth. This came to me when I was considering the reasons for many Germans moving to North and South America in the 19th century. In those days, large families meant the family wealth (usually in the form of land) was divided among sons over and over, slowly reducing the wealth a family had until it could no longer support a family. We are faced with the opposite situation in places like Germany, Japan and America. The decreasing family size means the wealth of previous generations will be increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer heirs. This will in many ways HELP future families. Of course the distribution of wealth won't be spread across all socioeconomic classes, though inheritance taxes and strong social programs would help this. So in many ways, Germany may find itself in better shape than America where the lack of strong social programs will make the unfair distribution of wealth worse, creating a worse economic situation.

    I have always thought travel is almost a necessity for a clear understanding of the world. Living only in one place leads you to only consider a narrow range of views on a topic. But traveling and learning how things are seen and done elsewhere can give you considerable insights. So those are my random insights from traveling through Germany.


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