Observations in Vienna

After having lived in Vienna for about a week, I can make some observations about what life has been like here. The first observation is that the welfare state is simply functioning much better in here, ranging from universal health care to free higher education to good and efficient public transportation.

I noticed that wherever I was in Vienna, it only took me about half an hour to get home, because the public transportation system is so well connected to each other, and it never took more than five minutes to get the next subway, tram or bus. It is not surprising that many people in Austria have so much trust in the system, because it was reliable and took care of them. This is, by no means, perfect, as the edited volume of Gehler and Sickinger (2007) on the history of political scandals point out. But these are really luxury problems if you consider that people in poor countries have even more corrupt leaders and institutions.

The  climate is much milder in Vienna than in Philadelphia, though there are some hot days in here as well. They usually are dry and do not involve much humidity, so you can more easily take it than in Philadelphia, where it is usually both hot and humid. But one crucial difference is that no matter how hot it is, the Austrians usually do not own air conditioners, either in private residential buildings or in public buildings, the library, the museum, the school etc. The new public transportation wagons do have air conditioning, so it takes time to implement. On the one hand, it is really advisable to not have air conditioning because it tends to accelerate climate change problems, and it costs a lot of energy. On the other hand, humans prefer comfort, and air conditioning is absolutely essential to make it through hot days, which is my experience in the US, where no one spares air conditioning during the summer time.

As a social scientist, the most fun observation are the people. Just like in any other major city, most people in Vienna are part of what Elijah Anderson (2012) referred to as the “cosmopolitan canopy”, i.e. a crowded public space in a major city, where people from different backgrounds treat each other with ignorance or some friendliness if there happens to be some interaction. It would otherwise not be possible to make it through the city. Everyone is chasing his own activities during the day. I do enjoy, however, any conversation that comes along. I was addressed by three Chinese women, two of which in the restaurant. They were always very delighted to meet another Chinese person, who spoke their language.

One woman met me on the street, asking for directions in Chinese, and I was able to show her the way with my broken Mandarin, but I was always curious to engage people in conversation and asked them about where they come from, what they work, and what their daily plans were. The Chinese were fairly chatty, except this one Chinese guy, who worked in a Schnitzel place and declined to speak in Chinese, when I addressed him in Chinese. If he is not the owner of the store, he must have feared negative repercussions from his employer. In the China restaurant, where we ate a buffet today it was not a major problem, and I was able to find out about a waitress that she was from Xiamen and worked in a China restaurant owned by Hakkas from India.

I had also noticed that some of the Chinese people, particularly in the first generation, looked very intently at me, when I walked past by them. I did the same thing, though this was usually no issue in America. I suppose the difference was the number. In China, my Chinese face would not matter to anybody, and I would be considered a part of the society until, of course, I showed my passport and started to open my mouth. In Philadelphia, there were quite a lot of Asian people, especially around the university. In Austria, there are no more than 15,000 Chinese, and according to a dossier (Zhao 2010) the number of people from China acquiring Austrian citizenship had peaked in 2001 and decreased ever since. Opportunities in China are improving, but the Austrian government has also tightened laws on fake marriages for migration purposes.

I also used the opportunity to have conversations with native Austrians, and I noticed that it was usually harder to strike up a conversation with Austrians than with Americans. Americans seem to have a more carefree and open-minded nature, when it came to communicating with other people, and that might have to do with the fact that it is an immigrant nation, where communicating with strangers had been essential to meet personal needs, at least during the early days. The very reluctance to have conversations with strangers, of course, did not translate to reticence among personal friends, because they were chatty and open to their friends.

In terms of educational levels, I would generally say that the average Austrians seem to be more knowledgeable about the world than the average American. Here I really don’t care about the formal level of education that somebody has, because more Americans have a bachelors degree than Austrians, who overall seem to be less driven to pursue their degrees, and are more aimless in their future career options than American students, who are suffering from crushing student debt. The reason for the greater knowledge among average Austrians has little to do with the intrinsic motivation for education among Austrians either, because following Alexis de Tocqueville (2006), it might even be more accurate to describe Europeans as less civically activist than Americans, in part thanks to the generous welfare state here, which leads people in Austria to be less ambitious than Americans.

My explanation for Austrian’s comparative advantage in knowledge has to do with the combination of the education and the media system. In America, it is not taken for granted to be so well-informed, because there is a very distracting mass media, and I am not talking about cartoons, sports and other diversions, but about mainstream news media channels that either deliver clearly biased political information or treats them very shortly and mostly from a US perspective. The small bourgeoisie in the US that is usually well-informed and very cosmopolitan knows that they have to read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the British Economist magazine, but there is no vehicle to inform the mass public in the same way.

In Austria, there is a broad diversity of newspapers, who deliver pretty comprehensive information on world events. There is a publicly financed media that delivers fairly reliable and comprehensive news coverage.  The educational system broadly informs students about social sciences, languages, natural sciences, computer science etc. In the US, there is also a public education system, but there is a significant amount of segregation between rich and poor, such that the poor are virtually excluded from contemplating relevant and broader social issues. This is an irony in America that presents itself as a free and democratic society to care so little about educating its public. One has the notion that the oligarchy is more powerful in the US, because the general public is less likely to be well informed about the issues, or at least mis-informed. “As long as people are quiet, passive, controlled there is no problem”, as Noam Chomsky (2011) described the prevailing mood among the ruling elite.

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