Journal (18Aug11)by Tourguide on Thu 18 Aug 2011, 11 PM CET, Views: 536
Got our first dose of summer temperature this week as temperature hit nearly 35 Celsius out here (take my word for it, that’s warm). I most certainly jinxed myself in last week’s blog, practically bragging about our cool weather. Alas. Still, high temperature wouldn’t be so tough if it wasn’t for the lack of air conditioning in German homes. Yes, you read that right. No AC.
I remember a colleague joking when we first got here that if you walk into a German house and see a fan, it means there is no AC. If you walk into a German house and there is no fan. It means there is no AC, and no fan.
It reminds me of stories my mom use to tell about growing up in NYC without AC. It was all about putting bowls of ice in front of the rotating fan and wetting down the sheets to stay cool. Sounds crazy I know. But laying on top of the sheets last night in front of a rotating fan, I really wondered how much ice we had in the fridge downstairs.
In my site visit to sunny Vicenza, Italy a few weeks back I swung by the Livorno Health Clinic on Italy’s west coast, and it was already near 90 there. That whole clinic had actually lost most of its AC, and Wow, was it humid in that lobby. They had all the windows open they could, but there was barely a wisp of air moving through that place. They had a flickering light in the waiting room, and there was a single person sitting in it, …asleep. Reminded me of a 1960’s bus stop terminal. As I met the clinic chief there he took it all in stride. “Turns out when you don’t have AC only the really sick people show up, …this is working out great. We’ve been able to accept every walk in we’ve had all week.” …Well, that’s one way to solve Access to Care.
Still, things could be worse here. God willing, this heat spell will be short lived, and hey, September is right around the corner. What also is right around the corner is our one year mark in Germany. Yah, next Thursday. Can you believe it? Our one year World Tour seemed exponentially longer than our European tour, but time flies right?
I’ve been drafting up my thoughts on how to put the first half of our European Tour in perspective for months now, and I look forward to writing it up. However, what I will say now, and what has been truly unexpected, was the perspective we’ve gained not just on Europe this past year, but on the United States.
Living in Germany these past 12 months has given Rachel and I a very unique outside-in look at our home country. While in Asia during our World Tour, it came up, but then we were so transient it was tough for us to get a bead on any one country’s perspective on the US. As that time Bush was in office and the Iraqi War was in a much more violent place than it is now. Americans were deemed war-mongerors in much of the Asian countries we passed through.
Well, in Korea, this perspective was truly a generational thing. Younger folks didn’t care for the American stance as international sheriff. However, the older generation felt different. They remembered what our country had done for theirs in the Korean War. Still I remember seeing loud, brash American stereotypes play out many times right in front of us, and it really made me cringe.
In Europe, though, particularly in Germany, there is a much stronger tie to American interests, so I assumed the vantage point here would mostly resemble our own internal vision of ourselves, no? Hmm, well I tell ya, distance allows one a good amount of objectivity, and while I bleed red, white and blue, …it has been a tough few weeks being an American watching our country practically implode.
The recent political cat fighting and resulting credit downgrade was tough, particularly since Rachel and I are positioned to feel the full effects of a sinking dollar more than anyone stateside. I’ve seen my monthly rent here go up by $305 dollars this year. The rent is still 1700 Euro, it just takes more dollars to get to that figure now. That’s economics for ya, …right between the eyes.
The biggest difference between the US and international perspective on all that’s going on is, I believe, the type of news and reporting we are exposed to here in Germany. What passes for journalism in the United States is often a volleyball game between wide ride and wide left vantage points. Half the viewers seem so entrenched in one camp or another that they are immune to any true constructive criticism. And the rest of us get neck cranks from turning our heads so fast left and right just to keep up.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I voted Democrat in the last election. However, over my now 18 years of voting history I’ve voted both ways. And I still pride myself on being able to watch both Fox News (conservative) and, well, the Colbert Report (liberal) and agree and disagree with opinions on both shows. It means I haven’t completely drunken either camp’s Kool Aid. Still what is they say? If you aren’t a liberal as a youth you are a coward, and if you aren’t a conservative as an adult you’re an idiot?
Still, if you want some true objective reporting, try reading an article or watching a story filmed by a news group based outside the US. They have their own agendas, sure, but they aren’t shilling for the US, or any one political party in the US. Their interests are their own, and this gives them the luxury of objectivity. And their take of the US is a striking one.
When the US lost its perfect credit rating earlier this month, the international papers here in Europe were bristling with editorials about how we had lost out way. And surprisingly, the general tone was not that this was some sort of comeuppance, but that simply our political system had become too involved with themselves winning that they forgot about what makes America great, …America winning. The byline that stopped me cold read “Do you remember where you were when the United States ceased being the greatest country in the world?”
