There are many stereotypes in Germany about life in the United States. Here I will try to compare these stereotypes to the reality in the US as I perceive it. In this comparison, I will also portrait the situation in Germany so that Americans might learn something about my country and Germans have something to criticize.
Of course, this comparison is necessarily subjective - take it as just another data point.
I am constantly generalizing here; I'm talking about "the Americans" and about "the Germans" and I'm aware of the fact that, strictly speaking, these generalizations are wrong; I'm trying to capture a hypothetical average. And not even that: just the average of my personal acquaintances mixed with some information gathered from news media (mainly The New York Times and Süddeutsche Zeitung, the best newspapers in their respective countries in my view). The first observation is that, in most instances, the US show a much larger variation than Germany does, so that talking about the "average" is more dangerous when referring to the US than when referring to Germany.
Since I started this page several years ago, I repeatedly noticed that the differences between America and Germany are getting smaller, a result of Germany moving in America's direction.
The German system gives more power to the parties, since they decide which candidates to place on the list from which the parliamentarians will later be drawn. Parties finance the election campaigns; the candidates themselves do not need to raise substantial amounts of money. In return, there is very high party loyalty in the German parliament. Parliamentarians vote their conscience only on rare, very important questions; most of the time, they vote the party line. Parties are financed by the taxpayers according to the proportion of votes they received, by donations from big business, and by membership dues.
By contrast, Congress persons in the US are much more independent: they raise campaign money on their own (or use their own money) and the party cannot even decide who will be their candidate in a particular race: this is decided in so-called primaries, races between the various candidates in which every voter who declares themselves a supporter of the party gets to vote. Once in Congress, the legislators can vote their conscience on virtually every question.
American politicians are almost constantly raising money for their next campaign. Since they are free to change their voting pattern on almost any topic, moneyed interests have much more political influence than in Germany.
The majority system in the U.S. basically ensures a two-party system; it is exceedingly rare that a third-party candidate manages to win a seat, and it never takes long before the seat goes back to the two parties. By contrast, in Germany there are usually about five viable parties that send delegates to the parliaments (and many more smaller ones that can't beat the 5-percent hurdle and are therefore not represented in parliament).
A little-known and blatantly unjust feature of the US system is "redistricting", also called "gerrymandering". The country is divided into congressional districts, one for each member of the House of Representatives. The person who wins the most votes in a district gets the corresponding seat in the House. Every 10 years a census is carried out, and then the state governments go to work and redraw the congressional districts, purportedly to make them all the same size. The real reason is of course to keep the other party out of Congress: the census provides enough information to know where supporters of the other party live, and the new district boundaries are drawn so as to segregate all of them in as few districts as possible. This same game takes place every ten years, and it seems to outrage no one but me.
It is often believed that the position of President in the US is a very powerful one; this is wrong. Essentially all he can do is set foreign policy (including start wars), write or change administrative rules and sign or veto laws written by Congress, where the majority is often hostile to the president. Presidential vetoes can even be overridden by a 2/3-supermajority in both houses. By contrast, the Chancellor in Germany is elected by the parliament, the Bundestag, which means that a majority is behind him and most every law he wants to enact will pass, because of the above mentioned party discipline. Most laws, the ones not affecting the German states, do not have to be approved by the second chamber, the Bundesrat. (The precise rules about which laws have to be approved by the Bundesrat are quite obscure, and nobody seems to know them.)
The American parties are located to the right of their German counterparts. Former President Clinton for instance, a Democrat, would have to be placed at the right wing of the German conservative party CDU. Some people at the right end of the American Republican party are so extreme that they would probably be under surveillance in Germany. There is no social democratic party to speak of in the US; it is the biggest and oldest party in Germany, and indeed all parties in Germany are social democratic to some extent.
Even though US politics are located to the right of German politics, there is a very real sense in which Germany is more conservative. New technologies and new ways of doing things are embraced much more enthusiastically in the US. Even conservatives will often propose quite radical policy changes, such as throwing out the whole income tax system and replacing it with a national sales tax. On a whim, some states will introduce gay marriage and others will put a prohibition against it into the state constitution. Things appear to move much slower in Germany.
It is not very well known in Germany that most US states have systems of direct democracy, where citizens can bring up ballot measures if they raise enough signatures. There are no restrictions on the contents of these measures: tax reductions, criminal laws, recalls of unpopular politicians and changes of (state) constitutions are all fair game. Local prosecutors, sheriffs, and judges are also often directly elected by the citizenry. In Germany, these are all appointed, not elected.
Despite all of this, large segments of American society ignore the political process altogether. Even the big presidential elections see only about 55% of the eligible voters participating; other elections have much smaller participation. In Germany, the numbers for federal elections are well above 70%.
I can see three possible reasons for the low voter participation in the US: votes always take place on regular working days making it difficult to participate (many businesses grant time off for voting, but they are not required to), the majority system locks out supporters of smaller parties, and the system of voter registration (which requires every voter who moved since the last election to fill out and submit a form several weeks before the election) makes it unnecessarily difficult to vote.
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By contrast, Germans like their security quite a bit and are uncomfortable with the dichotomy Freedom vs. Security. They want both. They like to be able to plan ahead for long periods of time. In fact, when told that in the US one can be fired when getting severely ill (or for no reason at all -- so-called "at will" employees), at which point the health insurance coverage is also lost, puzzled Germans ask "But how can people live like that?" The exasperation only increases when they learn that in the U.S. you get unemployment benefits typically only for half a year, after which you get nothing. (In Germany you get generous benefits for one year, then basic support forever.) It is even more astounding to Germans, including me, that given this dire situation, US citizens are notorious for not saving money, even living on credit instead. (Almost all Americans carry several credit cards; I never understood why anyone would bother to carry more than one until a fellow graduate student told me that she treats credit cards as a kind of unemployment insurance.) Even in the presence of the huge German welfare system which tries to make everyone as secure as possible, people routinely save money, just to be on the safe side. Personally, I found it very strange to learn that many Americans, even those with a good income, live on a "month-to-month" basis, always waiting for the next paycheck to arrive in order to be able to pay the bills. If they do save, then they usually use the money to speculate (they call it "invest") in the stock market, which is again much too insecure for the average German. On a similar note, Germans don't understand why people keep living in areas which regularly see earthquakes or hurricanes; natural disasters that kill people are very rare in Germany. Many of this may be explained by a generally much higher level of optimism and risk tolerance in America.
The following interchange took place on Usenet between a Dutch person and
an American; it beautifully sums up the differing approaches towards
the concept of freedom:
- "A welfare system increases individual freedom, because it lets people experiment without the threat of catastrophic failure."
- "You are not really free if you are not free to fail."
It is rather surprising however, that given this German emphasis on security, I cannot find a clear overall plus in freedom in the US. Sure enough, political freedoms and freedom of speech are stronger; racist Nazi propaganda for example is illegal in Germany while it is legal in the US. These prohibitions enjoy wide support in Germany, while the public in the US normally takes the view "I disagree with what you say, but I would fight for your right to say it." Most Germans are not able to take this noble position, probably because they fear the power of effective propaganda given the historical precedents. Publishing on the Internet is also less restricted in the US; in Germany, every commercial site needs to state the responsible person's true name, and pornographic materials have to be protected from access by children. [Exception: people in the U.S. have been sent to prison for possessing "obscene" drawings or writings about minors having sex; in Germany this is not illegal.] Google search results are government-censored in three countries: China, France, and Germany.
Everyday freedom of speech may very well be lower in the US however: it is severely restricted by the fact that one can be privately sued by anyone at any time for virtually anything, and being sued as a private individual is almost equivalent to bankruptcy, no matter whether the case is won or lost. (Unlike in Germany, the loser of a lawsuit in the US does not normally have to pay the winner's legal costs.) People who have spoken up against projects of certain corporations during town meetings have been sued by those same corporations, for the very act of speaking up (known as "SLAPP" lawsuits). Expressing a negative opinion about an American company's products on a website often results in a threatening letter from a lawyer. People have been fired for political bumper stickers on their private cars. When Wikileaks dared to publish secret US diplomatic cables, credit card companies and Paypal promptly cut them off any possible access to donation money. The excellent news broadcaster Al Jazeera is not available on cable TV in most areas. The right to freedom of speech also does not apply to the homeless: the US Supreme Court has ruled that local laws that prohibit asking people for money are constitutional. The same Supreme Court ruled that corporations that give money to politicians are covered by the freedom-of-speech clause and cannot be prevented from doing so.
