The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) led political initiative known as the Durchsetzungsinitiative to be decided on February 28, 2016 will have drastic consequences for Switzerland should it pass and set the country on a dangerous path that it does not want to go down. If passed political flexibility, a strong point of Swiss democracy, will be limited and a two-tiered justice system, which is in opposition to the founding principles of the constitutional democracy the country is, will be breached.
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Two Swiss groups are up in arms and it’s not about banks or immigrants. This week the ETH released a study that was commissioned by Economiesuisse into the possible effects of Switzerland pursuing it’s current energy policy to eliminate nuclear and gas energy by 2050 in favour of renewable sources. The study’s result state that the Swiss economy stands to lose 25% of its GDP by following this plan if action, something that Economiesuisse is and has been opposed to. For this lobby group, the evidence is clear and having come from an internationally recognized research institution says all there is to say.
However, other ETH researches and environmentalists are harsh to criticize the latest study. They say that the finding are based on early 2000s technology, which has become more efficient and cheaper and continues to develop. For these reasons they claim that the study’s findings over estimates the costs and fails to take the advantages into account.
Not taking the advantages of moving towards renewable and safe energy sources is a grave mistake for an institute (Economiesuisse), which claims to have the nation at the heart of its interest. The costs of ignoring this issue are much higher than addressing it.
As this informations came to light so did another potentially tragic news story. The Finnish firm Wärtsilä is rumored to be contemplating selling it’s Swiss subsidiary. For Winterthur, the repercussions could be drastic. At present Wärtsilä produces ship power solutions and the reason for its economic uncertainty according to the news report is that there are too many ships and not enough demand. So what does this have to do with Switzerland’s energy debate?
Wärtsilä has also been researching and working in the field of renewable energy. The best and smartest companies are investing money and energy in this field because they recognize that there is a huge market to be had by countries and regions wishing to become energy independent. Countries where there is a clear interest for developing this type of technology are good places to do business. For this reason many solar and wind firms have left the US for Germany where they find more political support and a market.
In this week’s Economist there is a special series on the Nordic countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. In many ways these countries are being praised by the editors of the Economist, but there are some reservations. What is mentioned as a strength though is the willingness of the Nordics to look for new and innovative answers to economic problems and to embrace new technologies. That is what Switzerland must di as well.
Going back to the report for Economiesuisse and the belief of a 25% decrease in Switzerland’s GDP, a more encompassing study that took the results of 13 studies (including the above mentioned study) into Switzerland’s plans for green energy by 2050 found that the Swiss economy would suffer at most from a 0.5% drop in GDP, but more likely a 2% increase thanks to new jobs and technical know-how that would come from this development.
Like so often in humanity’s history we find ourselves at the cusp of needing to make some major decisions. When the car was introduced the blacksmiths and carriage makers protested that it would mean the end of their work, and it did, but it created a major new field of business and increased mobility and urbanization. The same is happening with energy. Betting on tradition is the worst wager a politician can make. The only thing that is certain is change. A good politician and policy maker will always bet on knowledge and the growth of knowledge.
Many countries are hesitant invest in game-changing technology or initiate policies that will force change, because they still look to the USA to lead the way and set the course. However, in recent years the US has done a poor job on setting new goals for where they see the world going. During the Cold War it was clear: spread democracy and show all the benefits of capitalism. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall there have been no great plans, but rather let’s keep doing what we’re doing and without investing anymore try to suck out more advantages (profit and work) from what exists.
Small countries, like Switzerland, have an enormous advantage to become world leaders. Open their borders to the smartest people, help them start companies and develop the technology we need to ensure we stop destroying the environment and start fixing the problems we’ve caused. Labour is easy to export. Anyone can lower their taxes. Knowledge and innovation are much less likely to leave a place where they flourish.
Swiss politicians owe it to their constituents and the Swiss people owe it to future generations to pursue one of the most ambitious renewable energy policies in the world.
Recently there has been a great deal of material written about expats in Switzerland. By expats, the specific call is against Highly skilled English speaking individuals and to a degree Germans residing in Switzerland and working at some of the world’s most successful firms.
The German-speaking Swiss are up in arms about the what they deem to be the development of parallel communities that are not integrating into Swiss culture. Of course the biggest issue is language. Many politicians and voters want to impose and have already imposed mandatory language skills when applying for different residency permits (You need a A2 level in German for a C Permit).
What is clearly not understood though is that the expectations of the people I’ll call “integrators” are built on old ideals that no longer apply to modern Switzerland.
