Magazine September 16, 2013, Issue

The Helvetica Type

(Paul Mayall/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)
Will Switzerland work if it’s no longer Swiss?

Zurich – Switzerland is an excellent place to see stereotypes substantiated. If a train is scheduled to depart at 4:28 p.m., it departs at 4:28 p.m., not 4:30 p.m. or 4:46 p.m., and the passenger compartments and stations are as clean as the white tablecloths in restaurants at opening time. The Tessinerplatz, near the Enge train station, is tidier than any comparable public space in the urban United States, and the crosswalks that connect it to the train station do not have walk/don’t walk signs — the ubiquitous commuter Audis and Mercedes-Benz taxis serving the nearby hotels stop for pedestrians without the need for a blinking light to tell them to do so. Conversely, where there are crossing signals, pedestrians patiently wait for the light to change, even when there is no traffic in sight. You see members of the national militia commuting to and fro with the folding stocks of their SG550 assault rifles poking out of their baggage, but you might go days without seeing a police officer. There are guns everywhere, and no sign of crime.

A train conductor who missed me on her first go-round confronted me, clearly in distress, wanting to know where I got on the train. I told her where and suggested that she must have overlooked me. “It is not possible,” she said, a phrase I would hear in many contexts during my Swiss travels. I showed her my ticket. She exhibited tightly controlled distress, and then I was served coffee, which, along with the punctuality, is the only way in which Swiss trains are superior to their U.S. counterparts. Wi-Fi? It is not possible. But in a country with relatively few destinations that take more than a couple of hours to reach by train, coffee and punctuality are what really matter.

In Zurich, the received wisdom goes, everybody you meet is a banker who drives a convertible and wears a suit on Saturdays, and that’s not entirely untrue, though the presence of Google’s European headquarters has loosened up the corporate culture a little bit. The financial capital of the country is an eminently civilized place, a city of only 400,000 — approximately the population of Tulsa — but home to more than 200 bookstores and dozens of museums, theaters, concert halls, and other cultural venues. On a Friday night, there are many bottles of wine and $18 cocktails being consumed in the bars and restaurants in the old city, but no sign of public drunkenness. There is a much more liberal attitude about smoking than in New York City or Austin, but you can walk for miles around Lake Zurich and hardly see a cigarette butt.

It is shockingly expensive, in part because it is Switzerland and in part because the value of the franc has soared in response to the seemingly endless euro crisis. The Swiss lament the effect of the supercharged franc on their tourism and exports, but they lament a little smugly. And they seem to have a great deal to be smug about, rated first place on everything from the Legatum Institute’s rankings of best-governed countries to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. Switzerland’s per capita GDP is 5 percent higher than that of the United States, it’s in a three-way tie with Japan and San Marino for first place in life expectancy, its literacy rate is 99 percent, and its murder rate is one-seventh the American one. Challenged at a public forum by an admirer of Sweden who pointed out that the Scandinavian social democracy had very little poverty, Milton Friedman retorted that there were no poor Swedes in the United States, either. Switzerland brings up the same question: Is it successful because of the character of its institutions, or is it successful because it is full of Swiss people? Is it the federalism and direct democracy, or the buttoned-down, tidy, punctual, efficient, conservative, thrifty, German-speaking people without the atavistic appetite for invading their neighbors?

There is much to admire in Swiss political institutions. Former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul jokes that he’d like to be the president of Switzerland — “Nobody would know who I was,” he says. And it is true that many Swiss, even those who keep up with the political news, do not know who their president is, which is unsurprising inasmuch as the country does not really have one. Its head of state and national executive is a seven-member council whose members rotate through one-year terms as “President of the Swiss Confederation,” a primus inter pares office that carries with it no special authority or trappings. Switzerland has a relatively sparse history of national aristocracy, and its modern executive is in line with its democratic and republican heritage. American presidents spend tens of millions of dollars or more every time they leave the White House; members of the Swiss federal council get around on trams and commuter trains like everybody else. They are frequently seen in public without special security precautions, and constituents are known to stop them on the street to discuss matters of interest. There is no Swiss Air Force One, a fact of which the Swiss people should be proud. (Harry S. Truman, who presided over less imperial times, got around in a presidential airplane called “The Sacred Cow.”) The members of the federal council do have access to a handful of government airplanes: two Dassaults, a Beechcraft, and a Cessna. Rush Limbaugh has grander jets. When George W. Bush landed at Heathrow to visit with Tony Blair, he brought along 700 people — 150 national-security advisers, 50 political aides, four cooks, a team of doctors, 200 assorted bureaucrats, and, according to London’s Telegraph, a “15-strong sniffer-dog team.” Bush brought more sniffer dogs to London than the Swiss finance minister brought officials with him to negotiate a trade deal with China.

