What makes Switzerland tick?

That’s what Jeremy asked me the other day, in reference to the article What Makes Switzerland So Competitive? I apologise for the long-winded, rambling result.

It’s an interesting time to be in Switzerland. Having benefited from various alignments with the EU over recent years, a popular vote in January 2014 supported the limitation of immigration to Switzerland in ways that contravened established agreements. The many complicated arrangements with the EU have a simple principle at the base of them. If any one is retracted, all bets are off. The EU showed how serious this was by coming down on Switzerland immediately like a ton of bricks. It made a showcase of education, instantly withdrawing the rights Switzerland had established to be part of Erasmus, the general EU pool of money.

Those in education not only in Switzerland but also in the EU are anxiously waiting to see what the consequences of this are going to be. At the moment this struck, Manny’s University of Geneva research team was in the middle of a collaborative research proposal with various other European education bodies to be submitted for funding consideration. What was going to happen? Nobody knew. The Swiss authorities gave general indications that they would come up with all the funding necessary for the Swiss side of such projects and that applications should go ahead. Right now they are waiting to hear from the EU. At the very least things are more complicated, as if they are successful at that level, then comes applications to the Swiss authorities. And nobody knows if it will make the chances of getting EU funding worse or maybe better – after all, presumably the EU has some self-interest in getting Swiss money into its research.

That’s one side of things, the research side. Then there’s the teaching side which has also been put into turmoil, with Switzerland having a very strong higher education presence of internationals, needless to say, many from Europe.

So at the moment, there are political machinations at work to try to implement the popular vote whilst not implementing the popular vote. That would probably be an easy enough task for the slippery politicians of most countries, but politics in Switzerland is so different from anywhere else, that I can’t see easy solutions. If the people are a rock, the EU is a very hard place indeed. No wonder nobody wants to be head of the system here. There are potentially profound implications. It isn’t clear to me that the EU did best by big boy bullying tactics at the outset. It got my back up and I’m not even Swiss. The question is, how will the Switzerland travel if it isn’t able to maintain its various EU agreements? It seems to me that historically Switzerland’s been a solid performer for far longer than it’s been party to the modern political developments of Europe. It might lose economically, but maybe it will make some gains too. Surely any country that gets to be picky about who it lets in has to get something from that. It’s very odd to watch the interaction of Switzerland with people coming into the country with nothing to give it. A couple of years ago it was found necessary to create a new law to deal with the idea of anti-social crime. That speaks volumes for recent change in society and one cannot dispute that it is non-Swiss people who are the problem. Equally, keeping more control over the quantity and quality of who comes in is much better for the less skilled Swiss workers who are seeing non-Swiss undercutting them – illegally, I imagine, but nonetheless, it is happening. This is a historical pattern: it is always the wealthy who are more welcoming of migration because they have everything to gain from the driving down of working class incomes and nothing to lose. The workers, who have everything to lose are naturally concerned.

Whatever favours the EU thinks it’s done Switzerland by flooding the country with extremely bad buskers, now that Switzerland’s questioning its need for an infinite array of buskers performing Santa Lucia and El Condor Pasa on everything from the electrified pan pipes (my particular most hated) to upside down woks (don’t get me started) what’s going to change? Personally, I’m hoping for a substantial improvement in my quality of life. But I’m biased. If the local busker were Placido Domingo I still wouldn’t want him outside my window.

I was rather surprised recently when a friend working in the University of Geneva said that Swiss don’t go to university. The figures seem to bear that out. Switzerland has a strong tradition of preparing people for the workforce with practical education and many take that path. Presumably it isn’t looked down upon the way it is in Australia and the UK, where it was necessary to change the names of Institutes to Universities to conform with a modern notion that learning useful things is damning. I have no idea if Institutes kept on teaching useful things while giving the linguistic illusion otherwise or if they did in fact begin to teach more university style where graduates generally find upon entering the work force that now they have to learn how to function in their field. At any rate, Swiss don’t seem to consider themselves inferior if they opt for such education. I think this is part of the Swiss sense of equality, a sort of capitalist version of how that ethic works in Scandinavian countries. Unlike Australia, the UK and the US (not to mention many other parts of the world) being a politician does not make you superior in any way. Theoretically nor does being a banker.

I wonder if the army of Swiss who go through these more practical courses include those in banking? That’s another big problem for Switzerland at the moment and I have no idea if it will have an economic impact. Will concessions to transparency in Swiss banking not only neutralise its advantage compared with the systems of other countries, but also put a dent in that healthy looking glow Swiss people have about them each morning as they open the paper over a croissant to see how much the Franc went up the day before. There is clearly much angst, the bankers not understanding why they have done wrong – even now I understand they don’t see any moral dilemmas in their behaviour in the period around WWII, so one can imagine there is much outrage at the moment. The biggest of these issues is the US trying to extract money from Swiss banks, the holdings of US citizens. It might seem obvious that the US should do this. On the other hand, it seems a trifle peculiar to me that the US doesn’t try to get more out of its own sometimes criminally liable banking system rather than Switzerland’s. Is it easier to deal with Swiss banks than their own?

