Photo Gallery: A Country in Stasis

Foto: Michael Kappeler/ dpa

German Stasis In the Grips of Merkel's 'Lethargocracy'

The German economy may be doing well now, but significant challenges lurk in the near future. Chancellor Merkel, though, has succumbed to the torpor of her electorate and has shown no willingness to address badly needed reforms.

Social Democrat eminence grise Franz Müntefering is typing at his typewriter, an old Erika model. There is no laptop and no desktop in his office. He has spent his entire political life writing on the Erika, and now, in the final stretch, he isn't about to change. He is serving out his last few days as a member of parliament; the moving boxes are stacked behind the door of his Berlin office.

Müntefering is 73, and he has been a politician for almost as many years. He has countless stories to tell about parliament and party headquarters, the kinds of anecdotes that many others can relate as well. There is, however, one experience makes Müntefering unique; he did something that no other politician has accomplished or even wanted to accomplish. He reformed Germany in a time of contentment.

Müntefering was instrumental in the imposition of two unpopular measures on the country. The first came in 2003. Together with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, he was responsible for pushing through far-reaching belt tightening measures, including welfare reform, designed to improve Germany's competitiveness. The package was known as Agenda 2010 and is one of the reasons that Germany has managed to weather the numerous financial, currency and economic crises that have struck Europe since 2008.

A few years later, Müntefering struck again, taking aim at the retirement age. Unlike in 2003, Germany was doing relatively well in the spring of 2006 and the economy was booming. Nevertheless, Müntefering was convinced that the retirement age needed to be raised from 65 to 67. It was a textbook anti-cyclical approach, one which is hardly ever used in practice. He saw reforms as a kind of insurance for the future, to be undertaken at a time when the country was in good shape.

'Isn't Courageous Enough'

At the time, Müntefering was vice chancellor during Angela Merkel's first term in office. "We decided on the reform together," he says of raising the retirement age. But it was unpopular and ultimately, Merkel backed away. "She left me standing alone out in the rain with the reform," he says. "Because she isn't courageous enough." Müntefering ultimately got his way.

The SPD man had the courage to do something Merkel would never venture  -- not then and not today -- and what hardly any democratically elected politician has ever ventured. He had the courage to ask something of the country, even though the mood for change was limited and the need for change unapparent. Müntefering introduced the reform because he believed it was his duty, and because he thought it was a smart move that would serve the country well in the future.

"Come on, let's sit down," says Müntefering. He gets up from his typewriter, walks across the room and takes a seat at a small conference table. He is wearing a gray suit with a gray tie, the outfit of a man who was never interested in looking glamorous. Democracy is great, says Müntefering. "There is nothing better. But unfortunately it's also very much tied to legislative periods."

As he speaks, the ceiling of his modest office begins to shake, and so do the lamps and the window shades. It feels like a mild earthquake. "The subway," Müntefering mumbles when he notices the looks of concern on his visitors' faces. He doesn't even notice the rumbling anymore, nor does he complain that his party has assigned him, a former party chairman and deputy chancellor, to this type of office. The SPD didn't thank him for his courage, but instead held the reform against him.

"Merkel and Co. are refusing to do many of the things we need to do for the future," says Müntefering. Of course he makes such comments with a view toward the ongoing campaign, but that doesn't make him wrong. The only question is: Is there a way out of the dilemma Merkel and other politicians find themselves in -- a way out of the stagnation that stems from the fear of being punished by voters? Do politicians have only the choice between lack of courage and loss of power?

No Need for Action?

The period since 2009 has been a domestic policy black hole. No reforms were passed that looked beyond just the next few years. Yet decisive action is critical, especially now -- notwithstanding the country's low unemployment rate, record-high tax revenues and an export economy that continues to set new records. But the situation is only looks rosy. Germany is not prepared for the changes that lie ahead. Clear structural reforms are necessary, and yet lawmakers deny that there is any need for action.

