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September 2005

The Most Boring Election in German History

Ed Philp here once more, filling in for Andrew Hammel on vacation. Thanks Andrew!

It is now just under three weeks until the federal elections in Germany. As of writing, it still looks as though Angela Merkel’s CDU party will cruise to a slight victory, feeding more off a desire for a change of face at the bridge than a solid platform appealing to the majority of the electorate. In spite of the intervention of both George Bush and God (the Iran issue and floods in Bavaria), this election campaign has shaped up to be the most non-carbonated soy-based beverage offered to the German electorate since – I don’t know – perhaps Wilhelm II? The only political actor who has injected any fire into the debates so far has been the German Jack-in-the-Box Gregor Gysi, who can work himself into an absolute froth in front of any podium or camera. Actually, at the entire party convention of the Lefties (die Linke), the only figure of any interest was Katja Kipping, a young, photogenic socialist candidate with bright red dyed hair. Katja rennt...

If you missed the past three weeks of politics in Germany, here is a recap:

-          Stoiber insults East Germans by calling them frustrated „calves“.

-          East German voters largely agree with Stoiber, leading to a further rise in CDU polling in several eastern provinces.

-          Flooding takes place in Bavaria, prompting all German candidates to buy green waterproof jackets, just in case they have to fly down and sandbag Bavaria’s dikes.

-          All parties decide that visiting a damp Bavaria is less important than pointing fingers at Stoiber and accusing him of failing to properly finance Bavaria’s dikes (Bavaria has dikes; financing Bavaria’s dykes would be so much more interesting, especially with beery Oktoberfest around the corner).

-          Merkel selects Paul Kirchhof, a tax reformer with some ambitious plans, as the likely CDU Finance Minister and shifts political debate to Turkish entry to the EU.

-          German voters, to whom neither tax reform nor the EU are of much interest right now, rediscover that a host of websites featuring dancing caricatures of Merkel, Schröder & Co., are still more fascinating than actual political debates themselves.

This election has not only been lacking in vigor; it has also been missing any color of any sort. The incumbent workers‘ party, the  SPD has chosen beige, accented with a hint of red, as its primary color, a sure signal that industrial unrest and rest room decor in Germany is headed for a new period of bland compromise. The CDU, known in Germany as the „Blacks“, is running with apricot and peach tones of all things, visible on all of their posters as well as on Merkel’s jacket at virtually every political function. The Greens have stayed with – well – green, and the FDP continues its use of Subway-Sign yellow 136. And while the hair of Die Linke may be sponsored by Arcor, their posters look as though they were designed by class VI b of the School for the Differently Abled using a potato and some cheerful colors.

It is just a few days to go. Whatever the result, I want to see some fireworks, some energy and some real enthusiasm on the part of the parties for the chance to govern one of the world’s largest economies. I want to see „Vote or Die“ T-shirts on prominent celebrities, Rock den Stimmzettel concerts and drinks named after politicians (the "Lafontaine" - anything fizzy and expensive; the "Merkel" - a glass of Rottkäppchen with a 17% sales tax - any other suggestions?). Either that, or really good post-election parties to get myself invited to.

In one of my next posts, I’ll look at the tax reforms on the table a little more closely.

A German Joys Contest: Pick My Religion!

I will shortly depart for a vacation to fabulous Slovenia and mysterious Hungary, but directly afterward, I'll be stopping by the Citizen Registration Office to renew my visa here in Germany.  I have little doubt that, as usual, I will be asked to write my religion on an official government form.  This always strikes me as rather dodgy.  I don't particularly think the government has any business knowing what religion I practice.

So I take an irresponsible American approach, defined by the motto: "Ask a silly question, get a silly answer."  At first I was an atheist, which seemed the safest way to avoid church taxes.  Then I found out I could name any religion I wanted without getting taxed, as long as it wasn't Catholic or "Evangelisch" (Protestant).  So the next time I renewed my visa I became a Buddhist, since I've always had a thing for the Noble Eightfold Path.

But why should my next answer be limited by my own creativity?  There's a whole world of possibilities out there I might not have thought of.  Although I have thought of a lot, including the Yazidi.  They worship a blue peacock and can't eat butter beans.  So far so good, but they're also prohibited from wearing dark blue, which is one of my favorite colors.  So no Yazidi-ism for me.  I've also thought about putting down "Worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster," but that won't fit on the form.

So, dear readers, get to those comment boxes and give me a religion!  Whoever has the most creative suggestion will dominate my spiritual development for the next year, at least in the eyes of the German state.  What more precious reward could I offer?

Public-Private Partnership at its best

Germany will never emerge from its current economic crisis unless the public and private spheres learn to cooperate effectively to achieve important public ends.  Die Partei, a vibrant youth movement and political party formed by the editors of the German satire magazine Titanic, is giving this tired cliche critical insight a privileged place in its election campaign. 

The initials of Die Partei stand for "The Party of Employment, Law & Order, Animal Protection, Promotion of Elites and Grass-roots Democratic Initiative."  That's a lot to address in Die Partei's upcoming 90-second television campaign commercial, which will be broadcast on 14 September at 5:55 PM on ZDF.  Nevertheless, in a bold new initiative, Die Partei is, through eBay auction, offering a product placement or advertisement to be broadcast right in the middle of its own campaign ad [my translation]:

No joke! 

