February 14, 2007

"Goodbye, Deutschland!"

It figures that I would move to Germany just as all the smart Germans are leaving. An article by Mark Landler in last week's New York Times ("Germany Agonizes over Brain Drain," 02/06/07) reports that emigration is up, from 109,500 in 2001, to 144,800 in 2005; meanwhile, the number of Germans returning from stints abroad has declined, from about 178,000 in 2004, to just 128,700 in 2005. "That made it the first time in nearly four decades that more people left than came home," writes Landler.

I'm usually a little suspicious of the Gray Lady's trend articles. They tend to rely a little too heavily on anecdotal evidence, such as citing "Goodbye, Deutschland!", a popular German reality TV show about families who moved abroad in search of better opportunities. And since when does a one-year change in demographics constitute a "trend"? But the article emphasizes that it's not the actual numbers that are worrying, but the quality of the workers that Germany is losing: doctors, engineers, academics, and other highly-educated individuals: "Those who leave cite chronic unemployment, a rigid labor market, stifling bureaucracy, high taxes, and the plodding economy." Now that I can totally believe.

The Reimans have thrown themselves into Texas culture since emigrating from their native Germany (from "Goodbye, Deutschland!")

Since moving to Germany I've been shocked by the slow pace of doing business here, the out-of-control protectionism, and occassionally, the Kafka-esque red tape. Compare, for instance, the German and American rental markets.

Last summer when I needed to find a cheap, temporary, Boston apartment, I took the day off work, trolled Craigslist, made half-a-dozen appointments, and by the end of the day I had signed an application for an adorable Coolidge Corner studio. Now, I didn't expect it to be that easy to find an apartment in Würzburg. After all, this is a different country, and I don't speak the language. But I've been searching for almost two months now, and I'm still homeless. My American friend Cissy spent four months in a hotel before securing her apartment here.

The major obstacle for us both, and even for many locals, is Germany's out-dated rental system, which is dominated by maklers, or real estate agents, and is organized to protect their interests. To begin with, maklers charge the outrageous fee of two months rent plus a 38% tax -- and that's in addition to the three months of kaution (deposit) that you must pay the landlord. So that means that the out-of-pocket expenses on your 500€-a-month apartment come to 3,380€. Then remember that most German apartments don't come with kitchen appliances, and you're looking at closer to 5,000€ in start-up costs. It's a wonder the straßes aren't filled with homeless people!

Now, once you've agreed to work an individual makler (such as the one whose office is shown at left), he requires you to sign a "no competition agreement," which means that the services of all other maklers are now off limits. So from the very start, you're locked in and the makler gets his 238% commission no matter what kind of service he provides. And in general, they get away with providing the very minimum. Their business hours are only Monday through Friday, from 10:00 to 12:00 and from 1:00 to 4:00, and it may take them days to reply to an e-mail or voice message. Furthermore, they don't actually take you to see any apartments. Their job is merely to screen prospective tenants for the landlord and then provide you with their phone numbers. You have to set up your own appointments and see the apartments by yourself. And then, once you've found a place, it might still take weeks for the makler to complete the paperwork. [Of course, Craigslist provides the same service for a fraction of the effort and for free, but so far it has yet to expand beyond Berlin's ex-pat community. And if it did, no doubt the maklers would all be thrown out of work, increasing Germany's current sky-high unemployment rate of over 14%.]

If you decide you don't want to deal with a makler, your only other option is to search the Saturday classifieds in the Mainpost, Würzburg's local newspaper. Even more retro than the concept of using a newspaper's classifieds to find an apartment is that some advertisers won't list their phone numbers. Instead they want you to write a letter to an anonymous post office box and wait for them to write you back.

But I digress. I'm sure no one actually emigrates because of a tedious rental system; however, the same attitude about non-competition extends throughout the labor market, and that is enough to drive the best and brightest abroad.

Kevin and I have heard a number of horror stories from our German friends, particularly his colleagues in academia. To begin with, most German academics are badly paid, despite having more education than their American counterparts. As Landler pointed out, many of Germany's top professions are very heirarchical, with only the employees at the highest rung controlling the research funds and making the big salaries. There is a widely circulated story here of a talented young professor who wanted to switch departments from physics to bio-physics because the latter was offering him a better salary and more money for post-docs. But at German state universities (the only kind they have, actually), all hiring and firing must be approved by the state board of education. And this august body turned down the professor's request because they thought it would "encourage unhealthy competition between departments." So instead, the young professor accepted a slightly less lucrative offer from a university in another state -- outside the board's jurisdiction -- and Bavaria lost this talented man altogether.