Germany's social welfare systems are designed for a society that constantly generates growth and never ages -- in other words, for fair-weather conditions. Not even now, in times of historically high contributions and revenues, have lawmakers been able to compel pension, health and long-term care insurance companies to build adequate reserves for the more difficult times that lie ahead -- times in which one in two Germans will be retired and the number of the chronically ill and people in need of care will be twice as high as it is today. Those who fail to act now are only creating the crises of the future.

The same applies to education policy. In a rhetorical sense, it may be an important element of all political speeches. But in reality, the promise to enable every child in Germany to have the best education possible has turned into a farce and the consequences will only become apparent many years down the road. The problems with education are not just the result of a lack of funding, but are also caused by the jumble of jurisdictions among the federal, state and local governments in Germany, where individual levels of government are mutually obstructive. And yet, no one is willing to tackle the issue.

The fact that Germany still has one of Europe's most complicated tax systems is relatively unimportant, compared to other issues. Still, it is symptomatic. The task force on reforming the value-added tax rate, which was stipulated in Merkel's coalition agreement between her conservatives and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) hasn't managed to meet even once in four years. In the same period, the government hasn't managed to refrain from taking on new debt, showing little interest in reducing its existing debt of €1.053 trillion ($1.4 trillion), despite a propitious economy and record-high tax revenues.

Dramatic Dislocation

While the government shies away from making necessary demands on its citizens, the steps it expects its European neighbors to take are harsher than ever. In interviews, Merkel often mentions the need for "fundamental structural reforms," and says things like: "Everyone must know that things cannot go on this way." But she is talking about Europe, not the country she runs.

"A few more things have to change in Europe," says CDU parliamentary floor leader Volker Kauder. "We must continue to expect the states to implement their adjustments," says Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble . "This is tough for the population, but there is no way around it."

The consequence of such statements is dramatic social and political dislocation in Southern Europe. One government after the next has stumbled or even fallen over the demands it was forced to make on its voters: pension cuts of up to 30 percent, slashes to social benefits and healthcare, and mass layoffs of government employees. All of this may be necessary, but Germany's austerity demands on the Southern Europeans would be more credible if it were willing to implement at least a fraction of these measures at home. But top politicians in Berlin are only bold when it comes to the citizens of other countries.

As a result, Germany is stuck in a holding pattern that extends across all parties. The SPD has long since turned its back on the Agenda 2010 reforms and Merkel has concluded that citizens are unwilling to put up with the pain of reform. When Merkel is asked about the need for reform in Germany, she mentions the increase of the retirement age to 67 -- in other words, something that was already done, by Müntefering. Germany, she says, is a country where "you can see that reforms work." She prefers not to mention that the reforms that are working are not hers.

Instead, her party has made campaign promises this summer amounting to about €30 billion in additional spending. Should the opposition manage to beat Merkel, it will be even more expensive. Plato said that democracy tends to make you fat and that democratically elected politicians would rather promise their people good deeds than prescribe them a diet.

The Absence of Long-Term Thinking

The stagnation is reflected in the lethargy of this election campaign, in which everything seems to have been decided already and is stuck in the languor of summer. Lawmakers are governing a nation that doesn't want to be bothered with unreasonable demands. According to the latest polls, the Germans are more satisfied with their government than ever before. Why then is Germany so worn down, and why do complacency and anxiety about the future go hand-in-hand? Whose fault is it: citizens or lawmakers?

Few people have addressed these issues as intensively as political scientist Herfried Münkler, sociologist Ulrich Beck and philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.

At first glance Münkler, 61, comes across like one of his contented fellow Germans. He is sitting in his office at Berlin's Humboldt University with arms crossed over his chest, practically hugging himself. But his thoughts are anything but pleasant.