Switzerland’s advantages for business are the following:
1. Taxation (companies can save millions)
2. Legal (companies as well as individuals can trust that the laws of the land are not arbitrary and that they will be treated fairly)
3. Location (Switzerland lies in the middle of Europe and is well connected to the world, a brilliant place to run an international company from)
4. Infrastructure (Swiss infrastructure is world class. The tax money is used wisely to ensure that people have more and better services than in other countries)
All of that said today’s expats are rarely coming to Switzerland to stay for a long time. Switzerland likes this. It’s great for maintaining low unemployment and ensuring minimal obligations to people who have worked here.
Because of the modern world we live in, many expats (UK residents and Germans alike) can easily travel back to their home countries at the weekends. When one works from 9-5 Monday – Friday, weekends would be integration time, but today it means time back home. Switzerland is essentially like the city, weekends are spent in the country.
Regarding language, this is not taken seriously by the state, companies, nor by most Swiss. The state as a whole has no unified requirements. When it comes to subsidizing, each canton does it differently. Zurich for instance has given the Migros Klubschule and ECAP a monopoly on German instruction. Businesses are more than willing to throw money at the problem, allowing for generous budgets to fund language instruction, but do not give their employees the time or incentive they need to learn German. As a language teacher, I sympathize with my students working over 45 hours a week, have a family, and are trying hard to learn German. Then of course there are the Swiss themselves: when an English speaking person tries to use their High German to order coffee, ask directions, make an appointment, or even just start a conversation the Swiss person will more often than not respond in English. This is demotivating to German learners and shows that the Swiss are not willing to help with linguistic integration.
Another interesting and very overlooked issue regarding integration is how many Swiss are equally not integrated in their communities. Even the city president of Dubendorf has stated that this is an issue. In a recent interview, he said that he does not want growth at any cost and doesn’t just want people moving to Dubendorf, but working in Zurich proper, essentially only using Dubendorf for affordable housing, rather, he would like to see engaged people who will enrich the community.
«Wir wollen nicht um jeden Preis wachsen», sagt Lothar Ziörjen. Das «Dorf» – wie er es nennt – brauche vor allem Leute, die sich integrieren und am Gemeindeleben teilnehmen. [Full article]
However, as the demands of work are constantly growing, people find it more difficult to allocate time for more social and civil activities. They are just trying to pay the rent. It should also not be over looked that other Swiss who move to different areas of Switzerland for work reasons act like their expat counterparts and return to their home regions at the weekend.
What is the solution to this issue? Is Switzerland being flooded by high-payed Anglophones that are taking away what it means to be Swiss? are they harming the economy or Swiss culture? The opposite is actually true. Switzerland is profiting from its expat community. The key thing to understand is that they are highly skilled workers, adding to Switzerland’s economic output. If the country is worried that we need too many foreigners they, would be smarter to invest in education instead of the fighter jets and help ensure that the native Swiss population is trained and skilled to fill the jobs of the future.
The reality of the issue being debated is that despite social media we are less less community oriented today than we have ever been. There is a current triumph of the ego, whereby everyone is busy taking care of themselves and not interacting with their neighbours let alone their bigger community. It is perhaps the awareness of how this will have long term negative consequences that makes some people insist on harping on expats. After all their language and financial success make them stick out. Then of course there is also a degree of jealousy, as Julia Morais from the Integration Office in Zurich told the Tages-Anzeiger.
If communes, cantons, and the state really want expats to integrate faster and better, then they will have to eliminate some of the exclusion practices that are essential to waking people’s interests in integration. If you can’t vote or express civil and political desires in the community and country in which you live, there is little incentive to integrate. The current practices of the integration offices of organizing special events that only attract expats will not help them build communities with other Swiss people.
The weather conditions, despite the forecast, in the early morning hours of April 23, 2012 looked promising. Perhaps the sun would shine, or at least the rain hold off. It was marathon day in Zurich. I was hoping for a new personal best and so was the Maja Neuenschwander from Bern. Only Neuenschwander’s time would give her more than just the feeling of elation one gets when one beats a personal best, it would give her a ticket to represent Switzerland at the 2012 London Olympics this summer.
Hardly five minutes after the starting shot was fired the skies opened and started dumping their contents on the runners from some 40 nations. This was no summer rain, but rather a bitter early spring rain. The participants pushed on hoping that a quick dump would get it over and done with early in the race.
About 1.5 hours in to the race the sun decided to show up, but the wind picked up and everyone running back towards Zurich from Meilen am Zürichsee faced a strong headwind.
Despite these conditions Neuenschwander persevered and achieved a new personal best of 2:31:56. That was 1:04 minutes faster than the qualifying time set by Swiss Olympic. Jubilation for Neuenschwander, she’d be going to the Olympics, or so she thought.