#page#Up until the 1990s, the Swiss federal government employed about 2 percent of the country’s work force; today, after military cutbacks and the privatization of some state-run enterprises, that number is closer to 1 percent, the vast majority of them working for the railways and the post office. Outside the workers in those national enterprises, the federal government employs only 32,000 people. Because tax rates must be set by statute and because all Swiss statutes are subject to public referendum, Swiss citizens essentially set their own tax rates. Taxes are imposed separately by the federal, cantonal, and municipal governments, so there is a great deal of variation in tax burden depending on one’s place of residence, from a top marginal rate of 32.3 percent in Jura to one of 12.3 percent in Zug. According to a 2010 study by the consultancy KPMG comparing effective net income taxes and social-insurance taxes across countries, $100,000 in income was taxed at a considerably lower rate in Switzerland (about 16 percent) than in the United States (almost 25 percent). The Swiss pay other taxes as well — a modest VAT and a capital tax — but enjoy much lower corporate-income taxes, exemption from double taxation in many circumstances, and, perhaps most important, no national capital-gains tax.

That of course makes Switzerland very attractive to high-income people, especially to wealthy foreigners who benefit from certain special tax provisions in their favor, particularly the ability to calculate one’s tax liability based on expenditures (in practice, 30 percent of five times one’s annual rent or the rental value of an owner-occupied home) rather than on actual income. That is, unless those foreign nationals happen to be subject to one of two national tax regimes that attempt to seize their nationals’ income regardless of where in the world they earn it — the first is North Korea, the second is the United States.

The tax climate makes Switzerland especially appealing to non-American foreigners who are Swiss at heart, meaning people who make Donald Trump money but do not feel any particular desire to apply gold leaf to the millwork in the boudoir. The Swiss like to say that in Switzerland, everybody is middle class; that’s more aspiration than fact, and there is a nouveau riche demographic mad for diamonds and Lamborghinis, but they are held in gentle scorn, the way old Silicon Valley hands chuckle at newly minted millionaires having their “red-car year” before settling into a sensible, grey German sedan. Oprah Winfrey claimed to have been mistreated at Trois Pommes, a high-end boutique in Zurich, and her story reeks of a very non-Swiss odor of “Do you know who I am?” I visited the boutique in question, and I did not find the staff especially friendly — I found them especially Swiss, which is to say helpful and polite and disinclined to chit-chat, especially in English. During her travels at home, Ms. Winfrey complained of being denied admittance to an Hermès boutique that had closed for the day. I went by the Hermès shop in Zurich and asked what would happen if I should try to enter the store to do a little after-hours shopping: “It is not possible.” Ms. Winfrey was in town to celebrate the nuptials of Tina Turner, a longtime resident of the Zurich suburbs (she lives in a home picturesquely named the Château Algonquin) who is said to speak fluent German and who was wed to a German music executive. While Ms. Winfrey was nonplussed by the etiquette of examining $35,000 handbags, she never got around to asking the more important question: Why does Tina Turner of Nutbush, Tenn., reside in Switzerland? And why, a few months before her wedding, did she participate in another civil ceremony in Zurich, one of an arguably more consequential character? In January, Tina Turner renounced her U.S. citizenship, one of a record number of Americans to do so this year.

The economic environment and the Texas-style gun culture (see “Armed, Not Dangerous,” National Review, February 11, 2013) offer conservatives a great deal to like about Switzerland. The combination of peace, prosperity, independence, federalism, and well-ordered democracy produces some very good results, though by no means utopian ones. Zurich recently installed a series of publicly funded drive-through prostitution stations, new controls on executive compensation were a smashing success in a national referendum, and while the presence of state-supported churches would drive secular-minded liberals foaming mad, conservatives must mourn the fact that the number of Swiss who identify as irreligious climbed from 1 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 2010. The churches are mostly empty, though the church bells ring the hours — as though Switzerland, of all places, were in need of expensive timepieces. Catholicism, the largest religious affiliation in Switzerland, is in decline, as are Protestantism and Judaism. No credit for guessing which religion has seen powerful growth since 1970.

When liberals point to the successes of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, conservatives habitually retort that ethnolinguistic homogeneity plays an important role in those societies: Diversity, it turns out, is nobody’s strength, while a relative lack of diversity is associated with social trust and with more trustworthy institutions. People are less likely to cheat those who remind them of their grandmothers, and public servants are more solicitous of the well-being of people who remind them of themselves. Beyond homogeneity, the Nordic countries have long and well-established traditions of social solidarity, honesty, and cooperation. Grafting Swedish institutions onto Louisiana would not turn New Orleans into Stockholm. So what about the admirable Swiss institutions? Would they long survive in a culture that is not Swiss?

#page#The first of the invaders came as infiltrators, holing up in cheap hotels and setting up camp in tents around Lake Zurich. They began as a trickle, hardly noticeable, and then turned into an army, 1 million strong, an occupying force that would radically change Zurich in a matter of hours. They are the products of the American ghettos — the black ghetto and the white ghetto — though few of them are Americans. The world-bestriding thump of rap music starts in the early afternoon, and soon the smell of marijuana — that great global signifier of low-level miscreants — wafts through the mellow sunshine around the lake.