In addition, the fact that one can legally be fired without any reason severely limits freedom of speech at the workplace. Typically, people are fired at a moment's notice and have to go home immediately. (Sure enough, given Germans' love for security, Germans can be fired only given a valid reason and normally only with several months notice; there is a whole branch of the juridical system, the Arbeitsgerichte, that deals with deciding which reasons are to be considered "valid".) If a member of one's family is chronically ill, the freedom to switch employment is severely limited in the US, because the new employer might offer fewer health benefits. (Nevertheless, Americans switch jobs much more often than Germans.)
I said above that Germans value security more than Americans do. There's one big caveat: the paranoid extent of US military spending. The US spends more on its military than all other countries combined. What are they afraid of? By now I believe that the rich have engineered an ingenious way to channel taxpayers' money into the pockets of stock holders of the military-industrial complex (which was famously decried by President and ex-General Eisenhower).
According to the Patriot Act of 2001, the FBI could get access to people's library borrowing, bookstore purchasing and internet activity records, without requiring a court order. Librarians and employees who received such an order for information had to comply and were not allowed to talk about it to anyone. They were not allowed to openly protest, to write a letter to the editor, or to talk to their spouse about it. The practice, after having been used hundreds of thousands of times, was finally ruled unconstitutional in 2008. Another anti-terrorism law signed by Obama in 2012 allows the indefinite detention without trial of any person suspected of terrorism-related activities.
It is an almost bizarre contradiction that US citizens are not granted the right to freely travel wherever they want. Cuba, a popular vacation spot for Europeans and Canadians, is off-limits to Americans. (Technically, they are allowed to travel to Cuba, but as a result of the economic sanctions they may not spend any money there.) This is especially ironic since one major complaint against communist countries has traditionally been their refusal to allow their citizenry to travel freely. I would expect that, were the German government to restrict the right to travel, major protests would ensue. (Some Cuba travel restrictions were removed by President Obama and reinstated by President Trump.)
The fact that local communities, states and the federal government can enact concurrent criminal laws in the US, together with often extremely draconian punishments (combined with sporadic enforcement) also tend to limit personal freedoms. In Germany, only the federal government enacts criminal laws.
Sports betting, online gambling, prostitution, anal sex, and bestiality are not illegal in Germany but are illegal in many US states. (Prohibitions against anal sex were finally struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003.)
Online gambling is illegal in both countries. In Germany it is trivial to engage in online gambling on a foreign website and there are no consequences; in the U.S. it is much harder because banks and credit card companies are not allowed to deal with gambling businesses abroad. Germany has rules intended to prevent children from viewing online porn; the U.S. does not as the relevant law was struck down by the Supreme Court. The German rules are completely toothless however and porn is easily available to anyone.
In Germany, all murderers can be and often are paroled after 15 years in prison (except for terrorists and the psychologically abnormal), while in the US murderers are lucky if they can get away with a life sentence without the possibility of parole (a sentence considered to be violating human dignity and therefore unconstitutional by the German high court, the Verfassungsgericht). In the US, children as young as 13 are often tried as adults for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in adult facilities, and 16 year old murderers have been sentenced to death (this latter practice was finally stopped by the Supreme Court in 2005). In Germany, children under 14 cannot be punished at all, and juveniles under 18 cannot be sentenced as adults. People under 21 can be treated as juveniles if the court finds them to be immature.
Several large US cities have enacted curfew rules, prohibiting teenagers from being on the streets at night if not accompanied by an adult. Many schools completely forbid any physical contact or show of affection among students. These are further examples of infringements on freedoms which I think would not be tolerated in Germany. In general, teenagers seem to live much freer lives in Germany than in the US. For example, it is common for 15 or 16 year old Germans to travel on vacation to foreign countries with a couple of friends; in the US, it is rare to see anybody traveling under the age of 18 -- even though 16 year olds are already allowed to drive there, while in Germany the driving age is 18. It is much easier for German teenagers to drink and smoke, but other drugs are more readily available in the states. Many US high schools subject students who participate in extracurricular activities to random drug tests, which also involve tests for alcohol and tobacco. Their freedom of expression is also limited: often they cannot criticize school officials or wear offensive or suggestive clothing. More than twenty states still allow the spanking of students in school if the parents don't object. German teenagers often spend their weekend nights dancing in discos, while virtually all comparable clubs in the states are off limits most of the time to people under the age of 21, because they serve alcohol. German adolescents over the age of 14 in Hamburg and Berlin may freely choose where to live (even on the streets if they want); in the US you are subject to your parents' will up to age 18.
Many government agencies and private employers in the US require their employees to submit to periodic drug tests, something that does not exist in Germany. (Some jobs in Germany require a one-time drug test as a condition of employment.)
Germany has several heroine ambulances, where junkies (selected according to strict criteria) can inject heroine paid for by the health system. This would be unthinkable in the moralist U.S., where addiction is still largely seen as a personal moral failure.
The degree of economic freedom is higher in the US, mainly because of the lower level of regulation. In the US, if you have an idea for a new business, you need to convince a specialized high-risk investment fund ("venture capitalists") to invest in your enterprise in return for a share of the business and the profits; in Germany, you would have to convince a bank to provide an unsecured loan, which is much harder.
In the US, you cannot leave your children at home alone if they are under 12 (varies by state). No such rules exist in Germany.
It is difficult for American retirees to move abroad, since their health insurance system (Medicare) does not reimburse for services provided outside of the country; German retirees do not face such a restriction.
On the other hand, several regulations in Germany limit personal everyday freedoms:
I see one amusing parallel though: both countries hold dear one "freedom" which virtually no one else in the world recognizes as one: the right to drive as fast as possible on the Autobahn in Germany and the right to keep and bear firearms in the US. Both these "freedoms" survive because there are very effective and vocal lobby groups behind them, even though a slight majority of the general population in both countries probably oppose them.
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The situation in Germany, of course, is radically different. To love Germany is to love its history, its culture, its political and economical system, the government's institutions, the whole enchilada. Obviously, Germany's history cannot be loved, and so it used to be a pretty safe bet that someone wearing a shirt with a German flag on it is either a soldier or a foreigner or a neo-nazi. At best, it is considered to be in bad taste to claim that one is proud to be a German. (This has changed somewhat with the 2006 soccer World Cup in Germany, when all of a sudden German flags were visible everywhere. It has changed even more with the rise of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland in 2013.)
On the other hand, the jobless youth in big German cities and in the eastern part of the country often still present an aggressive nationalistic attitude, to the extent of harassing and beating (and in some cases even killing) foreigners of the wrong skin color. This kind of violence related to nationalism is almost unheard of in the US (except for the neo-nazi crazies in Idaho).
Anti-Americanism is quite fashionable in Germany's educated classes: "They don't travel abroad and don't care about what's going on in the world, they still don't understand why the world hates them, they are religious bigots, they believe they are always right and live in the best country on earth, etc." While all of this may be partially true, it conveniently ignores the quite noble and enlightened treatment that Japan and West Germany received after the Second World War, and the fact that the US were the driving force behind the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (even though nowadays they don't always pay their UN dues).
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Americans generally embrace new technologies enthusiastically; it's cool just because it's new. By contrast, Germans are somewhat more reluctant and don't try out new stuff without given a good reason to do so. Sometimes new technology is even made fun of: in the early years, if a German saw someone with a cellular phone, they would often assume that the person felt a need to appear important. If a cellular phone or beeper went off in a cinema, concert or restaurant, Germans could get pretty angry. (All this has changed in the last couple of years however; now everybody has a cell phone. But the same mechanism is still in effect, for instance with respect to Bluetooth headsets.) While every kitchen, office and cafeteria in the US is equipped with a microwave oven, people in Germany are still debating whether microwaved foods are good for you and whether microwaves may have detrimental effects on people with pacemakers. Already in the 1990s almost everyone in the US had a computer at home; many Germans didn't see the need until much more recently. New (and not so new) technologies are usually more expensive in Germany than in the US, average income in Germany is lower, and Germans tend to cling to their money more.
