Tuesday, 19 December 2017

A Change Is Not As Good As A Rest

My Mum always says that a change is as good as a rest.  She's right on almost everything but on this one she's flat out wrong. The only thing that is as good as a rest is a rest.  I've done the experiment and I've crunched the numbers and I can hereby report with scientific clarity that the only thing that is as good as a rest is another rest.  Having said that, change is sometimes good.   As it's nearly Christmas, I wanted to write a positive post about change.  This is a politics blog so I thought I'd describe some of the things that I think are positive about daily life here in Switzerland to see if anyone would like to import them to a future iScotland.  I'm not talking about really big, top-down economic decisions like interest rates or fiscal policy but more the kind of bottom-up policy choices that have a direct effect on life quality and can actually change the mood and timbre of a society.   I'm just going to go through a few things that seemed a bit weird when I first moved to Zurich but now seem as normal as a giant bar of Toblerone.  What do you all think?  Would any of these improve life in iScotland?
A typical breakfast in Zurich.
I pay less rent today than I did eight years ago when I moved in to my flat.  There are very strict rules imposed on landlords here in Zurich that limit their power to increase the rent.  The monthly rent on all flats is tied to the interest rate set by the Swiss Central Bank.  If the interest rates remain persistent for a fixed time above the rate on the date I moved in, the landlord is allowed to increase the rent according to a formula.  Similarly, the tenant wins if the rates go down and stay that way.  Interest rates have plummeted since 2009 so at the moment I'm very much a winner.  If I moved out of the flat the landlord would be able to strike a new monthly rent (with some caveats to that) but I'm certainly not going to leave for as long as it effectively gets cheaper month by month.  My landlord might be cursing my inertia but there's not much they can do about it because renters have persistent rights of residence: they can only kick me out if I stop paying the rent or the building is demolished.   The world of renting is actually a world of strict rules.   For example, everything in the flat from windows to wall paint has a value and a lifetime, meaning that when I move out the landlord can only claim damages out of my deposit by applying a mathematical formula.  Paint has a lifetime of 8 years so the walls that were freshly painted in 2009 now have zero value and I can't be held financially responsible for fixing up the tiny scrapes and marks that built up over the years.  There are strict rules about moving out on certain days, notice periods for improvements, responsibilities for internal and external pipes and so on.  These rules strike a balance between landlord and tenant.  My view is that they generally favour the rights of the tenant by providing stability and a legal set of standards and responsibilities.  Sometimes rules turn out to be a good idea.


Pretty much everyone in Zurich rents their flat.  As I already pointed out, renting comes with all sorts of legal protections that make it a generally good experience.  It has to be pointed out, though, that ownership is beyond most people's pockets. I'm in the amazingly lucky position that I probably could go out and buy a place but I've so far opted not to do that.  Why, then, am I not a property magnate?  Well, property ownership comes with a significant tax burden.  I would have to pay tax on the theoretical income I would earn if  I rented out the property, even if I chose to live in it myself.  Also, if I chose to sell the flat within 10 years of purchasing it I would be hit with a tax bill that would wipe out any profit I might have made.  Ownership just isn't the no-brainer that it is in the UK.  I believe that changes society for the better because it means that most Swiss people are not obsessed with house prices, they're not saddled with stressful debt, they don't spent public holidays at the DIY store (more of that later), and they have more spare time and money to do other activities (more of that later, too).

The first two German words everyone masters: "Sonntag" and "Geschlossen"
In Switzerland, if your last lightbulb blows on Saturday night you'll be sitting in the dark until Monday morning.  That's right, everything is shut on Sunday.  I'll be honest, this took a bit of getting used to but now I think it is a great idea.  Scotland was actually a trailblazer on Sunday shopping but I now think it was a terrible move.  It's a really great idea to save up one day for something special, something free from commercial stress.  On Sundays what you see is Swiss people going out for leisurely strolls in the woods,  families out roller-skating on the national roller-skating paths, cyclists huffing and puffing up and down hills, people on their balconies reading a book or playing a board game, and pensioners going for a boat trip on the lake.  I quite often go for a cycle into the weird and wonderful countryside and I'll tell you now that without doing that I wouldn't have known about the strange ceremony where they dress the cows up all pretty with flowers and bring them down to the lower winter pastures.  The DIY centre is most definitely not open for business and, anyway, bathroom grouting is the landlord's responsibility.

