First Impressions in Austria

I have just returned from the 18 hour long flight, and will share some general observations on my way from Philadelphia to Vienna. I was on the train approaching the Philadelphia airport, and heard two businessmen behind me chatting about their clients, their business partners, their future business plans, and how they are going to find ways to remain profitable. On the surface of it, listening to businessmen is fairly exciting, because they are travelling to a lot of different places and they can meet a lot of new people. On the other hand, listening to them is really excruciatingly boring, because it is all about having “the right feel for people”, which requires so much excessive Goffmanian face work. I guess this is the true intellectual in me, waging a complaint.

I was very confused before hopping on the airplane, because I had to ask somebody to find me the way to check in the bags. The bag check lady had no idea where Austria was and mistook it for Australia, which is why it took her so long to process my request. It was only after a colleague of her had pointed out where my passport came from, that my order was processed, and my boarding pass could be issued.

What is really annoying when going through the security clearance is that you could not take a bottle of water with liquid with you, but you either had to completely empty it or throw it away. This gave me the unnecessary extra work of filling up the bottle after going through the clearance. The clearance itself was a pain in the neck, because it took more than an hour to get through. Two officers processed two long lines, and then you had to go through the TSA body scan, which the passengers were assured would not cause cancer, even though studies showed contrary results.

When you exited the country, then the TSA officials would not really bother you. They would only bother you if you entered the country. But taking off all  of your goods and putting them on a tray was really annoying. There was also this uneasy feeling that somebody could steal an item from me, or accidentally pocket it. But luckily I had not lost anything. What was really annoying was that while checking in, I had noticed that the zipper on my handbag was broken, and all the pieces inside of it were about to fall out. I had to hold the bag with both hands, squeezing both openings to prevent my stuff from falling out.

I waited another hour to be able to hop on the plane. The first people that were called upon were the first class fliers, and here I realized that the rich are in some ways better off than the poor. Because the rich paid extra money, they were able to be the first ones to get on the plane. I don’t think it really mattered to most economics class passengers, because whether you were first or second class, you would still be able to get to the same destination. You would have less leg room during the flight as second class flier, but it is questionable whether a lack of leg room freedom is really all that important. It was rather the signalling effect, which had concerned me the most. The rich can noticeably feel themselves to be better off than the second class fliers. Aristotle used to say that we can only appreciate things through friends. It is only when we can justify and explain our actions in terms of our closest friends, for whom we are vying for support, that we can find true contentment. The rich can only have some contentment if they and others knew that they were so privileged.

I thought that after boarding the airplane we would be able to take off pretty quickly, but I was thoroughly disappointed. The plane remained on the tarmac for about one hour before we were able to take off. According to the pilot, we were the fifteenth airplane in line, and the Philadelphia airport was completely overchallenged. Why was the airport not able to more quickly process the flights? In contrast, the Zurich airplane to Vienna took off not only on time, but landed five minutes early.

I generally prefer aisle seats on the plane, so I took the aisle seat in the middle path toward the right, and I spoke with another gentleman from Switzerland, who sat on the middle path seat on the left. In the middle, there was a Mazedonian woman, who held an American passport in her hand, but trying to talk with her was futile, because she did not speak English very well. The Swiss gentlemen also was not very good in English, but since he was from Bern we communicated in German. He was a halfway interesting person to converse with, and he could give you a commonsense insight into Switzerland and its customs.

One of the biggest topics of discussion was the movement toward employment retrenchment. He was a police officer for over 30 years and retired at age 60. But new police officers and other civil servants were hired in as contractors and did not receive the same kind of job guarantees that are given to civil servants. I argued that technology plays some role in diminishing the overall demand for labor. Another argument is that the capitalist economy in the Western countries does not have a natural way to grow anymore, so we can not expect much employment growth there. The more dynamic economies in the emerging countries will have more employment growth.

I turned my head to the right and spoke with a young Asian woman as well. Since I had defined my general sexual interest in that direction, I thought it would at least impose me no harm to strike up a conversation with her. She was reading a novel, and I had asked her what it was all about. It was about a drama involving a person, who had lost his memory, and then only gradually is led to recall the facts of his life. I then queried the woman about her whereabouts, and she was visiting a friend in Koblenz, Germany, where she studied for the semester abroad. The woman wanted to travel in Europe before she took up her job as an analyst consultant for some big firm. The conversation was not really very exciting, because she would answer my questions very straightforwardly, and did not have the curiosity to ask me in return or she did not want to elaborate on her answers, at least not in front of a stranger. That was a classic interaction ritual with very little emotional energy, and the only way to avoid further energy drainage was to leave off, which I did.