Some of this may be attributed to the generally higher level of optimism in America. If you present a new idea, people will usually respond with "Sounds great, let's try it!", while the typical German reply is "This won't work because..."
This is not the full story however. I am constantly amazed by the poor quality and backwardness of many technologies routinely employed in the US. Sometimes I think that while Germans tend to tolerate outrageous prices without complaint, Americans tolerate substandard quality. Here are some examples, I keep discovering more every day:
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In Germany, the biggest TV stations are non-profit "Anstalten öffentlichen Rechts" which are independent in the sense that politicians cannot directly influence their decisions, and the top managers are appointed by councils that represent the major groups in society: political parties, unions, churches, business etc. Laws prescribe their internal organization and their purpose. They are financed from a monthly fee that every household has to pay and from advertising money. Advertising on these channels is restricted to certain times of the day and never interrupts movies or news shows. News coverage is usually very broad, internationally oriented and well-balanced with little freak coverage (then again, I believe that many more freak incidents happen in the US than in Germany, for some reason. Have you ever seen a living room being washed away by the rain or 50 houses burning down in Germany? Happens all the time here.)
Then there are also private TV stations in Germany, mostly on cable. They definitely move in the direction of US TV, not quite reaching it yet though. Much of their programming consists of dubbed US shows. (Almost all foreign shows and films are dubbed in Germany, while in the US dubbing of foreign films is very rare.)
Again, there's another side to the story, which is not well-known outside of the US, maybe not even inside. It is American public TV and radio. Financed mostly by donations and partly by the government (few ads), it provides exceptionally high quality programming, much better than anything I've seen on German public TV. For example, I watched an 8 hour documentary about the war against the native Americans, stretching out over four days, and a similar one about the civil rights movement. (Documentaries in German TV are usually 60, at most 90 minutes long.) The news coverage on US public TV and national public radio approaches the quality of German news, except for international coverage. Science coverage is clearly superior in US public media. I personally enjoy the public media in the US more than the ones in Germany, mostly because of the in-depth coverage of a vast variety of topics.
There are also high quality serial shows on US pay-TV channels which are much better than the shows available on German TV.
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When filling out your tax form, you can always call a toll-free telephone number and friendly people will help you or send you easy-to-understand instructions. The tax forms are quite easy to fill out, and at the end you know exactly how much taxes you owe. You can even file your whole taxes over the phone. Compare that to complicated Byzantine tax forms in Germany which are much longer than those in the US. The instructions for the German forms use nearly incomprehensible legalese. Once you have filled out everything, you send it in, someone checks it all and computes your actual tax load which you only learn much later. On the side: by German standards, taxes in the US, at least for medium incomes and above, are laughably low, which makes the constant American complaining about high taxes seem rather funny to me. (One caveat: US citizens living abroad have to file annual tax returns about their worldwide income while Germans only report their German income.)
Other bureaucracies are also generally friendlier in the US than in Germany. German bureaucrats tend to see their customers as a nuisance and treat them accordingly, while US bureaucracies work more like customer serving businesses. This could however also simply be a consequence of the generally higher level of friendliness in the US which I'll talk more about in the Violence and Aggression section.
German bureaucracies never bend the rules and often have opening hours that all but exclude working people.
Given my good old German bureaucratic mind-set, the boundless ineffectiveness of US bureaucracies bothers me a lot. For example, the US is not able to enforce child payments of divorced fathers. As a father, you just move away, preferably to a different state, and there's a very good chance that you'll never have to pay. The mother would have to hire private investigators and lawyers in order to track you down and make you pay, but of course she doesn't have the money for that. Since the bureaucracy is of no help, there actually exist private companies who promise to make the deadbeat father pay, for a heavy percentage. In Germany, child payments are simply taken out of the father's paycheck, end of story. If there are problems collecting, then the collecting bureaucracy loses money, not the mother, because she receives the money from that agency in either case.
Another example is the fact that the US has no effective way of forcing someone to pay an outstanding bill or to make a credit payment. In fact, I remember seeing a sign at the student loan office at my university which said "No defaulting allowed". This strikes Germans as very funny: the word `defaulting' does not even have a translation, because the concept is virtually non-existent in Germany; it is simply impossible to default - if you don't pay, you will be reminded a couple of times and then someone from the court will show up and take away your belongings. If you don't own enough, they'll put a hold on your future earnings. By contrast, in the US there's a whole industry of private "collection agencies" which don't have any executive power and can't do much more than harass debtors without end by calling them at home and at work. Even the payment of traffic tickets or other legal penalties is not enforced: In Santa Barbara, the city government takes out a full page ad in the local newspaper every couple of months and lists everyone by name who has failed to pay their ticket. Nothing else happens to them, unless they are stopped for another traffic violation. On the other hand you have this whole culture of private "bounty hunters" who can come in your house, make a citizen’s arrest, and turn you over to the police for a reward. Amazing.
A more bothering instance of US inefficiency is the apparent inability to ensure full immunization of children. The immunization level in the US is now lower than that in some developing countries.
And one last example: in Germany, it is impossible to have a car with a valid license plate and not carry car insurance. If you apply for a license plate, you have to present proof of insurance; if you drop your insurance, the insurance company forwards your name to the appropriate agency, which will invalidate your license plate. Non-valid license plates are easy to spot from far away. This simple system ensures that everyone who drives carries car insurance. The US bureaucracies are apparently not able to create a similar system. Accidents with uninsured drivers are a major problem in many states. It goes so far that insurance companies sell special add-on policies covering the case that you are victim of an accident and the guilty party does not carry insurance and cannot pay.
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The high cost associated with the extensive social system is often cited as a reason for the relative stagnancy and high unemployment rate in German society and as an argument for the US free market model. There is some truth to that; however, the tremendous costs of the American "social system" are often overlooked: the money spent on housing a gigantic prison population consisting of jobless, hopeless or mentally ill inmates. The system cannot cope with all the inmates anymore and some states have even started to hire private companies to build and run prisons.
The US had defined itself over a long time as Marxism's or socialism's big enemy; in everyday political discussions, it is still common to be accused of socialism if one favors proposals such as tax increases or public health insurance. This accusation is very effective, because no defense is possible. The term "social democrat" does not exist in the US public debate, so everything slightly critical of limitless capitalism is defined as socialism, and this term in turn is used synonymously with communism and Marxism.
It is interesting to note that in Germany only people critical of capitalism use the term "capitalism", while in the US only people critical of socialism use the term "socialism".
Then in the fifties there was Senator McCarthy who, together with his Congress committee and J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, saw communists everywhere and came up with elaborate blacklists and other means to get rid of them. At that time, being accused of communism could amount to a personal catastrophe.
It is not very well known however that Germany saw a much more vigilant communism hunt at about the same time. While in the US only about a dozen people ever went to prison for being Communists, that same number runs in the thousands in Germany. The communist party was forbidden by the German high court, and party members who continued their activities were arrested and sent to prison.
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By contrast, American unions in most fields are weak and splintered (with some notable exceptions: police, construction, airline pilots, automobile industry, teachers). Often, different unions fight against each other. It is not uncommons that Americans actively dislike unions, something very rare in Germany. One possible reason is that historically many unions in the US were allied with the mob; another is that they are viewed as a cartel that prevents the free market from establishing the true price of labor. This allows American employers to openly state their goal of keeping unions out of their business. A statement like that would create a huge outcry in German public debate, and it would not go unpunished. (Although the Amazon warehouses in Germany manage to keep unions out.) US unions are often hostile towards strike breakers and force all employees of a unionized company to join the union. This is not the case in Germany: if you don't want to join, you don't; you will still get the benefits of the negotiated contract. German unions often see themselves (and are sometimes seen) as working for the public good, for example when they try to come up with programs against joblessness; American unions are much more focused on their member's narrow interests. Here is an appalling example of this: the union of Californian prison guards actively lobbies for longer prison sentences. Another instance of this is that American police unions usually come out on the side of the officer in police-abuse cases, while the German police union typically sides with the abused party.
