Archive for Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lawrence sister city resident offers German perspective on economy

April 21, 2009

Editor’s note: Helmut Scheewe is a retired high school teacher and resident of Eutin, Germany, a sister city of Lawrence. This is his perspective on the global economic crisis.


“Crisis? What crisis?”

This was the response from an 84-year-old neighbor recently when I asked him what he was thinking about the global economic crisis.

I hesitatingly explained: “The economy crisis. Aren’t you disturbed?”

“Well, yes, somehow, but not really. It won’t be as bad as it was for my parents back in 1929 when I was a kid.”

I insisted: “So are you now doing anything special about it?”

“Not really, we just try to reduce our weekly expenses a bit. For example, my wife and I fill in fewer boxes on the lottery ticket.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes, well, we have canceled a sea cruise in the Mediterranean Sea. We now go by train to see our son in Saxony.”

A friend of mine, who is 72, is about my age and a member of my old volleyball team of 36 years ago. He seemed a bit more upset.

He said it might well be that the State of Schleswig-Holstein, like other German states, might financially be in the position to not pay his civil servant pension anymore.

So, what did he do in the situation? He said that he had changed to a cheaper provider of electricity for his house.

“Anything else?”

“Yes, well, I bought a new TV set, with flat screen, video text, DVD and CD player and everything, you know.”

And he added: “Thinking of the Euro going down in value, my wife and I thought, ‘You have what you have.’”

Having been interested and active in sports for all my life, I am noticing with pleasure that in Eutin sports and athletic clubs are flourishing and drawing kids and adults as members almost to the same degree as ever. Also, other organizations like the Friends of Lawrence or the Friends of the Eutin Palace, which my wife, Hella, and I are members of, are neither reporting that they have any financial troubles, nor that they fear a development threatening their existence because of the present economic crisis. The same is true referring to an almost uncountable number of self-help and hobby groups, choirs, literary circles or groups addicted to wanderlust.

All these observations are more or less optimistic and in contrast to the dry data published by some professional observers. We have, of course, to take their figures seriously, too. Some members of the building trade and Chambers of Commerce of our region now release first statistics on the slowdown of the economy, indicating a fall of orders on hand in some fields by 20 percent during the last three months.

Where the money is

One should differentiate, however, when looking at such percentages. Lower profits, of course, lead to dismissals, and joblessness is indeed already increasing. But there are also prospering branches of trade, like domestic tourism or stores offering materials for the building trade or for do-it-yourself projects. We have several of these stores at Eutin, and you’ll be lucky if you find a parking place there.

Private gardening or having a garden laid out by experts is very popular these days again at Eutin, the City of Roses. Almost all of my acquaintances said that they would check their expenses and find out what should be kept up and what could be altered or even renounced. But there’s no common denial of buying the things of daily necessities. The slogan “I shop, therefore I am,” designed after the pattern of the famous Cartesian statement “I think, therefore I am,” is, of course, exaggerating the situation a bit.

The banking crisis

Accordingly, any crisis seems to make people conscious of mistakes that might have produced it. The first horrible incident, when the financial problems in the world of banking became obvious, was the fall of Lehman Brothers. And those bank customers over here who consequently lost money noticed that they had neither been properly informed nor well-advised — to put it mildly — by their own bankers. That’s why an increasing number of people criticize the discrepancy between such enormous losses of certain banking houses and companies that deficits were counted by billions of Euro and, on the other side, those bonus payments which were counted by millions of Euro for bankers and managers of the same unsuccessful banks and companies. No board of directors and no board of control, either state or federal, seems to have been aware of such absurdities, although these institutions are there and equipped with well-paid staff.

Germany’s strategies

Meanwhile, an increasing number of banking houses offers cheaper loans to companies and private customers, thus hoping to contribute to restoring their own reputation and to saving their own financial survival. Never before could, for example, a family wanting to build their own house get more favorable bank credits than right now: The percentage is down to 4 or 5 per year.

The federal government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, too, has become more active than before, even though as a coalition-based government it admittedly can’t make decisions as promptly as we all would hope for. Anyway the government decided to set priorities in three fields: education (improving schools, teachers’ training and salaries), infrastructure (road and railroad construction, air-traffic and public buildings) and help to secure the existence of essentially important banking houses and companies, if they are able to develop promising concepts for their own financial survival (for example, Hypo Real Estate Bank and the automobile manufacturer Opel).

A really ingenious idea in this context was to give governmental bounties of 2,500 Euro to owners of cars licensed at least nine years ago on one condition — that they have their old vehicles wrecked and buy a new one. Within two weeks, about 200,000 new cars were ordered — a real boom at a time of depressing other data.

Some observers have warned that the economy of the West might be taken over by Russia and China with respect to their enormous treasures of the soil, their energy supplies and manpower. But can’t we console ourselves regarding the fact that also Russia and China feel the economic crisis?

There is a saying that artists feel the pulse of their time and, like for example Franz Kafka, are indirectly able to analyze the present and/or predict the future. Therefore, if we are looking at the glamour and good mood of artists and film makers at this year’s film festivals, there is no need for us to be pessimistic about the future.

I myself am optimistic that together with our friends in the United States and our neighboring countries, which all have changed from enemies to friends, the Germany of our time will master the critical situation of the present. It’s just a phase we’re going through. My view is incorporated into the title of a new book of an author named Norbert Roettgen: Germany’s best years are still to come.


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