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We Ain’t Germans


Although the premise seems perfectly reasonable, attempting to solve our social and economic problems by copying the demonstrably successful techniques used by other countries probably isn’t going to work.  Why?  Because, as simplistic as this sounds, there is such a thing as a “national identity,” a national consciousness, a national ethos, and what works in, say, Estonia or Luxembourg, is going to have a slim chance of working in America.

Consider:  An American businessman who spent two decades in Japan observed that the reason Japanese citizens—including Japanese businesses—file so few lawsuits is because they’re “embarrassed” to sue people.  For want of a better word, filing a lawsuit in Japan is considered “undignified.”  Not to pass judgment on which perception is right or wrong, but clearly, that outlook is alien to most Americans.  In this rights-oriented country, we file a lawsuit to get our rights.  Simple as that.

Yet, I’ve heard people suggest that one way for us to clean up and reform our deplorable judicial system is to adopt a “Japanese approach” to jurisprudence.  I’ve heard people gush over Japan’s hyper-streamlined criminal justice system, and sagely urge us to model our system on theirs.  Indeed, most Japanese trials take an astonishingly short time, the overwhelming majority of people charged with a criminal act are found guilty, and the docket is amazingly sparse.

But how could a Japanese approach ever be expected to work here?  The reason that the “Japanese approach” works in Japan is because it’s being done by and for the Japanese.  The same goes for education reform.   People point to the test results of students in Singapore and boldly declare that we should adopt the “Singaporean approach,” as if something as deeply entrenched, multi-faceted and complex as national education policy is nonetheless readily portable.

As a former labor union rep, I used to have people lecture me on the futility (and stupidity) of maintaining our adversarial “us vs. them” mentality when it came to labor-management relations, and the country they always pointed to as a shining example of working “cooperatively” with management was Germany.  Be like Germany, they would say.  Follow Germany’s example.  I heard it a dozen times.  German trade unionists sit on the board of directors of German companies.  German labor unions are management’s partners, not management’s foes.

While it’s true that Germany has a pretty remarkable record when it comes to labor-management relations (it’s not as “utopian” as some people present it, but it’s impressive), they have one profound advantage we Americans don’t have.  They’re all Germans, every last one of them.  German workers, German bosses, German factories, German equipment, German standards and a distinctly German world view.  As well-meaning as it may be, telling American union leaders that all they need to do is adopt the “German approach” is silly.

When I returned to the U.S. after spending two years in rural India, I recall seeing a 103-year old woman guest on the Jay Leno show.  Leno asked her how she most liked to spend her time, and the old woman said she liked “making whoopee” with her boyfriend.  The audience greeted her answer with applause, cheers and stomping feet.  Wow!  A 103-year old woman refusing to quit, still living the life of a younger gal, still getting it on.  Outstanding.

Had this been a 103-year old Hindu woman, and the audience composed of Indians, the response would have been decidedly different.  An elderly woman (or man) still at the mercy of the demands and temptations of the phenomenal world would have been seen as humiliating.  Old people in India wore white clothing—the antithesis of fashion.  They had replaced youthful yearning with mature wisdom.  Why did they consider that a virtue?  Because they’re Indians.

David Macaray is a playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition).  He can be reached at

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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