You should see what they do to the chickens!
Those Swiss are obsessed with recycling.  As a consequence, I'm now obsessed with recycling. The binmen will only take rubbish away if it is in a special sack that costs about £1.50.  That is a lot of money for a solitary bin bag but we need to remember that it does include the price of collecting and managing the rubbish it contains.  On the other hand, recycling is free so it pays to recycle rather than chuck it straight in the bin.  There are collection points for textiles, batteries, aluminium, cardboard, paint, paper, and even water filters.  Every year the council sends everyone a little magazine with the collection calendar, a map of all the collection points and information about how to protect the environment. There's even a special cargo tram that travels around the city to collect larger items of rubbish so as long as you can get it to a tram stop, you can recycle it without needing a car (more of that later).

Mobile recycling centre.
I recently read an economic report that tried to explain Germany's unexpectedly low GDP per capita.  I wish I could find the link but a summary might be that Germany has a lot of shared wealth that doesn't show up in direct measurements.   German wealth isn't just the sum of individual wealth because huge amounts of national wealth are tied up in shared resources like trains and trams and roads and theatres and opera houses.  You can be relatively poor in Germany but lead the life of a rich person in another country because you have access to all sorts of facilities and resources that would either be expensive or just not exist elsewhere.  Personally, I don't mind paying tax if I can see the benefits all around me.  Here in Zurich, I do see the benefits on a daily basis.  The tram network didn't just magically appear, the workers painting and cleaning public spaces don't do it for free, and the opera house renovation wasn't an automatic transformation.  There is nothing sadder than a dilapidated public space or a bus timetable pinned to the bus stop that is 3 years out of date or a swirling mess of discarded crisp bags blowing around George Square. Public spaces and resources are what bind us all together.  Without them, society is just people sitting at home watching enormous TVs.

George Square will never match Odeonsplatz, Munich but does it have to look quite so unloved?
I really don't like cars.  They clog up the roads, spew out all manner of pollutants, and knock people down all the time. Why not build an ever-expanding network of trams and electric buses and trains?  Travelling on public transport around Switzerland and Germany and Austria is a pleasure rather than a chore.  I never have to wait long and it's generally punctual and clean.  Cars, on the other hand, are expensive to own due to targeted taxes. We don't need to wait for autonomous cars to solve our traffic problems because we already have the solution in the form of buses and trains and trams.  Let's have more of them.

One of the saddest sights in the developed world.
One thing I've noticed in the German-speaking world is that they take the countryside very seriously indeed.  That includes everything from litter to clean rivers to strict planning restrictions.  One of the saddest sights in Scotland is to see litter by the roadside or an ostentatious house planted where there ought to be an unspoiled view.  I have no idea how to change social attitudes but it is the case that drink driving used to be just about acceptable and now it is a massive taboo.

The equivalent of council tax here is called Community TaxThis is a progressive taxation levied on income.  Let's compare that with the weird UK system of levying a fixed charge on the inhabitants of a property rather than the owner.  Which sounds fairer? My community is Zurich City so I probably live in one of the largest communities in the country.  At the other end of the spectrum, some communities are just a hamlet and a few chickens.  All of that means that a village in the back of beyond has more autonomy than the Scottish Parliament, which has been hilariously described as "the most powerful devolved parliament in the world".  In addition to progressive taxation, I also pay wealth tax.  If I own a lot of assets or  hold a lot of cash I need to pay tax on them.  I'd hardly describe Switzerland as a hotbed of radical socialism but in many ways its tax system is far more egalitarian than in the UK.   One last thing is that the UK typically has 3 or 4 income tax bands.  That might have made sense in the days of ledgers and quills but we have computers now.  Swiss federal tax, for example, has about 12 tax bands so getting a moderate pay rise doesn't suddenly lift you from 20% to 40% tax.