There are "cycles of willingness to change," he says. When a society has put certain efforts behind it, he explains, as was the case in Germany with the Hartz welfare reforms and Agenda 2010, it almost always succumbs to a "we've-done-it or we're-just-fine-the-way-we-are mood." But that, he says, is extremely dangerous, "because it's a distraction from the fact that it is, of course, only an intermediate stage, the effects of which last for a certain amount of time and require quick follow-up."

According to Münkler, the general perception of a crisis is the prerequisite for reform. Only when there is substantial pressure to act and simultaneous momentum in the media, he says, do politicians feel sufficiently emboldened to put things in motion.

Tolerance for Frustration

Besides, in a representational party democracy, politicians who make it to the top are rarely those with the greatest amount of courage and creative drive, but rather those with the greatest capacity to adapt. "The people who prevail in modern politics are those with the greatest tolerance for frustration and who those whose expectations of concrete results are lowest. Someone like that is most likely to master the process," says philosopher Sloterdijk, 66.

"There ought to be a group of leading politicians prepared to take risks today for the sake of the future," says Münkler. But as soon as a handful of lawmakers muster the necessary courage, they find themselves reined in by their party, he explains. That's because politicians who are willing to take risks don't just jeopardize their own re-election prospects, but also those of other lawmakers in their own party.

As a result, hardly any politicians today are capable of thinking long-term anymore. In addition to lacking the courage to support unpopular measures, they are unwilling to seriously address issues that don't require immediate solutions. Münkler calls this a "deficit of strategic thinking," and notes that lawmakers are rewarded for moral and not strategic thinking. But, he adds, what may seem moral in the short term can inflict serious damage on society in the long term.

While politicians seem to be getting increasingly spineless, society is underdoing rapid change. "We are currently in a phase of dramatic change," says sociologist Beck, 69. "We live in a reality that is becoming more and more incomprehensible when measured against our beliefs up to now."

We meet with Beck in the imposing villa owned by the Center for Advanced Studies in Munich's upscale Schwabing neighborhood. He points across the street, where the famed sociologist Max Weber once lived. "Change," he says, "hasn't just struck the family, occupational patterns and class structure, but it also affects the standards with which we evaluate change." According to Beck, a vacuum has developed over the issue of what society will look like in the future.

Reality Overtakes Politics

The pace of change is especially dramatic in the family. Women's participation in the working world has revolutionized the distribution of labor in the family and society. At the same time, hierarchies of living models have been dissolved in the last two decades. Nowadays, all kinds of lifestyles are equally acceptable in large segments of society, from marriage to cohabitation, gay to straight, long-distance relationships to living in the same house, and mixed families that sometimes consist of children from the respective spouses' previous relationships. Something else has also changed: Today one in three children in Germany under the age of five comes from an immigrant background.

Reality is overtaking politics. Legal equality for gays and lesbians is lagging behind social acceptance. And the government was behind the curve in introducing a policy to make childcare and the education system conform to the working life of parents. Hardly any other country spends as much on family policy as Germany, and yet the results have been modest. The birthrate has not increased significantly in the last few years, nor is Germany a pioneer when it comes to the compatibility of family and career.

Politicians avoid providing answers for fear of alienating voters. This has led to a confused family policy. "We demand freedom of choice" -- the credo of Family Minister Kristina Schröder is a euphemism for a policy that lacks orientation. Beyond family policy, sociologist Beck sees this as the administration's biggest weakness. Chancellor Merkel, he says, has the power to make policy, but seems unable to do so. In other words, she is incapable of leading the way.

On the trip to our interview with Peter Sloterdijk, the air-conditioning system failed in ICE car 29, shortly after Frankfurt. It was one of those hot, muggy summer days when it's impossible not to perspire, even when you're sitting completely still. The men in First Class took off their jackets, and dark spots soon appeared on their white shirts. One after another, they closed their laptops and stared apathetically out of the window.

'Chronic Mood of Tolerance'

This continued until Mannheim and then Karlsruhe. Almost no one stood up to find a cooler spot in another car. Apparently it's easier to tolerate the heat than to take a step down to Economy Class. Hardly anyone complained to the train personnel.

