Saturday, June 23, 2007

Weeks of June 10-23, 2007

My family spent June 14-22 in Germany on the first real vacation we've taken together for many years. My wife travels to Dusseldorf for Ecolab regularly so we took the opportunity to all go once school got out. My wife also has some distant cousins who live in the state of Hessen (or Hesse), so we got a very good look at how regular Germans live. Here are some observations that might be interesting from a public policy viewpoint.

Transit: Wow! Compared to the United States, Germany has a higher population density, less parking, smaller streets, and higher gas prices. This creates a need for efficient transit. We never rented a car and took the train and other transit just about everywhere, except for the rural area where Michelle’s cousins live. (Even then there was a two-car tram—about the size of the Hiawatha trains—that ran about five miles away.) The main train stations in the cities served as transit hubs. You can pick up intercity rail trains (IC and ICE), suburban rail (S-bahn), subways (U-bahn), buses, trams, and even rental bikes at the station. The connections were convenient, the schedules were regular, and generally everything worked well. I realize that we can’t duplicate this system in Minnesota to the same degree, but growth and congestion are such in the Twin Cities that transit has become necessary to cope with growth and to give commuters more options. This is why I supported funding in the bonding bill for the Union Depot in St. Paul to serve as a transit hub and for the Rush Line Corridor that would run into suburban Ramsey County.

Smoking: Smoking in public places is rampant. There are no-smoking train cars and sections of restaurants, but it doesn’t matter. When I asked my daughter about the biggest difference between the U.S. and Germany, she said, “You can smell smoke inside a lot. It stinks!”

Recycling: Many of my recycling colleagues praise Germany’s Green Dot program, where manufacturers pay for costs of recycling their packaging. Coke bottles come in refillable plastic bottles and some glass and plastic containers have a deposit. In many towns, recyclable containers are put in one bag and paper is put in a rolling cart. But I was told that every town and district has a different way of organizing the program, which is a problem we have here. They do have organic curbside collection in some places, and a lot of people including my wife’s cousins have backyard composting bins. But just like the U.S., glass recycling is a problem. In highly automated recycling programs, glass breaks into small pieces and can get mixed in with the paper, causing quality programs at paper mills. So while there are deposits on some glass bottles (especially those specialized beer bottles with the attached ceramic cap and rubber seal), on the street in just about every town you can see neighborhood glass recycling containers about four or five feet tall and three or four feet wide. (We call them recycling igloos.) There are always three—one for clear, one for brown, and one for green glass. Glass containers are usually prohibited from the bags you put at your curb.

Even with the Green Dot program, my wife’s cousins pay 800 euros a year in a small town for bi-weekly garbage and monthly recycling—ouch! That’s about $1,220 a year. In Shoreview I pay about $27 a year for recycling and about $240 a year for weekly garbage, which includes a 9.75% state Solid Waste Management Tax and a 31% County Environmental Charge.

Energy: In the state of Hessen in the middle of the country, electricity costs about 20 euro cents per kilowatt-hour, or about $0.20. Our cost is about half that. There is an incentive or subsidy program for homeowners to install solar panels to heat their water, and you will see small panels about 2’ by 3’ on some roofs. Windmills are everywhere in the country, with usually six to eight of them together on hillsides. In my wife's relatives' houses in a small rural town, they use fuel oil for heat, and the fuel tanks are in the basement of the house! The tanks are rigid plastic totes, like ones we use in the U.S. for storage and transportation of chemicals. Ours--which are steel--are underground.

Hunting: Having served on the Environment & Natural Resources Committee in the House, I’ve learned a lot about hunting regulations in Minnesota. In Germany it is a whole other ballgame! My wife’s second cousin is what I would call “the town hunter.” My wife’s cousin took me on a tour of his area to show me his hunting blind so I peppered him with questions about the rules. He lives in a rural area in a town of 300 people. Although the different German states have slightly different regulations based on when the hunting season starts, the general hunting laws are the same. In Minnesota, to hunt on someone’s farmland you just need to ask permission. In Germany, one person gets the hunting “franchise” through a lease on local farmland. He works this out with the local farmers, who get some revenue from the franchise. No one else can hunt in this franchise area without the permission of the hunter who has the lease. He hunts mainly wild boar, which breed twice a year with about five or six young to a litter. He is financially liable for any damage to crops in his area by wild game. To be eligible to be a hunter, you must go through a one-year training program and a rigorous written examination.

There is a two-gun limit on ownership of handguns. (I found a Canadian report at on German firearms regulations.)

Agriculture: It is interesting to see all over the country how diversified the crops are on local farms. You won’t see huge plots of one crop like corns and soybeans in Minnesota. You’ll see wheat, rapeseed, and corn in plots of about ten acres each or so.

Early childhood: I went with Michelle’s cousin to pick up his four-year old grandson at a pre-school—they call it kindergarten. Kindergarten in Germany is not connected to a primary school as it is in the U.S. It is for children from age three to six and they are all in the same classroom. The idea is that the younger children learn from the older children. The teacher to student ratio is roughly the same as in Minnesota—or about 1 teacher for about seven to ten kids. The four-year old cousin likes Sponge Bob and his other German cousins like Bob der Baumeister (Bob the Builder)!

Other public education: My kids had the chance to attend a primary school class where my wife’s cousin teaches. The kids were 10 years old and were taking their first year of English language. (English is required!) My daughter and son got to teach a bit, showing postcards of Minnesota and talking about basic stuff like colors, numbers, etc. My daughter observed that kids get called on my raising their hand up with the index finger up only. The class was about 25 students. My wife’s cousin will teach the same class over the course of four years (about 1st through 4th grade in our system) and then start over. The kids were also taking a bike safety class from a police officer. The school has a bike course that was a mini-version of the street set-up at the MnDOT licensing station in Arden Hills off of County Road I.

By the time students in Germany get to what we call middle school, they get tracked into one of three systems to prepare them for life. At the lowest level, they get tracked for vocational education and at the highest they are tracked for the university. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either an important way to create job security or a very constraining system that limits your choices.

Taxes: All Germans have to pay a “church tax.” You can pick which church you want it to go to, but this is something that takes many Americans aback.

Booster seats: All kids up to age 10 have to sit in booster seats in a car. One cab we rode in had seat cushions that popped up.