This past week allegations were made that Neuenschwander cheated by having pace runners in the Team-Run event running the distances: 9.7, 10.8, 4.0 und 17.7 kilometers. According to official IAAF rules athletes are not allowed to have pacers running different distances. These rules are clear.
Swiss papers like the boulevard paper Blick called out “Bschiss beim Züri-Marathon!” and then went on to defend Neuenschwander. Even the NZZ’s reporting on the event suggests that Neuenschwander should be allowed to go to the Olympics. And a poll of Blick readers suggests that some 41.1% of people believe that Neuenschwander should represent Switzerland in London.
I’m a runner and while I have great sympathy for anyone who runs long distances at at that speed in those conditions, I believe that Neuenschwander should not be sent to London. Her victory in Zurich is tarnished and even if it is accepted, should she do well in London, it will give the press material for calling her eligibility into question.
Yes, she ran the 42.195 km on her own, but pacers help one run more controlled and calculated without having to totally listen to one’s own body. It is an advantage and having your pacers run different distances is even more of an advantage as there can be more calculations made.
This event is a great analogy though for the current Swiss political and financial attitude. We read the rules to our advantage and find loopholes that help us and when we’re accused of not following the spirit of the rules or to not do that anymore, we throw a temper-tantrum and say that we are being unfairly persecuted by other countries.
Even if our banks officially say that they do not accept untaxed money from customers, the fact that they didn’t verify that means that they were working in a grey zone. The same applies to recent laws that limit people’s freedoms and other initiatives. While they are decided by the people in a democracy, Switzerland ergo the people did sign onto international treaties guaranteeing all people exactly those rights that we are now trying to revoke (reference to Minaret initiative).
What Neuenschwander and Switzerland need to understand is that they are not being unfairly punished. There are rules and those rules need to be respected. The spirit of any rule always favours the higher moral ground. Seeking out loopholes is the opposite of that. I didn’t achieve a new personal best on that day, but there are other runs. I think Neuenschwander is a talented runner and sincerely hope that she keeps trying for the Olympics, if not 2012 then 2016, but without pacers.
Today World Radio Switzerland (WRS) told listeners that, “World Radio Switzerland, is threatened with either closure or privatisation. According to Roger de Weck, director-general of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, WRS’s parent company, an English-language radio station should no longer be publicly funded.”
This news has many Expats in Switzerland getting quite upset. While no final decisions have been made, this case presents further evidence of how disconnected the country is from how it operates in reality. Swiss politicians and many others refuse to see how interconnected business and the world economy is. This interconnectedness also directly and indirectly affects culture.
Most countries exist with their own mythologies. Switzerland’s mythology can be summed up in a few words: neutrality, industriousness, heritage and quality. These are the beliefs with which many Swiss operate. Switzerland is the wealthy country with an remarkably high standard of living thanks to its neutrality in times of conflict, the industriousness of its people and the quality of the products it produces. These make up the country’s heritage, which is respected around the world.
While there is a degree of truth in this myth – all myths are somehow founded in facts – it is a very naïve picture of the way the country operates. Thanks in part to the Schengen-Dublin agreement, but also in large part to low taxes and also its lack of qualified specialists Switzerland has seen many expats move to the country. For many Swiss the influx of Expats is an alarming trend as they continually hear about potential layoffs and the threatening economic climate. Yet, Expats don’t seem to fit into the scheme of the “fee-loading Eastern European” come to live off the social security system the hardworking Swiss have built. Because of this they must be vilified some other way. So the Expats are made out to be arrogant and seen to be refusing to integrate to Swiss life.
These trends are very unfortunate as is the view that foreign workers are simply here to take advantage of the country. Given the economic data that 71.3% of the country’s GDP comes from services, 27.5% from industry and only 1.2% from agriculture (Global Finance). These myths must be reexamined. Switzerland benefits from its Expat population and needs to work as much with Expats hoping to integrate into Swiss life as it does with the Swiss to help them understand the role Expats play in the country’s prosperity.
The news of the threatened closure or sale of WRS comes on the heels of a potential law that will forbid expatriate pupils from attending international schools in Zurich. Again the argument of integration is being used to justify the move. Unfortunately, these moves are aggressive and place Expats in the defensive and blame them for not integrating. In return, some companies may reconsider having Switzerland as their home base, or at least the canton of Zurich.