The whole bargaining process appears much more civilized in Germany. When the contract runs out, the parties meet, they can't agree at first, there's a strike which usually is only symbolical, and then a new contract is written up. Everybody pretty much agrees that this is a good process. In the US, individualism is so deeply rooted in the public mind that many people outright deny the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively (no one denies the right of capitalists to organize in huge corporations though...). Labor fights are often ugly and war-like and go on for a long time: employers hire replacement workers right away, they try to fire union organizers and other strikers (which is illegal in the US by the way, as it is in Germany), strikers try to keep the replacement workers out etc. To a German, it looks a lot like the Manchester capitalism that seemed to have been overcome a long time ago.
Management of airlines in the US have figured out that by filing for bankruptcy, they can get out of their contracts with unionized pilots, flight attendants and mechanics, and can shed expensive health benefit and pension plans at the same time. All American airlines have now filed for bankruptcy. There is no public outcry whatsoever.
The management of US corporations is generally seen to be responsible only to shareholders. In Germany, management is seen to be responsible to shareholders and employees alike, even though this seems to be changing slowly in the American direction.
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In the US, it is quite common that people who are not paid by the hour work much longer than the 40 hours per week that they are obliged to. Despite the fact that many large and successful employers liberally lay off workers to increase profits and appease Wall Street, employees in the US exhibit a rather strange loyalty to their employers. They often own stock of the very company they work for and really want "their" company to succeed, almost like a team sport. In Germany, where it is taboo for a successful company to lay off workers, many workers are still not very loyal to their employer: basically, the boss is the enemy who makes you come to work every day.
Even in their time off, Americans often volunteer for charities or at schools, join their children at sports games, or work out at a gym. In Germany, it seems to be much more common to relax by spending time in a pub or going for a walk. Americans watch a lot more TV though while Germans like to join various sports and hobby clubs, so maybe the time off is a tie.
While Americans definitely work more, they are very much focused on making money. By contrast, in Germany there is a work ethic where many people take pride in producing quality, which I think is sometimes absent in the US. However, I received a message from an American project manager who has lived in Germany for 9 years and claims that the German pride in workmanship and the quality of work is decreasing rapidly.
In everyday life in the US, you often encounter shocking incompetence. This is a consequence of the fact that most jobs require only minimal training:
Customer service is far better in the US in virtually every respect. Some examples:
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In German criminal casess, both the prosecution and the defense may appeal an unfavorable outcome; in the US only the defense can appeal. The Supreme Court in the US appears to be more transparent than the German counterpart, the Bundesverfassungsgericht. The names, political affiliations, voting patterns and opinions of the individual judges, as well as dissenting opinions are common knowledge in the US, while the same information is generally not reported in German media.
Only about 4 percent of criminal cases reach a jury trial in the US: most cases are resolved during "plea bargaining" between defense and prosecution, where the prosecutor threatens with harsh sentences in order to get the defendant to plead guilty to a lesser crime. The outcomes of jury trials are considered to be volatile and are avoided by both parties if possible. Often, as a condition of these bargains, the defendant has to give testimony and aid in the conviction of other criminals. In Germany, there is some resistance against deals of this sort, and the German "Kronzeugenregelung" is much more restricted than the US practice. The general feeling is that punishment should follow culpability and should not depend on the outcome of "dirty deals": defendants without important information don't deserve harsher punishment. Americans are typically very pragmatic: "Why not give him a break if it helps in catching another bad guy?"
The U.S. legal system is openly partisan and political. Typically, when a new president is elected and a new administration comes in, all 93 U.S. Attorneys are fired and replaced by new ones belonging to the correct party. The U.S. Attorneys are extremely powerful: they decide who is investigated and prosecuted at the federal level, they are the ones who oversee the plea bargaining process, and they are the ones who decide what charges to file and what appeals to pursue. In Germany, prosecutors have life-time positions not subject to political appointment.
The American system actively discourages confessions; if a suspect confesses and pleads guilty, he or she will get the same punishment as if convicted by a jury (unless there was a plea bargain). In Germany, a confession normally results in a reduced sentence. There is another difference with respect to confessions: if a U.S. defendant pleads guilty, there won't be a trial: the confession is assumed to be true. In Germany a confession counts only as one piece of evidence during trial; the case still has to be proven, because it is known that many confessions are wrong.
The system of criminal laws in the US is much more Byzantine and complicated than that in Germany. The German criminal code is a little booklet which can easily be read and understood in one afternoon, while the criminal section of the U.S. code comprises several thick volumes. And this is only the federal level; the states and even the local jurisdictions in the US pile on their own layers of criminal codes. On top of all that there's "common law" which is a rather ill defined body of rules that isn't written down anywhere and that is the result of prior court decisions sometimes going back to England several hundred years ago. (Common law is mostly used in civil cases and its importance has been decreasing in recent years.) In Germany, only the federal government issues a criminal and civil code and there is no common law layer.
The civil and criminal codes are more transparent in Germany; however, the rules and regulations that apply to businesses are issued and enforced by various different bureaucracies and are much more numerous and a lot harder to navigate than the American ones.
The US legal system (officially denies but) practices double jeopardy: you can be tried, sentenced, and punished twice for the same crime, first by the state and then by the federal system. This is mostly used in drug cases and is rather rare however. Drug law is strange in that state laws are usually relatively lenient when it comes to drug possession, while federal laws are extremely harsh; people who are caught can only hope and pray that the federal prosecutor won't be interested in their case. In Germany, possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use is normally not prosecuted. In the US, the government may also take away all property that was used to commit a crime, for example a farm where some marijuana was grown or a house in which drugs were found. Even if acquitted or never prosecuted in criminal court, the accused still has to fight in civil court for the return of their property.
As mentioned earlier, punishment is in general much harsher in the US than in Germany. But there is one very sinister aspect of the German system: Sicherheitsverwahrung, a concept going back to the Nazis. If a criminal has completed their sentence and a judge decides that they still repesent a grave danger to society, they can be kept locked up indefinitely. It is not used very often, however.
In the US, so called crime stopper programs are common: they provide a toll-free phone number to anonymously accuse anyone of a crime and they pay a reward if the call results in a conviction. Germans are generally appalled by this system since it reminds them of the Nazi (and Stasi) scheme of having everybody spy on everybody else, and because it encourages false accusations in order to get back at somebody.
Police in the US commonly use lie detector tests to check the statements of suspects; the results of these tests are however not admissible in court unless all sides agree. In Germany, lie detectors are considered to be unreliable hocus pocus and are not used at all.
Parliamentarians (or Congressmen) in the U.S. are also called "lawmakers", and that's exactly what they are. The only way to distinguish yourself in Congress is to make a law and get it passed. One frequently gets the impression that laws are only introduced in order to make a public statement and to get news coverage. These laws are often written by the Congressmen themselves (without much legal knowledge, because they usually don't have a law degree). The result is an amazing zoo of laws that don't fit together (and are often struck down by the courts). I have seen a specific medical procedure being outlawed in California by putting the ban into the state constitution in order to make the prohibition more difficult to change. Overall, the US legal situation is not very aesthetic: no overriding principles, just a huge collection of random prohibitions. Many regulations that are handled by German bureaucracies much more flexibly are written into law in the US because the lawmakers traditionally don't trust the administration.
In Germany, it is rare that individual parliamentarians introduce a new law. The common procedure is that larger groups of parliamentarians (from one party or being interested in one topic) work together, or that a minister's staff works out a law.
The American system of bail, which forces everyone arrested for a crime to pay money or go to jail, is considered to be blatantly partial to the rich by Germans. In Germany, bail is rarely used; defendants awaiting trial have to stay in prison if and only if they are considered dangerous or likely to flee.
Generally, police and prosecutors have more power in the US than in Germany. For instance, police are allowed to and regularly perform undercover operations in many areas, including posting officers in adult cinemas or saunas to watch out for "indecent conduct". In New York City the police have planted unattended bags all over the city; people who pick up a bag without reporting it are charged with a felony. Officers can also act as "agent provocateurs", for instance they can offer to sell drugs, pose as prostitutes, or pretend to be teens looking for sex in Internet chat rooms. Undercover policemen are also routinely used in large political demonstrations. In Germany, undercover operations can only be used in severe cases of organized crime. Police are also not allowed to deceive a suspect into revealing incriminating evidence. However, in Germany evidence that was obtained illegally may be used in criminal trials (the government has repeatedly bought and used illegally obtained information about tax evaders), while this is not possible in the US.
