Archive for January, 2008

Free To Move

In an ideal world, people would be just as free to move through political borders as goods or services are. Just as complete freedom of movement for goods ensures that they flow to areas where they are most demanded, so does complete freedom of movement for people ensure that they can move to where they expect to do best (one of the best ways of alleviating true poverty, incidentally). In practice, however, people come attached with things that goods do not, such as the beliefs, culture, and language of the home country, and it is these attachments and their effect on the host country that make immigration policy a tough issue.

Nonetheless, many arguments against liberal immigration policies are xenophobic bunk. Here’s a Der Spiegel editorial on the subject:

‘Germany is not a country of immigration,’ Roland Koch said this month as he sought to revive his campaign for a third term as governor of the western state of Hesse by calling for a crackdown on ‘criminal young foreigners.’

The statement, borrowed from former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, is untrue. Some 15 million people, or just under a fifth of the German population, have an immigrant background. The real message is: ‘We don’t want Germany to be a country of immigration.’

‘Foreigners’ — they’re often called that here even if they and their parents were born here — get that message loud and clear in their everyday lives. That steely look of disapproval in shops when a customer expresses an enquiry in accented or broken German. The difficulty of finding an apartment to rent if your surname isn’t Müller…

The debate over integration over the last decade has been shaped by conservative demands that immigrants adopt a German “Leitkultur,” or “leading culture” — a vague mix of Beethoven, sausages and Alpine cowbells, presumably.

I heard a German government official in Bavaria espouse the Leitkultur position last week. It’s hard not to sympathize with the idea to some extent–the very reason that immigrants are coming to Germany is, after all, because it has grown into a more prosperous society with better opportunities than the immigrant’s own country. Is it so unreasonable, therefore, to require that immigrants conform–even to large degree–with the proven principles of the host?

Perhaps not, but one should be careful not to conflate two issues. The first is what to do with people who want to immigrate in the future, and the second is what to do with people who’ve already immigrated. Germany may well not want to be a country of immigration, but that doesn’t address the social problems involving the immigrants who have already entered the country. One is fundamentally about the past, the other is about the future.

As for the issue of future immigration, Germany might be reminded that the European Union, which Germany helped found sixty years ago, ostensibly guarantees four freedoms of movement: goods, services, capital, and yes, even people.

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Was this:

HE SLOUCHED onto the stage to light applause. He rambled like a man with his mouth full and nothing particular on his mind. He played up his Southern roots. “It’s good to be back where people know how to cook green beans,” he said, referring to the Southern habit of boiling them to death.

The “he” in question is none other than Fred Thompson, who ended his lackadaisical presidential bid last week. Politics doesn’t particularly interest me, so I’ll merely comment that after six months consuming German cuisine I have surprisingly little craving for the home-cooked Southern fare on which I was raised. Inasmuch as I do miss food from home, however, I find that it has more do with a longing for variety more than anything else.

I would write more, but a plate of bread stacked with cheese and cold cuts beckons from the kitchen table.

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Off The Grid

After spending five days in Munich without bothering to surf the web at all, I returned home yesterday to discover that Rostock University thought my internet reprieve should be made rather more permanent. My self-esteem is draining slowly, for each time I attempt to connect a message appears stating that something I did could not be authenticated, which is just computer-speak for telling me that I’m a big phony. It is in fact uncannily accurate in this respect, however, as I’ve been using my roommate’s log-on information for the past four months since the University never saw fit to provide me with my own.

I leave on Thursday, so the problem can’t help but disappear by then, but there are many things between now and then I’d rather not have to do on someone else’s computer–like blogging, for instance.

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Probably no blogging until after Friday, for I will be in Munich at an InWent seminar.

I do not relish the eight-hour train ride which lays before me, but there is some comfort in the knowledge that it will at least be over land.

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Ferries to both Denmark and Sweden being relatively inexpensive and quick, I had been planning to visit both countries since I first arrived in Rostock. It took me until yesterday to finally get around to it, however, and now I’m just glad the whole thing is behind me.