The Zurich Street Parade, heir to Berlin’s Love Parade, is a global happening, one that brings more than twice as many visitors to Zurich as the city has residents. The global youth culture may be reflexively anti-American, but it is at the same time as American as a McDonald’s double cheeseburger, wrappers from which are soon strewn about the Tessinerplatz as pools of vomit fester on the sideway in front of the nearby Hotel Ascot. The Street Parade is a celebration of electronic dance music and the subculture associated with it. Signs and fliers beg participants to forgo the use of drugs and other antisocial behavior, but these attempts to encourage self-government are categorically ignored. Soon, the previously unseen Zurich police are engaged in heated confrontations in the park, shouting first in German and then in Italian at vandals about their business before the sun has even set. Revelers in front of the Enge train station pelt cyclists with bottles, and the sounds of police and ambulance sirens soon are drowning out the church bells.

After dark, things get worse. The dancers follow around several dozen “Lovemobiles,” from which DJs play the music that the million have come to hear. They are costumed, and living up to their costumes — stripper chic blending into hooker chic, biker chic fading into prison chic, sexy/slutty variations on hippies, Scotsmen, construction workers, soldiers, commedia dell’arte characters, lederhosen-clad Germans, and a psychedelic tribute to the Rubik’s Cube. A man dressed in a satyr costume, complete with furry white legs, relieves himself in front of a Prada shop. The only people wearing suits are members of the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jewish community. Trash fills the streets, broken glass, fast-food wrappers, Heineken bottles, Stoli bottles. A fellow is having what looks to be a bad reaction to a class of psychoactive drugs with which the electronic-dance-music scene has more than a passing familiarity. And, of course, everywhere the faces are painted blue — not the blue of William Wallace’s bravehearts, but the inescapable blue of the iPhone screens underlighting their visages. It is ugly, chaotic, menacing, and thoroughly un-Swiss.

Except for the money part. Robert Soos, a spokesman for the police department, says the “positive effect of the Street Parade is undisputed.” He needs to take another look at the numbers: A local newspaper estimates the economic impact of the Street Parade at about $200 million, or $200 per participant, about the cost of a cheap hotel room and breakfast in Zurich. The ravers seem to be doing a fair amount of damage per capita, and it would not be surprising if the city in fact lost money on the event, especially once one accounted for the business lost by firms that shutter their establishments for the barbarian invasion.

It is said that the Swiss wired their bridges, tunnels, and train crossings with explosives to be detonated in the event of an invasion by the Germans, Soviets, or other adventuresome European powers. They should have blown them up before the Street Parade got under way, but instead they added 100 trains to the schedule, facilitating the sacking of their city with efficiency and punctuality. An elderly gentleman goes to throw away his newspaper and is confronted by an overflowing trash can, which he looks at as though it were an alien artifact. Trash piled in the street? It is not possible. (But it is.)

“Dance for Freedom” is this year’s theme, but the freedom to do what? The freedom to say no to a rabble intent on treating Zurich like Keith Moon used to treat hotel rooms? That, too, apparently is not possible.

Secular Zurich has nowhere to go on Sunday mornings, and many of the city’s shops and cafés are closed. That gives the municipal authorities an opportunity to clean up, which, judging by the state of the congealed vomit on the sidewalks, should take most of the day.

In the contest between Swiss institutions and the ascendant world youth culture, the Swiss, descendants of fearsome mercenaries though they may be, don’t stand a chance. Consequently, the Swiss are thinking, quietly and politely, about what makes them Swiss. More than 30 percent of the population today is either foreign-born or the children of immigrants, many of them from culturally related European countries such as Italy and Germany, many of them globe-trotting gazillionaires but many of them not. Switzerland’s health-care system, which has many admirable features, has long imposed price controls on doctors, which has meant that fewer Swiss enter the medical profession and more immigrants take on those positions. Without quite saying as much, Switzerland has recently launched a program to reduce the foreign-born share of its medical work force. In 2007, the Swiss People’s party, at that time the largest party in the parliament, pressed for strong immigration reforms, including the deportation of the families of immigrants convicted of crimes. Foreigners commit four times as much crime in Switzerland as the native-born, and pointing out that fact earned the Swiss People’s party an investigation by the United Nations. In 2013, Switzerland announced the imposition of quotas on immigration from Western Europe in order to stem the tide of those fleeing ruined euro-zone economies for the safe haven in the Alps.

Back on the train, which takes off 28 seconds after its scheduled time of departure, one sees familiar territory. Train travelers see the back end of everything, whether in Stuttgart or New Jersey, and the graffiti that begins a few blocks from the Zurich station suggests that the barbarism of the Street Parade crowd is not entirely imported. For all of its well-scrubbed prosperity, there is a whisper of Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” a sense that the peak of Swiss civilization may be in the past, and that what awaits is managing a gradual decline that still looks pretty good next to the rapid decline of the European Union. Whether what comes next looks more like the Street Parade or more like the French banlieues or more like something else cannot be known. The Swiss have a bit of time and great deal of money to smooth things over as they figure it out, but perhaps not as much of either as they would like.

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