Sunday, October 19, 2014

On the Topic of Witches in Germany

I am a amateur historian.  I've probably covered well over 2,000 books in my life over history and get into various elements of both US and European history.  One of my favorite areas of research is the Salem Witch Trial period of American history (1692).

When you stand back and examine the episode....several episodes come into play.  This is roughly 150 years after the Bible had been translated from the Catholic Church held copy of Latin, into English, and published widely.  The English of the era had progressed to the point where reading was a demanded skill, and the Bible was chiefly used as the instrument of instruction.

Adding to the event.....the Bible was taken and interpreted by various religious groups, and viewed against personal beliefs in different ways.  They utilized the Bible to prove their point, and the interpretation could go from one far angle to another.

Toss in the fact that there weren't any "adults" around to challenge fraudulent usage of law and punishment.  Then toss in immature teens using bogus statement as entertainment.  And in the end, you had people suffering and being tortured to death.

Germany had the same element going on, except it came earlier.  The biggest and best example is the Bamberg Witch Trial period (1626-1631).

It was a rural area for the most part, run by Prince-Bishop von Dornheim.  What we can generally say is that the Thirty-Years-War had been going on for a couple of years, and lending itself to be mostly a civil war, with no real enemy except themselves or their neighbors.

A bad harvest season had led onto discontent, and the Prince-Bishop had probably more frustrated and aggravated people on his hands than he could handle.

A Germanic language copy of the Bible had begun to get passed around, but it probably had minimal effect on this crowd.  So, some accusations got passed around.  A witch here, a evil spirit there.

Over the six year period, around three-hundred people were executed in some fashion.  Some figures will push it as high as six-hundred.  Some were children....one was noted as an infant.  A number of them were simply adults caught in a word game and not sophisticated to argue their way out of an accusation.

The Prince-Bishop would devise a torture chamber and it was used to a fair degree.

At some point, realizing the maximum benefit of death....the Prince-Bishop got around to true property owners and people of "title".  Using the accusation game....individuals were taken into custody, asked questions, and doped into admissions.  Their property taken after death.

This all peaked by 1631.  The various reports had reached the regional authority who came to question the Prince-Bishop over men of title being put to death.  So ended the Bamberg witch episode.

The enriched fertile ground for this of activity?  It takes a naive society, coupled with corrupt leadership, and the necessity to blame someone for some fault.

In my local area here in Hessen where I live....there is the town of Idstein.....not more than ten miles away.  They went through their witch period in 1676/1677.....executing thirty-nine men and women for crimes of witchcraft.

What is generally said is that the whole witch-hunting thing started as early as 1630.  The routine was yearly brought up, and continued on for decades.  The hunt business was generally run by Count John  (the regional authority) and appeared to be a personal vendetta of sorts.  For some reason, around 1676....it hit a peak with various individuals brought in and questioned by the Count.

Local history says that thirty-one women and eight men were executed over this two-year period. No numbers are given for those tortured and spared death.  The end of the hunt?  Well....it's curious.  Count John dies in May of 1677, and his son (twelve years old) took up the post of Count.  The son, via his regent....disbands the hunt business, and life settled back to normal after that.

A nutcase running simply an entertainment episode.  Well....yeah, that is the simple part of the whole story, and relates to most all of these episodes in the same way.  It's sad in a way.....all done for terrible reasons.

Ten Bits of Advice on Rhine River Cruises

The bulk of summer season has ended, and it's around six months prior to the new Rhine River cruises.  Enough time to think and plan over an excursion.  So my advice.

1.  There is one major company (K-D), and roughly twenty minor companies running cruise ships along the Rhine.  There are a couple for the Moselle as well.  All have web sites, travel times, and cost listed.  Plan around their schedule.

2.  It's absolutely hectic to go on a cruise in July and August.  So I advise you avoid this period, unless it's a Monday through Friday trip.

3.  Length of a trip?  You could actually show up at site #4, ride sixty minutes up to site #7, and get off there, returning to your destination by rail.  You will find almost every Rhine port that a ship pulls into....has a railway station, and it's a simple deal to travel.