The plan was to board a ferry early Thursday morning to the Swedish port city of Trelleborg, take a bus to Malmö, cross this beautiful bridge/tunnel via train into Copenhagen, and then return to Trelleborg to hop on an overnight ferry back to Rostock at 23:00. (I affectionately refer to this method of traveling as blitz-touring.)

Unfortunately, after waking up at five o’clock in the morning and arriving at the terminal, I was told that the ferry was going to be very late and it’d probably be best if I switched tickets for the next day’s ferry. I complied, only slightly chagrined, and yesterday morning I boarded the ferry and arrived in Sweden without a hitch–until I was escorted to the terminal counter and told that the ferry back to Rostock was going to depart four hours late, at about 3 AM. Furthermore, it was explained to me so sickeningly sweetly, the terminal would close at 23:00 so I would have to be transported to an administrative office and wait there until I could board.

My blitz-tour went well, and I arrived back to the terminal to be transported to my waiting area. Amazingly, it seemed that I was the only passenger for whom this four hour delay posed a problem, for I never saw another passenger until after boarding. Indeed, I didn’t see any workers or anyone else on the entire port even as I was boarding the ship in the wee hours of the morning–the port was desolate.

It was a very odd experience, and I didn’t get back to Rostock until 9 AM this morning. Interested readers can watch this brief video I shot shortly after boarding the ferry–it’s basically just me talking to myself about the strangeness of the day’s happenings, but it’s somewhat entertaining. Enjoy.

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Movin’ On Up?

Despite the fact that there’s still two weeks before I leave Rostock, my being in Munich next week has meant that I have already said my goodbyes to most of the people I’ve met here. What’s striking is that virtually every German has the same reaction when I tell them that I’ll be moving to Schwerin to do an internship: why zum Teufel would you want to move to Schwerin?

The main reason for their incredulity is essentially that Schwerin, while being a far more sightly city than Rostock, is half its size (≈100,00 people) and has a more aged population. As a result, Schwerin is woefully lacking in the things that Rostock, being a college town, abundantly provides–namely, outlets in which young’uns can socialize.

What surprises me is that not one person has asked whether the internship appeals to me or how well it is compensated, which suggests an interesting indifference. I’m well aware of how many American and European cities are tripping over themselves in the scramble to attract the so-called “creative class” with snazzy loft apartments and art shows, but I suppose I always thought considerations about employment would factor in first. For me this is absolutely true–I care far more about what I’m doing than where I’m doing it–but it appears not to be true with the (young) Germans I’ve encountered, and I wonder if I am an outlier.

In any event, the knowledge that I have two lakes lapping against shores just a few steps from my apartment makes my moving there that much easier.

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The Caplanian Myth

Roland Koch, facing a fight to be re-elected as the Christian Democratic minister president of the state of Hesse on January 27th, seized on the assault of a pensioner in Munich to call for a crackdown on delinquent youth. There are too many “criminal young foreigners”, Mr Koch opined, provoking a storm of protest from liberal-minded Germans, migrants’ groups and the Social Democrats, who are trying to unseat him…He played the scary foreigner card because his opponent, Andrea Ypsilanti, a former stewardess who had looked like a no-hoper, was gaining traction with the SPD’s demand for minimum wages…

The minimum-wages-v-maximum-sentences spat may be a preview of the 2009 national elections, which will again pit the CDU against the SPD. That would be depressing. Both appeals aim at voters’ less-worthy instincts. Few experts think that boot camps will deter young criminals. And minimum wages, if set too high, are likely to destroy jobs without curing poverty…The Social Democrats, who enacted necessary but unpopular reforms, are now running away from that legacy. The Christian Democrats dare not defend economic liberalism (or resist minimum wages too stoutly). What is left to them but to prey on voters’ fears?

It’s not just fear that evokes irrationality in voters–it’s endemic to the activity itself (but that’s a subject for another post). One empirically demonstrated phenomenon in the United States is that voters do not tend to vote for policies that are best for themselves, but instead vote for what they think is best for society. This might work fine if voters did not suffer from systematic biases (such as underestimating the social benefits of markets), but they do, and thus selfish voting could well yield more utilitarian outcomes.

Given Germany’s culture of collectivism, I’d wager that Germans tend to vote in similar patterns as the Amis with the same deleterious effects.

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