Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Germans, Road Funding, and Reality

In the early 1990s....I bought a property just north of Kaiserslautern.  It was a small village (2,500 residents), that had a hotel, a pharmacy, two pubs, a bakery and a butcher-shop.  At the end of town....lay this road to the 'big' village just four kilometers away.  They had the gas station, the four grocery stores, the real pool, an ice-cream shop and twenty-odd business enterprises, along with a railway station.

For the past five or six decades....the route between these two villages became an important topic.  There was no walking trail, as you might expect with most German villages.  The road between the two?  Well....it was roughly 5.5 kilometers....ziging and zaging at ninety-degree turns.  No trees.  No streams.  No bridges.  Just open fields and a slightly slanted hillside. Five-and-a-half kilometers of pavement to cover a four-kilometer distance.

What I learned the first year, as winter set in....between the morning temperatures and humidity.....you'd have black ice to develop. At least once a week from November to March....some car would skid off the road.  Some would flip over. Some would ram into the side of an oncoming car.  I reached a point by the second winter that I'd bypass the road and go an alternate route.  The locals all knew that the curves built into the road since the 1920s.....was an issue.  Both city councils had gone to the county and cited numbers/statistics over and over.....trying to get the road fixed.

Around the mid-1990s.....the county agreed to put funding into the road.  Basically....they repaved it.  Yeah.....the curves remained and you got the impression that no one at the county understood the overall issue at all.  They simply understood that people wanted a repaving job......end of story.

So, an odd thing happened.  Germany had the World Cup games for 2006.  Kaiserslautern ended up as one of the cities in Germany with at least four games to be played.  For the Pfalz (the state), this was a big deal......so they pulled out a big bundle of infrastructure money for the city of Kaiserslautern, and the county around it.  All of this occurred in 2003, with three years of time to achieve various "shovel-ready" jobs.

Somewhere in the mix of things.....someone finally got this road project on the 'fix-list'.  So they arrived one day and shut down the road for approximately six months.  Then they reopened it.

They'd put in a paved bike trail between the two villages (the big shocker).  You could now walk the route in a matter of twenty-five minutes.

The nine zig-zags?  They removed three of them entirely, and spaced out the curves so you could drive 100 kph easily on this road (prior to this.....I wouldn't have driven faster than seventy kph).  Over the next winter.....I can only remember two accidents occurring the entire winter on the road.

The other village down the road?  They had a back-road leading into the village, which the Americans had started to refer years ago as 'suicide-road', because ice and snow would accumulate, and limited sunlight on the road throughout the winter made it highly dangerous.  There was a sixty-degree curve at one point, where a dozen cars a year would slide off and run down a small hillside.  Well.....this whole road was rebuilt, and turned into a highly safe road.

The truth is.....if the World Cup had never come.....we'd never have been given the extra money to do all of this extra stuff.  In some ways, this is the reality of Germany today.  You need some gimmick to attract extra funding from the state apparatus.  Statistics aren't enough.....and since you can't fire political figures......you end up with a strange method of solving problems.

Germans and Stress

I sat and was reading a curious article this morning out of Der Western (a newspaper here in Germany).  They reported that a health insurance company (GfK) had gone out and done a survey on stress.  What they found was.....roughly three out of ten Germans report that they are under constant pressure at work.  Four out of ten report that the work-load continues to escalate.

German work environments, as a whole....are a bit different than American environments.  There aren't that many office chatter moments, or loose conversation.  Germans tend to keep the office environment fairly professional and are focused on the work given.  Expanding out an office to handle additional work-loads?  In an American office.....if you are making more profit and having more customers.....it'd just immediately happen, and you'd let these folks go if business dropped.  German businesses aren't made in that way.....they will only add personnel when absolutely necessary....trying to avoid cuts later if the business declines slightly.