Another example of what I would call Germany's "over-protectionism" is its maternity policy, which allows new mothers to take off three years at partial salary and still retain their jobs. It must sound completely sacreligious of me to rail against the rights of mothers, but consider this example of how the policy can work in practice. A talented and hard-working 26 year old in Kevin's office was hired several years ago to replace the woman who was hired to replace the woman who actual holds the position. The original woman, who is now 38, has been on maternity leave for almost 10 years -- that's one child every three years -- during which time she has probably not stayed up-to-date on the research or learned how to build a Powerpoint presentation. And yet, the day she decides to return, that 26 year old is out of a job. In the mean time, she toils without job security or hope of a promotion because she can't get a better job. (14% unemployment, remember?)

What effect must a policy like this have on the opportunities for young workers? A better question might be, what effect does this have on an employer who must chose between two candidates: one male and one female, when it's only the female might immediately disappear for three to ten years to have a family. (But surely the Germans must have protections against sex discrimination, too.) No doubt I'll change my mind when I'm closer in age and lifestyle to the 38 year old than to the 26 year old, but for now I think there must be a happier median.

The Dieckmanns have had a harder time adjusting to life in Anadalucia.

This is all just more anecdotal evidence, but I really wouldn't be surprised if talented young workers are leaving Germany in droves. What actually surprises me is what a capitalist pig I've become. As a teenager, I was a total socialist -- like all of the cool kids at my school. Then in college, when I learned to see a little more nuance in life, I moved into the "social justice" realm of the politico-economic spectrum. But I guess I must now accept that fact that I've become a big free-market Square. I still believe in universal healthcare and higher taxes for the wealthy (I'm a Democrat to the Death!), but since moving to Europe, I've come to appreciate the benefits of a radically competitive economy.

There is a reason that American culture, or "pop-culture" some might say, is exported all over the world: It's just better. It's not all relative as I once believed. I think the anarchy of our free market system encourages a higher level of creativity and innovation. Europe has a rich history, sure, but it can often feel like a "museum set piece," as Kevin says. And he's right. Much of Germany's culture seems to be backward-looking. There's actually a huge debate in Berlin right now over whether or not to close one of the city's three bankrupt, state-run symphonies.

By comparison, most of the contemporary German music, film and television that I've seen seems out-dated, derivative, and a little juvenile, such as Germany's top hip-hop band, Sido, a bunch of whitey-white German dudes mimicing African-American rappers and commenting about "life on the streets."

It really suprises me, then, that the German family in the Times article said that the thing they'll miss most after emigrating is German television. Are you kidding me? The only thing good on German television is American television! Still, I give the Germans credit for having better reality TV shows. After all, they invented the genre. After only two weeks with a TV, I've already become a huge fan of "Wohnen nach Wunsch" (a home improvement show), "Das Perfekte Dinner" (better titled "Cooking for the In-laws"), and of course, "Goodbye, Deutschland!" I must confess that I take a devilish delight in watching the German emigrants struggle with finding apartments, learning new languages, and navigating the cultural labyrinths of their adopted countries. See, it's not so easy, is it?

For all my bitching and moaning, though, I really like it here. And despite the slower pace of life, I'd like to stay beyond just a year because I've always dreamed about living in a museum set piece. Now, if only I had a furnished museum apartment!

My own museum set piece.


The Essentialist said...

Do the Reimans live in a school bus?

the Collector said...

That's a really good question. I'm not sure. There are, like, 10 different families, so you don't get see all of them in every episode. I've only seen one episode with the Reimans, and in it, they were learning how to use shotguns. They picked it up pretty quickly; they were made for Texas.

So far, the show has focused on other family, the Dietchmans, who are not doing so well. They're in Andalucia, and they don't speak any Spanish. They also haven't been able to withdraw any money from their bank, even though they really need some to get their plumbing fixed. It's a real cliffhanger, let me tell you.