Integration is a two-way street and it must be said that it is being poorly handled by both the Swiss authorities and Expats alike. This raises the question though of how important is integration anyway? Many Expats will only spend a few years in Switzerland before moving on to another country for a few more years. Even those who end up staying for protracted lengths of time may never integrate as their job simply does not allow them to. They would be as unintegrated in their home country as they are here because long working hours and frequent travel do not allow them to have a social life. So even those who wish to learn a national language or integrate are not afforded the time required to do such.
The Swiss authorities need to provide simple to use services for those wishing to integrate, and perhaps even offer an integration bonus system that is easy to understand and use. They also need to educate the Swiss as to the importance of the Expat community. It is a major source of the country’s wealth and needs to be competently addressed without stereotypes and aggression.
Companies for their part should also do more to help their employees with integration. This is not just an HR issue where more in-house training courses for language and intercultural understanding will solve the issue. It means seriously giving employees time to integrate and learn one of Switzerland’s national languages and genuinely live in Switzerland.
Returning to the subject of WRS, it would be a shame for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation to close the station. English is as good as Switzerland’s third language as there are more people able to effectively speak English than Italian or Romansch living in Switzerland. Furthermore, English is used by many Swiss as the default language of business when communicating with another Swiss person who speaks a different national language. By this I mean a native of Zurich is most likely to speak English when talking to a native of Geneva. Regarding the use of public funds to support an English language station when it’s not a national language, we also teach English at schools across the country and some cantons have even given English priority over other national languages, an English language radio station would further support that instruction. As Pedro Simko of Saatchi and Saatchi makes clear in his interview, English radio in Switzerland is for the public good.
One of the things I love about my work is that I get to meet many different people. Different in many regards and political and philosophical beliefs are part of the difference. I like interacting with people who share similar beliefs, who give me interesting articles to read or broaden my understanding of the liberal ideas that I hold. But I also enjoy talking to more conservative people, who challenge my beliefs and cause me to reevaluate and refine my way of thinking. Today I had one of such encounters.
An American student told me of how the United States is on the verge of implementing the highest corporate tax rate in the world. I couldn’t help but think that even if the United States succeeds in taking down a few more Swiss banks, if the banks do not cooperate in handing over client information regarding taxation, Switzerland could still come out on top. If the new tax rates come into effect in America, companies will move from the USA to Switzerland and seek tax refuge.
Taxes are always a tricky topic, because, as John Stewart pointed out on Monday night, they always go to fund things that some tax payers will not agree with. This is the genesis behind Henry David Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” and his work Walden. He opposed his tax dollars going to fund the Mexican-American War. Taxes fund wars and taxes fund bridges. Sometimes we reap the benefits of what taxes produce and sometimes we suffer the consequences. That’s why those living in a democracy have a duty to call on their governments to be accountable for the actions they take in the name of the people and with the people’s money.
In most societies everyone can benefit from tax dollars. It is the coming together of individuals to fund projects larger than themselves. However, like all things they can be abused.
Recently I have been talking with Finnish and Danish students about taxes. In Finland and Denmark the people pay very high taxes and my students want to know, how it is that we in Switzerland can have services that are equally good as in their countries with fewer taxes. My answer is quite simple: what you don’t pay in taxes comes out of your own pocket when you go to use a service.
An example is healthcare, which in Switzerland is also not perfect, as our healthcare costs increase steadily every year. However, the service is good. In comparison to a completely paid for system, people are asked to take out their own insurance and choose their deductibles for the healthcare they wish to have. Everyone living in Switzerland has to have health insurance. But because individuals need to pay out of their own pocket, they are more likely to reconsider unnecessary visits to the doctor or hospital. This saves the system money. Furthermore, there are insurance bonuses for doing things to stay healthy like going to a gym.
My student today asked me how it is that the Swiss can afford to live here. He said that he finds Switzerland very expensive. I told him that it is expensive, but that in general people are still paid fair wages. As a general economy that means there are little to no low0-level manufacturing jobs in Switzerland and that the country’s industries need to constantly innovate to stay on the forefront of technology and business practices.
Though next to the USA, Switzerland too has a large wealth divide. This is what a recent study by the Credit Suisse has to say about the USA:
“The United States has by far the greatest number of members of the top 1% global wealth group, accounting for 41% of those with wealth exceeding USD 10 million and 32% of the world’s billionaires.”
And here about Switzerland:
“Switzerland has displayed only a small decrease in wealth inequality over the past century. As a consequence, a large proportion of the Swiss population is found in the upper echelons of the world distribution. Fully 1.8% of the global top 1% is Swiss, remarkable for a country with just 0.1% of world population. More than 95% of Swiss adults have assets above USD 10,000 and 50% of the population is worth more than USD 100,000.”