Wow, had it really come to that? Sure, most articles I read over here seemed to think S&P overreached by mixing a political statement in with economic judgment, but there is a bigger point here. Whatever comes out of all this, America’s economic invulnerability was questioned for the first time. So the real question is this, …is this a singular data point or a trend?
Look around, the US has done pretty well for itself. But where do we go from here? Most economists acknowledge that for the first time in America’s (and the world’s) history we could be raising a generation that won’t do better than we did. With the debt ceiling being reached again (the 70th time in 50 years), it is clear that raising it as our default option will only leave us in, well, …default. The rooster has come home to roost. Each generation post-dating checks for the next one to cash has come to a head. Our credit limit has been reached, and our future funds are drying up. Social security may be solvent for what, 25 more years?
Germany finds faults with both parties, but openly chided the Republicans for not relinquishing on taxes for the rich (something the rest of the world has grown accustomed to for decades), and for being more fixated on defeating Obama than the effect on the United States’ reputation. Still Republican ideals about forcing a balanced budget and keeping your word to your constituents is admirable.
And how was it the Democrats couldn’t find any common ground with the Tea Partiers? Democrats got points for showing some flexibility, but their waivering stance on sacred cows like Medicare and Social Security doesn’t win them too many overseas sympathizers, because, again, social “entitlements” are something much more readily accepted by other international governments.
It’s clear reading the papers, that the general belief is that the US is very sound economically, but that we are undisciplined. Every day America citizens are held accountable for merely following the bank’s own model in poor economic practices. Buy now, pay later, …assume your investment will pay it for you. The US government is no better.
And why should I be held to a higher standard? I pay my mortgage on time, I pay my taxes. I pay into a Social Security fund I’ll never see (as well as 15% of my paycheck into a 401K), and seem like the only guy around still committed to paying his mortgage. Plus, I put aside a large percentage of my monthly salary to ensure I cover my own healthcare burden. What happened to the US spirit of carrying your own weight around here? You want the state to take care of you, go to a socialist country, right? And since when did food stamps become a lifestyle choice?
It is expected the US’s dept to GDP ratio (which is a strong indicator of stability) could swell to about 76% within 10 years, though it currently sits at 60%. That is bad news, particularly if you see what this looks like graphed out. Of course, looking at the other countries who still have their AAA rating, we’re not really alone there (and how is France a AAA?). Check out the world’s debt ratio. Germany is in great shape with only a 52% dept to GDP ratio. It s no surprise, Living within your Means embodies the German spirit. Its good advice.
Still it’s not the European economy looking to take center stage, clearly the Euro zone has its own troubles. The new big dog on the block is China. In the year 2015, China is expected to become the biggest economy in the world. Maybe that day will be the day the US loses is title as king country, but no, I don’t agree with the headline I mentioned earlier. That torch has not been passed yet.
The US is still a safe bet, and the “Fed” (as the US Federal Reserve System is referred to overseas) is still the arbiter of the world’s economy. When the Fed has a cold, the rest of the world has a heart attack. Still, the story of the United States is far from written. One thing clear about living In Europe is one begins to appreciate what *old* really is. Touring Ireland I saw mail boxes older than the US. Rome lasted 2000 years, what are we on …235? Yah, make no mistake, the United States remains a young experiment in every sense of the world.
Please take a moment and read a brief article written by the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz. It is entitled “A Letter to America” and it begins with the line …”Our country is better than this.” I agree.
America is still the world’s sole super power, and there is no question about our ability to pay our debts, and have a strong economy. The question everyone is asking is are we still self disciplined enough to? And that is part that stings the most as an American living overseas. There are people here questioning our heart. Can America still make the hard choices, and do what is needed?
One thing I can say with utmost confidence is that the American spirit is as tough as it has ever been. And my tours of Europe have only hardened my resolve in that belief. I work at a hospital that sees *every* wounded US soldier coming through Iraq and Afghanistan. I look true courage in the face every day.
For better or worse, we are people willing to stand up for what is right. Sure what is *right* is certainly always up for debate, but rarely do you hear of trouble and heartache somewhere in the world without the United States not being the first there one to reach out an aiding hand. We will stand up for the little guy when no one else will.
In Seoul, South Korea, you can see an entire museum dedicated to the Korea War of 1950-1953. On the first floor, as soon as you walk in, is the museum’s grandest memorial, and it is dedicated to the United States of America. On it is an inscription that reads: “To the sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and people that never met.”
That is the strength of America, and of its people. And while it is hard to read articles here in Europe from people questioning what the United States is still capable of, I have faith that the America’s best days are still ahead of her. Our economy is struggling, and may be for some time, but in the end we as Americans will do what we always do, …we do what what must be done.