Schnitzel and Stuff

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In a post last week, I mentioned in passing that I am currently in Austria.  In fact, I am the PwC Visiting Professor of Law at Wirtschafts Universitat Wien (the University of Business and Economics in Vienna).  I am here for one month, teaching a course and delivering various lectures and seminars.  Yesterday evening was the big event, my featured lecture with a panel of discussants, in which I explained the U.S. debt ceiling and the dangers for the world economy and financial system that would result from putting the President in a trilemma.  (The gift that keeps on giving.)

My hosts at WU are fantastic, and the students (many Austrians, of course, as well as many from around Europe and the world) are top notch -- masters and doctoral students, some pursuing pure tax degrees, while others are involved in interdisciplinary programs.

Because this is the last post that I am scheduled to write during my stay here, and because I have been somewhat under the weather for the past two weeks, I thought I would stop writing about the difference between "targeting applicants because of the content of their politics" and "targeting applicants because of their political activities" (as much fun as that has been) and engage in a bit of personal travelogue, mixed with some Freshman-level social science observations.

This is actually my second visit to WU.  I was here for a week in Fall 2009 (see this DoL post written back then), which meant that I already had a basic sense of the place before I arrived last month.  Staying for a month has allowed me to get to know the city on a deeper basis than is possible in a week, but of course, I still know very little.  Why should that stop me from sharing a few observations?

Everyone should visit Vienna, if they ever have the chance.  It is stunningly beautiful, and the working government buildings are mixed in with the castles, cathedrals, and museums of its past.  Having once been the center of an empire, there is a lot of grandeur to see here, and the current Austrians know that this is an enormous asset.  Also, English has been taught in the schools since the early 1970's, which means that anyone under 50 is likely to be impressively fluent (as are many over 50).  Restaurants have menus in German and English (and sometimes French and Italian).  There are a lot of tourists, but it rarely invokes the feelings that overcome me when I am on the Mall in Washington, DC, or in Times Square.

Vienna is also an amazingly romantic city.  My fiancee was here with me for 8 days, and the city was even more magical than one could imagine.  Part of the romance (even when one is not with a loved one), of course, derives from Vienna's musical past (and present).  There are few people who are less cultured than I am, but seeing Mozart's "The Magic Flute" ("Die Zauberfl√∂te") in a Vienna opera house (there are several) is a musical experience that cannot be matched.

That is about as much as I can write before turning on the economist/social scientist side of my brain.  Vienna's population is about 1.7 million people (2.4 million in the metro area), with Austria's total population currently estimated at 8.4 million.  GDP in 2011 was $417 billion, giving the country a per-capita GDP of about $42,400 (compared to the US's $49,900 that year, and about the same as Canada's and Australia's).   Austria's debt-to-GDP ratio was about 74% last year, almost exactly the same as the US, and lower than Germany's (82%), Canada's (84%), and the UK's (89%).

In short, Austria is a small, prosperous country.  Students here tell me that the recession that has ravaged Europe was pretty mild in Austria.  On the other hand, the country just this week provisionally agreed to finally stop helping foreigners avoid taxes, so its prosperity has been at least partially based on banking secrecy.  (The apparent bottom line: Austria will stop if Switzerland stops!)

Vienna covers 160 square miles.  For comparison, Washington DC's land area is about 68 square miles.  This means that Vienna's populations density is about 10,800 people per square mile, while DC's is about 9,300.  This comparison is interesting, because the contrast between the two cities's transportation systems is ... shall we say ... stark.

Indeed, as I wrote after my last visit to Vienna (here and here), the most outstanding feature of the city from an economist's standpoint is its excellent infrastructure, especially its public transportation.  There is a combined network of subways, commuter trains, and (most importantly) trolleys/trams that covers the city.  They are clean (even though people are allowed to bring food on board), and they run smoothly.  My column and DoL post from 2009 took special notice of the high-speed train that runs from the airport into the city, but even the (cheaper) standard subway line to the airport is fantastic.  Little of the system is new, but it is very well maintained.

For those readers who have never been to Washington, DC, let us just say that almost everything I wrote about Vienna's transportation system in the paragraph above is laughably absent in DC.  True, the 70's-era Metro is great (except during rush hours), and it runs from the city out to National Airport.  But the long-delayed project to connect Dulles Airport to the city with a (non-bullet) train is not scheduled to be completed until 2018.  We shall see.  Moreover, our extremely minimalist subway system has nothing like Vienna's tram network connected to it.  DC Metro buses are often like a Fellini movie, and they move slowly through the city's streets.

It is true that Vienna was severely damaged during WWII, which gave it an opportunity to rebuild itself in a more modern way.  Most of its transportation network, however, was built in the 1920's.  This is a smallish city, in a small country, with economic prosperity that is comfortable but hardly eye-popping, yet it manages to maintain an extensive, working transportation infrastructure.  DC?  Hmmm.  Which capital city is the center of government of the world's only superpower?

A few small observations about the Austrian welfare state.  When I became ill two weeks ago, my hosts at the university immediately told me that my temporary employment at the university qualifies me for zero-cost health care.  Fortunately, I have not become so ill that I have had to see a doctor, but I was given my social services ID number and told to contact any doctor, if needed.  Also, I asked my students how much they are paying in tuition.  (I was explaining loan-forgiveness programs in US law schools.)  They laughed and said, "17 euros per semester, total."  That is less than $45 per year.  The students confirmed my suspicion that no one takes out student loans here!  During my time here, I have seen some homeless people, but not many.  The poverty rate here is 6%, compared to 14% in the UK and 15% in the US.  Taxes are 42.8% of GDP, sixth-highest in the world.  All I can say is that they seem to get what they pay for.

Finally, the most important question: In the land of wiener schnitzel, how does a vegan eat in Vienna?  The answer is, quite well.  There are several purely vegan restaurants, at various price levels.  At least one (Bio Bar von Antun) serves what I call "vegan schnitzel," which is fantastic.  (Even before I became a vegan, I never liked wiener schnitzel.)  There are also many veg-friendly places, and most Asian restaurants (ubiquitous here, combining Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cuisines, often as take-out fast food) include the word "vegetarische" on their signs.  Not vegan, but very easy to eat well.  (Too easy.)

How animal friendly is Vienna?  People take dogs everywhere, including on the subways.  (Interestingly, there is a muzzle law on trains and trams that almost everyone obeys.)  But the best moment of the trip so far was when my fiancee and I were walking through a major shopping area (something like the Union Square area in SF, or Newbury Street in Boston), when a flatbed truck started blaring "Who Let the Dogs Out?"  When we drew nearer, we discovered that we had walked into an animal rights parade, with people carrying "Go vegan" signs and wearing animal costumes.  Vienna will never be home, but at that moment, it entered a different category of wonderful places.

Back to the U.S. next week.  But I am not sad, in part because our honeymoon will take us to London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Berlin, and Stockholm.  More social science field work.

Auf wiedersehen for now, y'all.