Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Euros and Non-Cents

Freiburg has an efficient streetcar system that operates until late in the night. After 1 a.m. hourly buses bearing names of planets starting from Bertoldsbrunnen take over carrying night owls home into the suburbs.

Stopping point Bertoldsbrunnen. During the night instead of streetcars 3 and 5
the Merkur and Pluto busses are operating (Photo BZ)
The following story somewhat late for the Sommerloch (silly season) is presently exciting the Freiburgers. The other night a girl of seventeen partying downtown was late for the last streetcar. When she mounted the 1.11 a.m. Merkur bus she handed the driver a two euro piece, three ten cent and ten two cent coins to make up for the total fare of 2.50 euros. The driver simply refused to take the money saying: His service regulations only allow him to take five copper coins for one ticket. He started the engine, shut the door, and left the girl behind who called home for transport. Her father was not amused and in making the story public set off an avalanche.

Euro copper coins are only copper plated iron coins.
This likely is a German invention when in the 1960ies the value of the copper
of the pfennigs became higher than the value of the coin. So all copper coins
were little by little replaced with coins made out of a copper-iron sandwich (Photo BZ).
Since then there is not one day with more details in the Badische Zeitung (BZ). The spokesman of the local transport company (VAG) read from the conditions of carriage: The personnel is not obliged to change bills of more than 10 euros or to accept one and two cent coins adding up to more than 10 cents. I admire how in my country even the slightest details are regulated.

Today a law professor said: In principle a handful of euro coins is legal tender in Germany like euro bills although article 11 of the minting law stipulates that nobody is obliged to take more than 50 coins in one financial transaction. However, the VAG have a conveyance obligation and thus cannot choose their clients. Therefore the VAG is not allowed to apply stricter rules in their conditions of carriage than in the minting law. Hence, the girl was refused transport contrary to the law.

Une querelle d’Allemand is on again. With interest I am already looking forward to the letters to the editor in my favourite newspaper.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


Ein Gespenst geht um in Deutschland, das Gespenst der Altersarmut (A specter is haunting Germany, the specter of old-age poverty). Marx may not pardon me, but I could not find a better introduction to another chapter of German angst: Altersarmut. Admire the efficiency of the German language expressing all that misery just in one word what in English is translated possibly best into poverty among the elderly. I am sure Altersarmut will be elected Germany's Unwort 2012, the ugliest word of the year.

Germany's age pyramid in 1911
It is obvious and had been known for a long time that in the future, fewer young earners have to support more old-age pensioners. Just look at Germany's age pyramid. What in 1911 looked like the top of a fur tree now resembles a mushroom.

Germany's age pyramid in 2011
It was Bismarck who had pushed for a social security system in Germany in the late 1880ies, not because he pitied the misery of the working class, but he tried to cut the ground from under the socialists' feet. Germany's old-age pension is based on the so-called generation treaty, i.e., the young are paying into the system financing the pensions for the retired. This works fine in case the age structure shows a natural evolution but who envisaged that people now live longer than in the past (increasing the cost for medicare by the way) and that young couples have fewer children than our grandparents. I still remember discussions in Germany during my adolescent years about how to finance future social security benefits because of the people lost during the last war, not contributing to the system. When looking at today's age pyramid, you will still notice a dent for the period in question, but that is nothing compared with the distorted present-day age structure.

To better balance the social security system, our government had introduced two palliative measures a few years ago: lowering the level of pensions from 50% of the average income to 43% until the year 2030 and increasing the age of retirement from 65 to 67 years during the same period. My organization had forced me like everybody else in the house to retire at the age of 65. I still remember my American friends shaking their heads when learning that. One of them even said that he cannot afford retirement for his institute had invested their pension fund in stocks that had lost money and so his pension had.

In Germany, in the past years, people were urged to put part of their earned money into private old-age insurance. Like in Switzerland nowadays, our system is based on three pillars (as they call it) legally bound, occupational, and private insurance. However, with the presently low-interest rates people see their financial efforts made to assure them decent pensions melting down with low-interest rates and inflation. On the other hand, many persons had low earnings at times or were even unemployed during their working life. They will face mini pensions or even Altersarmut.

A few weeks ago, our Christian Democrat federal minister for social affairs forwarded an old idea in breaking the rule that in Germany pensions mirror your financial contributions. She proposed toping up all mini pensions to a level that people can survive on taking money from the social security system. It is true that presently, the system has a surplus, but what will happen (and it happened in the past) if the social security fund gets into the red? Taxpayer's money will then fill the deficit, meaning that again the working young people will support the old. The head of the opposition Social Democratic Party said: Let us not take the hidden detour proposed by the minister but use taxpayer's money right away to guarantee everybody a survival pension. Since the difference between the government and the opposition was only marginal, an agreement could have been found, but the trade unions did not agree. They requested to increase the level of pensions to the original 50% of the average income in combination with the age of retirement lowered again to 65.  In returning to square minus one (!), they did not specify how to finance their proposal.

You can turn it around as long as you wish: the battle of generations for the share of wealth will become harder. Our grandchildren will have to work longer to meet both ends, some until they kick the bucket. Already now, more people following their retirement continue to work or take up new occupations in Germany than our government is willing to admit. Why don't they just tell us the truth? Again, it is the usual Volksverdummung (brainwashing) of the voters.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Basler Hof

The Basler Hof today viewed from Kaiser-Joseph-Straße.
The second guided tour organized by the Badische Zeitung last week concerned the Basler Hof. More than 140 people wanted to listen to the explanations of a former resident Dr. Sven von Ungern-Sternberg, who had been the district president of southern Baden from 1998 to 2007.