Why do a report on stress?  Because it's all going to lead later to some type of wellness situation or stress rehab center....like the Kur.  The Kur is the concept of sending a guy with stress or depression or anxiety off for a month of forced relaxation.  For an American, it'd be like your doctor finally saying your work is hurting your life....so here's a four-week hotel deal in the Rockies, without the family, and you are supposed to attend daily classes, walk or swim every day, and talk to a mental health guy at least once or twice a day.  It's been going on for decades here in Germany, and most people say it works.

The odd thing about this report that GfK produced?  They found that one out of four folks thought that exceptional stress was a positive on their lives.  I sat there and pondered over this.  There's no written explanation for what they said, or forty-line detail over why people would think that way.

Maybe there is 'good' stress and 'bad' stress.  Maybe people live such routine lives at home....that this brief eight hours of stressful work is a blessing to some people.  I might even agree that stress makes people more creative....finding ways to shorten a process or lessening paperwork.

What will happen to the report?  It'll likely get filed, and never be brought up again.....sadly.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Talking the Solidarity Tax

Here in Germany, we have a special tax called the Solidarity Tax.  It came up on the list of topics today for an odd reason.

After the wall came down (1989)....there was an urgent need for more capital for Germany to rebuild the eastern part of the country.  So, the Solidarity Tax was invented.  Up to 1,922 Euro a year for a married couple working was the breaking point where you didn't have to worry about the Solidarity Tax.  After that annual tax base, if you made more.....you paid the Solidarity Tax, and it was on a increasing volume.  As you made more, you paid more.  The max was 5.5-percent.

An example of this....after your bill was figured up and you owed 10,000 Euro for your annual tax situation (both you and the wife).....then the government tossed 550 Euro more onto the situation (10,550 Euro total now).

The original goal was to run this for a definite period.  Well....that period comes up for review in 2019.

The use of the pot of money?  This has become a topic that political figures now chat about, and would like to use in different ways......besides pushing the money toward the eastern parts of Germany.  Is the east still behind?  Some would argue about this, but if you rode around on the various streets, roads and bridges.....I think you'd come to agree that they are finally at the same level as the western part of Germany.

The CDU position?  They'd like to just take down the tax entirely.....handing the money back to business operations and private citizens.

The Greens and SPD?  Today, they came out and said that they'd like to continue the tax, but now refocus the money around the sixteen states.

Does it matter?  From 1998 to 2009 (11 years), it added up to about a 100 billion-plus Euro.  You can imagine two scenarios.  One is where sixteen German states get the 100 billion-plus over ten years.....to build roads, schools, bridges, concert halls, and monuments.  The other is where the German private consumer and business operations get the money back to themselves and spend it on the economy (new cars, new houses, vacations, boob-jobs, investment money, retirement funds, etc).

For 2015 and 2016, I don't see it being more than a topic brought up three or four times a year.  For the 2017 election?  It'll become one of the three biggest topics of the campaign.  For the small guy who doesn't pay much in taxes, this won't amount to much personally, and they would prefer to see the money go toward their individual states.  For higher wage earners and corporations?  They'd probably prefer to see the money in their hands.  To be honest.....the little guy really isn't contributing much into this pot and probably shouldn't have much to say.  But the reality here is that politics makes it an across-the-board mess for the public to sort out.

So, when you hear about the Solidarity Tax.....it's a lot of cash that will come to exist in a different form in less than five years.  It might be a curious topic to hear about.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Robbery in the Neighborhood

The upstairs guy came to note to me today....that his lady-friend's Audi A3 (seven years old) had been stolen overnight.

Yep, it'd been parked in front of our house, and this morning.....gone.

For 2014, I think the village (around 4,000 residents), just a couple miles outside of Wiesbaden, is up to around ten vehicles stolen.  They tend to be Audi or BMW.

The odds?  Two months ago, one of the village's stolen cars was noted on the autobahn going into Czech.  The cops picked up on the plate numbers.....pulled the guy over, and arrested him.

I'd take a guess that from Wiesbaden itself...counting up the 'burbs' within the town.....there's probably near a hundred vehicles stolen this year.  It has to be a mafia group working the deal.....all driving the vehicles as quickly as possible from the region over toward Czech and onto either Ukraine or Russia.  They just make up forged registration paperwork and nobody says anything as they sell it.

