I spent a day of orientation here in Göttingen. The afternoon was about what's going on right now in German politics and such. Very interesting. The Fulbrighters here are not a uniform group and so there were various fairly obvious hints at different political positions in the room. I continue to consider myself a centrist, although if I were a German I suspect they would consider me somewhat right of center.
You might find the rundown interesting. Here they have 20% sales tax. 43% of the Gross Domestic Product is in the state sector, which I think means that almost half of the jobs (in terms of money) are state related (of course university professors are usually employees of the state here--and students go to university for free). The large taxes thus come back in free education and free health care. Parents of unmarried children under 25 also get 6000 Euros per child back from their taxes. The population is declining, so this is also partly meant to motivate having children.
The leader of the session this morning mentioned that most Germans do not want less taxes as long as Germany has such high debt. They also feel a sense of corporate responsibility that everyone have health care, although they also recognize the importance of motivating individuals to work rather than live off the system (the leader suggested there are perhaps a million people in Germany who are content simply to live off the social safety net).
A great number of changes have gone into effect in recent years. They are tending to abolish the old system that sent budding auto mechanics to loser school. They have broken their college system down into something the rest of the world can understand (with bachelor's and master's degrees). They are ramping up how much work university students are expected to do (it used to be very leisurely indeed, taking up to 7 or 8 years). Younger age schools are increasingly going to a full day as opposed to the old half day and come home at 1 to mama.
Obama enjoys a 75% approval rating in Europe in general in terms of his foreign policy (80 something percent in Germany). While many Germans don't want to bail out Greece (much as many Americans opposed the TARP bailouts), the leader of the presentation thought it was inevitable that the EU would navigate a way through the crisis, for the sake of an EU that eventually was something like the United States of Europe. His hunch was that much of the debt in places like Greece, Italy, and Spain would be forgiven in return from some budgetary control and restructuring of their economic system.
I was not aware that I was coming at such an interesting time of change in Germany. Just this past summer, Germany did away with compulsory military service. Just this past summer, Germany switched from 9 year higher school (13 grades) to 8 years (12 grades like ours).
There are of course all the usual German funnities. They are massively into recycling (e.g., paper, organic, the rest) and we have three trash cans to separate things. But the truth is, the city people have sophisticated machines that separate it anyway. All the stuff from the houses is poured together in the truck. ;-) It's just a cultural reminder (and profit to the people who sell the different cans) to have individual households continue to separate.
Pets are taxed, but are allowed in restaurants. There was a court ruling that stated that noise was a natural phenomenon from children. It is thus against the law to complain too much about how loud children are. Interesting comments on how views on balanced budgets and debt levels relate to growing economies. It was mentioned that Japanese debt is 200% of GDP... and that the Yen continues to grow in value. ;-)
It would be nice if people in countries like the US could go abroad to places like England and Germany for a bit. Germans who resent America usually soften when they come to the States and see what it's really like. By the same token, I suspect a lot of popular feeling in America on a host of issues would soften if we just got out a little bit more.