The U.S. system of civil law allows "class action suits" which don't exist in Germany. A group of people with a similar complaint, typically consumers alleging fraud on behalf of some company, can collectively file a lawsuit. Their lawyers will work on a contingency basis for a percentage of the final settlement (this is also not allowed in Germany). Other affected parties can later join the suit at no cost. Winning a class action suit is a bonanza for the lawyers while the injured parties usually see relatively small amounts of compensation.
In general, courts award much higher liability damages in the US than in Germany, easily by a factor of 10. This, combined with lawyers working on a contingency basis, means that corporations must constantly defend against ridiculous lawsuits and will add all sorts of warnings to their product descriptions ("Do not eat iPod Shuffle!").
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U.S. businesses are often inclined to give away stuff for free in order to attract customers. German businesses are much more hesitant. Examples from the U.S. include:
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So do I, and it is absolutely frightening to me how privacy rights are constantly violated in the US. Credit card companies keep databases about your purchases and sell the information; supermarkets issue frequent-buyer cards in order to track your preferences; if you buy a TV set in an electronics store, they ask for your name and address; the post office sells information about who moved where; the Internet set-top box WebTV dialed up Microsoft every night to upload information about your web surfing habits; automatic face recognition cameras are used in sports arenas and casinos; surveillance cameras are common in public city areas etc. etc.
The US has very strong access-to-information laws. If the government collected it, and it does not affect vital national interests, then you can file a request to see it. Emails of the president, phone bills of the governor, lists of all issued driver's licenses: everything is fair game. These laws enjoy wide public support.
Interestingly, neither is privacy a big issue in the US nor is access to information a topic in Germany. Clearly, the two issues are opposite ends of a spectrum - you can't have both at the same time. Maybe this difference between the countries is a symptom of the fact that Germans tend to distrust big business, while Americans tend to distrust big government. Quite predictably, the consequence is that corporations are more powerful and government is less powerful in the US than in Germany. When Americans need a quick example of government gone bad, recent German history serves well; when Germans need a quick example of corporate excesses, American businesses are often used.
In one area, the US approach is far superior to the German (or European) one. All information and data collected or produced by any arm of the federal government is released into the public domain, without any copyright. Be it images from the Hubble space telescope, sequences from the human genome, satellite images of environmental degradation, photos of the president or cancer statistics: in America they are all completely free to the public for any purpose whatsoever, including commercial purposes. European governments are much more protective and usually give out data like these only for non-profit research purposes under specific licenses, while retaining full copyright.
Given their privacy obsession, it is surprising that Germans enjoy much less privacy than Americans when accessing the internet or using the telephone. Whenever you access the internet, your name must be registered with the internet access provider who has to store it along with the assigned IP address for 6 months, to allow for later law enforcement investigations. Telephone companies have to store time and location of participants in cell phone conversations, also for 6 months. To purchase a prepaid cell phone, you need to provide identification. In the US there are no such requirements; you can go to any coffee shop and get free and completely anonymous wireless internet access; anonymous cell phones can be bought in any convenience store.
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US pupils get a lot more vacation: 12 weeks during the summer, plus one week for Christmas and one week of Spring Break. German pupils get 6 weeks during the summer, 2 weeks in the fall, 2 weeks for Christmas, and 2 weeks Spring Break. On the other hand, German school is usually over at 1pm, while US school lasts till 3 or 4 pm.
While teaching in the US is often considered to be just another "job", teachers in Germany are highly regarded professionals and are much better paid. The training required to become a German teacher is quite a bit longer than that for US public school teachers.
In the U.S., parents may elect to school their children at home; this is sometimes done by religious conservatives who don't agree with evolution or sex education being taught to their kids. In Germany, home schooling is not allowed (though some US-inspired evangelicals have tried).
The system of early childhood education is much more comprehensive in the U.S. than in Germany. Kindergartens are not free in Germany, and there are not enough spots for all kids. By contrast, the U.S. has a universal and free "Head Start" program targeted at disadvantaged kids. On the other hand, American women often work until several days before giving birth, and start to work again a couple of days later. There is no mandatory paid time off after giving birth, though large employers often provide it voluntarily. Aside from tax breaks, there is no financial support for parents. In Germany women are not allowed to work from 6 weeks before until 8 weeks after giving birth and must receive their full salary during this time; after that the mother or father can take one year off, receiving 66% of their net pay and a job guarantee. Parents also receive $200 Kindergeld per child and month, until the child is 18 years old and often longer.
The German public (including me) generally assumed that the German school system is far superior to the US one -- until the devastating results of the PISA 2000 study came out. It showed that the knowledge and skills of German students were consistently below the performance of US students (which typically hovered around the international average). Since then, more German parents have begun to send their children to private schools, which had performed better than public schools in the study. (Some Germans have criticized the PISA study, claiming that students were told that the results didn't affect their grades and they were free to leave once finished with the test.)
When I arrived in the United States, I believed that all universities there were private, that professors could be fired if they didn't work hard enough, and that in any case only the rich or the exceptionally smart could go to college due to the high tuitions. Wrong on all counts.
Many states maintain public universities supported by taxpayer's money, and these have very low tuition for residents of the state. In addition, virtually all universities, public and private, are heavily subsidized by grants from the federal government. All relevant private universities are non-profit institutions and scholarships are given freely. Professors earn tenure after having been employed and shown a good record for about five years. Their jobs are then virtually guaranteed just as in the German system. The tenure system exists at public and at private universities alike. (In Germany, all but one university are public; professors get tenure from day one.) Surprisingly, public universities and schools pay significantly higher salaries than private ones.
In general, the German system places much more emphasis on big examinations while degrees in the US are often automatically granted if the student has passed a sufficient number of classes. This is true both for the high school diploma, which in many US states doesn't involve any exam at all while consisting of several large written and oral exams in Germany, as well as for college degrees, which in Germany require passing several oral exams and producing a thesis.
It turns out that professors in the US are a lot freer than their German colleagues: for about four months of the year, they can do what they want, without any obligations of presence whatsoever. While Germany also has long semester vacations, professors still have to report to work every day (except for their regular vacation time). On the other hand, German professors usually have personal secretaries and post doctorial academic assistants, which most US professors lack. Professors in Germany are highly regarded in the public opinion and accordingly full of themselves.
If you go to a college town in the US, you will see students studying in libraries, coffee shops, book stores etc. In Germany, it's rare to find students studying in public.
It is very interesting to compare the accessibility of academia in the two countries. On the face of it, Germany wins hands down. Attending a university is cheap (tuition was introduced in Germany only in 2007; typical tuition was about 5% of a typical tuition in the US; tuition had been abandoned in all German states by 2014) and (except for overrun fields such as medicine or psychology) prospective students don't have to apply anywhere: they simply sign up at their school of choice and start studying, provided they have the Abitur. On top of that, the German government pays a fellowship to every student without affluent parents. Only one half of this grant is paid out as a loan and has to be paid back later.
It is not very well known that a much larger proportion of the population attends college in the US than in Germany. Almost one half of all Americans acquire a college degree during their lifetime, compared to only one third of Germans. (University degrees in Germany used to be worth more than US college degrees however; an American four-year Bachelor of Science degree is roughly equivalent in knowledge to a German Vordiplom while a German Diplom, which took 5-7 years to acquire, roughly corresponded to a Master's degree. In the last couple of years, Germany and most other European countries have switched to the Bachelor/Master system. Much of the material of German Gymnasiums is taught in the "general education" part of the first two years of American colleges.) Many more jobs require a college education in the US than in Germany. Families in the US start saving money early on in order to be able to afford the college education of their kids later; many students work during their college years and most take out substantial educational loans. In American colleges, you constantly meet people between the ages of thirty and forty who have decided to go back to college in order to get a better education and have a chance at a better career; this is exceedingly rare in Germany. Germans can in principle earn the Abitur later in night school, but few do. Once you've got your job, you've got your job, and that's that.
There can be no doubt that the American system is much more friendly, open and accessible to immigrants with insufficient preparation.