Die Partei (founded by the editors of the satire magazine Titanic) is making you a serious offer.  According to your wishes, you can have a 25-second TV spot, worth almost 10,000 Euro, or a 90-second product placement [English in original]...

These 25 seconds will be placed inside a campaign commercial for Die Partei.... If you wish to advertise weapons, tobacco products, cheap liquor, etc., we will place your product in a clearly visible location for maximum promotional effect during the entire 90-second campaign commercial.  If you would like to advertise some other product or service or just sent a TV-lovenote or something similar, send us a 25-second spot on VHS [or another popular format].   


GUARANTEE: When you satisfy the above conditions, but your spot is not broadcast for reasons beyond your control, you will immediately get your money back.  We cannot be responsible for any further economic damages, such as paying your production costs.  You can, however, be certain that any non-broadcast of your spot, for instance on legal grounds, will have publicity and perhaps legal ramifications that will bring your product to the public's attention.  That's a promise.  If you have questions, ask them quickly, we don't answer so quickly. 

As of the time of this writing, the bidding was up to 7,050 Euro.  The auction will soon close; get your bid in quickly!

To put this in historical perspective, I'd like to quote Horst Koehler, Germany's new Federal President.  When he took office, he promised to help make Germany once again a "land of ideas."  I think you'll agree this is one whose time has come.  I am President Koehler will soon visit the offices of die Partei to congratulate them on this bold initiative.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sie and Du

Silent Eloquence has an amusing post on the distinction between the formal "Sie" and the informal "du" mode of address in German:

I am convinced the only reason it exists is to confuse the hell out of non-Germans.

I didn’t realise what a pain it is, till now - I have finally reached a stage where I feel confident to try out meaningful conversations (beyond how are you and whats your name and have a good weekend) in German - and all of a sudden the Sie - Du conundrum looms large in the horizon. Its grammatically simple, really - it affects the verb declination a little bit,thats all. But the big question is - who do you use Du with and who do you use Sie with?

Ahh, the perennial question for learners of German as a foreign language.  She wraps up the post with a fervent wish: "I wish Deutsch evolves too, like English, to have only one form of You.  And that the evolution happens within the next couple of months!"

I remember also breaking my mind on Sie/du when I was learning German.  At this stage, it looks just like an unnecessary annoyance.  But in the course of time, I've learned to modify my views a bit.  So here are a few observations:

Continue reading "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sie and Du" »

Administrative Update

Time to bore you with some administrative news. 

German Joys' Supreme Commander and President-for-Life will be going on a much-wanted vacation until the twelfth of September.  He'll be mixing work and pleasure in a fact-finding mission to the newly-admitted EU states of Slovenia and Hungary, and obtaining valuable professional qualifications in old-school EU nation Holland.

Never fear, though.  Content will continue to magically appear on German Joys through the miracle of pre-poned posting.  (Yes, German has a word for pre-poning as well as post-poning.  I am trying to bring this into English.  I would also like to know why you can't simply "pone" something).  I am also hoping that Culture Minister and Field Marshal Ed Philp (the titles have gone through some inflation here at GJ) will step up to the plate with a few of his always-piquant posts. 

If I make it to an Internet cafe, I will try to post some observations from the former Eastern bloc.  I should warn readers that Typepad, for all its merits, often screws up formatting on mobile-logged posts, so I hope you will bear with me if some of my contributions end up looking odd or jagged.

With that said, it's off to Ljubljana and Budapest!

Why the Judges Wear Red

The German Federal Constitutional Court (FCC) (Bundesverfassungsgericht) have decided that Gerhard Schroeder's decision to call for and lose a no-confidence vote was within his "margin of appreciation," to put it vaguely European-ly, and therefore that the new elections scheduled for Sept. 18th can take place.  No big surprise.

Here's a picture of some members of the Court, similar to many that have been flickering on many TV screens lately.  I am now going to answer a question some of you might have been asking yourselves: why the bright-red judicial robes and hats?

The answer comes from page 80 of Der Gang nach Karlsruhe ("The Route to Karlsruhe," the city in which the Court is located), a recent popular history of this fascinating Court by the German legal journalist Uwe Wesel.  I turn to this book whenever the official treatises on the Federal Constitutional Court were too turgid, abstract, and boring, which was very frequent. 

Wesel discusses not only the major decisions and doctrines of the FCC, but also the personalities on and around the court and the political context in which it operates.  What's more, he does so in crisp, lively, tangy prose.  On page 80 he describes how the Justices chose their robes.  By the early 1960s, The judges of the FCC, Wesel writes (in my informal translation),

no longer wanted to wear the same robes as their colleagues [on Germany's other high courts].  They formed a Robe Committee, and had a theater director from Munich visit, carrying a thick book full of colorful costumes.  From this book they chose the most fitting costume.  They were the robes worn by the highest judges of Florence in the 15th or 16th century.  Thus we have the red robes with white band and red cap.

