In 1981, I joined the US Army. From 1983 to 1985, I was stationed at Nellingen Kaserne near Stuttgart in (then West) Germany.
I served in the Army as a photojournalist. My stories appeared in numerous military periodicals, including Army Times, Soldier, and Stars and Stripes. Working as a journalist requires one to gather and process all sorts of information. I soaked up German culture, and I wondered: Why can’t America be more like Germany?
Germany’s federal highway system is officially called the Bundesautobahn — more commonly called the Autobahn. It’s famous for not having a federally mandated speed limit for certain types of vehicles. I routinely saw (and was passed by) Mercedes-Benz and BMW touring cars traveling in excess of 140 mph.
Even more impressive than the speedy, well-built cars was the pristine condition of the roadway itself that allowed those cars to travel safely at high speed. It’s not unlike the Talladega Speedway: nary a crack or a bump, much less a pothole, mars its perfectly smooth surface. (And there are nearly 8,200 miles of Autobahn, compared with 2.66 miles of Talladega.)
We frequently drive from here (at Nolin Lake) to Louisville to visit our adult children. I-65 between Elizabethtown and Louisville looks and feels like something from a war zone. I always think of our Senators McConnell and Paul and our Congressman Brett Guthrie, and I wonder: Don’t they ever drive on this road? Can they not see, and feel, the dire need for improvements to our infrastructure?
TRIP, a private, nonprofit organization that researches, evaluates, and distributes economic and technical data on surface transportation issues, estimated (in 2013) that the nationwide annual cost of driving on bad roads comes to about $109 billion — that’s more than the combined federal, state and local spending of $91 billion a year in 2013, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
I’m not saying that we need a federal highway system like Germany’s Autobahn. I am, however, stating in no uncertain terms that we need to repair our infrastructure.
The U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world, yet we rank 13th in the overall quality of our infrastructure.
President Biden has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that includes revamping 20,000 miles of roads and highways and repairing 10,000 bridges. It would be financed by raising the corporate tax rate to 28%. (In 2017, Republicans slashed the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%.) Americans who make more than $400,000 per year will also pay more taxes.
Sen. McConnell (R-KY) said, “I don’t think there’s going to be any enthusiasm on our side for a tax increase.”
Regardless of the proposed bill’s merits, of course McConnell and Republicans will oppose it. Which brings me to another observation about Germany — its political system.
According to Wikipedia, “The Federal Republic of Germany has a plural multi-party system. The largest by members and parliament seats are the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), with its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
“Germany also has a number of other parties...most importantly the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Alliance 90/The Greens, The Left, and more recently the Alternative for Germany (AfD), founded in 2013. The federal government of Germany often consisted of a coalition of a major and a minor party, specifically CDU/CSU and FDP or SPD and FDP, and from 1998 to 2005 SPD and Greens.”
In that busy bowl of alphabet soup, there are two key words to consume and digest: multi-party, and coalition.
When I lived in Germany in the mid-80s, half of the fabled Black Forest was yellow — dead or dying because of acid rain. The Washington Post‘s William Drozdiak reported (12/28/1983), “West Germans Fear a Calamity As Acid Rain Damages Forests.”
“Across West Germany, the acid rain problem has assumed dimensions of a national crisis. A report issued by the Ministry of Agriculture in October showed that the area of diseased trees has more than quadrupled in the last year alone. One third of the country’s 17 million acres of woodland are now damaged by pollutants carried by wind and rain.
“Perhaps nowhere is the devastation so acute as in the picturesque Black Forest, whose dense woods of fir, spruce and pine have proven highly vulnerable to wind-borne pollutants from major industrial areas in France and [then West] Germany.
“About one-half of the entire forest area is now affected, a fivefold increase in illness in less than 18 months....”
Germany’s Green Party focused mainly on environmental issues. It coalesced with other parties and enacted legislation that addressed and remedied the acid rain problem. (Unfortunately, here in America, that would become a fiercely partisan issue: Republicans would oppose anything that curtailed industry and business. Democrats would want to save the forests.)
And then there is universal healthcare. According To Wikipedia: “Germany has a universal multi-payer healthcare system paid for by a combination of statutory health insurance and private health insurance...Germany’s healthcare system was 77% government-funded and 23% privately funded....
“According to the Euro health consumer index...Germany has long had the most restriction-free and consumer-oriented healthcare system in Europe. Patients are allowed to seek almost any type of care they wish whenever they want it.”
According to The Commonwealth Fund: “Despite having the most expensive healthcare system, the United States ranks last overall compared with six other industrialized countries —Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom—on measures of quality, efficiency, access to care, equity, and the ability to lead long, healthy, and productive lives....”
And then there is free college tuition. According to study.eu: “Study in Germany for free: What you need to know.”
“Germany is one of the best countries to study abroad: It offers a unique combination of great universities and high quality of life, and rivals other popular destinations such as the United Kingdom or Holland.
“And not only is Germany home to some of the best universities in the world — you can actually study there for free.
“Everyone can study in Germany tuition-free! That’s right: Germans, Europeans, and all non-Europeans can study in Germany free of charge —without tuition fees.
“In Germany, you can generally study for free at public universities. There are almost 300 public universities in Germany, and there are more than 1,000 study programs in total — so you have lots of options!”
Why can’t we be more like Germany? Why can’t we have nice things, too?
Republicans tell us that these things are “socialist.” And we don’t want any socialism here in America, now do we?
I want corporations and wealthy Americans to pay their fair share of taxes. I also want good roads and infrastructure, a cooperative, noncombative, preferably multi-party government, quality affordable healthcare — and free college tuition would be very nice indeed.
If that makes me a socialist —okay, I’m a socialist, and I’m right proud of it, too!
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.