I Went Looking for Trouble in Berlin (and found healthcare!)
Traveling in Germany as an American I was left with one thought: why can’t we live this way? Of course modern Germans have their problems, but it seems wherever you go it is clean, safe, organized. They pay taxes, sure, but receive nearly free healthcare, college, and federally-mandated vacation time. The trains run on time. They have trains everywhere.
But there had to be more to it. So I went looking for trouble, asking Berliners where I shouldn’t go, where the off-limits parts of town are, you know, the places I wouldn’t be safe. It turned out to be a difficult question. OK, there were some areas where I might be pickpocketed at night, and a few parks where if I went in search of someone to sell me drugs I might find him. Prostitution is legal and sin is orderly. The closest I saw to a fight was four drunk non-German tourists hassling passers by. I went to an immigrant area which was statistically Berlin’s highest crime zone, and saw lots of graffiti and received some close looks but nothing more threatening than that. I couldn’t find a really bad part of town, and I tried.
A similar quest in nearly any major American city would be a lot easier. We run our lives, never mind plan a tourist’s itinerary, around the bad parts of town. I live in New York City, where we play a kind of parlor game about which areas are not as bad as they used to be. In Alphabet City where they filmed Taxi Driver in the 1970s the former crack houses now rent out tiny apartments for over $3,000 a month. There is a moderate push-pull between the border of the Upper East Side and Harlem as gentrification drives up housing prices.
The police presence around the areas in Harlem where tourists venture — the legendary Apollo Theater, the soul food restaurants — is effective even as the area still retains its snap. I was savagely beaten not far away, near the White Castle which serves as a kind of Checkpoint Charlie between zones. I wandering into five black teenagers pounding the life out of a much smaller Hispanic kid and yelled for them to stop or I’d call the cops. They quit, but circled around the block and attacked me, all at 4pm in the afternoon, you know, just after school.
So at age 60 I threw my first punch in anger since maybe 8th grade. After the cops came and the attackers scattered (and nobody nearby saw nothing) I was told I was likely part of an initiation, as no one made any attempt to rob me or the Hispanic kid. The cops said almost certainly a gang member was taping it all, so I should check online. It made me remember how the insurgents in Iraq would also have a video guy nearby when they set off an IED.
Pray for the tourist who alights at Hunts Point in the Bronx. The neighborhood has the highest reported crime rate in New York City, including the most violent crime. And given the poor relations between residents and the police, you can be assured reported crimes represent only some sliver of what really happens. Over 50 percent of the area lives in high or extreme poverty. Unemployment is among the highest in the state. It’s all just eight subway stops from Jeffrey Epstein’s old mansion.
Hunts Point is split between blacks and people from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but race is less the criteria for victims than familiarity. Very, very few people on those streets don’t already live there, and as a stranger of any hue you are unwelcome except as prey. Daytime, in and out of a roast chicken joint, okay, but stay off the side streets, keep your eyes down, avoid displays of gang colors (and you better know what they are) and, well, just don’t go there.
A good friend spent a couple of years in a Hunts Point high school under Teach for America, our national service program designed to destroy the souls of liberal arts graduates, and was told her most dangerous days would be her first, until the beast that is the neighborhood adjusted to her presence. Luckily she he was quickly subsumed as a neutral element, and by the end of her tenure probie gang members in her classes would even graciously suggest she not hang around after school certain days when trouble was expected.
New York is also awash in hate crime, centered in parts of Queens and Brooklyn formerly considered “safe.” Hate crimes reported this year show an 83 percent rise over the corresponding period last year, what the governor calls a “growing cancer.” In one recent incident, Heil Hitler, a swastika, and the words “gas chamber” were spray painted on a predominantly Jewish club which counts many Holocaust survivors among its members. The hate crime wave is under-reported, however, in that the majority of the incidents are anti-Semitic, and the perpetrators often black, as once-separated neighborhoods grow together, all counter-narrative to the national white supremacy meme.
On the S-Bahn train trip back into Berlin center from another not-so-bad bad neighborhood I was preoccupied with the people around me. None of them were really poor, or even could become poor. Under Germany’s social system, there is only what they call “relative poverty,” with the lowest levels of households receiving about 60 percent of the average German income. So everybody eats.
And everybody gets medical care; the healthcare system in Germany is funded by statutory contributions ensuring healthcare for all. You can also choose private insurance. The system can be complicated, but basically takes about 7 percent out of everyone’s paycheck, matched by their employer. Absent yearly copays of maybe $50, that’s it. If you make below a minimum wage, you pay nothing and still get the same healthcare as others. The system also covers long-term nursing care.
College is free. At work, there are maternity benefits, a cash child allowance, and laws ensuring expectant mothers stay home for six weeks before birth and eight weeks after. Child mortality rates are almost twice as good as in the U.S. overall, and staggering compared to forgotten places like Hunts Point. The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t have national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave.
For every German there is a national pension plan, work-related accident insurance, and welfare for extreme situations. No one lives homeless except by choice. The U.S. is also the only advanced economy not guaranteeing workers any vacation, paid or unpaid, and the only highly developed country (other than South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. In contrast, European Union nations guarantee workers at least four weeks paid vacation. Among the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. has the lowest minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage.
In Germany there are plenty of rights. Free speech and freedom of religion all you want, elections at all levels. Even with restrictions Germany has one of the highest global rates of gun ownership. And none of that gets mixed up in questions of whether to provide everyone healthcare, because it has nothing to do with providing everyone healthcare, or a college education, or maternity leave.
I’m sure there are downsides beyond what a short term visitor can see. But look around Germany: whatever the tax rates, it works for a very broad range of people. Not perfectly, but it works and it’s better than what we have in what we unironically and constantly otherwise remind ourselves is the Greatest Country in the World. You can’t get past that. I don’t know how to twist every detail to make it work in America, and I’m not sure Bernie or Elizabeth or whomever we could elect can try hard enough (Trump and Biden are campaigning on not trying), but there it is, in Germany. And in the UK, Japan, China, Canada, etc. To an American, it all sounds too good to be true.
I write with a certain desperation, not wonderment. I’m not an undergrad who just took his first trip overseas, amazed at the great big world. I lived abroad for 24 years, used national health care in three nations, and traveled to many others. I’ve been a Democrat, voted Republican and third party, been called a fascist and a liberal, had long hair and short, lived in my car and paid off a mortgage.
In Germany I had some sense of what life would be like freed from the burdens which define American life: no worries about healthcare, or old age care. Money enough to really live on if I lose my job or become disabled. No decades-long burdens to get my education, followed by more to help pay the rising costs of my kids’. No worries about outliving my savings, or having a carefully crafted retirement plan blown to shreds by a recession, or being struck down illness my insurance won’t pay for. To never have to wonder how to pay for their spouse’s life-saving medications or watch them whither. What would life be like absolved of those fears?
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.