4.  Get on early in the day.  An example, K-D starts in Mainz in early morning hours, with the second stop in Bebrich (Wiesbaden).  Neither has great parking advantages, and you'd be better off to travel there by rail or by charter bus.

5.  Don't buy food on the cruise vessel.  Generally, I can't think of any occasion that I got a three-or-four star lunch onboard.  The beer, wine, and coffee are great.....but I'd take a pass on food.

6.  Seating?  In July and August on weekends....forget about it....it's standing room only.  That's the reason why May and June are so appealing.

7.  Weather?  It can go from one extreme to another.....extremely hot and windy....or extremely cool and windy.  Ask about the weather and be flexible on what day you make the trip.  If you know it's going to be hot sweaty weather.....then I'd still bring along some wind-breaker jacket.

8.  Rates?  It goes from four Euro to seventy Euro (depending on where you get on and off, and if you want a return ticket).

9.  Hint, the boat takes forty-percent longer going down the river, than going up.  So, an entire day trip from Mainz to Koblenz, and back.....is an awful long trip.  Kids won't be enthusiastic about such a trip.

10.  Drinking.  Well, folks get relaxed on such a trip and start drinking excessively.  Guys do it....gals do it.  And by the end of the trip.....you barely walk off the vessel and you might be drunk.  In fact, too drunk to drive.  So, utilizing a bus charter deal....would be strongly recommended.  You might want to control your drinking a little....to avoid some really bad moments later.

This Rail Strike

Mid-day Sunday now, and the strike continues on.  Based on commentary late last night by the public.....there's limited support for the striking railway union guys.  A lot of people went and made alternate plans, and disrupted their weekend plans around Germany.

From what the German press reports today....roughly seventy percent of the railway runs have been cancelled so far.  So trips are still operating, although at a minimum rate.

ARD TV reports that the final deal offered on Friday was a five-percent pay-raise in 2016, with a one-time 325 Euro bonus for all union members.  The idea of the two less hours a week of work?  No. The idea of letting conductors, security folks, and railway support staff falling into this union?  No.

Monday travel appears to be back on schedule, at least right now.  There is some hint from the union that if negotiations don't go well this upcoming week.....they might return for another one-to-two-day strike for the next weekend.

Bus service carrying the load?  The ARD folks had a brief discussion with bus leadership last night.  They were "thrilled" (my word, not theirs)....over the circumstance, and doing well in terms of passengers and profits.  It would appear.....every single bus is full and they might even be running additional buses to meet demand.

Where does this all lead?  Let's say that the union gets everything they want.  Somewhere by 2016....the necessary profits of the Bahn have to be cut in someway, and cost will be pushed upward.  This means ticket prices rise again.

Presently, a flight between Berlin and Frankfurt will cost you around 110 Euro in the off-season (round-trip).  If you use the current special rate, the one-way deal is 29 Euro, with just over four hours of travel time on the rail.  The Bahn folks have been running special rates for Frankfurt to Amsterdam of around 39 Euro for a one-way ticket. At some point though....the special rate deal has to end, and go back to double or triple that rate.

The bus deal?  Presently, you can make the Frankfurt to Berlin trip, one-way, for about fifteen Euro (that's the special rate), and regular rates might run to twenty-five Euro.

People are paying attention to this and asking more questions about where the buses leave from and the travel time.  If there was another rate hike for passengers in 2016....it might draw some curious advertising from the bus companies, and finally start to take away passenger runs.  Currently, there's two trains leaving Frankfurt every hour, to Berlin, during the prime of the day, and maybe one per hour in the non-prime period of the day.

The rate of a regular ticket if the special wasn't used?  Roughly a hundred Euro. The special deal was supposed to run for the summer months, and apparently still continues now into October.

In the long-run, this strike business is making people consider the options, and with the right advertising and TV-directed focus.....I could see the Bahn losing a quarter of it's long-distance passengers.....mostly over frustrations.  You generally went by rail because if offered some comfort and generally got to the destination on time.  If you prioritized your requirements.....buses might come out better.

My advice?  It took decades to overcome the state law forbidding bus travel around Germany for long-distances.  I might review my options, and use them a bit more often.