While the elite universities in the US do give out scholarships to very talented students from all over the world, there is still an extremely disproportionate number of rich people's kids at these schools. It is clear that students of medium talent have no chance to enter these schools unless their parents are extremely well off.
When looking at higher education in the US (graduate school and research universities), one notices a very high proportion of foreigners, to an extent where the system would almost stop to function if the foreigners were to leave. In Germany, foreign professors are very rare, probably because of the language barrier and more restrictive immigration laws, combined with a lower overall attractiveness of the country to foreigners. Furthermore, the old fashioned German universities require a "Habilitation" before someone can teach; this is an additional thesis and exam after the doctorate that doesn't exist in the US. There are however quite a few foreign students and post-docs in Germany.
Generally speaking, the average American Ph.D. is less capable and less broadly educated in their field than the average German Dr.rer.nat. Specialization occurs earlier in the US, the time is shorter and many more people of only medium talent pursue a doctorate. Most Ph.D.'s become college teachers with minimal research tasks; such teaching jobs are much rarer in Germany.
The US university system is very prestige oriented; whenever you state your degree, you immediately add the name of the school where you obtained it. The better universities can afford to maintain high entry requirements, while schools lower on the list have to take all students they can get. By contrast, the German university system is largely homogeneous and degrees are perceived to be equivalent.
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The first thing every visitor to the US notices is the immense number of astoundingly obese people. There is a huge obsession with fat-free foods, to the extent that people happily eat sweet desserts as long as they are fat-free. Americans seem to be eating constantly: in the car, at the movie theater, at work, while watching TV; more often than not, it is fast food or snacks. In many poorer neighborhoods, the only nearby store is a neighborhood convenience store which typically sells potato chips, coke, snacks, bread and peanut butter but little to no vegetables, fruit, milk or other fresh foods. In Germany, the schedule of three meals a day is still more strictly followed and groceries are much more common than convenience stores.
Many Americans take food supplements and vitamin pills daily, something that Germans sometimes find mildly amusing: "Just eat your vegetables!" Germans are very picky when it comes to non-natural ingredients in their foods. Injecting milk cows with synthetic growth hormones (as is common in the U.S.) would be completely out of the question there, and Germans deeply dislike and fear all genetically modified foods, while the average American couldn't care less.
Americans smoke a lot less than Germans and virtually all public spaces except bars are smoke free. People generally look down on smokers as losers. (Update: e-cigarettes are much more common in the US than in Germany.) Americans also exercise more, typically in fitness centers, which again many Germans find slightly suspect because of the closeness to body-building, which is generally considered to be utterly ridiculous.
To be fair: nowhere will you see more drunken people in public than in Germany.
The US media commonly report that high tech and critical medical care is more advanced in the US than in any other country, that hospital equipment is generally more up to date and that new and experimental treatments are adopted earlier. I used to believe this as well, but recently I received a message from a surgeon who has worked in Germany and in the U.S., saying that these differences are, for the most part, non-existent.
The treatment of chronic and mental diseases and rehabilitative care is much more advanced in Germany. This is also the area where the lack in health insurance of a large proportion of the US population has the most severe effects; if you suffered a heart attack, you can easily get a free triple bypass, even if you are an undocumented Mexican without health coverage, but American health insurance policies contain only minimal coverage for mental diseases. There are virtually no treatment options for uninsured people with chronic diseases or long-term mental health problems short of Social Security disability benefits.
On the other hand, almost everyone in the US who can afford it has a therapist, often just to get reassurance and general life advice. Many more people in the US are on antidepressants, which doctors will happily prescribe for pretty much any complaint.
The system of health insurance in the U.S. is completely broken; this is obvious to anyone who looks at it. It persists in its current form because of the systemic corruption in US society that I describe elsewhere. Most people get health insurance through their employer. Employers are not required to offer this benefit; smaller ones don't. (Exceptions: in Hawaii all employers must provide coverage, and in Massachusetts everyone must carry health insurance. Obama's health care law requires that after 2014 everyone in the US must carry health insurance and large employers must offer it; those who don't pay small penalties.) Coverage rarely includes medicines or dental care. Often it is provided by "HMOs" which means that one is severely restricted in the choice of doctors, treatments and hospitals. If you lose your job, you need to start paying the full insurance premium yourself; if you can't afford that, all coverage is lost at once. Up until 2011, insurers could and did reject people with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or asthma. Public hospitals must treat critical conditions of the uninsured; afterwards they send out inflated bills, resulting in a huge number of personal medical bankruptcies. The retired are covered by a single-payer system called Medicare. They can freely choose doctors, at least among those who accept the rather low Medicare reimbursements. There is a completely separate system for veterans: they are treated for free in government-owned hospitals that are not open to the general public.
To me, the obvious solution to this mess is to scrap the whole patchwork and extend Medicare coverage to everybody, paid for by an additional tax on employers and employees.
In Germany, everybody is covered by health insurance. Employers pay half of the insurance premium of their employees, which is a fixed percentage of the salary (so that high earners subsidize the others); the government pays the full premium for the unemployed. Coverage includes dental care and medicines (subject to some copayments) and is provided by Krankenkassen, half-private non-profits whose rates and reimbursements are very similar to each other. Patients can freely choose Krankenkassen, doctors and hospitals. Retirees receive the same coverage. The rich and the self-employed are allowed to leave this system and can purchase private insurance (which usually pays higher reimbursements and is therefore preferred by doctors and hospitals). Civil servants (Beamte) are required to carry private insurance; the government then pays half of their care.
The US is among the few countries in the world where prescription drugs can be advertised directly to consumers. A large portion of TV ads are for prescription drugs. This is not allowed in Germany.
Statistically the US fares worse than Germany: infant mortality is about 40% higher (mainly because of the high teenage pregnancy rate and because many poor people with high-risk pregnancies never receive any prenatal care), life expectancy is roughly the same while total per capita health care expenditure is about 60% higher in the US than in Germany.
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First of all, Americans move around a lot more than Germans. It seems that most people don't stay longer than two or three years at the same place, at least until they buy a house.
More importantly, Americans change jobs much more often than Germans. It's not at all unusual to meet someone who had been a soldier, then after retirement became a teacher, and then moved on to become a truck driver. Careers like that simply don't exist in Germany. One reason is probably that virtually every job in Germany requires at least a three year low paid apprenticeship; nobody wants to go through that twice if they don't have to. Generally, the German economy offers fewer low-paid no-training "McJobs" than the American economy does; this is due to much higher labor costs. No supermarket could afford to hire someone simply to stuff customer's plastic bags.
Then there is much mobility between classes. If your parents are workers, then you are much more likely to become a worker yourself in Germany than in the US. (One probably has to exclude the American inner city slums here, which don't allow for much class mobility -- the only realistic perspective for boys seems to be drug dealing and for girls bearing children.) Of course, mobility is not only upward: middle-aged engineers who end up as supermarket clerks after being laid off are not unheard off; sometimes people slide right through into homelessness after losing their job. Generally speaking, the classes in Germany are much more static.
In one sense of the word though, Germany shows more mobility: traveling. Wherever you go in the world, you'll find Germans. They are obsessed with traveling. Many people take two major vacations per year. Clearly, this is facilitated by the fact that Germans get about 6 weeks paid vacation per year by law (which does NOT include the unlimited number of sick days) plus some 11 (or more if you're in a Catholic state) paid holidays, compared to an average of 3 weeks plus 6 holidays in the US. There are other obstacles to traveling as well: when I once asked a graduate student I knew in Santa Barbara why his wife and his new-born child never came to visit from San Francisco, he told me that they were afraid to travel because their health plan would only cover illnesses of the child when treated in San Francisco clinics.
Only about 50% of the members of the US House of Representatives have ever left the country. For a German, this is hard to fathom. But then again, Germany is only about the size of Montana.
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This is only half of the story though. If you walk down a street or take a bus in a big German city like Frankfurt or Berlin today, you'll hear about as many languages as if you did the same in London or Paris. It's probably still true that Germans are more alike than Americans, but there's more than just Germans in Germany these days!
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Another victim of cruel discrimination in the US are the mentally ill, many of whom ended up homeless or in prison when almost all public mental institutions were closed in the seventies. Decent long-term therapy for mental diseases is not covered by most insurance.