The rest of the flight was relatively quiet. The stewardess brought us drinks three times, one dinner (rice with chicken and salad) and one muffin, which was just enough to get me through the whole flight. I only had to pee once in the entire trip, and that was the only time when I stood up during the flight. It is not easy to sit that long, but I was glad they played the Wolverine movie (2013), and an episode of Elementary (2012-) starring Lucy Liu.

I finished reading Bruce Cuming’s “Korea’s Place in the Sun” (1997), and was particularly delighted to read about South Korea’s successful economic transformation. It had been poorer than the Northern neighbor in the early 1960s, and both halves were about equal in the early 1980s before all the economic reforms made by Park Chung Hee started to pay off. Much of South Korea’s industrial advancement took place in the southeastern part of the country around Taegu and Pusan, because the political leadership class hailed from there and ensured that factories were opened there. US military and civilian economic aid, which often consisted of more than half of the economy’s total output in the early years, and the open markets (low tariff barriers) in the US were crucial to propel export industrialization and growth in South Korea. There has also been a significant history of democratic struggles even in the face of authoritarian regimes, which I can confirm from my own research on the Korean civil society.

The North is a somewhat different story, but Cumings is fair enough to not only portray it as a basket case as is often done in the US media, because they blindly accept South Korea’s caricatures of the North. North Korea does have a crazy dictatorship, and the Kim’s (in the third generation of rule already) do have a terrible human rights record. But it would be false to assume that all policies in North Korea have been irrational. North Korea has advanced its own form of industrialization with the heavy support of China and the Soviet Union. But with a relatively closed economy, there are no economies of scale, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union an important source of foreign support had disappeared overnight. North Korea is now holding on to nuclear power in order to force the South and the Americans to pay economic aid to the North, which is not such a terrible strategy given the dire straits it is in. North Koreans are between 3-8 cm shorter than South Koreans due to malnourishment (Knight 2012).

Will the two sides unite with each other? Cumings is skeptical about it at least in the short run. No party can admit defeat, because it would mean that the political class has to be executed or convicted. The solution would have to involve gradual unification by greater economic and social ties before a political union is discussed. There are already some governmental agreements to allow long-separated relatives to meet each other on the DMZ, or border region. Trade will be the crucial variable here, though I doubt that North Korea will be able to produce goods competitively. The cheap labor power does give them some leeway to produce some goods that the South might buy from them, which gives them the foreign exchange reserves to purchase food and end malnourishment.

After seven and a half hours the plane landed in Zurich, and I was worried that about one hour would not be enough time to get me to the next flight. I ran across the hallway in Zurich, noticing in passing the advertisements on Swiss watches, and the pretty blonde in land costume that moved attractively in a picture motion (the Swiss have recently even attracted Korean tourists by putting a Korean women in a landed costume), and made it through security and pass check-up only to realize that the zipper on my blue handbag was completely torn out, such that I had to run with an open bag and fearing all items to jump out. When I got to the terminal, I luckily noticed that the plane was not boarding yet, and so I could buy the Evian water for 3.65 Euros, the most expensive bottle water I had ever purchased. The plane to Austria was a lot smaller, and the sky turbulence was very immediately and strongly felt inside the plane, but the flight was luckily only one hour.

I devoured the Standard newspaper, which was slightly left liberal, but a very respectable bourgeois newspaper that had cooperation agreements with the New York Times. One of the main topics discussed was the tax reform that the Social Democrats wanted to see implemented. They wanted to tax wealth, and in return reduce income taxes on labor, which was fairly high in Austria. I did not think that they would go very far with it, and the very wealthy usually found ways to avoid paying, while the workers would reluctantly but assuredly pay more taxes, because the tax authorities withdrew money from the payroll before the net wages are paid to workers.

This is the essence of every functioning state. States usually rely on taxes from labor income and sales/ or value added taxes. Tariff revenues tend to be very low due to various free trade agreements, wealth taxes do not exist, and for corporations and wealthy asset holders (capital gains), there are always various accounting tricks in order to reduce their effective tax burden. It has been the dirty secret of capitalism to externalize the cost of its production onto society, or else profits can not be realized (as Wallerstein 2009, and others point out). When taken seriously, the Austrian politicians are moving the deckchairs on the Titanic, and hoping that this is how they can save the ship. Wealth taxes would really be a great idea if it can be applied without fail.