Schnitzel Republic on Facebook

If you wanted an easier way to check for newer Schnitzel Republic essays or blogs, go over to my new Facebook page, and sign up for updates:

www.Facebook.com/SchnitzelRepublic

It's an experiment of sorts which I'll run for three months.  If people sign up....I'll continue to leave a marker there to lead you to recent writings.

It should be noted....I strongly DISLIKE Facebook.  But it does have a simple method of leaving a trail for people find the 'latest' info or stories or blogs.

Explaining the Exchange Rate World

Remember, this is a blog written by an American, designed for Americans and ex-pat's, and not Germans.  So the topic today....is the Euro and the exchange rate.

When I arrived in Germany in 1978....one of the top ten things you had to grasp and understand was the Deutsch Mark (DM) situation.  You got paid every two weeks, and you converted some part of your income at the base bank (Rhein Main for me) over to DM.  At the time, it was roughly 2.25 DM to the dollar.

After a while, you learned that the rate went up and down....daily.  It's not something that you'd typically think about while living in the US....but here, it's different.

Folks had a strategy, while realistic or ill-conceived.....that the rate was always better two days prior to pay-day.  I never believed this idea.....but lots of Americans would buy their DM prior to pay-day.
I would say the low point of that two year point for me when when the DM rate got down to 2.05.  Naturally, this meant you got less DM, or you paid more for your DM than when it was up around 2.2.  Course, if you were only buying enough for pocket-money, beer and weekend entertainment....you only needed 150 DM to accomplish that, and the difference between 2.05 and 2.2 isn't that big of a deal.

I left in 1980, and came back in 1984 to Germany.  The exchange rate had radically changed during the Reagan era.  It was now 2.85 for the average that year.  You could buy a lot of marks for a better price.  1985 went to an even higher level with it almost hitting 3.5 at some point.

I knew enlisted guys who went downtown Kaiserslautern and bought BMWs in 1985.  I went on numerous tours and trips that year, with lots of DM in my pocket.  Tens of thousands of GI's in Germany had a great year....spent a ton of money....and it all came back to the exchange rate.

When I came back in 1992...it had sunk to the 1.6 DM to the dollar level.  The Air Force tried to make up for the negative situation....giving you enough housing money and a fair allowance....but you tended to limit your spending off-base to strictly restaurants and limited travel.  

By 1998, it was pressing up toward 1.8 DM to the dollar and people were more positive.  There was talk of the Euro coming in, and always a hint of better exchange rates.

The initial stage of the Euro?  It was set to roughly 1.1 Euro to the dollar.  That lasted roughly a year, and later fell to .79 by 2004.....two years into the Euro period.

Americans who were civilians and working in Germany?  We were all pretty aware of the rate.....fairly negative with the original deals worked out with our companies.....and questioning how this made sense for our budget planning process.  If you had a mortgage of 1,200 Euro on a house....it was pretty simple in 2002 and you were paying roughly 1,200 dollars for the place.  Two years later, at .86, you were now paying $1,395.  That's roughly $200 more than what you started with only two years ago.  Where did the $200 come from?  Savings or what you would have put toward a new car.

The typical German?  They never saw this or had to play this game.

At some point in 2008, it actually got down to around .64.  I sat in some meeting with the American company I worked for, and a dozen of us in the room were voicing issues.  There had to be some increased allowance to cover this cost of living issue.  The sad truth was that the company signed a contract with the US government for services, and it had nothing in it to work in a more dismal Euro exchange environment.  The company wouldn't lessen profits, and other than just leaving Germany....there wasn't much to say or do.

Our company boss had actually sat down with a currency expert in Frankfurt.  Personally, the currency guy even admitted that there just wasn't a logical reason for the Euro to have fallen from 1.1 to .64 over this period except for a US-led strategy to cheapen US-made products, and entice Europeans to "buy cheap".  It was a strategy developed while in the DM era with the Clinton Administration and continued to be played out with the Bush Administration.

I've sat and read over the idea.  It won't be discussed by anyone much beyond the banking folks, and they tend to see some type of manipulation going on. It's the only way to entice Europeans to buy American-made products.  You see the same concept with tourism....a German is able to buy a remarkably cheap but up-scale vacation in the US for 1,200 Euro.