Long-term unemployment is a genuine tragedy in any country.   Short-term unemployment, however, is pretty much a necessity in a dynamic economy because companies that can no longer compete should be replaced with newer ones better equipped for the changing times.  Before anyone yells at me, I've worked for enough failed companies in my time to know that it pays to keep your curriculum vitae up to date.  Given that short-term unemployment is a constant factor in a dynamic economy it ought not be something to fear.  In the UK, sadly, it is something to fear because family income levels fall off a cliff after transitioning from paid work to unemployment benefit.  That's a shame because governments ought to be encouraging workers to take risks in new fields and businesses.  The benefits system actually encourages a sclerotic economy by punishing anyone who dares to take a risk on anything that doesn't maximise income stability.  In many other countries, however, short-term unemployment is an annoyance rather than a fear because unemployment income levels are pegged to employed salary rather than to a fixed rate.  If I lose my job I will qualify for 18 months of employment insurance that will pay 70% of my current salary.  I can't remember the exact details but I think that is capped at 100,000CHF (around £70k).  For most people, life will go along as normal.  Perhaps there will be fewer holidays and meals out but the basic necessities will be covered.  After 18 months, though, the credit will run out and anyone still unemployed will be pushed on to the Social Help Programme.  That is when the social safety net of long-term unemployment kicks in.  The council will allot me a place to live and provide for me in a way that meets the constitutional requirement of being able to participate in society.   I honestly don't want to end up there because although I won't go hungry or homeless, I will lose autonomy over my own financial decisions.  I have to say that I sometimes think the long-term unemployed are a little bit neglected.  By that I mean that the state no longer really makes real demands on them to look for a job or provides much help to achieve that goal.  It feels a bit like they've given up on them and will now make sure they don't cause a nuisance (more of that later).  Despite that, it's still better than a food bank.

Drive-thru "entertainment" chalets.  Not sure if there is a Macdonalds at the end of the road.
Switzerland is a very pragmatic place.  Some might even say that it takes utilitarian decisions.  Let me explain.  Drugs policy here is really quite liberal but in some ways it mirrors the long-term  unemployment strategy.  If you're a heroin addict you can go to a treatment centre where they will give you actual heroin under the condition that you must take it there and then.  The idea here is to stop the associated criminality rather than the addiction.  There's no need for drug addicts to break into houses to fund their habit and there are no opportunities for dealers to build a business because the state has undercut them. The same sort of thinking lies behind Zurich's approach to prostitution.  They took the view that they can't stop it happening but they can limit the associated criminality by effectively acting as bordello managers.  There is even a drive-thru facility run by the council. This would never happen in the UK because dogmatism would trump pragmatism.  There's an argument that the state shouldn't act as drug dealer but the counter argument is that people who aren't addicts shouldn't have their lives blighted by it.  After all, it's not as though the dangers of drugs are a state secret. There's also an argument that it would be better if sex workers had better opportunities but then again there is also an argument that they shouldn't be beaten up at work or have their money stolen off them or trafficked.  I tend to favour the pragmatic approach.  Certainly, if you wander around Zurich city centre in the summer you'll smell the sweet and smoky aroma of, erm, pragmatism.

I unwittingly ate my sandwiches at the Zurich heroin amnesty park when inter-railing in the late 80s.  
Switzerland is a land of small, local government.  It's not just that they take pride in being organised but that they also work at scales that allow them to be organised.  Local decisions are made by local people who understand local needs. If something breaks, the chain of responsibility involved to get it fixed is mercifully short.  There is also competition between all of the communities and cantons.  They all need to organise themselves so that they maintain population and income and to do that they need to find the right balance of services and taxation.  It makes for a kind of mini market place in decision making.  Policy changes that work out for the best can be replicated by neighbouring communities and cantons, while failed experiments (like the late 80s drugs amnesty park opposite  Zurich main station) can be quietly abandoned.  It's important to note that the federal government controls the border, the army and the currency but not really much else.  Someone tell that to Gordon Brown.

Switzerland is not a paradise. It has plenty of pros but also plenty of cons.  I'm lucky to live in a community with a red-green coalition but life might be quite different in some of the more conservative rural areas where they prefer their own cows to strangers from the next village. They won't tell you to get back to your own village but once you've gone they will definitely mutter something about how the people of Unterschoeneggli are not as upstanding as the villagers of Oberschoeneggli.

Would any of these ideas make iScotland a better place?  Would they make sense in Scotland at all? What kind of bottom-up policy changes would make Scotland function better?