The nice thing about landing in Vienna from Zurich was that the passport control was no longer necessary, and I could immediately pick up the luggage. I was really concerned that the luggage would not appear, because there were two different airlines involved, US Airways and Austrian Airlines, but the coordination worked really well. Once you got off the airport, you are immediately confronted with different means of transportation to get to the city center. You could take a taxi cab for 25 Euros, ride the City Airport train for 9 Euros, the bus service provided by the postal service for 8 Euros, or the local train for 2 Euros (or for free if you chose not to buy a ticket and hoping that no conductor came across you, which rarely happens). I picked the latter option. The fact that many tourists were not aware of the last and cheapest option really meant a boon for the Austrian economy, because the other higher priced options are a formidable source of tourism revenue.

I finally arrived in my old apartment, and noticed that it was really small compared to the house in Philadelphia where I live. The refrigerator was tiny. But it was good to be back again. I wandered in the streets to the supermarket, and visited a friend from the army the next day, chatting about all sorts of issues. He was a second lieutenant in the army, and we had many animating chats, so when I called him up, he promptly invited me into his apartment in the 19th floor of a tenth district apartment. On his balcony, he had a good view to Wiener Neustadt and the Stephansdom.

Right next to him is a railway station, where multiple tracks with multiple trains were parked. It is no surprise why he chose to live in this apartment. For one thing, it was close to the barrack in which he worked. In addition, he is a very passionate collector of model trains, and he led me into his room, where he had built miniature model railways, moving about by electricity. What goes into maintaining and building the model railway is a meticulous concern for detail. The lights in the train had to be right; the power towers had to be lined up straight; the asphalt and the stones had to be from real material; the inscriptions on the model wagons had to be copied exactly from the real wagon; the walls of the tunnel should be slightly crooked like in the real world; the trees should be lined up nicely etc. I had played myself with the thought of acquiring and building a model railway if I had the time and the money to do it. A lot of time could really be spent doing that activity, but I think it would be a welcome distraction from my abstract political concerns and heated discussions that I also enjoyed.

The second lieutenant certainly also enjoyed heated discussions, and even though he did not seem to possess any books in his house besides the collection of railway magazines and the German dictionary, he was as broadly educated as any person can be. In America, I always had to seek out academics to be assured of talking with a highly educated and well-informed person, even though you would also be able to find people with commonsense knowledge in America.  He was broadly informed about tax policies, labor market issues in Europe, population growth concerns, EU refugee pressures, income inequality, religion, and the human position in the universe. The conversation carried on for a full four hours, which came close to the patent lawyer I met in Philadelphia, whom I conversed with for five hours.

I think that it is somehow easier to be so well informed in Austria than it is in the US. Usually, when people try to make generalizations about countries and people, they imply that ignorance is the fault of the choices that people make, especially in the US discourse. Among Austrians there is a much clearer sense of social embeddedness. But I am really interested in how countries are different due to the institutions that make them have a certain knowledge base with which to inform their choices. In any case, my argument would be that Austrians are better informed on average than the US, because the media and education system still function better in Austria than in the US. If you abstracted away from the children cartoons, the soccer and the US entertainment shows that were shown on Austrian television, you notice that there are many more educational channels and programs than you would find in the US.

The TV station offers a lot of political and business news, and contributes more to a well-rounded knowledge and education base of the population than what you would find in the US, where the lowest common denominator yields the greatest rating and the greatest revenues. Similarly, the education system in Austria tries to impart broad and a liberal education, while in the US such an education is generally preserved for the elites (I noticed that strongly in the University of Pennsylvania, where most students were, in fact, quite inquisitive and curious, especially when I realized that their wealthy parents had sent them to expensive prep schools, as C. Wright Mills (1956) identified in his study on the power elite.) There are flaws in genuine democracy in both countries, there is no question about it, see the many corruption scandals in both countries (whereby the US has a more legal veneer about it, calling it “lobbying”). But if you judge democracies based on how well informed the general public is, I would classify Austria as a greater democracy.

Let us hope that I will be able to meet a few other fellow Austrians before my departure.

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