Dr. Sven von Ungern-Sternberg welcoming the crowd (Photo BZ).
The Basler Hof is one of Freiburg's historical landmarks. From 1480 on Kaiser Maximilian's chancellor Konrad Stürtzel had bought seven plots of land at the Große Gaß (today's Kaiser-Joseph-Straße) and had his city residence built there in the years 1494 to 1496. These plots had the original size of 100 times 50 feet as defined by the Dukes of Zähringen and been issued to the first settlers in Freiburg against a yearly rent of 12 Pfennig due at St. Martin's (11 November). Stürzel could afford to build the palace for he was a rich man lending - like the Fuggers in Augsburg - money to the Habsburgs.

Emperor Maximilian always in quest for money watching the visitors.
At the end of the 16th century, the building became the home of the chapter of the Basel cathedral. Already in 1529, the capitulars had fled the Reformation in Basel into Catholic Freiburg, but only in 1587 acquired the Basler Hof. When Louis XVI's troops occupied Freiburg in 1677 and made it a French city, they deprived the chapter of their financial resources such that the capitulars moved to Switzerland (Arlesheim). Following Freiburg's restitution to the Habsburgs in 1697, the Austrian administration used the building.

German double eagle with Austrian Bindenschild red-white-red
and Order of the Golden Fleece.
Stucco at the ceiling of the district president's office.
Later, when Habsburg's most western territories became the province Further Austria (Vorderösterreich), the Vienna governors resided in the Basler Hof until 1806, the year when Napoleon gave the Breisgau to the Grand Duke of Baden.

Dr. Sven von Ungern-Sternberg telling the building's history (Photo BZ).
Since then the Basler Hof has always been used by administration and services mirroring the trials and tribulations of German history:

1806 - 1918: Grand Duchy of Baden (Court House, Post Office)
20 March 1849: Grand jury trying Gustav Struve and Karl Blind for their participation in the uprising against  the government of the Grand Duchy in September 1848
June/July 1849: During the Baden Revolution seat of the revolutionary Government of Baden
1919 - 1933: Weimar Republic (Tax Administration, Police Station)
1933 - 1944: Third Reich officials
From 1933 to 1941 the Gestapo had their headquarters in the Basler Hof
November 27, 1944: Air raid Operation Tigerfish destroying the building

Kaiser-Joseph-Straße and Basler Hof in 1946.
1948 - 1950: Reconstruction
1950 - 1952: Departement of Interior of the State of South Baden (More details)
1953 to today: Seat of the district president (Regierungspräsident) for southern Baden of the State of Baden-Württemberg

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Freiburg's Central Art Depot

It is a Freiburg tradition that during the summer holidays (the school vacation started rather late this year in Baden-Württemberg and will come to end next week) the BZ and Germany's two big parties the CDU and the SPD organize tours of interesting places and institutions free of charge for citizens. I had visited many a place in previous years but this week I participated in three guided tours of which our local newspaper the Badische Zeitung had organized two.

In my first blog I would like to report on Freiburg's new Central Art Depot that was built and finished in an industrial zone outside the city at the beginning of this year for a little less than 7 million euros.

I still remember the museums in those olden days with waxed floors, poor lighting, and packed full glass cabinets. In addition these places had all the same moldly smell. For modern museums less-is-more and they dare the gap concentrating on their highlights with few additional items. But where did and does the rest go?

The ultimate highlight: Nofretete (Nefertiti) in the Neues Museum Berlin.
I took the photo in 2009.
Well, the storage of objets d'art needs space. In the past Freiburg's museums had located their stuff in various places even in Frankfurt and in most cases not in acceptable conditions. During the visit of the new central storage place I learned that it is not the temperature that counts but the humidity. Temperatures may even vary between 10 and 25 degrees centigrade but the relative humidity has to be kept constant at about 50% to preserve the stored items

For more than 30 years a dehumidifier has been working in my three different basements to keep the relative humidity between 50 and 60 %. Not that I store objets d'art but to keep paper readable it is essential that the relative humidity does not exceed 60% where it is stored.

58% relative humidity in my basement
My dehumidifier based on the principle of an inversed fridge is still the same old machine and working as on the day of its delivery except for the indicator light, a neon bulb. There were no light diodes at the end of the 1970ties.

The working horse in my basement. Note: the water collector below is filled to one third.
Freiburg's Central Art Depot is a two story building with a surface of 5500 square meters for storage. The relative humidity inside is held at 50% for a minimum of energy consumption. Thick walls and insulation materials keep the temperature variations small while only a small amount of filtered and conditioned air is added just to renew what is necessary.

Storage of ethnographic items.
Standing behind Tilmann von Stockhausen I am listening to his explanations (Photo BZ).
Three groups of 25 persons each were separately lead through the building and I was lucky with my guide. It was the director of Freiburg's museums Tilmann von Stockhausen. He said that so far more than 100 lories had collected and delivered the items to be stored but that most were still in their boxes.

Our group approaching in one of those big galleries housing all the necessary tubing
(Photo BZ).
For the responsible people it presently is more important to unite all items until the end of the year than to make order. Still, they have started unpacking and Dr. von Stockhausen proudly presented the first oil paintings in correct order on their shifting rollers.

Tillmann von Stockhausen showing some of his treasures (Photo BZ).
With such a well organized storage it will become easier to change items for exposition in Freiburg's museums in addition to those objets d'art permanently exposed.