Tuesday, May 05, 2009

How Germany Made Us "Conservative"

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Fifteen years ago, when my wife and I got married, we had a lot of inchoate ideas and aspirations, many of which were relatively humble, generally egalitarian, and broadly communitarian. Looking back on them now, I suppose it isn't hard to imagine how we ended up where we are today--riding our bikes, recycling our waste, planting our garden, shopping at farmer's markets, and generally trying to live low-key, localist lives. But the truth is, it wasn't long talks and trips to buy eggs from a local farmer and book groups and graduate study that got us to start turning all those beliefs into practice: it was Germany. More than any other single event in our married lives, I'd say it was the three months we spent in a cramped, wonderful, upstairs apartment in a small neighborhood just outside of Kronberg--itself a city of about 20,000 people in the Taunus mountains, not far from Frankfurt--that set us on course to being the sort of weirdos who walk to church on Sunday, dragging a little wagon with all our stuff in it (hey: the kids are still young, and church meetings can run long, sometimes) behind us.

We went to Germany because of my dissertation research, and because we'd managed to get some support from the DAAD--the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, or German Academic Exchange Service--to help us pay for it. We stayed in Kronberg because it was an easy train ride away from the university libraries where I'd be doing my translating and writing, and because it was there we found a generous older couple, Horst and Ingrid Heydtmann, who rented us their upstairs room, though we had a noisy three-year-old daughter and had to be instructed several times before we finally grasped all the intricacies of the local garbage collection service. And when we came home, we brought with us...well, let me just quote a little from an old, wonderful post by Patrick Deneen, which expresses much what we learned there very well:

[In Europe,] I have been mightily impressed...by the strength of communal bonds, the presence of local cultures and distinctions, the persistence of tradition and memory, a culture that saves (in every sense), and a strong ethic of work aimed at preserving a high degree of independence....[For example, in Swabia] outside every town are breathtaking vistas of rolling landscape with miles and miles of forests and farmland, all oriented toward local food production, hunting and forestry. Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the backyard of many homes one still finds chickens that roam free, fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam, water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry, already today in use as the temperatures dip into the 50s here. Also, in every backyard one sees a compost heap: one pays for each piece of garbage one throws into the waste can, so every incentive is to avoid refuse weight. Moreover, companies must pay for the production of packaging (which must also be separated from the garbage and separately collected for recycling) and must charge a deposit for all plastic bottles. At most public events you will not even be served with plastic: you must pay a "pfand" (deposit) for dishes or glasses, and return it for return of your deposit afterwards. You must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags. The German economy, thus, does not measure its growth by the creation of waste products, and the German countryside is not defiled with endless vistas of discarded plastic.

Towns are towns: houses are generally not permitted outside the town limits due to strict zoning laws that have kept American-style suburbanization at bay. This makes for greater population density--even in the smallest towns--and hence also makes feasible vibrant regional and national public transportation systems. One enters a town defined by visible town limits, and nearly every town has at least a local baker and a local Metzger (butcher), some with even more shops, though nearly always family owned. The houses are close together, with small yards and usually close to the street. For the most part, families live above the businesses they run. Gender roles are generally traditional: husbands produce (bakers bake, butchers butcher, etc.), wives work as cashiers or farm wives, and in the off hours cook and clean. One of the ways that family businesses have been protected from the large chains is strict zoning laws that limit the building of "big box" stores outside town and city limits (yes, it's there, but far less than in America). Another strategy has been the store closing times--a subject of fierce debate for several years. Store closing hours have traditionally favored small business owners who hire few or no employees, and who thus must be home to care for schoolchildren during the afternoons and in the early evening. Most businesses still close for several hours at lunch and at 6:30 in the evening. This allows family businesses to compete with the chains, a fact that is everywhere in evidence, and in contrast to the U.S....

In addition to the woodpiles in every yard (much of the wood comes from carefully managed forestland that has long been owned by each family), what strikes one too are the immense numbers of solar panels on many, many of the red tiled roofs. I've learned that there is a very effective subsidy now taking place in Germany which guarantees a high rate of return for electricity produced through solar capture. In effect, houses without solar panels are subsidizing houses that have solar. Of course, the ultimate incentive is reducing the high expenditures for energy in Germany. Roughly half the cost of gas comes in the form of an energy tax (thus, a gallon is roughly six and a half dollars here), and electricity is comparably expensive. There is a far greater degree of effort to conserve, save, and finance sustainable alternatives. In addition to the many thousands of solar panels on house and farmhouse roofs, almost everywhere one can catch sight of a wind turbine turning over and over. Of course, the vehicles are universally smaller, and no one seems to mind that they aren't driving a Hummer. The Europeans I have seen are light years ahead of us in energy conservation, and will weather the storm of depleting oil reserves far better than we. Indeed, the combination of local economies, nearby productive farmland outside every town, viable public transportation and widespread use of alternative energies points to a culture that has never abandoned sustainable communities in the way that America willfully and woefully has done over the past fifty years. You can also get some sense why there is even resentment here toward America's wastefulness: the Europeans pay higher prices for everything in an effort to use less, and whatever "give" there is in the worldwide production of resources is a kind of unintended sacrificial gift that many Europeans are making so that America can continue its energy gluttony. That said, the last laugh will be theirs, I think, when our civilization corrodes with increasingly worthless suburban housing tracts, our incalculable debt, and our inability to finance the American way of life....