Action by the cops?  Nothing much.  There's only three roads into town and you'd think they'd put up some camera that gets active at night and takes pictures of folks within the vehicle.

The thing that gets me.....even if you have full insurance, you ARE screwed.  A seven-year old car will pull maybe $7500 max from the insurance company.  A new car?  Figure $25,000.  So, in effect....this car which was in great shape and maybe another five to seven years of availability.....is gone and you have to find the fifteen-odd thousand out of your pocket.  In my mind, it's a pretty negative deal.

A Local Clinic

I live in an area of Germany (within twenty miles of Wiesbaden) that has had its share of sorrow and woes over history.

In 1242, the local folks around Wiesbaden had upset the Catholic Bishop of Mainz, who maintained some control over the region.   The Bishop sent over some thugs....and burned a good portion of Wiesbaden down to the ground. 

From WW II, roughly 4,000 Jews from around Wiesbaden were rounded up and sent off to death or concentration camps.

From 1676/77, the local town of Idstein conducted witch trials and sentenced off 39 men and women to death.

Toward the conclusion of WW II....the US and UK conducted bombing runs over the train station just over the hill from where I live and destroyed the whole railway, and just about every house within walking distance of the station.

So, this week, I came around to Hadamar.....a town just north of Limburg, maybe twenty minutes driving distance from my place.

Hadamar has a fascinating little history.  In 1883, some medical group got some funding and renovated a former monastery into a clinic.  The original concept was to take vagrants and "nuts" from the region, and intern them within a walled community, and attempt to treat them.  There might have been some positive aspects with the plan in the beginning, but with all things....it's not easy to follow the moral trail.

236 rooms for men, and 80 rooms for women were set up.  It was generally supported by the state health care apparatus created by Bismarck.  

Over a twenty-year period, it progressed from a treatment center....to simply a holding facility.  

After the Kaiser was kicked out and new governmental reforms occurred in the 1920s....Hadamar found itself various practices to tout.....to include sterilization and euthanasia.   The government finally stepped in by 1927 and deemed these to be inappropriate.  

As the Nazi era came into effect (1930s).....the state apparatus gradually changed.  Less funding became one of the objectives of the new structure of health control.....based mostly out of Berlin, instead of individual states.

Hadamar needed more of a gimmick to ensure it's financial survival.  In 1939, Hadamar became the place where you sent German kids with serious issues to be sterilized.  The Berlin folks made it a funded project.  At some point, the evaluation went to a new stage where euthanasia was accepted (easily in fact).  Within six months, the new attitude was that you didn't need to limit this to just kids....you could do the same thing with adults.

The local gas chamber at the facility went into full operation, and by the end of summer of 1941....they'd done the job on 10,000 individuals.  Note, these were Germans....kids, crazies, adults with mental issues, women who'd married Jews, disturbed guys left over from WW I, etc.

This entire operation was known throughout the community and openly became a treat that teachers would use on students...suggesting they'd be sent off to the ovens if they were cooperative. At some point near the end of 1941....the Catholic Bishop sent off a letter to Berlin....noting that this was fully known by the public and not being condoned or accepted well.

For some reason, the Hitler staff made a decision to temporarily shut down the operation by the end of 1941.  

This was short-lived....with the operation starting back up in 1942.  The new method was to avoid the gas chambers and crematorium methods....simply using old-fashioned euthanasia on incoming patients.

The groups?  After 1942, the list simply got wider.  German Army solders who'd suffered shell-shock....were being sent there.  Germans at the facility were killing their own society, without any reservations.

All total?  Generally, the number with phase I and II....come near 15,000 killed.  Most all were Germans.  

When the US Army arrived in the spring of 1945....it's difficult to figure out how they stumbled upon the operation.  Nothing much is written of this discovery.  I would suspect that some locals got into a conversation with approaching US Army personnel....told them of the facility and figured that would finally settle the problem for the locals.