Yours Aye,

Terry



15 comments:

  1. Fascinating insight. Thanks Terry.

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  2. Absolutely fascinating, Terry. I actually thought some time ago to ask you what life was really like there. The only other person I know who lives there is immensely rich and so probably hasn't a clue what life is really like.

    Will comment tonight on what I think we could import... a great deal of it, I suspect.

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    1. How I wish I was immensely rich. A lovely house by the lake, popping round to Tina Turner's house for a morning coffee, afternoon cakes at The Dolder Grand, then home in the limo and straight into silk pyjamas and smoking jacket all freshly ironed by my house staff.

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    2. Aye, me too. Not so keen on silk pjs though... I'm really not very sophisticated!

      Well, anyway, much of what Switzerland is about seems to me to be incredibly sensible.

      But to have such sensible policies, it seems that you need quite a mature society. And probably more trustworthy politicians than we have. Letting people make decisions through referenda is fine, but they need to be informed... of ALL the pros and cons.

      For a long time I have despaired at the cut off when someone becomes unemployed for whatever reason. OK, if it's redundancy there can be some small cushion to fall on, but if not, they suddenly have to drastically reduce their standard of living.

      There used to be, I'm told, an earnings related supplement (for 6 months) but Mrs Thatcher did away with it, I suspect because she thought it encouraged people to take advantage of the government's largess.

      Most European countries have this help so that you don't have to sell the car, and stop the kids judo lessons if you are out of work for three months.

      Sensible too the idea of providing addicts with what they need, undercutting the criminal sale of drugs. It's always controversial here because people say it is encouraging people to take drugs. Nonsense, of course. We provide them with a heroin substitute (methadone) which is much less effective, so they still go looking for a top up.

      Edinburgh did, I think, for a while, have supervised brothels. This is a pragmatic approach to something which will never go away. Don't they call it the oldest profession?

      No, women shouldn't have to do that to make a living, of course, but they do. Even in sensible countries. So, rather like drugs, why not make it legal, supervised and safer.

      I think our Council Tax is ridiculous.

      People who are paying only a few pounds a month in income tax have bills of £70 a month for council services.

      It's hardly fair. The Swiss model sounds far better.

      I used to welcome the relaxation of the Sunday laws, to tightly controlled, presumably by the Church. I'm not sure but I think that the Western Isles still have this kind of thing. You're supposed to read the Bible on Sunday!

      Now, for me, to have my life regulated in any way by any religion is anathema. But I can amuse myself with a walk in the country, wherte many (including those for whom the country is a long way away) probably need some other form of relaxation... café, restaurant, pub, cinema, swimming baths, gym... etc. Obviously hospitals, care homes, etc would have to operate.

      I'm not sure how that would work here.

      As for buying houses... I have a German friend who was simply stunned at the idea that people on low wages with uncertain jobs would ever borrow massive sums... years' salary, to buy a house... and accept all the costs that go with it. It's utter madness, but again, Mrs Thatcher wanted a property owning society, presumably because if you are tied to massive debt, you are much less likely to strike, no matter what they do to you.

      So in summary, I'd be quite happy to import almost all of Switzerland's policies. I think most of them would probably work rather well.

      Of course, it would be an idea to look too, at how other sensible countries operate... Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Greenland... and so on. Maybe they have ideas we could adopt too.

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    3. I also welcomed the relaxation on Sunday shopping. The thing is that if shops are open and I've run out of something I would always pop out to the shops. Having everything closed means that isn't an option. Nowadays I end up making plans for Sunday (a walk or a cycle or just playing the ukulele). I never used to do that. It has quite literally changed my habits.

      I wouldn't say that people here are religious. The Sunday closing is as much social as it is religious. I forgot to say that the main train station has some shops underneath it that are open on Sunday.

      I didn't mention the downsides, of course, because it's xmas. I've heard the childcare is exorbitant. And healthcare is by obligatory insurance and not cheap. My limited experience is that it is excellent but so it should be at the cost. Paternity and maternity leave is quite limited, too. I think Sweden would win on many counts.

      For me the really big positives are environmental. Switzerland has clean rivers because they made policy choices to ensure that outcome.

      I've never owned silk pyjamas. They always seem to me like the height of moneyed decadence.