In recent weeks....the Euro has been climbing.  It's presently around .76 and there's a number of Frankfurt currency folks talking of a .80 trend by January.  A handful of folks even think the Euro might slide on up to .90 by the end of 2016.  The manipulation factor?  Well.....if you were German, or French, or Italian.....you'd like to really sell more products in the US.  But with the rate down near .65.......that just wasn't going to happen.  Now at .76?  Things are getting interesting.

The US losing an edge on the market by their products getting less cheap to sell in Europe?  Well, yeah.

More Americans touring Europe because of a cheaper Euro?  Well, yeah.

I've spent around four decades around Europe, and have come to view the exchange rate as a curious thing.  I had a business professor who used the price of a McDonalds menu bag in Paris to explain the real cost of life compared to the US standard pricing for the same bag.  It was a five-star explanation and made perfect sense.  The same logic doesn't work today. The issue is.....McDonalds of Gemany now buys almost all of it's products within Germany, with nothing imported in for the operation.  What the bag costs.....doesn't relate to anything within the US now.

It's hard to get across this whole discussion of currency and value to a typical American, or for that matter.....a typical German.

It matters, but it's like an invisible wall, and you don't know you've hit it....until you actually stumble up against it and feel some pain.  Just my humble two cents on currency.

The Taxation Game

The US has an enormous problem, which the national government tries hard to avoid.....individual states benefiting companies....courting them in various ways.....enticing them.....to move from one region or state, to another.  I don't think this really started to get noticed until the 1980s, and over the past decade....it's gotten magnificent stages.

Roughly five years ago....Volkswagen made a decision to put a one-billion-dollar plant up in the US.  Several states got into the "bidding war".  At the end, it was a decision between what Tennessee could offer with Chattanooga and what Alabama could offer with Huntsville.  Property for the site would have been purchased and offered freely by the state.....tax benefits were offered....roads would have been built with no cost to Volkswagen and it's new factory.  It was a long list of great deals.  In the end.....Volkswagen selected Chattanooga.  In terms of jobs and tax revenue from those employees.....it's a big deal to the state for the decades to come.

In Europe over the past decade.....the same type of environment has been found to exist.  Big companies like Fiat, Amazon, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Apple have looked around and found great deals.  These deals were noticed, and various countries have been complaining that these giant companies just aren't paying their fair share of taxes....mostly to the rest of the EU members.

I noticed INFORWORLD discussing the matter with Google in Ireland for 2013....their headquarters in Europe.  They employ 2,500 Irish folks....a hefty number and a big deal to the local economy.  In exchange....for the twenty-two billion in revenue they made for that year.....they had a tax percentage rate of .16 percent.  In Germany, Google would have paid fifteen-percent.  That's a difference of 14.84 percent.  You can add the twenty-two billion in various ways and figure there's at least thirty billion that should have flowed into the normal country revenue pot and the EU taxation pot.  Instead, it's less than one billion.

The EU this past week sent the "dogs" out on the issue.  Several countries were selected (Ireland, Netherlands, Luxembourg).  Wrapping up this investigation quickly? I doubt if anyone hears much on the EU team and it's finding until the summer of 2015.  It'll take a while to dig into what was promised and guaranteed by each state.

The problem here, if you sit and look over the strategy.....major companies create a significant number of jobs, and European countries are fairly desperate now for job creation.  Every single member of the EU has an unemployment situation which puts undue pressure on the leadership of various communities and the states themselves.

You can walk around Frankfurt in a normal year and note that small shops and companies....come and go.  A guy will create a new shop....hire six employees....make a marginal profit....and five years later give up, with the six employees dismissed and on the unemployment line.  A new grocery will appear at one end of town, employ thirty employees at a minimum wage, and somehow do well enough to survive for decades.  These are all small fronts, with limited results.

Look around Frankfurt for new companies that appear and offer up 500 or 1,000 jobs?  It's rare that you see these.  If someone showed up and talked with some lobbyists or political figure in Frankfurt, over the possibility of 1,500 jobs being created from a new factory or industry.....they'd quickly get city interest, and quietly.....they'd sit and figure out ways to entice the company into coming.  A new bus-stop or run by the industry in a remote area?  Maybe helping pay for the parking situation with city money?  They would find various ways to get the jobs into Frankfurt.  But then you find this corporate taxation deal standing there.  Fifteen-percent is the German standard.....which is not a waiverable thing.