The Army walked in and came to be fairly shocked at the extent of the operation.  By the end of 1945....there was one significant problem with the charging of crimes on this.  They had enough rules in the book for war crimes, but simply killing your own countrymen....that wasn't in the book of rules.  So, they invented a new rule called rule number 'ten', which involved crimes against humanity.  

The investigation continued, and by 1947, Germany had established a court process to handle 'euthanasia' crimes.  They eventually hanged three of the folks who ran the establishment.  

Hadamar?  After WW II.....there was some agreement that there were still a number of mentally ill people around, and the facility made sense to keep open.  Today, it's a mental facility with modern buildings and some plaques on the wall to note it's long history.  Buried around the facility are the remains of the 15,000-odd folks.

How many sterilizations took place there?  Unknown.  From Germany as of a total, it was near 400,000.  You can figure that tens of thousands probably were greeted at the gate of Hadamar, and a day later were sterilized.  In some ways, you can look around Germany today, adding up the men lost in the World War I/II, and the Germans forced under sterilization, and note the zero-population growth attained in today's atmosphere.

There's a phrase that fits this....social Darwinism.  Basically....society working to evolve itself, within it's own medical means, and ensure the fittest and more mentally capable folks carry society forward.

For me, this is an odd piece of history from the local region.  How many folks know the story?  I'd take a guess that barely one or two percent know the whole story.  It's not a pleasant thing that you'd like to share or discuss.

Photo: ushmm.org.  Date is probably around the summer of 1941 before they were told to shut down for phase one.  Smoke is from the crematorium on the site.  

Germany and Refugee News

When you talk refugee status in Germany....you tend to get a brief and chaotic look by the typical German.

This week, there were some talks about how the region (Hessen) will handle the housing situation.  On the table currently.....there's the Bundeswehr Army barracks in Fulda, which is supposed to be completely vacated by mid-summer of 2015 (one report says third-quarter, one media source said mid-summer).  The talk from the political folks is that the barracks has moved up to choice number one, but folks around Fulda are not pleased with the discussion.

The three centers currently in operation around Hessen have reached maximum capacity (3,000).  So the recent efforts have been to funnel some folks out to small towns and just force town councils to cook up some type of arrangement because there's just no more room.

Added to the chaos is the decision this week by Hessen's finance ministry to channel roughly 30 million Euro over to the refugee centers.....to make up for cash already used by the local communities of Giessen, Bad Arolsen and Kirchhain.  What some political folks have said....it's simply not enough.  Trying to find more loose capital in the state budget of Hessen is just about impossible at this point....without cutting into actual programs and allowances....thus getting just about everyone infuriated.

A month ago, the government put out a figure that they estimate for the full-year of 2014 in Germany.....of 300,000 refugees.  The simple truth is....they just don't have the capacity to handle this type number, and it's likely to be just as many in 2015.  The pressure on individual communities to cover basic life requirements?  If you only get X amount of Euro to feed and house 300 refugees....then you figure food, heat, utilities, etc.....you come to the point where it's just a break-even point and you wonder what happens in two years?  Disgruntled refugees sitting and thinking they were going to be on some mythical and magical deal with a real house, real job, and real lifestyle.

Folks around Fulda have to be concerned over the old military barracks turning into a refugee center, but then you look around Germany at dozens of US facilities in some stage of being turned over, and the locals are likely freaking out because they really don't want ownership at this point in time. It simply begs for creating a ghetto out of thin-air.

In essence, there simply never was a plan "A", and we've mostly wrapped up a marginal plan "B" for the situation, and probably already looking for a plan "C".

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Tolerance Week by ARD

The state-network folks continue to run this week with the topic of tolerance.  Our local state-run radio state (HR3) did their part yesterday.

One of the editors for the radio station out of Frankfurt did her part.....by donning a burka (completely covered, to include the face), and walked along the streets of Frankfurt to get commentary from people.  Generally, the tolerance level noted by the public....didn't get past the marginal level, as the dressed-up burka gal discovered.