Despite the highest earners in Switzerland being lightyears in front of the middle class, the middle class in Switzerland is much better situated than the middle class in the USA.
The wealth divide in the USA is what is causing its biggest problems. The government and industry in the USA needs to look at ways of increasing the position of the middle class. People need to be able to work and earn enough to live a good life. According to OECD statistics Switzerland with its low taxation rate brings in more percentage wise in taxes than the USA. The reason is two pronged. First there are so many loopholes in the American tax code that some big players are not paying anything (GE for instance). But equally bad is that almost 50% of Americans don’t make enough money to be taxed.
Conservatives think that everyone should pay taxes, but forcing the poorest people to pay taxes will only cause them and the economy to suffer more. Liberal views of increasing taxes on the highest earners will only scare them away. The idea approach is to get the working poor to be working and middle class tax payers and to eliminate the tax loops so that the already implemented taxes are paid and not subverted. If that’s correctly done, there could even be drops in taxes, as more people would be contributing.
Interestingly enough Walmart is a great example for illustrating good and bad economic policies.
Walmart economic principles in the work force are what is ailing America. People work at Walmart and are not paid enough to afford all of their amenities. This is in a drive to cut costs and prices for people. When people start working at Walmart in the US they are told that they will also need to collect some sort of social benefit such as food stamps. The tax payer while looking for the cheapest product is essentially subsidizing Walmart employees with his or her tax dollars. This is a vicious circle to the bottom and everyone is losing. This is the current state of the USA.
Walmart does understand that it is better to sell 100 items at 10 dollars each ($1000) than 30 items at 30 dollars each ($900). The same is true for taxes. It would be better to tax 250 million people at 25% than 30 million at 35%.
The American government and its industry need to find out what do people need to earn to afford to live in modern America and have access to everything they need to be productive citizens: housing, food, transportation, communication, healthcare etc. Once that number is established they need to make sure that the working class makes at least that amount, and better yet slightly more so that these people can also pay taxes.
This is hard to do with the current GDP restrictions, and will mean that some of the highest earners will make less. That’s math, everything else is number games with catastrophic endings.
Now the wealthiest will claim that they earned that money on their own virtues. While I do not advocate wealth redistribution, it must be said that the money has been unjustly and immorally falsely distributed. Look at the Walmart example. Bad math. The wealthiest should technically be subsidizing the employees through taxes, but rather they have found loopholes to avoid taxation and are not paying for it. The remaining middle class are paying for it. And those of the highest earners that are subsidizing it, should look at the math again and say, “I’d rather give this money directly to the employees for their work, than to the government to run a program to support these people.”
In conclusion, you can only have everyone paying taxes when a certain level of existence has been reached. In modern society and in the modern economy existence includes more than it ever has. It does include things like phones, internet, access to transportation. Without those things, people cannot partake in the modern economy. Lastly, it is the duty of members in a democracy to hold their governments accountable for tax spending.
When I was in the second year of my bachelor’s degree at McGill University in Montreal, I remember blogging about how unjustifiable the European, at the time French, debate surrounding headscarfs was.
Almost ten years later, the topic has come up again, but this time in the canton of Zurich in Switzerland. The incident was made public last week, when a public school made it known that they wanted to forbid teachers from wearing headscarfs at work. The school has one Muslim teacher, who wears a headscarf.
The initial news article brought on a flurry of comments on the Tages-Anzeiger’s website with a great many people trying to defend the school’s decision. Others, many from other minority groups, but not all exclusively Muslim, stated their disapproval with the school’s decision. In terms of the legality surrounding the issue, a professor for workers’ rights at the University in St. Gallen, one of the countries most respected higher education institutions, said that the school does not have much of a legal leg to stand on, as the argument for religious neutrality at the school would mean all religious paraphernalia would need to be banned.
While I find this trend as troubling as the anti-minaret initiative that passed the people’s referendum in November 2009, and is currently being examined by the European Human Rights Tribunal in Strasbourg, I find the existence of this debate and the media’s lack of competency even more alarming.
What I mean by lack of media competency can best be illustrated in an examination of the first article on the Tages-Anzeiger online:
The first issue does not even require an understanding of language – it’s the picture. The article is about a headscarf ban in one Swiss school. The picture shows a female teacher in Iraq with a British soldier in the room. This image is inappropriate, as it has nothing to do with the debated issue. Furthermore, it suggests, through the presence of a white soldier holding a weapon, that there is a potential for danger.
