Notes from the heart of Europe

I just came back from a long weekend in Berlin, which I think of as the centre of Europe - not just geographically and historically, but also in its current role as the capital of Europe's most influential country. Although not as popular a destination as London or Paris, it's still a magnet for travellers - it felt like half the people around me on the streets were tourists, and I overheard conversations in English nearly as often as German (along with plenty of French, particularly at the screening of the World Cup final). I also wouldn't be surprised if the average Berliner I talked to were more proficient in English than the average Briton (although my sample was pretty skewed towards intellectuals). Coming from a country where even bilingualism is rare, I am continually impressed by European linguistic proficiency. And not just Europeans - during two recent trips to Morocco, I discovered that virtually all Moroccans are fluent in Arabic and French, plus a Berber dialect for the Berber ethnic majority, plus English for the young and ambitious, and often plus Spanish for those living in the north or working in tourism.

Back on the topic of Berlin, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention its famed nightlife, which is crazy in every sense. Here's how a night out might go:
  • Wait in line at a club for two hours.
  • Be examined by the bouncer, and asked a few probing questions ("Have you been here before?" - the answer should always be yes; "Why our club?" - cue a few lines of gushing praise about today's DJs).
  • Be rejected, as most people are.
  • Repeat at progressively less selective clubs, until accepted.
You might not even get a chance to plead your case: after queuing for an hour, some friends of mine were given a one-second glance-over and told to beat it. There are dozens of well-known reasons for rejection: you're too loud, too drunk, or in a group of more than 3 people; you look at your phone while waiting in the queue; you're wearing clothes with logos, slogans or any bright colours; you don't seem German enough; etc, etc. Of course, almost everyone is trying to optimise for these criteria; some who have tried their luck many times are convinced that most decisions are effectively random. The whole process reminds me of nothing so much as the US university application system, with bouncers as the all-powerful admissions officers. In both cases, the point is to create an atmosphere of exclusivity - and in both cases, that exclusivity is desirable enough to cause massive oversubscription. (Note that, like top US universities, these clubs charge nowhere near the market-clearing price). It's probably rational to apply to good universities, but is a small chance of being accepted to a hip nightclub really worth queueing for hours? Berliners seem to think so - and so did my other friends, who made it in and then kept partying until 9am. Personally, I went to an open-entry club which was still a step up from any I'd been to in NZ or the UK.

On transport: Berlin is notable for having decided to solve public transportation by throwing practically everything at it. The city has buses, trams, underground rail, overground rail, and off-the-ground rail - the elevated S-bahn that circles Berlin. There are open-air cars powered by a dozen frantically-pedalling tourists, with drivers who pump beer for them at red lights (yes, really!). There are bike lanes everywhere, plus a fierce competition between bike-rental startups to see who can leave the most bikes lying around the city. The only thing Berlin's missing is cable cars, or perhaps a hyperloop. It also has an unusual ticketing system: all public transport is walk-on, with no barriers. You're meant to have bought a ticket beforehand; to enforce this, there are infrequent inspections (I wasn't inspected during any of two dozen rides) and massive fines for fare-dodgers. I guess saving on ticket barriers and inspectors is one of the benefits of having a high-trust society, although I don't know how well it works in practice. Weekly and monthly passes are also much cheaper than in London (to be fair, that's true almost everywhere; an annual London travelcard can cost more than the world's median annual income).

A more general observation about Germany, and in fact most of continental Europe, is how common and socially acceptable it is to spend many years in higher education. Plenty of people spend 5+ years getting bachelors degrees, or get several masters degrees. To be fair, that's partly because it's standard to interweave study and work (and not just minimum-wage student jobs, but career-relevant positions). And from an individual perspective, university years are often the best of your life, so it's rational to spend more time enjoying them. Nevertheless, I think that degree inflation is a pretty major inefficiency on a societal level, one which is probably heightened by the fact that all study is paid for by the German government. In my mind, overeducation is closely linked with the "complacency" which Tyler Cowan argues has settled over the West during the last few decades. Expect more discussion of this idea in a forthcoming review of his book, The Complacent Class.


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