You can imagine the scene.  Gal dressed in black burka....face covered except for eyes, and a film crew behind her covering the public viewing her along a major shopping area of Frankfurt.  A circus-like atmosphere to bring up into the public spectrum via the network's tolerance week theme.  The brief thirty-odd second clip with the tolerance coverage?  Short and to the point.....the public perception isn't progressing, and it's just not going to be accepted (in the long-run or short-run).

It's an interesting gimmick here....tolerance.  Because of intellectual status, a number of people were willing to use tolerance to reinforce their perceptions and beliefs upon the intolerant.....assuming that they weren't focused or thinking the right way.  All you needed to do....was simply put a few pieces of reality out there.....let them know that peer pressure was to be applied....and people would fall in your direction.  It's a simple task, if you think about it.

An entire network (state-run of course), spending an entire week, and working all of their news pieces, forums, and a fair amount of their entertainment works (movies, TV shows, etc) into the situation.  All focused on some element of tolerance, and selling it to you as the viewer.

I'm just an American who happens to be in the middle of this and logically viewing it the way that an American would see it.  The tolerance group assumes they are in the tolerate chair, and what they suggest is the right point to view everything.  The folks on the other side of this.....by their view....are intolerant.  So, their view is simply to right-a-wrong.  How they came to be in the right chair and focused in such a way?  Unknown.  Nor would I suggest that they have any understanding of the people that they are focused against.

It's a fair amount of effort that the network guys have used in this discussion....across the entire nation of Germany.  Oddly enough....from regular viewers.....there might only be ten million Germans who routinely view ARD....of the eighty million residents.  For what was put into this effort....I'm not sure if any pay-back will ever occur.

Anyway, the positive is that we are on Friday, and the theme has come to a conclusion as of today.  The tolerance sales job comes to a close, and reality goes back into prospective.

Frankfurt Update

HR, our local state-run TV network, did a news report from last night to cover the developing episode in Frankfurt over marijuana.  The Linke Party has pushed the subject to the top of the discussion stage within the local city hall, and there's going to be some debate over the next week or two of a pilot-program.....which more or less opens the door for Frankfurt to become the first city in Germany with an open-policy on marijuana usage.

What you see lining up....is a group of different political parties finding common ground. The Linke Party, the Greens, the SPD, and the FDP.....all appear to agree on this open-door policy.  The CDU?  Without enough numbers to oppose it, will simply be the minority.  The CDU has strongly hinted that there is no cause to rush into this or develop this as a fast-paced project.  At this point, I think they've lost the argument, and the pro-marijuana crowd have the numbers to approve just about any program they desire.

Based on commentary so far, I'd take a guess that it'll be a step-by-step process, with some relaxed rules going into effect by spring of 2015.  Another round of talks by fall of 2015, with more relaxation.  And by summer of 2016....pot shops will be in full operation within Frankfurt city limits....taxed by the city....and selling to adults.

No one in Wiesbaden or Mainz will care much.  Mostly because if you needed a joint.....you already have your local guy that you buy from.  But, if you felt the need to be legal.....it's a 30-minute train ride to Frankfurt and you could buy your weed from the legit city dealer there.

What's all this say?  Society has changed over the past five decades, and a majority of voters (I think) have smoked marijuana and don't think it's a big deal.  The Linke Party is pressing a topic that people connect with.....and are getting more local support than they did five years ago.  This in turn.....takes votes away from the SPD.

All of this would lead a person to ask if the voting public is changing.  I noted this morning that a new poll suggest eighty-percent of Germans are in favor of assisted suicide now, which means it'll come up in 2015 as a major political topic.  If you had a listing of significant topics that people were generally against in 1984.....here thirty years later....they'd be mostly approved by the general public.  It's a trend.  Society is more accepting of things that were not acceptable years ago.

With the trend, I'd say by 2016....Frankfurt will have legal pot shops, and Wiesbaden might see the same thing by 2018.