Now, we didn't see as much of rural western Europe as Patrick has, or even the small slice of it he reflected upon in his post of his. Nonetheless, I think back to the chimneys and small fields and orchards which dotted even our little temporary home not far from the metropolis of Frankfurt, and I can see much of truth Patrick was gesturing towards. His post, which became part of an important exchange on the nature of "conservatism" between a couple of other well-known bloggers, is one that I've cited more than a few times over the years, because it brilliantly crystallizes the lessons our experience in Germany taught us, especially as regards those things we want, as a family, to have and preserve.

What do we want? In a nutshell, what we want is a living environment which will enable us and our children to be able to operate at a pace and in a way not necessarily set by global trends or cosmopolitan economic imperatives, but rather choices and obligations that they can we appreciate as part and parcel of the community in which we live. That means we want to be able to live in a place that is well defined as a place...a place that is connected to the larger world, of course, but which also has some integrity apart from it, which would mean there would be a "whole" there which we, as residents of that place, could interact with and exercise some authority over. This is a rather high-falutin' way of talking about participatory democracy and populist control, I suppose (not that being abstract ever stopped me before), but in practice it means mostly a lot of very simple things: we want local stores to shop at. We want local schools our children to attend. We want safe streets to walk down, and bike paths when we ride, and people to be there when we call on the phone, and buses and trains which can take us to further destinations with minimal pollution. In short, we don't want to be forced into an over-reliance on cars and computers and other technologies which can make our paychecks and daily schedules and our livelihoods dependent upon decisions and calendars drawn up by corporate bosses and bureaucrats over which we have no influence. We want a calmer, slower, less expansive, less hurried, less ambitious way of life.

Which is what we got in Kronberg, soon after unpacking out suitcases. We realized that the refrigerator our apartment included was so small that multiple weekly hikes to the local marketplace--about a mile away, down a hill, past the bakery and church and school, and then around a park and up another hill. We learned that we had to be careful with the ceiling windows, because they were left open to provide circulation, and so we had to remember to close them whenever we left, in case of sudden rains. We were taught, as I mentioned above, that composting and recycling is a serious and responsible business, and that you needed to take the time to separate out your waste and put it in the right receptacles, at the right time. And most of all, we were taught what you can do when you are given a small space, and the time and support to make something beautiful with it. The Heydtmanns loved to show off their little neighborhood, with all its mountain paths leading off into the woods and alongside berry patches, and in particular they loved their little and well-tended flower garden behind their home. My weeks may have been spent sitting in libraries, concentrating on old texts, trying to expand my mind beyond my inherited frame of reference, but aside from those hours working the shelves, what was mostly happening to my wife and I was a concentrating, a focusing, a limiting, that helped make us into the sort of "conservative" people who like to keep things simple.

Which leads to another important lesson: keeping things simple often means thinking big. If you want a society with good mass transit, for example, then among other things--as has been pointed out in the excellent thread here--you've got to be able to develop large plans, plans that will protect and empower those collective actions--like choosing to ride a bus or a train--that will benefit everyone, rather than allowing developers and construction crews and the automobile industry and their compliant politicians to run roughshod over the common good, all in the name of "individual choice." This is the point Patrick made above about the subsidies and taxes which support solar energy in Germany; it is a point that I have tried to make a couple of times before in regards to the economic choices that Sweden has made; and it is the point smartly made by Russell Shorto, in this fine article about how he has been helped to recognize the freedom which comes from the Dutch welfare state (hat tip, once again, to the wonderful Laura McKenna):

[Not long ago], I noted with fleeting but pleasant confusion the arrival of two mysterious payments of 316 euros (about $410) each [in my bank account]. The remarks line said “accommodation schoolbooks.” My confusion was not total. On looking at the payor--the Sociale Verzekeringsbank, or Social Insurance Bank--I nodded with sage if partial understanding. Our paths had crossed several times before. I have two daughters, you see. Every quarter, the SVB quietly drops $665 into my account with the one-word explanation kinderbijslag, or child benefit. As the SVB’s Web site cheerily informed me when I went there in bewilderment after the first deposit: “Babies are expensive. Nappies, clothes, the pram . . . all these things cost money. The Dutch government provides for child benefit to help you with the costs of bringing up your child.” Any parents living in the country receive quarterly payments until their children turn 18. And thanks to a recently passed law, the state now gives parents a hand in paying for school materials....

