Category Archives: Cities

Living in Switzerland ruined me for America and its lousy work culture

Chantal Panozzo | February 1, 2016 | Vox

I was halfway through a job interview when I realized I was wrinkling my nose. I couldn’t help myself. A full-time freelance position with a long commute, no benefits, and a quarter of my old pay was the best they could do? I couldn’t hide how I felt about that, and the 25-year-old conducting the interview noticed.

“Are you interested in permanent jobs instead?” she asked.

“I could consider a permanent job if it was part-time,” I said.

She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language and went right back to her pitch: long commute, full-time, no benefits. No way, I thought. Who would want to do that? And then it hit me: Either I had become a completely privileged jerk or my own country was not as amazing as I had once thought it to be. This wasn’t an unusually bad offer: It was just American Reality.

Now that I’m back, I’m angry that my own country isn’t providing more for its people

Before I moved to Switzerland for almost a decade, American Reality was all I knew. I was living in a two-bedroom apartment making $30,000 a year in a job where I worked almost seven days a week with no overtime pay and received 10 days of paid time off a year.

In other words, for the hours worked, I was making minimum wage, if that. The glamour of this job was supposed to make up for the hours, but in reality, working every weekend is a ticket to burnout — not success.

My husband and I were so accustomed to American Reality that when he was offered an opportunity to work in Switzerland, we both thought about travel and adventure — not about improving our quality of life. It hadn’t occurred to us that we could improve our quality of life simply by moving.

But without realizing it, or even asking for it, a better life quality came to us. And this is why, now that I’m back, I’m angry that my own country isn’t providing more for its people. I will never regret living abroad. It taught me to understand another culture. And it taught me to see my own. But it also taught me something else — to lose touch with the American version of reality.

Here are seven ways living abroad made it hard to return to American life.

1) I had work-life balance

The Swiss work hard, but they have a strong work-life balance. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average Swiss worker earned the equivalent of $91,574 a year in 2013, while the average American worker earned only $55,708. But the real story is that the average American had to work 219 hours more per year for this lesser salary.

Which brings us to lunch. In Switzerland, you don’t arrive to a meeting late, but you also don’t leave for your lunch break a second past noon. If it’s summer, jumping into the lake to swim with the swans is an acceptable way to spend your lunch hour. If you eat a sandwich at your desk, people will scold you. I learned this the hard way.

“Ugh,” said Tom, a Swiss art director I shared an office with at a Zurich ad agency. “It smells like someone ate their lunch in here.” He threw open the windows and fanned the air.

“They did. I ate a sandwich here,” I said.

Tom looked at me like I was crazy.

“No. Tomorrow you’re having a proper lunch. With me,” he said.

The next day, exactly at noon, we rode the funicular to a restaurant where we dined al fresco above Zurich. After lunch, we strolled down the hill. I felt guilty for being gone for an hour and a half. But no one had missed us at the office.

Lunchtime is sacred time in Switzerland. When I was on maternity leave, my husband came home for lunch to help me care for our daughter. This strengthened our marriage. Many families still reunite during weekdays over the lunch hour.

Weekends in Switzerland encourage leisure time, too. On Sundays, you can’t even shop — most stores are closed. You are semi-required to hike in the Alps with your family. It’s just what you do.

he author and her daughter in Urnaesch, Switzerland, watching the cows come home. (Brian Opyd)

2) I had time and money

The Swiss have a culture of professional part-time work, and as a result, part-time jobs include every benefit of a full-time job, including vacation time and payment into two Swiss pension systems. Salaries for part-time work are set as a percentage of a professional full-time salary­ because unlike in the United States, part-time jobs are not viewed as necessarily unskilled jobs with their attendant lower pay.

During my Swiss career, I was employed by various companies from 25 percent to 100 percent. When I worked 60 percent, for example, I worked three days a week. A job that is 50 percent could mean the employee works five mornings a week or, as I once did, two and a half days a week. The freedom to choose the amount of work that was right for me at varying points of my life was wonderful and kept me engaged and happy.

When I took only 10 days for a trip to Spain, my colleagues chastised me for taking so little time off

Often, jobs in Switzerland are advertised with the percentage of work that is expected. Other times, you can negotiate what percentage you would like to work or request to go from working five days a week to four days a week, for example. There is normally little risk involved in asking.

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How Housing’s New Players Spiraled Into Banks’ Old Mistakes

MATTHEW GOLDSTEIN, RACHEL ABRAMS and BEN PROTESS | JUNE 26, 2016 | NYT

When the housing crisis sent the American economy to the brink of disaster in 2008, millions of people lost their homes. The banking system had failed homeowners and their families.

New investors soon swept in — mainly private equity firms — promising to do better.

But some of these new investors are repeating the mistakes that banks committed throughout the housing crisis, an investigation by The New York Times has found. They are quickly foreclosing on homeowners. They are losing families’ mortgage paperwork, much as the banks did. And many of these practices were enabled by the federal government, which sold tens of thousands of discounted mortgages to private equity investors, while making few demands on how they treated struggling homeowners.

The rising importance of private equity in the housing market is one of the most consequential transformations of the post-crisis American financial landscape. A home, after all, is the single largest investment most families will ever make.

Private equity firms, and the mortgage companies they own, face less oversight than the banks. And yet they are the cleanup crew for the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression.