Generally in Germany.....there just aren't that many big new factories or industry operations being created.  Around fifteen years ago, in the Kaiserslautern area.....some company got a great deal on property out around 10 km away from town, and built up a specialized type factory which employs roughly 500 folks.  It's in the middle of nowhere....a farming area....with plenty of open parking and no hindrances.  Yeah, they pay the fifteen-percent taxation but they have easy access to a local autobahn, and can expand out with no issues. They picked an area with high unemployment, and know that they can offer minimum wages for the local area, and avoid high cost employees.  That was the plus-up.

I suspect as the weeks go by, and this EU taxation review team settles into work there in Ireland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.....someone will quietly point out various deals that Austria, Germany, France, and the UK have also offered.  But they aren't the gold-deals that Google or Apple got.....but they fit into the same bucket.....something free offered in exchange for job creation. The EU folks will start to realize that it's a bigger issue, with no real solution.

The truth is.....the EU needs jobs creation and industry taxation.  All of this great infrastructure and social benefits stuff....cost money and someone has to pay for it.  Gimmicks are a part of the game, and if you were desperate enough to want 2,500 jobs created out of thin air.....you will play the game.

My humble guess is that everyone in Europe will come to agree by 2016 to some new minimum corporate tax rate.  It won't be fifteen percent, like in Germany.  My bet is that they say the minimum should be eight to ten percent.  And with that.....Google, Apple, and Dell will all have to rethink their strategy and decide if it's time to move further east.....into Turkey or some non-EU country to get the benefit they desire.  Heck, they might even decide that Switzerland with it's high cost of living, but non-EU status.....might be a wonderful place to escape to and operate their business front.

In this taxation game....someone has to win, and someone has to lose. If you look at California today.....various big and medium sized companies are discussing an exit from the state because of taxation and high-cost of living influencing the profit margin.  The state has become something that was not in the original planning strategy from decades ago.

The same may happen to Ireland, Luxembourg, and Netherlands.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Thirteen-Year Problem

This is a story which will only appear around in Hessen.  I doubt if the German national news will cover much on this, yet it becomes an interesting piece.

The curtain on  this story rises up around 2001 in Germany as four tax-audit folks from the state office here in Hessen (Wiesbaden-Frankfurt) got all disturbed over orders given by the leadership of the tax office (usually run by the dominating political party of the Landestag of the state).  Over a period of several years....various evaluations were dealt out to the four, with negative commentary by the leadership.  By 2006, the four were led to a physiological review, and were noted as having "paranoid querulatorish" issues.

What are "paranoid querulatorish" issues?  Well....you could read through twenty pages of text from various experts.....but the definition comes down to the fact that you can't adjust, and you are fairly paranoid about readjusting.

A fake psycho analysis?  I've read two commentaries on the field of study, and both doctors tend to dump on this idea as bogus.  They view it as a tool used in any type of case....where someone refuses to change and you can cite some mental disorder to get rid of the folks.

So, this is the curious thing.  The four tax-audit folks were led through the process and deemed finished within the government office.  Medically sent out the door by 2006.

By 2009, the four folks had returned to fight on this episode.  What can be said is that the health folks deemed the whole usage of "paranoid querulatorish" issues as bogus.  They actually showed up in court....cited enough evidence, and the whole episode was called into question.  Strangely enough....that wasn't enough to bring back the forced-into-retirement tax-audit group.  No.....this required more court action.

This week (2014).....five years after the medical establishment deemed the whole thing bogus...the state apparatus finally stepped in as the court forced them to take the corrective actions, and bring the four OUT of retirement.

The doctor involved in the original determination?  The court will merely say that he's been fined for actions against three of the forced retirement situations.  The fine appears to be a private deal between the court and the doctor.

The hostility left?  The SPD went into blast-mode and demanded that the CDU (which had their guy at the very beginning start this) say some type of apology over the affair (lasting over thirteen years). None came.