Such things are easy for an American to ridicule; you don’t have to be a Fox News commentator to sneer at what, in the midst of a global financial crisis, seems like Socialism Gone Wild....But there’s more to it....There is a historical base to the Dutch social-welfare system, which curiously has been overlooked by American conservatives in their insistence on seeing such a system as a threat to their values. It is rooted in religion. “These were deeply religious people, who had a real commitment to looking after the poor,” Geert Mak, a well-known Dutch author, said of his ancestors. “They built orphanages and hospitals. The churches had a system of relief, which eventually was taken over by the state. So Americans should get over ‘socialism.’ This system developed not after Karl Marx, but after Martin Luther and Francis of Assisi.”

[But then] if "socialism" is then something of a straw man--if rather than political ideology, religious values and a tradition of cooperation are what lie beneath the modern social-welfare system--maybe it’s worth asking a simple question of such a system: What does it feel like to live in it?

In 1992, Julie Phillips flew from her home in New York to visit a friend from college who lived in Amsterdam. She found that she liked the city. “You don’t know any nice, single, straight men here, do you?” she asked her friend. He said he knew one and introduced her to Jan. Julie married Jan, and Amsterdam became her home. Julie is a friend of mine, part of my American expat cabal in Amsterdam. She’s a fellow writer, and the second of her two children, Jooske, was born at home. Julie told me she isn’t a “hard-core granola type,” but giving birth at home, with the help of a midwife, is a longstanding Dutch tradition, so, she said, “I was very when-in-Rome about it.” She is now a fan of home birth. “It was incredibly pleasant,” she said. Bart (“one of the Netherlands’ only male midwives,” according to Phillips) showed up at her door at 11 in the morning. The baby was born a few hours later. “It was just me and Bart and Jan. Later, I was with the baby in the bedroom, listening to them yakking in the kitchen. I thought, Here I am with my baby in my bed, and everyone is having a nice time in my house”....

Nobody thinks the Dutch health care system is perfect. Many people complain that the new insurance costs more than the old. “That’s true, but that’s because the old system just didn’t charge enough, so society ended up paying for it in other ways,” said Anais Rubingh, who works as a general practitioner in Amsterdam. The complaint I hear from some expat Americans is that while the Dutch system covers everyone, and does a good job with broken bones and ruptured appendixes, it falls behind American care when it comes to conditions that involve complicated procedures. Hans Hoogervorst [the former minister of public health] acknowledged this--to a point. “There is no doubt the U.S. has the best medical care in the world--for those who can pay the top prices,” he said. “I’m sure the top 5 percent of hospitals there are better than the top 5 percent here. But with that exception, I would say overall quality is the same in the two countries.”

Health care is maybe the most distinguishable part of social welfare, but the more time I spend in the Netherlands, the less separable health care becomes from the whole. Which is to say that to comprehend this system is to enter a different state of mind. People have a matter-of-fact belief not in government--in my experience the Dutch complain about government as frequently as Americans do--but in society. As my Dutch teacher, Armelle Meijerink, said: “We look at the American system, and all the uninsured, and we can’t believe that a developed country chooses for that. I have a lot of American students, and when we talk about this, they always say, Yes, but we pay less tax. That’s the end of the discussion for them. I guess that’s a pioneer’s attitude."

Now, I don't want to dismiss that pioneer attitude: it built my country, after all. And it's not as though the lessons we learned in Germany were so obviously true to everyone around us: one family we got to know well through our church there, a family with three children, were desperate to move to America--they wanted to buy a house of their own, with a yard the kids could play in, rather than just trucking them to the local (though admittedly, very nice) park and contributing to the community garden for the next twenty years of their lives while they saved up for something that was prohibitively expensive for young people at that stage of their careers. They looked at our living experience in America, and they envied us, and the genuine and virtuous desires behind that envy are worth contemplating. I don't want to give up entirely on the undisciplined individual freedom and sometimes destructive economic opportunity which our tree-slashing, go-at-it-alone pioneer ancestors bequeathed us with; probably no one who has ever actually lived in America would. But then again, I can't help but think that if more people could see the sort of compromises which many of the socialist countries of Western Europe have made, and the equally genuine and virtuous "positive" local freedoms they make possible, few people would want to dismiss those "conservative" lessons entirely out of hand either.


djw said...

I've got (ahem) a paper to finish up, so I don't have time to post much here, except to say that, in visiting here for the first time in a few weeks, I thought this was a wonderful post, and it's reading this sort of thing that keeps me from drifting too far into liberal skepticism about 'community' as a prioritized value.

(Also: it doesn't have a publisher yet and it's not entirely finished, but when Karen Litfin, one of my professors at UW, finishes her book on the global ecovillage movement, you're definitely going to want to give it a look).

Russell Arben Fox said...

Glad you liked it, David, and I appreciate the thoughts. I like to imagine that in modern political cultures where communitarianism and socialism are part of the historical make-up, as is the case in many parts of Western Europe, figuring out an appropriate "liberal-conservative" balance on matters of public policy wouldn't be as contentious an exercise as it often seems to be in America.Maybe that's wishful thinking, but I can still hope.