Protections against cruelty to animals are much stronger in Germany. In parts of the U.S. they are missing altogether; e.g. cock fighting is legal in Louisiana. In many states the protections that do exist do not apply to farm animals or experimental animals.
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By contrast, the rich are not particularly well-liked in Germany. In politics, being extremely rich would certainly be a disadvantage. In the back of the German's mind there's still the assumption that someone who owns that much must have exploited others to get it.
The obvious fact that the rich in the US have much better access to health care and legal representation than the poor is generally not seen as an injustice. To Germans, this notion is deeply offensive. When I discussed the O.J. Simpson case with Americans, I would usually point out that he got away with murder because he was rich enough to hire the very best lawyers; many people I spoke to didn't even notice the implied criticism: they replied "Sure, the rich can buy better lawyers. They can also buy better cars. That's what wealth is."
Generally speaking, the average living standard in the US is considerably higher than in Germany. More people own their home, houses are bigger, people own more luxury items and have more disposable income. Two caveats are in order: first, the variation in the US is a lot larger, and the poor in the US are poorer than the poor in Germany. Second, as all Germans will hasten to point out, quality of life is not determined by the number of luxury goods alone: Germans have more vacation time, better mass transit, and fewer worries about paying for health coverage and college.
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I read slightly more small-scale corruption stories in the U.S. than in Germany: policemen keeping confiscated drugs for themselves or demanding sex from prostitutes, guards smuggling drugs into prisons, mayors taking kickback money, immigration officers issuing fake greencards and so on. Americans are horrified and outraged by these stories: they truly hate corruption from the bottom of their hearts. But it isn't really a big problem, and maybe the greater number of stories simply reflects the larger size of the country. German companies are more inclined to pay bribes in foreign countries than U.S. companies are; this practice has been made illegal in Germany only relatively recently, because of US pressure.
My real point is different. Large-scale corruption of the legal kind infects every level of U.S. society. In fact, the USA invented and perfected the system of effective legal corruption. Here are my examples:
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This is even more tragic in Canada's case since Canada is the biggest trade partner of the US but is still completely and utterly ignored in the US public debate; nobody there knows the Prime Minister or the capital of Canada; Canada simply does not appear in newspapers or news programs.
Someone wrote to me that the relationship between New Zealand and Australia may be similar.
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The abstract, big German environmental issues, such as climate change, the ozone hole, energy saving, overconsumption, and garbage reduction are almost non-existent in American public debate. Every once in a while, an article appears whose author wonders whether the greenhouse effect really exists (a question that has been considered settled in Germany since the early 1990s). Energy saving is a complete non-topic (or at least it was before the recent oil price explosion), and accordingly, energy is wasted at amazing levels. The only fear that appears every once in a while is that the US could become dependent on foreign oil. The concept that fossil fuels are finite and that we will run out soon is very un-American: of course science will come up with wonderful fusion technology just in time. Garbage reduction is almost unheard of. In every supermarket, your purchases are immediately stuffed into paper or plastic bags (sure enough, you get to choose which type of bag: it's the land of the free after all).
In the US, fuel is cheap, cities are spread out, mass transit is poor, many people commute 50 miles a day to work, large cars are considered to be cool, most apartments' rent includes heating, and air-conditioning is used almost everywhere at least part of the year. All this contributes to an immense energy consumption.
Germany invests heavily in wind and solar energy. Everyone pays a surcharge on the price of electricity, money that is used to subsidize the price paid to producers of alternative energy. Plenty of farmers nowadays make most of their money from their wind turbines. Nuclear energy is being phased out. The majority of people agree with this system.
Environmentalism in the US is often very down-to-earth: getting industry to clean up a certain toxic waste site, protecting a particular endangered species, or preventing a particular piece of land from being developed.
Since about 2005, hybrid cars (especially the Toyota Prius) have been quite popular among the environmental crowd in the US. Even though gasoline costs about twice as much in Germany as in the US, these cars are still very rare there.
On the surface, air pollution standards are much more stringent in the US than in Germany: catalytic converters in cars had been required 20 years earlier and diesel engine cars have been regulated almost out of existence. After all these years, particle filters are still not required in German diesel cars. However, air quality in German cities is better than in U.S. cities due to newer cars and actual enforcement of the air standards on the books. American industries often get “grandfathered in” on their air permits. Large German metropolitan areas now require that any vehicle entering the city have a clean air emissions certification sticker on the windshield; those old diesels are not allowed to drive into the cities anymore.
While all German parties have embraced the notion that environmentalism is not detrimental to economic progress and in fact can spur technological innovation and provide job and export opportunities, most American politicians still see environmental regulations as a direct threat to jobs and to the competitiveness of US businesses.
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I see two reasons for these different approaches to charity: first, Americans distrust big organizations and third world governments; they fear that money they donate to global causes will trickle away in bureaucracies somewhere. Second, Germans intuitively don't feel much need to help local organizations or schools: "that's the government's job, that's what I pay taxes for."
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Once one enters the country, a couple of items can be added to this list: the news coverage focuses on violence a lot, the violent horror movies in the video stores are openly visible to kids (they are not placed in the adult section together with porn movies as in Germany), extremely harsh punishing even of non-violent criminals (including the recently revived chain gangs in some states), and violent TV cartoons for small kids on Saturday mornings. Generally, Americans have a much higher tolerance for violence in the media (and a much lower tolerance for sex) than Germans. To me, this is perplexing, since America's violence problems seem to be much more severe than Germany's sex problems :-)
A peculiar type of violence, school kids shooting around in schools, is not that uncommon in the US and is very interesting mainly because it seems so puzzling to Americans. Every outside observer soon concludes that media and video games glorifying violence together with easy availability of guns and adolescent's common psychological problems provide a satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon. Americans cannot reach this conclusion however because the right to bear arms and the right to free speech are considered sacrosanct. So all they are left with is "these are bad kids", and you actually hear people say that.
Somewhat paradoxically, everyday life is a lot less aggressive in the US than it is in Germany. People are generally more polite and friendly. Phrases like "please", "thank you", "excuse me" and "you are welcome" are a lot more common in the US. It happens all the time that a nice girl that you have never met before smiles at you for no apparent reason. (In Germany, they do it only if they have a very good reason, which means that you're in business.) If you wait in line in an American supermarket, you don't have to constantly watch out for people who try to cut in in front of you.
Traffic is much more relaxed in the states, very unlike the all-out war on German streets and highways, with tail gating and drivers cutting you off. People in the US actually drive slowly and cautiously, even though virtually everyone can get a driver's license at age 16 after taking a trivial test. Germany requires months of expensive training and a difficult test, but people still don't understand the concept of defensive driving.
The higher friendliness in the US is often noticed by German travelers, who will typically then add "but people are terribly superficial". There may be some truth to that, but a lot of it is just a consequence of faulty translations. Words describing emotional states are generally used much more liberally in the US than in Germany and common dictionary translations are often wrong. People will call you a "friend" if you have had a nice 20 minute conversation with them; the German "Freund" is only used for someone that you have known for a long time and are emotionally close to. Similar for words like "hate", "happy", "excited", "wonderful" or "love".
The American friendliness is fragile however and is mixed with a strange moralistic streak: if somebody does anything considered morally wrong, the normal sympathy and empathy is immediately and utterly withdrawn and replaced by heart-felt condemnation.
Maybe a more descriptive term than "impolite" for the typical German is "anal-retentive". Germans are extremely punctual. If you're short a couple of pennies when paying at a supermarket checkout, they will make you search, with the line waiting behind you. Little "give a penny/ take a penny" baskets don't exist there, and the concept goes against everything a German believes in. Everything has to go by the book, and Germans like to be right. No doubt, Americans are more relaxed.
It seems that there is a lot of tension and aggression buried in the average German, maybe as a result of the much higher population density. The level of friendliness, relaxedness and un-aggressiveness seems to be higher on the West coast of the states and lowest in the big "quasi-European" cities of the East.
Germans commonly commit suicide in a particularly vicious passive-aggressive manner: jumping in front of a train. That doesn't happen in the US; people are polite and simply shoot themselves.