Let’s move on. It is not just the picture that makes this article worrying. The choice of diction also conveys the wrong idea. The headline reads: “Muslime rüsten gegen Kopftuchverbot”. The problem is with the choice of “rüsten gegen” which can mean both “to arm against” or “to prepare for”. The ambiguity of the headline will lead many to believe that the Muslim population in Switzerland is preparing for violence because of the proposed infringement on their civil rights. If one reads to the end of the article, which, if we are honest, many don not, we are told that the Central Islamic Council of Switzerland (IZRS) is planning on building up a fund to cover the legal costs involved in fighting discrimination.
Last week I watched the film Page One a documentary filmed over a year at the New York Times. Having watched that documentary a few things become clear. First, the newspaper publishing industry is at a turning point. This was also what Peter Hogenkamp (@phogenkamp) told the audience at at his Zurich Creative Mornings talk on the challenges of technology at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) last autumn. The second thing that stands out in the documentary is that quality reporting is not a given for all newspapers. And finally the third thing is that quality news is not free, nor should it be. News is knowledge and knowledge is power. Power is never free.
As the Tages-Anzeiger is one of the Swiss newspapers that carries a thin copy of the New York Times once a week, it was troubling to see such reckless and sensationalist reporting. The article may have been short and factual and a great deal of it did address the actual issue in a neutral way, but in the age of mass everything, the images and headlines for the news must be chosen with more scrutiny than ever before, so that they convey a fair information. And a message to new consumers — read past the headlines.
The other day I was teaching English at a corporate client’s office when we started discussing politics. The discussion was started by a Thomas Friedman article from the New York Times. However, my students soon started to see the similarities that current Swiss politics have with American politics. And from there a great many issues surrounding the October elections were discussed.
Up until that moment I was quite aware that many Swiss people are not happy with the political direction that Switzerland is headed down. Books like “Die käufliche Schweiz”, written by insiders, show that these are not simply the feelings of some people with little time for politics, but real issues.
At the heart of the matter is a really the same problem that America and most Western countries face. It is an identity crisis mixed with an understanding of the big picture. By big picture I mean that many countries and even smaller political units fail to see that they are part of a bigger unit. There is a real need for systems thinking in world politics. People need to understand that the entire world, politically, economically and culturally is now connected. With this in mind I believe that Switzerland needs a party that addresses the following issues and posits a similar credo.
- Switzerland is a country of diverse cultures and histories. Historically, different cities had different political structures. The country has four official languages and many many more dialects. Coupled with recent immigration patterns, Switzerland is a multicultural country and these differences and their ability to live together need to be celebrated. The people also need to respect others’ rights. That the country is being charged by the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg is a shame. The country is better than that. No Switzerland is not being bullied, it is clearly in the wrong. That a mayor has resigned because of threats after voicing his support for multiculturalism in his city is disgusting. Again the country is better than that. Radicalizing opinions is dangerous. Tradition can and should be supported, but it cannot be put before societal progress.
- Switzerland needs to be more active internationally. Despite the famous myth of Swiss neutrality, we need to acknowledge that neutrality does not exist. Up to the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) the Swiss cantons were exempted from fighting in Europe as along as they delivered mercenaries to the waring kings, princes, and dukes in Europe. During the World Wars they aided both sides and thus kept their people from needing to fight, but were connected with both sides. Today Switzerland is part of the UN and could be part of the EU and other organizations. Joining these associations would give Switzerland a voice in European/world politics.
- Switzerland is not an island. Though many Swiss believe that the wealth of the country has come through their hard work, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Wealth from outside the country has poured into Switzerland since the First World War. Tourism and banking may be industries, but they can easily leave a country. People need to understand that every country is connected and without trade a country is doomed. Switzerland needs to cooperate with other countries to do what is right for everyone. To make an analogy: Switzerland is like a knight in chess — it’s easier to play with the knight, but you can still win the game without him. At present the country is seen as a cherry picker by the international community. This has to stop, Switzerland needs to show itself as a willing collaborator in ensuring that international laws and and regulations are upheld and that the betterment of the current world political and economic systems is of importance.
- Switzerland’s greatest wealth is in the minds of its people. Innovation on all fonts needs to be the driving force of the Swiss economy. Research and development spawn new companies, sources of employment and wealth. Solving key environmental issues such as power generation would bring unimaginable business to the country.
- A great part of Switzerland’s wealth lies in its nature. There is hardly another place on earth that has so many UNESCO world heritage sites so close together. Be it glaciers, bridges, old cities or vineyards, Switzerland’s natural beauty is a source of pride for its people and keeps tourists coming back time and again. This needs to be protected and the only way to do this is to make sure that strict environmental policy is implemented and enforced thereby challenging industry to innovate.
