Beaton: Why can’t we be more like Switzerland?
The Aspen Beat
I came across a big runaway lawnmower as I recently walked along a country road in Switzerland. Or so I thought.
On further inspection, I saw a distant worker with a joystick controlling it remotely. Safely away from passing traffic, he used this remote-controlled lawnmower to neatly mow down weeds on the shoulder of the road. As I gazed slack-jawed at this contrivance, he must have thought, “Oh, another backward American.”
Switzerland is famous for its banking and pharmaceutical industries, but it’s also a technology center. It’s especially well-regarded for its machinery. The machine-tool industry of the northeastern United States migrated to Asia a generation ago for cheap labor, but Switzerland’s is stronger than ever.
That’s not because labor is cheap in Switzerland. It’s not. Wages are very high. But the recipients of those high wages are extremely productive. In fact, the gross domestic product per person is the highest in the world.
The Swiss like work. The unemployment rate is an absurdly low 3.3 percent. Job satisfaction is high, and sick days are mostly unused. Trade unions are rare, and in contrast to neighboring France, strikes are unheard of.
Taxes, too, are low. The corporate rate is especially low.
Switzerland is not part of the European Union but has a free-trade agreement with it. The Swiss trade with the rest of Europe but don’t bow to Euro-crats in Brussels.
The fellow controlling the lawnmower was probably not a college graduate. In fact, two-thirds of high school graduates go to vocational school, not college.
The Swiss see this as a triumph of their educational system, not a failure. There’s no educational-industrial complex. The schools serve their students, not their faculty and administrators. And they don’t teach self-esteem. They teach how to make a living.
It helps that the Swiss respect tradesmen. The cleverness of a mechanic repairing a piece of farm machinery in a village is valued as much as the financial acumen of an international banker trading stocks in Zurich.
It’s not that the two are paid the same; they aren’t. But the lower-paid one seems not to mind so much when he gets the respect he deserves.
Some of those Swiss tradesmen still make the finest watches in the world, and the lawnmower operator may have been wearing one. The watches worn by the Swiss themselves are not gaudy brands like Rolex that are mass-produced for export to a status-conscious world. They are handcrafted (and more expensive) timepieces that exemplify Swiss craftsmanship.
That Zurich banker is not disrespected, either. The Swiss see businessmen as important facets of their prosperity and culture. They don’t bash business.
They welcome foreigners, as you might expect in a country with four official languages (in addition to English, which most Swiss also speak). Border controls are lax (I walked in from France past an unattended border post).
But the police can stop anyone to ask for proof of legal residency or a valid passport. Those without them are deported. If you want a job, your employer will ask for proof of legal residency or risk a hefty fine. They’ve received many immigrants over the years, but they’ve been the legal kind.
In fact, the country is a melting pot of immigrants and European cultures. It was pushed and pulled, but never broken, by Gauls, Etruscans, Germanic tribes, the Romans and a succession of European kingdoms and empires.
Aware of its turbulent history at Europe’s crossroads, Switzerland requires men (and allows women) to perform military service.
Upon completion of their service, the soldiers keep their weapons. The rate of gun ownership is consequently among the highest in the world, and these are military-style weapons designed to kill people. But the murder and violent-crime rates are very low.
Adolf Hitler knew in World War II that every Swiss village is an army with an arsenal. He completely surrounded Switzerland and drew up invasion plans but never dared to implement them.
As machine-lovers, the Swiss certainly like their vehicles. I’ve never seen so many German cars and Italian motorcycles in one place.
But not every place. Cars are forbidden within 5 miles of Zermatt, for example, where you can walk around gazing up at the Matterhorn without worrying about traffic other than an occasional electric delivery cart or a Valais goat that wandered in from the mountainside.
I know what you’ll say. You’ll say that Switzerland couldn’t exist without the umbrella of military protection provided by America and NATO. Fair enough.
But still. Regular readers know that I love America, but I think we could learn some things from this place where the only drones are lawnmowers.
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Like the trails we hike and ride upon, our forest journeys can be capricious, going down an intriguing path, unintended in the beginning, but bringing a sweet, or bitter, experience before we’re through.