What's left?  The local news media is quiet about this.  The four tax-audit folks will be allowed back in and probably get some type of position.  The problem is that things have changed.....management is totally different than thirteen years ago.....and they will be viewing any hindrance to their job as another hostile game.  I would suspect that the government also has to negotiate with them, providing some damage pay-off.....maybe in the range of thirteen years of pay.

Abusive use of mental exams and fake analysis?  Well....yes.  And because of the way that German law works.....this took thirteen years to clean up.  It says alot about the system, and why Germans get frustrated at times on the way that the system is built.

Finally, this little comment ought to be spoken over how this all started.  The tax-audit folks in this episode?  They were standing around the Hessen region and investigating the fraud taking place with bankers and investment-type earners.  They were basically told to stop their intensive audits.  You have to stand there now, and wonder.....who got paid off in the CDU.....who ordered who in the CDU leadership to push the four to this degree....who helped the find the right doctor to take these four of circulation.....and who walked away from millions in taxation in Hessen by paying off the right political guy?

It would be curious....but the Hessen news media guys just aren't capable of digging into an episode and asking some really stupid questions.  Somebody here.....needs more than a mental exam....they need serious jail time, more than ten years.

A Little Fight In Frankfurt

This is a story over urban planning, lack of housing, high-rise living, and neighborhood warfare.

When you drive into Frankfurt (a stone's throw from my house).....you tend to see a city that is flat around the entire outer seventy percent of the city.  High-rise office buildings, hotels and condo buildings exist at the city center and have been readily accepted for the past forty years.  If you look at the dynamics of the city center.....there's at least twenty-odd skyscrapers planned for the decade ahead for Frankfurt.  All of that, in the city center....was acceptable.

Well....a new urban planning effort is underway on the northwest side of Frankfurt.....pretty far out from the city center.  The drafted plan?  A fourteen-story high-rise situation....approximately eight kilometers from the center of town.  There is the suggestion that others would follow, if this one gets firmly into place and built.  The neighborhood affected?  Riedenberg.

The locals don't want it.  Over 1,500 have registered complaints so far, and the numbers continue to rise.  The issues?  It bring chaos, more traffic, crime, skyscraper "shadows" upon the landscape (yeah, they actually said that), and urbanization.

All of this planning comes up against the a rule which was laid into place about two decades ago.  The rule basically said that you could buy only up to four floors.  This kept the landscape within reason, and made people think of things as non-urban.  I know.....it's hard to fool someone into thinking a four-floor building is less urban than a six-floor building, but that's the type of naive public that you deal with here.  The same type exist in Washington DC, with a similar four-floor rule.  A waiver would have to be accomplished, and likely set the stage for more waivers in the future.

There are three problems here which are unique to German society and driving this entire debate.

First, not in my backyard (NIMB).  It doesn't matter if you talk power-generator wind-mills, or bridges, or apartment houses.....Germans bring NIMB into most discussions.  They want things to stay the way they are.  Then they counter that they need more clean power, more accessible bridges to cross rivers, and more apartments.  It's a false argument because you can't have one without the other.  Go suggest a new gas station for your end of town which currently has none.....then watch the flares go up by community groups as they fight to preserve the neighborhood from a single gas station.

Second, everyone in Frankfurt will readily agree that housing is a major problem.  It's risen up to the top three problems of the city.  The mayor speaks on this weekly.  The community planners often get drawn into debates over this.  The solution as they all get around to talking about.....is building more apartment buildings.  The location of these?  Well....there simply isn't enough room within the inner city of Frankfurt anymore.....so you have to build on the outskirts....near to S-Bahn or U-Bahn stations.  There is no choice.  Anyone stating privileged urban goals.....needs to think about where you put homes in the future.  Building fifty or sixty kilometers away?  It just won't work.

Third, there are lots of areas around Germany which have enjoyed urban growth and not seen decay or crime figure into the situation.  Those success stories?  They rarely if ever get told.  I don't see many spoken about on German news or documentary shows.  I know they exist.....I can see those neighborhoods in Wiesbaden.  If the high-rise communities come to the outer edge of Frankfurt.....they need some inspiration and planning to make the locals feel it's not inviting a mess later.  To be honest.....most just don't want it to be another Offenbach (a negative neighborhood of Frankfurt).

So, if you hear of hostile talk in Frankfurt over construction permits.....this is the basic story.