Since Flucha and Tapas are still in Argentina, enjoying 90-degree heat while I have to content with snow and frozen sidewalks, I had the weekend to myself. Yesterday, I purchased some pieces of furniture to deck out a flat that's still empty two-and-a-half months after my moving in, among them a table of dubious value. After two hours of assembling, the table stands strong and serves me well with its large surface, but Flucha has already logged complaints about material, color and shape.
This morning, later than I usually have a coffee at work, I sat down on the new table for tea and a newspaper that spread open without interfering with my breakfast. I had bought the NZZ, the most respectable Swiss daily, and so I got, with bread from the bakery across the street and Ovomaltine chocolate spread, a heap of Swiss news that set the course for the day. Switzerland is such a curious country, it's a shame I haven't written anything about it yet.
Take the market for agricultural products, for example. It is highly regulated and protected to a degree that would make French farmers turn green with envy. Competition is excluded and prices are commensurate. On the upside, consumers are promised quality without compromise. This is something the Swiss value more than a bargain. A suggestions was floated a few months back about imports (in general) having to conform to Swiss environmental and labor standards to prevent cheap products from giving good Swiss farmers and manufacturers a hard time. This was received quite positively. If families on tight budgets struggled, it would presumably be their own fault. They could go and do their weekly shopping in Germany.
Back to agriculture. Nectarines, grapes and oranges arrive from Italy or Spain, but of the fruits and vegetables that can be grown here, most that are sold in stores are Swiss. The same is true of meat, which is said to be excellent. I don't know if there are feedlots, but I doubt it. Cows graze everywhere, in small herds of content animals. Last summer on one of my few bike rides I saw a pasture with pigs, with little huts for them to sleep. My boss told me later how it works: Cute little piglets arrive early in summer. Great fun for the children. Many Sundays spent watching them play and grow. Then, at Christmas, they're all gone all of a sudden. And the children have learned an important lesson about life. I don't know where the poultry come from. I haven't seen chickens roam freely yet in significant numbers, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's how they spent their days.
Meat of any provenance is incredibly expensive. Just a few weeks ago, the new Argentinian government cut export duties on beef. This was reported in the Swiss media, with the happy corollary that one will soon be able to buy good Argentinian steaks for less. The reports chose to ignore that the import duty Switzerland levies on beef is 23 Francs per kilogram, easily outweighing any export duties abroad. The decision far away will have no effect on prices in Switzerland. And anyway, even if the Swiss started buying their beef, they would still not know how to barbecue it like the Argentines.
None of this was in my newspaper this morning. What I read was that the hot and dry summer had pummeled potato fields. The harvest was correspondingly poor. Now there aren't enough potatoes in the country for everyone. The larger ones, critical for frying and baking, are especially rare because the lack of water had stunted their growth. The idea surfaced that potato imports might be necessary to ensure an adequate supply.
In Switzerland, this isn't so easy. You can't just go and drive a few trucks over from Germany when you see unmet demand. There are quotas and duties and permits, set or handed out weekly by a ministry in what looks to me like a bureaucratic nightmare. The Economist would call this restrictive system incompatible with prosperity, but the Swiss don't seem to read that magazine or heed conventional economic wisdom. Rail transport here is government-owned, as is the postal service, which also runs one of the country's largest financial institution. Retail is dominated by two players that don't act as if they were in competition. Both are cooperatives, as is the largest insurance company. Trade is restricted and the currency overvalued. There are rules and regulations for everything. The country is highly protectionist and suspicious of international integration. It joined the UN in 2002 only and stays apart from the EU, even though it's surrounded by it on all sides. One could assume that globalization happened elsewhere. It's a curious country indeed.