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    4. I've a mate who has just done his masters in Sweden. He tells me that compared with here or Hungary, whence he originates, life is just so easy, because everything is superbly organised and runs like...clockwork (can you say that any more?)

      But Iceland also appeals, democracy seems to work very well there.

      What does one do in Switzerland if one can't afford the health insurance? Is there a medicaid kind of thing going on.

      If I win the lottery, I'll send you the money for silk pjs!

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    5. The state provides subsidies to ensure that no more than 10% of income is spent on health insurance. There isn't an official minimum wage but there still remains a sense of a social contract that ensures very few earn less than 20CHF per hour. Tax rates at that level of income are very, very low. That might sound a lot but cost of living here is high. An income of less than 3500CHF would be a serious struggle in central Zurich but possible with a commute. I think the trade unions aim for a 4k monthly income. For anyone on the social help programme, I think the state chooses an insurer for you and pays for it. Having health insurance is a constitutional requirement so it needs to remain somehow affordable.

      Iceland in summer appeals hugely but the long, dark winter might put me off. It is certainly known for its progressive policies.

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  3. LOL Hugh.

    I heard that someone (one of our) asked Maybot a question about injecting rooms at PMQs. No idea what the question or answer was but it seems to indicate that it's being considered.

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    1. That does sound positive. How many years of the same failing policy does the UK need to realise it isn't working? The Scottish government has done all sorts of things that are actually quite experimental. The minimum drinks prices springs to mind, as does the named person policy. It's a good idea to experiment with policy as long as there is an a priori measure of success.

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  4. What's your thoughts on the gun culture Terry? I've often wondered if a "well regulated militia" system could work in Scotland...

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    1. That is a fantastic question. The gun culture is perhaps the biggest culture shock for outsiders like me.

      Guns are tightly regulated here, as everything is. Anyone finished with their military service can keep a gun but the ammunition is strictly rationed. That means that there are potentially a lot of guns but hopefully not so many bullets.

      The biggest problem with guns is suicide. It's actually quite a high rate. Then there are shootings now and then. There have been a few serious incidents in the time I was here. Someone shot a few people at a lumber yard in Lucerne and someone shot their family dead in a village about 15 minutes by train from Zurich. Quite grisly, really. It's most definitely not like America where you can carry a gun around, though. That is definitely not allowed unless on the way to and from a shooting range. I would guess there are strict regulations about disarming the weapon and stuff like that.

      A colleague explained to me that gun ownership is allowed so that the people can't be oppressed by the armed police. I would guess that is a moot point today because not that many people keep a gun at home, especially not in the cities. I honestly don't know why they don't just disarm the police.

      Switzerland is a very, very regulated country and also very organised with enforcing those regulations. It is also very peaceful with an enviably low crime rate. That creates a situation where I don't worry too much about gun crime. Having tried to get Glasgow City Council to collect a fridge, I don't personally like the idea of it trying to enforce gun regulation with the kinds of headbangers that take knives to nightclubs. Personally, I don't see an argument for gun ownership unless the police are routinely armed.

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  5. "But to have such sensible policies, it seems that you need quite a mature society."
    Could it be that devolving nearly everything to local communities brings about a high level of maturity and engagement?
    Of course sharing resources and responsibilities for infrastructure is beneficial. How does it work out, the dynamic between competition and cooperation? Seems that learning from each other is good.
    So often local government is seen as the poor relation but it's key to quality of life.

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    1. Could it be that devolving nearly everything to local communities brings about a high level of maturity and engagement?

      Yes, I think that is the case.

      How does it work out, the dynamic between competition and cooperation?

      Cantons and communities can compete on tax but they also need to compete on services so that people want to live there. If something works in one Canton, its neighbours might try to adopt that policy to make sure they don't fall behind.

      Cooperation between Cantons is a thorny issue. Until the 80s the ambulance service wasn't even integrated between neighbouring Cantons. That's not the case today but I'm sure there remain some areas where integration remains poor. In some ways the Federal government is starting to do more. Swiss citizenship, for example, used to be the responsibility of Cantons but now that has been standardised at Federal level.

      Local government is indeed the key to quality of life. A decision about a tram line is probably going to have as much impact on my day to day existence as a national government policy on cheese labelling.


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