Speaking of Swiss behaviour during WWII makes me think of raising the issue of racism. I’m rather shocked, coming from Australia to observe the anti-semitism here. On the one hand historical anti-semitism – the habit of anti-semitism – is alive and well. On the other hand, right now, the left-wing liberal support of Palestine – Israel out – is making bedfellows of these two groups. I’m not just talking about the idea of people being anti-semitic, reading about it in the newspapers. I mean all sorts of people I know here, nice vegetarians who believe in Gaia, nice university educated psychologists, nice chess players – you name it – will spout anti-semitic opinion with no sense of discomfort whatsoever. I am greatly discomforted by this, but have no idea what to do about it, short of going back home to Australia. But how does it relate to Switzerland’s on-going prosperity, racism? That I don’t understand. Nor do I understand how the sense of racism fits in with actual practice. I see nothing that indicates there is institutionalised racism in Switzerland and I don’t know that it is any worse here than in other parts of Europe. The many Australian friends I have who bang on about Australia being racist really need to get educated. I don’t know a place with less racism.

On the issue of tertiary education in Switzerland, this undoubtedly has lots of spin, but nonetheless many interesting facts too: campus-switzerland-e. I am particularly surprised to see that females outnumber males at universities including Geneva’s at 60/40 ratio. Unfortunately it doesn’t indicate gender differences for international students, so one can’t conclude that it is Swiss females who are opting for this path in great numbers than males. One of the things it is anxious to point out is the deficiencies with how measurements of investment in education are given by The Most Educated Countries in the World, which rather idiotically discusses percentage of GDP that goes into education. That only makes sense if all countries have equal GDP. So, as the Swiss plaintively point out, barring the US, they spend the most on education per capita. Damned statistics!

What about global warming? Let’s suppose it exists – the people who own all the skiing infrastructure in Switzerland have been cut-pricing long term memberships, and I guess they know – is this not potentially disastrous for Switzerland? I don’t think they have any forward planning for it. As it is, if it doesn’t rain for a few days drought’s declared. But again we see collusion in effect between leftwing liberals and right-wing racists in so far as I understand there is another vote coming up to restrict immigration on the basis of protecting an already stressed environment.

That brings us to Geneva’s housing crisis. Partly at issue is extending outwards, taking away valuable farming land, partly at issue is not wanting high-rises. One of the lovely aspects of Swiss cities is the avoidance of tall buildings. Thus even though I live right in the centre of town on the fifth floor, I can see mountains from some of my windows. So, partly at issue is the insistence on low-rise which gives aesthetic quality to where-ever one lives here. Partly it’s to do with the relationship between people and property, who owns it, who rents it and how. There is a very detailed English report on Real Estate in Switzerland 2014 which is worth looking at, if only to see how things are in Geneva.


I understand, by the way, that Geneva is broke. It suffers mismanagement and corruption the same as administration in other countries. But I imagine, compared with other parts of Switzerland, it suffers also from having a large population of incomeless or close to incomeless inhabitants. Between the many temporary inhabitants from other countries who are students, or working for a pittance at Cern, or working for nothing as interns, who is paying tax? Who is supporting local business? Not, as a rule, the young internationals who shop in other countries or on the internet without any interest in the principles of well-paid workers, which is part of the Swiss ethos. Is this going to significantly change things for the Swiss economy, much as it tries to protect itself?

How important is Switzerland’s multi-lingualism to its prosperity? If it is, will it continue to be, as mechanical ways of interpreting improve? Its multi -lingual and -cultural history makes it hard to generalise about the country. But one can confidently say it is a bizarre mix of conservativism and open-mindedness. It is pointed out how highly the Swiss rate in terms of innovation, one of the things that makes its education system so attractive to buy into. But it is, of course, the Swiss who didn’t finish giving women the vote until the 1970s. Perhaps CERN’s being surrounded by cows is a good image of all this. There’s a lot of dairy in Switzerland…and a lot of science.

I can’t help thinking grassroots democracy, as the Swiss practise like nobody else, combined with stolid pragmatism, are the key. A story that caught the world’s eye earlier this year was the Ethiopian pilot who hijacked his plane and took it to Geneva. Internationally, much fun was made of the fact that Swiss territory was entered during lunch break and so the airforce was not on duty. The airforce tried to use this as a reason to buy more planes, the proposal going to a popular vote. But the Swiss are so sensible, they were having none of it. Lunch IS important here. Everybody, as far as I can see, gets a 2 hour break and most people have a proper meal. Maybe that’s the key to Switzerland’s competitiveness.


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