I know, it's utterly useless trivia.  But still good to know, no?

Sweden Basking in Socialist Success

Ahh, Sweden's got it all: a well-functioning social welfare state and good growth and productivity figures, according to this recent report in the FT:

The key economic statistics are good, [Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson] argues, with low inflation, low interest rates, and with the economy finally moving from the export-dominated growth of previous years to domestic-driven growth, which promises rapid job creation.

American-style capitalism?  No thanks:

"The U.S. is competitive, but not as competitive as we think. We are too self-critical in Europe, even though we have a much better social system and in Sweden are just as productive. On unemployment, it is overlooked that the U.S. has approaching two million people in jail and out of the labor market."

More on How Not to Deregulate

Many of the commenters to my post about the rail network have made valuable points about the German rail system -- notably, the fact that it is been partially de-regulated, and that the availability of trains even to somewhat remote places varies from Bundesland to Bundesland.  Of course, I happily defer to the commenters, who seem highly knowledgeable. 

I was merely reporting my personal experience of die Bahn, not attempting a formal assessment of its performance.  I travel mostly in Nordrhein-Westfalen, where the rail network is very dense.  I have often ridden trains in which I was one of perhaps 5-6 paying passengers on the whole train.  Although there may be different service providers, the experience as a passenger is of one uniform entity.  When I book an ICE train from Duesseldorf to Hannover, for example, I know exactly what that train will look like.  It will be sleek and white.  It will be filled with comfortable seats, helpful blue displays, and doors that open and close automatically, just like the doors on the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The key point I was trying to make is that whatever de-regulation has happened in Germany, it hasn't wrecked the entire rail network.  In Britain, it is now a settled consensus among all political parties that the deregulation of the rail industry is a catastrophic failure.  Costs have skyrocketed and service suffered.  Here is a conclusion from page 14 of a recent parliamentary report:

Continue reading "More on How Not to Deregulate" »

Regulation Done Right; or, a Hymn to the Deutsche Bahn

Over in The Independent, former British press secretary Alastair Campbell, first slags the triviality of British newspapers, "which seem to be full of irritating articles by contributors anxious to tell us all about their summer holidays."  He then proceeds to do just the same, telling us all about his holiday in France.  He's got sturdy Anglo-Saxon opinions about that country: lovely place to visit, but the people are depressed and cynical, and seem to be trapped in a strait-jacket of unnecessary regulation they don't know how to get out of:

[I]f you talk to the same kind of French people we have been talking to, you could hardly underestimate their sense of depression and decline.

...I can report that virtually every one of the French businesspeople we have met this year has expressed strong opposition to the 35-hour week. Perhaps more surprisingly, the opposition seems to be shared by virtually every one of the French tourists we have talked to. Their complaint is not that they work less than they did — that bit seems to please them. It is that they now have more time for leisure and holidays, yet severely reduced spending power. Restaurants report the French to be eating and drinking less. Hotels report that Belgian and Dutch families tend to be the ones taking the de luxe bedrooms and expensive set menus.

The French, Campbell says, have just plain regulated themseves into oblivion.  For a contrary view, though, read this piece by Paul Krugman, who cautions Anglo-American observers not to assume that French policies have "failed" simply because their economy is weak.  If you value time over money, you might just be content with a slow-growing, highly-regulated economy that guaratees you 2 months of effective or real vacation a year.

Further, Alastair might want to stop crowing about how, in his words, "no sane Brit" would accept the level of regulation one sees in France.  Sometimes, regulation is a good thing.  God knows, here at German Joys there have been some outbursts against the many-tentacled German regulatory state.  But anyone who's tried to travel by train in Britain lately knows just what a nightmare the wrong kind of deregulation can unleash.  British train service is now provided by a variety of different semi-private companies, who appear to have some obscure quasi-competitive relationship to each other that I was never able to figure out. 

Continue reading "Regulation Done Right; or, a Hymn to the Deutsche Bahn" »

German Word of the Week: Hurrapatriotismus

It means "rah-rah patriotism" or jingoism; a blind, reckless, willful extolling of the virtues of one's country at the expense of all (or certain) others.  I like it because it evokes a crowd screaming "hurra" after various exhortations; quite a resonant image. 

I am happy to report that there is very little of this indeed left in Germany.  Every card carrying member of the educated classes rejects patriotism with a sneering ferocity that I often find a tad extreme.  But then again, George Bernard Shaw once said "You'll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race."

I don't have a real-world example at the ready; doubtless many of you readers will.  But what I do have is even better: a description of Hurrapatriotismus from someone who saw it in its rawest form.  I speak of the bilious Englishman Henry Mayhew, who wrote, in 1865, a 2-volume book entiteld German Life and Manners (full title: German Life and Manners, as Seen in Saxony of the Present Day: with an Account of Village Life--Town Life--Fashionable Life--Domestic Life--Married Life--School and University Life, &c, of Germany at the Present Time: Illustrated with Songs and Pictures of the Student Customs at the University of Jena). I previously quoted this masterpiece of cultural chauvinism here.

Continue reading "German Word of the Week: Hurrapatriotismus" »