Lastly, the Swiss and anyone who sympathizes with Switzerland’s political system need to be told that direct democracy is not a right, but a duty, a challenge and in many ways a burden. I say it is not a right, because a right does not intrinsically implicate responsibility.
- Direct democracy is a duty in that it demands that all citizens vote, otherwise it becomes very easy for a minority to soon dictate the laws for the majority.
- Direct democracy is a challenge, because it demands that the constituents be politically active and understand everything that is at stake. Political posters and fliers do not provide the full picture. Decisions must be evaluated for their full meaning and repercussions.
- Direct democracy is a burden, because when excepted it must be carried out faithfully and always. Every citizen accepting direct democracy resigns their right to not vote and says that they will be politically active and always do that which is best for the country and best for the future of the country and future generations.
I believe that every Western country has it within their ability to secure themselves and change the world.
Swiss politics has become a scary place. From blatantly prejudice campaign posters to remarkably low voter turnout, Swiss democracy finds itself in a perilous situation. How the Swiss vote on October 23 can possibly change the face of this rather young democracy very quickly.
Young democracy you may be questioning. What about the 1291 founding of Switzerland and the established country since then? Truth be told this is all part of the larger Swiss mythology with which children are raised and what politicians call upon to inspire the nationalistic vote. However, the simple fact is that the current political system was founded in 1848, the same year the rest of Europe was undergoing its failed revolutions, shows that something different was happening in the alpine nation. Already before that though, it was Napoleon who freed the majority of the people from the tyranny of a few wealthy families that controlled the different cities and willingly sold off their inhabitants (as they were not allowed to vote) to be mercenaries for different and often competing royal households.
On a call back to Napoleonic times the political party known as Secondos Plus called for the retirement of the current Swiss flag and the possible revival of the Napoleonic flag for the country – green, red, yellow. Their claim is that the white cross on a red background no longer represents the societal landscape of Switzerland and that the cross is a clear symbol of Christianity. Now what must be understood is that this party also has many “real” Swiss members, so it’s not just a group of immigrants that have suggested this change. However, this suggestion could not have been made at a worse time.
To suggest the replacement of the internationally renowned Swiss cross will have the equivalent effect of giving the SVP, Switzerland’s rightist party, X tens of thousands of votes. Already this week the party has launched an aggressive attack on the idea from Secondos Plus as well as what they consider a justification for their xenophobic stance on immigration. They are using fear of the abolition on traditional Swiss values to win votes. These are the same tactics that the American Tea Party and GOP are using every time they accuse Democratic politicians of trying to install a socialistic/communistic government.
The problem that both Switzerland and America as well as the majority of the western world faces is that the democratic systems are not functioning. We are told that we live in democracies yet few of us are political beings in an Aristotelean sense. Just like many parents go around treating their children like small adults allowing them to make choices they are not yet fit to make, we go around believing we have a right to vote. However, one should only have the right to vote if you’re actually politically inclined. Or said another way, having the right to vote demands that you partake in politics. This means more than reading posters and listening to TV personalities give their two cents on what they think about current events.
In today’s world, politics is more complicated than ever as our systems work in more integrated ways. With this in mind we need to understand that we are a part of a system and that everything that we know today is dependent on the relationships that exist today. The SVP would like the Swiss to believe that Switzerland can exist as an island without symbiotic relationships with other countries. They want to give the people (das Volk) the right to make decisions on everything, without asking them to be politically skeptical, inquisitive and aware of the repercussions in an international context. For this reason Switzerland has already started to fall on the ranking of democracies and during the last election we even had an agency supervise the elections.
From where Switzerland stands today, it is clear that the majority of citizens have not earned the right to vote and/or lived up to their responsibilities as voting citizens. This is further backed by the fact that in the last election more than 53% of the population did not bother to cast a ballot. For this reason, it is imperative that politicians in parliament be given the task of evaluating the laws and treaties that the country signs and to be aware of everything that they entail. A country cannot exist in a vacuum.
Most people today are too busy worrying about paying their bills, working, taking care of their family and other things than to worry about politics. Just like hardly anyone understands how their mobile works most people do not understand how politics work, but nonetheless they expect it to function and not leave them in a bind.
Switzerland used to have a grand coalition whereby members of different linguistics and geographic areas as well as from different segments of the political spectrum worked together to come up with resolutions best suited for Switzerland as a country and its people. Today the country is on a race to the bottom with the growth of party politics and an economically incentivized political program that will eventually bankrupt the state and leave piles of debt to future generations. In terms of human rights the country is already being taken to the European Human Rights tribunal in Strasbourg for the 2009 laws against the building of Minarets.
