Monday, April 25, 2005

Telekom: The Larger Problem

I was in sort of a hurry yesterday, what with dealing with this internet cafe (from which I'm sorry to say I'm logging in again today), and realized this morning that there's more to this situation I'm currently in than just poor little me being shut off from my phone for a couple of weeks.

There's a societal problem at work here that's keeping Germany back, and it's something that may not be fixable. See, the main reason I got shut off is because I didn't do like most people here do and set up a regular draft from my bank account. This is because I never know how much I'll have in the bank at any given time. This is anathema to German institutions. You are supposed to have a regular income. It's virtually mandatory.

This is a huge problem, in my estimation. What it means, actually, is that you are to stay at a job until you retire, and that job is one where you work for someone else. That's assumed. And it's so ingrained that I once met a guy, an American, who was here working for a bank I won't name, teaching them how to communicate with their customers. It was a year-long project, something this guy is an expert at, which is why they hired him. So he moved to Berlin, set up his workshops, began training executives, and getting into life here. He also set up a bank account with the bank he was working for so they could pay him for his work, logically enough.

But then, one day, he got a note saying that they were terminating his account. The reason? He didn't have regularly-occurring deposits. The reason he didn't was that his contract with the bank for his work had him getting paid as he finished each segment of his training work, not on a weekly basis. So naturally he asked them what was going on. They told him that, yes, any bank in Germany (except one, which is where, coincidentally, I have my account) can terminate a bank account for this reason, and sorry, but that's what they were doing.

He realized, I think, that he wasn't going to get very far with what he was teaching, and left shortly thereafter.

My bank tried this, too, but fortunately I discovered they can't do it. There has to be one bank in the country which has to put up with this maddening individuality, and they drew the short straw. But the corollary to all of this is that if you can't work in a way where you get paid piecemeal, you're living in a society where you can't be self-employed. And what that means is that entrepreneurship of all sorts is discouraged by institutional fiat. Risk-taking is frowned on. I always bring up the quotation from a half-dozen years ago from the outgoing president of the European Bank, who said that Europe would never breed a Bill Gates because no young European would ever drop out of college because he thought he had a good idea.

Germans are already notoriously risk-averse, and I certainly discovered over the past decade how little they appreciate entrepreneurship, watching my own and others' attempts to start businesses get smothered by bureaucracy, unwillingness to invest in anything that wasn't a sure thing, and, in the case of a woman I know who tried to set up several businesses, the idea that women shouldn't go into business.

And another side of this attitude is that if all of your customers are good little sheep, they don't look at their bills as they get subtracted from their accounts. I like to know how much I'm being asked to pay, and why. In the past, Telekom has made mistakes on my bill, and they've behaved like they've seen old Lily Tomlin Ernestine the Operator skits and thought they were training films. I literally had one Telekom lady tell me that Telekom doesn't make mistakes. With a straight face. And people actually do submit to this.

Okay, this may be rambling. I have a hard time concentrating in this place, but I wanted to clarify some of what I wrote yesterday. I've got to find out when and if Telekom is going to turn me on, and I'm still not sure how that's going to happen, so that's today's chore. Time to pay another two Euros and head back to the house.

Meanwhile, if you've got a T-Mobile account there in the States, you might consider the company behind it. Bloated and arrogant, treating its customers in its home country as if it's still a monopoly with no one to answer to but itself. Deutsche Telekom.

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