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One of the greatest things this nation has ever done was to rebuild Germany and Japan after the Second World War. Our former enemies are now models of functioning democracy and industrial might. It wasn’t just a magnanimous instinct on our part. We had learned the hard way that retribution against Germany after World War I only paved the way for Hitler, who came to power by exploiting the empty stomachs of Germans.

Fast forward 67 years from VE Day.  Germany, in particular, is the economic envy of the world. What we could learn from Germany would go a long way toward cancelling the symbolic debt owed us from the Marshall Plan. If only we would pay attention.

Power Generation. On a sunny Saturday in May, for a few hours around noon, Germany (the entire nation) met half of all its electrical needs from solar energy: 22 gigawatts, the equivalent of 20 nuclear power stations and a world record for solar. At a time when China builds two new coal-fired power plants per week, Japan’s nuclear plants are vulnerable to tsunamis, and the US coal industry rips the tops off mountains that took 300 million years to form—more than 500 total, Germany demonstrated what a sane and carbon-free future might look like. From the windows of any train anywhere in Germany, one is amazed at the number of solar panels on the roofs of rural homes. They’re everywhere. How’d they do it? Simple. The German government subsidized residential solar-electric power generation. For every kilowatt sold back to the grid, the government paid homeowners multiple times the market value of that electricity. And in the same stroke of genius, by decentralizing the generation of power, they rendered themselves far less susceptible to the likelihood of a grid crash, to which we in America remain extraordinarily vulnerable. (Primary source: The Guardian, May 28, 2012)

Unemployment. Like the US and the rest of the world, Germany was hit hard by the economic collapse of 2007. However, the responses of the US and Germany could not have been more different. In America we laid off hundreds of thousands. In Germany, the labor policy of Kurzarbeit (short work) kicked in, which is based on the completely rational idea that some employment is better than none. Under the program, if an industry has to curtail production because of reduced demand, workers are kept on the rolls, but at reduced hours. Rather than forking out unemployment pay, the German government compensates the employee for up to 2/3 of the earnings lost due to the foreshortened workweek. As a result, Germany moderated its unemployment and German industry was poised to ramp quickly to full production when the recession lifted. But most importantly, many of its workers were spared the psychological and social trauma to which the unemployed in the US have been subjected. (Primary source: The Weekly Standard, Aug. 31, 2010)

Automobile Efficiency. On January 26, 2011, Volkswagen engineers revealed a stunning new concept car at the Qatar auto show. The WV XL1 gets 261 miles per gallon. Yes, you read that right: 261 mpg. To attain that phenomenal number, WV engineers pulled out all the stops. By forming the body from carbon-fiber polymers pioneered by the aerospace industry and using other exotic materials for the power plant, engineers were able to keep the XL1’s weight to an ultra-light 1700 pounds without sacrificing structural integrity. Another lesson from aerospace technology: a sleek body that sports a stunningly low drag coefficient. In simple terms, the XL1 is 1.5 times more slippery to air than is the superbly aerodynamic Toyota Prius. And the power plant: a tiny (1-liter) diesel-electric hybrid, because diesels are about 25 percent more efficient than gasoline engines. It seems like pie in the sky, but it’s not. Volkswagen plans a limited release of the XL1 next year. (Source: Wired Autopia, Jan. 25, 2011)

Labor Relations. In the US, the middle class has been shrinking for the past 40 years, a casualty of a power shift from labor to management, of deregulation of the financial industry that has allowed unsound speculation, and of the triumph of trickle-down economics. That trend will likely continue now that the US Supreme Court has granted “personhood” to corporations, union-bashing has become the favorite game of conservative governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and the super-secret Trans Pacific Partnership now being negotiated will ensure that global corporate interests trump even the sovereignty of nations, including ours. But is labor really the enemy of corporate efficiency? Must the relationship between labor and management be adversarial? No to both, if one looks to Germany as the model. In Germany, relationships between employers and employees are highly regulated and intentionally biased in favor of employees. Remarkably, “labor and corporate relations are collaborative rather than contentious.” Representatives of labor sit amicably on the boards of most major corporations. As a result, Germans work a 35-40 hour week, enjoy 6 full weeks of Urlaub (vacation), and annually work 400 fewer hours on average than Americans, all while maintaining a vibrant economy. (Primary Source: Time, Nov. 14, 2011).

America, stuck in dysfunctional politics, has lost its edge and risks losing its soul. We can turn it around, but only if we swallow our pride, roll up our sleeves, and start paying attention to what works rather than what is ideologically pure.

© Dave Pruett 2012

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Dave Pruett

Dave Pruett

Dave Pruett, a former NASA researcher, is an award-winning computational scientist and emeritus professor of mathematics at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, VA. His alter ego, however, now out of the closet, is a writer. His first book, Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012), a "love letter to the cosmos," grew out of an acclaimed honors course at JMU that opens up "a vast world of mystery and discovery," to quote one enthralled student. For more information, visit reasonandwonder.org