Out of the more than a dozen private equity firms operating in the housing industry, The Times examined three of the largest to assess their impact on homeowners and renters.

Lone Star Funds’ mortgage operation has aggressively pushed thousands of homeowners toward foreclosure, according to housing data, interviews with borrowers and records obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Lone Star ranks among the country’s biggest buyers of delinquent mortgages from the government and banks.

Nationstar Mortgage, which leaped over big banks to become the fourth-largest collector of mortgage bills, repeatedly lost loan files and failed to detect errors in other documents. These mistakes, according to confidential regulatory records from a 2014 examination, put “borrowers at significant risk of servicing and foreclosure abuses.”

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When You Dial 911 and Wall Street Answers

DANIELLE IVORY, BEN PROTESS and KITTY BENNETT | JUNE 25, 2016 | NYT

Since the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms have increasingly taken over public services like emergency care and firefighting, often with dire effects.

A Tennessee woman slipped into a coma and died after an ambulance company took so long to assemble a crew that one worker had time for a cigarette break.

Paramedics in New York had to covertly swipe medical supplies from a hospital to restock their depleted ambulances after emergency runs.

A man in the suburban South watched a chimney fire burn his house to the ground as he waited for the fire department, which billed him anyway and then sued him for $15,000 when he did not pay.

In each of these cases, someone dialed 911 and Wall Street answered.

The business of driving ambulances and operating fire brigades represents just one facet of a profound shift on Wall Street and Main Street alike, a New York Times investigation has found. Since the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms, the “corporate raiders” of an earlier era, have increasingly taken over a wide array of civic and financial services that are central to American life.

Today, people interact with private equity when they dial 911, pay their mortgage, play a round of golf or turn on the kitchen tap for a glass of water.

Private equity put a unique stamp on these businesses. Unlike other for-profit companies, which often have years of experience making a product or offering a service, private equity is primarily skilled in making money. And in many of these businesses, The Times found, private equity firms applied a sophisticated moneymaking playbook: a mix of cost cuts, price increases, lobbying and litigation.

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A Country Breaking Down

by Elizabeth Drew, published February 14, 2016

2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
by the American Society of Civil Engineers
available at infrastructurereportcard.org

Rust: The Longest War
by Jonathan Waldman
Simon and Schuster, 288 pp., $26.95

Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead
by Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Norton, 325 pp., $26.95

The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure
by Henry Petroski
Bloomsbury, 322 pp., $28.00

Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath
by Ted Koppel
Crown, 279 pp., $26.00

Rescue workers gathered below the Interstate 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis after it collapsed and fell into the Mississippi River and onto its banks during evening rush hour, August 2007
Rescue workers gathered below the Interstate 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis after it collapsed and fell into the Mississippi River and onto its banks during evening rush hour, August 2007

It would be helpful if there were another word for “infrastructure”: it’s such an earnest and passive word for the blood vessels of this country, the crucial conveyors and connections that get us from here to there (or not) and the ports that facilitate our trade (or don’t), as well as the carriers of information, in particular broadband (if one is connected to it), and other unreliable structures. The word “crisis” is also overused, applied to the unimportant as well as the crucial. But this country has an infrastructure crisis.

The near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future, eschewing what doesn’t yield the quick payoff, political and physical, has left us with hopelessly clogged traffic, at risk of being on a bridge that collapses, or on a train that flies off defective rails, or with rusted pipes carrying our drinking water. Broadband is our new interstate highway system, but not everyone has access to it—a division largely based on class. Depending on the measurement used, the United States ranks from fourteenth to thirtieth among all nations in its investments in infrastructure. The wealthiest nation on earth is nowhere near the top.

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How Frozen Minneapolis Became A Biking Mecca

by Timothy Meinch, published January 16, 2016 in The Des Moines Register

This story is part of “Iowa biking: Welcome or not,” a series exploring Iowa’s bike culture and the state’s attitude toward cyclists.

MINNEAPOLIS — The traffic light turned red, and Councilwoman Lisa Bender braked to a halt on her way to work on a balmy December morning.

She paused her talk of population diversity and neighborhood growth for a sip of coffee from the mug she carried. Then, as the signal turned green, she pedaled through the intersection, continuing her 2½-mile commute to City Hall.

Six months ago, the 37-year-old mother of two sold her car and joined a growing number of year-round bike commuters in a city where the average winter low hovers around 15 degrees.

It’s no accident that Minneapolis, despite its frigid winters, has surged to the top of national rankings for urban biking and was the only U.S. city included last year on a global index of bike-friendly communities. Since 2000, the percentage of bike commuters here has jumped 170 percent, with an estimated 10,500 at the latest count in 2014.

Minneapolis’ bike-friendly reputation advanced on the saddle of key elected officials, grassroots advocates and critical investments that over the past decade helped transform it into a mecca for biking. And community leaders say their success can — and should — be replicated in cities such as Des Moines.

Last year, the League of American Bicyclists stuck Des Moines with bronze status for the fifth year in a row — its lowest honor for bike-friendly communities. Des Moines’ lack of bike lanes — combined with no designated staff or advocates marshaling cycling efforts in City Hall — contributed to its lackluster ranking.

Minneapolis, in comparison, was awarded coveted gold status from the League of American Bicyclists.

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