A "chronic mood of tolerance" prevails in Germany, says Sloterdijk, as we arrive for the interview an hour late. Whether it's on the ICE or in politics, we settle for meaningless explanations, like "operational problem." No one is to blame, nothing needs to be changed and there is no alternative. "Our politicians are like employees of Deutsche Bahn," says Sloterdijk. "If you complain, the only response you get is that they don't know any more than you do."

"Debacle" is the first word that Sloterdijk thinks of in connection with the election. "On what day is the election?" he asks with demonstrative indifference. Sloterdijk, Germany's most famous philosopher, isn't going to vote this year -- out of perplexity, as he says. "In the past, being politically reasonable meant voting for the lesser evil. But what do I do if I no longer know where the lesser evil lies?"

For some time, Sloterdijk has been saying that Merkel inherited a "lethargocracy" in Germany from former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. But politicians aren't to blame, he says. "The lethargy is coming from society," says the philosopher. "On this issue, lawmakers, for once, pay attention to the voice of the electorate." It isn't the chancellor or the government that are putting Germans to sleep. In fact, it is the Germans who are averse to change, and who want a sleepy government. To quote French philosopher Joseph de Maistre: "Every country has the government it deserves."

Sloterdijk characterizes his fellow Germans as having "more separation anxiety than love of the future." Even though they are doing better than ever economically, Germans are anxious. They -- and particularly those who travel in First Class -- have the feeling that things can only go downhill from here.

Lean Years?

Even though the euro crisis has hardly harmed the German economy so far, it has introduced a sense of danger. Everything is fragile. The fate of the Southern Europeans fuels diffuse fears of decline. People know that there is nothing to guarantee that their current affluence will last. If the country can't even manage to reduce its debt in the current prosperous years, what will happen in lean years?

Such fears are justified. Given the slew of problems ranging from the debt crisis to overburdened social welfare systems, unfavorable demographic developments and economic growth that is moderate at best, everyone knows that the current situation is unsustainable.

Government debt can only be kept under control with low interest rates, which undermine retirement planning. The stock market is booming, but only because of low interest rates, not because the economy is doing so well. According to Sloterdijk, an "anxious conservatism" is the result of a perception that reality is nothing but a house of cards. We are deceiving ourselves, so we don't mind being deceived by politicians.

In the future, one of society's goals will likely be that of organizing scarcity as reasonably and equitably as possible. This is precisely what responsible politicians should be telling the Germans, namely that they should prepare for cuts in their pensions and the healthcare system, tax increases and more immigration. If democracy, with its fixation on legislative periods, can't muster the necessary courage, it will become its own worst enemy.

The last metro train of the day rattles by beneath the office of Franz Müntefering. "We politicians should be less afraid of citizens," he says. If a politician can cite good reasons for a reform, people will understand it. "I think we underestimate people and their ability to understand relationships."

'History Will Prove Us Right'

The next administration can look forward to four fresh, new years. In four years, it's possible to modernize a country and condition it for the future -- as long as the will exists to do these things. But it's also possible to hope for another four years of treading water while in office.

Müntefering says that it would help if the political world, aware of its own weakness and corruptibility, made a commitment to change -- as it did with the debt limit. It could impose a condition on each new law, namely that it must be tested for its staying power.

Perhaps it would also be sufficient for politicians to demonstrate foresight on at least one issue, and if they would ask themselves more frequently what future generations will think -- and whether anyone will remember them. Instead, most politicians focus on their re-election and not the day, 10 or 20 years down the road, when they are praised for taking a stand that, while unpopular at the time, is meritorious in the long term.

Müntefering gets up with a smile. It's time to go. He seems completely at peace with himself. He pauses in the doorway for a moment to make sure he hasn't forgotten anything important. Then something occurs to him: "The nice thing about Agenda 2010 and retirement at 67 is that history will prove us right." That's worth more than another term in office.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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