Even though the overall crime rate is much higher in the US than in Germany, low-level "nuisance crimes" such as pick-pocketing, car vandalism and bicycle theft are rarer. Americans are generally trusting and it is quite common that they leave their house entrance doors unlocked during the day, something Germans never do, except in the countryside. Germans like their front doors to be massive, while American doors normally can be broken in with modest force.
Like most things, crime is more evenly distributed in Germany than it is in the US. The higher American crime rate is mainly due to inner city pockets of gang violence; outside these pockets, life is just as safe as in Germany.
In Germany, there are violent clashes between opposing soccer hooligans and police almost every weekend. This does not happen in the US.
Comparing the political debates in the two countries is rather illuminating. The speeches of German politicians are generally less controversial, more inclusive and often hint at compromises. (They are also more substantial.) By contrast, politicians in the US have no problem talking about an outright "cultural war" (between the left and the right) and regularly accuse their opponents of everything from stupidity to adultery. But when it comes to physical political violence, Germany is far ahead. If a leading politician gives a speech in the open, he can expect having foul eggs thrown at him. People will shout and whistle in order to disrupt the speech. None of that ever happens in the US. The president can actually give a speech at a university and everyone will be polite and listen -- a very strange concept for German students. This is even more astounding if one takes into account that the difference in viewpoints between the Left and the Right in Germany is much smaller than that between the Left and the Right in the US.
Political demonstrations, smaller and rarer in the US than in Germany, are also a lot less violent. Politically motivated riots, which happen regularly in Germany, are rare in America. This is probably because young people tend to be more political in Germany, and kicking the butt of a policeman is still the easiest way to fight the system.
The logical next step is then political terrorism, which in Germany exists both on the left and on the right but is (at least in its organized form) almost unheard of in the US. It fits the picture that the terrorism that the US sees either comes from foreign countries or is the deed of fringe individualists.
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All this has surprisingly little effect though; the Christian churches have far less influence on public life in Germany than in the US and are rapidly losing members. (Catholicism in Bavaria is the last holdout.) The main reason is that the overall degree of religiosity in the population is much lower. In the US, many people actually go to church every Sunday, something mostly reserved for lonely elderly women in Germany. The proportion of people believing in God is higher in the US than in any other industrialized country. In Germany, people will laugh at you if you tell them that you literally believe the fairy tales of the Bible; only some sort of "abstract religiosity" or better still "spirituality" is acceptable in public discourse. A shocking eye-opener for me was when I overheard two young women, maybe 20 years old, at the next table in a coffee shop in the US, eagerly discussing the subtleties of a Bible story! In the US, there are many people who believe what the Bible says word for word, and they are not ashamed to say so. This may be an instance of a more general fact: Germans are generally more skeptical and critical than Americans. Some examples:
In the US, after a wedding in a church the priest or pastor signs the official marriage papers. In Germany the couple has to go to the Standesamt to make the marriage official.
In Germany, the Catholic Church is generally considered to be more conservative than the protestant churches in social and political issues; the situation in the US is opposite. People on the "religious right", a large and influential movement populated mostly by white protestants, are vehemently opposed to abortion (several abortion doctors have been killed by people on the fringes), believe in the literal truth of the Bible to the extent of opposing Darwinism (these people are called "creationists", a word that doesn't even exist in German nor would it be needed), oppose premarital sex, and call homosexuality a sinful choice. These same people also enthusiastically embrace the death penalty, private ownership of guns, military spending and lower taxes, without even noticing a contradiction to the Christian message of "Don't judge, live poor, love your enemies".
A number of US states still have laws on the books prohibiting atheists from holding public office. (These laws are not enforced.)
The bigot Christian influence can be felt throughout American life: no swearing on radio or TV is allowed (it is rather ironic to hear a beep whenever someone tried to say "fuck", especially in a country which prides itself in strong opposition to censorship), no nudity whatsoever on TV either, and no substantial sex education in the schools (resulting in the highest teen pregnancy rate of the developed world). The media discuss the topic of sex only in the context of crime or disease: there is a huge obsession with child molestation, rape, sexual harassment, AIDS etc.; Hollywood rarely shows sex in love movies but almost exclusively in "erotic thrillers", films which intimately link sex to some crime. Crimes involving sex generally carry higher penalties than non-sexual crimes. Many states publish name, offense, photo and address of past sex offenders on the internet; these laws do not apply to murderers or other violent criminals. The advertised cure for AIDS is abstinence; ads favoring condom use cannot be shown on national broadcast TV and a broad based billboard campaign by the government promoting condom use (as in Germany) is unthinkable. It is also more difficult to buy condoms in the US; they are not available from vending machines in most public restrooms as in Germany. Even in swinger clubs, condom use is not consistent in the US. Public nudity at nudist beaches or in co-ed saunas is extremely rare; even in saunas Americans are typically not nude. In Germany, every medium-size city has a co-ed sauna where everybody is nude (but the German love for rules always shines through: try to use a cell phone and people will point to the Verboten! sign; refuse to drop your swimsuit and the Bademeister will educate you that this is a "textilfreier Bereich" (textile-free area). In the U.S., women are not allowed to go topless at public beaches (I believe New York State is an exception, because of a court ruling there). Live sex acts cannot be shown in sex theaters. Anal or oral sex, even between married adults, were illegal in several US states until 2003; while these laws were almost never enforced, no lawmaker would dare to attempt to remove; the Supreme Court finally invalidated all these laws in 2003 but they remain on the books. Some southern states in the US even prohibit the sale of vibrators. Topics like legalization of prostitution are utterly unmentionable.
The word "rape" is used in a much broader sense than the common German dictionary translation "Vergewaltigung". The latter means "using physical force to achieve intercourse", while "rape" is nowadays often used in America in the sense of "an unpleasant sexual experience that was later regretted by one party".
Still, the matter is not completely black-and-white; the American Puritanism and prudishness often only covers the surface. While it is legal in the US to display hard core pornography on Internet web sites open to all, this is not allowed in Germany. Similarly, sex magazines that can be bought at regular newsstands are harder in the US than in Germany; in the US, satellite hard core porn channels can be ordered and this is not possible in Germany. There is no radio program in Germany as graphic as Howard Stern. There are certainly more strip clubs in the US than in Germany (a consequence of the higher taboo surrounding public nudity). The sexual revolution began in America, America initiated the mainstreaming of pornography, and today the US porn industry feeds the whole world and is comparable in size to Hollywood. Abortion regulations are more liberal in the US than in Germany. [Contraception is not taken very seriously in the US, resulting in triple the abortion rate of Germany.] Many of these freedoms come courtesy of the Supreme Court, which is very powerful and quite liberal on some topics. Indeed, throughout history, lots of progressive changes in US legislation can be traced back to Supreme Court decisions; legislatures are often too scared for bold moves.
It is also my impression that the atmosphere at US colleges is more sexually charged (clothing, flirting, partying etc.) than that at German universities. This however could have something to do with the fact that American students are typically a couple of years younger than German ones.
In Germany, there's a general ban on working on Sundays and holidays, with a number of specific exceptions. This ban is supported by the churches: after all, it's the content of the third (or fourth, depending on who you ask) of the Ten Commandments. The Verfassungsgericht upheld the ban, pointing to the important spiritual content of Sundays. In the US, Sunday work is legal and very common, and Christians don't make an issue of it. God's Commandments are seemingly less important if we're talking business.
Another strange contradiction given the strong religious base is the enthusiastic embrace of exotic reproduction techniques and genetic modification in the US. Destructive research on human embryos as well as human cloning is legal in the US (but not funded by the federal government) and illegal in Germany (German researchers aren't even allowed to perform these procedures abroad). Rent-a-womb arrangements where a woman carries the fetus of another couple and sperm banks selling sperm based on the donor's features also don't exist in Germany.
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Business people dress identically in the two countries, and younger people also dress similarly for the most part. The gang style dress code (gold chains, baggy pants, sneakers, bandannas) is quite common among male black teenagers in the US; in Germany, nobody dresses like this and the style is only known from rap videos (apparently this has changed a bit recently though).
In summer, German women sometimes don't wear a bra, which is much less common in the US. If they wear a bra, German women usually try to hide it by wearing loose fitting shirts; American women often wear tight fitting t-shirts under which the bra is clearly visible.
T-shirts with funny texts printed on are much more common in the US.
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