If you’re interested in Swiss politics and its current state read: “Die käufliche Schweiz” by Viktor Parma and Oswald Sigg. The authors will also be talking at Kaufleuten on Monday, October 10th at 8pm.
Switzerland, a country that has often been compared to an island, comes across even more as being insular with the turbulent waters of the European Union’s debt crisis surrounding it. As the single European currency, the Euro seems to be on an ever continuing downward spiral the Swiss Franc, much to the chagrin of one of the country’s most important industries is rocketing to new heights. This of course has sent the Swiss out into the world as they seem to buy up whatever they can while its to be had. Even the national airline Swiss International will give passengers an extra 3 kilograms of baggage weight to lug back their loot from shopping trips to New York.
Then last week INSEAD released their annual Global Innovation Index for 2011, which had Switzerland at the top flying its white cross on a red background as a victor over other countries like Sweden (#2), Singapore (#3), Hong Kong (#4) and the USA (#7). When the news came out many Swiss proudly gave themselves a pat on the back and went back to work, while many of the Expats in the country looked around baffled. When they think of Switzerland innovation is not exactly the first word that comes to mind. Rather words like farming, tradition, isolation and finance are tops.
So how did Switzerland top the ranking? First off one must understand that the factors that make up the ration used to calculate the index are heavily sided on input. These sets are: Institutions (political, regulator, business), Human Capital and Research (education, tertiary education, R&D), Infrastructure (ICT, energy, general), Market Sophistication (credit, investment, trade & competition), Business Sophistication (knowledge workers, innovation linkages, knowledge absorption). The higher the ranking in these factors the more apt the stew is to brew up the innovative outputs: Scientific output (knowledge creation, knowledge impact, knowledge diffusion) and Creative Outputs (creative intangibles, creative goods and services). Looking at it, we see that more inputs are needed than outputs.
It is with regard to inputs that Switzerland has a great advantage. Geographically we are dealing with a small country with a high population density. This has allowed the country to build an amazing infrastructure from rail to energy. Then there is of course its stable government structure. Add to that a very low taxation rate and wealth pours into the country as it seeks to hide from larger less efficient state tax authorities. To legitimize themselves many of these companies of course carry out massive amounts of R&D in Switzerland. Also being home to many of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, high-end engineering and food science firms also helps.
What one needs to understand though is that it is not the Swiss themselves that are producing all of this innovative wealth. It is taking place in Switzerland, but is in large part being done by Expats, who are filling the high paying jobs in Switzerland as the country has a huge gap in its knowledge market. The ship of Switzerland has many wholes to fill and institutions eager to fill them and keep the boat afloat are stuffing them with highly educated Germans, Brits, Indians and Americans.
This phenomenon has two lessons to be learned as well as highlighting an intrinsic fact about Switzerland.
The first lesson is that a constructive tax policy can be beneficial to many countries hoping to attract foreign capital. This comes with the caveat though that taxes remain high enough to cover the costs of infrastructure that industry and economy need. It must also work hand-in-hand with social laws that protect worker’s rights and guarantee a good quality of life. Taxes can be low if companies are then required to take proper care of their employees. In the USA companies like Walmart are actually a problem, because they pay their employees so little that they employees actually still require financial aid and other social services from the state. Anyone working a full time job should not need to rely on any government aid for their survival.
The second lesson is that even a developed country like Switzerland, where there is a high demand for highly educated people, can experience a shortage of brain power. The most valuable natural resource any country has today is not found in the ground, but in its people. Imagination and problem solving are worth more than oil and gold. Any country wishing to secure its future must invest in education and aim to be the first to solve the problems that the world faces today: climate change, energy production, disease, food production.
The last idea that I believe is often ignored when looking at Switzerland is its size. The country is one of the smallest in the world with a fairly high population density located in a few key positions. Each canton acts nearly autonomously when making tax laws. The advantage is competition between cantons to ensure the best choice for constituents. However, this too can become a race to the bottom, when short sighted tax cuts will leave coffers empty to fund the maintenance and development of infrastructure, which was one of the main attractions for foreign investment in the first place. However, it must be said that smaller units do a better job addressing problems. Thus the best performing companies have offices of maximum 150 people. With this fact it is also not surprising at Singapore and Hong Kong are also located near the top of the index.
Switzerland is a country where a great deal of innovation takes place. This is due to its strategic positioning regarding inputs. The politics of the country have allowed it to be innovative. Many of these innovative inputs are actually sourced from abroad and the innovation they produce on Swiss soil is actually exported. If Switzerland hopes to remain on top though, it would be well advised to invest more into its education system especially in regards to critical scientific thinking.